Updated: Oct 10
By Helen Hamlin (1945)
We were actually snowbound. Cyril Jandreau and the Bridges had moved out of the country before January and we were in sole possession of Umsaskis for the winter. Our nearest neighbors were ten miles away and the nearest town was fifty miles away directly across country through the woods. We had only ourselves to depend on, and in the gradual settling for winter we began to look forward to small events, most particularly to mail.
We had but little mail that winter. A company tractor made one trip to Lac Frontiere before the snow became too deep and they brought the mail as far as Churchill. The mailman snow- shoed to Clayton with two dogs and a sled to bring in the mail, but that was less than a trip a month, and it only came as far as Clayton Lake. Curly harnessed Boots to the single sled and went for our mail. It was a one-day trip, but even eighteen miles on snowshoes is tiring.
Mail day was a holiday. There was a collection of newspapers and letters to read, and on rare occasions there were packages to be opened. When I could send mail, I sent advertising coupons that I cut from magazines for toothpaste, shaving cream, chocolate milk powders, hand lotion, cosmetics and recipe pamphlets. Some of them required a dime with the coupon, but it was worth it just to get a package in the mail.
Curly was as interested in them as I was. “Gee, look at all the packages. Here’s some shaving cream. I hope it isn’t that brushless stuff. What’s that?”
“Cost who?” he growled.
“Powder, rouge and lipstick.”
“But it says for redheads, and here’s some for brunettes. You
can’t put on that stuff.”
“Whoa, now, wait a minute. Don’t you put that on the dog.
You used my last bottle of perfume on her the other day.”
We had ordered some things from a mail-order catalogue, including small parts for the car that Curly entertained himself by tinkering with. Six weeks later the postmaster called on the phone and said we had a package at Clayton. Curly went for our mail and came back hopping mad. “Of all the bald-headed outfits!” he sputtered. “Eighteen miles for this!”
“What is it?”
He looked at me suspiciously. “Did you order this?” He threw six powder puffs on the table.
“No, I didn’t order it.”
“Well, that’s supposed to be spark plugs. If I ever lay my hands on the pinhead that sent them I’ll tie him in a knot!”
Boots hated to be harnessed to go to Clayton. She was perfectly capable of hauling a small load, but like all house pets, she was lazy. She had a sneaky disposition at times, a gluttonous appetite all the time, and she stole everything she could find—but she was my dog and I liked her. Curly couldn’t do anything with her, and when she was harnessed to the sled she would get ahead of him on the trail and hightail it for home—pure cussedness and a desire to sleep behind the stove.
The first time she ran away from him, she was hauling a can of gasoline to the main road. Curly let her go ahead, and that was the last we saw of Boots until late that night. The can of gasoline upset on the first curve, and Boots’s tracks were headed toward Churchill, eleven miles away.
Late that afternoon Anna called me on the telephone. “Your dog is here.”
“Is she still harnessed to the sled?”
“Yes. What will we do with her?”
“Turn her around and head her for home.”
When Boots bumped onto the porch again, she was covered with white frost and really had an excuse for lying behind the stove and groaning all night.
What little housework there was to do was not enough to keep me busy, and the less I had to do, the less I wanted to do. At first I spent quite a bit of time and imagination on meals; then, when I had exhausted our variety of foods, I wasn’t so particular about insisting on hot biscuits with our supper. When I mopped the linoleum, Curly usually tore into the camp with two more pails of water. His frozen moccasins skidded on the wet floor, and he would land in a heap with the water fast spreading around him.
“Jeepers! That water is cold!”
“Tanglefoot! Now I’ll have to mop this again.”
“You won’t get it mopped if you don’t close the door. I’ll
Once in a while he managed to keep one pail upright, with the other rakishly perched on his head.
I hated washday. We had one tub, a washboard and no wringer. Water was heated in the tub, the clothes were scrubbed and wrung by hand, and another tub of water was heated to boil the towels and sheets. When that was done, another tub of water was heated to rinse them. It was suppertime before I had the clothes hung on the line, and it would be so cold outside I could only hang one piece at a time before I had to run back into the camp to warm my hands. Curly’s union suits were so long I had to hang them to the branch of a tree, and they would greet us, gently and stiffly waving in the breeze, when we opened the door.
My troubles weren’t over then. Another tub of water was heated to wash Curly. He gingerly stuck his big toe in the water and backed off, horrified.
“It’s cold! Why can’t I wait until spring?”
“No, it isn’t cold. Now get in.”
“It’s hot then!” he howled.
“Stop your fussing and get in. Here’s your soap and be sure
you use it!”
“That whole cake? I’ll be here all night. Here, Boots, have
some soap. Put the dog in too and we’ll all smell like violets.”
We ate and ate, and with no hard work to do, it seemed likely that we would get fat. But being alone will make anyone skinny. The trapper, cruiser or any other woodsman is not fat, and it isn’t entirely due to hard work and scanty meals. Too much desolation will change the pounds to ounces, and the work they do will make every bit of flesh as sinewy, wiry and tough as leather.
We didn’t have any diversions. For a while I sewed and made over a few of my clothes. When I had to fix a hem, I had Curly try on the dress and stand on the table.
“Hurry up,” he sputtered. “Someone will come in and catch me in this.”
“If you don’t stop wiggling I’ll never get it done. And if there is anyone around here that is apt to pop in, I’d like to see them.”
“Ouch! I’m not a pincushion. Where’d you get the fancy buttons? Why don’t you put some like that on my shirts?”
