Up Fish Creek with a paddle
By Akum Norder
I don’t get to the woods much. I feel sheepish admitting this fact, especially in an Adirondack newspaper. I rarely camp, rarely even go hiking; nature is something I visit on day trips with smooth trails and picnics. And when I do visit, I sometimes feel an—I wouldn’t call it an uneasiness, but perhaps an awareness—that I don’t know how to read the signs here, that this isn’t my place. I’ve always been more comfortable with a city’s structure, noise, and people sheltering me: I can pretend I know where the edges of the world are.
But on a September visit to my friend Phil in Saranac Lake, the neat boundaries of my world were about to blur.
“We’ve been talking about taking the canoe out tomorrow,” says my fiance, Gary. A voyage of seven hours, give or take, on the Fish Creek circuit around the Rollins Pond Public Campground—10 miles, he says. Ten miles? In a canoe? There’s more: Ribs bruised from a complicated badminton accident, Gary was in no shape to handle a paddle. I’d have to do it all in the front—with Phil in the back, of course. But I didn’t think of that at first. I looked at Gary unbelievingly, then looked at my upper arms and wondered if I were up to this. I flexed a muscle. The flesh jiggled, slightly.
The next morning, I was working those muscles across a series of waterways named with charming practicality: Fish Creek, Square Pond, Little Square Pond. It was a crisp, sunny morning, and so beautiful that I felt guilty for getting to sit at the front of the canoe, with no one’s back impeding my view of the morning light on the water, the trees in that dark green they get when they’re about to change.
“Am I rowing fast enough?” I asked.
“You’re doing fine,” Phil said. “But you’re paddling, not rowing.”
The water was deserted—we were the only humans ever to cross it, the only creatures for a hundred miles other than birds and the jittery insects skimming the water—or so it seemed. That illusion, I learned, is much more difficult to maintain in the summer, when the route can get crowded with canoes and even motorboats near the public campsites. But on a September Monday, we were the first pioneers, once we set off from the state campground at Fish Creek Ponds and got out of sight of the campers and tents.
We made our way northwest through Fish Creek and up to Little Square Pond. At times the water was thick with grasses, the route sheltered and made intimate by heavy trees. Different textures of light played underwater as the depths changed.
After crossing Little Square, we followed a narrow channel to Floodwood Pond and stopped for lunch on an island, feeling like pirates in a storybook. As we set out again, I reflected that I had always thought of water as the edge of where it is possible to go. Your car, your feet will take you to the shore, and no farther. And roads force conformity—we travel the grid laid out by others. But on the water, nothing hindered us. On the water, we set our own path.
I had long before begun to feel the rhythmic ache in my arms. I’d try to skip a stroke now and then, when I thought the fellows wouldn’t notice, and was always willing to pull in the paddle for a few minutes of admiring the view. This is probably why it seemed to us that we spent the whole day in the company of Floodwood Mountain. We’d turn our heads and joke—”Look! It’s following us!” But our slow progress also forced me to remember that we had nowhere else to be, no project more pressing than admiring a mountain, watching it change as the light changed from overhead to afternoon.
Leaving Floodwood Pond, we cut through a narrow channel and we scraped bottom. First Phil and then Gary got out to wade. I pulled in my paddle, rubbed my tired arms and breathed it in: Here, gold-green light striped the water, and the saplings leaned in close over our heads. The light shimmered down to the channel bed, dappling the stones. I couldn’t stop smiling.
As we emerged onto Rollins Pond, we spied a tiny dot of island in the distance that seemed just made for swimming: The bedrock rolled free of the trees and then sloped into the water. We made our way to it, just because we could, and indulged in a few minutes of cold laughing and splashing.
After sunning ourselves, we explored the island, a canopy of pines over two mounds of rock. I wished I had been there as a child, when I had so wanted to be Robin Hood—there, in the curve of the boulder, would be the perfect place for our bandits’ camp—no one would see the fire! And here, dancing on the flat rock with Maid Marian and the rest—and here, on the ledge, we can sit at night and watch the turning of the river.
The afternoon brought loons, which I had never seen before. They seemed to me to be improbable birds, with their steady red eyes and the mysterious way they disappear—and just when you think they’ve really vanished this time, they materialize halfway across the pond, unimpressed by our delight.
The afternoon also brought our portages. The idea of carrying a canoe seemed strange to me and looked even stranger: grown people trying to avoid running into trees while wearing big objects on their heads. A couple of the portages (there were four in all) were made more adventuresome by a lack of cleared paths. Leaving the guys in the canoe, I volunteered to dash up over the hill and see if we’d be able to get through. But as soon as I lost sight of the canoe, I realized this was no nature trail: My feet sank into mattresses of leaves and I scraped my shins on the thick brush. I imagined myself out there alone. What if I got turned around? Are there bears here? Trees flanked trees in borderless anarchy—and for a few moments, I felt something like fear. And then—the sight of light on the next pond. Looking back where I’d come, I planned the shortest, smoothest route for the canoe (in relative terms) and marched back to find my companions.
The next-to-last portage brought us to a pond that was unnamed on our map. What should we name it? As we paddled we thought of lots of fanciful names that didn’t quite fit. They weren’t necessary; the secluded circle of water needed no overstatement. We settled on Tamarack Pond, for the trees that lined its shores.
With late-afternoon light streaming sideways at us across the water, we returned at last to the place we’d started. I felt that days had gone by. Rubbing my muscles as Phil and Gary secured the canoe to the car, I rotated my arms above my head, just to see if they were still capable of such exertions. To my surprise, they were—and I stretched them taut above my head as I looked back across the water, enjoying the satisfying ache of accomplishment.