Friday, October 8, 2021

Camping, with a stranger

richard monroe(A True Story) 

“Folks would pay big bucks for this experience.”

 My non-hunting brother uttered those words, as he sat dining fireside one early September lake evening.

Taking advantage of the special early NYS military/veteran’s waterfowl hunt, I had experienced success, and bagged several ducks. What good is hunter’s bounty not shared? So, I called up my brother;

“If you want a “Camp Chef” duck dinner, meet me up on the lake. I’ve got my spices, some olive oil, butter, and an onion already. Bring a frying pan, spatula, some scallions, and a fork. I’ll kindle a fire. When you get up this way, just look for the smoke.”

     I didn’t have to ask twice. There were no leftovers.

“Folks would pay big bucks for this experience.”

Those words somehow stuck with me through the days that followed. My brother was right. Adirondack life is a wildly magical mountain lake kingdom. Folks who live there can easily take it for granted. I felt an urge to share it with someone. We are truly blessed.

As chance circumstance would have it, just a few days later I posted a TWEET with some pics of my brother’s fireside duck dinner. One of my longtime TWITTER followers quickly LIKED and comment complimented.

All I really knew about the guy was that he was apparently a mushroom hunter of some type.  He posted many interesting pics of mushrooms. I thought he lived in Connecticut.  His TWITTER handle: Mike.

So, I casually threw out an invite with an offhanded comment:

“I bet some wild mushrooms would go GREAT with wild duck. I’ll be in camp two days next week. I’ve still got some duck breasts. Invitation’s open.”

I didn’t put much thought into it, really. I’ve tossed out invites to hundreds of folks. No one has ever taken me up on it. Certainly, some mushroom hunting TWITTER guy from Connecticut wouldn’t.

Then my TWITTER feed flashed a message:

“I just cleared my calendar. I’ll be there. I hope the invitation was for both nights.”

GULP! My bluff had been called.  Suddenly, I was going camping with a TWITTER follower I had nicknamed ‘Mushroom Mike”.  A bit flustered, I fessed up and told my family.  Their immediate response:

“Dad! You can’t do that!”

“Ummm…Well-It seems I just did.”

camping

Despite my family’s misgivings, I felt an unexplainable urge to follow through. I had made an offer. It had been accepted. I was determined to honor it.

However, I did understand my family’s concerns. I needed a smart plan, and some safety plans, so I called up my brother and told him what I’d just done.  His initial response was not much different from that of the rest of my family.

Undeterred, I pressed forward with camp plans. I had a two day reservation at my favorite lean-to site at Bull Rush Bay, Middle Saranac Lake, the 28th and 29th of September.

I had been planning to pack light and go in alone via South Creek with my Zen boat canoe. With a big assist from my brother, that plan changed. He would bring up our dad’s old Starcraft and have it moored for me at the Ampersand walk-in. I was now two man gear heavy, on the cold whitecap windswept lake waters heading into October. I would still portage in my Zen boat canoe on the walk-in to the beach, but the use of the Starcraft was a welcome plan addition. I would need it.

I would leave my Zen boat stashed on the beach. My brother would row it over and join us for dinner after work the afternoon of the 27th after I picked up Mike and we began pitching camp. I was meeting Mike at the Ampersand walk-in parking lot at 3pm. I’d have a chance to size him up and make an immediate viability/safety assessment right there and then.

So now I had a motor boat, my cell phone, a safety/contingency plan, and my brother. He was not staying the night, but he would come back Wednesday for another “Camp Chef” duck dinner. He would bring his dog Pepper and another crew member as reinforcements.

I briefed my wife and family on my plan.  They still weren’t thrilled at the prospect. I remained determined. Still, I understood their concerns.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I wanted to make absolutely sure that sure my camping companion did though, so I messaged Mike.

“I was up there this past weekend. Winds are heavy. The lake is icy cold whitecap rough. The water is low. Our boat will be moored off shore. Be prepared to knee deep wade gear out to it. It’s gonna be COLD! Daytime temps in the 50’s, it will get into the 30’s at night, plus the winds off the lake. Have you ever camped in the Adirondacks? This is not your average campground. Our agenda will be: Get firewood. Get more firewood. Get even MORE firewood, hope the wind dies down enough to go fishing before sunset, eat something, sleep, repeat.

  Once in camp, we are a good hour from help. Hypothermia is a real thing here.  This camping is not for everyone. Please pack accordingly.”

Mushroom Mike responded: “I’ve never camped in the Adirondacks. I will pack appropriately. I am looking forward to it.”

Mushroom Mike was still coming.  The guy clearly really wanted to go camping.

“Okay, get your fishing license. If the winds let up enough on the lake, I’ll take you out fishing. If we get lucky, maybe we’ll catch a nice bass or pike and turn our wild duck dinner into some “Adirondack Surf & Turf”. Don’t forget to bring some of those edible wild mushrooms. By the way- where you comin’ from?”

