Note: This long letter was written by Rev. Frederick B. Noss of Andover, Mass. and Tamworth and Sandwich, NH, to his brother George. It describes the hurricane of 1938, as experienced by him while at his home in Andover, and damage caused to the Blueberry Ledge, Rollins, and Dicey's Mill trails of WODC as he and his friends cleared portions of them later that fall.
The letter was made available to me by his daughter, Tisha (Noss) Mutter.
November 21st, 1938
Once again to the strains of this detestable typewriter I am attempting to get off a letter to you, and there have been episodes of what to me were epic experiences to narrate.
There is a saying among western packers that the worst places in the wilderness are always to be found in the depths of down timber. One of them once told me that he had never gone among windfalls or flood debris because so many of his acquaintances had come to grief that way. A man crawling wretchedly along on hands and knees, or climbing over shaky trunks and branches, breaks a leg, turns around and is lost. No one can ever find him in the tangle, and in a few days a memorial service is in order.
As you probably read in the papers, between the big doings of the dictators, we had a tremendous blow in these parts. From a weather station in the Blue Hills twenty-five miles due south of here gusts of 185 miles an hour were reported that afternoon in late September. I was out calling when the wind struck, almost without warning. I had gone out on a gusty fall afternoon, there were rain clouds and some falling moisture, but nothing unusual. Suddenly, with a bellow, the hurricane arrived, wrapping the branches of a big maple around its straining trunk, shaking the house and filling the air with flying shingles. I grabbed my hat and departed at top speed for home, half a mile away. Twice I had to turn the car around and seek another street. Some trees came up by the roots, being gently laid away to their last rest as a mother lays down her children at night; others snapped off at the base with splintering crashes and great violence like soldiers going down in a rain of shells. The ruination of branches occurred right and left as the stoutest oaks and butternuts bent to the ground in the fiercest gusts. At home our veterans on the bank above the house were putting up a magnificent fight. All their leaves were still green, affording a terrible purchase, and the roar of the battle sounded like the deepest notes of a gigantic organ. How that old wind gathered up its full strength and hurled itself upon them, time after time, tearing away a heavy branch here and there, storming in through the openings and grappling with the trunk itself. My neighbor had excavated among the rocks where a big red oak stood and weakened the root system. With a yell the storm broke upon that heroic tree, twisting, turning and battering it without ceasing. It seemed to have hold of the rocks only with its finger tips, like a human hand thrust but slightly into the safety of the ground. One by one the fingers of the roots snapped off, and still the trunk stood upright. There came a lull, and a patter of rain. The branches swung back in wide arcs against the lessening pressure. The tree shivered, and then with lightning suddenness flashed to the ground, full length, carrying with it a sixty-foot red oak of mine. The double fall came so suddenly that the eye could barely follow the movement and the noise of the wind had reached such a pitch that I heard not a sound of the fall, although my tree left a twelve-foot splinter still standing.
I gathered all the children on the front lawn and for half an hour we stood in Muir-like admiration of the elements. I can assure you without reservation that although the strength and fury of the storm was beyond anything in my experience, that there was not the slightest taint of evil anywhere. I could have sworn that the sound trees enjoyed their struggle and I could swear now that they will be all the better for Nature is ever kind at heart, though sometimes a bit boisterous. The woods can stand a storm far better than any woodsman's axe, however wisely used. And the forests of New England had a thorough overhauling that night, I can assure you too. Nothing unworthy remained to cumber the ground with sick and rotten trunk. The young and vigorous almost universally survived. Specimen spruce and fir suffered heavily, it is true, as witness the lusty Engelmann by my study door. Jane and I noticed it going slightly askew, shortly after its roots began to snap. I had rushed out to demolish with an axe a drunken staggering cherry which over-burdened with its falling top a young Colorado blue. One by one with reports like a pistol we could hear them go. Then in increasing measure the tall spire of the Englemann swept down closer and closer to the ground. Watching it we could see through the hurrying wrack a glimpse of blue sky now and again. Little fleecy clouds wandered softly high above our wild tumult. Jane began to cry, "I don't want that tree to go over. It's my favorite tree. I never go out the door without thinking about it." There and then I promised her that if it did not break but just turned over I would rescue it for her on the morrow.
I did, too, with her assistance. We drove the car around on the lawn, and managed to back it between the garage and the pine tree. Our patient lay almost flat, so we got the extension ladder and strove to prop it up. It rose a little and the car's jack helped us a little more. Then we assembled every rope in the house. We took down the swing, we dismembered the rope bed, we tore down the clothes line (there was the deuce to pay for that), and joined them all together in one loose whole. These we attached to some one place on the fallen and fastened the other to the rear axle of the car. Jane became the flagman and I manned the clutch. Slowly I drove ahead, but just as Jane signaled that the tree stood, the rope broke. Four times this happened, but we both grew more skillful and secured our prize at last. Propped and stayed, the Engelmann shows green and sound today, a monument to Jane's love and gratitude.
