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Willem Lange: A Familiar Route Replete With History, Much of It My Own

Second College Grant, N.H.

I know how long it takes to get here from home, how far it is and where I’m going to stop on the way for refreshment, for either me or my truck. I’ve become my father. He was a traveling missionary, and kept meticulous records of all those things. He was reimbursed by the church for mileage (at 4 cents per), meals and motels. I chose not to follow his ecclesiastical career; but I do get reimbursed for business travel. My records are as careful as his were and go back to 1956, when I bought my first car. The best ever was my 1959 VW Beetle convertible, which had 32 horsepower and got 32 miles per gallon when gas was 32 cents a gallon. It was also the car that transported me and Mother on our first date.

For my work now, I drive a lot, and like to know how long it takes me to get places — Brattleboro, Bretton Woods, North Conway, Manchester (in either state). So all I have to do is check the file “Distances and Driving Times” in my computer to know that I can get to the McDonald’s in Lancaster (a favorite oasis) in an hour and a half, and to the Maine border in two, if construction on Route 2 is in remission. Some figures have notes after them, such as “Traffic” or “Snow on road” to explain a slow passage; others have “GLH” — Going Like Hell — to remind me that I don’t dare drive that fast on a regular basis.

The College Grant is just two and a half hours away, but the last 12 miles on the dirt road to the cabin at Hellgate, after I’ve let myself through the locked gate near the highway, takes well over another half-hour. There’s no rush; I’m here. The meandering Dead Diamond River peeks through the roadside brush, there may be almost anything in the road — partridge, deer, moose — and the opportunities to get here are so infrequent that I need to savor every turn in the road that I have hiked or skied so many times over the past 40-some years. Besides, the truck and I just passed 100,000 miles together. Driving too fast on a rough road isn’t good for either of us.

The road into the Grant is a trip through history. There’s been logging here for over 200 years. You can still spot faint traces of the old methods here and there. Nowadays it’s done mostly with huge mechanical harvesters and heavy trucks, but once it was what in retrospect we tend to call romantic. Men went into the woods for months and worked with axes, horses and oxen to get the logs to the edges of the rivers. When the spring melt reached its maximum, they rolled them into the streams and herded them down, sometimes over 100 miles, to the waiting sawmills.

The Dead Diamond flows pretty much south, but in so many loops and oxbows that, paddling it in season, you can’t help but marvel how the surrounding mountains appear to swing around. At its lower end it meets the Swift Diamond rattling down from the west. They join to form the Diamond, which drops noisily through a deep gorge, emerges onto an outwash plain, and within a mile joins the Magalloway River, entering from Maine. The logs — and later, pulpwood — that with lots of strenuous help made it down through this washing machine ended up in the mill ponds of Berlin and, even farther down, Rumford, Maine.

Right at the head of the gorge, just below where the two branches of the Diamond come together, wading fishermen always notice underfoot the faint remains of an old driving dam: just a couple of submerged logs studded with long iron spikes now bent flat by ice scraping over them in the spring freshet. Not many yards away, almost hidden in dead birch leaves, lie the almost indiscernible remains of a long-abandoned bateau, the distinctive plank boat of the river drivers. If it weren’t for a rusty sheet metal patch, you’d probably never find it.

Above the forks, I begin to pass the scenes of dozens of adventures, both good and bad: the spot where my dear friend Dudley, skiing in to camp after dark, died one February evening; the cabins that over 40 years and more filled with the voices and laughter of men waiting for supper; overgrown farms where the Brown Co. raised hay and potatoes for the horses and men who spent their winters in the woods; the ruins of old logging camps — rusty bedsprings, kerosene cans, bits of board and black felt paper, and (from Prohibition days) Lydia Pinkham bottles. There used to be a telephone line running beside the river, by which a driving boss could call the men upstream to open small dams on tributaries to shoot more water into the main stream. For years we could find the small white porcelain insulators that had held the wire, but they’re pretty much gone now.

After driving fast for over two hours, the Dead Diamond Road seems to take forever. I pass Slewgundy, a deep, ledgy hole in the river where once lurked landlocked salmon. Nobody knows what Slewgundy means, but it sounds authentic. Beyond that, the anticipation of arriving at camp grows, and the road passes through some recent, unsightly log yards newly planted to grass.

Finally, I see a little opening on the left. There’s familiar pickups, a clutch of propane tanks and a few plastic two-wheeled carts for moving gear to the cabins across the river. There’s also a fantastic suspension bridge high above the water (How the hell did they do it?) and a couple of hundred yards across a field where once stood a logging depot camp. There’s smoke in the chimney of the cabin.

The clearing is surrounded by the ubiquitous symbol of the North, the skinny pyramids of spruce trees against the late afternoon sky. Two Canada jays flit over to check out the new arrival; they probably remember me as a soft touch. Then the cabin door opens, and friends step out onto the porch to help with my gear and assure me with mild insults that I’m home again.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at willem.lange@comcast.net.