Never play poker with a man named Doc, eat at a restaurant called Mom’s or stay on a lake with moose or elk in the name. There is irresistible poetry in that portion of the Appalachian Mountains that come to rest in the East at the shores of Lakes Champlain and George. They reach as far as the Mohawk Valley in the South, and are stopped on the West by the perennially snowbound Tug Hill Plateau. They are the Adirondacks.
One winter day, with cabin fever raging in my blood, I was perusing a fishing magazine and heard the siren call: Moose Lake Lodge. There was a picture of a mythological lagoon lacking only Lernaean nymphs to claim kinship with the other world. An authoritative looking log edifice presided over this lake, the grandsire of all lodges. Here were easy trails, blooming wild flowers, a beach bursting with happy children. Canoes waited to be paddled into schools of gullible, loitering brook trout, eager to leap at even the most ludicrous imitation insect, however clumsy the presentation. How could I resist?
There was more: all meals were included in the price, no endless driving in search of bad restaurants or poorly stocked stores for we, the lucky lodge inmates. Broiled trout almandine, prime rib au jus, barbecued chicken all just waiting for us and our bring-your-own summer vintages. I began thinking of Vouvray, of fine German Rieslings, sweet with the yielding breath of hillside blooms, and for that prime rib, an inky purple wine of the Nebbiolo grape. I began taking an inventory of my store of tackle. I would be positively hauling trout from the lake in droves. I needed new fly lines for the 4, 5, 6 and 8 wt. rods, both floating and sink tip. I imagined lake run browns with menacing, lantern jaws, grown gargantuan on their brook trout victims. At least ONE new reel wouldn’t hurt. Oh, be traditional I thought, a bamboo rod to match. How can I insult these waters with anything less? Then there were my fly boxes, filled like decaying cities with the random occupants of decades. Those elegant English fly boxes with windowed compartments; they would solve this problem in a trice. One each for dry flies, wet flies, streamers, small bass bugs and large. By the time I had finished with Orvis, LL Bean, EBay and assorted other drug peddlers, I had spent over $5000.
“Honey,” I said, now that I had laid in the requisite essentials, wouldn’t a week in the Adirondacks be fun? I found a place with private cabins, meals, activities for kids, even the dog can come. “ This would be a dream getaway, effortless and fun.
“I’ll bet you could get a massage under the pine trees, think of the aroma of Arnica oil on the summer breeze?”
“You know what will happen. You will disappear with your fishing rod and I will have to take care of Alice.”
“Why don’t we get another family to come too, Rob and Sandra Lurie? Their boys are Alice’s age and you could play tennis with Sandra?
I called Sandra on the spot and she loved the idea. Before the day was over we had neighboring cabins on Moose Lake for two weeks in August. The months flew by like cars on the interstate and before I knew it we were packing.
“Alice, I told you about Tug Hill, that place at the western edge of the Adirondacks? There is a little village there called Montague that holds the New York State record for snow fall in a single day: 6 feet, 5 inches.”
“You’re lying,” said Alice. Alice plows our driveway with a small Case garden tractor and knows about snow.
“Hunting camps and year round cabins build 2nd front entry doors on the top floor so that people can get in when it snows like that. “
“They do that in Michigan too,” Joan added. She is always ready to defend her home state against claims of the Eastern elite.
Three weeks before we started the packing began. Clothes for hiking, tennis, swimming, and fishing. And clothes to “look nice” for those candle lit dinners with wine. All the fly fishing and spinning rods, reels and related gear. An electric motor with battery and charger to use on the lake. The dog’s bed, food and bowls. A dry run to pack the SUV was made. There was no room for Alice and the dog. An extraterrestrial black pod was acquired and installed on the roof of the vehicle. This proved sufficient for the fishing tackle and there was room at last for the critical passengers with the dog sitting next to Alice on the back seat with gear piled illegally high next to and in back of them. We got as far as Tuxedo, NY before my wife remembered Alice’s special vitamins, then another false start for the dog’s allergy medicine. At last we were underway and got as far as the first rest area: Alice had to go. Then the 2nd service stop: my wife had to go. The 3rd rest area and it was the dog’s turn. I joined the dog and pissed again a tree. Even though I was some distance from the parking lot and facing into the woods, it always irked my wife when I did this. I must insert that at this writing I am referring to my ex-wife, Alice’s mother. My current wife, well come to think of it, she objects to my doing this as well. Well, there is no help for it; I am too old to change.
We headed north at last and we started playing the animal spotting game. I give Alice $1 for correctly identifying birds and animals. We passed through Albany, NY
“Look, there. A rare New York pigmy salamander,” I shouted.
“They are cookie eaters. Hide your cookies.”
“Come on Dad, I am too old for that.” Alice was 7.
“They cry if they don’t get at least one…”
On the ride she spotted gulls and pigeons at the first expressway rest stop, Canada geese beside the side of the road like a tour group that has gotten off a broken down bus, sparrows and gray squirrels at a more bucolic rest area, a doe with two fawns when we got off the thruway and were inside the Adirondack park proper, and towards the end of the trip, a flock of turkeys. Anyone who has ever hunted turkeys in the field has mixed feelings about them like the proverbial mother in law driving over a cliff in your favorite classic car. I thought of several failed attempts to call in spring gobblers and muttered under my breath. Still, no matter how often I see them I am struck by their majesty, joint rulers of our Eastern deciduous woods with the white tails. They appear and disappear like the fairy people in Old Irish tales and are the creatures of dreams.
