For many years the middle of February meant trotting off into the woods south of Boston for an annual winter hike in the snow. It was an Applachian Mountain Club event called the Soupe de Poisson. Billed as a stroll through the Blue Hills to build an appetite for the Soupe that followed at Ponkapog Campground, the route was circuitous and always featured some beautiful views from the heights and some dramatic passages through still woods. The woods were quiet except for the sounds of wind and occasional bunches of Chickadees chattering at us. Being that it was February, the dates of the walks tended to turn out to be frosty. But the ground underneath varied from bare to soaked or snow-packed.
At the end of the trail was Ponkapog Campground, an Appalachian Mountain Club facility that featured year-round camping. In later years the Soupe was served in the camp lodge building. Ably made by volunteers varied slightly from year to year but was always welcome at the end of a chilly day in the woods. After becoming a regular at the event, I always felt a feeling of homecoming when the campground finally came into view. I hiked steadily over the years with a small group of hikers, and the Soupe was a sort of rendezvous for many of us as the winter rounded out. Before we hit the trail on our round of regular hikes and mountain climbing trips, it was a perfect opportunity to hug old friends and plan future mayhem at Mount Katahdin. For the most part, we hadn’t seen each other since fall, and the Soupe was an excellent opportunity to catch up and talk about spring hikes and trips.
Towards the end of my participation, the Soupe had been an annual event for over fifty years. Like many regular repeating rituals, its start had been very irregular. Ron Gower had been a weekend custodian at “Ponky” for years. Sometime during his tenure, he began to have a February gathering of friends and hikers at his cabin for old fashioned fish chowder. One year a regular brought his fiance along. The young French woman was interested in what she was about to eat and was unfamiliar with the term chowder. Ron explained that it was a fish soup, and she exclaimed, ” Oh, Soupe de Poisson!” After that, the event became the Soupe de Poisson. Wags in the group soon reduced that to just the “soup” or the “poison soup.”
Originally the Soupe had been prepared over an open fire in front of Ron’s cabin. The little clearing could get jammed with snowshoers, cross country skiers, and hikers. In earlier times, you brought your cup and spoon. A small contribution, usually a dollar, was collected to defray the feast’s cost, which in my time included luscious brownies.
Now, I have to add here that Ron informed me of two things early on in our acquaintance. Correctly, a chowder referred to the pot the soup was made in ( preferably cast iron), and all authentic chowders have a fish head in them – getting an eye in your bowl is considered lucky. In later years though, I never recall a cod head in the pot, nor the shriek of surprise that a cod eyeball can scare up from the uninitiated.
To the best of my knowledge, somewhere around year sixty, the event slipped away. Gone, but not forgotten on a frosty middle of February as I put on my snowshoes and allow the chickadees to chatter at the invader in their woods and recall a cheery fire and warm gathering in the woods.