The Dead Diamond flows more or less aimlessly through a 20 mile long valley lined by a mixed forest of spruce and hemlock on the lower edge with hardwoods blanketing the ridges. Rolling hills with ledge outcrops tend to define the elevations. The grand overseer of this expansive canopy is Magalloway Mountain from whose shadows is created this river's birthplace. Along this circuitous downstream path, the Creator placed a spring in a not so conspicuous bend in this river. And though a particular band of closely knit men have traversed its meandering course for better than a half century, this certain loop in the Dead Diamond remains complete with its own spring-hole like no other in this serpentine water trail. For herein lies the purest essence, the virtual lifeblood if you will, The Sacred Place, Buck Corson's Pool.
The turn in the river is nearly identical to what it may have looked like nearly 60 years ago, when my Dad first led me to it. There have been generations of black spruce, aspen, alder, black birch and bank beavers guarding the pool's high banks and countless shifting sand bars for trout to navigate. Only where the current sweeps to the outside edge remains fixed in time a spring-hole some six feet below the surface. Not more than twenty yards from it is a place where we descend into the river. Fortunately, alders still manage a foothold in the bank for without their assistance it would prove almost impossible for us to haul ourselves back up to the path from where we came. Whether attributable to my age and cranky knees or perhaps in part because the banks have become more vertical after years of relentless erosion, ingress is so much the easier compared with the exit, especially after standing hours chest high in this cold and quiet dark flow of water. Just as the bank has become steeper, so too, the water seems more numbing and the retreat is appreciably more clumsy and ungracious. Still, it is a worthwhile exercise way beyond the imagination of some office bound wannabe outdoors writer.
A short century and a half ago, trees shorned of their limbs rushed through this very oxbow propelled by torrents of high and snarling waters caused by spring rains and the winter's melting snows set free by imploded squirt dams. The deep snows, upon which the naked logs were hauled to the main stream's frozen edges by draft horses, would feel the higher sun and long daylight that early April signals. Seemingly overnight, the warm spring breezes provided small and then more aggressive rivulets and streams that fed into larger brooks which would feed the Dead Diamond's lifeline as they joined together transforming into springtime meadow reservoirs. These temporary ponds, now teeming with tree length fir and spruce were held back by squirt dams which the woodsmen had constructed beginning the previous fall. When dynamited the impounded waters would instantly change the docile river into cascades of violently churning eight foot high brown rapids with the deafening roar of logs crashing against each other in a race to a destination far downstream to a destiny in the paper mill capital of Berlin, the 'les bois du nord'. This wide bend in the Dead Diamond River epitomizes today the way it was then, except today the logs are skidded out and loaded on trucks. Still to this day however, the frigid and unforgiving long harsh winters, known for brutally high snows, still flood the valley each spring and from this cycle come the nourishment and welcome relief needed to replenish the river and the wildlife and the trout that depend on it.
From a dirt road leads a vague path winding among low-bush blueberry bushes. Once a five-minute walk, now longer, the trail breaks into some green growth down a bank through a wall of alders and to about mid-center of the bend. Five accomplished fly-fishermen can comfortably cover the curved 110 yard long pool, but on this one evening there would be four and it's from here that 90 year old Buck Corson, his two sons, Clark and Craig, along with a dear friend Jim Jones, wish each other well and depart to their respective stations. It takes a good ten minutes to shuffle to preferred spots from where they will spend the twilight hours trying to match the hatch.
Though the pool is more or less defined by its navigable depth, it really begins some 600 yards upstream at the tail of a long wide and bony whitewater run. From there it curves and broadens to a symmetrical 40-yard wide straight approach to the Director's favorite spot from which he prefers to cast. The river runs slightly deeper adjacent to the shorelines and shallower nearer the middle and the floor of the pool is a mixture of bony sand, gravel, and mud; where he stands, it consists of centuries old finely pulverized gravel. Nowhere in this run does the depth exceed ten feet and in the shallows it is below the knees.
Looking far down this flat piece of the river the former New Hampshire Fish and Game Director stands some 45 feet out from the left bank and 40 paces slightly upstream of the spring. Herein lies a sunken hemlock, which once stood guard over the pool from its perch on the bank. So long ago did it surrender to its watery grave that it just lays there, no branches, no root ball, nothing to betray its once proud identity. It tries to point to a rounded rock which is planted some seven feet from the opposite bank on the inside curve of the bend some 45 yards distant. So dark is the water that on an overcast day the log is not readily discernible and neither is the bottom of the pool.
