I took this photo from our campsite on Forked Lake in the summer of 2000.
Forked Lake is a narrow, branching lake in the central Adirondacks accessible only by a long, narrow, dead-end road. This seemingly endless wooded lane terminates at a State Campground and boat launch. Just one of many such places sprinkled across the north-central portion of New York State. But for me it has always represented a spiritual homeland - a special place in memory - a place to go to get back in touch.
Forked Lake represents my first experience with nature in the wild. In the 1950s,. when I was only 10 or 11, my parents brought me up here for a weekend camping trip. We had never been camping before, and they tell me they borrowed the tent and gear from a neighbor. Why they picked Forked Lake I cannot say. The campsites are reachable only by water, as the road does not go around the lake, and so when we got here we rented a canoe at the landing - one of those big aluminum Grumman canoes - indestructible and unmistakable.
This was my first time in a canoe. Once I got over the fear of tipping, I enjoyed finding out what it was like to solo in this modern version of the most ancient of New York State boat types. I recall paddling off myself whenever I got the chance, perhaps my first experience of self - of unrestricted initiative and independence. I particularly enjoyed silently drifting along the shore at night, when all the campfires and lanterns were blazing, pretending to be an Indian spy on the frontier as I eavesdropped unseen on the activities of the campsites scattered around the perimeter of the lake.
I went back with my parents once again as a child, I think, and then for quite a few years the lake remained only a vivid recollection. It had formed my love of the wild and of boating. It had awakened my first inclinations toward exploring the natural environment and the quiet spiritual essence of being in nature and in touch with the world as it exists beyond the reach of human intervention.
Later, in the late 1960s, I returned with friends a couple times - a sort of nostalgic rediscovery - and expanded my memories of Forked Lake with new experiences and new recollections.
And then I moved away for a while, into the great western desert, and the images of Forked Lake seemed permanently relegated to recollection. Recollections of floating out onto the lake at dawn, when the water was glass-smooth and the mist hung in little wisps near the surface. To be the first, and only, vessel on the water, long before campers were awake, before the rattling of their breakfast and the smoke of their fires infiltrated the illusion of wilderness.
It was on my last trip to Forked lake, before moving away, seemingly for ever, that I had my first confrontation with what I would call "blind faith" - that reliance or trust in the natural laws of existence - of what you know to be true, even though all your senses tell you you are wrong.
I was running an archeological dig in the Mohawk Valley and a group of us on the crew decided to take off on Friday and go camping at Forked Lake. My task was to go up ahead, secure the boat and the campsite, and then meet the others at the landing when they came up after supper. I was glad of the opportunity to be back on the lake, and by sundown I had everything set up and ready. I knew the others would not even get to the lake until well after dark, but as evening paddling is always placid and calming, I enjoyed the chance to have a reason to cross the lake after dusk. I left a lantern burning in camp, and paddled down to the outlet to wait.
As it turned out, the group was delayed, and it was after 10 at night before their headlights came wavering down the last hundred yards of the access road. We loaded up and headed out to cross the lake to our campsite. Since I had left a lantern burning as a guidepost, the darkness did not concern me, and I pushed off with confidence.
But as we got out onto the still darkness of the lake, a cold fog crept in across our path and I lost sight of the lantern. As there was no moon, I felt my bearings were about to be lost and that we were in danger of going in circles in the dark. My instincts were to turn back. Then I remembered some childhood story of navigating by the stars, and even though I had little understanding of how it was done, I looked upward, out of the low lying fog, and was heartened to see a clear sky above, full of a thousands of bits of starlight. I picked a bright one that seemed to lay more or less ahead, and with my gaze fixed on it, stroked confidently forward, realizing that I could hold my course true so long as I had that star in sight. That was the first test of faith.
But soon I got my second test of faith - for as we entered the fog bank that had cut off my view ahead to the lantern, the stars began to dim and the sky grew gray with fog. Soon the star I was navigating by was lost to view and I had nothing at all on which to fix my course. At that point I found I trusted what I knew of the reality around me more than I trusted my senses, which at this point were screaming at me with every fiber of my being to turn back - to flee out of the fog back to where I last saw the light, and be safely in sight of my bearings again. But in trying to force rationality on what was becoming a very emotional reality, I realized that when the star had vanished, I was on a true course. I knew, intellectually, that on the other side of this fog bank we would emerge on the shore where our campsite stood. As we lost the last evidence of our place within this lake - within this universe - for an instant I felt as ancient navigators must have felt, when the edge of the flat earth was expected. I wanted to turn away, to run back and to seek my sight of landmarks again, even if only in tiny bits of starlight.
But in a moment of what I would have to call "blind faith" I did the opposite of what my emotions told me I should do. I pushed ahead with a half dozen strong strokes of the paddle, into the unknown. And sure enough after these half dozen exercises of blind faith, I began to see the stars above again through the thinning fog, and picked out the one I had been following, and within a few strokes more I saw the pinpoint of golden light from the lantern I had left brining in the camp, and in a few minutes we were at the site and scrambling up the bank to enjoy an evening fire, lit as much in celebration of our journey as in our arrival.
That is a lesson in faith I will not forget, and the fact that it was learned on the blackened waters of Forked Lake is not lost on me. It seems I always learn from that place, even to this day.
