By Lew Dietz
“Anyone can get into this wild country for hunting, but only a Tolman can find his way out.”
The ecologists—those specialists in the interrelations between living things and their environment—are inclined to ignore the influence of man on his surroundings. Granted, man is a latecomer to this billion-year-old earth. And the 200 years the Tolman’s have lived on the edge of the Rockland Bog are a mere wink of the eye in geological time.
Nevertheless, none of the Tolman’s would be what they are if it had not been for the Bog, nor would the Bog be what it is but for the ten generations of Tolman’s who have been its neighbors. Perhaps only in New England are you likely to find roots so deep, men who so stubbornly refuse to renounce the land of their fathers.
It began with Isaiah Tolman. In 1769 he took up 500 wilderness acres in Maine. By three wives he sired twenty-one children, a good start for any new clan. The Bog was there, and it was the dominant factor in the struggle for survival. Some of Isaiah’s descendants were more farmer than woodsman, and some were more woodsman than farmer, but to a man they were hunters.
There is the Gun to prove it, if proof be needed. Pre-Revolutionary, it belonged to Curtis Tolman, son of Isaiah. A flintlock muzzle-loader, adapted somewhere along the line to take percussion caps, it stands 6 feet 2. Earl Tolman recalls the day during the hard times of the thirties when someone offered his father, Ernest, one thousand dollars for the Gun. Ernest Tolman was chair bound with crippling arthritis and money was scarce, but he shook his head. The Gun was as much a Tolman as he, he said, and it didn’t belong hanging over a stranger’s fireplace.
Legend is the life juice of history. Fairy tales abound with dread places that little children were warned to avoid. The Indians stayed clear of the peaks of Katahdin, where dwelt the fearful Pamola. In the region where I live, there is the Bog. And there are stories, old and new, that lend substance to the fearful shadows of the place.
Back in the early days a Tolman child who had wandered from her dooryard was found dead, killed by a bear. The men tracked down the bear and destroyed it. The hill on which she’d met her ate was thence forward known as Bear Hill. In those early times the Bog was a place where the wolves were said to run in packs; anyway, they could be heard at night bringing down some luckless moose. One day in 1772, legend has it, Dodiphere Richards, brother of the first settler, was carrying corn to Warren to be milled. He was set upon by night in the Bog’s precincts, but with his back to a stout tree, he held off the hungry wolves all night with the help of a cudgel and a small dog.
Some legends grow tall with the telling and retelling by the passing generations. No one remembers the name of the old timer who walked down a moose in the Bog, taking three days and nights for the chore. It’s said that the beast he killed weighed 1,200 pounds. Who will take issue on its size? Anyway, the patient stalker surveyed the carcass and came to the sensible conclusion that it would be easier to eat the moose in situ than to pack it out. This he did, in ten days. Even if it was a mere thousand-pound moose, that one-man meal still stands as a monumental achievement.
I have see Bog legends made in my own time. In the twenties, when the Bog was briefly designated as a game preserve by the state, there was a passionate hunter who had his own ideas about the rights of man, of the hunting man at least. In the winter it was his habit to walk into the Bog backward so that a passing warden would conclude that he had been there and was gone.
The Tolman boys vouch for the truth of this; however, they add that the man never actually hunted the Bog, only its fringes. Having hunted the Bog with the Tolman’s, I’m inclined to accept this qualification. One can get into the Bog without a Tolman, but getting out is another matter.
This is hostile country, roughly 25 square miles of it. It’s bounded on the east by a long ridge, on the north by hills, on the west by a river, and on the south by quaggy lowlands that stretch to salt water. Over the centuries sawmills have operated in it, and haul roads have been laboriously corduroyed to fetch the timber to market. Twenty years back a great fire raged through eight square miles of the Bog for two weeks. Bulldozer bucked out of an encircling swath to contain the blaze, but today few traces of man’s puny work remain. There are access trails from the north and the south and from the west across the river, but they all peter out within a scant mile. The bulldozed road is a thick of alders: a crisscrossing of moose and deer trails is all that’s left to go on. They’ll never lead you out if you walk a year.
This is fog country, and of course the mountains are of little help in getting a bearing in fog, rain, or snow. A compass helps, but not much, because you don’t walk out of the Bog as the crow flies. What you find blocking that shortest distance between two points are blowdowns, slash heaps, swale grass over your head, water up to your waist, and fire bush and pucker brush that even the deer bypass. This, in short, is hunting country—but not for anybody.
Fire bush plant like those found within the Bog
A hunting friend of mine found himself turned around in the heart of the Bog on day some years ago. Thrashing around to find a way out, he spied what he least expected to come upon in that desolate piece of country—a man.
All my friend could think to say in his relief was, “You must be a Tolman.”
“That’s right,” Albert Tolman replied. “And if you’re not a Tolman you must be crazy.” Then he guided the lost hunter out of the Bog and further obliged him by driving him ten miles to where he had parked his car.
