Where There's Smoke...

August 20, 2011

Riding northbound on a mountain highway, the crisp August morning promises to become a shimmering, hazy afternoon. The motorcycle affords an open air tour of sights and scents of another fabulous White Mountain summer. I’m collecting and seasoning summer memories like dry cordwood to warm the long winter nights ahead.

I favor two-lane state highways that thread the western foothills. My ride traces NH Route 4 from Wilmot to Caanan, Route 118 north to Dorchester and Wentworth and Rt. 25 west to Warren through the upper Baker River Valley and then 118 over the southeast shoulder of Mount Waternomee to reach Rt. 112 to Kinsman Notch and Lost River in Woodstock.

As small towns awaken, I smell bacon and coffee. A screen door slams; a dog’s bark echoes. There’s dew on the hay field stubble along Rt. 4 west of Danbury. Climbing the incline north of Caanan, I smell water – a clean brook smell that vaguely reminds me of trout and ferns. Clear mountain streams are the antithesis of formerly polluted lowland rivers.

Our predecessors intentionally set-aside vast forested mountain headwaters to protect the navigability of rivers. Waterpower turned belts and pulleys of the giant textile mills which were the economic engines of New England commerce. I glance down at the road flying beneath the V-twin cylinders and gear-works powering my ride back into the storied “White Hills.”

I cross the height-of-land in Dorchester and descend to the lush Baker River valley. I smell cow manure and fresh-cut hay. Working agriculture persists on the best soils of the remaining farms. That smell conjures memories of a now-vanished family farm I had visited as a child. I associate that cow manure smell with the honest labor of our great-grandparents all across rural America.

Above the Mount Moosilaukee Ravine Lodge road off Rt. 118, the smell of warm balsam fir and spruce needles is comforting. A roadside pullout with a cut vista offers the most stunning view of the Franconia Ridge. Upon reaching Rt. 112 below Lost River, I smell woodsmoke. The smell is immediately alarming, a whiff of early winter in mid-August.

At the turn of the century, the smell of wood smoke in these mountains was a grim fact of life. Disastrous fires raged through cut-over stumps and dry logging slash in the mountains in July 1886 and again in May 1897. During the drought of May 1903, 200,000 acres of tinder-dry timberlands burned before rains arrived on June 9. Huge fires encircled Whitefield and Groveton with showers of fine ash falling on the verandas of the grand resort hotels. Residents of Concord 75 miles to the south complained of smoke and ash. It is said that in Manchester, hanging laundry yellowed in the soot from these forest fires.

The 1903 fires were not a death knell, but the very ashes from which the National Forest emerged like a Phoenix. Eight years later, The Weeks Act was signed into law by President Taft on March 1, 1911 to authorize federal purchase of the logged-over private timberlands.

The National Forest is a particularly appropriate destination during this centennial anniversary of the “Weeks Act” which created the White Mountain National Forest and 51 other eastern National Forests in 26 states by acquiring over 20 million acres of forestland including nearly 800,000 acres in New Hampshire and Maine. The Weeks Act gave the federal government the authority to purchase private land in the interest of protecting the headwaters of navigable streams. The Weeks Act was named for its sponsor, John Wingate Weeks, a native of Lancaster, NH and then a Massachusetts Congressman.

The smoke I smelled along the Lost River was from breakfast campfires at a family campground – among dozens of excellent public and private campgrounds located throughout the region. Summer visitors rekindle the coals of late night ghost stories and marshmallow S’mores for pancakes, bacon and eggs. Haunting tales of old ghosts seem almost as improbable as fantastical tales of once-devastated, blackened mountains: scary and unbelievable in bright light of a recent August morning.

The scent of summer smoke in the hills is now the smell of summer tourism dollars, the scent of happy childhood memories of time well-spent on family camping trips. We’re fortunate to live here. Henry David Thoreau would recognize and certainly appreciate these mountains even some 160 years after penning his quote: “I long for wildness… Woods where the wood thrush forever sings, where the hours are early morning ones, and there is dew on the grass, and the day is forever unproven… a New Hampshire Everlasting and Unfallen.”