BRAVING THE WILDERNESS
by Leslie Sittner
“I can’t go down there. I just can’t.” I’m sitting slumped in the passenger seat of Jim’s powder blue Ford Escort wagon shaking my head pitifully from side to side. Jim is my high school sweetheart, now my second-husband-to-be.
He gently covers my hand with his, “Why not, Red? We’ve come all this way…”
“I can’t bear to see the place as it is now. All my wonderful memories of our camp will be ruined.”
“Whatever you want to do is okay with me. Let’s sit for a bit.”
We’re parked in the pull-off at the top of the paved driveway that leads to what once was my childhood summer retreat on Schroon Lake. It was a log cabin built by my father and grandfather in 1949 from cedar trees harvested on the property. The family spent fifteen years here. Originally we had no electricity. A dirt trail led down to the cabin and lake. We made our own woven pack baskets from strips of white ash to carry in our supplies. Eventually electric power reached us and we had a rough driveway. We never did have running water or plumbing, rather clear mountain spring water and an outhouse. Dad sold it when I was away at college. The owners razed it and built a real house. Indoor plumbing, electric everything, a paved driveway instead of dirt. The works.
I decide that I can’t see this replacement.
I whined for this nostalgia trip until Jim agreed to a long July weekend to visit my old stomping grounds and see the cabin site. The family that we grew up with still has their cabin next door. Their three adult children with grandchildren use it regularly. I expected to see at least one of them with their family but the chain is up across their driveway. Evidently no one is there this weekend.
“Let’s just get back on the road. We’ll get to Crane Pond early, set up our tent and have a nice supper over a fire.” I stop feeling sorry for myself, sniffle quietly, and comment, “This lake road has a proper name now, Adirondack Road. And it’s paved. It was narrow and dirt when we used it. Progress. You can’t fight it, I guess.”
When we’re approaching the sign for Gull Pond Jim smiles, “Do you want to take a walk in and check it out for old time sake?” He knows how special this place was to me growing up.
I see that there are six large vehicles parked every which way in the pull-off area. “No. I guess I’ll forego that adventure, too. With so many people in there, probably abusing the trail and the pond, another memory will be destroyed. But thanks, sweetie.”
My mind now easily slips into the recollection of my father’s obsession with keeping these forests and ponds pristine. He’d be upset whenever thoughtless visitors parked inconsiderately, left garbage, ruined trails, or destroyed nature in any way. By mid-summer the area ponds and their environs would be trashed. Dad couldn’t tolerate it. He’d go off in the twilight and return two hours later in darkness. We never asked where he’d been. But the next time we’d go to one of the ponds, the state designation signs would mysteriously be missing. He did this every summer.
We travel another few miles before the turn onto Crane Pond Road. I’m only slightly familiar with this pond. It’s at the base of Pharaoh Mountain that we’d climbed a couple times as kids. We chose it now because it has proper campsites; Jim and I decided that we’re too old to bushwhack and camp in the wild.
The road is in fairly good condition so it’s easy going. We approach the campsite register at the entrance to the pond parking area to find its support timber cut in half and the register lying shredded on the ground.
Should we continue? We’ve come so far…
“I guess we can’t sign in. I wonder what that’s all about. Looks like someone took a chainsaw to it.”
I gesture toward the large boulders scattered around, “Yeah, and it looks as if these may have been moved. Do you think they were decorative? It must have been sooome party weekend. I hope the perpetrators are gone.”
We drive through the parking area and continue down to the pond. There’s not another soul anywhere to be seen or heard. We find a perfect site 30 feet from the waters edge, surrounded by trees, and covered with a soft mattress of pine needles and dry moss. Together we unload the tent and gear, the canoe from the roof, food, and two ancient canvas folding chairs. Jim returns the car to the parking lot and comes back with something long, narrow, and rolled in a blanket.
“Just in case,” he mutters.
“Whaty’ya got there? Just in case of what?”
“Ahh, it’s a rifle. My 22. In case we’re annoyed by large critters. I’ll hide it on the floor between my air mattress and the side wall of the tent.”
I shrug ‘whatever’.
