b. 1890–d. 1971, Maine Guide, DOC Woodcraft Advisor 1937-1961
Perhaps more than any other individual, Ross McKenney embodied the spirit of the Outing Club. His association with the DOC was a long one, beginning in the late 1930s when he built the Ravine Lodge and became Woodcraft Advisor to the club. Ross’ career started out on the rivers and in the woods of Maine, his home state, when at the age of fifteen, he hired out as a cookee on one of the log drives that used to bring the timber down to the mills every spring. Later, as President of the Maine Guides Association, he was famous for his woods skill. But Ross found more in the outdoors than just trees and mountains. Below is printed one of Ross’ finest statements, one that has provided inspiration for many DOC men and women.
To many people Woodsmoke is just something that comes from burning wood. To others it is something that stands for peace and beauty, something that answers that longing for the wonder and solitude of the outdoors. To lie in a snug shelter at night, when the temperature is creeping close to minus, and watch the Woodsmoke drifting upward through the branches of the trees can instill within you that warmth and confidence that comes from happiness and faith in God. Once I heard some words truly expressive of the greatness of the outdoors, “A kiss of the sun for pardon, the song of the birds for mirth, you’re nearer God’s heart in the forest than any place else on earth”.
So let me say here that faith in God and Woodsmoke is a mixture that can smooth out some rough roads and keep one’s faith in mankind strong and clean, even against mounting odds. These things we need as much as trees need sunshine to live and to give. Did you ever follow the life of a tree? Its seed is carried by the wind or the birds to the forest floor where the rains and winds beat it into the soil. A tiny root reaches down into the earth and the life of the tree starts. The young tree doesn’t race upward in a mad race for supremacy. Insteads it spends a few years throwing out a foundation root to brace itself against what is to come. Then each year its leader shoots upward, a growth emerges from the tip of each branch; and under the bark of its trunk a ring of wood is formed. Thus it grows outward as well as upward. It starts giving shade to hold moisture. Its foilage give fertilization to the soil. All through life it gives to the forest world and people, and to you and me. Although it may fall to the forest floor, stricken by a bolt of lighting or uprooted or broken by the wind, it doesn’t stop giving. For even after many years when it decays and turns to soil, it still is giving. I have often asked myself, “Have I ever come close to living by this standard?” I find many errors and omissions, but have gathered to myself much warmth and happiness in correcting some of these along life’s paths. Many of the answers have come to me through the upward curling strands of Woodsmoke.
In the years I have been with the Dartmouth Outing Club many members have come and gone. I have watched them learn how to use an axe, build shelters, and cooka meal over the open fire. I have watched them making paddles, axehandles, snowshoes, packboards, and many other things. It has been a source of great satisfaction to me to watch their enthusiasm grow as they completed their projects, and to see the deep friendships form between them, lasting friendships built of the courtesy that comes both from their associations with the forest and from their confidence in themselves. I have seen many of these same students living a close parallel to nature’ standard of living ... giving that the rest may live.
Within the shadows of the forest I have also learned the meaning of fear, fear that is within all of us and which can turn into terror and cause embaressment or disaster; fear that can be governed and overcome in self-reliance. If you are lost in the forest, that fear fights to control you; yet all about you is the material with which to conquer fear: warmth, shelter, food, and a chance to gather your faculties together and figure out a solution. Maybe you are running your canoe through rough water and suddenly you feel a strong undercurrent pulling you into some big curling waves that might swamp you. Fear again fights for control. Do you know how much your paddle will stand? Do you know the many ways to use your paddle against a river current — how to set the angle of your canoe so the current will swinfg you out of the breakers instead of into them? Use your head — your knowledge, and again you have licked that fear and your canoe glides out of the rough water into the quiet pool below. Perhaps you are hunting in the fall and your enthusiasm is running high for a shot at a deer. You see a flash of white as a deer bounds over a fallen treetop with white flag flying. You hurry to the spot with finger on the hammer or safety of your gun. That same fear tries to take over, the fear that you will miss a chance for a shot. You see a bush move, you hear a twig snap, that fear grows. You just saw a deer bounding into that spot, but the noise might be a hidden man! What happens? That’s up to you and how well you have controlled that fear. Is it worth the chance? Fear says YES, your controlled judgement says NO. As in driving an automobile on the highways you have to learn to think quickly, when there’s no time to figure out a solution, your reaction is determined by your background of experience and observation. Have you ever given deep thought to this hidden fear within you? What would you do in an emergency? Think it over, it’s time well spent.
The forests hold a well-kept record of the passing years if one knows where to look. Visible only now by a line in the bark, are the trails and property lines once clearly blazed by an axe, but long since healed over by nature. If you were to cut the bark and wood away you would find the weathered blaze still there. There is the tree with a crooked trunk where another tree had fallen across it and bent it to the ground. This tree, inspired with the need for sunlight, grew from beneath the weight and became a tall straight tree. Time and weather have rotted the fallen tree and it has become a part of the forest floor, but the crooked tree trunk keeps the record for you. When you fell a tree you open a book of that tree’s life, for wach year it puts a ring on its trunk.
The language of the forest is a beautiful language to learn. The forest’s records, the night noise, the woods people and how they live and why. Whether you realize it or not you learn a little more of this language each time you enter the forest, and with the passing years you gather to yourself something that cannot be bought with dollars and cents. When you first built a shelter and slept under the sky, such things as the night noises were mysterious, and somewhat frightening, but as the years roll by those same noises become a sort of music, and sometime, somewhere, when life seems a bit “out of sorts” you will look back to those shelters, and those noises and the memories will give you peace and you will find that perhaps the world isn’t such a tough place after all.
In my years at Dartmouth the students have given me many gifts to show their appreciation. They have given me of their efforts, untiring efforts night or day, always ready and willing to do something for me. For this I will be forever grateful, but the thing they fail to realize is that they have given much more that that. They have given me their friendship, their faith, their courtesy; and like the blaze on the tree, it is within my heart healed over, it is mine forever and can never be taken away. Who will I thank for this? Will I thank God? Will I thank these men? Or will I dream in the warmth of happiness that maybe these things came to me, with the ability to hold them, from the fragrance and beauty of my many campfires and watching the woodsmoke curl upwards through the branches of the trees.
Hey Fellers! throw some more wood on the fire, slip a couple more slices of bacon into the frypan, and for-the-Luvva-mike put some more coffe in the pot, I can still pour it, you know I like my coffe in slices.
Woodcraft Advisor, 1936–1959
Dartmouth Outing Club
Ross McKenney’s Jean Baptiste
Some folks have also asked about recordings of Ross McKenney. Rauner Special Collections has copies of them all:
- "Ross McKenney", Droll Yankees, 1961 (Rauner phonodisc 11)
- "Vermont Humor", Presto, 1963 (Rauner phonodisc 1004)
- "Jean Baptiste", Century Records, 1960s
Various folks in the DOC may have digital copies so just ask around and you'll find them as well."