When the Woods Had Room For a Pup and His Tent
The other day, the youngsters came by to ask me when we'd have the next eclipse. After I figured that out on my slate, I told them how I used to take a packsack and go off camping, all by myself, when I was their age. They never went camping, even in fancy, and I suppose they never will, now that the environmentalists have taken over the wilderness to save it from everything. I used to have a lot of fun wandering around Indian fashion, and as the children seem to like to hear about it, I make up a few things to hold their interest, and I guess to hold mine as well. There was the time a skunk came into the tent with a snake, and so on.
Things were less complicated then, and a boy could walk through somebody's woodlot without making people mad. Today, all the places I camped are posted and off limits. There isn't a trout in any of my streams, and if a boy went to find out, he'd need a big license. I suppose if a boy wanted to camp, he'd outfit and get taken somewhere, buy a ticket and have radio signals so they'd know where he was. I used to go where nobody knew where I was, and neither did I.
One thing I always had in my pack was a small but sturdy gardener's trowel. It was for trenching around my pup tent to drain off rain and keep it from sogging my bed, but I also used it to dig in rotten tree stumps for fat grubs. Trout like grubs, and I did frequent research for a trout so I could invite him to my camp for breakfast. Now and then, something else to do with a trowel would turn up, and I was always ready for it. Nothing is more upsetting than to need a trowel while camping and not have one.
My kind of camping went with not knowing where you are. One time I had a truly wonderful camp spot, and I didn't know where I was. So I couldn't return to it, and all that winter I hankered to go there again. But I didn't know where I'd been. But the next summer I got bewildered in a swamp, and I came out into a stand of white birch that looked familiar, and there I was again! It was my lost paradise, and I still didn't know where I was. I never found it again.
I used a war-surplus pup tent. It came in two pieces that buttoned together and was just right for me after I got my fir-bough bed laid in. When I got the tent set up, I'd go all the way around it and dig a drainage run with my trowel. This led into a side-shoot trench that took rain water off downhill. Unless you've been there, I suppose you know nothing about the serenity of a dry blanket on a mattress of evergreen fir on a warm summer night while a bumper shower patters the tent and you don't care a hoot.
I tell the youngsters how I'd gather wood to last the night, and always some more, and that the Indians told the truth when they said, "Little fire, get warm; big fire, freeze to death." You can be comfortable by a small blaze, but you can't cook over a roaring fire and you have to stay so far away it does no good. I'd tell the youngsters how to make a fire in the rain if I had to. But in summer season a cold biscuit was no hardship, and I had a poncho to wait out a rain. I have suggested to them that sitting out a rain under a dripping spruce tree is better than sitting hunched and cramped all day in a pup tent. Things even out.
I seldom made a big fire to reflect into my tent, being a summer transient, but for real woodsmen in cooler weather, it was a must. It took much fuel to last the night, and a "wickie-up" fire could run away and touch off Piscataquis County, which was considered bad manners. But when I did have an all-night fire, it was pleasant to lie dozing while it went down to embers, and after I read Plato I used to think about his chained people in the cave watching shadows and believing them real.
One night I had a wickie-up fire, and as I settled in a whippoorwill came out, snuggled by the embers, and cried "whippoorwill" 973 times, by my official count. He closed up shop along toward morning, and I didn't get much sleep. You've heard a whippoorwill at a distance, but did you know that at close range each "whip" is introduced by a cluck? It is; they go "cluck-whippoorwill, cluck-whippoorwill," and so on, for 973 times. Thus camping adorns ornithology.
TODAY'S youngsters are dubious about some of this camping stuff. They find it hard to believe I would walk into a man's woodlot and set up housekeeping. Why didn't he come and drive me off? Well, for one thing, he didn't always know I was there. Then, if he found a lad in a tent, curiosity made friends. By the time I told my name and how many miles I'd walked to get here, he'd ask if I'd like a few things from his garden. People weren't so possessive then.
I've told before about the time I ate "stolen" sweet corn in the Sandy River Valley, but I didn't say how this story came out. I made camp by a 10-acre field of sweet corn just ready for the corn shop, and as I was trenching, a man walked in to say he was checking to see how much corn I'd swiped. "I hadn't come to that," I said, and he told me not to bother, he'd bring me some. He also brought a pot to boil it, a tomato, a cuke, some radishes, and a double-yolk hen's egg for my breakfast.
He stayed for supper, and we ate a dozen ears 'twixt us. He said his name was Painchaud and he lived in the small house beyond the cornfield. So I stopped the next day to thank him, and the lady at the door didn't know any Mr. Painchaud. Nobody but four generations of McClellans had ever lived there. Must be some mistake.
Must have been.