Well, nothing would do but Al Zink and I must depart to the Sandwiches to see what the storm had done to our beloved hills. So often in summer and winter have I been up there that every bulge and dip in the range is a well-loved old friend. There are scores of trees too where I have taken mine ease, a dozen brooks where refreshment never failed, and how went it with them in the tempest? So one Friday morning we set sail with brother Foster for ballast and cooking. Two light axes and food for two days went into our packs as we drove up the familiar road. Whiteface by the Blueberry Ledge Trail marked the beginning of the exploration, and an easy time we had that day too. Hardly a tree had perished, though we were meticulous about clearing the trail. We rested while we chopped. Let me confess: It feels good to sink your axe into the soft green wood of a balsam and the smell of the fresh cut wood is a delight. So we reached the hut and while Foster cooked a mammoth supper, Al and I cut new-fallen balsam boughs for a bed. Plenty of it. A foot deep we made it, spongy and fragrant. No featherbed ever approached it for softness.
In the morning we found work to do. The Rollins trail immediately beyond Shehadi lay deep beneath the fallen trees. Our axes rung all morning long and into the afternoon. At two we rested our blistered hands, picked up our packs and returned to the hut, Heermance, where we dined. Three hundred yards of impassable trail lay open behind us, but the day was done and we went back to the car. We wrote to the AMC, and were referred to the WODC, who reported happiness over our findings, and regretted that its own members are now too much enfeebled to wield axes on trails. Apparently they are also unable to climb. We descended by the Tom Wiggin Trail and found the lower end, just above Dicey's Brook, blocked with down hardwood of great size. We did not even attempt to open this portion but wove our way back and forth across the trail through the remainder of the open wood.
So some ten days ago Al and I cooked up another expedition. Our senior patrol leader went along, his second trip in life to the mountains. By brilliant moonlight we climbed to Heermance, ate a midnight meal and fell to rest upon our still fragrant bed. That was two-thirty of a frosty November night, and at seven-thirty in the morning the others answered my breakfast call. It began as a gorgeous day so that, well fortified with food and drink, we set our axes to hewing at ten. We meant to sleep the night at Passaconaway lodge, and worked mightily to that end. By this time, however, the wood had dried somewhat and the steel sheered the less readily. I used a heavy Plumb axe and it was good where the trunks lay near the ground, but for overhead work it proved wearisome. In places you understand we had to tunnel. Sometimes with skill we could sever a trunk on the left of the path and have the stump stand up from the weight of the roots on the right. Sometimes we had to cut them twice and roll the log away. It was great labor and a sweaty one. The canteen emptied itself into us, and I proposed that the lad go back to Heermance for another load, when ahead we could see a lessening of the obstacles. At noon we entered a free trail which led us through standing stuff for half a mile. Then a little more clearing and another half mile of easy going. Then as the sun sloped away to evening shadows, we resolved to leave the clearing of the trail and press on by crawling, climbing and detours until we reached the hut. This proved a harder job than we at first thought, for although we had cut our way through some monstrous tangles, we soon found ourselves in the midst of the most distressing desolation I have ever seen. We could not locate the trail, and struggled on through, over and under a burden of tangled branches, upended stumps, ragged holes, smashed trunks and stiff resisting tree tops. Sometimes we found ourselves fifteen feet above the ground with no choice but to go on down into the mess. Sometimes we dragged ourselves through on hands and knees. I remember jumping from one swaying trunk to another and missing. My feet waved futilely in the air, though the others did not see and I therefore clung desperately to my dignity. We stayed very close together, for anywhere one of us might drop from sight and be seen no more. Here and there we passed new slides. We could tell from the angle of the basin that we should be no more than half a mile from Passaconaway Lodge. Beyond our present difficulties lay the open woods. With fearful expenditure of energy we pressed on, packs on back and axes in right hands. Occasionally we used those axes to hack a brief passage through an impenetrable mountain ash or spruce top. In the woods we made a pile of our possessions and spread out to find the trail.
Al halloed after a time and we foregathered with blistered hands and scratched faces on a path through the most peaceful and fragrant wood you have ever imagined.
