Dispatches From The North
October 28, 2010
I've only vague recollections of Grandfather, an energetic man who lived life unrelentingly until the pace seemingly wore his body out. By modern standards he enjoyed but a short existence, but he certainly exceeded the life expectancy of the average male of his era. He has been gone a very long time, my own father behind him. Now I find myself the old man. My grandfather--the archery hunter and original Dunkin McLeod--died in 1926, when I was only six.
My father never showed the faintest inclination toward his father's passion. When I was young and full of curiosity I could find his intriguing wares in a dusky corner of our cluttered basement with everything else discarded or awaiting usefulness according to season or occasional utility. I would steal down there to slip those ancient weapons from their rugged cases and dream. I was too weak to brace those longbows but I'd feel the smooth contours of polished wood, pluck an arrow from among dozens to brush stiff feathers across my face, finger the filed edges of steel arrowheads secured with fine brass wire. There were also leather shooting gloves and tooled bracers and quivers lined with sheep wool owning belt loops to hang at the hip.
In the same mothball-reeking steamer trunk were squirreled a litter of letters, post cards, train tickets, journals and such. The assorted remnants of his life I found most fascinating. I marveled at the dates and exotic locations; places well north, in the Catskills and Adirondacks. The Adirondacks especially were as foreign and remote from our Hempstead home as possible, where it was easy to imagine, at my Grandfather's urging, that hostile Indians still roamed, that its lakes contained flesh-eating serpents.
I slipped down to visit Grandpa's archery gear often, despite having it all fairly memorized. This ancient equipment spoke to me somehow, possessed me like a secret vice. I knew someday it would figure in my own adventures. I was correct on that account.
All those dreams are now realized and relegated to a hazy past, and I recently found myself a widower and my gracious daughter suggested she and her husband might use help with their children. It was strongly suggested that I move into their spacious spare bedroom. I knew all too well what was implied and, frankly, had to agree. But this is not my story.
Moving meant paring down and I found myself, after decades of dusty neglect, sorting through Grandfather's affects. I was most interested now in Grandfather's journals. I took them to the den, a good excuse to procrastinate, and read. In the year 1919, before his health took a sudden turn, Grandfather would undertake his last expedition into Adirondack wilderness.
He embarked from Union Square in mid-October, chugging northward following that "main artery of our Empire," the Hudson River, to Yonkers, Peekskill and through the granite gates of West Point with Bear Mountain regarding the slow, clamorous progress dispassionately.
The train pushed on through the night, passing the lights of Poughkeepsie, and into the relative wilderness of Dutches and Columbia counties. From Albany he telegrammed his wife, my Grandmother, to say all was well and that he was enjoying a grand adventure, the company becoming more appealing the farther from New York City he traveled. By Glens Falls, nearly three days into his journey, passengers were reduced almost exclusively to loggers and sportsmen like himself.
"Soon," he wrote on a Lake George postcard, "I will traverse the (Theodore) Roosevelt trail by way of Newcomb to Long Lake, jumping this rickety logging contrivance to venture into the bowels of the beast, where peaks rise into cloud and the land stretches in every direction so to strike fear in the hearts of men."
"This ancient archery equipment spoke to me somehow, possessed me like a secret vice. I knew someday it would figure in my own adventures."
He arrived in Long Lake, finding a local outdoorsman awaiting his arrival. He had hunted with this man before, a small but rugged Frenchman by the name of Rene Choquer. My Grandfather insisted Rene liked no one, but he must have fancied Grandfather, because he was invariably on hand when he arrived with his canvas bags of truck and wooden cases of archery gear.
Rene wasted no time, schlepping gear straight down to the water's edge and piling it into a waiting freighter canoe made from local cedar and white pine. And they paddled northeast into a chilling headwind, Grandfather struggling to reacquaint himself with something Rene did on a daily basis. "It is a certainty I have failed to impress Rene with my slashing attempts at locomotion on this day," Grandfather wrote. "But the air is crisp and the water cold and clean and on the 'morrow I will have improved my stroke."
That first night they erected camp on a leeward shore, stretching canvas between behemoth pines over taught jute rope. Rene's camp cooking was of sufficient quality that Grandfather mentioned it often in his journals, "The little Frenchman is able to conjure gastronomic delights from the barest provisions." After dinner they lounged close to a birch-wood fire and sipped scalding-hot coffee with my Grandfather's whiskey dolloped in against creeping cold, listening to the eerie cries of northern loons.
"I alighted with the first hinting of day eager to have a look about," Grandfather wrote, "leaving Rene to his cooking wizardry, investing in a short reconnoiter. I discovered but scant sign and spied no game. A grumbling belly soon sent me back to our night's fire. When I commented on the apparent lack of quarry Rene grunted, `Loggers always hungry. We go where they not.' After a breakfast of Johnnycakes with maple syrup I began loading the canoe while Rene polished his wares. By day's end we would be in game country."
The lake head proved teaming with fish, smallmouth and rock bass, and the "voyageurs" paused to harvest enough for a hardy shore lunch. They would need their strength for what lay ahead. They would be paddling upstream against current of the mighty Raquette River. The object was to reach the confluence of the main and east artery of these waters, where Rene said they would judge if waters were high enough to push deeper into the vast swatch of trackless wilderness flowing from the Boundary Peak area, nearly 5,000 feet above.
