June 6, 2023

Up To My Chin

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eleazerbanner - CopyJournal—March 9–Thursday

The last couple of days have been really nice, with temperatures up to the low thirties and sunshine—how about that for a change. There has been three feet of snow this last week, and homes, outbuildings, and camps have overburdened roofs. Two hardy souls left the warm, comfort of their homes, “Proc” and me, and spent some quality time workin’ at Willis Mills…

I happened to meet an old friend, Lewis “Proc” Proctor, at the Co-op store on Monday. I was over to West Paris to get some feed grain for my heifers, when Proc tapped me on the shoulder. He was off work from the railroad for three weeks, and needed some excitement. He is a conductor on the Grand Trunk Line and spends most of his time living in a shaking, rattling caboose at the backend of a freight train. We talked of the deep snows, and he mentioned that he should check his hunting camp at Willis Mills, in Greenwood. We decided to go up on Wednesday and spend the night, shovel the roof, play cards, and tell some stories.

After I finished my chores Wednesday morning, Brinker and I headed for West Paris in my old truck “Molly”. Molly started a little hard, but a puff of blue smoke and a clattering roar sounded life within—she was off! The old Oshkosh plow had poked a hole through the drifts and piles of winter white. We bumped along, stopping only by the Hakala Farm to watch two disheveled does standing in an open, wind blown patch of field. They were apparently trying to paw up some old apples that had fallen from a nearby gray armed, Cortland, and slid along an earlier crust to the open space.

We eventually rounded the last bend into the Little Androscoggin Valley, and had a spectacular view of the countryside. The unfolding vista was like a Currier & Ives painting. The Ellingwood Farm was nearly hidden by the snow drifts, and the stack and plume of black smoke from Penley’s Clothespin Factory laid contrast to the view. I took note that the smoke was drifting up the valley toward me, indicting fair weather to come–better than any barometer in town.

The west side of the valley is covered with majestic white pines. Each bough wilting under the heavy load of snow, and an occasional cascading veil of falling flakes added motion to the rather peaceful and still scene. The east side of the valley, with its spreading red oak and interspersed ledges, appeared as a white canvas with dark branches penciling dark lines across it.

I might have driven off the road in my reverie, had Brinker not barked at the Ellingwood’s dog. The large white dog stood atop a snowdrift, even in height with the top pane of glass in the living room windows. I now paid more attention to the steering wheel and keeping Molly out of the drifts.

I met Proc at his brother, Leon’s house. Lewis often stayed here on his breaks from the railroad. The sweet aroma of Rita’s apple pie glided me into a chair at the kitchen table. A large slice of pie and tea had been set for me already—apparently Molly was not a silent arrival in this neighborhood and had signaled the hostess to be ready. We discussed the weather, as all good Mainers must upon first greeting a new arrival. Leon described how the horses he had in the woods were having a hard time breaking trail. He was off work for a couple of days, as the roads were not yet plowed. Andy Benson was staying with the horses, since he tended them over the weekend and just stayed on at the woods camp.

We finished our morning treat, and packed another pie with our provisions for the overnight. Brinker kind of liked Leon, because he got to taste a little bit of pie dropped accidentally on the floor in front of his nose. I had to grab Brinker’s collar to get him started out the door. Leon had quite a chuckle and puffed out a long plume of Prince Albert from his cherry wood pipe.

Proc and I went downtown West Paris to the Co-op store to get a few groceries. We picked out some plump chicken, onions, potatoes, bacon, eggs, bread, cans of string beans and peas. A quick stop at the Gammon & Martin store, procured our wedge of sharp cheese—sliced off the big wheel, a quart of milk and a pound of butter fresh this morning from Erlon Whitman’s farm on High Street.

We set the groceries in our “on the go” cooler–the snow in the body of the truck worked quite nicely for this purpose. We piled in the cab, with Brinker half standing in Proc’s lap and a juicy nose sliding around on the windshield. I drove back along some of the way I had traveled earlier, but now most of the snow had fallen from the oaks and pines. A deep blue sky contrasted the sparkling white flakes.

