Most of us have reoccurring dreams. Some of them are pleasant, some less so. Psychologists write books about them, and each of us probably spends time puzzling over their meaning. I think few of us ever expect them to come true, or even want them to come true. Who really wants to show up in public in their underwear? There are exceptions, moments when dreams do come true, if even only for a moment. One of those moments, and those dreams, happened for me, while I was a young man, living and working in the Adirondack High Peaks.
Ever since I was a young boy, one of my reoccurring dreams has involved searching for or finding lost treasure. I think this is a fairly common dream, although I have no idea as to its significance. What I do know is that sometimes that treasure is much closer than we think. Sometimes we’ve found it, without even knowing it. We can be so busy searching that when it finds us, we don’t truly recognize it for what it is. In many ways, this was one of those times.
It was early August. I’d been working for the DEC trail crew out of the Interior Outpost at Lake Colden since returning from school in the middle of May. I didn’t understand its full significance at the time, but the summer of 1984 was to be my last in the mountains as a carefree young man, unburdened by the responsibilities and societal expectations of a full-fledged adult. I was twenty years old. Soon I’d return to Cornell, where the Army would start calling in its markers on the scholarship that had funded my Ivy League schooling.
As usual, my week started with a trip to the Grand Union in Ray Brook, to fill my pack with vouchered provisions. In addition, as Jim Waters had suggested, I’d picked some night crawlers one evening while I was home, and stopped at the tackle shop and purchased several Lake Clear Wobblers. Jim was the caretaker at Lake Colden’s Interior Outpost. He was also my boss. He’d seen me out on Lake Colden in the rowboat, and knew I’d been over to Avalanche Lake as well, casting and trolling in denial of the truth, hoping that despite the acid rain that had killed the lakes and many of the conifers along their shores, that one last trout lay somewhere under a log, waiting to be caught.
Usually, we were only together in the woods for a brief period before Jim hiked out for his days off. This time, however, we’d be together for a week. Jim had said that if we worked longer hours and got the tasks he wanted done, we might have time to get to a spot he knew, where there were still trout.
So, with a full pack and hopes for a trout fishing adventure, I hiked up the old truck trail from South Meadows to Marcy Dam. As I passed through the lowlands leading out of South Meadows, I could hear ruffed grouse thumping down off to my right; “Thump- thump-thumpthump-thumpthump-thumpthumpthththththrummp,” starting slowly at first, getting rhythmically faster then ending in a furious flutter of wings. I knew there were trout over there, in South Meadows Brook, and the stream that meandered down from Marcy Dam. I knew it because I had caught trout there, in the running water and small beaver ponds scattered amidst the alders and lowland swamps.
As I made my was up past Marcy Dam through Avalanche pass to Trickle Falls, I thought about college, the army and all the big plans I had to graduate with a commission and an Ivy League education. A big career, promotions, medals, exotic postings, followed by a career as some foreign ambassador or attaché. These were Grand dreams.
Yet at the same time, I loved it there in the high peaks, working, hunting, camping, and fishing. Maybe I should just follow my heart, leave Cornell and the Army behind, go to Paul Smith’s, or follow my father’s footsteps and go to Ranger School at Wanakena.
All of those thoughts trickled through my head as I walked those trails. Trickled, like the water splashing down through the rocks above – an endless flow of water droplets, cascading through my mind. Thought droplets splashing this way and that; splash to the south and take life’s path to the Hudson, splash to the north and end up flowing down the St. Lawrence to the sea. The irony that I, of course, wasn’t aware of at the time was that my decision to stay at Cornell WOULD lead me down the St. Lawrence – to Watertown and Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division, but that was in the future.
I made my way along the rocks and hitch ‘em up Matilda’s along Avalanche Lake. I was still contemplating my future, mixed with daydreams about our upcoming fishing trip, which led me to visions of smoke stacks spewing carbon dioxide into the air, and the futile efforts that had been made to rectify the damage to the waters below me. As I walked, my mind continued to drift – to a paper I’d written at school on the impact of acid rain. That led me back to thoughts of returning to Cornell, the Army, my future, and those grandiose plans. As I contemplated, I reached my destination, the Interior Outpost at Lake Colden.