Ever hopeful, I once purchased a box call online after reading a book and watching a video on turkey calling. The sound emitted by scraping the top piece over the box is intended to approximate a love lorn hen turkey longing for her mate. I strolled out onto our deck, which enjoyed a vista of the Musconetcong River – our lawn ended at the riverbank, with woods beyond and on both sides of our yard. Off to the right was a swamp full of skunk cabbage that trickled into the river. I sat down and gave the call a few scrapes to see how it sounded. It was about 3 PM early in May, the magic month of legal spring gobbler hunting in most of our lower 48. The overtone series of my clumsy scrapes had barely ceased their climb beyond the grasp of human hearing when a gobbler shot out of the swamp and came to a halt not 20 yards from where I sat. He took a good look at me, determined that I did not remotely resemble a lady turkey, emitted the putt putt sound of distaste as described on the video, and beat a speedy retreat back into the swamp. Ah ha! I would fix his wagon. I prepared most of the evening. I got out my 12 gauge and screwed in the extra full turkey choke. I got out a box of copper-plated #4 turkey shells. I laid out my cammo with the spring hat and face mask. I set the clock for 4 AM. By 4:30 AM I was dressed and in the field, or I should say yard, in a cammo seat in the shadow of an elephantine poplar that towered over the back porch. The sun raised its blood-shot eye and hovered on the horizon as if waiting to be told that coffee had been prepared. As stealthfully as a Lenape Indian I drew my box call from my special cammo Spring gobbler knapsack and gave it a gentle rasp. Nothing. I gave it a more insistent rasp that an experienced hen might emit who longs for something she remembers fondly and well; nothing still. I gave an angry yelp the likes of which a hen might give who does not like to be kept waiting. Nothing. That damn turkey bird, with a brain the size of a quarter. I had educated him and he was not going to be fooled twice. I collected my gear and trooped back into the house. But I digress.
Back on the road we lost a fan belt. A large SUV is not much fun to drive without power steering, which is what I had to do for 30 miles of back roads to a service station. We waited 2 hours for the 10 minute job. The mechanic was determined to show us that he was not about to rush for people from New Jersey. The worst had to be over and we were about to enter paradise. This trip was made during those remote, primitive days before GPS when peopled used maps and printed out directions: “How to get here from the South”
Somehow we had managed to get it very wrong. The NY Thruway and 87 branch apart at Albany. They are one and the same up until that point. My wife and I were arguing about a fine point of child rearing at the critical juncture and I followed the NY Thruway west toward Buffalo when I should have continued North on 87. A kindly State trooper who was a turkey hunter (he noticed Alice’s junior Wild Turkey Federation sticker) came to our aid. “My boy just killed his first gobbler.” He showed us a picture of his son in cammo, next to a vast gobbler. “He killed it with a bow, called it in himself, then got on the bus and went to school.” I would gladly have strangled the brat with his own bowstring but I smiled appreciatively.” The trooper drew on our map a corkscrew route of back roads that the retreating militia might have taken in the French and Indian War.
“This will get you back to 87 North just above Saratoga. We had gone hours out of our way. The remainder of our misadventures were too dull to recount here and at last we arrived at the lodge, having just missed dinner and in a pre-divorce humor. It was dusk and there was mist on the lake. We had not yet bathed in oil of citronella and were bitten savagely by mosquitoes. There were screens on the cabin windows and once inside we bathed and applied the much needed precaution.
The morning was bright. The sun had commenced its bagatelle and a breeze blew in time to leaves which rustled out their Elizabethan round. Pancakes, juice and coffee, the camper’s favorite meal, awaited us at the lodge. What could be nicer than a stroll en famille along the lake’s shore to the lodge?
In spite of a heavy slathering of insect repellant we were attacked more savagely than the night before. The mosquitoes were joined by biting flies. There was nothing in the brochure about the flies. We positively ran like routed skirmishers and arrived shrieking at the Lodge. Oh, you didn’t know, said a fellow inmate. You need to wear mosquito netting. Face, neck and ankles. Long sleeved shirts and long pants that have been sprayed with the scourge of all living things. It was to be a grim imprisonment. Even these extreme measures barely deterred the insect world’s warring tribes from ravaging our poor flesh. At the front desk they were doing a brisk trade in face and ankle masks. Now dressed like Ninja beekeepers we strode out into the sunshine and ran smack into Rob and Sandra having a screaming fight. Our tranquil vacation was to be characterized by our battles with the insect world and their battles with each other.
There was one bright spot: on a particularly hot, dry day the bugs were at a temporary loss, waiting like wraiths for dusk to descend and set them free. Unfettered by them we climbed a rather difficult trail that wound up to a high peak. The going became difficult, the trail increasingly overgrown. Just as we were about to make the summit a pair of ruffed grouse exploded out of a clump of dwarf pines. I thought I would have a heart attack, the explosion in that tranquility being so unexpected. I carried the excitement of seeing these splendid creatures with me not only down the mountain, and through the rest of the trip but until this very day. If you say the word grouse that pair of birds returns me to an August afternoon long ago in the Adirondack’s High Peaks.