Deerflies pelted the window of the Dodge Nitro, throwing their bodies at the glass with full force as if they expected to shatter the thin barrier and gain access to the human sheltering inside. I really didn’t want to open the door. Unfortunately, the sun was already low in the sky, and I needed to start hiking to Gooseberry Lake soon or else I’d be stuck searching for a campsite in the dark.
While visiting family in upstate New York, I’d been struck by the urge to visit this quiet lake in the northwest corner of the immense Adirondack State Park. I hadn’t dived into its warm waters for over twenty years, and I hoped the place would be as peaceful as I remembered. That expectation depended largely on being able to escape these deerflies at the trailhead.
I jumped outside, dashed to the trunk, opened it and began sifting through my backpack, searching for the best armor for this situation: a mosquito jacket. With one hand, I held the hatch down to deflect the dive-bombers attacking my head, though their persistence caused me to retreat further and further into the trunk until I finally hopped in and slammed the door shut behind me. From a severely cramped position, I contemplated giving up on this nostalgic enterprise. If I had three days of this torment to look forward to, the trip down memory lane might not prove worth the detour.
Stubbornly, I struggled into the mesh jacket and slipped out a side door. Five minutes down the trail to the lake, I began to feel better about my prospects. The biting flies grew frustrated and recalled half their troops, allowing me to raise the jacket hood in order to better observe my surroundings. Oaks and maples filtered the setting sunlight, creating dappled patterns on the forest floor. White pines rained their soft, delicate needles onto the ground as well, forming an unusually deep, rusty blanket that immersed the landscape in mythological overtones. The setting was perfect for fairy tales, though as the light grew dim, I began to imagine more primitive spirits haunting these woods… the non-human kind.
The path led up and over rock outcroppings that had once been part of a mountain range as dramatic as the Himalayas. Glaciers had ground down and polished the low ridges while scraping troughs in the earth that were later filled with lakes and boggy wetlands. Gooseberry Lake was one of these creations, and I came to a bluff overlooking its surface just as the sun touched the trees on the farther shore. For a few minutes, an orange light bathed the pine trees around me. Then the light faded away, and dusk came to the Adirondacks.
I needed a campsite. Soon. Further down the shoreline, a solitary Adirondack lean-to looked promising. These shelters, provided by the state, were indispensable on rainy days. They were built to resemble a log cabin, with a raised floor but only three walls. The fourth side opened outward to face the lake. It would easy to fit a tent inside, which I’d done on more than one occasion.
However, I disliked the amount of trash that had been left lying about. A shelf on the wall also held crackers, condiments, pop tarts and a jar of peanut butter – a virtual feast of leftovers for whatever bear might come wandering by. I wouldn’t be surprised if one did. Once, I had to share a lean-to with a curious bear at a lake not far from here. Finding nothing of value, he’d departed. This time, I predicted the outcome would be far messier, and I didn’t care to stick around to see the disaster unfold.
Despite the impending nightfall, I decided to press on towards my favorite old campsite - a rocky peninsula that jutted out from the northeast shore of Gooseberry Lake. It had the desired quality of isolation, because reaching it involved bushwhacking through a dense forest along the edge of a swamp. If I’d brought an inflatable raft, I could have taken a shortcut across the water and saved myself a lot of time and grief. But it looked like I’d be doing this the hard way.
I continued down the trail until my instincts prodded me to cut overland to reach the peninsula. Rather quickly, my route came up against a series of rock outcroppings littered with fallen trees and wrapped in blackberry brambles. The way was steep and thorny. I didn’t fight as much as I ate my way through the tangled vegetation. The abundant berries helped to sustain my spirits while I scaled one last hill and discovered… I’d gone in a complete circle. Below me lay the trail I’d abandoned twenty minutes earlier. So much for my instincts.
The local frogs chuckled deeply at my confusion as I regained the path. My memories had grown a little fuzzy after twenty years, apparently. For my second attempt, I waited until I had visual confirmation of the swamp I needed to skirt before I struck off-trail again. By now, however, I’d lost the remaining light, save for the faint glow that gave the impression of open water on both sides of the wide peninsula. I kept my flashlight off so I could still detect the borders of the landmass and keep myself oriented towards my goal. I didn’t want to hike in any more circles if I could help it.
My immediate surroundings, however, were almost impossible to see. I used my sense of touch to keep from crashing into too many trees, and I was thankful for the thick layer of dead pine needles that cushioned the boulders. Their sponginess gave me the impression of climbing across the back of a big, shaggy dog.
At last I broke out of the woods and onto the bare rock at the tip of the peninsula. The promontory appeared to be as seldom visited as I remembered, for lichen crunched loudly beneath my feet, as did the shriveled eggshells from several generations of snapping turtles. Here I would build my fortress, pitching a tent on a patch of flat, ancient stone overlooking the entire lake. For a garden, I had an expanse of lily pads where white water lilies floated like tea candles, tethered lightly to the shallow lake floor. A beaver slapped its tail hard against the water to announce my arrival… or more likely to announce his displeasure at my arrival. No matter. Not a single fly had ventured out from the forest to join me, and that was the best endorsement of my new home so far.
The planet Mars burned overhead, outshining the first stars of evening as I stripped down and approached the dark waters. The lake was warm and welcoming, unlike the frigid pools of the Rocky Mountains to which I’d grown accustomed. But the black color of Adirondack lakes was always slightly disturbing; they retained their bottomless appearance even in the daytime, for the dark mud in the depths absorbed all light, whether from sun or stars. Monsters from a thousand campfire stories dwelled here, beneath the surface. Despite possessing an adult mind, I couldn’t help but let my imagination drift into unnatural territory. I was even a little afraid to put my head underwater in case I forgot which way was up - a fear driven, perhaps, by my lack of buoyancy.
With the day’s sweat washed away, I toweled off and found an outcropping upon which to relax. The giddy laughter of a loon family spilled out across the lake along with the occasional mournful cry that reminded me of a howling wolf cub. It became dark enough that the hazy arc of the Milky Way was able to dive below the horizon and continue uninterrupted across the glassy surface of the lake, coming right up to the edge of my rocky refuge.
The lake almost matched my memories. But there wasn’t enough topography in the region to block the hum of tractor-trailers on distant highways. That seemed different. In the sky, I also saw the blinking lights from more planes and helicopters than I remembered. I guess some degree of change to this treasured space was inevitable. Nevertheless, I felt there was still a place for me here among all the feathered, scaled and amphibious creatures, and room for new memories to grow. In another twenty years, I hoped I’d be fortunate enough to return to the Adirondacks and find the same.
Bryan is a 1991 Norwich High School graduate and author of several books, including “Renegade Car Camping: A Guide to Free Campsites and the Ultimate Road Trip Experience”, available for free at www.offthemapbooks.com.