We left camp just before daylight. The air was thick with mist as we made our plans to hunt the ridge where Chuck had jumped a nice buck at the end of the day before. Our topo maps showed that the ridge ran generally north to south, and Carl, Chuck, and I were going to hunt the length of it, trying to keep parallel to each other as we went, with Chuck on the spine and Carl and me flanking him. My assignment was to follow a contour line along the western side and then meet up with the others at what the map showed as a bare knob at the end of the ridge at 10:30.
Despite the dampness, the fallen leaves were frozen crispy, and littered almost everywhere were sticks and branches that made it even noisier. But we’d built in enough time to hunt slowly and quietly, and it certainly looked promising, with a wealth of deer sign – lots of scat and rubs where bucks had raked trees with their antlers. Repeatedly, I crossed game trails. I couldn’t see more than a hundred yards or so, but it was easy to maintain my position along the back side of the ridge. All my senses were tuned in as I crept along. Toward the end, I could see I was early, so I found a perfect spot to plant myself. A blown-over birch provided its bole for a seat and a root mass to keep me hidden. I waited, hoping that Chuck would push a buck off the top of the ridge. I also had a great view of anything coming through the open hardwoods below me.
I holed up there for 15 minutes and was getting ready to head up to the knob, when I heard a footfall on my back trail. I waited patiently, peering into the thicket to see what had made the sound. Whatever had been there was either gone or absolutely still. Nothing materialized, even when I finally stood up and started walking. So much for being early.
Whiskey Brook camp stands propped up on cement blocks next to the stream it’s named for on the western edge of the unincorporated town of Lewis, Vermont. When we left camp that morning, we’d crossed over into Avery’s Gore. Two other gores and two other unincorporated towns are adjacent, and the six entities have a combined population of zero. No year-round residents today, no year-round residents ever, this land has been timber country since the 1840s.
It was once owned by timber baron George Van Dyke, whose Connecticut Valley Lumber Company drove logs from this land down the Nulhegan River and into the Connecticut. Downstream and to the east, the 40 square miles of the Nulhegan Basin is today the largest deeryard in the state. Every deer for miles around makes a beeline for its shelter when the northern winter kicks in for real.
By now I was late, so I started to hotfoot it uphill. The trick would be to find the open knob that Chuck had described. It was by now spitting snow and the luxury of 100 yards of visibility was halved, then halved again.
Up on the ridge, I came across piles of bear scat that looked like a tree’s-worth of beechnuts had been run through a blender. I was no longer hunting, just trying to find my compatriots. I kept expecting that Chuck and Carl would hear me crashing about or that an orange vest would appear out of the gloaming, but it didn’t happen. Up here on top, the look of the woods was changed – the trees were stunted, and bedrock was more often exposed than not. And there were jumbles of downed trees everywhere. I would start up a promising path, and then have to reconsider when blowdowns made it impossible to proceed. By now I was a half-hour late for the rendezvous, and I still couldn’t quite figure out where the knob was.
The one problem with hunting together and making plans to meet is that unless you put together a Plan B, the day can easily fall apart. They could be sitting in the opening waiting for me, or they could be headed back to camp, assuming that’s what I would do if I missed them. That seemed like the most logical thing to do – head back to camp.
But what direction was that? Even though I didn’t know precisely where I was, I knew generally where I was. If I could only see through the gray drizzle, I knew I could find the round hill that had been to my right all along – then I would be sure that camp was in the opposite direction. I took out my compass. Immediately, something was wrong. North couldn’t possibly be where it told me. I’d read somewhere that any nearby metal can affect a compass, so I propped my rifle against a tree and walked away. The compass still lied. This can’t be. I couldn’t have gotten turned around that badly. I searched for an explanation and came up with a beaut: I decided that for some reason on this particular compass, the orange end of the dial pointed south and the white pointed north. That’s a crazy way to do it, I thought, but it has to be. South just has to be this way, which means camp is down there.
If I was so sure, you might ask, why bother with the compass at all? Big country does that to people. It encourages thinking in absolutes.
Though Champion International hasn’t owned it since 2002, this land continues to be known to most people as the Champion lands. Before Champion, it was owned by St. Regis Paper Company, which bought it from the Connecticut River Lumber Company. Under Champion’s ownership, it was a largely contiguous block of more than 130,000 acres – that works out to 203 square miles. When they put it up for sale in 2002, and the debate raged over what to do with this land, the positions were absolutes. “This land needs to be permanently protected – it needs to be set aside, it needs to recover from past abuses. This is our one chance to save it and we can’t blow this opportunity.” Opposing that absolute was another one: “This land has always been private land. We don’t need the government to own any more land. If the government owns it, it will take away our traditional uses. And the important timber base will be gone.”
In the end, the land was divided not into two parcels as Solomon might have proposed, but into three: Essex Timber, a private investor, purchased 84,000 acres; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ended up with the 26,000-acre Nulhegan Basin; and the state of Vermont got 22,000 acres as the West Mountain Wildlife Management Area. It’s a compromise that pleased no one in particular.
Five years after the land was divided, there continues to be a flow of wood coming off the Essex Timber land. Twelve thousand acres, about 10 percent of the total area, has been set aside as a reserve, and the entire 130,000 acres continues to be open to the public for traditional uses – hunting and fishing included.
I took yet another look at the map. Four miles to the west was Unknown Pond, a great name if you come upon it by design, rather than after hours of clueless wandering. A mile to the east was the haul road and our camp, with its woodstove, bunks, and a proper meal.
How was I going to get back to camp if I didn’t know east from west? I couldn’t backtrack because by now, I’d walked around in circles on top. I took stock of what I had with me, and it wasn’t bad for someone who hadn’t planned to spend a night in the woods. I had my rifle, a knife, water, matches, some snacks. I was dressed warmly, though if I had to spend the night outdoors, I’d have to improvise some shelter.
I took a drink of water and ate some dried apricots. I took a deep breath. At which point, I decided to trust the compass, and accept that orange pointed north even if that made north the opposite of what I thought. I aligned the compass with the map, and even though I didn’t know exactly where on the ridge I was, I set a course toward camp to the southeast, and with a leap of faith I started heading downhill. In almost no time, the general appearance of the woods seemed right. No particular landmarks stood out, but I felt confident I was headed in the right direction, confidence that was confirmed when after 10 minutes of striding downhill I heard a whistle behind me. I stopped while Chuck caught up with me. When we got back to camp, Carl was already there, and the woodstove was cranking.
Nobody lives here, but for a lot of people, this land fills a primal need as powerful as the need for home. Camps are sprinkled lightly here and there, and man’s hand can be seen in the occasional skidder rut, the abandoned logging relics of chains and rusted iron, the forest that’s grown back at least twice.
It wouldn’t fit anyone’s definition of wilderness, but we all need big country like this, whether it’s a rifle or a walking stick or a camera we carry. In country of this scale, we become trivial, and that’s what we all accept. Indeed, it’s what we’re all looking for when we enter it. Getting turned around – a euphemism that makes us all feel, despite the very real panic, that we have some control over the experience – comes with the territory. No, it’s not wilderness, but it’s still big country, big enough to get lost in, big enough to argue about.