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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Van Wie

they shake the mountains when they dance

Diamond River from the Perley Churchill Bridge looking north toward Diamond Gorge

I’ve never actually seen one of the Boys dance at the Dartmouth College Grant, except maybe a little victory jig when someone lands a big fish.

But I do like the closing line of the oft-censored poem by e.e. cummings that Phil Odence unearthed for the traditional reading after our dinner of gourmet green chili, thus demonstrating that "the Boys I mean are [at least somewhat] refined."

And we would like to think that, in this our 60th year, our group of seven classmates can still shake the mountains one way or another.

The Boys of the Grant

A Confluence of Generations

I won’t go into great detail about our annual Boys’ gathering in the north woods of New Hampshire, as there is, of course, an entire book about it. If you’ve read The Confluence- Fly-fishing & Friendship in the Dartmouth College Grant, then you know our stories amidst these beautiful waters. If you haven’t, well, get yourself a copy and read it! Meanwhile, check out our website.

This year’s trip wasn’t remarkably different from past adventures, but there is always something new.

David “Klingon” Klinges and I went up a day early so he could meet up with his son, “Nature Dave” Klinges ('17), who was in one of the student cabins celebrating his graduation earlier in the week with seven of his classmates, a gathering of the newest generation of Dartmouth alums.

Chris and Kevyn fishing at Halfmoon Beach on the Dead Diamond

Two of my friends- Kevyn Fowler and Chris Ricardi - from New Gloucester, Maine also joined us for fishing on Wednesday and Thursday prior to the arrival of the rest of the Boys.

Despite the low water in the rivers and the bright sunshine, we all managed to catch a few fish that afternoon and evening with the daylight lasting until after 9 pm.

It was also a treat to run into Dave Bradley (’58) and another member of the Old Dean’s Group that has been fishing in the Grant for over 40 years. We were bummed to learn that their usual companion, our good friend and mentor, Ralph Manuel ’58, was ill and couldn’t make the trip this year. Dave reported with a grin that Ralph had sent along a bottle of Famous Grouse scotch whiskey so he would be with us “in spirit.”

When Kevyn, Chris and I got back to the cabin that evening, Klingon, Nature, and his buddies were finishing a boisterous dinner. The cabin was rocking with exuberant youth.

Representing the older and wiser end the spectrum, Dave Bradley had joined the group with Ralph’s bottle of scotch in hand, so three generations of friends all toasted to absentee Ralph and our Alma Mater.

Up ‘n’ At ‘Em

The next morning the four of us fished Diamond Gorge, which is accessible only in low water. The light and the shadows from the steep walls of the gorge made for a magical setting. Fish were caught, and fun was had by all. Kevyn and Chris headed home around noon, happy to have become part of the Storied Waters saga, just before the rest of the Boys arrived on Thursday afternoon.

Morning in Diamond Gorge

By 2:00, we had the whole group together. Everyone was anxious to get out on the water. We split into two groups, hoping to find shady, sheltered water where the trout might be hanging out on such a bright afternoon. Ed, Phil and I found just such a place.

Ed at Sid Hayward Ledge before heading upstream

After bushwhacking a few hundred yards above Sid Hayward Ledge, I came upon a deep pool and some smooth but moving water with a shady cut-bank on the far shore. Even after twenty-plus years of fishing this river, this was a new spot for me. My fishing instincts told me this was worth a try. I was right.

On my first five casts, I caught two chubby eight inch brookies. A couple other fish were rising along the shady edge of the run. I put down my rod and walked back to summon my colleagues who were having little luck at the Ledge. They soon joined me, and Ed quickly landed two of his own. Phil was frustrated for a bit by a series of short-hits, but finally was able to bring a colorful brookie to hand.

Wild native brook trout, Dead Diamond River

After an hour of side-by-side entertainment, we headed back to the cabin, and soon joined the other Boys at the first bridge below the Gorge until dusk. Again, most of us caught fish, or had plenty of opportunities.

Insect Invaders

I often say: “no bugs, no fish.” This year there were plenty of bugs, so the fishing was good, but the sleeping was not.

With the combination of a cool, wet spring and the warm muggy weather during our stay, the bugs were especially numerous and ferocious this year, with legions of mosquitoes swarming us on the stream and invading the cabin night and day. The leaky screens seemed to serve no function, especially during the rainy day on Friday.

None of us recall being tormented so badly, especially at first light. Only Norm snored through the onslaught, while the rest of us were up earlier than usual thanks to the incessant whining and piercing proboscises.

For four days, we had all four types of the biting bastards in full force: skeeters, black flies, deer flies and no-see-ums, sometimes all at once.

