New Hampshire’s Great North Woods (Part One)

When spring skiing starts to feel like that fourth martini at your cousin’s destination wedding where they have a drum circle scheduled for sunset, you know a change is in order. I left early in the AM this last Sunday with my customary thermos of black coffee and a hastily packed lunch. But instead of setting out for fresh turns I steered my vehicle to the lesser explored corners of our Granite State. New Hampshire’s Grand Bois du Nord, or Great North Woods, is trapped in time somewhere between the signing of The Volstead Act and Bush Senior’s first term. The mills are closed or have completely disappeared without a trace. Many of the businesses still showcase the charm of the late seventies. Vintage snowmobiles and reliable work trucks are parked outside of ranch and cape-style homes – at least a few of them still have shag carpeting in the basement, I’m sure of it.

I parked and took a photo of the sign at the entrance to the town of Groveton. I walked into a place called the North Country Family Restaurant. On the wallpapered walls hung framed children’s drawings and color photos of what appeared to be trophy ceremonies for youth go-cart racing. The menu was separated into subsections, “The Not-So-Hungry Man, The Hungrier Man, The Sweeter Man, The Working Man.” As I ordered my coffee and glanced around for a specials’ board I noticed that every person in the place fit into one of these categories. The two guys with the big pagers on their worn leather belts wearing safety-yellow jackets probably ordered from the Working Man section. The four plus-sized twenty-somethings that poured from a Ford F-350 with camouflage mud flaps likely didn’t order from The Sweeter Man section. I abstained from asking if they had gluten-free toast and just ordered the omelette off the specials’ board.

Some locals joined me and answered my inquiry into Great North Woods excitement with a story about local tradition beyond hunting and snow machines. But first they gave me the lay of the land. Back before the mill closed it was perfectly situated next to the elementary school. The mill, the school, and the train depot can all be seen right out the restaurant windows. Up the street is Action Jackson Powersports where the motto is “We Don’t Do Boats.” There is a garage, a more modern school, and a smattering of small businesses around the town that is made up of maybe ten blocks or so. Jack Call owns Action Jackson, his lady Megan Gibbs owns North Country Family Restaurant. Their friends Brad Shedd and his wife Erin sit across from me. She orders an omelette with hash browns “hold the onions” and a chocolate milk. Brad orders a little of everything from the menu including something he calls, “Poot-zin,” the local pronunciation of traditional poutine – basically French fries with cheese curds and gravy (it’s phenomenal and likely the only legitimate hangover cure in this world).

As I consume a delightfully fluffy omelette and about a gallon of delicious coffee, Brad tells me of his youth as a Groveton school kid in the 80s.

“Groveton is a basketball town, always has been. The only thing we did as much as play basketball was fight; we would always fight. We would fight anybody, especially each other, but some of us would jump off the woodpiles when Groveton Mill was still around.” I ask for details as I was a one-time semi-pro jumper-offer of sand dunes.

“These things were at least seven stories high, the old timers would tell us that we had to be careful of air pockets in the piles. They would tell us we could slip into a pocket within the chips and nobody would ever find us.” Clearly thrilled to recall his childhood, Brad excitedly recounts the rest of his story between big pancake bites and huge pulls on his coffee.

“We would climb hand over hand all the way up these huge piles of freshly cut wood chips. Once we got to the top we would get the biggest running start we could and just throw ourselves off, trying to land out as far as we could, way down on the pile.” Brad adds a little maple syrup to his breakfast to punctuate his story’s conclusion.

Groveton is clutched in the fist of America’s almost forgotten recent past. When once the Mill employed most of the town, when the local hunting store was as much a retailer as a clubhouse, when the garage on State Street used to leave their air hose hanging out a small notch cut into the bay door so local kids could fill their bike tires day or night, it was a more prosperous time in these hills. The no less wholesome, hardworking Northern Woods folk never hesitate to recall the past without bitterness, their humor keeps them warm through long winters, and if you’re passing through, the Poot-zin is well worth a stop.

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