We are hiking along Blue Brook and up the Basin Trail through a golden forest of beech trees, the color made more vibrant by the gray background of an overcast sky. Halfway up Blue Brook, a granite cliff towers over the brook as its waters tumble over granite ledges. Although today is Sunday of Columbus Day weekend, we have the trail to ourselves for most of the afternoon here in the Wild River Valley, an officially designated federal wilderness area in the White Mountain National Forest.
Every fall I try to make a trip to Evans Notch and the Wild River Valley, on the Maine-New Hampshire border. The area is only a couple of hours away from my Seacoast
home but feels remote and isolated, and sees few visitors compared to Pinkham, Crawford or Franconia Notches. Today the region is more thinly populated than it was 100 years ago when 300 people lived in the logging village of Hastings, the remnants of which were carted away and/or faded into the earth by the late 1930s (after serving as the site of a Civilian Conservation Corps camp). The site of the abandoned village now hosts a rudimentary Forest Service campground, but even campers with sharp eyes are unlikely to spot any clues of the mill, school, homes, and other buildings that once stood here.
Today, as we hike along the Basin Trail, the forest seems primeval, golden and deep. But I know it is not untouched. This trail, with its relatively gentle grade (climbing 800 feet in 2 miles), probably follows an old logging road and the surrounding forest was cut to the bone, like most of the forest in the Wild River Valley. Below the trail, on the main road into the Wild River Campground, a train line once chugged in and out of the woods, hauling felled trees to Hastings for processing.
The era of clear-cut logging in the Wild River Valley came to an abrupt end in the early 1900s, after floods and fires (caused, in part, by logging practices that left piles of slash along with barren slopes susceptible to slides) wiped out what remained of the forest along with much of the logging infrastructure. In 1912, the Hastings Lumber Company threw in the towel on its huge lumber operation, sold most of its land to the White Mountain National Forest, and abandoned this valley to the trees.
The trees came back, but the people didn’t. Logging continued on Forest Service land (as it does today, although not in the Wild River Valley Wilderness), but on a much smaller scale.
As we hike up the ridge, heading for the rim overlooking the Basin, the bowl-shaped ravine carved by a glacier, I wonder if Wilfred Caron cut the trees along this trail when he took to the woods in the fall of 1943 with his pet cat Tip. Caron, of Norway, Maine, spent that fall in a cabin somewhere in these woods as he cut birch for his boss, C.B. Cummings.
One source offers that the cabin was located in the woods seven miles up the Wild River from Gilead, NH. The cabin was probably small and dark, but cozy enough with its wood stove and cat. In the early hours of the morning, as the fire in the wood stove dwindled to embers, Tip probably snuggled close to Wilfred, keeping both of them warm.
On November 28 of that fall, an early blizzard howled up the Wild River Valley. Blizzards and temperatures that fall many degrees below zero were (and are) common in these woods, so Caron probably wasn’t worried by the storm. He and Tip hunkered down in the cabin to wait out it out. Caron turned into his bunk around 9 p.m.
At around 11, a loud snap must have startled Tip, for the cat leapt out of the bunk seconds before a yellow birch tree crashed through the roof and onto the top bunk, pinning the Caron in the bunk below. The force of the crash pushed open the cabin door and snow began to pile inside. By dawn, Caron was covered in two feet of snow and so cold that he didn’t realize he had badly injured his leg. Outdoors, more than 50 inches of snow blanketed the ground.
Hours passed. Eventually, Caron was able to reach a bucksaw, cut the tree and free himself from the bunk. He couldn’t stand on his leg, but managed to drag himself to the stove and get the fire going. He had a broken leg, but knew he had to get himself and Tip out of the cabin and to a ranger cabin several miles away. He made a pair of crutches from spruce boards.
Caron was determined. But what he didn’t know was that every conceivable obstacle would complicate his efforts to get him and his cat out of the woods. While trying to shovel a path through more than four feet of snow to the shack where his horse Jerry was stabled, Caron fell repeatedly. Three hours passed before he reached his horse. He then spent the day building a sled with boards taken from the shack. Finally, when his sled was ready, with his meat box serving as a seat, Caron placed Tip inside an egg box for the trip out. After spending an hour-and-half hobbling around trying to harness his horse, the man, his cat and his horse set out for a ranger camp three miles distant.
A mile-and-a-half from camp, the sled struck a fallen tree and tipped into a snow bank. For more than an hour, Caron struggled to get himself out of the snow and to push the sled upright. Finally, he reached the ranger camp, which was 500 feet from the road. He must have been discouraged, because no footprints marked the deep snow around the cabin.
Fortunately for Caron and for Tip, Ranger Steve MacLain was in the cabin and heard Caron shouting for help. After bundling up the injured man, MacLain led the horse and sled four miles over the unbroken road of snow and into the small village Gilead of N.H. Along the way, the ranger used his axe to cut away 40 downed trees. Finally, Caron and Tip arrived at the Gilead post office.
The cat had been saved, and Caron was a local hero, cited for bravery by the governors of both Maine and New Hampshire and lauded by humane societies around New England for his heroic effort to save Tip.
Considering the year—1943— I am guessing that Caron was an older man, at least middle-aged and possibly older. World War II was in full force and any young man strong enough to work as a logger had likely enlisted or been drafted into the military. Each day brought fresh news of the war. Kiev was liberated by the Russian Army, and the Italians were turning on the Germans, but in the Battle of Tarawa in the South Pacific, hundreds of Americans were killed. Each piece of good news was offset by some new horrible event. Every day, families received telegrams telling them of a son, brother or husband who had been killed.
But in the Wild River Valley, a man had pushed his way through deep snow on a pair of wooden boards, to save himself and to save his cat. Who wouldn’t want to cheer?
P.S. The Basin Trail is a great family hike. The trail arrives at a dramatic overlook above the Basin. You can do an out-and-back hike, or, if you spot cars, can continue hiking down on the Basin Trail down to the Basin itself, although the climb down will be much steeper than the climb up from the Wild River Valley. Spotting cars is a necessity, as many miles separate the two ends of the Basin Trail.
Quimby, Beth. “Out like a lamb: A record high temperature Thursday closes out what should go down as Maine’s warmest November. But a reality check is on the way. Portland Press Herald. December 1, 2006: A1.
Wight, D.B. The Wild River Wilderness: A Saga of Northern New England. Courier Printing: Littleton, NH, 1971.
I found the story of Wilfred Caron in D.B. Wight’s history. Wight cites the date of the blizzard as November 28, but a more recent Portland Press Herald article talks about a monster blizzard that occurred in northern New Hampshire on November 23, 1943. In nearby Berlin, N.H., 55 inches of snow were recorded. Either source could be wrong on the specific date, but I’m guessing that the Wight source might be mixing up the date of Caron’s deliverance with the date of the storm.
I suspect photos and clippings of Caron’s story sit in manila folders of historical societies in Gilead, NH and/or Bethel, Maine. I hope one day to visit those societies to learn more about Caron and his story and welcome any comments from readers that know more about this event.