John Harrigan: Labrador Brook is a fishing trip through history
Labrador Brook is not to be confused with Labrador, which is another thousand miles north. I've been there, as well. This brook, which comes from a big basin that drained into the Connecticut River below First Connecticut Lake, before Murphy Dam was built in the '30s, was so named because it harbors many plants and other species found in that far-off land. It is, in some ways, like a little chunk of Labrador gouged out and dumped a thousand miles south by the glaciers.
This trip was, as it turned out, a poor choice for a hot day in July, but the place had a certain appeal to me, partly because it held a lot of history. That was evidenced in the form of the remains of four ancient logging camps, fast sinking into the morass, but mostly because Rudy Shatney had taken me there a year or two earlier to fish the beaver dams on its upper tributaries. It was good fishing then, hence should be good fishing now.
Pete and I packed up and grabbed our poles and hit the old tote-road to the right of the brook, the oldest road there. The ancient haul-road was hacked and shoveled and stumped out of the wilderness during the first big logging cut back near the turn of the last century. It was overgrown to the point of near-invisibility, except to the practiced eye. Our plan was to get as far up the brook as we had the energy to go under the hot sun, and then fish our way down.
And soon we came onto the camps, three miserable-looking log bunk-hovels sunk so deep into the primordial ooze that only the upper four or five tiers of their walls remained above the vegetation.
These were low structures to begin with, barely high enough inside for a man to stand upright under the ridgepole. They were the last surviving parts of what once was a huge staging area for logging the vast Labrador Brook basin, which now flows into Lake Francis just south of Pittsburg.
A few months earlier I'd finished reading “Tall Trees, Tough Men,” a companion to Robert Pike's other best-known book on northern New England's early logging years, “Spiked Boots.” We stood there pondering the remains of what must have been quite a scene, with cook-shack, dining hall, horse hovels, blacksmith shop, scaler's cabin, wangan and other ancillary buildings.
Many are tempted to romanticize the early days of logging, but few know of the hardships, depravations, risks and callous attitudes of the times. It was, indeed, the “cut and get out” heyday of logging, when crews went into the old-growth forests, spent all winter cutting and hauling virgin fir, spruce and the occasional pine, and man-handled (and horsed) logs down to the banks of brooks, streams, major tributaries, rivers and the lakes themselves to be piled up in anticipation of the spring breakup when they could be river-driven to the mills far to the south.
In the early days of logging camps, the food was bad and the fleas were, if possible, worse. Men lived and worked in horrendous conditions, with few complaints or desertions owing to the scarcity of hard money. As various logging companies began competing for manpower, living conditions became much better. By Pike's day, the meals served to hungry crews had become justifiably famous — and the advent of flea powder, decent living accommodations and the increasing popularity of soap and water had greatly changed the scene.
My brother and I plunged on up through the tangle of vegetation toward the upper reaches of the brook. We splashed around one beaver dam after another until it was time to quit traveling and start fishing. Trout were plenty and we kept some in creels filled with damp ferns and moss. We broke for lunch on a sun-baked gravel bar, our illicit Molson's kept cool in the brook. The deer-fly Luftwaffe was out in force and it was a case of which was worse, the flies or our liberal application of Old Woodsman's, the standard issue of the day for anyone going into the woods in the days before Muskol, Benz and that luxury of modern fly-dope, Deep Woods Off.
In late afternoon, soaked, sunburned, muddy, trailing vines and reeking of pine tar and citronella, we reached the truck. We drove off with our trove of little black-backed native trout tucked away for breakfast. We'd had a great day in this wild place, squadrons of flies and bloodsuckers and impenetrable vegetation and all, the feckless adventurers of today, slogging along in the footsteps of the swampers, cutters and horse-teams of so long ago.
John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is Box 39, Colebrook 03576. Email him at email@example.com.
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