by Denis Clifford © 2004
Little Adirondack towns like Old Forge are touched by the wildness of the Park around them, those lands protected by the New York Constitution as "forever wild." Whatever my suburban hometown offered, it surely wasn't wild. But happily, for over fifty summers, since my parents purchased a camp (local for summerhouse) on Old Forge pond when I was seven, I've lived Adirondack wildness, unfettered freedoms, that my spirit craved.
When I was a little kid, everything about our place felt wild: mysterious, liberating, calling out for exploration. The camp itself, built as a hunting cabin in the '20s, had evolved to a melange of oddly-shaped rooms. Latticed wood cabinets, built into corners of the living room, held exotic china, old oak boxes, and numerous other treasures. On the porch, two ancient canvas-covered seats swayed from creaky metal springs. Two birch-bark birdhouses decorated the inside porch wall. Long before I had any idea what a "work of art" was, I felt the magic some unknown artist infused in those creations.
Outside, dirt steps led up a steep hill, through ferns and trees, to the road. No lawns here. Down from the camp, past more trees and ferns, was the ultimate magic, the lake (technically, Old Forge Pond). Our massive two-story boathouse jutted out into the water. The rough upstairs room became my base for adventures.
At the water's edge was a trail leading up past an ersatz lighthouse to the channel, the mile-long link to First Lake, of the Fulton Chain of Lakes. The trail began two houses from us, at Rivette's Boat Livery, a hodge-podge of rickety buildings and docks crammed with boats, motors, papers, old cans, oil rags, gas pumps and innumerable unfathomable objects. Rivette's was also the starting point for the romantic mail boat, with a captain who actually delivered mail up through Fourth Lake.
My father was a college professor and consultant. Even with three kids to support, he managed to pry much of the summer free. In June we'd set off in our old Ford, luggage piled high on the roof, for the long drive over backcountry roads, past Burma-Shave signs in farmers' fields. Finally, eight or ten hours later, we'd arrive and receive our first reward—our annual Knotty Pine Restaurant dinner, a mushroom hamburger on toast. (I haven't ordered one in decades, to preserve the perfect hamburger of my memories.) Then back in the car for the familiar drive down old-fashioned Main Street, turning the last corner and—shazam!—the pond and channel stretched before us, a shimmering vision of joy. I can't recall a single rainy day arrival, though surely it can't always have been sunny.
No school! Summer stretched before me long as a lifetime. I learned to swim in a class at the town beach, and met Jack, my first best friend. Daily, we adventured, often exploring in the nature around us: searching in old quarries, watching water gush over the pond dam, hunting frogs in swampy ponds, investigating the water-logged remnants of ancient railroad tracks. Even the economic catastrophe, for the townspeople, of the Second World War aided our exploits. One result of the wartime dearth of tourists was a number of abandoned, decaying houses for us to creep through.
Above all, adventure meant water: jumping and diving off our dock; swimming to the wartime cork float my father had salvaged; loafing and splashing on inner tubes; fishing—catches of bullheads and undersized sun fish; exploring marshes, water lilies, reeds. Or a jaunt to the beach, building minnow traps and encountering other town kids, some tough and contentious.
On the water, I discovered the magic of boats. With the camp came a beautiful wood canoe, a sail-canoe, and a Sponson, a large wood rowboat with side pontoons, designed so that the boat was impossible to tip over. Very true, and we surely tried. The Sponson could be fitted with our two-and-a-half-horsepower outboard motor. I'd wind a rope around the flywheel, yank and yank, then usually yank and yank more, and eventually—sometimes—the motor sputtered to life. Free on the water! No age limit to drive, no license required.
Jack taught me to navigate the narrow channel, how to maneuver by its unmarked obstacles—rocks dangerously close to the surface, sunken logs and tree stumps, unexplained ruins, shallow spots. Steering through, I was Mark Twain, man (OK, boy) of the river, masterly avoiding peril. We'd stop at the uninhabited sand bar halfway up the channel, or, if we felt really adventurous, journey a couple of hours to the islands of First Lake, Dog Island, or the much larger Treasure Island, with remnants of what had obviously been a grand camp.
I entered adolescence. Our family had grown to six kids, then seven. We drove up in a battered '46 Packard limousine, zipping over that marvel of the Eisenhower years, the New York Thruway. Our camp had been improved too, including a refrigerator replacing the ancient icebox. Most excitingly, a porch now extended out over the water from the second story of the boathouse. The porch was designed and built by Charly Day, an old Adirondack guide my father seemed to revere (and he was not a man prone to reverence). Charly, I absorbed even through the fog of puberty, was different from men I saw back home. Taciturn and independent, he sure didn't wear a tie. With perhaps a high school education, he constructed a porch that floats over the lake, supported only by three slender slanting beams. Though it seems held up mostly by some woodsman's magic, it has survived for decades.
