Rain usually accompanied our hikes out of YMCA camp at Pilot Knob, on Lake George, in the late fifties and sixties, sometimes hard rain. We camped without tents, lying on the bare ground under the sky if the lean-to were occupied or none availed. Often we got wet. Mosquitoes and no-see-ems dined on us at their will. It gave me both a taste for and an aversion to discomfort.
The camp transported us, cattle-like, to Crane Mountain, Sleeping Beauty, the High Peaks, Pharoah Lake, the Fulton Chain and points as distant as the White Mountains, in the back of an ancient Ford ton-and-a-half rack-bed truck with benches on the sides that looked like something out of a WWII movie. We loved that truck, the open-air freedom and daring of it, its antique cantankerousness, though as often as not we huddled together in ponchos against the cab out of the wind and the cold rain or sleet biting our cheeks.
After my first climb up the Colden Trap Dyke when I was 12 or 13 we came down the Lake Arnold trail after summiting, picked up our gear where we had left it at the outlet of Avalanche Lake, and continued down to Lake Colden and the big lean-to across the footbridge over the Opalescent. This would have been 1961 or 1962. Soon after we got there the rain started and continued through the night.
In the morning it kept going, cancelling our climb up Marcy. Trip leaders, Harvey Eakins and Fuzzy Fazzone, from Schenectady, fried Spam and brown sugar all day on a paraffin stove. The campers played cards and made occasional poncho-clad forays to check out the rising waters. By the following morning the river was lapping at the lean-to and the bridges upstream and down had washed out, stranding us. The trail coming down from Lake Tear was a torrent.
Poking around Flowed Land, Harvey and I found an old wooden skiff in the alders, and nearby two boards that would serve as paddles. The skiff floated, as long as you kept bailing. Flowed Land looked like its name: a wide unpredictably boiling eddy where the Opalescent and the overflow of the broken down Colden dam came together. To make it out to Heart Lake and meet the truck for the ride back to camp, the boys would need to be ferried across one at a time, while two people paddled with the boards.
The campers packed and assembled at the edge of Flowed Land. You wouldn’t do this today. Every trip across was touch-and-go—the craft not quite worthy, the load too precarious, the waters too nasty. It would have been easy to capsize at any moment. Campers had to pass a quarter-mile swim test to go on the hike, but these were bad conditions with no lifejackets. It took an hour to get everybody over. In the end, though, nothing bad happened, and the rain continued.
The trail was mud, the balsams closing in on either side soaking us more than the rain as we brushed through them. We ate drowned peanut butter sandwiches on the porch of the Colden interior cabin and reported in to the ranger, who had people out there in worse shape than we were. Then we made our way back over Avalanche Pass to spend the night at the lean-tos there or at Marcy Dam. By now we were completely drenched to the bone but getting along fine, thinking our way from point to point, beyond caring.
We got to Avalanche to find the lake water high and most of the Hitch-up Matildas floating free from the granite cliffs. We clambered where we could and waded deep or swam with our rucksacks on where we had to, and eventually got around the lake. Across the lake, the dike, the great gash in Colden’s steep slides, which we had climbed so excitingly the day before, had become a crashing waterfall fifteen or twenty feet wide, plunging a thousand feet straight into the lake. Not a scene you would ever choose to miss for the sake of a little comfort and safety.
It always stayed with me, that scene and the feeling of being completely soaked, a little at risk, and surrendering to the sensations that came with it—your skin cold and tingling in the raw elements, your resistance dissolved along with the suffering it caused. You wouldn’t have had these images or sensations in a suburban high school, for instance, nor the lawns of the usual subdivision—even though a wise person would have used that “wild” experience back in the normal world to deal with similar sensations of discomfort and resistance.
I wasn’t wise. But the same feeling did come back to me twenty years later on the Hudson Gorge, which I have written about before: a day of rain, mist and high water, when I regarded the multiple white cascades pouring off the amphitheater of Kettle Mountain straight into the river, as in a Tang painting, and felt my flesh dissolve into water, a total immersion in the “flow of concrete experience,” as William James had called it.
Everything was water, inside and out. Mind was water. Sitting there becoming water beside the Hudson I remembered the water crashing through the Colden Dyke on that saturated day back when I was a stuttering gawk in the High Peaks. Certain themes always followed you, I saw. It made sense to pay attention.