The logging road into Willis Mills was very narrow. It was really one lane with six foot high snow banks on each side, and an occasional turn out to get by other vehicles. Willis Mills was once the center of activity in all of Township Number Four. Here stands a large elm tree, whose strong branches once shaded the meeting of the area inhabitants as they voted to incorporate the Town of Greenwood in 1815. The Massachusetts legislature voted in January 1816 to incorporate three grants, Phillips Academy, Raymond’s, and Mosher’s into the Township of Greenwood.

I stopped on each of the two bridges over Sanborn River, so Brinker could push his nose out the window and sniff the smells drifting down along the cool, dark waters of the river. At both stops we could see the whimsical paths and tracks of a couple of frolicking otters. They had one very long, steep slide with a jump in the middle. You could see the untouched space of snow under the jump, and by the evidence they tried this thrill ride numerous times.

The truck rattled by the couple of old buildings at Willis Mills now used as hunting camps, and traveled along a couple of hundred feet of the Patch Mountain Road before turning west toward Long Mountain. We arrived at Proc’s camp in just a short minute, and parked in the nicely plowed turnout that barely missed the front step of the camp. The gable porch poked out of the snow bank, and was well framed with plowed snow. Well at least we wouldn’t have to shovel out much to get into the place.

Proc opened the front door and stepped into the small structure, and let out a deep breath that could be seen rolling from his lips through still frigid air. He made quick work of the fire preparations, and soon had a billowing plume of smoke coming from the old stove pipe on the back end of the camp. I had set in a new smoke of Half & Half in my corn cob, and set about changing the musty air with the fragrance of the Virginian leaves. I made several trips to the truck to bring in food, bedding, and fresh lamp oil for the lanterns. Each trip I had to wait for Brinker to go in, then out, and try not to stumble over his excited, twisting body.

The first order of business for me was to shovel out a path to the outhouse. It is a small familiar outbuilding in the Maine Woods not just for doing one’s business, but to store some small tools or other equipment. I had to get the bear paw snowshoes from a peg on the outhouse wall. I then trekked out a path a hundred yards or so to the spring. I lugged two pails I had brought from the camp and lead Brinker along, with him sharing the back six inches of the snowshoes with me.

The spring consisted of inch and a half iron pipe stuck into a steep bank on a hill. The water flowed from the pipe and out of the ground just down hill of the pipe. The water from the pipe had made an elaborate ice sculpture from the open end. I swished away some snow, and chopped off part of the artwork beneath the woodland faucet large enough to allow me to get a pail of water. I filled both pails and followed Brinker back to the outhouse and hung up the bear paws. The trail back was now along a smoothly packed trail.

One pail of water went directly onto the now rattling stove top. Once the stove was set, we went outside to shovel the mound of snow from off the roof. I started on one end and Proc the other. You had to shovel the eves first to get a foothold, then work toward the peak. I would shovel and slide the snow off the icicle festooned eves, and hear the soft thump of the weighty snow hit bottom, and the tinkle of the occasional broken icicles. As the roof was cleared, the pile below climbed higher and higher. I met Proc about in the middle and worked another row higher up the roof back toward the porch and road. The sun shone in brightly, and was warm on my neck. I had to shed one layer of wool, and roll up my sleeves. The one drawback was that the footing began to get icy from the sun’s glare and packing from my felt lined boots.

I was about to the end of the camp when Proc went down to stoke the stove, and get things ready for lunch. I would reach up under a pile of snow and jack the shovel up and down a couple of times to loosen a big chunk of the weighty white stuff. I would slide my shovel down the roof, with the chunk atop, all the way off the edge. I was working my way back along the ridge pole toward the middle of the camp, when I lost my footing and slide down to the edge of the roof and stopped. My shovel and a large slab of snow were right behind me and bowled me right off into a drift beside the camp.

I landed flat-footed on the harder packed snow facing the camp, and the momentum pushed me backward on a fulcrum of boot heels down into the softer pile of snow. My butt hit first with my feet and head quite uncomfortably too close together. I was pinned! I tried to laugh, but a yell was what really came out. Proc and Brinker came out to the fromt of the camp, and yelled and barked back, but couldn’t see me at first. Proc had to climb up into the bed of the pickup to see my predicament. I had one hand pushed deep into the snow, and couldn’t wallow very well on my own to get out. I was up to my chin in snow, and it took Proc with a shovel and Brinker with a few sloppy, wet licks to get me loose. After much wallowing and cussing I was freed—time for lunch!!

