Letting the kids go wild
By Alexandra Siy
It was the summer of 2009, and pundits and politicians alike were advocating No Child Left Inside. Who could argue?
I had two children left inside (it was the rainiest July on record) who, for that matter, were also left behind (older sister and brother were experimenting with independent living). It was mid-August, and time was running out for a transformative journey into the wild.
Our plan was to canoe to the remote Cold River and explore the western High Peaks Wilderness. We started at the state boat launch on Long Lake in a green canvas canoe and a red kayak. It was the quintessential summer afternoon, and Rory (who is fourteen) soon started to complain—no doubt baking like a foil-wrapped potato under the kayak’s spray skirt.
“Hey,” he shouted, “why can’t we do that?”
He was referring to the kid plowing across the water on a tube behind a speedboat driven by a very cool mom.
“When I grow up,” announced Leo (who is ten), “I’m going to get one of those.”
He was pointing to the Jet Ski whooshing in semicircles and spraying a rainbow arc into the sky.
“Maybe we should have gone to Lake Lila,” said my husband, Eric, wistfully.
For over an hour we paddled steadily, watching clouds organize in the distance.
“Rain,” Eric said, pointing to the gray etching along the western shore. “Five minutes.”
“Let’s stop at that beach,” I said, amazed at its convenient proximity.
As we pulled up on the sand, rain clouds blew on top of us. Big pines on the rise above the water provided shelter while we pulled raincoats out of packs. But within ten minutes the storm had passed, and the boys were splashing in the lake. As the sun set behind the mountains, we pitched our tents and built a fire. A loon wailed from down the lake, and the boundary between civilization and wilderness blurred.
Our gradual immersion in the wild allowed for a recalibration of the senses, a careful opening of the soul. Somewhere along the line, the wilderness within merged with the wilderness without. I don’t know the exact moment this occurred for each of us, but by midmorning of the following day as we paddled by a statuesque heron and glimpsed a soaring osprey, our perception had shifted and we were keenly aware. Our destination: the Cold River—a conduit that reaches deep into the heart of the High Peaks Wilderness.
Long Lake is actually part of the Raquette, the second-longest river in New York Flowing north from Raquette Lake through Long Lake and Tupper Lake, the Raquette River eventually empties into the St. Lawrence River. We paddled it for almost twelve miles before entering the Cold River at a wide and gentle confluence. After passing a secluded lean-to, we came upon a bend where a sandbar had formed. There, we pulled ashore and plunged into the water.
“Actually, it’s not cold,” Leo exclaimed.
“It’s deep here,” called Rory, as he pencil-dropped to the bottom of a pool.
Towels were laid out to dry, Clif Bars were consumed, and drinking water was filtered and gulped. Then we slipped back into the boats and moved deeper into the wild.
When we came to the first rapids, Eric and Rory manhandled the canoe and kayak up the steep and slippery bank and nestled them under bushes along with life jackets, paddles, towels, and flip-flops. Now in sneakers and backpacks, we continued on foot. Our next destination: the Northville-Lake Placid Trail with the ultimate goal of climbing Mount Emmons, Mount Donaldson, and Seward Mountain—three “trailless” peaks in the Seward Range.
Within the first minute we came upon Pine Point, a lovely spot overlooking the river.
“You can have a fire here,” Leo observed, pointing to the circle of rocks.
“Maybe we’ll camp here on the way back,” said Eric.
The trail wound along the riverbank where huge (underline huge) cedars curved skyward and raspberry brambles gave way to big pines and thick moss rugs. These woods conjured images of a gingerbread cottage and an evil witch (how easy for two children to become disoriented and lost in such a place). Our boys stepped quickly through this spooky fairy-tale forest, which was evidently rarely visited. Clearly someone with a machete and a saw had been there earlier in the season, but few others. Now I was left behind in the bracken, which abruptly ended, replaced by a tangle of blown-down trees. Forced to climb over and crawl under several trunks, I finally emerged from the wreckage to find the others resting by a signpost, munching trail mix and swilling water. There were several signs on the post, one of them pointing from where we came: Pine Point 3 miles (dead end trail).
“According to Barbara McMartin, it’s less than three miles,” said Eric, who was consulting Discover the Adirondack High Peaks.
“It seemed like three miles to me,” I said.
“She’s wrong,” agreed Rory.
A few minutes from the junction we came upon Shattuck Clearing, which “isn’t very cleared,” as Leo pointed out.
“It must have grown over,” said Eric.
Anxious to get back to the river, we trod briskly, crossing the Moose Creek on a wood-and-cable suspension bridge, and walked another half-mile through a grove of spruce to a second suspension bridge (this one built from iron and cables) that crossed over a gorge of the Cold River. Big raindrops splashed out of the sky just as we set foot on the bridge’s rusty mesh decking. By the time we reached the other side it was pouring, and we found shelter in the empty lean-to just off the trail.
Eric pulled out his knife and sliced Abruzzo salami while I rolled tortillas with grated mozzarella, and we both pined for a glass of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
“I guess we’re staying here tonight,” I concluded, somewhat depressed.
How could the glorious sunshine so quickly dissolve into buggy mud puddles?
“It smells,” said Leo.
“Like pee,” added Rory.
“Mouse pee,” concluded Eric.
“What time is it?” I asked, unable to make an accurate guess without the sun.