That was in 1970, and after that adventure I left New York for Tucson, Arizona. I was not to return again to this lake - or so I thought. But as luck would have it, by 1974 I was back - for good. My wife and I made one or two trips to the lake to reattach to the memory, joining some of the same friends who had been silent witness to my midnight navigation a few years before.
But then I did not go back for many years. When my daughter was born I told myself I wanted to show her this magical lake, as soon as she was old enough to sit a canoe. But it seemed there was always some excuse, some reason why we did not get around to it, even after she was certainly old enough to have enjoyed it. In the spring it was black fly season, and then the summers, which often flew by, were too hot, and as the perfect fall weather - my favorite time and the season I most fantasized about visiting the lake - approached, something would come up to displace the few days that would have been perfect, and then it was too cold, and, well.. "Maybe next summer."But finally, a few years ago, I just decided "Let's do it." It was prime October weather with the leaves in full color and a warm sun - perhaps too warm - shining down. This had all the appearances of the dream I had been nurturing for five or six years. And we headed out for the long-dreamed of adventure of discovery. We rented a canoe in a nearby village, because the rental at the landing was closed that summer. The thing kept trying to fall off the car roof, and we made many stops re-attaching the ropes to get it to stay put. After the long drive in, down that familiar lane through the forests, we launched the boat and headed out for what I anticipated would be a full day of exploration.
But as we turned into the first northward trending bay, a stiff breeze came up, and since my daughter was not much at paddling at that time, I found I had trouble controlling the boat. We ended up down wind at the head of the bay, and I was afraid even to explore the winding marsh channels, which were my favorite spot, for fear we would not get back safely to the landing. The dream was coming unraveled.
There we were stuck on a spit of land, and the wind coming harder every minute. I thought to send Meghan by land on the trail that connected the campsites, but we found it was interrupted by a wet swampy patch that could not be crossed. Then she became afraid that bears would find us and eat us. I laughed it off, but stranded as we were so far from the landing, in the off-season and with no-one else on the lake to be seen, I wondered if we might in fact end up ravaged by animals.
Finally, we decided we had to attempt it. The canoe had to be back by 5 PM and it was already after 2, and we had not even explored any of the lake. Several times we got in and I tried to get the canoe off into the wind, but without her paddling, each time it just blew about and crashed back into the logs and rocks along the downwind the shore. Finally it struck me - the principal of front wheel drive applied to a canoe. We got in, I reversed the paddling, so we were going backwards, and I got us clear of the rocks and off far enough to turn around into the wind and push for the lee of the near shore. Once somewhat out of the wind, and even without any front-end paddling, we began to make some headway, and as we rounded the point and drew the landing into view, I relaxed and knew we would escape after all. Meghan even began to enjoy the trip, while still not doing any paddling, by sitting in the bottom of the canoe and dipping her hands into the water as poor old Dad did all the work.
We loaded the boat and got it back in time, and then did some shopping and had dinner on the way home. The dream excursion to Forked Lake pretty much ended up a nightmare, and I regretted that my daughter would never know this place as I had come to know it.
Well the years passed, she met a guy who was into outdoor sport, they went on a few short canoeing trips, and she ended up by 1999, not only enjoying canoeing but a pretty good paddler at that.
That summer we took a little camping trip of our own - a father-daughter adventure to a campground in northern Connecticut, and during that trip we rented a canoe for an hour at a local park - her idea, this time. It reminded me of the fun I had had canoeing, and we decided to get a canoe so we could go where we wanted, when we wanted, and not have to worry about rentals. So we did that - a old beat up fiberglass model I found through the local Advertiser. It looked like Hell, but once cleaned up and repainted it turned out to be the best $200 I ever spent.
The beaver dam we enjoyed on the July 2000 camping trip, this time seen in Autmun in 2001 by kayak.
And late in the summer of 2000, we decided (Meghan her then boyfriend and I) to just go camping for the weekend, and even though it was a long drive, we agreed on Forked Lake. I went ahead, as before back in 1970, and even ended up meeting them at 10PM at the landing as before. But this time no fog and no blind faith needed. And to make a long story only slightly shorter, we ended up having on that weekend the glorious trip to Forked Lake which I had dreamed of, and thought had been lost. (The image at the head of this webpage was taken from our campsite that weekend.) I think, now, in spite of the first misadventure, and in spite of the fact that sometimes boyfriends with which great times are shared don't end up being there in the end, I feel she shares an affection for Forked Lake as a result of this trip.
This summer (2001) I got a kayak, because my canoeing partner - Meghan - is busy with her own adult life now, and I need to be able to get our on the water on my own. And yesterday (10/14/01) as the normally chilly fall weather and the predicted rainy front broke and a warm sunny day in the 70s descended on the Adirondacks, I got back onto the lake again, and convinced myself yet again that this is a special place - this is my special place - and that so long as I can come back to Forked Lake from time to time, I will be able to steer my course well to where I want to be, less a few moments of panic and blind faith from time to time.
(Most of the pictures used on this page, and those below, were taken on the trip to Forked Lake, Octber 14th, 2001.)
Click on any image below to see a larger version.
Next Page: "A Special Place, A Special Time"