Rain. Rain. More rain. This was not the homecoming I had in mind. Back in Southern California, we could go a respectable five months out of the year without rainfall, but here in the Northeast, not a single day was passing without an inconvenient deluge. I couldn’t get away from it. Neither could the animals. I witnessed a bear doing the dog-paddle across Whitney Point Reservoir in a rainstorm, and I felt similarly out of place amid so much precipitation.
But regardless of monsoon conditions, the time had come to put pen to paper and begin another summertime collection of outdoor stories … if only I could find the right opportunity to go outside. The high rainfall had created countless pools of stagnant water, allowing mosquitoes to breed by the billions and making backcountry camping an unattractive proposition. Many trails had become boot-sucking swamps, and I wasn’t inspired to trudge through such unpleasant terrain.
Of course, several communities in upstate New York were dealing with more pressing issues than recreation, such as clearing mud from the streets and pumping out basements after the latest round of flooding. I had lived in drought-afflicted California for so long, I had to remember how to relate. In my own hometown, roads were temporarily closed and overrun with water from the Chenango River.
One night I stood atop a bridge near the flooded fairgrounds and noticed a river otter taking advantage of its expanded habitat. I mistook it for a floating branch at first, but then it veered from its downstream path and paddled to the muddy shore. Looking somewhat bedraggled for a creature supposedly adapted to water, the weasel hopped onto some rocks twenty feet away and turned its dark, beady eyes in my direction. It stared at me for a time, head tilted and whiskers twitching. Then other interests overcame curiosity, and the otter bounded off to work some mischief in the tall grasses beneath the bridge.
With little incentive to take to the woods, I tried to focus on visiting family members. But in a last-ditch effort to get some trail time before I flew back to California, I borrowed a car and drove up to the Adirondacks. These mountains were old friends. They were densely-forested, with bald, rounded tops and thousands of ponds and lakes at their feet. And thanks to a clause inserted into the New York State constitution in 1894, they had largely escaped the ravages of logging and development.
On a uniformly gray morning after a night of intense rainfall, I grabbed my jacket and decided to take my chances with an overgrown, unmarked trail on the seldom-visited backside of Hurricane Mountain. Water was draining steadily from the oversaturated landscape, trickling from pool to pool in the confines of the path and forcing me to hop between rocks as if I were traveling up a creek bed. Thin roots stretched across the trail like interlaced fingers, clutching miserly to the cauldrons of mud they had scavenged after the previous night’s storm. I had to step on their fingers as well in order to keep my shoes dry; no hard feelings, I hoped.
The branches of the stunted trees along the path were more generous, lightly brushing my chest with raindrops collected on leaves the night before. Their well-meaning gifts cooled the skin, but the droplets steadily dripped down my calves and soaked into my socks until my shoes felt as damp as the moss-covered earth. Still, I was cheered on by the melodic trills of the robins echoing across the woods. I am always amazed that the song of such a common bird can sound so metallic and haunting, like bells echoing through the hallways of a marble monastery.