Sausages and Owl Calls As Elk Run Wild
With Nature is where my thoughts resided, an Adirondack excursion. I had not been camping for over twenty years. A four-day retirement from mechanical life for a retreat to a cleaner place, more true. My lungs were begging for new breath. I was going to fill them to capacity and bring some home in a mason jar, for later. I obviously will not puncture holes in the top.
I kept an ear to the radio weather reports as my grandmother’s 1987 Cadillac gracefully headed north on Interstate 87. My eyes, however, scanned for state troopers. Those grey and purple sentinels serve up weighty penalties, usually with a “processing” surcharge or two. The Coupe De Ville likes to go fast, not me. The skies were uncertain whether they would mist, leak, or unleash a deluge. I was concerned. I did not want foul weather to interrupt my breath collecting. Before long, I called my friend Ryan, one of my fellow “’Dacks” explorers, to report that I was at that moment driving through a small hurricane. What are usually efficient windshield wipers were barely keeping their narrow heads above water. Blurred brake lights peered back at me like red tearful eyes. We both expressed hope that it was an insignificant front, which would soon pass on its way to anywhere but upstate New York. Our back-up plan: Albany’s Iffy’s Bar for gin and tonics and conversations with Vietnam veterans. From experience, this is a fine second choice, but not what I needed that weekend. Ryan and I both like to be faithful to a plan. I did indeed pass through the weather, or it over me, only to hear that it was drenching a path towards our camping destination. All fingers were crossed.
Well, I seemed to be driving along that very path. I pulled up to Ryan’s historic brownstone to be greeted, once again, by the same small hurricane. I dashed into Ryan’s foyer in which his pack was prepped and waiting. Ryan and I were to head to Jabe Pond (actually, a sizeable lake designated a “pond” due to its maximum depth), establish camp, fortify our position, and rendezvous with his wife Monica and our friend Melissa the next day. Leaving as soon as possible that Thursday evening was crucial to avoid traffic and arriving in the mountains after dark. A snag developed. Ryan rents his basement apartment to a Greek gentleman with an impressive vinyl record collection. This basement has a tendency to flood during periods of heavy rain. Elk Street is a gentle slope, the green, gold, and black Sharkey residence standing near its base. The curb was no longer visible approximately five minutes after my arrival. (One icy winter day, I slipped on that same curb clambering into Ryan’s Ford Focus. He almost (accidentally, I trust) ran over my legs. I smeared mud on the interior in retribution.) It was as if the house was really thirsty. From the street, over the sidewalk, straight into the exterior basement stairwell, the water flowed. The basement door is not exactly airtight. Therefore, the strategy is to bail out the stairwell, easing the pressure on the seal. There we were, knee deep in this new uncharted river, alternating between a bucket and a broom in an attempt to hold back the ocean. It would not have surprised me to see two of every animal and state politician wading through the streets…maybe one of every politician. We constructed a berm of recycling bins, but their five-cent contents did not provide enough weight. Brave and steadfast, we developed a rhythm and began to turn the tide. The weather eventually eased, and in the end distracted us for only one and a half hours. Pruned, we found dry clothes and prepared to depart for Jabe. I found a beer.
Leaving the downtown area, people cautiously navigated through debris-cluttered streets. One woman was bailing out the inside of her car.
Albeit a scenic drive north, noticeable Adirondack topography is not immediate. However, when it is upon you! The landscape fell away and rolled green from the road, and I was now a guest in a greater house. The day’s weather invited fog to whisper through the treetops and graze amongst the tall citizens of the mountains. Separatists would gently pull away to rest somewhere new, some growing to substantiality and some fading into the young approaching twilight. The cloud cover was just then splitting and opening, allowing a pale blue to rub its eyes. Sunlight, now a golden pink, dropped through the fissures and competed with the night. I breathed deep. “This is nothing,” Ryan exclaimed.
