Opening Camp

The call comes through late on April 30. “Ice is out,” drawls Noah, my laconic carpenter friend. “At noon today. Road seems okay.” A pause. “I’ll help with repairs.” On that note he hangs up. Noah hates phones.

My heart starts racing like that of a caged bird which suddenly finds its door swung open. The worst winter of the century is over and I’m head­ing for camp! No telling what havoc the high winds of November, four-foot drifts of January or Siberian super-cold of February have wreaked upon my log cabin.

Next morning I’m up at 5:30, worrying about the “what ifs.” A come-along and tow chain for what if I veer off the dirt road and bury my truck in a soft shoulder. A propane torch and pry bar for what if the padlock is frozen, or my boat is iced onto shore. An ax for what if ice lingers around my dock and I must chop a channel to land. A life vest for what if I fall in the frigid water while doing that.

Finally my two German shepherds and I arrow off the Northway and into the Adirondack Park. Fog as white as polyester fluff drifts above lakes black as onyx.

It’s hot spring sun heating up ice-cold water; is the year’s third and final death. First the death of summer’s greenery; second, of fall’s vibrant colors; and last, of winter’s rock-hard ice and packed snow.

We reach my sparkling lake and skip to shore. Tears and euphoria engulf me. A pair of loons is two hundred yards away as if anchored there since September. It’s Nina and Verplanck, our lake’s resident couple. I yodel. They answer. My first welcome home.

How lucky I am to feel this way about homecoming in a world where millions return to elevators and nondescript apartments that offer no sense of belonging. Where no loons greet you and confirm one’s har­mony with nature.

Eager to be on the water, I easily unlock my boat, flip it over and slide it into the lake. Wrassling the motor onto the transom, I give three cranks. Eco! Chekika and Xandor leap in and point like bowsprits as we take off. It seems I’m the first one on the lake this spring—a point of enormous pride. Only one good neighbor is back. He lives on the dirt road and is deeply tanned from a Florida winter. So he real­ly doesn’t count, does he?

Halfway up the lake I notice broken treetops along the shore. The woods streaking by are winter worn, beaten, bleak. Not a trace of green at two-thou­sand-feet elevation. A canoe has been smashed. A dock tilted. A neighbor’s camp has actually exploded outward due to the snow load. I dock my boat and walk apprehensively up my trail. The cabin stands intact!

My min-max thermometer registers -38 and 93 degrees, with present air tem­perature at 62. Gingerly I unlock the door. The aroma of wool Navajo rugs, balsam pillows and cold ashes in the wood stove waft out. I draw in the smells hungrily. At once I light the fire that’s been waiting to glow since November. Opening windows to help warm the ice­box interior, I fly outdoors to look for damages. The dogs trot ahead of me, going from outbuilding to outbuilding, sniffing wildly.

The north wind has ripped off the plastic that swathed my lean-to. Its floor is still wet from melted snow. Squirrels have gnawed a new hole in the mattress. No big deal. At the outhouse, a huge pine lies alongside, having gouged a nick in the roof. The hole is filled with ice. Under the cabin roof, a three-foot snow pile lies. No need to light the gas fridge—I’ll keep groceries in a snow hole. I check my long-departed Condor’s and Pitzi’s graves. Still shrouded in snow. Come Memorial Day I’ll carpet my beloved dogs with wildflowers. The woodshed top is atangle with branches. Easy to sweep clean. I carry yellow-birch logs indoors, then stoke the fire. The cabin is mellowing. Flames remind me to fetch water.

On the dock I stand still and soak in the silence. I fill two pails and kneel for my first drink of wild water in six months. It’s probably the cleanest water this side of Montana. mouse droppings and pick up twoboul-toppled by a trespassing squirrel. In tie sleeping loft, I discover old birdseed hid-den in my wool blankets. Such is the extent of interior damages. I scoop up several swallows. The pH be damned. Giardia be damned. In twenty-five years here I’ve never gotten sick. That ritual over, I lug the pails up to the cabin. Beside the trail, in the same thicket as last spring, a winter wren is belting out his melody. My second welcome.

Time to think of tranquil time as sunset nears. And dinner. I slide a pre-cooked casserole into my small gas oven and step outside to turn on the propane tanks. Praying that no lines have cracked due to severe cold, I sniff along the system until sure all’s safe. Supper is warming while Chekika and Xandor eye me expectantly. I feed them extra, knowing how hungry the mountain air and exercise has made them.

Late light dancing off the lake turns my log room golden. I sweep up some mouse droppings and pick up two books toppled by a trespassing squirrel. In the sleeping loft, I discover old birdseed hidden in my wool blankets. Such is the extent of interior damages.

I head down to the dock and, rocking gently, I snuggle in my winter jack­et, my steaming dinner held on my lap. The sun sets behind bare trees. Two white gulls wheel overhead. Not a sound. I contemplate my good fortune after this horrific winter. Seems to me that nature tempered her fury predic­tably with protective snows, strong trees, thick ice. She’s brought the Earth full circle to feel the caress of a warm sun again. All the forest refuse and litter will slowly turn into rich duff. Green plants and bright birds shall soon return.

Yet it also seems to me that nature deals out as much chaos as predictability. Why was my neighbor’s camp flattened but m mine? Why was another’s woodshed canted cockeyed? Why was someone’s canoe smashed but not my three? This wild winter treated my property and cabin kindly. The next may not….

A barred owl hoots across the lake so chill. My third welcome home.


Opening Camp
Rights of Passage The curious and convoluted story of how our great open canoe routes became posted preserves
Meow Mix A biologist investigates the catalog of elusive Adirondack wild felines
Upstairs/Downstairs at Sagamore The millionaire's son and the caretaker's daughter shared a Great Camp childhood
The Baby Farm Labor days at a Port Henry landmark
Ghost Stories Remembering lost Adirondack ski areas
The 46 Blitz Thirty-five years ago, a quartet of college kids attempted to bag the biggest peaks in one arduous winter outing
Adaptive Reuse A Manhattan author's second act in the North Country
The Giving Tree In praise of the benevolent yellow birch
The Man Who Would Be King Roger Jakubowski's dream of an Adirondack empire
The Immunity Community Saranac Lake's Trudeau Institute has been at the forefront of the battle against disease for forty years.
The Headstone Tells All The untimely grave of a Bakers Mills family
Future Shock The coming Adirondack climate
The Truth about Teddy Modern politicians invoke Roosevelt's legacy—but do they get it?
Martha and Fred Visiting Weller Pond—where seventy years ago an unlikely friendship was forged—to discover the healing power of the woods.
Arto Monaco From Tinseltown to Land of Makebelieve: a portrait of Upper Jay's old master
The Search for Steven Thomas He vanished on Marcy's summit six years ago, but his family and friends still hope to solve the mystery
From the Archives: The Walk to Take Today
From the Archives: Forty Acres and a Vote How Gerrit Smith gave Adirondack land and hope to thousands of African-Americans
From the Archives: Blood Sport How I almost missed the Miracle on Ice
From the Archives: Ambushed Did hero worship trump history at Lake Placid’s John Brown Farm?
From the Archive: The Great Blowdown Forty years after the North Country's biggest, baddest weather
From the Archives: Far Out Cranberry Lake's summer of drugs
From the Archives: Scandal in Long Lake
Noah LaCasse: Presidential Hiking Mate
Victor Schwentker The gerbil genius and rat wrangler of Brant Lake
Winslow Homer’s Adirondack Life
Do You Know the People in These Old Photographs?
Voters Will Decide Fate of Raquette Lake Land
Swap Talk