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Adirondack Survival Tale

Two bowhunters, a bear, and an overturned canoe deep in the Adirondack wilderness€¦

Illustration by Mark Anderson.

A cooling breeze burnishes the water as we glide effortlessly, the gear-laden canoe surging with each stroke. I've resigned myself to Hal's irregular slashing, how he switches sides with his paddle in erratic intervals. Whether this is another of his passive-aggressive ploys is difficult to say, but one thing is certain: Though he's one of my best friends, I will be happy to part ways soon.

Hal has an uncanny knack for slowly irritating me, from his inane get rich quick fantasies to the way he asks questions in the form of statements, not so much expecting an answer as wanting me to agree with him. There's his way of avoiding basic camp choirs, especially, though I admit I've probably brought this on myself by insisting things be done correctly. It's simply easier to do things myself than suffer his half-baked attempts at every task he performs, aside from cooking, which he excels in absolutely.

We're in open water, cutting from one jog in the lake to another. A chop is developing, making the canoe sluggish. Each hard pull on the paddle painfully tightens my shoulders and lower back. The distant slate form of Blue Mountain seemingly recedes with each new angle of the lake. A shade of darker, white-edged gray piles over the mountain's summit, curiously intriguing in its obvious power. I think about the grease and wrenches and disordered auto parts awaiting tomorrow. Hal places his paddle across the gunnels, twists in his seat and claws at the small cooler in an attempt to draw it closer. I continue paddling, my impatience blossoming anew.

"Time for a beer," Hal announces. "Man, it's muggy. How much farther, you think?"

"Quite a ways," I reply. "Why not hold off until we get out of this open stuff and chop?"

He ignores me and pops the green can of Genesee while sitting, pausing to watch the dark wall of fir and golden September birch slide past. "Here's to the bear," Hal says finally, drinking in throat-throbbing gulps, watching the shore contently once more. I dig deeper with the paddle and watch the mountain and its towering cumulous. I turn my attention to the bear's salted hide beneath the bows and quivers of arrows and notice Hal's hunting boots in the hull. A fantasy involving fast-balling a boot into the back of his head, just as he's taking a long pull on the cold Cream Ale, flashes in my mind's eye. The thought quells growing irritation, and I smile and continue paddling.


At the next bend, Hal paddling again, he suggests we land, have lunch and a beer and rest in the shade. The plan holds obvious appeal, though I can't help notice those ominous clouds. I relate my concerns.

"So we get wet," he offers, living in the moment as always. After a few minutes of silence, he sets his paddle down once more and reaches for the cooler. "Well, if we're not having lunch, I'm drinking another beer. You? Only two left."

I backstroke violently, turning the bow toward shore, switching sides and shoveling hard to direct the canoe into a sandy landing.

"We don't have to -- if you don't want," Hal says. "Just trying to enjoy the last of it. You know?"

I don't respond, knowing what will come out will prove harsh and hurtful. Hal enjoys getting to people. I don't want to supply that satisfaction.

Illustration by Mark Anderson.

A Grave Mistake
I'll admit the cold beer slides down nicely, ironing out the kinks in my knotted shoulders and back. Hal constructs sandwiches from the last of the venison loin he lovingly basted and roasted over hot birch coals last night. With Hal along, there is always spicy mustard and Romaine lettuce, sweet pickles, Jewish rye bread and rich cheeses, as if he were building deli sandwiches for his Cold Spring customers up from The City for the weekend. I listen to the wind in the trees. The water laps against the hollow canoe hull. Malfunctioning automobiles and their disillusioned owners are far away.

Under way once more, I notice gray wool engulfs the mountain. This quickly floods into the valley, but I fail to heed the anxiety I did hours ago. I pull my daypack closer to access the rain poncho inside when needed. Hal's pulling on his paddle in earnest, puffing from exertion because he's soft and out of shape. We're making good time. The wind begins to rise, creating white-crested waves the canoe cuts knife-like. I see hot-white flashes behind distant birch ridges, soon followed by hollow crashes.

"Make for that island," I suggest. Hal adjusts his stroke to change our line. "We'll get a bit of lee; make for easier going."

Behind the sharp, rocky island, the surface is smooth and shifting in whirls. Abrupt gusts hit the water and rise again. Hal's all business now. We dig with the paddles, slide forward fluidly and see the end of the island looming. Whitecaps crash around the island's horn.

Hal exhales an oath and asks, "What do you think?" We glide to a slow halt, regarding the wind-rent water. We're heavily loaded. The bear and deer meat provide stabilizing ballast but also push the gunnels closer to the waterline. I inspect the rocky, hard-edged island and see nothing but discomfort there. The mainland is only a couple hundred yards beyond.

"I think we can handle it," I reply. "Going to have to pull like hell; keep our speed up." We begin paddling furiously, gaining momentum as if assaulting an uphill stretch of snowy road.

Fifty yards past the point I realize it's a grave mistake. A wave crashes over the painter flat, the bottom flooded with freezing water. Hal's movements become wooden, my own breath coming with effort. "Hal, turn and run with the wind!"

The canoe turns into a floating pig, unresponsive to our desperate thrashing. It takes on more water, becoming more a part of the lake than something within our control. Water begins pouring over the side and the canoe begins a lazy, sideways list. The canoe begins disgorging gear. I grab my daypack, grasping my paddle to thrash laboriously toward the island. Pushed swiftly past the island point, fighting against waves and gear, I finally come into calmer water behind jutting rock, frog-kicking onto sharp shore. Hal comes in beside me equipped with only

a loose life vest he had not been wearing.

