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Hancock man brings Harriskat Trail to life

  • Jack McWhorter, who carved a series of animal figures into a trail in Hancock, looks on as Brett Amy Thelen of the Harris Center helps put the finishing touches on a spotted salamander based on one she helped cross the street in Keene four years in a row. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Jack McWhorter carved a series of animals into trees along the Harriskat Trail to Skatutakee Mountain in Hancock. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Jack McWhorter carved a series of animals into trees along the Harriskat Trail to Skatutakee Mountain in Hancock. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Jack McWhorter carved a series of animals into trees along the Harriskat Trail to Skatutakee Mountain in Hancock. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Jack McWhorter carved a series of animals into trees along the Harriskat Trail to Skatutakee Mountain in Hancock. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Brett Amy Thelen of the Harris Center helps put the finishing touches on a spotted salamander based on one she helped cross the street in Keene four years in a row. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Jack McWhorter carved a series of animals into trees along the Harriskat Trail to Skatutakee Mountain in Hancock. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Brett Amy Thelen of the Harris Center helps put the finishing touches on a spotted salamander based on one she helped cross the street in Keene four years in a row. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 11/23/2020 3:56:11 PM
Modified: 11/23/2020 3:55:52 PM

If you come face to face with a bigger-than-life spotted salamander, a giant snake or even a dragon as you walk along the Harris Center’s Harriskat Trail, don’t be alarmed – these new trail denizens are just Jack McWhorter’s latest carved creations.

The idea all started in June when McWhorter was out helping Eric Masterson and Ric Haskins with an afternoon of clearing on top of Skatutakee Mountain. On the way back down, the group passed a downed red maple just off the edge of a trail.

“What do you think it looks like? What could you carve out of it?” McWhorter remembers being asked. For the woodcarving enthusiast, the answer was easy – a dragon.

Thus began a summer of carving for McWhorter, a retired physician who moved to Hancock seven years ago. While almost all of McWhorter’s carvings have been done in his home shop using a mixture of hand chisels and power tools, this one would require lugging his gouges up almost a half mile of trail from the Harris Center parking lot. But he was up to the challenge.

He took a few pictures of the maple and looked up some dragons online. He made a general sketch and by early July he started making the trek up to the maple, ready for the transformation.

In all, McWhorter said it took him about nine sessions, about four-and-a-half hours each time, to carve the dragon. Since it was the middle of the summer, he did most of the work early in the morning “since metal tools get very hot when out in the sun.”

The dragon is protruding from the end of the downed maple. It goes from bark to a scaled neck to the head. The dragon, named Jackie Pendragon, has a set of spectacular horns, ferocious looking teeth and the details must be seen to believe.

“It evolved as I went along, as I got into the wood,” McWhorter said. “As you’re going into the wood, you never know what you’re going to find.”

It was a unique exercise for McWhorter, who got into carving about five years prior to his retirement by taking classes at the American Woodcarving School in Wayne, New Jersey. For a few years, he would make the drive to the school for three-hour classes on Wednesday nights, an activity his father John – also a physician – got into later in life.

McWhorter inherited a number of tools from his late father and decided to put them to good use. Upon the move to Hancock, his only request was there be enough space for a workshop.

After the carving was done and it had all been sanded down by hand, McWhorter applied eight or nine coats of linseed oil and spar varnish to protect it from the elements. Then he thought he was done – but there were more animal lurking along the trail.

“Susie Spikol suggested another tree down further,” McWhorter said.

A downed spruce that at one point was crossing the Harriskat Trail about a quarter mile in, had been trimmed with a section on each side.

“I can make a snake out of that,” McWhorter said of one side. It presented a perfect opportunity, as McWhorter envisioned the snake emerging from the spruce, slithering around the branches still attached to the trunk. That one took only six sessions, about four to four and a half hours each. This time he used tung oil and spar varnish that gives it a deep brown look.

By sanding it just so and adding the oil, McWhorter was able to preserve the wood grain look on both the dragon and snake.

“The grain of the wood is continually changing,” he said. “So if I don’t sand it the grain will look awfully funny.”

And once he finished project No. 2, McWhorter wasn’t about to leave the other part of the spruce just sitting there. So that’s when the idea for a spotted salamander came about, which he and Harris Center Science Director Brett Amy Thelen finished painting last Friday – black with yellow spots.

“The snake and salamander were easier because that wood is much softer and easier to carve,” McWhorter said.

Thelen, who is the region’s unofficial salamander guru, leads salamander crossing sessions to help the small reptiles get across the road during mating season. Salamanders are identifiable by their unique spot patterns, and Thelen patterned the trailside painting after a salamander she helped cross the street in Keene four years in a row.

McWhorter said he decided take on the dragon as a challenge, to see if he could do it. Plus “it was a great COVID exercise,” he said.

“The more I got into the work, I realized it’s not just a challenge, but it was fun,” McWhorter said.

There were of course some other challenges along the way – in addition to having to lug 40 pounds of tools up the trail each time at the age of 77 – like the wood splitting at times due to it being so green.

“Things can go much faster in the shop,” McWhorter said

As he was working on it, hikers young and old would pass by and stop to see the progress.

“I didn’t realize how much pleasure it was going to give people,” McWhorter said. “The little kids of course loved it and I had two women say they were scared out of their wits by the snake.”

McWhorter has always just carved for the enjoyment of it. He’s never sold his creations, instead making the small wooden birds, bears and beavers as gifts.

“My kids have been inundated with them over the years,” he said. Most of them are small – three to 12 inches – but there have been a pair of larger birds, an osprey with a four foot wing span holding a brook trout in its talons and a Great Horned Owl. He’s even done carvings of his grandchildren.

For McWhorter, the trailside carving project showed just how much his abilities have evolved.“I was pleasantly surprised,” he said. “You don’t know how it’s going to turn out. There’s so many places along the way you can screw up.”




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