It doesn’t take us long to set up our homestead. We open the two chairs, sit quietly sipping our warmish beer, listening to the sounds of nature, and marveling at the beauty of this place. We note how lucky we are to be alone in this wilderness retreat.
This reverie lasts 20 minutes.
A large bulky man drives up, stops his vehicle 50 feet away, gets out, scowls at us by way of acknowledgement, and unloads.
“Okay, this is pretty rude. There are plenty other more private sites he could go to. There’s no one here. He’s closer than any two adjacent sites. Should we say something?”
My always-non-confrontational man says, “Nah, just nod and give a little wave. Let’s go about our business.”
He sets up his tent facing us. He leaves his vehicle in place. He sits in a camp chair, facing us and stares. He never moves, cooks, eats, or swats at bugs. Just glares at us.
Sweat is seeping into my dry clothes.
We start a campfire, prepare and eat our supper. All the while this man doesn’t move. Just stares at us. I want to take a little walk before dark but I’m afraid to leave our place unattended. I’m afraid to relieve myself. I’m afraid to go to sleep. Sweat has accumulated; my clothes are soaked. Jim is acting blasé about this bizarre situation but I know he’s concerned as well. He’s nervously organizing things. He never does that.
When the fire dies down, he’s still staring at us. We crawl into the tent and our sleeping bags. “I’m glad you brought the 22. This guy might be the ‘just in case’ scenario”, I whisper.
We lay there for a while. Soon I hear deep snores next to me. I’m thinking about the day and feeling the disappointment of not seeing my old camp, Gull Pond, or my childhood friends. I’m wondering if my damp clothes will be dry by morning when I finally drift off.
In the morning all I hear is birdsong. I’m hesitant to unzip the tent door.
Is the jerk still here? Will he watch us all day?
I shake Jim awake. He blinks, yawns, “Is he still here?”
“I don’t know yet. I’m waiting for you, big guy.”
He unzips the tent, we both sneak a peek. Gone. Empty. Nada.
“Well, this is good news. Let’s hope he doesn’t return with friends.”
Our relief is palpable. We both start fussing around with bedding and clothing in the tent. I’m nervously humming. Jim’s whistling absentmindedly. Suddenly we both stop, start to laugh, and have a hug.
Outside the pond is like glass. Mist is casually rising up and away allowing the sun to create mirrored reflections of the surrounding forest on the water. Water fowl are everywhere. We watch a snowy egret waiting to dine. A blue heron comes in for a landing. A mother mallard paddles by with her brood. Occasionally fish jump leaving telltale rings.
“Now this is what I’m talkin’ about! If we’re lucky no one else will show up and we’ll have the place to ourselves.”
We have a leisurely breakfast with delicious camp coffee. We discuss a plan for the day and decide not to climb Pharaoh Mountain; we’ll stay at Crane Pond, paddle around in the canoe, maybe fish for brookies or lake trout, explore, swim, and simply soak up nature.
It’s so peaceful and calm. No one else invades our privacy; the pond is ours. We manage to do all we set out to. We marvel at how exhausted this day of easy pleasure has made us. After an early evening swim, Jim strings up a rope between two trees for a clothesline to dry our wet suits and towels. We didn’t catch any fish for dinner but we make do with store-bought stew, cocktails, and toasted marshmallows for dessert. Despite using repellent, the mosquitoes have been feasting on us since dusk and we’re sick of fighting them off. When only embers remain, we douse the fire and fall into bed early, comatose.
“Help. Help. Help me!” I’m awakened by shouts from a young female voice.
Jesus, what now? Are we in for another night of terror?
“Honey, wake up. Come on, WAKE UP. There’s a girl screaming from somewhere nearby.”
He rallies reluctantly. He hears her now. We throw on some clothes, grab a lantern and flashlight. We can tell these now plaintive cries are coming from the direction of the mountain trail. We head toward the trailhead. Just as we arrive, a frantic young woman stumbles into us in the dark. She has no flashlight, no gear, no appropriate footwear, and is scratching scores of bloody bug bites.