We were to set up camp at a spot to which Ryan had previously been. The Focus, topped by a canoe, takes us up a dirt and stone road a distance of two miles. Hauling thirty-pound packs and a thirty-pound cooler, we then hike four or five minutes to what I call “the landing.” We repeat the same hike to retrieve the canoe. At the landing, the canoe quietly shuttles us across Jabe Pond to our wilderness home for the weekend. So was the plan. We arrived at the base of the dirt and stone road at almost exactly the same time as another regular Adirondack visitor. Night. Its dark blue predecessor was not going to be around much longer. Ryan gunned the engine of the burgundy Ford. We had flashlights, and could always camp at the landing until morning, or so we thought. After a mile, the mountain passage was blocked by a heavy locked gate, on which was posted a sign stating the road’s impassability due to wet weather landslides. Certainly a glitch, considering the amount of gear and the canoe we had to carry. We discussed our options over Slim Jims. This was my first experience with the Adirondacks, so I was exhilarated to camp anywhere. Ryan really wanted to introduce me to Jabe, which I appreciated. We briefly flirted with hiking in to the landing in what would soon be an unforgiving black. We both agreed that one or more broken ankles, and the retreat is over. There were less secluded sites we could drive to, but distance from other human beings was very important to us both. The third option: drive back to town, find a motel, spend a less adventurous evening in a tavern absorbing the local culture, and hike the mile to the landing first thing in the morning. There is nothing like local culture to return ones briefly diminished testosterone to its normal levels.
There was a motel with a liquor store attached, part of the same building, but a youth sports team had monopolized the vacancies. What a waste of an odd, small town convenience. We managed to find adequate, affordable lodgings. After satisfying our now great hunger with sad, gas station Italian heroes from which I extracted a cold cut I did not recognize, and being denied entrance to a V.F.W. hall, we made our way into one of the other two local drinking establishments. Its ten other patrons were quiet and kept to themselves. All twelve of us enjoyed Pantera from the jukebox, Vulgar Display of Power. Two young ladies informed us of another bar about a minute away. We decided to sniff around. Out back there was a large deck overlooking a small river with an impressive current. There were more customers at this second stop than at the Pantera bar. Despite our camouflaged attire, Ryan in woodland and I in tiger stripes, we were certainly noticed and marked as non-local. Several times inquisitive eyes did catch mine. However, the beer was cold and the billiards rolled.
9 a.m. I was so eager to make progress toward our true destination. We were close. We drove the mile through a vibrant wood of conifer, birch, and maple. We unpacked the car at a clearing just off the gated road. Each with pack and the cooler between us, Ryan and I began our soon to be familiar ascension to Jabe Pond. It was difficult with our burdens, but fulfilling to tackle a feat in order to taste the fruits at its end. Our environment offered pleasant distractions. We passed a small waterfall that joined with a stream running alongside the road. We saw orange salamanders. Ryan ate a grub. The most challenging section of road was one hundred feet long and at an incline of what seemed like forty-five degrees. This stretch was the reason for the road closure. Running its length at its center were twin chasms, two feet deep in some areas. Our motel room was now justified. These patient voids lay in wait, earthen jaws hungering for ankles. Sometimes straddling and sometimes single file, we avoided the rocky maws and crested the incline, ankles and Pabst Blue Ribbons intact. We were then rewarded with a relatively flat length of road and even a small, pine-carpeted glade in which to rest. It was wonderful. The tree variety seemed to narrow at this elevation, and the shaded glade introduced us to a primarily coniferous forest. Grand, lean, red-barked denizens usher weary climbers to an unseen and welcome refuge. Packs came off and the cooler opened. PBR me, a.s.a.p.
The last stretch was a downhill pleasure. Strengthened and thirst-quenched, we gradually descended. Ryan had told me that the first open view of the pond was going to steal a bit of breath. No matter, it will soon be replaced. Within two hundred feet, Jabe’s glare peeks at you from between the trees, glacial rangers keeping an eye. I felt sly and special as if privileged with the knowledge of a secret, for the water is quite hidden until it quietly massages the rock landing at your feet, a routine so effortless that the two seem one. The landing is a series of geological steps guiding you directly into the shallows. I could already feel an intoxicating reinvention from new things to see and to hear and to smell. I was standing before a reed-bordered cove that hooked to the right forming the most narrow part of the pond. It then widens at the other end to complete its anatomy. The bottom is a vast civilization of small rounded stones, which can be seen through what seems like the most clear water on the planet until a rolling retreat to the cooler depths. The water does not look black, but rather the deep grey of a rich piece of iron that has never been exposed to the elements. This darkness is not due to churning murkiness, but the undisturbed quiet of an ancient place. We are blessed with the survival of such quiet. Not only was there a natural stillness, but a physical and mental stillness within me. As far as I was concerned, there was no world behind me. There was only what I saw before me. I suppose that is a decent definition of an escape. As I described, there had been some weather that day, and Jabe’s surface had a mild current that created a ceaseless network of ripples. The Great and Frustrated Perfectionist Glass Blower heats and turns then turns some more, never allowing his masterpiece to harden.
So this is peace. I like it here.