He replied: “Massachusetts”

I was headed for my first venture as an Adirondack Guide. With a guy nicknamed “Mushroom Mike,” from Massachusetts.

So, plans went forward. I packed gear, got up to the lake and portaged gear into my brother’s Starcraft early on Tuesday. I brought a small tent for my guest, my old propane Coleman camp stove, and perk coffee pot. I packed a cooler with basic food items, hamburgers, hotdogs, coffee, bacon, eggs, hot chocolate, oatmeal, granola bars, a few apples, some ham lunch meat & cheese, 2 big onions, S’More fixins, two lemons (in case we added a fish to the menu), my “Camp Chef” spices, a good supply of bottled water.

In addition, I packed my own tube fed cancer survivor nutrition. I had instructed Mushroom Mike to pack a small cooler with any other stuff he liked to eat.  I told him:

“I don’t eat human food. I’m just “Camp Chef.” I cook whatever vittles show up on the grill.”

Mike would get the tent. I would set up my guide headquarters in my trusted old friend, the Bull Rush Bay lean-to.

By the time I got everything across the lake, offloaded the boat into the Bull Rush Bay lean-to, and took in some of my camp coffee “rocket fuel” nourishment, it was after 2:30. Time to get back across the lake for my scheduled 3pm rendezvous at the walk- in parking lot with Mushroom Mike.

It occurred to me as I hiked up the trail:

This guy is taking at least as much risk as I am. He’s headed into the Adirondacks, where he’s never camped before, putting his faith in a guy he’s never met. In late September fall weather.  He was literally putting his life in my hands. I felt a sudden appreciation for the responsibility true Adirondack Guides take on regularly. I took it seriously.

I could see “Mushroom Mike” was there waiting for me at the parking lot as I came up the last bit of the trail. I was assessing this guy from minute 1. A small wiry looking guy, obviously a bit older than me, appropriately dressed for the task at hand. My “client” had passed the first tests. He had found the place without trouble, parked, and was gear ready by the side of the trail as I arrived, waiting.

We quick shook hands and geared up. He was packed light enough for one load in.

“We need to get moving,” I said. “We’ve got a good bit of work ahead of us, and we’re gonna lose daylight by seven.”  

       I had quickly sized this guy up. I stepped away for a moment and called my brother.

“Seems like a normal guy. No immediate red flags. I am proceeding as planned.”

     “Okay, I’ll row your Zen boat across. I’m bringing Pepper. She needs a good run.  I’ll be coming in about 4:30. What’s for dinner?”

“I’ve got hamburgers and hot dogs. I do need that big frying pan of yours. I forgot my fishing net.  Bring your own drinks, and we could probably use a few more bottles of water.”

     “Okay, see you in a couple hours.”

We got everything on the boat, across the lake, and into the lean-to without incident.  We set up Mike’s tent, pitched camp, and began gathering firewood. I was quietly watching and gauging Mushroom Mike the whole time. He seemed self-sufficient enough, took instruction well, clearly had spent a good deal of time in the woods. As we got acquainted a bit, I asked him.

     “So, Mike, I must admit. You took me a bit by surprise when you accepted my offer.  Must have invited a hundred guys into camp through the years. You are the first one who has EVER taken me up on it.”

     Mike smiled. “Yes, I guess I’m just that one in a hundred. Well, I love to camp. My buddy I always camped with passed away last year. As a result, I did not get to go camping this summer, and I missed it. I always wanted to go camping in the Adirondacks. So, when you offered, I just decided to come.”

    Satisfied with his answer, I nodded. At that point my brother texted me.

“Rowing in now.”

     “Well Mike, I’m glad you did. My brother Ray is on his way across the lake now. The agenda this evening is to finish setting up camp, gather a good supply of firewood, and eat dinner. If the winds die down, we’ll go fishing tomorrow.”

     My brother Ray came in with his high energy black lab pup. He helped us build a big stack of good firewood. He brought his big camp frying pan for our duck dinner the next night, and a fishing net.

I continued quietly watching how Mike functioned in camp. He had a quiet way about him. He took a steak and some peppers, potatoes and onions from his small cooler, wrapped them with some butter in foil and spices I had brought, and roasted his own dinner on the fire. My brother Ray roasted hot dogs.

“I’ll be in tomorrow about the same time. I’ll bring my friend Joel and his dog. He loves duck and is anxious to taste a Camp Chef duck dinner. He’ll bring some noodles and shrimp he’s got cooked up as a side dish.”

“Okay. Mike and I are going fishing in the morning. If we catch a nice fish, I brought some lemons, I’ll cook up some Lemonade Bass.  We’ll have “Adirondack Surf & Turf.”