From where the gravel stream bed forms a fingernail moon shaped sandbar the river bottom becomes muddy, so much in fact, that without the use of a walking stick it is difficult to negotiate. Then as the pool turns to the east, again its bottom changes to that of small boulders submerged and randomly scattered. The underside is interspersed with sand and shale and is no less challenging than where the Director prefers to stand.
The spring hole lies between the alders and the Director's stand and on the same side of the bank. Quite by mistake did we find this spring-hole when fully weighted with clothing, rod and gear I half swam my way to the return bank one darkening night ahead of advancing lightning bolts in lieu of retracing the laborious steps by which we had entered the pool upstream. I remember it well. The water from the spring was startling cold and it seemed to occupy perhaps an area as big as the camp that we call our home away from home.
Throughout the years, usually during the month of July, the Director coordinated with Dartmouth College a privileged stay at the Gorge Camp. The tales and legends attributed to this river have been recounted year after year by the men invited by Buck Corson to share July fishing camp in the Dartmouth Land Grant beginning some 62 years ago. This mid-summer breakaway vacation for the brotherhood has become tradition beginning in 1950 at which time a dilapidated log outpost across the river, accessible only by a cable suspended swinging bridge, served our needs.
The 'Gorge Camp' which has been our place of retreat since its construction by Al Merrill and his Dartmouth Outing Club students in 1974 was built from hand hewn 18" diameter spruce trees some 35' in length; it was sited amongst a small patch of spruce and hemlock overlooking a narrow passage in the river called the 'gorge,' and it's here where we share space for the better part of a week. Nourishing our kinship we strategize the coordination of our fishing trip, which invariably ends up as a haphazard affront of gentle footprints on this huge tract of wilderness. We are not here to trespass or take; rather, our unspoken purpose is that of giving to our fellow man and all of us in our own way have communion with the Creator and hope silently for one more year after the one we now enjoy. The passion we share for this reunion is sheer childish excitement upon arrival and more often than not lowered voices and concealed tears when we break camp. It's partly due to our apprehension of not knowing what the future holds and partly out of reverence and gratitude for these few days of indefinably precious time shared. As has become our way, layers of memories and laughs are recounted and then added to the events of this trip, all to be filed in perpetuity by each of us in our own way.
Typically on a cloudy day everyone is somewhere on the river whereas when the sun is high and the daylight is bright, the brotherhood can be found holding court on a narrow screened porch facing the southwest. It affords a nice portrait view of the river, the very section noted principally for its terror over the years. Between beers and cheddar on crackers and nestled in Adirondack chairs, we share our binoculars and imagination, as we look upstream to the chasm, the crevasse called "Hellsgate Gorge." Beyond the ravine and turning northwest toward where Magalloway Mountain looms, these waters are given birth and somehow in the beginning here were created wild trout, the original and indigenous Eastern Brook Trout (Salvalinus fontanalis). With no guarantee and watching the sun drop below the tree-line, one day is gratefully accepted at a time for in this unyielding river, the next day's sunrise is never promised. Fragile and delicate, the trout lives by the hour at the mercy of larger trout, mergansers, otters, osprey and the rains of acidic downpours. And there can be no doubt that the leaching of the slopes stripped of their trees by once insensitive rampart logging operations continues to negatively impact the water chemistry necessary for the long-term survival of the species. Nothing is easy for life in this territory, not for the forest canopy, not for wildlife, not for trout. The porch is a relaxing place to reflect.
Here the water runs deep and fast, the current is rugged and the 'gorge' between vertical ledges is appropriately named "Hellsgate." Several grueling deaths were recorded here. Most were of brave and incentivized river men, who, out of loyalty to their bosses and with the promise of bonuses, ventured onto logs jammed between the black walls of the Ice Age pressured rock faces. For these brave souls, Hellsgate was a feared place in the river. It was a bastardly devil channel in the Dead Diamond fated by its narrow passage which loaned itself to the largest of the temporary dams constructed for the springtime floods; the canyon's sides still stand 70 feet above the water which once served as an ideal site to hold back the melting waters of the valley.
A rugged timber dam fastened with iron spikes would be constructed in the fall and then a few months later and at a time determined by the rising level of melting springtime snows, it would be breached by dynamite in a tumultuous explosion. The winter's cut logs would finally begin their journey 15 miles to the Magalloway Plantation flats where the outlet waters of Lake Umbagog received the floating gold from the Diamond River and then downstream to where the Errol Dam now stands through the rapids and onto the burgeoning paper mills some 50 miles further downstream. Hellsgate was literally Hell's Gate and children comforted by their widowed mothers would later recall the stories of their fathers' deaths told to them by others who served the wood bosses but dared not ride the logs with the heroes who would posthumously be recognized as the "river drivers." Paper company executives who pushed pencils in the warm security of their Berlin offices had no idea of the savagery of getting the trees to the paper mills and the promises that persisted of promotion to the river drivers who made it all happen.
