Just two days before, Jim Cluett – W1PID, and I had come to the empty fields and lots that just seventy-five years ago were filled with cows, sheep, schools, stores, people and wagons.
But now tall grass, massive trees and peepers call this giant flood plain home. Jim and I were drawn back to the western shore of the Pemigewasset River at Old Hill Village because the temperature was soaring towards 80 F.
“I think it’s impossible that we not go out today, what do you think?” Jim called me while I was putting the finishing touches on my weekly syndicated newspaper column.
“I agree. I need to finish my column and could be ready to go just after lunch. I also need to stop at the post office on the way there.”
“Fine. Let’s meet at the store at 1:15 p.m. I’ll be on 146.52.”
Driving to the relocated Hill Village store down NH Route 3A with the windows down was good for the soul. The winter of 2013-14 had been long, cold and harsh. To feel warm air provided by Mother Nature instead of a furnace was delightful.
Jim was waiting for me as I rounded the bend in his new paprika-colored Subaru. We were at the parking area next to Needleshop Brook in just minutes.
Two days before I didn’t have much time, but today I had the entire afternoon available and we made use of it.
Snow and ice still covered the old roadway down to Old Hill Village, so you had to watch your step. Jim and I made our way down to the old north/south Main Street of the old village in no time. The Needleshop Brook was frothy and furious with thousands of gallons of meltwater.
Little did Jim and I know that billions and billions of gallons of meltwater were headed towards Old Hill Village because of the warm temperatures and rainy day that was just 24 hours away.
The dry fields filled with grass laid flat by the heavy snows would soon be under 15 or more feet of floodwater!
On my first visit to this tranquil spot, I got skunked. I tried hard to make a Morse code contact, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Much of it is due to my inexperience and the short amount of time I had available. Jim was able to pull QSOs out of the air like one might pull tissues from a box.
On this second visit to Old Hill Village, Jim and I did more hiking than operating and when we did set up for the first time, I was able to snag a quick conversation with KD8WFX, Dan, who lives in Maumee, OH.
We had selected a spot along the west bank of the river along a narrow trail that was used by snowmobilers. Jim was set up about 150 feet south of me.
After I finished my QSO with Dan, I walked down to tell Jim.
“I just got one!” Jim was happy for me and I walked back to try for more. After a minute or two I glanced down and saw Jim was pulling down his antenna and packing up.
“Okay, I’ll stop and pack up too.” I yelled down to him.
“No. Don’t do that. Continue to operate. We have all afternoon.”
Minutes later Jim came down to see how I was doing. He asked if he could share one of the halves of my earphones so he could hear what I was listening to. Then he heard me send my call sign apparently at the pace a snail would traverse the trail we were sitting on.
“You’re scaring them all off. It’s like you have that thing on reverse.” He was talking about my nice HB-1B multi-band QRP (reduced power) radio and the very slow transmit speed I had it set to.
Many experienced operators don’t have the patience to work with newbies like me.
As soon as the words lept from Jim’s mouth, we both erupted in laughter. Jim tried to apologize for teasing me, but it’s all in good fun and I’m never offended.
Truth be told, if you want to become proficient at Morse code, you have to practice. It’s that simple, and Jim knows that I’ve not been practicing as much as I need to.
We decided to get back to more hiking and bushwacked it across a small field to get back to the main road that parallels the river. We headed north.
After about a half mile, we came to a triangular-shaped concrete railroad mile marker that had been moved from the old abandoned railroad right of way to the old roadway that headed north out of Old Hill Village.
Train engineers used these durable signposts to tell them where they were. In our case, we were five miles south of Bristol and eight miles north of Franklin.
Soon after passing the sign post we were met with rising water from the Pemigewasset River that had covered a low spot in the road. We walked over to the riverbank and gazed in wonder how no one was here to enjoy what we were seeing. I was stunned once again at how few people soak themselves in the natural beauty of the area.
After a few minutes we decided to head back towards the cars. Along the way we spotted a giant pine tree whose branches overhung the roadway.
“Do you think you can get your antenna halyard line up over that branch?” Jim was talking about a branch that was just about 50 feet up in the air.
“Sure. I’ll bet I can do it in one toss.” Jim just grinned as he knew it would be more luck than skill if that happened.
He got out his partially filled water bottle and green cord and proceeded to throw his bottle straight up missing the branch we wanted. His second attempt was right on the mark.
I got out my gear, swung the bottle around in a cicle and let go. Up up up my bottle soared like a pole vaulter on the way to an Olympic gold medal.
My bottle cleared the branch by three feet and fell to the ground trailing my lime-green microcord. It was a fine throw if I don’t say so myself.
“That was a pretty good throw.” Jim proclaimed, my mentor of few words. If only I could garner such praise with respect to my CW (Morse code) skills and magic.
We set up with Jim’s superb Elecraft KX3 radio. It was a teaching moment. He wanted to show me how to snare a contact and what acronyms to use to abbreviate the exchange of information. Within a few minutes he had snagged two contacts, one of them EH4GT in Spain.
Jim worked him and then handed me the Pico Paddles. “Go ahead, send your call sign.”
The paddles were set to a very fast speed and I was nervous.
Moments later it was over. The unnamed operator had heard me and sent back my signal strength report. For most of these operators it’s all about the number of contacts in a given amount of time, not about talking about the wife and kids.