We had long since read all the books and magazines that we thought would last all winter. We played cribbage until the sight of a cribbage board was sickening—fifteen two, fifteen four and a pair is six, and nine times out of ten I was trimmed. Where Curly got all those twenty-four hands, I’m sure I don’t know. If I cut a jack, I figured I was lucky to get a free peg.
Curly knew how to play chess. We had a checkerboard and we looked in a mail-order catalogue to see what the chessmen were like. I cut bishops, knights, and castles from cardboard, and Curly sawed little square blocks of wood to paste onto them as a base. We painted one set red and the other yellow.
He taught me how to play by checking me in three moves, but it was the other way around before the winter was over. Some of the games lasted for hours with much arguing on both sides.
“You’re checked,” I declared triumphantly.
“No, I’m not. I can get out here.”
“You can’t. Where’s my bishop? You took my bishop! You weren’t supposed to take that. Give me my bishop! I’ll wallop you with a pillow. I want my bishop!”
The game ended on a snowbank outside with Boots delightedly prancing and kicking up more snow and feathers, and with us minus another pillow.
I played solitaire until the cards were so thin and ragged that washing and ironing them wouldn’t bring back the king’s whiskers. I kept my score and made “eighty dollars” while the cards lasted.
I resorted to the crossword puzzles from the collection of newspapers that were in the shed, even from the cupboard shelves and the bottom of trunks. When those were gone I made my own crossword puzzles, and if I wasn’t woods queer by then, I should have been.
Curly’s particular pastime was lying on the couch with the twenty-two rifle perched on his knees, shooting the mice and houseflies on the rafters. I will say he was good at it. I don’t know if he hit the flies, because all that was left for evidence was a hole, but I’ll take his word for it.
I will confess that we spent a lot of our time listening in on the telephone, and sometimes joining the conversation. Everyone else in the country did the same thing, and as many as six would be talking at once, in both French and English. Curly and Jim Gardner were the only two in the country who couldn’t speak French, and Mrs. Deblois and Mr. Druin were the only ones who couldn’t speak English. If matters of great importance arose, such as the mail coming to Clayton, or an airplane seen overhead, the telephone rang like mad. When Curly answered our ring, it was usually—“Hello. Une min-u-tee la! Come quick, Pooie! It’s talking French!”
That’s the way it was once when I was kneading bread with my hands all doughy and trying to think of a six-letter word for the albumose in seralbumin. The conversation was a recipe for cream pie or date squares, a discussion about the weather and an early spring predicted, or a request to ring Long Lake dam, so Long Lake dam could ring Dickey Central, so Dickey Central could relay a call somewhere in civilization.
Everyone has heard of the Frenchman who had a telephone installed in his home and insisted on one that talked French. The same story is told about a radio.
Then there was the time I answered the phone when someone from along the Allagash called.
“ ’ello, Curlee? Dat you?”
“No, this is Mrs. Curly.”
“Oh, Madame Curlee. Dat you?”
“Yes, this is me.”
“I jess ring to see hif de moose she’s brak de line.”
“No, the line isn’t broken.”
“Wall, dat moose she’s brak him somewares, but I tink me
she’s not brak too far part, cause I ’ear you leetle bit.”
Our only hope was that the line wouldn’t be broken, and we called Dickey Central after every storm to see if it was still intact. A heavy snowstorm that coated the trees and wires made it almost impossible to call downriver.
Curly once had an old radio that he hooked to the telephone line for an aerial, and on shortwave stations a telephone conversation could be heard clearly. We received quite a surprise one day when we heard the postmistress’s voice coming over the radio. “I have a letter here for you, but you owe me three cents on it.”
Curly’s work called him away for several days or a week at a time. He traveled on snowshoes, carrying his food, woolen socks and a blanket in a pack basket strapped to his back, and sleeping in deserted camps wherever the night happened to find him. I didn’t mind staying alone. The woods are the safest place in the world. I want to laugh when people say—“Aren’t you afraid of bears?” Bears sleep during the winter, and besides, bears are afraid of human beings.
Being alone, and being quiet, is too much. I played the radio as loud as I could and sang for Boots’s ungracious benefit. She couldn’t drown me out, and she lay behind the stove, groaning and eyeing me mournfully.
Every day I strapped on snowshoes, and Boots and I started for the ridge or across the lake to explore, swinging wide and free in open country or dodging and ducking under heavily laden evergreens. If I stayed in the dooryard and built snow houses, she fell through them. I liked the warm days when the snow was sticky and I made snowmen and -women, and dressed them in clothes and surprised Curly when he came home and found “people” in the yard.
Slowly we grew more aware of our isolation. With each snowstorm we felt less and less delight in its clean white beauty, because it reminded us of the long months to come and of the smallness of our little world at Umsaskis. Despite my love of the woods, I confess that I sometimes found the enforced solitude almost unbearable.
The days were long, and many, many hours I just sat, watching the fire through the open drafts on the hearth, daydreaming and not interested in much of anything.
This is an excerpt from Helen Hamlin's memoir, Nine Mile Bridge. Hamlin was born and raised in the northern Aroostook County town of Fort Kent, Maine. As the wife of a fish game warden, she lived deep in the Maine wilderness and taught school in a remote lumber camp. Hamlin effectively captures this time in her life, complete with the trappers, foresters, lumbermen, woods folk, wild animals, and natural splendor that she discovered first at Umsaskis Lake and then at Nine Mile Bridge on the St. John River.