All of those thoughts were behind, or ahead, and the furthest thing from my mind the next day as Jim and I made our way along the Opalescent, past the lean-tos at the dam, over the swinging bridge and up the trail towards Feldspar. We moved fast. Each of us had an axe. Jim carried a bow saw. I carried a shovel. We each had a daypack, with a lunch, a water bottle, and a woodsman’s essentials. In my pack was also a box of heavy nails.
It was still early. The sun was up, but a cool mist still hung over Lake Colden behind us, and the woods were damp with heavy dew. We didn’t answer to a clock. Our day started and ended with the sun.
We soon reached the area where we planned to work. What had once been the trail had washed out just above us. As a result, instead of emptying into the river to our left, the runoff from the ridges off Cliff Mountain to our right was flowing down the trail, filling the low ground directly in front of us. This had created a small swamp. We could already see two or three new paths cutting off and up on the higher ground to our right, where hikers had blazed their own trails in an effort to detour the swamp and avoid getting wet. This was what we didn’t want, and were there to correct. These new, unmarked detours bushwhacked through the brush brought increased erosion and took hikers away from the marked trail system. This damaged the fragile high peaks vegetation, and increased the chances of someone wandering into the wilderness and getting lost.
We put down our saws, jettisoned our packs, and took a quick drink as we surveyed the damage. Jim had graduated Paul Smith’s and was highly skilled in trail maintenance techniques. He’d taught me a lot. We quickly developed a plan. First, we were going to put in a water bar up above, to redirect the runoff back across the trail towards the river. Then we would dig a trench from the swamp in front of us downhill, again, back towards the Opalescent. It was going to take some time for the swamp to drain. In the meantime, we planned to lay some stringers through the swamp, to a ladder we would build leading up to the water bar. The ladder would cover a steep, bouldered incline where the trail had completely washed out. The area covered about two hundred feet of trail. We had our work cut out for us. We dove right in.
The first thing we had to do was fell some cedars so that we could construct the water bar, ladder, and stringers. Cedar grows in abundance all through the area. It grows straight, is resistant to rot, and is perfect for such tasks. We located several good trees not far from our worksite, close enough to carry logs out, but hidden enough so that the fresh stumps wouldn’t stare starkly at hikers on the trail.
We worked together, felling the trees one at a time. Each tree was about twenty inches or so at its base. After surveying the branches and surrounding trees and terrain, one of us would chop a “v” shaped wedge from the base of the tree, on the downhill side, in the direction we wanted the tree to fall. Once we’d finished the undercut, we’d get out the bow saw. With one of us on either end, we would back cut into the base opposite the missing wedge, working in rhythm as we surveyed the branches above us for danger and listened for the telltale splintering sounds that would tell us when the tree was ready to go.
The saw’s sharp teeth made quick work of the cedar, and as the saw dug deeper, the opening behind the blade would widen. Once the tree’s fibers began to give way on their own, and the tree began to tilt towards the earth, we’d pull the saw from the crevice and head quickly uphill, away from the tree, to avoid falling branches or a kickback from the trunk as the tree came down. It was dangerous work, felling trees with an axe and a bow saw. We always had to expect the unexpected. A falling tree could easily get hung up in the limbs above, spin on its base, and fall in an unanticipated direction, or not fall at all, which would present another set of problems. But none of that happened to us that day, and shortly we had several nice cedars on the ground.
By the time we had finished that task, the sun had climbed above the mountains. It was warm in the woods, and muggy. Our work shirts were drenched, and the deer flies had found us, much to our chagrin. Our shirts, hats and trousers protected our bodies, and we had enough DEET on our faces, hands and necks to keep the black flies at bay, but the deer flies were relentless little vampires, undeterred by anything short of death. Even now, nearly thirty years later, when I think of them my skin starts to itch and I have to scratch.
Despite the bugs, it was peaceful in the woods, but never quiet. The Opalescent churned and gurgled below us, to our left, a slight breeze above rustled the trees, and an occasional party of hikers could be heard panting and clamoring their way up the trail towards Feldspar and Lake Tear of the Clouds.