Recently I asked Albert how many lost hunters the Tolman’s have been called upon to get out of the Bog over the years.
“Enough,” he said with a smile. “But they don’t come and ask us exactly—they come and tell us we’ll have to go in. Who else have they got to go in there after dark?”
Tolman pond near the Bog
The presence of this extensive hunk of wilderness in a region of towns and open farmland is an anomaly. Geologists suggest that the great saucer-shaped depression was gouged out 10,000 years ago by the retreating ice of the last ice age. At one period it was most certainly a vast lake. The Tolman boys will tell you that the earth in the heart of the Bog is treacherously unstable, and curiously, there is open water even in the depths of the bitterest winter.
There’s heat down there somewhere,” Earl said. “I guess it’s as close to hell as you can get on earth.”
Maynard, Earl’s son, is inclined to agree. “That explains, I guess why the moose stay in there all winter. Some moose go to high ground when the swamps freeze, but not the Bog moose. They stay right there. I’ll tell you something else. The Bog deer are darker than the ones you see outside the Bog. They haven’t come out of the Bog for hundreds of years. Why should they? They could never find a safer place.
There is little doubt about that. The pressure on game in that vastness is minimal and, even for the Bog hunter who knows his way about, the odds favor the deer. Hunting with the Tolman’s in the Bog last year I fired at a large buck. There were five of us in a circle, all within fifty yards of where the deer jumped. There was hair to show he had been real and tracks to mark his departure, but no one saw him slip by.
The moose are there, too—possibly in a high a concentration as you’ll find anywhere in the state. A friend of mine flew over the area one day last winter and counted forty moose in one pass. Its bobcat country, and occasionally the Tolman boys cross a track of a bear or a Canada lynx. Rabbits, the bread and butter of the predators are as thick as fleas on a hound dog.
Chuckling, Earl recalls the day, not long ago, when he took his grandson into the Bog for the kids’ first rabbit hunt. “Along about 9, the boy looked at me and said, ‘Don’t shoot anymore rabbits, Grandpa. I can’t lug no more.’”
For 200 years Tolman fathers have handed down a tradition to their sons. Today, on the Bog, there is Earl and his brother, Albert, and Earl’s married sons, Maynard and Arnold. As Earl was trained in the ways of the Bog by his father, so he has initiated his own as they came along. As the boys tell it, the old man was strict and a bit unreasonable; he was of the opinion that 13 was soon enough for his boys to go into the Bog with guns of their own.
Maynard got his first Bog deer when he was 14. Earl tells the story this way: “We hunt by ourselves, still-hung mostly, but once or twice in a season we all go out together and do a little pushing. We put our best shots on the best crossings, of course. That day, Maynard being a kid, I just tucked him away someplace behind a rock and told him to stay there. We didn’t shoot a deer that day, but when I went back to pick the kid up, there he was still by that rock and right beside him was a big buck deer. He was some proud, that boy, I can tell you! And that rock has been called Maynard’s rock ever since.”
There is also a spot called Arny’s five Stumps, and sections called the Honey Pot and Moose Knoll. They aren’t on any map; the designations are a part of Tolman family history. “There are sections we called the Benner piece, the Oxton lot, Barrows meadow,” Earl said. “These are names I knew when I lumbered in there. The Bog may look all the same to some people, but when I say to the boys I’ll meet then at Honey Pot, they know where I mean.”
He smiled, “I don’t mean to say we haven’t been lost in there. Well, maybe not lost, exactly; but being confused for a good part of a day in a snowstorm isn’t any more fun that getting lost proper.”
Two hundred years covers a large slice of American history, but it doesn’t seem so long ago when you consider that it is all there in the memory of one family. Earl can recall his mother’s stories of playing with the Indian children who came down to the edge of the Bog with their families each summer to fish, collect freshwater-clam pearls, and cut ash for their baskets. Just on the edge of his memory is the Indian songs his mother had learned and sang to him.
He can remember, too, the stories of how big the trees were when the first Tolman’s came. And in his own time there were pines five feet at the butt and oak logs that two teams of horses couldn’t twitch out to a landing.
The big trees are gone; the wolves are gone, too, but otherwise the Bog has changed little in a century. Nor is it likely to change much in the foreseeable future. There are those, of course, who see it only as one vast wasteland that should be put to better use. Others would like to see it made accessible over brushed-out trails for easy recreation.
Should this ever happen, the Bog would cease to be special. It would no longer be a symbol and a secret place for the few who still care to earn their pleasure, but a playground for the multitudes. Soon the moose would be gone, and after them, the Tolman’s.
One day recently Earl Tolman said, “The time’s coming up when I’ll be too old to go into the Bog. But I wouldn’t want it changed. Whether I go into it or not, it’s just nice knowing it’s there.”
Originally printed in Field and Stream, May 1967
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