The repeat trip to retrieve the canoe was not so bad. We knew the locations of the difficult terrain and where we would need to rest. Ryan is very proud of his canoe. It is Kevlar lined to provide durability while at the same time keeping the weight low. Arriving at the landing was the first part of the excursion and a checkpoint. Pushing off the landing with our paddles and releasing ourselves onto Jabe began a second portion and a further escape. What was on our backs and lining the canoe bottom was all we had. If absolutely necessary, we could always return to the landing, but we tried not to. I returned only once to pick up Monica and Melissa. The manly woodsman traverses the dangerous waters to shuttle two lovely ladies back to safety, as testosterone levels rise once again. Our campsite was a fifteen-minute paddle away. The serenity of slowly and steadily transporting yourself across secluded waters is a thing all its own. I have yet to find its equal. The water pats at the hull, coaxing the canoe along, as if the human action of paddling is not enough for momentum. Something living is helping. (This Adirondacks trip revitalized something by which I have been inspired since a young boy, but rarely had the opportunity to do, and that is canoeing alone.)
The pond is spotted with satellite islands of large rocks and trees, some forming miniature cliffs. I was fascinated by these self-contained micro-ecosystems. They seem wild and unmolested and mysterious. Is time the same there? What lives there? (I’ll get to that.) Our site jutted out into the pond just before it widened. A tree had fallen from the shoreline directly in front of camp, and was now a convenient and stable dock and relaxing place. Such an efficient mutuality between man and nature is so satisfying. Nothing old is being destroyed and nothing new is intruding. Harmony can be achieved here. This was base camp. This was our spot. There is a small clearing, the front of which is for cooking and fireside revelry, where as the rear just before the forest density continued, is for tents. There are stones imbedded in the ground surrounding the fire pit, excellent for sitting. A tree stump can also be found if that is more desirable, or the beer cooler, an efficient mutuality of a different kind. One may swim in Jabe’s refreshing mountain waters and then retreat to seclusion underneath the pine canopy. There are no computers, no cell phones, and best of all, there is no schedule. Unwind into the unpredictable arms of Nature. The sustained, searching wails of the resident loons, followed by their rhythmic, throaty flutter reaffirmed that I was somewhere quite different. It is not the familiar staccato honking of a duck or goose, but more the slow repetitive song of a lonely ghost. It is most soothing. Loons have red eyes.
One of the satellite islands was once the seasonal shelter of a winter trapper during the late nineteenth century. All that remains of his lodgings is a stone chimney approximately a story high. It has a large slate mantle inset eight feet from the ground. Perhaps the trapper was a giant and the mantle was where he kept his precious things. It stands intact and functional, for on a trip since, Ryan, our friend Michael, and I listened to The Dead Kennedys and drank and laughed heartily, its hearth once again called into service. All seven of us were kept warm as we attempted to reverse history. We used a sock for kindling. Survival note: it works well in dry conditions.
Both Melissa and I enjoy snapping a few photos, and as magic hour crept over us, we went to explore the trapper’s island. From the canoe, beautiful wide shots can be taken capturing the deep perspective of Jabe from that angle. Magic hour unintentionally rendered some of my photographs silhouettes, but blessings in the end. Trees, shrubs, and trapper’s memories are the only things out there. So we thought. Melissa and I had been stepping freely, exploring this neighboring land. We soon met some other explorers who are far more elusive than a nice silhouette, and see the pond from a perspective all their own. I believe the final count was four different snakes, the first if which barely avoided a brush with a human foot. They were each a stormy grey, approximately three feet in length and as big around as a sink’s drain pipe. We were certainly the visitors to their oasis for they “stood” fast until our steps were within several feet. They would then thrust forward and effortlessly glide into one of the many snake hideaways. I was amazed at their speed. Every once and a while, when our attention was elsewhere, we would be made aware of the close proximity of one of our new friends at the very moment it cruised in front of us, delivering quite a start. With photographic pursuits fulfilled, we returned to camp with tales of high adventure. Monica remarked that she thought they were juvenile water snakes. Brazen, these snake children.
Thus, now and forever, Snake Island.