In one hundred yards we were in the densest deadfall you could imagine and the sun set. It was night, we had had neither dinner nor any water, and there could not be found space in which to set an untrammeled foot. In our struggles we could not tell whether we were just below the hut or already beyond it. Can you picture us stumbling through the treetops, unable to see six feet ahead, without the slightest notion of where the trail might be or of where the next footfall would land us? Al began to propose a halt and by axe work a dry camp for the night. But the inside of my mouth was black and bitter with thirst, my lips peeling and cracking, and in my breast a sullen fury with the White Mountains that even then made me laugh. I have always had that strengthening laughter in the mountains and at such times. My answer was a desperate shove ahead that gained eighteen inches. So. Eighteen inches on the mighty shoulder of a big mountain in the darkness. A pause for breath and another thrust. My faithful old poncho of long nights in the Sierra caught and tore in ragged rents. Up over boulders, along and under logs, thus into the darkness. Bill's pack came apart and we salvaged its contents with the help of the flashlight. He was near complete exhaustion. I stopped once more, considering toughing out the night somehow where we were. All about us a deep silence. The stars shining steadily through the top of yonder sole survivor of the wreck with unwinking calm. Not a leaf, not even a cracking limb in the gathering chill. Not a sound but one. Running water! Water, cool, clear, entrancing water, dead ahead. The sound of water in the mountains: how often it deceives one. A healthy sound of tumbling rivers may be only wind in the birches far down in the valley. The splashing yonder turns out to be the rustle of dry leaves upon a rock, or comes with a subdued murmur from some underground spate. Bill and Al listened skeptically, but they could not deny the sound. How many brooks come down across this ridge? That far off summer day when John and I unwillingly escorted the two maidens along this way certainly broke its torrid stretch with no such relief as this. But then we had just started at this stage and might not have noticed. Enough now to press on for a drink.
Down we climbed into the blackness, stopping at almost every step to make sure the blessed gurgle still held out. A crazy notion that it might run dry before we could reach it seized me, but a huge red spruce grappled with me. I could not lead the way beneath it and with huge effort mounted up again, feeling for holds in the blackness. Six feet beyond it, through the dry branches lay a white birch trunk, with an impenetrable jungle just beyond. We climbed along this into the upper limbs and felt our way through them to the top of a large rock. The side toward the water turned out to be climbable, but to wriggle down through the foliage took the last ounce of strength and a yard or so of bed roll. At last we knelt one after the other beside the tiny pool and buried our faces in the water. Now we could make camp anywhere a yard of firm ground appeared. But you know the White Mountains. There is no unencumbered ground, and besides not three hours axe work with tortured, bleeding hands would suffice to make room for a safe fire. Even if we did lay about us we could find no space in the darkness to bestow our hewings. No words can describe the sensation of standing ever hip deep in smashed trees, with darkness all about, hunger in the midriff and the cold stars winking down. We advanced slowly upstream, at each step lifting the knee up to the chin in vain efforts to tread down the opposition. More crawling, flatter than infantrymen under machine gun fire, more dizzy stretching from one high trunk to another. Yet we made solid progress and ever kept the tinkle of our water supply hard by on the left. Then the forest opened a least mite, and the ground became swampy. A blessed sign. Hope rose swiftly. There were, we remembered, swampy runs below the lodge. In a few minutes the trees became so scattering that they lay prone where they fell and we could step over them one by one. Here were level places, we could make camp on an improvised shelf of balsam saplings if we wished, but we would press on to the spring, and find dry ground perhaps above it. My hand trailed across a stump. Axe marks, ancient, but distinct! What ho, the source and spring of our tiny stream. The flashlight sent its beam hither and yon uncertainly. Dry ground, surely, but give it to me. Ah over there. Have I not climbed that slope twice hand running in the snow in nights as dark as this? The hut will be right there. One corner stood forth in that feeble glare, like the benediction of a home. Buried beneath two great fallen firs but intact. I yelled like a madman and in an instant forgave the mountain all its sorry tricks.
Passaconaway Lodge is like a home of our own. No one apparently ever stays there except ourselves. The dry wood inside is that which we have cut and stacked ourselves. The fireplace is as we rebuilt it. We lie down to sleep on the browse we have gathered, and now that the trees all around have been leveled off it will be ours alone all the more. We crawled through the branches blocking the entrance with the certain knowledge that nowhere on the whole mountain had anyone trodden in more than six weeks, and that we were as inaccessible to man as if we had landed in the center of Labrador.
The clearing of those two trees from the hut took a vicious toll on our hands, and in the deep darkness of the night and the sodden, hungry weariness of the moment only the certainty that a fire would light the whole forest prevented us from kindling one at once. We looked at a watch and found the hour was only six ten. What would a whole night have been propped against the scree down yonder have seemed like?