Once the trees were down, we quickly limbed them and skinned off the bark with our axes. This left us with several long, wet, light colored logs, slick and sticky without their bark, ready to be cut into base logs, stringers, and rungs for our ladder. Our clothes, hands, and the air around us were filled with the sweet smell of cedar as we took measure and began cutting the logs to the appropriate length. Somewhere along the way we broke for lunch. It was clear we weren’t going to finish that day, so as we sat munching sandwiches, we agreed that we’d lay the water bar, and dig a trench to start draining the swampy trail.
The water bar consisted of a six foot length of cedar, about eight inches in diameter, taken from further up on one of the trees. After excavating a trench at an angle across the trail, and cross hatching the top of the log with an axe so that it was rough hewn flat, we laid the log, butt end on the downhill side, so that the uphill side of the log was partially below ground level. We secured it at both ends with cedar limb stakes, then back filled behind it, first with rock and gravel, then packed in with dirt from the side of the trail. Finally, we cleared a rough trough from the end of the water bar to the edge of the river, and watched as the water coming down off the high ground to our left began following its new path of least resistance.
Once that was complete, we turned our attention to trenching and draining the swamp that had formed. A lot of water had collected there, trapped by high ground and rock outcroppings to the right, and by the erosion created shoulder of the trail to the left. The area was large enough that we actually ended up digging two trenches down to the Opalescent; shallow, wide trenches so as not to present a danger to unwary hikers. When we finished wrestling our way through the rocks and roots and completed these tasks, we surveyed our work. The water above had been diverted nicely, and the swamp was draining, albeit slowly. It might take several weeks for the water to subside completely, and it was impossible to tell what the condition of the trail would be underneath once it did. In the meantime, we’d return the next day to lay the stringers and build the ladder, to deter further erosion and encourage the hikers to stay on the marked trail.
We gathered our tools and headed back down the trail. The Opalescent was now on our right, clear and cold, bubbling down off the mountains. It was getting late, so we decided to make our rounds of the campsites before we rowed back across the lake. We crossed the river via the swinging bridge, and wandered amongst the lean-tos. There were several groups of hikers camped for the night. Things were quiet, so we put our tools and packs into the boat and headed for home.
I always loved rowing across Lake Colden in the evening. Not only was it an escape from the bugs, but it was always refreshingly cool after a hard day’s work. As I rowed, Jim would chatter in that New York City accent “Well Dickie this,” or “Well Dickie that.” I didn’t mind being called “Dickie.” I’d been called a lot worse. Besides, it would have done me absolutely no good to complain.
When we got back to the cabin, a lone figure was sitting there waiting for us on the step. We recognized him immediately. There were a lot of strange critters up there in the mountains, most of them human. Mac N’ Cheese Bill was one of them. A “wanna be hermit”, he looked the part; small and scrawny with a scraggly beard and long matted hair. Mac N’ Cheese Bill had been in and out of Colden off and on all summer, and seemed harmless enough. He’d pitch a camp somewhere for a few days, a week or so at a time. He’d hang out at the cabin, or tag along as a “volunteer” while we worked the trails during the day. This gave him companionship and sometimes, food, which he desperately needed.
Mac N’ Cheese Bill’s claim to fame was that he lived almost exclusively on boxed macaroni and cheese, hence the nickname, Mac N’ Cheese Bill, which, naturally, got shortened to Mac. He had a small cook pot and a spoon. Besides those items, a tent and small bedroll, he didn’t seem to have much save the clothes on his back. He always had with him several boxes of macaroni and cheese. He’d build a fire, boil some water, and live off mac n’ cheese until he ran out. When he ran out, he’d hike out of the mountains and into town for a re-supply. Probably why he was so scrawny, no doubt.
Mac was a little vague about his background, and didn’t talk much. He could have been some wanted criminal for all we knew. But he didn’t cause any trouble, didn’t get in the way, and was useful at times, so Jim let him hang around. Mac apparently had just returned from his most recent mac n’ cheese re-supply run into town. He was sitting on our step, smoking one of his hand rolled cigarettes, another of his traits. We hadn’t seen him in a few days, so we invited him to stay for dinner, which was likely why he was there.