Night. The Adirondack night is something that rises from the mortar after some crushing, mixing, and incantation. A new collection of sights and sounds are conjured right before your eyes. First and most obvious is the complete darkness, which requires humble submission. Whatever is in the path of firelight or headlamp beam is all that will be seen. As with thunderstorms, particularly if there is lightning present, I am simultaneously entranced, thrilled, and intimidated by the abandon of the safe familiarity of mankind’s creations for the chaotic uncontrollability of Nature. There is nothing you can do. If it wants you, it will take you. It is a healthy thing to relinquish a little humanity now and then. Decreased visibility does not mean that beauty will be invisible until the sun rises. Few times have I seen such a rooftop of stars. It appeared a fine netting of silver pinpoints, a crowded and crazed network of luminescent specks. There were more stars visible than dark night sky, allowing us to reach up and swirl them with our open hands, after which they settled back into their familiar positions. As I patrolled these endless tiny bodies, the loons held conversations in a different tongue. It was not as defined as the two different parts of the daytime call. It was a more intense, disorganized sound of some urgency and a bit more haunting. Owls can also be heard discussing the evening’s plans. Ryan claimed that he had the super-human ability to imitate these sounds and coax the night hunters towards us. Monica supported his claims. I thought upstate hyperbole, but was certainly not going to pass up the opportunity to watch him perch at the water’s edge and try. Well, it seems the X-Men have a new mutant comrade. Professor X orders Cyclops to muster the team in front of the Blackbird so they may all welcome their newest member, Big Eyes. Ryan’s attempts traveled over the pond, and were undeniably answered. I hoped that an owl would swoop in close over our heads so we could get a visual, but they unfortunately kept their distance.
This quality of night is stunning to witness from land, but to paddle a canoe through it is true coexistence. Although still a mere visitor, I felt more involved and more connected. There were very few natural reference points due to the obscuring darkness. The banks were silhouettes broken only by a distant random campfire. I was physically immersed in the Adirondacks. The moon was new and perfect like a moon before footprints, and its pearly-blue light continuously winked at me from the water’s steady movement. I slowly and quietly moved atop thin, black, metallic ink. After passing a certain point in Jabe, I could navigate back to the tree dock by simply following the giggles. After the day’s adventures, fireside is a private time for dinner and merriment with only good friends. A thermal shirt and jeans became my dinner attire, which was most cozy. We told jokes from our respective tents as we headed towards sleep, somewhat resembling a youth jamboree, but the color of humor kept the bow and arrow making to a minimum. Their achievement books full of signatures, four proud scouts ascend the stage to accept their silly badges.
Ryan and Monica had mentioned an area straight out from our site that they referred to as “the beach.” From this lean strip of sandy-bottom shallows, one can swim out to a submerged rock plateau and enjoy a Pabst Blue Ribbon in the middle of Jabe, while only waist deep. I can not express how much that needed to happen. The next day, each with life jacket and libation, we began a swimming survey. This plateau was significantly difficult to find. We chose different directions, Ryan swimming quite far. Ryan and Monica would call directions to each other over an increasing distance, and after about fifteen minutes of floating, someone was upon it. I do not remember whom. Even Melissa, who had remained on the beach due to an apprehension about the inability to see the pond’s bottom, conquered her fear in order to join us. We, four, stood victorious, surrounded by sights that deserve their own paragraph.
Other than the obvious safety advantage of a life jacket, it allows you to lounge on your back and simply exist on the surface. Let your mind stray as far as possible. When the air temperature at the plateau cooled me to a chill, I would push off with my legs and engage in some of this submerged lounging. Only then, in that position, did I realize where I truly was, and who had allowed us passage. Jabe’s narrows, now to the right could not be seen, and due to the tree-packed hills that rose around me, this portion of the pond seemed a basin, perhaps a deeper part of the Adirondacks whose water reaches down to a much colder, primordial place. The walls of this basin are the most dense uninterrupted growth, with space not even for one more needle. Were it not for my limited knowledge of geology, I would swear that this growth constantly unfolds outward as magma does from the sea floor. I looked up as the guardians of all things green bowed their heads and looked down at me. Their boughs were folded, but always at the ready in case I did something wrong. There is no chance of that. That set of ethics is part of my biology, same as my blood and my bones. I was privileged to share such purity. Earlier, I mentioned truth. The greens that seemed to be aggressively surrounding me were that of new youth, saturated virgin tones whose sole burden is simply to be. They are fresh and vigorous and un-soured by mankind’s meddling. Therein lie uniqueness and the essence of preservation. This place is quite old. Its colors are honest and proud to be the best examples of green. This must be where the great colors are stored, the planet’s archive of dyes. If there is real truth anywhere, it hangs from the branches high above me. I am a small thing and merely passing through.
Our stomachs began to murmur about sausages and granny smiths, so we swam back to the beach and prepared to head back to camp. Besides a bottle of insect repellant and a few PBR carcasses, there was something else that began pooling around my dripping feet. I have made many attempts to wander into paintings, but it unfortunately has remained a fantastic desire.