Reuben stared at me, waiting to hear the words, “Let’s go!” but the only word he heard was, “Stay.”
I was heading out the door for a hike to the summit of Carr Mountain, the site of a dismantled fire tower. Reuben, my faithful canine hiking companion for over 10 years, is no longer able to take these mountain treks. He’s limited to two or three miles on rolling countryside. His hind legs have weakened and he’s troubled by arthritis. He has difficulty climbing over logs, crossing streams and moving through deep snow.
It breaks my heart to leave him behind. He has been a loyal and consistent hiking partner. When people have refused or declined my invitation to hike, Reuben has always been ready, willing and able to take that leap of faith and join me on some crazy, wacky and wild adventure. He is always ready for a trek in the woods; always sleeping by my pack the night before a hike; always ready to leave the house when I load the pack into my truck.
Times have changed. Now he frequently has to wait all day for my return: sitting by the door, looking out the window, or lying in the driveway with one of his stuffed animals. Dogs like Reuben are loyal and steadfast friends, difficult to find and a challenge to replace. It’s tough for me to leave him behind, but I know it’s in his best interest. His longevity is at stake and I want him to be around a few more years.
Today was another day I had to leave Reuben behind. As I was getting ready to leave, his mopey face was turned to me and his eyes said, “Give me a chance to join you,” but I shut the door behind me, climbed into my truck and began the drive north to Carr Mountain for a late-winter hike (although the calendar says spring, it’s really still winter). My mind was on Reuben, and the empty seat next to me reminded me of his absence.
I drove along Route 25, through Plymouth and Wentworth, arriving at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Hatchery in Warren to begin my hike on the Carr Mountain Trail without Reuben.
The late-morning sun was reflecting off the snow, creating a sparkling backdrop to the mountains ahead. Carr Mountain (3,440 feet) is actually a long ridge extending from Warren to Rumney. After parking at the trailhead near the end of Clifford Brook Road, I started my solitary journey. The trail followed a tote road for about two miles, then it began to disappear under a three-foot blanket of snow. I found no blazes as I continued to follow ski tracks and the compass bearing I took before starting the trail. It was obvious this trail is seldom-used and difficult to follow in winter.
While hiking, wrapped in solitude, I thought frequently about the absence of my hiking partner and how he would have rejoiced along the trail, following unseen scents, exploring rock formations and leading the way up the trail.
I was struck by the stillness of the woods surrounding me. The only sound I heard, besides my snowshoes crunching in the snow, was the occasional murmur of water as snow melted around rock openings in stream beds. There were no calls of birds, no whispers of wind blowing though naked tree branches or no blaring noise of a distant auto on Route 25. It was total and absolute silence.
This experience was in direct contrast to what I experience in everyday life, just as many of you do. Our ears are constantly bombarded by the chatter of others, the blasting noise of the TV or radio, or the constant ring of the phone from solicitors. Today was a rare opportunity to immerse myself in solitude. I had an opportunity to contemplate the loss of my hiking partner, Reuben, to old age; old age — the common denominator for all of us – is something that will knock me off the trail one day, just as it has done to Reuben.
Jane Brox in her book "Silence" writes, “Even as contemporary life pushes silence to the corners, a longing for it persists, as does faith that it offers something the noise of the world cannot provide.”
While walking in silence, focused on following my compass bearing, I noticed red flagging on trees. Someone had marked the trail with flagging, what a relief. I followed the flagging all the way to the summit of Carr Mountain where I found the concrete stanchions of the disassembled fire tower. They stood like gravestones marking a cemetery of giants. The Carr Mountain fire tower once reigned over the nearby mountains and vales and now nothing remains but the foundation.
The tower was built in 1929, closed in 1948, and removed soon after. As with all fire towers in New Hampshire, the Carr Mountain fire tower was constructed as part of a statewide effort to curb the destructive force of wildfires that had swept through the state in the early part of the twentieth century. A total of 85 towers were built in New Hampshire between 1909 and 1940. Sixteen of those towers are still standing. Some are active at selected times, including the Belknap Mountain and Red Hill fire towers.
The system of fire towers came about because of a series of dry summers which, with sparks from wood-burning, logging, and locomotives, set off massive fires, destroying thousands of acres of forest. The New Hampshire Forestry Commission, established in 1881, combined forces with the Timberland Owners Association, the Appalachian Mountain Club, National Forest Service, and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to build and staff the fire-lookout stations. Some of the early towers and cabins were built by woodsmen employed by the timber operators during the winter. They built their own cabins and towers, mostly of local materials. By 1929, the state was operating 29 stations. Many of the original structures were made of wood, but in the 1920s the state began to replace them with the steel structures we know today.
The Hurricane of 1938 blew many of the towers into oblivion, but they were replaced and the state continued to use the tower system to control the potential of forest fires. During World War II, some of the towers were used for spotting enemy aircraft.
By 1948, with the decline of fire danger and the use of aircraft, a number of stations were closed. By the end of 1960, the National Forest Services closed all of its stations, with only a few remaining in place.
I ate my lunch, sitting on the concrete steps that once led to the ladder used by a ranger to climb to the top and into the cab of the fire tower. If Reuben were with me, he would be sitting by my side, eyeing my meatloaf sandwich, knowing I would break down and share half of it with him. A Canadian jay flew down from a nearby tree to greet me with the hope I would share some of my lunch with her. I put out my hand, filled with peanuts. She flew down, sat on my fingers long enough to stuff a few peanuts into her beak and then flew off.
It was now time for me to fly off and begin the trek back down the mountain. No need to use my compass, watch for flagging tape or the roadbed. I could simply follow my tracks back to the trailhead.
I had one last stop to make before returning to the trailhead: Waternomee Falls. A spur trail off the Carr Mountain Trail led me two-tenths of a mile to a small cascade and waterfall that was starting to show signs of spring. The ice was peeling off the frozen cascade and a snow bridge was forming at the base of the falls. I sat for a few moments, listening to the rushing water as it roared over the rocks. The water sounded musical as it fell thundering to the stream below. I thought of the beginning notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
It was a fitting end to a day spent alone on Carr Mountain. I’m sure Reuben will be waiting for me when I pull into my driveway.