Sunday, January 15, 2012

Water Muse

The Fourth Connecticut Lake — a marshy pond on the U.S. border
with Canada in New Hampshire —
is the source of the Connecticut River.

Note: I just read Gloucester author Gregory Gibson’s Christmas booklet about his John Ledyard-inspired walks abutting the upper Connecticut River. He reminded me of my own hikes to the source of the Connecticut River at Fourth Lake on the Canadian border. This is farther north of where Gibson's own adventures began. I’m re-posting this, from my guest blog on Write on the Water. Fourth Lake is inaccessible to me right now. It's January and the hike would be icy and treacherous. And snowmobiles are not allowed up there. Such inaccessibility makes the fantasy of being there that much more desperate. Gardeners with seed catalogs on their laps, when it's 5 degrees outside as it is today, must feel much the same way.

It’s called Fourth Lake, though by Connecticut Lake standards, it’s more puddle than lake.

Fourth Lake is a sludgy tannin-stained bog inhabited by frogs, dragonflies, Canada Jays and red-winged blackbirds. You have to climb vertically for about 45 minutes to get there, every once in a while catching pungent, sour whiffs of moose or a deer’s abrupt snort of alarm. Some hikers’ feet fit inside the hoof prints of the bull moose that have churned the trail into muck.

Once at Fourth Lake, you can walk its perimeter in an hour. You’ll need boots that are water-treated because you are treading on a grand and fertile sponge.

Fourth Lake is sacred the way mothers and muses are sacred. This spittoon of a bog is the source of the Connecticut River and the Connecticut Lakes. Unlike the other lakes, you don’t boat here and your dogs aren’t allowed anywhere near it. Relatively speaking, it’s pristine and rarely, if ever, will you encounter another human though you see their prints, too.

Fourth Lake sits on our border with Canada. The area just to the north has been ruthlessly clear-cut post 9/11 to give reconnaissance planes better border views. The trees, felled in a tantrum, are angled in all directions and take on the look of ten thousand booby traps.

To get to the trailhead, you have to drive to the terminus of Route 3 in New Hampshire, past the U.S. border guards, and, then, right before the Canadian border guards, you pull into a small lot. They no longer make you sign in and explain why you want to see Fourth Lake. The hike up to the lake includes several unsecured border crossings marked only by small brass plates embedded in the granite. What this means is that sometimes you’ve got one foot in Canada and one foot in the United States. As an aside, if you drove another few feet, you’d be on the Magnetic Hill in Canada. There, you can experience your car being dragged backward up a steep hill in some kind of astonishing and ever-amusing optical illusion.

I make an annual pilgrimage to Fourth Lake. When I go, I bring a lunch so I can prolong my visit. I sit on one of the felled tree trunks and stare across the bog. You never know what you are going to see on that busy surface forever a-roil in splashes. This is where life takes hold. Ripples radiate in circles everywhere across this buoyant breast.

One year, while crouched and savoring my ritual meal at the shore, I happened to glance at a small underground den capped by a pile of boulders — no doubt a glacial deposit. Inside that dark hole I thought I saw a flash of pink. Yes. I pulled out a small journal and a pen, wrapped in layers of plastic. It was covered in peat and had overwintered a couple of times.

Someone had begun a conversation about this place, and others had joined in. My daughter and I did the same, though by then the small pen skipped. No waxing effusively, then. The talk was about beginnings, about a tiny puddle that, at its southernmost spot, dribbled into something like a rivulet. One toddler’s baby step could traverse the Connecticut River here! From Fourth Lake the 407-mile Connecticut River took hold and passed through New Hampshire and Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut before emptying into Long Island Sound in Old Saybrook.

What could be more reassuring to a writer than a dribble that works itself into something majestic? If nature says it, it must be so. Be persistent, then.

To get to Fourth Lake one year, my daughter and I needed to break the ice that had crusted on the granite with our fists in order to secure footholds. We had to get there.

The late Don Murray, my nonfiction writing teacher at the University of New Hampshire, gave us a piece of paper on the first day of class with the message: Nulla dies sine linea.

Never a day without a line. And no river of words without first one word, then another.

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