I took Ray and Pepper back across the lake on the Starcraft at dusk. Mike and I stoked up the fire and chatted while I took in some fireside feeding tube nourishment. We were both tired and turned in early. The night passed uneventfully, clear and cold.

The next morning, we woke early. I coaxed warm morning flame from night’s coals and fired up the propane coffee pot. Mike cooked his leftover steak and potatoes with some eggs on the Coleman stove. The lake winds were calm. Once breakfast was finished, we made plans to go fishing. Mike had brought his own bass favorite lures.

I knew from the get go that he’d been fishing before. He tied his own knots. And the black and gold Rapalla lure that he chose was one of our “go to” color combos. So, I planned just to drive the boat and quietly let him do his thing. I took him down river, towards the locks, stopping along the way at key “hot spots” to allow him to cast.

We didn’t have much fishing luck initially. Though the fall foliage was spectacular. Mike took some pictures and cast in towards shore as we worked downstream towards the locks.

He had one big fish swirl as it hit at his lure, but it missed. Finally, as we rounded a bend, he cast and caught a small bass. We photo’d and released it. I remarked, “Well Mike, at least we didn’t get skunked.” By the time we reached the locks and turned around, he’d caught two more little bass. Both smallmouths.

I decided to change locations and try the far side of the lake. We motored up into Hungry Bay, past the Martha Reben lean-to, where I idled along so Mike could cast in along the rocky shoreline.

He caught one more small bass casting in towards shore. As his guide, I was really praying he’d hook into at least one nice one. I looked away for a moment, when I heard Mike utter, “I think I just hooked a nice one!”

My head snapped up. Sure enough, Mushroom Mike’s pole was bent over double.  I grabbed he net while he slowly played the fish out.

That big bass was a fighter! I kept encouraging Mike. As the fish got close to the boat, we could see it. Then it would run again. Playing that fish took some skill. Mike did well. The guide in me said “Please self, don’t screw this up.” I breathed a happy sigh of relief when I finally managed to net it.

I let out a Whoop! That echoed across the lake.

Great Job Mike”!

camping trip

“Mushroom Mike” at camp

     He was all smiles while I took several photos.  Fifteen inches at least, and fat, probably at least a couple/three pounds.

We stringered the bass. Excited, Mike wanted to stay and cast for more. It was almost 11:30 though, so we worked our way back up the shoreline for several more casts, but it was time to get back to camp, gather more firewood, eat some lunch, and filet out the bass for our planned “Surf & Turf” dinner.

Once back at camp, I called my brother.

“Mushroom Mike hooked a nice one! We’re gonna need a second frying pan.”

     I sharpened my filet knives. The bass gave us two nice filets. I cut each in half, so four big servings for dinner.

While we waited for my brother and his friend Joel to reach the walk in with their dogs. Mike and I ate lunch, then walked and gathered firewood while Mike scouted for some mushrooms.

It’s amazing all the things nature has in the woods that most folks never see.  I’ve never been a mushroom guy. I know nothing about them. Mike showed me a variety of mushrooms molds, fungi and spores. They were all interesting. Some were colorful. He seemed to know a great deal about them. He spent a good deal of time snapping mushroom photos.

At some point he remarked “Oh, these are Honeys. They grow in clusters. They are edible.” He picked a small handful to add to our feast.

I took the Starcraft back across the lake to pick up my brother Ray, his friend Joel and their dogs at 4:30, as planned. They sat, talked, threw sticks and balls for dogs, had some “camp cocktails” while I changed roles from fishing guide to “Camp Chef” and prepared two pans. One pan held wild Adirondack black duck, sauteed with wild mushrooms, onions, scallions, bacon, soy sauce, butter, and spices. The other held four Adirondack black bass filets, poached in fresh squeezed lemon, pepper & butter, topped with lemon slices.

Both pans roasted to done over a smoky hardwood camp fire. The three of them plated and ate fireside while I snapped some photos. Everyone raved and texted their friends to brag. There were once again no leftovers.

After dinner, we enjoyed our evening, relaxed by the fire. As dusk came on, I took my brother, his friend and their dogs back across the lake to the walk in.  Mike and I sat by the fire awhile and talked. I took in my own nourishment. Fall cold and darkness fully settled in early. We were both tired. We stoked up the fire once more and turned in. Mike to the tent I had brought for him, and me to my reclining camp chair in the lean-to.

The next morning, we awoke early, ate breakfast, packed, doused our fire, and made our way back across the lake to undertake the task of portaging all our gear out.

At noon we shook hands, Mushroom Mike thanked me for the trip, and was gone.

I finished packing gear into my truck and loaded my Zen boat canoe all the while reflecting. It was a great deal of work. I was sore and tired, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. One thing I gained from the trip was a deeper appreciation for the dedication and skill of those true Adirondack Guides who make their living introducing others to the ways of the mountains.

