The Silent People of Finland outside of Suomussalmi, Finland
What do wild blueberries and The Silent People of Finland have in common?
A hike in the Belknap Range
By Gordon DuBois
Anyone for blueberry pie, blueberry jam, blueberry cobbler? The wild blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) season is upon us and picking is in full swing. If you are a wild blueberry aficionado better head to the barrens before the fruits have vanished from the bushes. This week, with my friends Karen and Tom Barker, along with Reuben, I headed to the Belknap Range where the wild blueberries grow in abundance. On the side of South Straightback Mountain we found an incredible field of blueberries just dripping off their slender stems. In an hour we filled our pails and mouths with hundreds of the beautiful, blue, iconic fruit of Northern New England.
Earlier in the summer (see the article "Hiking Into the Eastern Belknap Range," 7/8/16) I had hiked to the summit of South Straightback mountain via the Jesus Valley Road and the Straightback Mountain Trail. There I encountered field upon field of blueberry blossoms. I knew that in a few weeks the mountainside would be covered with the gorgeous blue fruit. So this week I put out a notice to friends who would be interested in harvesting a crop of berries along with hiking some of the best terrain in the Lakes Region. Tom and Karen jumped at the proposition of hiking a section of trails and picking blueberries along the way.
On a very hot and humid day, we set out for the Jesus Valley Road trail, just off Route 11 to begin our trek up Straightback Mountain via the Blueberry Meadow Trail. As we approached the ridge running over to Mt. Major, we beheld a beautiful sight: an Elysian Field of blueberries. It was like magic when we spotted the endless meadow of low bush berries full of ripened fruit. It seemed as though a magnet just sucked us into this meadow. Within an hour we had filled our buckets and our stomachs with this delicious fruit. Reuben laid beside me in this beautiful meadow filled with wildflowers and berries. A slight breeze was blowing that provided a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of the day. I felt as though I was laying in Elysium, the beautiful meadow referred to in Homer's Odyssey, the ultimate paradise where men lead an easier life than anywhere else in the world. I found my own Elysium where the berries hung like grapes from the vine, just waiting to be picked. If you have never tasted a wild low bush blueberry, then you have never lived. Forget those propagated high bush barriers or better yet, throw out those frozen berries from the grocery store and head to the hills with your bucket in hand to begin picking.
As we filled our canisters with berries, the wind began to pick up and the skies turned cloudy. The weather report for the day predicted severe storms that would be moving in by the afternoon. We decided to pull stakes and continue on our hike along the Belknap Range Trail, hoping to be off the mountain before the storm hit. As we hiked the trail at a brisk pace we couldn't resist the temptation to stop and scoop up a handful of berries as they dangled from bushes along the trail. We even had a contest to see who could grab the most berries in one swipe. I think Karen won with nine! As we neared Mt. Anna we decided to head down the Precipice Trail into the valley below.
We wound our way along the ridge of Straightback, traversing sheer cliffs that provided exceptional views to Piper and Hill Pond below. Upon reaching the Cascade Brook waterfalls we descended carefully. Reuben took advantage of the small pools of crystal clear, ice-cold water that were dammed up behind blocks of granite. I'm sure it was a welcome relief for him in the sweltering heat of the day. Karen, Tom and Reuben zipped down the rock strewn cliff as I stumbled downward on my two metal replacement knees. When we arrived at the base of the cascades, with little water flowing due to the recent drought, we followed the trail out to the Old Stage Road, or at least we thought.
We followed this woods road, which also serves as a snowmobile trail, for about a mile until we came to a housing development on a lake. We were confused. We thought this path would take us back to the Jesus Valley Road. Instead, we were wandering aimlessly around looking for a clear way back to where we started our trek. Tom took out his trusty compass and Karen her outdated map. They came to the conclusion that we were headed in the wrong direction. However, Reuben being the smart dog that he is, began leading us along a trail that led to an open field filled with what we thought were scarecrows. There were 20 to 30 of these fixtures planted in an open area in the middle of nowhere – at least this is what we thought. It was surrealistic. It was as though we had entered the twilight zone, with these stick creatures eyeing us. After my initial shock I noticed a sign on a post that read, "The Silent People of Finland." Apparently this strange outcrop of stick figures is a replica of an artwork located in the small town of Suomussalmi, Finland, and created by the Finnish artist Reijo Kela. This particular reproduction must have been created by a Finn who lives in the area.
According to the sign, "No one knows the artist's idea behind the Silent People. He feels the viewer should come to their own conclusion. Some (people) view it as a state of psychological withdrawal, some as forgotten people." Others reflect that it could be a symbolic gesture of the thousands of Finnish soldiers who died in the Finnish-Russian war of 1939-40. Whatever the meaning, it is a very eerie, yet powerful work of art.
After spending a few moments contemplating the display, we continued on our journey, hoping to find the Old Stage Road and the way back to our waiting vehicles. After walking for some time on a snowmobile trail, we finally found, to our surprise, that we were on the Old Stage Road and would soon be back at the Jesus Valley Road trail head. When we did reach the parking area, we were relieved to know we didn't have to spend the night in the woods or have to call the Alton Fire Department for a rescue. We could drive home to the comfort and safety of our own homes. What a day it was, beginning with the Idyllic Elysian Fields of blueberries and ending with the Silent People of Finland, representing the tragedy of war. Hiking the Belknap Range never lets me down.
If anyone knows the story behind the Silent People of Finland that stands in the Gilmanton, Alton, area please contact Gordon DuBois at the email address below.
Karen picking blueberries
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