“Oh, thank God! I was lost! My friends are still up the mountain and they’re lost too. We got separated. I don’t know how I made it here in the dark…”
Is she the scout teasing us into trusting her with a tale of woe? When her friends appear, will we be tortured and robbed?
After last night, my mind is creating nasty scenarios…
We lead her back to our site. With false calm I wet a small towel and encourage her to clean off the mosquito wounds. We invite her into the tent to avoid the bugs. She’s very hesitant but acquiesces. It’s very crowded. I offer her repellent but she declines.
I can’t stand it any longer,”What were you kids doing up on the mountain at night with no lights or bug spray? What were you thinking?”
“I guess we didn’t realize how long it would take us to climb up and get back down…”
I’m finished with my scold.
Did I annoy her? Will she tell her friends?
We sit in silence for a long while. Jim’s about to fall asleep sitting up when we hear shouting and laughter from a group tramping loudly as they exit the trailhead. I peek out of the tent. They have no lights either.
In the glare of my flashlight our young guest shrieks, “That’s my friends! Thanks for your help. Bye!”
They’re covered in swollen bug bites, too. They’re laughing and doing high fives all around.
I shake my head, “Those kids have no idea how lucky they are, do they?”
We sleep in and miss the mist. It’s 10 a.m. and the sun is warm and soothing. I decide to take a bath in the pond to rid my body of dried sweat and bug repellent. The water feels sensuous on my birthday suit. Jim is happily humming as he’s making coffee and scrounging up some breakfast. I wonder out loud what this day will bring.
Suddenly I hear the deep rumble of engines. Many engines. Horns begin to blare in a symphony of different tones and rhythms. Voices are now yelling and chanting aggressively in an atonal cacophony. I can’t understand any of the words. Jim and I are stock-still as we see the first of the vehicles approach.
I remember that I’m naked.
“Oh, my God, throw a blanket over the clothesline. I gotta get out of here. Grab me some clothes from the tent. And a towel!”
Before I can get behind the blanket, a woman jumps out of a van brandishing what looks to be a microphone. She’s quickly followed by a man with a large professional looking camera.
I cower behind the blanket as Jim tosses me towel and clothes. He steps in front of her with his back to the clothesline and tells her to back off. He glares at the guy with the camera. I don’t even dry myself. My clothes are sticking to my damp body as I try to wrestle them into place.
Meanwhile fifteen vehicles are disgorging their shouting occupants and they’re nearing our campsite en masse. Jim looks panicked.
He quickly comes behind the blanket, pulls me aside and whispers, “You’ll have to manage this yourself for a few minutes. I’ve got to get the goddamn rifle back in the car. This crowd could be a problem. I don’t want to antagonize anyone with the sight of a weapon.”
Microphone Woman is now shoving it in my face over the clothesline. “Where do you stand on the issue of keeping the Crane Pond Road open to vehicles? Should the DEC be allowed to close it again?”
In 1987 Crane Pond was officially classified as part of the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness. No motorized access was allowed in designated wilderness areas. Crane Pond Road goes two miles into the Wilderness area and terminates at Crane Pond. This dirt roadway was supposed to be closed to motorized traffic. It remained illegally open until 1989 when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) ordered it closed. They placed large boulders across the entrance to prevent trespass. It’s now the summer of 1990 and we know nothing of this history. I’ve been living in New York City for the past 21 years and Jim lives in the southern Adirondacks on The Great Sacandaga Lake.
I stare at her blankly from behind the clothesline. “We didn’t know it was supposed to be closed. We just drove in. Look, I came up here from New York City for a quiet weekend in the woods. I grew up down the road in a log cabin and wanted to see the area again.”
She breaks into a gleeful frenzy, “Local girl! City girl! Oh, jeez, this is great!”
She tells the cameraman to come in close to us.
My hair is a mess. I’m wearing no makeup. And as I look down, I see I’ve pulled my shorts on backwards. The pocket and label are on the front.
I scream at them, “NO. ABSOLUTELY NOT!
They ignore me and proceed to video my every move. Suddenly I don’t care what I look like. I want out of here.
