The camp director let staff off after eight. Piled into Tucker’s minivan, we set down a road with no name or speed limit towards Saranac. Tucker drove, swerving without the headlights on, and I sat shotgun, pinging through radio stations until electric guitars cut through the static. Classic Rock was all we had.
Matt sat in the back but leaned forward over the console, hands on our headrests, telling us that every guy has a certain special skill:
“Brad, he says his is maps. Maybe it is. He knows every mountain and lake by name. He’s good with the compass. That’s his thing, he decided. Mine is surviving. Hey look – ” Matt pointed at a wood carved sign for Blue Jay Campgrounds, “I lost my virginity in that RV Park.”
The highway cut across Little Tupper Lake. At the water’s edge a bar served bikers and drunks who’d speed across the bridge in pickups with shirtless men in baseball caps hanging out the truck bed, but as we flew past the twilight grey waters I didn’t hear the rambunctious hoots of boozy men. The soft, sure words of Nessmuk, century-old words that lay printed in journals in my tent at camp, played in my ear: “Little Tupper Lake, a finer lake it would be hard to find. All as it came from the hands of nature.”
George Washington Sears took an Indian name, Nessmuk, and came to the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York in the 1880s with a ten-pound cedar canoe and latent tuberculosis. He paddled these healing northern waters for long weeks and hundreds of miles. He passed bright, breezy summer days in the company of fishermen, hunters, and backwoods guides, scruffy young men who led dapper New York dandies through the untamed Upstate wild. Guides bore all the baggage of their clients over portages, set up camp singlehandedly, cornered deer and handed the rifle over to their customer to sink the killing shot, and at holiday’s end wrote up a lengthy receipt of charges to be paid in return. The country crossed by backwoods guides now belonged to summer camps and boy scouts. This is where I passed a summer, working.
The job offer came in an email sent on a listserv for all the Eagle Scouts in my Central New Jersey district. They called it a wilderness adventure camp, built on the old estate grounds of an early Olympian. Sold to the Boy Scouts of America in the fifties, the adventure camp found its home in the charred, crumbling skeleton of the old estate: the staff slept in the what was once a children’s life size dollhouse, the camp gear was stowed in the broken-floor barn, the old golf course was the parade field. Campers slept in cargo tents where the mansion once stood, looking out towards the pond, once a personal swimming pool.
At the interview two men in Class A Scout uniforms asked where I was going in the future. I told them about high school graduation, about Princeton in the Fall. They smiled at each other and asked what I planned to study. I said I didn’t know. They told me that was the correct answer.
I worked the waterfront at Base Camp. We fixed the boats and watched the water and taught people to paddle. Most scouts stayed at Base Camp for the week, but every Sunday the Voyageurs came through with their trekkers, ambitious skinny boys from Southern Jersey or anxious teenagers from Staten Island who wore tee shirts in the water with too much sunscreen on their faces. We’d throw them in the pond and watch them as they swam two hundred yards so the Voyageurs wouldn’t have anybody drown on their watch. These boys came to the Adirondacks with their fathers not to stay at camp but to canoe a week across the glassy waters of Lake Lila, portage through pine woods to Rock Pond, island hop Blue Mountain Lake, and cook camp dinners in big cast iron pans over propane stoves. Or rather: they came to the Adirondacks to be led through the mythicized wilderness by an expert Voyageur.
Today’s Voyageurs, trained in backwoods first aid and survival and experienced in wilderness skill and leadership, are the same men who dined on trout dinners over open fires beside Nessmuk one hundred thirty years ago. Reading his Rough Notes from the Woods on the trading post porch at night, I found the men Nessmuk so romanticized and respected slumped across the steps, shooting the shit and talking about what porn they watched. They talked with narrowed eyes and let their words slide out the corners of their mouths but laughed with vigor that made you sweat and playfully punched you in the arm too hard when you said something funny.
Nessmuk’s men were born in the mountains, raised in keelboats and hunting cabins. Our men went to school at Paul Smith’s and tattooed their fraternity letters over their hearts. Our men went to summer camps as kids and never really left. They knew how to steer a canoe in the bow or the stern and could throw up a bear bag while you tied your shoes. They’d learned how to be good scouts but not yet how to be good men. They had nothing better to do and nowhere else they would rather be. Nessmuk called the backwoods guides “the men who honestly and earnestly believe themselves entitled to the rights of sovereignty over the whole domain of the Northern Wilderness,” and did not think them wrong for feeling so. Graduates of the Voyageuring School are given a red toque to unite today’s guides with the first, true French Canadian voyageurs of centuries past. Matt wore it, always. Its red tassel bumped back and forth as we sped over cracked asphalt into downtown Saranac.
