Saturday, November 3, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Fear in the Wild

I take a break from economics, tourism and telecommuting this week to honor my favorite holiday, Halloween, and the fear and imagination it is meant to celebrate.

It is a crisp Adirondack morning, barely six AM and the water is glass. A dense mist hangs on the lake and the air is heavy with silence.  Just a few yards into my paddle across to Osprey Island the canoe has become enveloped, leaving me to make the trip only on instinct and the experience of dozens of similar journeys.  There is nothing but white to be seen, that and the slate gray surface of the water, disturbed only slightly by the ripples spreading out from the bow. 

Immersed in the intimacy of the fog I feel an ethical need to execute each stroke as perfectly as possible.  A splash as the paddles goes in, an excessive swoosh as I propel the craft, even the drip from the blade on the return, all these disturb the sanctity of my surroundings.  To misjudge and accidentally bang the side of the canoe with the shaft would be a violation nothing short of felonious.  I strive to be noiseless.  The water against my blade feels silky, almost creamy.

The magic of my morning trip into the mist is tinged with a little bit of fear.  Before long that fear becomes stronger and begins to center itself in my chest: I should be seeing the shoreline of Osprey by now.  I strain to pierce the fog to see any shadow of tree or even a slight difference of shade in the whiteness before me.  For a moment I think I see a darker spot ahead but it is only a trick of light caused by the slight, wispy movement of the misty veil across the surface of the water.

I know there is another way to ascertain whether I am close to the island.  I can look downward and try to see past the reflective sheen of Blue Mountain Lake’s surface into the clear water that with the aid of the sun can reveal the bottom fifteen feet down or more. But there is no sun now.  Still, I might be able to make out something in the gray morning light: maybe the first suggestion of the steeply angled slope rising up to form the bulk of Osprey; maybe the specter of a long-submerged tree trunk jutting out from the edge; maybe a tangled mass of branches from a fallen cedar or hemlock; maybe, if I am especially unlucky, a sudden and unprepared-for rise of massive, brooding granite, a shoal or boulder that is never seen until the shock is too late to avoid.

I know I will not choose to look for the bottom…  I have nowhere near enough courage for that.  Yet my eye darts downward repeatedly anyhow, stealing glimpses into the black water beneath me, furtive glances that I am somehow compelled to make by forces greater than my will.

My throat tightens.  What if my sense of direction has betrayed me this time and I miss the island?  What if I paddle on and no shoreline comes at all?  What if with every stroke I am paddling not only further from home but further back in time as well, right into the primeval where no there is no human presence, where I am utterly alone?

These imaginings are finally arrested by an unmistakable darkening ahead and in moments the branches of a pine emerge like wraiths from the gloom only to be swallowed again.  But then the uneven crest formed by the tops of the trees ringing the shoreline starts to appear all at once across my field of vision, ghostly at first, then flooding with dark green color and finally instantiated before me in all its somber reality.  I have made the shore of Osprey.

Instead of experiencing relief I feel my foreboding increase, for my morning journey has an awful purpose.  I must follow the shoreline now, make my way around the bend to the eastern side of the island.  There I will be careful to stay close to the overhanging firs for to tarry too far into the approaching bay before I have meant to will surely invite doom.  I will parallel Osprey until I see the small natural beach and beyond it, the little rock bluff with the cleft.  Then I will turn away from the island, make my way out into the bay and my fear will surge to overflowing.

With growing dread I proceed along the edge of the island until I come to the bluff.  I’m there now, there where it lies off shore, waiting for me.  I sweep the paddle and turn the canoe away from the shore, cursing myself for doing it.  I look down into the water and for a few seconds I am comforted by the soft, sandy bottom which is only two or three feet away.  But this is a false comfort and I know it.  For several yards the bottom stays close, maybe four or five feet down.  But then it suddenly falls away and rapidly fades to nothing, a tenuous, wavy glimpse of vegetation my last connection with it.  The disappearing bottom never spares me.  It drops away from me every time and any vestige of courage drops away with it.  I become naked with terror.  The nightmare is moments away.

I would give anything I had to gain the power to look away from that water, plunge my paddle in and stroke furiously towards any place not so desperately inhuman.  But that action is impossible. My gaze is locked downward, compelled to sink into the darkness.  My eyes become watery, my pulse races, my chest is tight.  I see nothing.  The canoe drifts slowly forward.