Meanwhile, Jim quietly and quickly takes the rifle roll along with an armload of bedding, stows it in the canoe, and paddles away to the load it into the car in the parking lot. Since the area is crammed with vehicles, we can’t pull the car around to load up. He returns with the empty canoe. Together we fold, pack, and transport all our gear via several of these canoe trips.
Eventually the media people lose interest in us. I notice that the angry horde is an odd combination of two stereotype groups. They’re evenly split between these two disparate groups: The high tech attired nature-loving folks driving small well-maintained cars and the flannel and blue jean crowd driving rusted eight cylinder pick-ups. They’re milling around in their cohort not sure what to do next.
Jim returns with the canoe for the last load and tells me to get in. We paddle to the parking area, stow the last gear and load the canoe on the roof. Because of Jim’s packing job, the car looks like we’re homeless and living in it.
We start the car and as if scripted, all the vehicles roar to life. It’s deafening. It’s terrorizing. Jim and I gape at each other.
“What the hell do we do now? Are we captives? Where’s the media when you need them?”
“I’m gonna try to slowly drive on. We’ll be fine,” he reassures me.
We can’t go far. A mix of vehicles flows out of the parking area ahead of us. There is a pause and we’re urged to proceed, followed by the remaining group of vehicles. We’re caught in the middle. The yelling and chanting begins. We can’t understand whatever they’re saying. People are hanging out of the beds of the pick-ups. It’s intimidating. We’re barely moving at five miles per hour.
This will take all day. Will we make it out alive?
The slow repetitive noise and movement soon puts us in a calm stupor.
“Ya know this is a strange mix of people. Tree-huggers and locals. Together. Hmmm.”
I nod in agreement, “Yeah, I noticed that myself. I wonder what brought this about.”
Eventually we come to the intersection with Adirondack Road and the lead group bears left onto it. Jim and I see this, grin at each other, and when it’s our turn, make a quick right and head to Schroon Lake village.
No one follows us. We escaped! We giggle with relief.
Almost in unison we blurt, “I’m starving. Let’s have lunch.”
While we’re having a huge meal, we engage the waitress in conversation. Casually we ask her about problems at Crane Pond. She jumps on the topic telling us that there have been a number of protests in the last couple years.
“The local Adirondackers and the environmentalists both love the wilderness but have different objectives. We, the locals, want the road left open for motorized use. We’re upset that the state forbids us to drive into the backcountry. We want easy access to it. It’s our heritage and culture. We are generations of folks that have used that road for logging, trapping, and hunting.”
Apparently the environmentalists are from outside the area and agree with the DEC: Isolated roads to remote forest areas should be closed. According to them, the well-being of the environment should be the overriding priority in the Adirondack Park.
She tells us that her local boys rolled the boulders away from the entrance; that there have been other protests on that road. Jim and I share today’s protest experience. She doesn’t seem surprised, only amused.
When I ask her why the two groups of adversaries were being civil toward each other, she chuckles and snorts out, “With the press there, do you think either group wants to look bad? You can bet it was hard for my boys to behave but they know there’s more at stake.”
We tip her generously and get change for the pay phone. Jim calls his sister in Schenectady, gives her a brief synopsis of today and tells her to watch the 5 and 6 p.m. Channel 13 News and the Plattsburg TV station if she can get it. There’s supposed to be coverage in the Glens Falls newspaper. We can look for that tomorrow.
On the drive back to Jim’s home, I reflect on the dramatic events of the last three days. I accept that I’m sad and disappointed that this nostalgia trip didn’t maintain my happy childhood memories of people and places.
But now I realize that I have an exciting new set of memories to begin Day 4.
I wonder if anyone will notice that my shorts are on backwards.
Leslie Sittner’s print works are available in The Apple Tree by Third Age Press (2016 -17-18-19), Adirondack Life Magazine, BraVa anthology, and read on WAMC/NPR. Online poems and prose reside at Silver Birch Press, 101Words, 50 Word Challenge, 50 Word Stories, and Epic Protest Poems. A collection of essays about European travels with her ex-husband in the late 1960s awaits publishing. Leslie is currently helping her ancient dog finish a memoir.