Soon it was time to head back home. Without us realizing it, it had gotten late. We made it back to the cars passing the old rock dam structures that were stacked up the banks of Needleshop Brook.
I was amazed at the giant rusted riveted pipe that carried water down to some mill or factory farther down the stream. Who worked there one hundred or more years ago? What did they make? That’s what dreams are made up of when someone forgets to write it down in history books.
Fifteen minutes later Jim and I were sitting on a wooden park bench bathed in late afternoon sun eating an ice cream sandwich, sharing a bag of potato chips and slurping down two root beers.
“Oh, I didn’t realize it was so late!” Jim looked at his watch and it read 5:45 pm.
I was also stunned as it seemed more like 4:30. That’s what happens when you walk around the empty fields of Old Hill Village – time gets suspended.
The day after working a set of Morse code paddles in reverse and eating ice cream sandwiches it rained.
It was a warm rainy day. The rain ate snow like Jim and I devoured the mostly air-filled bag of chips the day before.
Countless gallons of water streamed down the mountains into the Pemigewasset River causing the employees at the Franklin Falls Dam to restrict the water flow.
When that happens, Old Hill Village becomes Old Hill Waterpark. The roadway we sat on just 72 hours ago was now probably 15 feet underwater.
On Thursday, April 17, 2014 I emailed Jim in the morning:
“I’d love to see the water in Old Hill Village.”
His reply email subject line read “how badly” and the text was, “Do you want to see it?”
Plans were made to meet at the Hill Village store of Endless Ice Cream Bars at 1:15 p.m.
It didn’t take long to get to the parking lot at the bridge that crosses Needleshop Brook.
It also didn’t take long to get to the end of the road leading to Old Hill Village as the Pemigewasset River had become the Pemigewasset Sea.
Water was creeping up the roadway that lead down to Old Hill Village.
“Let’s go off on this trail. I’ll bet there’s a small field to set up in.” Jim knew the area well after exploring it for years. He feels Old Hill Village is one of the most beautiful spots in New Hampshire.
I feel this perception is grounded more in the solitude he finds there, although it is a gorgeous spot. I’m more of a hill and mountain man myself when it comes to views.
It didn’t take long to find a nice spot next to the sea that sported dry grass flattened by the heavy winter snow. Little did we know, but someone must have been there hours before with their best friend.
As Jim started to get out his gear to fling his bottle and cord up into the tree so we could pull up his antenna wire, I proceeded to put my right boot into a mushy pile of you-know-what.
There’s no mistaking it when you step in dog doo. It’s slippery, and you can feel it ooze out each side of your boot.
“What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
“I stepped in a pile of dog s * * *!”
“BWAHA HA HA HA HA HA HA!,” was Jim’s response as I tried to wipe my boot off in the grass. Soon I joined him in the laughfest as what were the odds that I’d find a pile of dog crap in 3900 acres of land.
“Oh man, that REALLY SMELLS.” Jim didn’t have to tell me, even though my nose is not the most sensitive one on the planet.
I had disturbed the outer oxidized layer of poop and now the odor molecules were racing out towards us like bullets from a machine gun.
As Jim continued to set up his radio, I pulled up handfuls of dry grass to cover up the mess and where I had stepped hoping this would slow the escape of the foul molecules that were tormenting us.
Jim was on the air making contacts as I was trying to scrape the goo from the treads of my boot with a dried twig down at the water’s edge.
I came over and sat down next to him to see him operate.
“Do you smell that?” Jim was mentioning that the foul stench was still surrounding us.
“Of course I do.”
“Well, it’s bad. Is there still some on your boot?”
I looked. Sure enough there was some of the brown pudding on the right outer edge of my sole.
I got up, walked to the edge of the open area and used wads of dry grass to clean my boot.
“Go down and stick your boot in the water to clean it,” Jim suggested.
Yeah, right. What was I going to use to scrub the boot?
Moments later I was sitting next to Jim as he rotated the dial to find more invisible radio signals.
Jim sits cross legged when he operates. I’m more a straight-legged guy.
Two inches or so right in front and to the left of my boots was the clear cover to his KX3 with his glasses in it.
Jim silently moved his plastic case a few inches to the left away from my offensive footwear. I noticed and didn’t react.
A minute or two later I shuffled around and my boots crept nearer to the plastic cover.
Jim picked it up and moved it to the other side of the radio.
“What, are you afraid I’m going to ruin the lid?”
Once again the valley filled with laughter. I think there was more laughter in the air than floodwater in the Pemigewasset Sea. It was the hardest both of us had laughed during any of our outings.
Time was short because I had to run two errands and be back at my home to meet another ham radio operator, Lee Hillsgrove, Sr. Lee was going to help me switch out a front brake caliper on my Ford truck.
Jim and I packed up and headed for the cars.
“You better clean off that boot in the snow to keep the floor mat in that Volvo clean.”
I found some corn snow and proceeded to clean my boot of the last vestiges of the dog dirt.
“Let’s go down and look at the brook,” Jim suggested once my boot was like new.
The water was raging and it was no small feat to navigate the steep bank and get to the water’s edge.
I taped a short video of the rushing water while Jim snapped a few photos.
We celebrated with another ice cream sandwich and it was time to head home.
Our radio outings seem to more about nature and nature’s calls than radio. But that’s okay by me. I enjoy being outdoors and all that goes with it. Jim’s just lucky I stepped in it rather than him sitting in it!