“Six,” answered Eric. “The next lean-to is three-point-seven miles up the trail.”
“Should we go?” he asked. (A polite way of saying can you make it?) After all, we’d already paddled at least twelve miles that day and hiked three more. I was clearly the weakest member of our party, always taking up the rear, like a covered wagon with a bad wheel.
Raindrops sparkled on tree branches as the clouds raced deeper into the mountains, leaving the setting sun unexpectedly naked.
“Let’s go,” I said, hoisting my pack and starting up the trail (suddenly grateful there had been no wine).
It was an easy walk along the river, the trail wide as a road before narrowing and climbing through the balsam forest high above the river. As night enveloped the woods, Eric came back to take my pack. He and the boys had reached the Seward lean-to in little more than an hour. By the time I arrived the boys had collected a pile of wet branches and birch bark.
“I’m starving,” Leo complained.
Eric quickly boiled water on the MSR stove, and we relished instant soup in front of the fire, lit by a dozen matches before the birch bark ignited the lichen-covered branches. Sparking and snapping it warmed our wet feet before quickly burning to embers. We unrolled our sleeping bags by candlelight, but before going to sleep we walked to the rocks by the river to look at the sky.
“Awesome,” said Rory.
Absolutely, there was no other appropriate word.
The next morning we discovered Millers Falls, our very own waterfront real estate, which included a waterslide, Jacuzzi-like jets, a diving platform, and sundeck. How quickly our urge for leisure living replaced our ambitious plan of climbing the Seward Range.
As we drank Folgers Singles, Eric read from McMartin: “As anyone who has walked this route along the river will tell you, this is the best part of the northern segment of the Northville-Lake Placid Trail.”
Nearby, Leo and Rory were jumping off the rocks and floating in the current.
“Let’s just stay here!” cried Leo.
“There’s an old logging camp with abandoned machinery on the way up Emmons,” Eric bribed.
“Or we could just go to the hermitage,” he concluded.
The site of Noah Rondeau’s hermitage was a little less than three miles up the trail, and it sounded intriguing enough to get the boys out of the water. (Mount Emmons will just have to wait.)
This time Barbara was right on: “The next hour between lean-tos is the most pleasant imaginable.”
We took our time, spellbound by the enormous white pines, towering hemlocks, and huge cedars (underline huge again) that had escaped the logger’s ax over one hundred years ago. Eric introduced us to wood sorrel, a lemony-tasting leaf, and Indian cucumber, which I thought tasted like horseradish but Leo said tasted like peas (interesting because he hates peas, but he loved the Indian cucumber), and Rory found beanlike.
Along the way, Rory befriended a frog, Leo spotted a strange spider, and I tried (unsuccessfully) to photograph an inchworm working its way up its thread to a hemlock branch. Leisure time, yes, but transcendent too. Oh, what we would have missed scrambling up those peaks.
The hermitage captured our imaginations—a rusty pail and some half-buried wire were among the few relics remaining. A verse on a plaque honoring the hermit was lag-bolted to a tree.
“Is that legal?” I wondered.
The walk “home” was fast, as we were all anxious to get back in the water and curious how many other hikers had fallen in love with Millers Falls. As anticipated, a group had pitched tents behind the lean-to. This “Gang of Six,” four Gen Y guys, a girlfriend, and a boot-camp-fit fifty-something dad (who swam the butterfly like an Olympian using the river’s current as a workout pool) flipped, dove, and jackknifed from the rocks. Again, Rory: “Awesome!”
After another campfire, another star-studded night, and another lazy morning with coffee on the rocks, we knew that we must press on. We broke camp after lunch. A couple of long-distance trail runners (Coreys to Long Lake!) zoomed by us just before the Cold River bridge. We didn’t camp at Pine Point but opted to paddle as far as we could that evening, knowing all we had left for food was a box of couscous, a half stick of squashed butter, and one Extra Fine Dark Chocolate Bar with Red Chili (the only candy bar I know of that is inedible to young boys).
We made it to a site about halfway up Long Lake before dark. Disappointed that we wouldn’t be eating burgers and fries at the Long Lake Diner, Leo was on the verge of meltdown from hunger and the realization that couscous was the only food left. When the stove sputtered and ran out of fuel, I finished cooking over the fire.
“I’m not eating that,” announced Leo, tearfully.
“It’s really very buttery,” I said, consolingly.
“I hate couscous!” cried Leo, “and I’m not eating it!”
“Just taste it; you can spit it out if you don’t like it.”
Leo tasted it, then devoured every last grain.
The next morning we paddled the remaining five miles up the lake, the smell of Sunday morning bacon and cut grass leading us out of the wild. It was noon when we got to the diner, where Leo ordered a full stack of blueberry pancakes and chocolate milk. Rory got a giant Pepsi and a cheeseburger—and although he was to start a ten-day fencing camp in the Berkshires the next day, we made one more stop on our transformative journey. As we zipped by the Adirondack Museum in the minivan, Eric mentioned that Noah Rondeau’s hermitage was on display there.
“Stop,” said Leo. “I want to see it!”
How couldn’t we? We turned around at the bottom of the hill. Turns out, a gradual transition back into culture completed our wilderness mandala.
No child left inside… a nice idea and a worthy wish. But I know one thing that is true: now there are two more hearts for the Adirondacks.