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Nine Mile Bridge

Helen Hamlin’s storytelling in Nine Mile Bridge is almost as breezy as Louise Dickinson Rich’s tales in We Took to the Woods.  Helen came from a family of game wardens and grew up bi-lingual in French and English in Fort Kent, Maine (at the very top of the state).  After attending a teachers’ college, she requested a rural, back-woods school and got it in the logging camp on Churchill Lake.  Because there were very few roads through northern Maine in 1938, her family drove her on a round about trip of 400 miles into Canada and then through Quebec and then back across the U.S. border at Lac Frontiere.  (If there had been a direct route, the trip would have been under 100 miles.)  As they crossed back into the U.S., the U.S. customs official informed Helen’s family that the logging camp at Churchill Lake is no place for a woman.

The customs officer was referring to the logging crews at Churchill lake, not the black bear that jumped out of a ditch on the narrow, rocky logging road that was the last leg of the trip.  That bear … galloped ahead of the car.  His flying paws threw gravel and stones back on the windshield before he disappeared abruptly off the road and crashed away through the underbrush.  Helen was undaunted and insisted to her parents she was going to stay.

The first third of her book is about her time as a teacher at the camp.  Apparently, the 20 year old teacher made as much of an impression on the camp as the camp made on her.  She describes her first meal:

Suddenly a gong on the back porch rang to call the men to dinner, and I walked into the kitchen just as a motley crew filed through the door at the opposite end and silently seated themselves at the table.  They were French Canadians – tall and short, young and old – unshaven, weather beaten, long haired and ragged.  This was their appearance at dinner time.

At suppertime, their appearance was quite different, though equally amazing.  Every man jack was neatly shaven.  Unruly hair was combed, brushed and anchored with water.  Water still dripped from the long, plastered locks.  Socks were straightened over boot tops and shirttails were tucked in out of sight.

The abundant food at these meals – roast beef, gravy, potatoes, creamed carrots, pea soup, baked beans, freshly made bread, rolls, pies and cookies of all kinds finishes with …the inevitable small jugs of molasses that every Old Timber Wolf pours into his plate at the end of a meal, to mop up with pieces of bread.  Later she adds: The camp that serves only baked beans (logging berries) is rare nowadays.

I had never heard of baked beans referred to as “logging berries” before!

Her inside look at a logging camp is fascinating, both how the work is done –

One method of determining the height of a tree is to cut a stick the length of the arm from elbow to hand.  Hold the stick upright, grasping it at the bottom, and with the arm held straight out, walk backward until just the top of the tree is seen over the top of the stick.  The distance from that spot to the butt of the tree is its height.

– to how everyone lived.  She doesn’t pretty up the drab, cold quarters, including the dirt, lice, ice, mud and shear inconvenience of things.:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I could gladly spend the rest of my days at Churchill.  I think very few people would say that…To this day I have not forgotten the many times I wished for a real bathtub with plenty of hot water and soap, instead of the inadequate white bowl in my cold room.

The boarding house where Helen lived at Churchill Depot today

But she makes it very clear that all the people she met, lumberjacks included, were for the most part kind and fun to be with, and that the U.S. customs official was dead wrong, proving the old Maine adage:  Never believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see.

After a year of teaching, Helen married Willis “Curly” Hamlin, one of the local game wardens, or as much as a game warden with a huge territory to cover, can be local.  Curly’s district was 792 square miles (Later on it would double in size.)  Helen’s description of the wedding includes seven flat tires and Curly saying, when asked if he would take Helen as his lawful wedded wife:  “Oh yeah!”

In September we were back at Umsaskis (Lake).  Our home was a two-room log camp overlooking the lake…We had an outhouse. A two-seater that was painted a bottle green.  During the summer we could sit there and slap mosquitoes, and during the winter we could sit and shiver.

In the 1930s game wardens patrolled their huge territories on foot or on snowshoes, or by canoe.  They slept out a lot.  And it was dangerous work as the poachers almost always had a gun with them.

To some people (fish hogs, beaver poachers and night hunters), a game warden is the lowest form of humanity.  Others regard him as the Maine version of the romantic Mounted Police…

 One part of Curly’s work that I liked best were the long three- and four-day canoe trips that we took during the summertime, trips where he made a sort of inspection tour up and down the rivers and through the chain of lakes.  We camped away from home, staying in deserted cabins and outlying warden camps.  During the winter these inspection trips were less frequent because of the difficulty of traveling.  He went on snowshoes, and when we had the dogs he used them as a means of transportation.

The first winter was rough.  The nearest neighbors were 10 miles away; the mail came maybe once a month, but they had to snowshoe 18 miles to get it.  They played cribbage and chess until they couldn’t stand the sight of the game boards.  They played solitaire until the cards wore out.  They explored on snowshoes, and sometimes Helen said she just did nothing but stare out at the snowflakes.  In the meantime

Curly’s particular pastime was lying on the couch with the twenty-two rifle perched on his knees, shooting the mice and houseflies on the rafters.  I will say he was good at it.  I don’t know if he hit the flies, because all that was left for evidence was a hole, but I’ll take his word for it.

They had had to buy all their food supplies before the snow set in and that first winter, they had miscalculated.  Long before the snow began to melt, they started to run out of food.  In the end they snowshoed 38 miles over three days in bitter, below zero cold, to Lac Frontiere and a hotel.  It was a three-week holiday in civilization; but, by the end, they couldn’t wait to get back home.

Helen is very perceptive about the seasons in New England:

I like the summertime, but I’m glad when fall comes.  I like to see winter come too, especially the first snowstorm.  I even like to be snowbound, and I think I actually feel relieved when January rolls around and the road is closed.  February is a cold month and March is pleasant but April is betwixt and between.  Winter doesn’t go fast enough and spring doesn’t come soon enough.

Of course, the warm weather brings its own problems:

There is only one thing to be wished for in the woods – that there be no black flies.  Curly made a fly dope of tar, turpentine, citronella – and dissolved horseshoes, I guess.  It kept the flies away for a while, but it also peeled the hide off.

Helen writes about fishing and fishing trips, the gorgeous woods and the wildlife (she always maintained she wasn’t afraid of bears) and pick-up baseball games with a Quebec team.  It’s all fascinating.  My favorite chapters are the ones she devotes to their dog sled team – finding the dogs, training the dogs, and running the dogs.  The dogs are huge and go through so much food that Helen and Curly were grateful for the carcass of a dead horse one year and multiple beaver carcasses another year.  I could paste whole, long sections in here, but will stop at just one:

Loupe [the lead dog] received the most attention because he was expected to keep the other dogs in line.  He was so class-conscious with the pups that he wouldn’t allow them to run by him or go through the door before he did.  It was amusing to watch him strut up to the screen door, leisurely taking his time, with the two pups nudging and shoving behind him but not daring to hurry him too much.  “Look at him,” Curly said.  “If that isn’t a smirk on a dog’s face, I never saw one.”

After three years in the woods, Helen and Curley had a baby on the way, and for that reason Curly asked for a transfer to someplace closer to “civilization.”  They left the woods with mixed emotions, as was only to be expected of someone who could write:  We once spent two days in Bangor – the lumberjack’s Mecca. … I enjoyed it, but I could never shake off the feeling that the world was crowded and that people were odd. 

Nine Mile Bridge probably won’t convince you to set up house in the middle of the wilderness, but it will definitely leave you with a smile, and perhaps even a yearning for a brief spell in the woods.

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