Maybe I am looking on the wrong side of the boat.  To switch and look over on the other side seems like madness but I do it anyway, my heart leaping.  Still there is nothing.  Surely I have gone too far.  I want to think that maybe I have miscalculated, but after all these years I know better.  Almost causally I switch my gaze to the original side again, repeating the same foolish mistake for the hundredth time.  My eyes barely have time to refocus and THERE IT IS.  I scream and jolt backwards, my cry cut off in my wind pipe.

From the inky depths it comes, rising up at an odd, wrong, disconcerting angle.  Swathed in spectral green, it is almost amorphous, yet the hard curves of its edges are stark.  It is the bow of a large boat, a turn-of-the-century launch.  Only the first four or five feet are visible, jutting up towards me while the widening bulk of it fades the other direction into the murky fathoms, endless fathoms for all I know.  I am sure that its hull is populated with the decaying remnants of its victims, as though it is some small scale Titanic thrusting its evil towards the surface.

I feel threatened for my very life by that prow, pulled toward water that I know would like to flood all around me, suck me down and drown me.  For a moment I am certain I will not escape it.  That shape rising from the bottom of Blue Mountain Lake, on a misty morning so bereft of comfort, is the most frightening thing I have ever seen.  With a rush of panic and desperate courage I abandon my paddling ethics and madly churn away from the submerged horror, spitting water and foam in all directions in my zeal to make some distance.

Nearly sixty years ago my sister accidentally spied the sunken boat from a canoe and ever since then my family has known and cherished it… and been scared to death of it.  For decades it has lain in twelve feet of water off of Osprey Island, oddly askew and tilted upwards, not far from the natural beach and sandy lake bottom that invites bathers.  Oh, how many swimmers have unknowingly tread water right above it, inches from its deathly grasp!

Few people know it is there.  It is just deep enough and the conditions of water and light in that area just confused enough so that if you aren’t looking for it you will be unlikely to see it.  Russ Barrowman, the long-time proprietor of the Blue Mountain Lake Boat Livery, used to tell tall tales about it with just enough drama to upset a young boy such as me.  The truth about its presence there is less dramatic than Russ’s stories, evidenced by the rocks in its hold, visible on a good sunny day, which purposely weighed it down and forced it to sink.

But the truth changes nothing for me.  For more than forty years I have canoed out to discover the sunken boat and not for a single time have I been anything less than terrified. This terror, this deep fear, is one of the truly gratifying things in my life.  I treasure it.   I need it.  I want to be scared to death of that damned wreck.

There are various theories about why human beings love to be scared.  I think it has something to do with tying to our primeval selves, to a deeper and richer context that we do not fully understand in modern life.  I think fear brings out our better natures in so many ways: focus, courage, community, imagination.  We need a little fear; it makes us better, more alive.

Fear is a regular feature of wilderness adventures.  It might be an amplified fear of the darkness that we have carried with us from the dawn of humanity.   It might be fanciful thoughts of monsters or ghosts or wild men.  It might be a more concrete fear in the form of an approaching bear.  It might be a deadly matter in question, a life-threatening emergency or disaster.  It might be as simple and vulnerable as getting lost.

There is a lot of advice given about how to deal with fear in the wild, for good reason.   Uncontrollable fear can lead to panic and panicky behavior in the wilderness is never a good thing.  But my advice and instruction in dealing with fear was not given to me in a classroom, book or guide.  Mine was given to me many years ago from beneath the surface of Blue Mountain Lake.

The sunken boat has made me a better person in the wild.  It has taught me that trying to outgrow or conquer fear is not the right way to think about it.  Rather we should embrace fear and revel in its symbolic power.  The sunken boat will scare my wits out of me the next time I canoe for it.  Again it will remind me that fear is a great teacher, but more than that it is a great part of the delicious, rich tapestry of human meaning, meaning with which we find the Adirondack wilderness replete.

Photo: From the depths, a century old…

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

5 Responses

  1. Katharine Preston says:

    This is a brilliant essay – and reveals the nature of true fear – not “manufactured” by zombies and masks! Thank you!

  2. Michael P. McGuire says:

    That dang boat will forever scare the bejesus out of me.

  3. Ho&Jo says:

    My wife’s memory of that boat is etched indelibly on her mind and in her heart. I find it absolutely amazing that a man who will consider challenging Tractor for a bit of food would take the second-most fearful element in his life, his Mother-in-law on an early morning, fog-blanketed morning to visit that watery grave. He conquered the two most bedeviling parts of his life that morning, and enriched her life in a very special way. Thanks for conquering your fear that special morning!

  4. Paul says:

    I heard a piece on Radio Lab recently about how you can actually be scared to DEATH. Be careful? Great essay!