John Harrigan: Of floating islands and the catbird seat

JOHN HARRIGAN October 05. 2013 9:40PM

The catbird seat. All right, I've used this term several times in recent conversation to baffled looks. What does it mean?

I've always wanted to be in a corner, not from fear of being trampled or trapped, but to see what's going on. Charlie Levesque, when he was executive director of the Northern Forest Lands Council, knew this and so made sure that I got a corner seat at the table. (OK, it was easier when things got boring, as they often did, to slink away.)

To this day, whether in a restaurant, on a train, or in a bus station, I seek out a corner seat with my back to the wall. Not that I'm paranoid. It's just that they're all out there, nefarious and trying to get me - bogeymen and monsters and God knows what.

In my teens, I caddied at the Balsams Hotel in Dixville Notch - home of the first-in-the-nation primary and all. I got $12 for carrying doubles, plus tips, which I earned for my hawk-like eyesight in spotting the places in the temperate zone vegetation that engulfed errant drives (OK, a little exaggeration here), and decorum on the greens, which I insist on today. Do not step on the line of my putt and never throw the flag down (it makes a dent), and if you're lucky enough to have a nine-iron make a dent on the green, fix it. In short, do not play golf with me unless you're a former caddy. And pay me $12.

The golf course at the Balsams was, before golf came to the North Country, a cow pasture as was the Colebrook golf course, and Charmingfare in Candia before its recent upper-class (a term I hate) days. Many of New Hampshire's golf courses sprang from such humble roots.

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A recent New York Times story dealt with an island that suddenly appeared off the southwest coast of Pakistan as a result of an earthquake. There was a picture of humans cavorting on it when the terrain was scarcely dry. This made me think (always a dangerous thing): Who owns such islands?

One island that comes to mind is in the Merrimack River, just shy of Amoskeag Falls. It is a fairly big piece of real estate. On a canoe journey three or more decades ago, seeking to retrace (sort of, in a backward way) Henry David Thoreau, a friend and I shot past this island at Warp Factor Five without time to ask questions. We went ashore far downriver and had lunch, where Thoreau camped. I wondered, then and now, who owns the islands, which in any rivers but the fastest-flowing ones tend to be numerous.

If you chose to live there - on this or that island - living the life of the brave and the free, except during spring breakup when the ice rampages and would crush the living daylights out of you, would you have to cope with a building inspector and taxes?

In South Bay Bog, southeast of First Connecticut Lake, I've jumped up and down on the floating vegetation and seen the spruce-bog trees sway. If you're stupid enough to point your toes, like a ballerina (what's the guy-term for this? Ballerino?), you go under the mat into 12 feet of water and have to claw your way back to the land of the living.

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And then we come to fish, or go to fish. Because we own the riverbed, we (the New Hampshire "we") can fish up any tributary to a bridge. Because there are some tributaries without any bridges for a while, this means that we can fish half of Vermont. Oh, all right, maybe one-sixteenth.

Arrest me, Vermont officer, I beg you. What a court case that would be. The Independent Principality of Throwback Neanderthal Knuckle-Dragging Slobbering New Hampshire (that would be me) vs. the land of Volvos, Birkenstocks, ponytails, rimless glasses, goats and yurts. Save me a seat in the courtroom.

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There is a place called Mud Pond. Actually there are many of these, but this one is the only place where I've seen floating islands.

Back not so long ago, when we were kids, Jimmy Berry and I became blood brothers. In high school baseball, I pitched; he caught. Because I had a knuckle ball that I thought was pretty good, Jim often wound up singing soprano. We used to race each other to fishing holes along Beaver Brook.

Jim's father, a game warden, took us fishing to Mud Pond, a place up back behind Dixville. While his dad rustled up supper, we fished, and did plenty good, in the vernacular.

We came ashore and secured the boat and had a fine repast after we'd shoveled into eternity a dead porcupine, which stunk to high heaven.

In the morning, there was no possibility of fishing. There were seven islands of vegetation on the pond, floating around to the whims of the winds, and they'd hemmed us in.

John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is PO Box 39, Colebrook, NH 03576. His email is

John Harrigan

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