On hot days we might don some shorts and go jump in the lake before we ate, which doubled as a shower, but most nights we’d just crack open a beer and talk while we cooked steaks, chops or burgers. This evening was like most others. Once we finished eating, Mac hung around awhile so we played some spades and listened to the radio. As darkness grew nearer, Mac made his exit to go set up camp somewhere along the lake. We went to bed.
When the whole trail crew was there, I slept upstairs with them in the open bunkroom, but there were two bedrooms downstairs, so when I was in there alone or with Jim, I slept downstairs in the second room. Sleep came easy and deep, and always ended the same way, at sunrise, to the smell of brewing coffee, and the sound of Jim’s voice “up and at ‘em Dickie Boy!” He was always full of energy, and always up first. Breakfast was hearty; bacon, eggs, “Colden Cakes”, which Jim made with apples, sugar, and cinnamon. I’d make sandwiches, piled with cold cuts and cheese. We’d do the dishes, heating water drawn from the hand pump by the sink. Then we would pack for the day, grab our axes and tools, and off we’d go.
The second day of a big project was always a little harder than the first. Despite having been up there most of the summer, my hands would still get a little raw, cramped and swollen from a full day of wielding an axe, saw, and shovel. We hiked up to our worksite and unloaded our gear. The water bar seemed to be holding nicely, and the swamp had drained a little, so all was in order.
We went into the woods where our remaining logs still lay. First, we used the bow saw to cut base logs for the stringers from the butt ends of the trees we had felled the day before. Each base log was about three feet in length. We’d cross notch and flatten the top side with our axes, so that the stringers could be nestled in tightly when laid on top. We then carried the base logs into the swampy muck that had been a trail, and dropped them in firmly, about six feet apart. We then took longer lengths of log from the upper ends of our felled trees, notched them flat on the bottom at each end to fit our base logs, and cross notched and flattened the topside of each stringer so they wouldn’t be slippery as hikers trod over them. Once the base logs and stringers were in place, we fastened them in with the nails from my pack. The entire task took several hours. When we had finished, we took a break and ate our lunch. The sandwiches I’d made, cookies and apples, washed down with water from the cabin’s hand pumped well. We surveyed our work, swatting deer flies and telling stories as we sat there by the trail along the Opalescent.
While we sat, Jim laid out the plan for the following day. We were going over to the Flowed Lands, to Livingston Point, where they’d taken out the lean-to the previous fall, after my return to school. There was still a lot of debris on the site, and the next day we were going to clean it all up. Once we were finished, we were heading back to Livingston Pond.
“Dickie,” Jim said, “Most people don’t know it, but there’s still trout in Livingston Pond.” I had heard that there were fish in Calamity Pond, and Calamity Brook flowing down from it to the headwaters of the Hudson, but I had been unaware of Livingston Pond or the presence of trout that close to the outpost.
So that’s where we were headed. Apparently, Livingston Pond’s trout population was a fact which the DEC didn’t advertise, in order to protect its strain of native brook trout. The pond was fed by a deep underground spring, which had mitigated the impact of acid rain. Jim explained that there was so much thick brush around the pond’s banks that it couldn’t be effectively fished from shore, so it never got fished anyways. But Jim had a canoe, locked up and hidden in the brush near the pond.
It occurred to me that Jim had seen me out fishing on Colden and Avalanche Lake on several occasions, but had never let on that there were still fish around, or that he knew where they were. That didn’t bother me. I was excited at the prospect of a high peaks fishing adventure, and thought back to the photos I’d seen as a kid of stringers full of trout taken from these lakes on guided expeditions. Our biggest concern would be making sure Mac wasn’t around, trying to tag along. Tomorrow was going to be a good day, but today we still had to build a ladder and finish our job.
Building a ladder was a little more intricate than laying stringers. First, we put in the two rail logs, side by side, about two feet apart, up the steep incline where the trail had washed out. The rails were secured firmly at the bottom with large rocks. Then, at regular intervals, Jim cut angled notches into the rails. Each rung was notched as well, to fit into the rails. Once notched and nailed in place, the top of each rung was cross notched and flattened at just the right angle so that each one presented a level, flat surface, like steps, for someone climbing it. At the top, as at the bottom, we situated some large, flat rocks, so that hikers wouldn’t create a muddy hole at either end of the ladder.
