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by Rod Johnson
'Twas February in the winter of '64 and Central Maine was buried in snow. We'd had back-to-back storms for most of what seemed like a month straight. The plows had made such high snow banks we were putting tennis balls on the car antennas to help avoid accidents.
Tap, tap, tap pause TAP, TAP, TAP even louder. I became aware that the noise was real and not a dream. It was my father Clifford rapping on the kitchen ceiling heat grate with a broom handle. The grate offered what little heat there was to my room directly above, and Dad thought it a great sport to use it as an alarm clock. He had hired me and my summer friends Ralph Pope and Hunt Dowse during the February school break to help shovel the roofs of the 22 camps that he was responsible for.
The boys were sound asleep in the spare room after driving up from their family homes in the Boston area the previous evening. They had arrived around 7 p.m. in Hunt's '59 VW bug. As was par for the course, the bug had no viable heater and the boys had walked into our Main Street house in Belgrade Lakes looking like a couple of Eskimos. Ralph told of scraping the windshield (on the inside) about every 10 minutes, so that Hunt could keep the beetle between the lines on the Maine Pike. It had taken them nearly 5 hours to come the 180 miles due to headwinds and the 36 horsepower engine.
Mother Elsie held supper for them and they devoured the beef stew and hot biscuits like they hadn't eaten for a week. As usual, Dad hit the sack about 7:30 the night before so his 5:00 a.m. rising was nothing unusual. Of course, we teenage boys had sat up half the night playing canasta interspersed with ping pong competitions in the dirt floor cellar.
As we boys grudgingly got ourselves up and dressed, mother appeared in the kitchen and fired up the stove. The big black cast iron spider came out and the deer meat, eggs, and bacon started smelling real good.
After a big feed for all of us, we were about ready to go when Dad said, "Don't forget to wax the shovels." He had asked us to bring the shovels into the attached shed the night before so the steel would be somewhat warmer and free of frost. After holding the shovels over the Franklin fireplace for a few minutes, we used bars of paraffin wax to rub over the metal blades. No sticking snow shovels for us, and believe me, this is worth its weight in gold if you are shoveling all day.
As daylight showed its cold, gray beginning, we headed out in the near zero temps and got buckled into our snowshoes. In those days, the shoes were ash framed with gut webbing and leather straps. Many of our shoes were left over from grandparents who had made their own. Repair was commonplace and snowshoes could be kept usable for many years. Every size and type were common, a couple being "bear paws" and "pickerels."
We each carried one of the shovels over our shoulders and took turns dragging the short ladder that would be needed. In some conditions and when flat roofs were involved, we also dragged or carried a wooden snow scoop that could remove large amounts of snow in a shorter time.
We crossed Main Street from my parents' house and wallowed up and over the high snowbank, then down beside the Lakeshore Hotel to Long Pond. The destination due west was barely visible in the bleak beginnings of morning, but enough to keep us from getting turned around. Someone drew first duty to break trail and the other three fell in line. Everyone knew that excessive chatter was just wasted energy, so after a few lame jokes we settled into a quiet cadence.
Within the hour we had passed Blueberry Island and were nearing the shoreline where the Herling camp sits. This is the most northerly of the three camps that were our job for the day. We didn't carry water in those days and all ate some handfuls of snow while we perused the job at hand. Both Ralph and I knew this place well, as we had both worked for Mrs. Herling at the age of 11. During the summer, we had shuttled groceries from Day's Store in her 12-foot dory with a 5.5 [horse power] Johnson outboard.
The Herling camp was fairly small with a hip roof and we all took a side and started shoveling the waist deep snow. The first "youngster" whose side was finished went to do the small pump house building.
We then moved on southerly to attack the Cottrell place. The two buildings there were tougher to do with a high pitched roof on the main camp and several shed roofs to boot. Boys being boys, we most usually either jumped or dove off into the piles when a roof was done. Ladders were for getting up only, except for Dad.
We were done there by noon, and walked the shoreline south to the Bourne place. We took 15 minutes to rest and eat our somewhat frozen sandwiches, ate some more snow and headed onto our last roofs of the day.
By 2:00 the roofs were cleared. As we buckled into our snowshoes and readied to head home, it was clear that fatigue was creeping in, mostly with Dad. He usually followed us on the trail a few paces back, which we perceived as typical of an older man. When Hunt took a peek back as we trudged back across the lake, he noted that Cliff was tipping a bottle.
It was later at home when we checked the pocket of his Mackinac barn coat that we discovered a pint of Haller's Reserve. Neighbor, Lee Law, who used to help Dad before his health failed told us boys that the bottles' contents gave sustenance for such a long hard day. He called it "old Indian rubbing balm and cognogative." Uncle Byron used to call it a "small snipper or snifter," regardless of brand.
And so it was, at 3:30 in the fading afternoon, Mother met us at the door as we stuck the shoes and shovels into the snow bank and came inside. Another day was coming and tomorrow we would hit the camps down off the long narrows toward Castle Island. The owners for tomorrow's run would be the Hermans, Truebloods, Doyles, Falks, and Halls. That required snowshoes as well but not so long a slog.
Snowmobiles were just entering the scene and father (Clifford) thought of them as silly gizmos. After his death in 1971, their popularity grew and I suspect no one ever again snowshoed across Long Pond to shovel camp roofs. The next winter I had my first snowmobile, a Ski-Doo with a 10-horsepower Rotax engine. The old wooden snowshoes got very little use after that and we see them now hanging on walls as decorations. Now I see that snowshoes are mostly all aluminum frames with man-made webbing and straps and are mostly used for recreation.
Rod Johnson was born and raised in the Belgrade Lakes in the 1950s and '60s.