My father built two small bedrooms upstairs in the boathouse for me and my brother. My room had just enough space for an old bed, an older dresser, a small table and a lamp. It was heaven. No one to police me and Jack into bed. If alone, I'd usually read long past midnight. Mornings I'd wake up alive with happiness, serenaded by the sounds of water lapping against the dock.
The sailboat canoe had rotted. I rarely used the outboard anymore; it was so slow. I dreamt of a ten-horse Mercury. (I can still see it. Bright deep green casing. My first lust.) Elegant Chris-Crafts, beauties of wood, grace and speed, were beyond my dreams, as they were clearly beyond my parents' finances. Chris-Crafts were for the wealthy in their stately camps on Fourth Lake, or shielded in the Adirondack League Club.
Fortunately, some of these wealthy provided me with an income. I began to caddy when I was ten. Each summer I worked my way towards the top—a steady, regular, almost-daily caddying for the same two golfers. Out by nine, in by one, no more waiting for the mythical "big party from Rocky Point" that Eddy, the Pro, daily promised us would momentarily arrive.
Hanging out on the caddy porch, I discovered new wildness, learning rudimentary gambling, pitch (a primitive form of poker), and coin tossing. Or I'd follow Jack down to a genuine old swimming hole in the Moose River. Occasionally, I got to be a real outlaw, when Eddie heard a rumor that a state labor inspector was passing through. It was illegal for anyone under fourteen to caddy. Eddy'd give the warning and we'd scatter into the woods, like Robin Hood's merry men, until danger was past.
Caddying eighteen holes double (a bag on each shoulder) for a decent tipper paid five dollars, occasionally six from a real sport. Thirty-six double meant at least ten dollars, and exhaustion. Soon I was functionally rich, living my first taste of wildness as extravagance. Sauntering into Miller's soda fountain, I'd squander money on two large cherry cokes. Occasionally, Jack and I declared a comics’ day and each bought fifty or more comic books. Then an orgy of reading, hour after hour indoors gorging comics, until our eyes blurred and we could no longer distinguish the Green Lantern from Batman and we'd stagger outside as if we'd spent days in a cave.
Caddying was a free man's work. Lacking a steady, I could take a day off whenever I wanted. Spontaneously, I'd decide to sleep late, then perhaps loaf on the porch, or adventure with Jack. Mobile on our bikes, we explored trails he'd discovered in the woods, or created secret clubhouses on a mountain side or in a cave. Other times we'd meander along route 28, perhaps stopping at Croft's Wonder?Land (Croft put the “?” in the title), a shambles of picnic tables, "live bait," souvenir shacks, an old ice house and a jar for donations for "Croft's Trip To Florida."
Sometimes nature would surprise us: an immense flock of goldfinches filing the sky as we walked through grasslands; astoundingly plentiful wild raspberries surrounding us as we hiked on McCauley mountain; the enticing early morning aroma of freshly baking bread coming from the D & D grocery.
Jack was blooming. He'd become a passionate
photographer, had constructed his own darkroom, and taught me about f-stops,
hypo, enlargers. He continued to lead me to adventures, from deeper woods explorations
to building robots to making gunpowder and bombs.
Changes were nipping me. As I phased out of caddying, it was being phased out by electric golf carts. Jack and I began to see less of each other, though I was watching when his homemade rocket blasted over a thousand feet into the air. Old Forge was changing too. The town beach was fenced in and no longer free. The channel had been dredged and tamed. New camps closed off the sand bar. Fewer and fewer guests arrived at the dwindling number of majestic old hotels. Money now came to town from middle class families, vacationing in cars and staying in motels or rented camps.
Even as a self-absorbed teenager, I noticed some bad changes. Putrid septic tanks overflowed by the late August. The water lilies were gone, replaced by icky seaweed. But I was preoccupied with new mysteries: popularity and girls. I hung out with the guys who gathered outside the drug store on Busy Corner. Mercifully free from the rigid hierarchy of my high school, I experimented with inventing myself, mostly trying to look cool, occasionally half-consciously groping towards being authentic.
Jack had a new job, at the Enchanted Forest, and a car. A car like no car anyone had ever seen. Hotter than any other car, of course. A Ford sculpted as if it were a spacecraft, with all sorts of special Jack touches. The front dash looked like something from a jet plane: rows of dials, little red knobs and switches, meters. No door handles on the outside; you pressed a chrome strip at a secret place, a circuit connected and the door popped open.
Through Jack, I got a job at the Forest. A couple of summers later, I became one of its parking lot attendants, and made a new best friend, Rob, who taught me the lucrative art of extracting tips from customers in exchange for putting a bumper sign on their cars. Then finally—and it sure seemed long coming—I was eighteen, the legal drinking age then in upstate New York. Wildness became bars, going "up the line" to Inlet nightlife. My parking lot affluence allowed indulging in high-stakes poker games, as well as buying a round of drinks or ordering champagne. The remaining hotels employed many college girls away from home and curious. I lived my first glimmers that passion wasn't only in D. H. Lawrence, nor freedom just a word from civics classes, as I encountered people who seemed truly untamed: drifters, card sharps, adventurers, honky-tonk piano players, women who wintered as ski-bums well before that term was invented.