Jim did most of the handiwork on the ladder while I watched. He was very skilled with an axe, and I learned much by watching. Sometimes, looking back, I think I learned more useful skills during those summers, up there in the mountains, than I ever learned in four years at Cornell.
Once we’d completed the project, we tested it backwards and forwards several times to ensure everything was secure. The water seemed to be draining properly, and everything was tight. We were satisfied. We took some of the remaining limbs from our felled trees and dragged them into the makeshift paths hikers had forged around the washed out trail, effectively blocking them in an effort to push people back onto the marked and newly renovated route.
Finished, we packed our tools and retraced our steps, back to the boat and across the lake to the cabin. After dinner, we poured a little whiskey and played some cards. I couldn’t wait for the next day to come. While we played cards, Jim explained that he only went into Livingston Pond once or twice each year, as it was such a small pond that it could easily be fished out. He asked me if I’d remembered the Lake Clear Wobblers and night crawlers. I assured him that I had. He informed me that Lake Clear Wobblers and night crawlers were our secret weapon that would guarantee success. I hoped he was right. Darkness came, and we both went to bed.
The next morning, we ate, packed a lunch, a few beers, grabbed our spinning rods, the Wobblers, and the box of night crawlers. We jumped in the boat and set off across the lake.
We were paid for forty hours each week, but our days were generally much longer than that. The only time clock in the mountains was the rising and setting of the sun. There was never any overtime, and mine, at least, was a minimum wage job, so an afternoon’s fishing seemed fair to us. We reached the far side of the lake, and tied up the boat near the dam. Mac was nowhere to be see, probably off somewhere, eating mac n’ cheese for breakfast.
First, however, there was the task of cleaning up the debris at Livingston Point. The DEC had been slowly culling the number of lean-tos in the high peaks through the 1970’s and early 80’s as hiker volume increased. The areas around most of the lean-tos had become somewhat abused, with trees stripped of branches and bark, increased erosion. They were also a collection point for refuse and debris. It was amazing to me the sorts of things people would drag so high up into the mountains.
In that area of the high peaks, Caribou lean-to was already gone. We’d cleaned up that site the year before. I didn’t know how long Livingston Point lean-to had been there, but it had come out the previous fall. At one point, the lean-to had set near the water, but the dam had been breached, and the water level dropped, so that by 1984 much of Flowed Lands was a muddy flatland. All that remained of the lean-to at this point was the deacon log, a fireplace, and assorted debris, set well back from the water’s new edge.
Jim and I had brought along some garbage bags and a sledgehammer. We filled the bags with debris, and used the sledge to knock apart the fireplace, tossing the rocks helter skelter into the woods. We then made an effort to roll the deacon log as far back into the brush as we could.
Once finished, we were making our last rounds for debris before heading into Livingston Pond to fish. I looked down in the impression left where the deacon log had been, and kicked at what looked like an old leather boot heel, half buried in the dirt. It came free from the soil, so I bent down to pick it up and put it in the bag with the other trash.
To my surprise, when I bent down to pick up that old leather boot heel, I saw that it wasn’t a boot heel at all. Instead, what I held in my hand was an old leather money pouch – and it was full of coins! I was very excited- buried treasure on Livingston Point! I called Jim over and showed him what I’d found.
The pouch itself was small and circular, about three inches across. It was stamped leather, with leather lacing that had begun to unravel with age. There were designs in concentric circles on either side, but no words, names, or initials were visible. Inside the pouch, the coins were heavily worn and corroded. I shook them carefully into my palm. There were ten nickels and twelve pennies, sixty-two cents in all. The coins were very difficult to read, but seven of the nickels looked to be buffalo nickels, with one being a very worn liberty head. The twelve pennies were all Lincoln wheat cents. Some of the dates were illegible, but of the ones that I could read, the earliest was 1919, and the latest 1937.
