Harrigan At Home

Feb 25, 2015

After 41 years, John Harrigan's weekly "Woods, Water & Wildlife" column in the New Hampshire Sunday News has come to an end. But the unofficial voice of the North Country isn't through yet.

In slippers, in the snow, John Harrigan stands in the bright morning light. 

"Boy it's so bright!"

No sunglasses ever for John Harrigan.
Credit Sean Hurley

Harrigan has never worn - and doesn't believe in - sunglasses.   

"I think it really works - to come out and make your eye muscles work."

Harrigan runs what he calls a "boom and bust" fire in an outdoor wood furnace and from the rough chimney smoke he thinks it's nearly bust. 

"The wood that you see in that woodshed is what I call my piggy bank. That's deep winter wood."

He walks stiffly, a little unsteadily toward the deep winter wood. Both knees were recently replaced and his balance hasn't returned. He wears a hearing aid. He says he has a broken foot and a broken toe on top of that. In the woodshed, he clutches a 3 foot length of birch to his chest and carries it to the stove. 

"Just like cradling a baby."

Harrigan pulls wood down using a pickaroon.
Credit Sean Hurley

Smoke pours around him as he rakes the coals.

"I call it the Devil's Rake. Of course I always smell like a smoked ham. I do!"

Harrigan uses a "Devil's Rake" to spread the coals.
Credit Sean Hurley

With the stove stocked, Harrigan invites me inside his home, a peach painted farmhouse joined to a bare wood barn on the top of South Hill in Colebrook.

"So as the old-timers would, not me, said... Step in, step in."

John Harrigan's Colebrook home.
Credit Sean Hurley

Harrigan, an old timer himself now, pauses again. On the floor, an ax lays beside a pile of strip cut kindling that longtime Harrigan readers will know he calls "celery". Readers will also be familiar with the wood stove in the corner.

"That's a stove that I warmed myself at a lumber camp when I was 14. When I came in half frozen from hunting up in the Dead Water, I'd stop at a logging camp."

When the old Dead Water wood stove came up for auction, Harrigan bought it. We head into the fish and game room.  Stone fireplace, wilderness paintings on the wall,  gun rack.

"Every single gun in this rack has a story. Just as every piece of furniture that you're looking at has a story."

Though he lives alone now with his dog Millie, there are clues to the regular company he keeps.  A swingset in the front yard. A dozen pairs of slippers by the welcome mat for mud season visitors.

"I'm having a near beer. I can pour you a cup of tea."

In the kitchen, Harrigan flips through the mail. The hue and cry, he says that followed the announcement that his weekly outdoors column was ending. Nearly a hundred letters from readers expressing the same thing in various shades of Yankee gratitude.  

Harrigan and some of the mail he received after his final column.

Some formerly happy readers will call.

"South Hill, John Harrigan...Margery! Oh Margery I'm sorry.  It was 41 years. You know for heaven's sake."

Harrigan assures her he's got something in the works.  View from the Headwaters, he calls it. A new essay style column he's pitching around to different New Hampshire papers.

"Well, you'll probably see it in print somewhere. I just have to keep going. I don't want to quit."

Margery curses him out some more and Harrigan curses back and they hang up laughing.  Harrigan takes a swig of near beer and tells the story of how he got the column in the first place in 1974.

"Bill Loeb the publisher sent me what we used to call a Loebogram. Cause he used to write notes that sounded like Teddy Roosevelt - so he said "My boy, why don't you start a column to replace Ernie Lind?" So I wrote my first column. And it wasn't the greatest, but it pretty much laid it out. I was gonna write a column that was about everything about the outdoors."

Harrigan says that current Union Leader publisher Joe McQuaid would have let him continue writing for the paper, but -

"I would have to have had to change my entire news collecting behavior. And also my tone of voice. And I chose not to do that."

Harrigan goes outside again to see if he can spot the breathing hole in the snow of the pine marten that lives in the wood pile beside the house.

"The back of winter is broken..."
Credit Sean Hurley

"The back of winter is broken. I love that phrase. The back of winter is broken."

In a way, the back of Harrigan's writing life is to. The great 41 year storm of deadlines has passed. But he's started a new book and after we meet he'll check his email to see if there's any interest in the new essay column.

"I love it. I don't care how cold it is. And I love the way the snow crunches. That is pretty damn neat."

But despite new plans and dreams, Harrigan has no idea what's next. Just as a half century earlier, the half 

A book is started and new column has been pitched...
Credit Sean Hurley

frozen boy who warmed his hands on the wood stove at the Dead River logging camp had no idea how far he'd go, while never really leaving home.  That he'd one day be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. That he would own newspapers and smell like a smoked ham. That he would go his whole life and never wear sunglasses. That his knees would be buried before him. That one day he would be an old man warming himself by the stove that once warmed his 14 year old hands.