There are no words that can adequately define the passions that the brotherhood share; somehow it is all wrapped into the totality of the experience. If there is one commonality that can be singled out, it is the bond between the brothers. Occasionally, the Director refreshes the relevance of time by indexing the names of Henri Muise from the Magdalene Islands, Skip Walls, Al Lewis, Charley Maloy - a true Blackfoot Indian and old Sam Brunguot and even so many more who with him traversed this country before. And in between there were the gate managers, Grace Turner, Nelson Hamm, and Lorraine Turner and their leaders, Bob Monahan, Al Merrill, and Earle Jettie.
Invariably, it's the gentleman Director, who continues to make our countless trips to this place a reality – he is the spark that rekindles the memories. A poor but tough boy with laudable ethics who quit college to enlist with two friends in the Navy, later a WWII Navy fighter pilot who was awarded his own squadron of B-52 reconnaissance fighters and a graduate of the University of New Hampshire with an advanced degree in biology, then onto zoology, then a fish specialist for the Fish and Game Department, eventually rising to become its Director......Corson is his name, Bernard W. Corson. Since forever, friends have called him 'Buck;' he is our leader, our Director, our best friend and my brother's and my Dad. He epitomizes all that's good and all that's right, although over the years our relenting hoodwinking ruses may have softened him just a touch. Know, however, that by the Grace of the Almighty and the Director's uncommon rapport with the men of Dartmouth College we have been afforded this fascinating valley resplendent with the highest degree of aesthetic pleasure possible.
On the particular day of this year's proceeding and this narrative, everyone relished the thought of returning from an evening of fishing to a special feast of moose meat lasagna and warm garlic bread, a guarded secret belonging to a wife of one of the brothers. Placed in the gas oven late afternoon, it would be bubbly hot and ready for the brothers once the sun had dropped so low that they couldn't thread a fly any longer. Plaintiff objections to eating earlier would fall on deaf ears because wisdom of the ages decried that 'as in one for all and all for one' we would all sit down together. It was further assumed that one of the brotherhood who chose not to try the evening rise would be the one to stay behind, set the table and have supper ready for the returning troops. This cooperative strategy has served well over the years and if, for whatever reasons, the supper was burned, silence was always the best option. In quite an unofficial way it was never discussed in advance as to who would stay behind to get supper ready, however on this highly unusual evening it would be Clark, volunteering to hold down the fort while Craig, and Jim Jones would accompany the Director, Buck Corson, to the mysterious bend in the river, to be remembered in his honor, some several miles upstream of the camp. Over the years it is difficult to recount the few times when this sacred pool would not be graced with a contingent from the brotherhood. Its inconspicuously dark and slow flowing water has always held fish. For that matter the entire river holds fish. But this bend in the stream was different, unpredictably different, and what makes it a special place, in part, is that it is virtually inconspicuous to the untrained eye. How many times we have stood in our waders under what we perceived to be perfect overcast conditions not to witness even a single rise only to return later on a bright day with no apparent hatch to watch a trout porpoise for a floating insect and this is precisely why this is such a great sport.
On this early evening, three men returned to Buck's Pool, our sacred oxbow in the Dead Diamond, while the others fished in not so far-off places in the river for the evening rise, and a good luck handshake was confirmation enough that within a short time there would be lines on the water. And so has been a tradition for better than half a century, the river's showcase pool would once again this evening lure the master fly-fisherman to his place in the 'Flat Iron' meadow. We drove to a not so traveled place and took the 20 minute trail leading to the pool. The low-bush blueberry path to this will forever be unknown to others. Furthermore, it is high doubtful whether that which would unfold on this overcast evening had ever been acted out, or for that matter, could ever be replayed. In the 90th year of his lifetime, Buck Corson, a legend in his own right, would catch a leviathan trout as witnessed by his good friend, Jim Jones, and his youngest son, Craig.
For the Director, if a task is worth doing , it's worth doing right. He has a way of deflating praises of principles of philosophy about the great outdoors attributed to him just as he brushes aside compliments regarding his fly-casting prowess. The pride he holds for his two sons, and Jeff, his only grandson, is poorly camouflaged; he is a proud, yet humble man, and on this one evening his humility and generosity will manifest in his younger son for on this occasion it will be Jim Jones and Craig who escorted their mentor to the creeping shadows of the lazy sunset and the silent pool near where it exits to faster moving water before turning east.