Our lunch was of toasted cheese sandwiches, pickles, some of Margie’s pickled eggs, tea, and of course a slice of Rita’s pie. The camp was nice and warm now with the old cook stove showing a red glow on the rear covers from the dry hardwood fuel. Between the full bellies and warmth, a short nap was definitely in order. Even Brinker didn’t balk at a little rest. The dish detail was finished in short order, and we each selected a low bunk near the stove to close our eyes on the world and dream away an hour.

I was up first and let Brinker out to do his business. We dressed in our woolies and headed out to finish up the roof work before darkness set in. No more mishaps like mine this morning. We finished before dark, and decided to drive up the logging road to see the woods operation near the base of Long Mountain. We banked the stove and loaded old Brinker into “Molly” and rattled up the road. We had seen the woods foreman pass by the camp a half hour ago, and he was always the last to leave.

The truck navigated the narrow path of a road until we reached the wide turn around in the road. Here the wheeled, trailer dinner shack sat off to the side, and still had a hint of smoke coming from the stove pipe. On the left, and set just up from a small brook was the horse hovel, where a half dozen mixed breed horses spent the winter. There was a large, canvas covered pile of hay beside the slanted shed hovel, and a pile of old bedding and manure in a small sledge below the only window. The snow had been shoveled off the hovel a week or two ago, so with the new snow it looked snug, but not over loaded with weight. Directly ahead on the landing there were a couple of log cribs built of hemlock logs. Each stack had alternating logs to raise the end of the crib to the height of the truck bed. The other end set just up hill of the truck side and was where the horses skidded the logs. The 8 to 12 foot logs were held in place with a vertical stake until the truck sidled up. Loggers then used their peavies to roll and stack the logs on the bunk of the truck.

The beech logs were stacked on another crib after the bark was peeled off, and these were then taken to Penley’s Mill to make the “Worlds Best Clothes Pins”. While Proc and I checked out the logs and landing, Brinker made use of the skid trails to get away from us and find a fresh rabbit track. It wasn’t long until we heard the long drawn out baying of the old hound. There was nothing he liked doing more than chasing a rabbit for shear pleasure. He would often just chase until dark, which he did again today. He didn’t return after much calling and whistling, so I took the old saddle blanket out of the truck and lay it next to the wheel of the dinner shed.

I drove back up to the dinner shack before super and retrieved the old hound. As usual, he came back in his own good time and fell asleep on the blanket. He was glad to see me and gave me a couple of licks on the ear, after he barreled into the truck. He was glad to be heading back to camp, and the warmth of the big cook stove.

Supper turned out to be a veritable feast. Proc made boiled chicken, sautéed onions, mashed potatoes, green beans, and peas. It may seem like a rather bland fare, but a few spices and lots of butter made it taste great after a long day of shoveling. Dessert was another round of Rita’s pie with after supper tea. We sat for awhile before doing dishes, and Proc filled me in on the goings on at the Grand Trunk.

The wind came up a little, and made our little warm space seem that much more snug. The tree limbs snapped as they slid by each other. The door on the porch would pound lightly on a loose hinge, and a low moaning sigh would often be heard from the front eves. Proc and I played a few hands of cribbage, before turning out the kerosene lamp and crawling into bed. Of course Brinker became my foot warmer when he climbed up onto the foot of my bed.

We were up early as usual, because Brinker had to water the snow bank. The camp was still dark, even thought the sun was peaking over the eastern hills. The pile of snow beside the camp was above the top of the windows. Proc stoked up the stove, and I got the leftover potato ready with more onions for breakfast. Soon the smell of bacon and eggs spread throughout the camp. I think Brinker was kind of jealous, because he had only the crunchies with warm water for his breakfast. Later he did get some delectable titbits left over from our breakfast—mainly to lick out the big cast iron fry pan.

It didn’t take to long to pack up old Molly, and bid farewell to the camp until spring fishing season. Our ride to West Paris was uneventful, except for the occasional drift left from last nights blow. Proc bid us farewell until his next break from the railroad, and Brinker and I headed home for Albany.

Read all of Eleazer Peabody’s Tales from Maine.