Boy Scout Troop 331 at a beaver pond. Ed Colvin is standing in the back row, second from right. Author is in the front row, far right.
It’s important for a boy to have older male role models who aren’t their father. When I was growing up, Ed Colvin was one of those men in my life.
Ed was my neighbor and my best friend Jamie’s great-uncle, which is how I got to know him. But the thing that drew me into his orbit was that he was an adventurer. In our globalized world, that word has come to evoke some lone-wolf jetsetter who scales Kilimanjaro or takes a canoe ride down the Amazon, which is misleading. Ed was a provincial adventurer – a Vermonter who spent his life living right next door to the town he was born in. This isn’t to say he wasn’t curious about the outside world or that he didn’t travel, it’s just to point out that he could find adventure right outside his back door. This approach to life made him especially intriguing to kids who could still see the world through those same fresh eyes.
My father taught me the mechanics of how to hunt and trap and fish; he introduced me to the science in nature – the names of the trees, why the mountains look like they do. Ed was one of the people who showed me how to overlay a sense of wonder and adventure on top of all that. If we were to analogize my upbringing to learning how to paint, Ed showed me how to use light.
He was a character, see. One of those old-timers who just don’t exist anymore. (I love that cliché; love that the bar keeps rising and that people will always use it, even as it means something slightly different every time.) Raised in an old rural world where men shod horses and Gypsies stole children and sheep-killing painter cats screamed from wildlands that stretched farther than you could walk.
Ed possessed a sartorial panache typical of woodsmen who grew up in the 1930s, which is to say he wore a uniform in the woods. In cold weather, a red plaid coat, bedecked with patches like a boy scout or an Army sergeant. Wool poor-boy hat with buttons, and wool socks pulled up over his Bean boot tops. Black ash pack basket. Knife and sidearm (a .38 revolver) and rifle. Dutch Masters cigar wedged permanently in the corner of his mouth. In the warmer months, a floppy Gilligan-style hat, well-worn fishing vest over brightly colored shirt and collar, Bolo tie. And wool pants, even in summer. Knife and sidearm and fishing pole. That same cigar that was somehow always lit and always the same size. Picture him walking into a backwoods trout pond, leading the charge like an avuncular General Patton, with Jamie and me, or his sons Billy and Eddie, or a gaggle of Boy Scouts trying to keep up, the scene equal parts Norman Rockwell painting and Wes Anderson movie.
The backwoods part of any adventure was key, as Ed always sought out the path of most resistance. He once took a Boy Scout troop on a 23-mile day-hike over Glastenbury Mountain in a foot of snow, an act that today would probably get an adult sued for child endangerment. If the parents were at all perturbed, sitting on a class-four road with the police at one o’clock in the morning waiting for their lost children, it never made the final cut in his story. To hear Ed tell it, it was all a rollicking adventure – including the mutiny – and everyone went home smiling and happy. The moral, of course, was that the boys persevered – a way of thinking also common to men who grew up in the 1930s.
In fall we hunted deer together and in spring we fly-fished. We could have fished on the pond in his backyard, but instead we’d head up to a remote chain of beaver ponds in Stamford, Vermont. Ponds accessible only after an oil-pan-denting drive up a series of logging roads in his blue Jeep, and then a three-mile hike into the wilderness. There were no proper trails in; he found the ponds by renting an airplane. And part of what made him a special human being is that after he found them he went and found some kids to take there.
Ed was a good fisherman. Maybe great. I remember him landing a dry fly on a swimming beaver’s back; rolling his casts sidearm to hit little pockets of water in brooks that were only as wide as his pole was long. But of course the real lesson – or at least the one I picked up on – was that we were hunting stories as much as we were hunting fish. Yes, there was a sizzling cast iron pan full of brook trout at the end of the day – Ed showing us how to eat the little ones bones and all. But I remember the peripheral stuff even more clearly. Scrambling to keep up with him as he wove through the woods so I could hear the stories – about monster trout and buck deer and Frank Hollister (who was half-Indian and the kind of old-timer who just didn’t exist anymore) that he tossed flippantly over his shoulder. At night, we’d listen to the “bears” hooting around our campfire, just outside the firelight. Worried looks on our faces. Ed presiding over the moment – “shhhh” – his hand on his pistol. A twinkle in his eye that said: “Isn’t this fun?”
As I got older, I did all I could to catch up to Ed in the adventuring department. It wasn’t a competition – it wasn’t even a conscious effort – but looking back, I see his fingerprints on many of my more ridiculous jaunts. That Jamie was often my partner in crime on these epic deer and moose drags, or nights spent huddled in a snow pile on top of some unnamed mountain peak, is no coincidence. My portfolio of stories came to rival Ed’s – as a born teacher, he was quick to point that out. And yet I still don’t feel like I ever quite touched the joy he felt being in the woods. Some of this is just nostalgia, I know; the gauzy light through which we see the past. But beyond that, I still don’t think I ever quite got his sense of wonder. His stories all had a liminal, dreamlike quality to them. Bucks jumping over his head and disappearing into the mist. A bobcat stalking him after he’d killed its mate for a farmer’s bounty. This was more than a storyteller’s embellishment; I think he really felt these things in a way that was mystic, and primal, and old. As society churns along, many of us sacrifice the fantastic at the altar of cold reason; I hope that as a culture we don’t ever lose it all together.
Anyway, Ed’s body got old before his mind, a symptom of his other, more sedentary life as a businessman and a legislator, and no doubt those ubiquitous cigars. After a while he couldn’t make it up into the woods anymore, which left me swinging by his house and sharing my hunting and fishing exploits like a cat might leave a mouse by the front door. At first you could tell he really appreciated it – that he could live through my stories or, more accurately, relive through them. But as of last year his mind started to go the way of his body. We knew the end was coming soon.
There’s a 13-year-old girl in Williamstown, Massachusetts, who wants to learn how to trap a beaver. And through the grapevine she got hooked up with me, and I told her I’d teach her. On January 25, 2015, I took my partner out for a recon expedition to see if we could find an active flowage. We headed toward Stamford, Vermont, because it’s close to the Massachusetts border and because there are big woods there. The same big woods that Ed Colvin introduced me to. It wouldn’t be enough to trap a beaver, of course. We needed to ram my truck up into a place where nobody with common sense would drive. And then make a day of snowshoeing out away from any signs of civilization like proper mountain people. Hotdogs roasted on sticks over a campfire for lunch. The kid would need to test herself. Fall through the ice in 12-degree cold and get wet at least a couple times and go home feeling tired and cold and tough.
We had just started our way up the mountain when I got a phone call from Jamie. Ed, who’d been bedridden in the VA for close to a year, had taken a turn for the worse and had only hours to live. I turned around and met Jamie down there, and we sat next to Ed in his hospital bed. We tried to seed his morphine dreams with his stories so he could take them with him into whatever comes next.
I just spent 1,500 words trying to put a frame around this man who meant a lot to me, but I think the context of that phone call probably speaks louder than any eulogy I could write. He died the next morning, on some random winter day, on the same day that I was preparing to pass on some of the love of adventure he’d instilled in me. How many other kids did he teach? And they’re all out there passing it on. This is the way that those who have gone before us live forever.