Jim Jones had already netted and released a couple of nice 11" trout from where he was casting. A dimple now and then sprinkled the surface of the otherwise serene flow. That there was current to the flow was hardly noticeable and on this particular evening, there was little insect activity in the air, save an occasional White Miller landing just long enough to release her eggs. The absence of Cedar Waxwings did not seem to signal that there were hovering insects, but no hatches were readily evident and it was still too early in the evening for resident bank beavers to alert trespassers of their territory. Jim encouraged the Director to take his spot nearer the downstream end of the pool. Craig assisted Dad to his favorite spot and both of them rigged up. It would be another 20 minutes or so before the setting sun would be obscured by stately black spruce on the high bank and a short hour before the shivers would set in as they called it a day to retreat back up the path to the truck, so short was the window of time.
The Director and his son stood together in waist deep water some 30 paces downstream of the drowned hemlock. That's when the giant trout took a barbless #22 Hare's Ear tied by Jim Jones and offered six inches below the silence of the surface. The cast had been softly presented by the son and after just a few seconds the imitation had begun sinking. As the trout rolled to its prey and struck, the rod involuntarily hurtled downward as the line spontaneously drew taut. It was an instantaneous smooth and violent energy that neither the angler nor the fish anticipated. The nine foot rod had been built by Craig using Loomis blanks and as is his way, it was fashioned in a way so as to allow a fish the maximum opportunity for escape. Sized for a Cortland WF#4 floating line, the tippet was a Scientific Angler's tapered delicate 3 pound test. As the fish circled back causing slack, it then streaked toward the opposite side of the pool. Craig evenly pressured the fast unwinding spool in his small arbor Hardy Demon with the thumb on his free hand. The fly stayed true as his heart pounded clearing whatever cholesterol remained. Again the fish jettisoned upward. Not even 20 seconds had passed. The river's quiet surface was now being painted into recurring whirlpools where the trout would show its dorsal and then submerge at sharp angles, always edging for the safe harbor of larger boulders in the direction of the opposite bank.
And then in one of those most unanticipated and stirring moments in life, the excitement was unbelievably framed even more when without any hint of a prompt, my brother, Craig, thrust into the hands of his father, Buck Corson, his flexing fish rod. There was no hesitation; there was no need to now be steadied. Standing together, father and son, each coaching the other, the Director now fighting the fish and Jim witnessing this impelling streamside spectacle of Craig and his father locked together in a script defying parallel. \
Perhaps 20 minutes passed, maybe not, time was not important; only the moment at hand mattered. The mentor and his prodigy were creating a cinematic portrait of bonding against the backdrop of the darkening emerald hills encircling the meadow. Standing in five feet of water they were inscribing a moment never before etched into the shadows and stillness of this pool. The trial of the two men and the titan trout would be summarized in the episode at hand. The Great Creator had destined that on this evening and in this storied river, a magnificent trout would put to the test every skill honed by the Director in his 90th year of life.
As the great fish spiraled up through the surface and crashed down heavily, the line went slack for a split second and the trout sensing this chance for redemption fought to shake itself free of the tiny insect which tasted different than had all the others before. The imitation Hare's Ear stayed fast and now this trophy feeling the unrelenting sting of the hook drew upon its reserves as its struggle grew more desperate and no less valiant. So smartly did the fish whirl when it dove that the rod bent to the surface then in sporadic repetitions flexed in uneven bows upward as the drag reluctantly released even more line allowing it to return to a more straightened plane. Over and over the fight raged, but in the end it was by the steady hand of the pool's namesake that the struggle wound down. And when the fight finally left, the heaving trout rolling sideways; it was a wetness different than that yielded by the stream clouded the Director's eyes.
The end for this five year old magnificent truly wild trout marked a legacy for all that this fish had endured during it years of life struggling for another sunrise in the unforgiving trials of the Dead Diamond and the Director, his son, and his best friend were reverent to its creation. Its sleek profile and breathless body lying in the shallow trout net showed Nature's rainbows in mixed hues and the perfectly lined edges of its fins were of the purest white. It was almost as if the fish was a sacrifice by the Great Creator to honor Buck Corson, in retrospect, for his life of giving. It was given to him with his son by his side and his close friend to serve witness. Dad's tears released the gratitude and recognition of a trout that he had played too long and its final strike capsulated the gratitude for all that meant so much to him - the Grant, the camp, the brotherhood, three generations and 65 years of savoring the valley, and all the days and evenings leading up to this climatic evening on a bend in the river to forever be remembered as Buck Corson's Pool ... a sacred place.
Even today, year round reflections of this pool silently linger throughout the brotherhood and every journey to the valley is really a journey to this pool. It is the main vertebra of our summer sojourns together and the gentlemen who brought us to understand the spirit of catch and release.
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