We met Hank and his roommate at the Drunk Taco and ate burritos while the guy behind the counter began to clean up. Hank used to teach scouts ecology at the camp. Now he worked in a curiosity toyshop in Lake Placid. He swallowed a refried bean burrito and told us he had quit diabetes.
“I decided it wasn’t good for me. So I quit having it.”
His roommate was a line cook in a Placid hotel restaurant and rubbed at his sliced index finger wrapped in a messy bandage and medical tape. He knew the guy who worked in the kitchen and had offered to help with the burritos. He’d fallen asleep working on the line that day.
Hank lived in a Saranac apartment because it was cheap. He had plans for Tennessee and a comic book store. He owned a sword. A sharp one.
“We’re gonna make the move one day, when there’s enough money. But tell me how much the camp has gone to shit without me.”
It was easier to talk about camp than life. No one talked much about what came before or after. Our camp director graduated from Harvard and went to Columbia Law. In the spring prior he’d quit his job at a practice in New York. He’d lived in the dollhouse at camp with his dog ever since. When someone asked him if he had any future plans, he’d said “Camping.” No one called it failure. We had learned different meanings for the word “success.”
We left the Drunk Taco and walked up to Hank’s apartment. He showed us his sword and drank beers and played trippy YouTube videos of sheep for us.
“There’s a lot of weird shit out there. I know how to find it.”
We left Hank’s apartment around midnight. I wondered if Hank ever would leave. I wondered how long he’d been talking about Tennessee.
We drove through dark past Blue Jay Campgrounds. We turned off the highway onto the nameless dirt road. I didn’t expect it to feel like coming home. It was easy to love these woods, these waters. It was easy to talk about God and Love and Dying to men who were just as young and stupid and dangerous as you hoped to be. People liked to ask me why I was up in the Adirondacks working in a place like that. I told them that it was what I needed.
I liked to call my canvas tent my own pond-side hermitage in the tradition of Thoreau, but when we slid down churning midnight waterfalls I prayed to the gods of the Beat generation. Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder each gave summers to the wild, looking out for forest fires in lonely North Cascades watch towers. They’d hoped the solitude would give them all the right words. It didn’t. But they left with the wild all mixed up in their heads, and experiences recorded deeper than stories or poetry. I too came home with an empty journal. I’d written only a poem of Snyder’s I’d read in a bookstore in Placid:
Hiking in the Totsugawa Gorge
When the black water pulled me under and the Bog River rapids tossed me onto the smooth granite shore, I thought it best not to take writing, to take life, so seriously.
When we threw ourselves off rock walls into rivers or sang songs in Placid pizza shops, I wished we could call ourselves beats. Instead we were boy scouts. Boys. I wondered what the difference meant.
I spent the last night at camp at the waterfront, naked and stripped of canoe, kayak, rowboat, sailboat. I sat at our picnic table with John, the waterfront director and my boss, looking out into the moon reflected in the pond water. John went to college in New Hampshire but didn’t graduate. He said he studied Adventure Education. He had finished reading the Tao Te Ching that morning.
“This guy who worked at Home Depot with me was Taoist. Right before I left, right before I came here, he came up to me and told me that he felt he had to tell me something. He said it was very important for me to know that the key to morale is productivity. He said something told him I should know that. That’s Taoism.”
I wasn’t sure if that was Taoism. The summer, though, had made me a better believer. John told me that there was a lot of energy here. A lot of ghosts. It’s what kept him coming back. They had something to teach us. We belonged in the woods because we could hear them. I didn’t have to read their old journals to make them come alive. John asked me if I was coming back next year. I said yes without thinking. The director had offered me a job as a Voyageur.
But now I fear that going back to camp will be retracing my steps through dark woods, looking for a campfire long extinguished. Kerouac kept pressing down the road. Tucker joined the Navy. Matt has a job in construction. I don’t know what productivity means. I tell myself that words on a page will make my summers in the wild worth the sacrificed time, but it sounds like delusion. As I packed my tent by the pond, Nessmuk told me that there are still more streams to wander, lakes to paddle. The ghosts of camp guides told me there is always work to be done in the woods. I listened, then. I can’t hear them anymore.