My brother’s words also kept echoing through my mind:

“Folks would pay big bucks for this experience.”

I suspect he is right.

One Night Adirondack

How Much is it Worth?

As far as I’m Concerned

It’s Priceless

Author’s Endnote: For any folks interested in an invitation to table to share this experience, there’s only one way to do it. Make friends with an Adirondack Outlaw hunter/fishing guide/Camp Chef, and get your name on the guest list.  

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Richard Monroe

Lifelong NYS resident. Raised in Saranac Lake. Cornell graduate(ROTC). Army veteran, Airborne/Ranger qualified, 10th Mtn Div, stints in Honduras and with JTF VI. 3rd degree Black Belt; 3x cancer survivor; published writer with several featured stories in Adirondack Life Magazine. Residing in Watertown NY with wife Robin & our 3 adult children. Loving Life. Living in the Day I am in.




16 Responses

  1. Richard says:

    I always enjoy this contributor’s pieces, for both the stories and his writing.

    • Nora says:

      So do I Richard !!

      • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

        Thank you both. I am glad you enjoy them. I’m not sure if folks are aware, but for those who like reading my adventures & stories, I’ve written a lot more of them. Only about a third of the stories I’ve written fit inside the Adirondack Almanack’s Blue Line footprint. There are many more on my Blog: adirondackoutlaw.com. North country & military true life adventures & vignettes, fiction short stories, hunting adventures & game recipe pieces, pictures and poetry. Stories I had previously published in other publications. I love writing, submitting & sharing stories here at The Almanack. I’d love for readers who like my work here to visit & read my other work there! It’s free, no advertising, no agenda, just a guy who enjoys writing stories. I enjoy it even more when lots of folks read them!

  2. JB says:

    Great! This one was a nail-biter. Us mushroom people do like to live dangerously. There are quite a few “Honeys” in our neck of the woods; it is actually maybe a bit on the early side for them around here, in my experience (I have seen them covered in snow!). Mushroom Mike evidently knew what he was doing though, considering that you seem to be alive and well. That species has been mistaken for Galerina autumnalis quite a bit in the past, which will leave you in need of a new liver in short order. I like to say (probably erroneously): Around here, if it grows on wood and it’s not a Galerina, you’ll probably live, although if it glows in the dark (Omphalotus illudens), you’re in for a very rough night, and if it doesn’t glow in the dark, you may be in for the ride of your life.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you JB. Luckily for me, as a survivor Camp Chef, I just cook what shows up on the grill. I don’t eat any of it. I will admit though, I kept a close eye on my brother and his fried Joel during our “Surf & Turf” duck dinner as they ate. I figured if anyone turned green and began croaking, started foaming at the mouth, doing the funky chicken, or howling at the moon, it was a sign that Mushroom Mike’s “honey’s” might be something other than sweet. None of that happened. No one that I know of ended up glowing in the dark, either, that I know of, so all good.

  3. James Valastro says:

    Wonderful! Thanks for writing this up.

    Lets’ go tracking sometime.

    James Valastro, Indian Lake
    From the Hunt family of Adirondack Outlaws.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you James, & your Hunt Family Adirondack Outlaws! Give me a holler sometime. Editor Melissa Hart has all my contact info. I’d love to.

  4. Ann Zagari says:

    Love, love reading your stories! Through your descriptive prose I could almost smell the woodiness of your campsite, feel the warmth of the campfire and hear the sizzling of the frying pans. What a great catch of the day for Mushroom Mike! Been a long time since I’ve caught a bass of that size. Ann from Newark, DE and Rainbow Lake, NY.

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you Ann. Mike sure did a great job playing that fish. It was for sure a big ‘un! I was holding my breath the whole time praying “Please Lord, Please! Don’t let me screw this one up. Answer my prayer & help me successfully net it!” I actually missed on the netting 1st try. Then the bass ran again. Luckily Mike had it hooked pretty good!

  5. Nancy Coddington says:

    Wow! Thank you for sharing this experience with us. I have done something similar to my family’s chagrin – joined a rather large group of strangers to hike the ADKs. Made lots of lifelong friends. It’s pretty awesome you cook for others while you can’t partake. Thank you for sharing. PS – when is the next chef dinner ?

    • Richard Monroe Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you Nancy. I guess adventurous Adirondack Outlaw souls like us have a tendency to sometimes make family members a bit nervous. As to the next Camp Chef dinner…I guess one just never quite knows.

  6. ADKresident2 says:

    Sounds like it was a great trip. Thanks for sharing the story. Very well told.

  7. ADKresident says:

    What a delightful story! It just goes to show how the simplest of things , such as mushrooms, can be a catalyst that connect two strangers to share a life experience together. I enjoyed reading this!!

  8. julianne sawinski says:

    this was a lovely story. be well, be blessed

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