To me, this was an incredible find. I sat and stared at the pouch and coins in my hand, imagining some hunter, trapper, or fishing guide during the Great Depression, camped at that very site, Livingston Point lean-to, and hiding his money pouch under the deacon log so it wouldn’t be stolen while he slept, or was off tending his traps. I imagined that sixty- two cents was probably a pretty good sum of money for someone back then. I wondered what could have caused someone to leave it behind. Had he gotten lost or killed and not returned? If we knew where to look, was there a skeleton somewhere, forgotten by the world in a high peaks grave? Had he simply forgotten and left it behind? I could only speculate. In the meantime, I wrapped the treasure carefully and slipped it safely into my pack.
I searched and kicked in the dirt in the area around where I’d found the pouch, but nothing else surfaced. Finished with our cleanup, we dragged the garbage bags and the sledgehammer back across the Opalescent, picked up our spinning rods out of the boat, and headed back to the Flowed Lands towards Livingston Pond to catch some trout.
Livingston Pond is quite small, and there is no marked trail leading to it, that I’m aware of. The brush was low and thickly tangled on the east side of Flowed Lands, and the ground leading into it was the type of mucky marsh that could suck the boots off your feet. We conquered the muck by walking up the center of a small outlet from the pond, where the ground was firmer beneath the running water, and the brush far less dense. A few hundred yards upstream was where Jim had the canoe, chained and locked, hidden in the brush. We unlocked the canoe and dragged it to the edge of the pond.
The pond itself was small and nearly round. The water was green, and the bottom looked sandy. Its borders were thick with tangled undergrowth, as Jim had described. It would have been almost impossible for anyone to fish from the banks of the pond, as there was no good way to cast a line. We pushed the canoe into the water as quietly as possible, and climbed aboard.
Whether there were paddles with the canoe, or we brought them, I can’t remember, but at any rate, we were on the pond. We rigged our gear with the Lake Clear Wobblers and night crawlers and began to fish. It didn’t take long. Cast after cast we caught those fish, native brook trout, not too big- eight or ten inches at most. They were beautiful, bright colored, feisty, and jumped at our baits. It was a trout angler’s dream.
We spent the afternoon in the canoe, trolling around that small pond for trout, eating our sandwiches, sipping a beer. What a day. The sun was out. We released most of the fish that we caught, keeping just enough for dinner that evening.
As we fished, I began to daydream about the treasure I’d found. Had its owner fished these ponds? What was his name? I imagined some exotic name like Ezekial, or Jebediah. I wondered what it had been like in these mountains, back in the time before World War II, during the Great Depression. I imagined some bearded, fur clad trapper, harvesting beaver and muskrat, living off the land.
As we floated on that small pond catching trout, I felt as if I’d gone back fifty years in time, to an era before smokestacks and factories had polluted the mountains. I’ve been on fishing charters and trips all up and down the east coast, from Salmon fishing on Lake Ontario, to stripers and blues on Cape Cod – Blue Marlin off the Outer Banks – Grouper in the Gulf of Mexico. No trip I’ve ever been on before or since compared to that one afternoon catching native brook trout in that high mountain lake. I found treasure twice that afternoon, once in a coin pouch, and once on a hook.
We returned to the cabin that evening, cleaned our trout, and cooked them out back of the cabin over an open fire. Nothing fancy, a frying pan and a little oil, fish dipped in flour with little salt and pepper, some bread and a beer. One of the best meals I’ve ever had. I’ll never forget it.
Shortly thereafter, I hiked out of the mountains, went back to town, and got ready to returned to school. I saw Jim Waters several times after that, in town when I’d come home from Cornell, and on a couple of occasions when I hiked into the cabin for the day with friends. I later heard that he’d been promoted and become a full time Forest Ranger for the DEC. I believe he still is. He followed his trail, I followed mine. I have no idea what happened to the “wanna be hermit”, Mac N’ Cheese Bill.
I went back to Livingston Pond one more time the next summer, with my father. We met Jim at the cabin, and caught and released another canoe full of trout. I haven’t been back since.
I still have that small leather pouch and the handful of coins it contained. They sit on a shelf in my home, next to my maps, compass and guidebook of the Adirondack High Peaks. I’ve often wondered if there are still trout in Livingston Pond. I’ve thought about
what might have been my life’s journey if I’d chosen differently, discarding the Ivy League, the army, and all of my grandiose plans, for a simpler life, up there in the mountains, along the Opalescent, where a man once hid his treasure, and I caught some trout.