We all marveled at how the Native Americans, the loggers and early sportsmen could inhabit these woods during the buggiest months before the days of DEET and other insect repellents. Natural aromatic oils – cedar, lemon eucalyptus, lemongrass, and peppermint - can only be so effective, while nothing stops the buzzing around your ears and the bugs’ amazing ability to find unprotected skin. Head nets help, but they’re annoying and hamper your vision.

A Cast From The Past

I recalled reading about a fisherman who visited the sporting camp on the Dead Diamond River built by Amasa Ward in the early 1880s. In his well-researched book, Wintering with Amasa Ward, Jack Noon (’68) relates a passage from an August 1888 issue of Forest and Stream, in which J.W. Barney described fly-fishing in the same run we had been fishing below the Gorge before he travelled (by boat, poling over 10 miles upriver!) to Ward’s camp at Hellgate:

“my waders went on, and with rod, reel and creel adjusted, in an incredibly short time I had introduced an Orvis white-winged coachman to a pound-and-a-half trout… In my eagerness, I neglected to coat my face and hands with ‘fly medicine.’ Consequently, though we fished only about an hour, [the bugs] got in their work on me in great shape, and blood was running from a score of places on my face and neck. However, I did not mind that much; we had taken fourteen trout averaging nearly a pound and a quarter a piece and later on four tired and hungry men sat down to a trout supper at Bennett’s.”

Amasa Ward died in 1891 (of "chronic difuse nephritis" which roughly translates into too much drinking) but sporting camps continued to operate in the Hellgate area until the 1940s, the last by Arthur Muise, who later became a NH Fish and Game officer, according to Jack Noon.

The old Fish & Game cabin from the 1920s refurbished as Pete Blodgett Cabin

At this point in my trip, I should not be surprised by the chance meeting that occurred on Saturday afternoon near the bridge above Hellgate. Phil, Bob, Norm and I met a man named Clark Corson, who, with a lifelong friend, had just spread his father’s ashes in “Buck’s Pool” above the bridge.

Buck Corson was once New Hampshire’s Director of Fish and Game, and a regular visitor to the Dartmouth Grant, including the old “Fish & Game Cabin” (now called Pete Blodgett Cabin) on the site of Amasa Ward’s sporting camp. Buck also knew Arthur Muise and worked with Henry Laramie, who I wrote about in an article published in Northern Woodlands last year.

When I pulled out my copy of Amasa Ward to write this post, I saw that Jack Noon had dedicated his book to Buck Corson and Arthur Muise who helped him with his research about the fishing history of the Grant.

It’s funny how stories intertwine in unexpected ways.

Twisted River

At the same time that Amasa Ward was bringing sportsmen to his camp, these woods and waters were famous for logging camps and the legendary log drives that continued until 1963, when the logs could be trucked out.

John Irving captured the end of the log drive era in his novel Last Night In Twisted River (2009), which begins in this neck of the woods in 1954. His fictional town of Twisted River is somewhere near Errol, likely a combination of several real places near the Dartmouth Grant, similar to how Howard Frank Mosher combined real places into one composite setting.

Irving’s Twisted River sounds a lot like the meandering Dead Diamond River, and he even references the College Grant in part of the story. I often picture these woods filled with unrefined characters like Irving’s Ketchum, with his long hair and beard to protect against the bugs, living and sometimes dying during the spring drive in the peaceful (in June) pools where we now fish in the Grant.

Hand On The Rock

One of the enduring mysteries in the Dartmouth Grant is the origin of Hand On The Rock. No one knows how this carving of a hand with a finger pointing upward and the intials WMDOW above a heart got on the rock on the bank of the Swift Diamond River, or why. John Harrigan, longtime writer for New Hampshire newspapers, offered two theories – one that it is a memorial to a “river hog” who died in a log drive, and another that it was carved by a Dartmouth graduate (class of 1861) and minister named William Dow to mark a spot that was important to his spiritual development.

Hand On The Rock, Swift Diamond River

We may never know the true story of Hand On The Rock. I prefer the lost logger story, as it fits well with John Irving’s stories of log driving in the old days. It reminds me that these valleys, and these waters, are filled with spirits.

And it reminds me of Washington Irving’s story Rip Van Winkle, in which Henry Hudson’s men (rather their spirits) were playing ten pins in the mountains, sounding like thunder to the people in the villages below.

When lightning storms roll through these mountains and valleys, perhaps they bring the spirits alive. Perhaps the spirits dance across the logs in an eternal jam, or drink and enjoy themselves for an everlasting Saturday night in the local music hall. And if they do…

…they shake the mountains when they dance.

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