The going was slow indeed, clamoring over the high sides of the now unwieldy freighter to push and pull the canoe through tight and shallow spots. Reaching a series of small drops and rapids they beached the canoe and began a long portage upstream where deep, placid waters resumed. This would involve unloading the canoe, gingerly taking her through the rocks to wait upstream, then a couple trips
each burdened with heavy gear, bushwhacking along the mossy, alder-choked shore. Grandfather was trundling along with the very last load when Rene arrived, quite agitated and animated.
"I could see at once Rene had discovered something unusual, as this normally unflappable fellow was performing a dervish and jabbering like the monkeys of Brooklyn's famous zoo. In fact, he had spied an impressive black bear foraging upstream of the canoe."
"With nothing to lose I snuffled in the snow, pawing with a free hand, acting the part of a deer. The theatrics passed muster, the deer more curious than alarmed, actually advancing, if warily so."
Stringing a bow and filling a quiver with broadhead-tipped shafts they stalked upstream, where the bear was no longer in evidence, squishing along in wet, hob-nailed boots, damp wool trousers clinging and restricting. It appeared the bear had moved along but as they reached the area where Rene had first seen the bear a rustling in the bank-side vegetation brought them on point.
"It was apparent a beast large and formidable was at hand. There was an alarming `whoof!' and the alders parted like the Red Sea before Moses as the bruin burst forth, having received our scent it was apparent. I brought my longbow to bear, tugging the linen (string) back until the barbed head just touched my index knuckle, swinging well ahead and loosing my first shaft, which buried deep into his powerful haunch. The bear rolled over onto himself, biting and roaring as I drew forth a second shaft and sent it to its fate.
This one found hard shoulder and the bear regained his bearings and plowed across the river, losing bottom, swimming crookedly. I had replaced the previous shaft by which time the bruin mounted the sloping shore, rippling muscle apparent beneath water-flattened fur. The distance was substantial and I held well over his withers and loosed. Rene released a raucous 'Ooooooo-Eeeeeee!' fit to wake the gods as the shaft found its mark. The bruin settled but after a short duration amongst a tangle of alder. He proved an impressive specimen, a male in the prime of life, well fattened for winter and judged in excess of 400 pounds." They would spend the following two weeks at the confluence of two icy rivers, Rene deciding the big canoe should be pushed no further. While my Grandfather explored the surrounding area and plotted against the whitetail deer Rene fished the adjacent waters to keep them in meat and maintained a clean and efficient camp.
My Grandfather awoke early each morning to forage in various directions, earmarking locations of deer and attempting the occasional stalk. Within a week he had observed several nice bucks, invested in many failed stalks and watched as fall made way for real winter. The flaming maple and yellowed alders and birch had begun to grow patchy and bare and he alighted one morning to discover a fresh blanket of fluffy snow.
"The morning air was as whetted as straight razors and proved nearly more than my wool attire could defend against. Tearing myself away from Rene's warming fire proved difficult as I stumbled upstream.
"Late that morn I encountered the disturbance of many churning hooves, among them spoor of an obvious buck. The season of swelling necks and randy shenanigans was well at hand so I followed like an Indian, as the spoor was only recently laid and the day still cool.
"My estimates proved correct, shortly spying switching tails and shifting forms ghosting through thronged young poplars, uphill of my position. But alas, as I dropped to my knees to make my presence less conspicuous, readying an arrow in case an opportunity materialized, one of the wary does detected the movement and turned to take me in.
I stood frozen as statuary, but the doe's obvious concern alerted one of her companions and I was soon under scrutiny by four eyes at once. With nothing to lose I snuffled in the snow, pawing with a free hand, acting the part of a deer. The theatrics passed muster, the deer more curious than alarmed, actually advancing, if warily so. I continued the charade and the deer edged ever closer.
"When the two girls had advanced into sure bow range the buck appeared from shrubbery, nostrils flaring, steps measured and uneven. He wore a magnificent rack of horns. I produced a snort and pawed the snow and his hackles stood on end as he circled to come between his harem and myself. I brought the bow to bear, touching my cheek with leather and as he turned to flee I sent a whistling shaft away, narrowly passing over his spine but finding a hardwood bole and creating a resounding crack. This temporarily confused the fellow, who skidded to a stop and cut to show himself side on, by which time another shaft was on its way. I watched that magic of target and shaft merging as if by divine intervention alone and knew I had witnessed a solid connection."
To give the buck time to stiffen, and because camp was close at hand, Grandfather returned to retrieve Rene, an expert woodsman and tracker. On their return they easily followed the trail atop fresh snow, discovering the buck after a couple hundred yards bedded in a small hollow beneath sheltering pines.
"He appeared as if in delicate sleep and with quivering hands I sent two hasty shafts over his spine before understanding they were for not. The magnificent buck was dead as old bones."
The expedition had come to a successful conclusion. In another couple days Grandfather and Rene would reluctantly turn downstream and toward civilization, "much in need of a bath and shave."
"The exodus from wild country seldom fails to invite sorrow," Grandfather wrote. "I was rejuvenated in constitution and mind and reluctant to abandon the existence of the wild Indian for that of contrived living and responsibility. It is understood that to return is inevitable but you never want to believe it until that time is solidly at hand. But the planning buoys the spirit, knowing it is waiting for you again."
He had no way of knowing that it would be his last trip to the Adirondacks. A chronic respiratory ailment would befall him not quite a year later. His health declined steadily, but he never quit planning and dreaming of returning. That dream likely extended his life a few more years, providing that time when I knew him best, listening to his tales of the far north and the adventure to be found there, tales that are with me even today, that would lead me on the path of the adventure to be found in bowhunting.