Years later, I remarked to my father that somehow, even in those years, I'd absorbed a love of nature. "Even though you were only in it walking from your car to a bar," he noted. True for the nights, but daytime I worked outdoors. Driving our new 35 horsepower outboard motor through morning mist, I commuted over the pond. In the parking lot, I lived with the weather, learning some of its signs: when a wind suddenly rose and curled tree leaves from the bottom, it would rain soon.
Adirondack wildness drew me far more than any career I could imagine, so I returned to the parking lot after graduating from college. After Labor Day, I joined Rob in living and bartending in a grand and decaying hotel, and partying with drifters and hustlers, wild men and women, most of whom lived in cheap housing the area offered. Outside, I saw the wildness of fall colors and lakes void of people. Then cold arrived, wildness was turning harsh, and I left.
I got a job in Manhattan, nine-to-five. I described my occupation as "employee." Now wildness was any escape from routine. I felt unchained just sitting on our boathouse porch, and developed a deep appreciation for my father's refusal to have a telephone in our camp. To reach us you had to phone Rivette's; Frank would send someone to get us, if he thought the call warranted it. (Once, as a teenager, walking through the livery building, I heard Frank bark into the phone "Clifford? Nope. Not here. Try Appleton's Garage," and he hung up. I asked Frank who that was. "Oh, just somebody from the State Department," he growled.)
I managed to get to our camp only a couple of times a summer. Entering town, I'd note approvingly what remained unchanged, and bemoan what "progress" had occurred: the parking lot was now paved and lined, and attendants had been abolished; more hotels were closed; the mail boat had been discontinued. Even our living room cabinets had been removed. But once on the boathouse porch, a soothing naturalness returned: laughing with family or friends; reading (the ideal place to finally read War and Peace); lots of just rocking and watching—clouds drifting over the pond, swallows and bats at dusk, peach and magenta sunsets. Moments of bliss. "Why do I ever go back?" I cried at the end of a July 4th weekend.
Then I moved to California and sadly announced the end of my Adirondack wildness. Wrong. We began to have family reunions at our camp. Wildness now became me and my now-adult siblings free to unleash our animal energies—whirling through swimming, basketball, running, tennis, golf, climbing nearby mountains, canoeing, hiking. Nights were for our newly-developed sport of "porching"—hanging out on our boathouse porch, exercising our Irish wit, with occasional openings towards intimacy.
I continue to return every summer. Much of the funky wildness I loved as a kid survives: the birdhouses, swings, the boathouse porch, the canoe. Some years ago we paid an Adirondack craftsman to strip decades of paint and grime from the canoe, and its wood now gleams like a functional museum piece. My bedroom remains heaven. We still find wild raspberries. Even the mailboat returned.
I haven't Jack for decades. Some years ago though, I did encounter his mother. She told me Jack worked in the New Mexico desert as head of advance testing for a U.S. car manufacturer. He regularly refused promotions to Detroit, because that meant a desk job, and he insisted on driving real cars.
There've been losses. Rivette's boathouse burned down, replaced by an oversized eyesore. Croft's was replaced by a "mini-mall." Almost all the wide-porch houses on Main Street have been reduced to tourist shops. Our float finally rotted, despite all my father's care. The last grand hotel was sold to make way for expensive condos. Housing is scare and expensive—no more cheap rents for marginal adventurers. And acid rain threatens to destroy all life in the lakes.
Despite the losses, there’s also been real progress in Old Forge. The painting show I recall seeing hung outdoors on chicken wire has evolved into a thriving Arts Center. Water skiing is banned from the pond, and those pesky jet skis are limited to five miles per hour. Around the pond, a sewer line replaced septic tanks. Up the lake, rigorous inspections ensure that the remaining septic tanks work. The lake water is cleaner than when I was a kid. Water lilies have reappeared, and ducks now frequent the pond.
Most of all, the beauty and magic of the lake remain. Our camp, especially the boathouse porch, has become my place for Time Out— reflection, introspection, looking inside at my own wildness, trying again to distinguish liberating impulses from my demons.
Outside, my Adirondack wildness now includes time in unspoiled wilderness. Decades ago, Sierra backpacking trips taught that I need and love to be in wild nature. Like Thoreau, I'm restored by the "mysterious and unexplainable ... the tonic of nature." That's all around me in Old Forge: swimming in the pristine waters of an uninhabited lake; climbing a nearby mountain or venturing to one of the high peaks; paddling a canoe down the middle branch of the Moose River; the cries of a loon; a hike on a new trail. A few hours retreat into the woods brings serenity, a gift from the Adirondacks that remain forever wild.