There's an enchantment about the wilderness, especially to those who have lived in civilization." Author Helen Hamlin wrote those words while she was hunkered away in a game warden's cabin at Nine Mile Bridge on the Saint John River deep in the North Woods. Wilderness? Check. Even in the late thirties and early forties, when Hamlin did a teaching stint in the tiny lumbering community of Churchill and woods roads had already been cut all through the area, this vast area stretching north from Bangor to the Canadian border was still - and remains today - one of the largest undeveloped stretches of forestland in the country. Enchanting? Indeed.
Helen Hamlin was a Fort Kent native, and she ended up spending three years in this forest, first as a schoolmistress, then as the wife of a game warden, and she left only reluctantly when she became pregnant and decided the isolation was too much for someone with child. The book she wrote about her time there, Nine Mile Bridge: Three Years in the Maine Woods (Islandport Press, Yarmouth; www.islandportpress.com
; paperback; 282 pages; $15.95), truly did enchant readers when it was first published by W.W. Norton in 1945, spending weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It was reprinted again by Down East Books in 1973 and is back in print in a beautiful new edition by Islandport Press, expanded with photographs, biographical information, and an afterword that chronicles the great changes that have occurred in the region since the book was written.
Nine Mile Bridge didn't captivate audiences because Hamlin is any sort of prose stylist. The only poetry in this 282-page volume is in the lives of the people who populate this remote country at the heads of the Allagash and Saint John rivers, two wild waterways that flow north, as if they're trying to escape civilization and flee into the woods. The author is a very basic storyteller, but she was very genuinely taken by the place and the warden and loggers, trappers and hermits that chose to make it their home, and her enthusiasm draws the reader along.
These woods had already begun to be opened up in the thirties thanks to the advent of the engine - it was easier to get to and get out of Churchill than it might have been for previous generations, but easier still didn't mean it was easy. This was before the days when every other family car had four-wheel drive, and most vehicles couldn't handle the rough roads. In winter, the way was practically impassable. People lived close to the land, their lives totally dependent on things like weather, the availability of food, the quality of lumber. They banded together, making a single community out of a huge fastness. Hamlin considered the territory from Chamberlain Lake to Lac Frontiere in Quebec her neighborhood and all its inhabitants her neighbors. And the value of the book is the door she opens on their lives and ways.
Hamlin seems born for the woods. Her grandfather and her uncle were Maine game wardens, and even when growing up in Fort Kent she was never far from the woods. She used to love to accompany her grandfather to his camp on Cross Lake and to canoe the Fish River chain of lakes. Upon finishing her schooling in 1937, the young Helen Leidy put in for a job at a backwoods school. Because she could speak French, she was sent to Churchill, a lumbering outpost on Churchill Lake at the headwaters of the Allagash.
The book opens with her on her way to her new post, making a 400-mile trip from Maine through Quebec and crossing back into Maine at the Lac Frontiere. At the border she's warned by a U.S. customs agent that Churchill is "no place for a woman." While she's initially a bit apprehensive upon her arrival - as anyone who moves to a new, rough-and-tumble home, not knowing a soul might be - she soon proves him wrong.
Hamlin quickly takes to life in the woods, enjoying the natural beauty, the deliberate pace of things, the tight-knit community, and the extra attention paid to her because she is one of the only women for hundreds of miles. She lives in the old boardinghouse at Churchill Depot, and has a class of sixteen pupils, of whom we hear little. Most of the story has to do with living among loggers. She explores the lice-ridden bunkhouse where the men stayed, mentions raids by the Border Patrol, who were looking for undocumented French Canadian workers, and talks of the dances where they kicked back.
And she describes the lumbering workday, which she observed firsthand, following teams into the woods when she has time off: "Lumbering itself is so complicated and carried on so differently in each section that with each new generation the operation is changed. The whitewater man - the 'river hog' - the lumberjack who rode virgin timbers down undimmed waterways is almost gone." He'd be gone entirely within a few decades.