Bill fetched water from the spring and at last a lusty young fire blazed under the now kindly stars. Thick soup bubbled in the old pot, so promptly indeed that at seven we were able to sit down to a substantial supper, while in washed and refilled pots our dinner cooked. Bill fell asleep and when eight came round he could not be roused. This was the dinner hour, and after rolling the exhausted but healthy Bill in his blankets, Al and I sat down on the dot to a stew of lamb, onions, potatoes, turnips and carrots that completely filled my larger pot. We quaffed stout cups of coffee that was half condensed milk and sugar. We put a heaping teaspoonful of salt on our first helping, so that the juice tasted like sea water, and so that a warm glow spread speedily all through the tired muscles of our legs. George, salt is the thing under such circumstances. I never recovered from weariness so quickly in my life, nor have I ever eaten with such satisfaction. For forty minutes we absorbed stew before our appetites diminished.
Meantime the wind began to blow with the rising of the moon. Our fire of balsam wood began to throw sparks, but as I felt not in the least sleepy, I volunteered to watch it. Inside my sleeping bag the royal restorative work on my knees continued to my vast content. With head propped high on the Bergan where I could see well I let my eyes rest on the fire. A gust blew it into flame. It would bear attention. I blinked, wondering if I would sleep after a time. That blink extinguished the flame and the coals and moved the moon far over to the west. One blink and I thirsted, and arose and in the most divine and luminous night since Silver Pass I went down to the spring to drink. All night I could have wandered, unfatigued and happy. For in spite of the wild desolation of the storm, the piled dead of the forests, and the impenetrable fastness everywhere, millions of five and ten foot firs and spruces were showing their fragrant tops in the moonlight for the first time. The dead would nourish them, the flowers would spring everywhere, and above all the maiming hand of man would withdraw its unsavory touch from the kindly work of nature. For many years to come the White Mountains, through wide stretches of their imperial domain, will be spared the lumberman's axe. There is no market for the expensive lumber that these down trees would supply. They will sink into the ground and only those who have recovered from trailitis will ever walk these ways again. Those gasping breath will seek elsewhere their abortive sport. Maybe there will be efforts to manufacture ski trails in the fashion that has so thoroughly despoiled Chocorua, but I think the fondness for that will diminish to the forms of organized games. Up here the fancy turns, the swift runs and the hill tows are impossible, and since it would take the best part of a winter day to climb on skis to the summit of one of these mountains, there will be little enthusiasm. Perhaps the Forest Service will close the worst summits altogether for several years, but even then we can steal away into the brush without fear of apprehension. At any rate, nature through the storm has claimed Passaconaway for her own again.
Once more sleep claimed me, and held this time until broad day. Though the day broke fair as any I have known, we were all a little sad because we knew that sometime before dark we must find our way back to the car. This endless going back to work, living under the grim dictatorship of the calendar, with set times and places exacting their relentless and overpowering demands, reached out into our paradise and withered its flowers. We rekindled the fire, and leaving Bill to mind our breakfast, Al and I explored all around the lodge. Nowhere could we find a breach in the ruin. We were enclosed in ten walls of fallen timber, and faced a certain battle to get away. Over our bacon and eggs we decided that the best thing to do would be to follow the brook to Dicey's Mill, where we were sure of an open trail. We rightly surmised that throughout its length the present trail from here to there would be an impossible mess, even worse than what we had already experienced. The direction the storm had taken and the lie of the ridge it followed had taken care of that. Whoever seeks to follow that trail will lose his reason.
Of that descent, I will say little. We developed a kind of skill in finding the thinner places in the tangle and a judgement against climbing and crawling. We rested long and often. We climbed high along semiprostrate giants to view desolation and found it everywhere worse than along the brook. We were frequently puzzled by the fact that from the top of Whiteface these regions seemed to be untouched. Why was it that in looking this way we had failed to see any evidence of this appalling destruction? The answer to that, I suppose, is that since the standing trees afforded us no trouble, we were now ignoring them, whereas from a distance the eye is caught and held by a myriad of waving tree tops and cannot see what lies beneath. However, it took us two hours of fierce work to cover the first half mile, and another hour to make the second. Then we found ourselves in the basin following a considerable stream southwestward toward Dicey's. Here the timber was largely untouched and all we had to do was scramble over the forest floor, sometimes through hard and sometimes through soft wood. We crossed and recrossed the stream, finding here and there excellent camp sites, far from any trail. Indeed, I believe that we shall shortly repair to these regions armed with a tent and create a winter camp. We shall in future plunge more often straight into the woods, and disregard the trails. It takes but little longer to proceed thus and there is vast interest to be drawn from finding the way. Every aspect of the terrain etches itself firmly on the mind, and one notes a hundred beautiful corners of hill, stream and wood for every mile covered. Believe me, sir, there is no virtue in a trail except you have an immediate destination found only on that trail. And what care we for such spots really? Why is not one tree, or level place or brook the equal of any other? Does all the charm of wilderness reveal itself only where a thousand have walked? Did those who made the trails have a monopoly on choice rendezvous or know all the pleasant places? Nay, nay. The beauties of the hills all vary among themselves and are spaced impartially in every fold of the mountains.
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