"Where's your paddle?" It's all I can think to say. I see gear riding atop waves. Tossing my pack and paddle high into mossy rocks, I turn back into the cold grip of the water. I swim back to the wreckage and snag one of the orange, rubberized duffels holding sleeping bags and a small tent. I fight my way back to the island, coughing up water, shivering in convulsions while clambering onto naked rock.

Hal isn't there.

I discover him bobbing in whitecaps in the yellow life vest, pulling at something, pushed far downwind, struggling against it and toward the rocky island. As he comes closer I see he's trailing his bear hide, now sodden and heavy and streaming behind him like a monstrous pike fly. It's beyond belief. I thought he'd rescue something useful like dry clothes or food. He crawls onto shore gasping, his clothes clinging to his round torso. I say nothing.

I'm shivering uncontrollably. Now the rain we have anticipated abruptly smashes down around us, enveloping everything. I pull out sleeping bags, shoving one into Hal's chest, wrapping another around my shoulders before ripping open my pack to locate my big, camo military poncho to spread over me. I make room for Hal as he slides in beside me, rain deafening against the stiff nylon. The roar is interminable, swallowing everything. There's nothing to do but huddle on the jagged rock and wait. I find, surprisingly enough, despite pounding rain, howling wind and close-booming thunder arriving in hot yellow flashes, my thoughts are coherent and uninterrupted. I have time to think.

I think about the deer.

A Great Source of Solace€¦
He's not a big deer -- a smallish 6-pointer -- but I take him fairly and cleanly. He will be a great source of solace for years to come. I remember how I'd planned to sit the rotten beaver dam crossing a small feeder creek, a place I'd discovered a couple years past while fly fishing for smallies and rock bass. There is a well-worn trail coming off the steep moss bank, across the ancient and abandoned beaver dam and into thick forest overhanging the black water of the small pond.

It's a sure thing, if such a thing exists in bowhunting. Instead, I gift the site to Hal because it's a spot he can sit in his portly condition. It allows him to avoid walking in the woods where he'll likely see no game and just as likely get lost. I have to wonder why I give it up, why I even care about Hal's success. He isn't here so much to bowhunt as to get away. It wouldn't have bothered him at all to linger close to camp and fling arrows at pine squirrels.

Instead, he kills the bear.

It's quite an average bear, but you'd think it was a grizzly to observe his pride. It came right across the dam, wading the shallow strip of assembled sticks and mud as if it were something it did every day; confident, unhesitant. Hal took him cleanly at 15 yards. Or so he said.

He's proud enough of that bear he brought it back from the whitecaps instead of dry clothing or the box with stove and fuel. I understand now and have quit being angry about it. Of course he retrieved the bear€¦

I'm able to take the deer in spite of my stupid generosity, still-hunting through close morning fog, coming on him at 17 yards, keeping it together mentally, centering his lungs with a bamboo shaft and 1941 Ace Standard launched from a primitive bow a good friend helped me make. I don't even have his antlers now, but he'll be with me as long as I live.

'Here's to the Bear!'
With daylight, I scan the far shore across flat water with my binoculars and begin to discover bright pieces of gear. In time, I believe I can discern the bow point of our canoe, half submerged but lodged in a rocky place along the shore. The sky hangs low and woolen, spitting rain. Hal still wears his life vest and I take it from him and slowly wade into the cold water, feeling it stab my legs, sinking in and kicking toward that far landfall.

Illustration by Mark Anderson.

My legs cramp painfully and I float on my back and pull my toes toward my shins to slowly stretch out the ripping pain. I swim more before resting against the draining cold. It seems ages before I stumble onto shore, walking stiffly, seeking the canoe. I locate it wedged tightly in a tangle of roots, wading out to find it reluctantly responsive to my best tugs. I finally wrestle it ashore, rolling it to expose the keel, lifting the nose onto land. I set out to retrieve more gear, including Hal's paddle, ultimately finding it beside another orange dry bag filled with the dead weight of water. I drag it ashore to drain before returning to the canoe to fetch Hal.

Gathering the remaining gear -- what we can locate -- takes time. The meat's gone, as is Hal's bow. My wood bow bobs in a small cove, though I suspect it will never be the same. Hal's frantic about his bow, an aluminum compound that surely sank as easily as any hunk of soulless metal is apt to do. Hal insists we look for it on the rocky floor of the lake, suggesting he might snag it with a fishing lure, if only we can find it in the clear water. Of course we cannot locate it. I'm anxious to head home. Hal's reluctant but joins in the paddling when we turn down the lake.

Mellow, golden stars show sharply by the time the shimmering lights of Long Lake pierce the gloom of coming night. I've long since understood our timing and distance estimates are all wrong. Even without the spill I would not have gone to work today.

It's a funny thing about the Adirondacks, how -- sitting in Flanagan's Grill wolfing cheeseburgers, gulping frosted mugs of micro brew -- there are no horrified looks tossed our way. We are just another group of grubby wilderness tourists with damp money. Hal's sullenness -- losing his compound, all the meat wasted, having to paddle much farther than either of us has imagined -- has begun to melt away. Food makes Hal happy.

"Here's to the bear!" Hal offers, hoisting his beer.

"And to the deer," I add.He smiles as we click glasses. We are great friends once more.

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