Churchill Depot, once home to dozens of families and headquarters to logging operations, would soon be gone, too. Hamlin sadly watched the demise of the community in 1937. One spring day after ice-out Churchill seems to her very empty because all the men had gone back to work in the woods. "A week later," she writes, " 'King' La Croix unexpectedly closed his lumber camps. One by one the families packed and moved away, some going back to Canada, and some to the United States to apply for naturalization papers. My pupils drifted away and I was alone, sorting books, papers, chalk, pens and pencils, thinking that this school, as well as the settlement would never open again."
This is the point in the book where she meets her husband, Curly, a well-known, fun-loving game warden. The pair fall in love, and move first to Umsaskis Lake and then to Nine Mile Bridge on the Saint John, where Hamlin - and with her the book - transitions from single schoolmarm to warden's wife. In this incarnation she spends a lot of time in isolation, fifty miles from the nearest town, constantly trying to come up with diversions for herself while Curly's on the job, especially in winter when snow can be four feet deep around her small cabin. Going "woods queer," as she calls it. " Time is of no consequence in the woods, but it has to be spent. I shoveled paths, filled up the wood boxes, played the radio, knitted stockings, sewed and worked on a patchwork quilt. Curly and I felt that our time was our own and we had a priceless freedom away from the restraining conventions of civilization."
Despite the quiet of her days, and the lack of things to do, she's never at a loss for something to write about. The book has a bit of the anachronistic, thigh-slapping, heavy on the exclamation point humor to it, but it remains a quick and entertaining read, especially to anyone interested in the woods of Maine. Today Nine Mile Bridge is as much a history book as a memoir. Quite aside from offering an inside look at lumbering camps and the Allagash region, Hamlin has chapters - albeit short ones - on the history of the area, some of it passed down by word of mouth and found no place else. She describes native terms, how Seven Islands was founded by squatters, and how the Allagash settlement came to be a refuge for English colonists during the War of 1812. She also tells how the old tramway at Eagle Lake worked, hauling timbers between that water body and Chamberlain Lake and why the French Canadians were rankled about Lock Dam, which the Americans built so they could send lumber down the Penobscot to Bangor rather than down the Saint John into Canada, where they'd have to pay taxes on it. Then there are the pictures in the new edition, which are worth the price of admission alone.
At its best moments, the book is like having an old-school Maine Guide at your side dropping all sorts of nifty anecdotes and woods wisdom. Today's Gore-Tex-clad weekend thrill-seekers could learn a lot from Helen Hamlin and her husband, Curly. Like using a cup of snow to replace an egg in a recipe, making ice cream in a snow bank, treating the common cold with mustard plasters - dry mustard, flour, and water - using "sewn" bait to catch togue and then making togue chowder, saving old pieces of wire because they can fix "anything, from broken chair legs to split paddle blades, or hold the stovepipe in place."
Hamlin recognizes in the book that these sorts of ingenuities - and, in fact, the very way of life that requires them - might be going the way of Churchill Depot and the peavey. "The day may come when isolated lumber camps and river drives will be seen no more in Maine," she writes toward the end of the book. Her portrait of the area - and the time - is all the more important now that it's gone. Hamlin herself would go on to write another book about northern Maine, Pines, Potatoes, and People: A Story of Aroostook, travel the world, studying painting in Europe and translating French in Africa, but she always came back to The County and her beloved Maine waterways. She brought her children back to see the country where she grew up, and she held out hope that they - and their heritage - would be preserved for future generations.
There are other histories of the North Woods where you can get some of this information (not that many, actually). But few are as readable and offer such a unique perspective - a first-person account, right at the crux of change, by a schoolteacher in a logging outpost who also happens to be the wife of a Saint John game warden.
With the North Woods on the brink of cataclysmic change again - they're talking about the single largest development in the region's history up in the Moosehead area, and vast tracts of land continue to be traded like poker chips between multinational corporations with no real stake in Maine - Nine Mile Bridge is more valuable than ever.
And just as enchanting.
Andrew Vietze is a Registered Maine Guide, a ranger at Baxter State Park, and Down East's editor at large.