Independence Day weekend was upon us and my wife, three kids and I were staying with friends in their cabin in Old Forge to celebrate. Three bedrooms, an open kitchen/dining/living area, screened porch, big stone fireplace and indoor plumbing. No grand hand-hewn beams, lofts or giant picture windows. Just a simple, comfortable single-story cabin that’s been a lake-side snowmobiling, fishing, swimming and bonfire-ing family get-away for a couple generations–three actually, since our friends now have kids of their own tracking sand and pine-needles into the place.
Twenty-five years ago, I spent a long weekend at the same cabin as a guest of the family and their son. Being one prone to spending every waking minute in pursuit of fish, I had brought with me one rod and my tackle box. Thankfully, my mom had made sure a backpack with things like extra shirts and shorts, clean underwear and a toothbrush made it’s way with me too.
That weekend, I managed to catch a bass that is still talked about amongst their family members–even their Old Forge cabin neighbors speak with great reverence and enthusiasm about it. Its size fluctuates between good-eatin’, pretty dang big and trophy, depending on who you talk to. That’s a story for another time though. I digress.
It just so happened that on this particular Adirondack summer morning, heavy clouds elbowed their way in-between our 4-day vacation and sunny blue sky. Since the plan was for the dads and boys to fish for bass on a remote mountain lake anyhow, I didn’t necessarily mind the clouds, or the light mist-rain that came with it–although I had neglected to bring any wet-weather gear. The 10-day forecast had called for nothing but sun. Fortunately, I now have a wife who is as diligent about packing the practical stuff as my mom was when I was 13. I could count on a warm change of clothes to wear while I my rain-filled tackle box and I dried out. My boys, on the other hand, thought otherwise of the weather and made the 11th-hour call to hang out and watch a movie. A wise choice, as fate would have it.
Chris and I lashed the 14 foot aluminum rowboat into the bed of his pickup and stowed our gear. Harry, Chris’ son, waited patiently in the cab. It should be said that Harry is a born fisherman, like my boys. They all inherited the fin-tuition gene from their fathers. They are as comfortable on the water as they are tormenting their sisters. Thankfully, it’s a condition for which there is no cure…fin-tuition, not tormenting their sisters. They will carry the malady for the rest of their lives. We climbed in the truck and made haste to Little Safford Lake.
Chris had recounted fabulous tales of big bodied largemouth caught right from the shore, before the boat had even been taken off the back of the truck. Eager, hungry and ready for a fight, a morning of Little Safford bass was supposedly enough to make a man wonder if he should’ve spent some time in the weight room before casting a line in that tea-colored water.
I’m telling you, he said, there’s fish in here like swimming pigs.
I must admit, I’ve never seen a pig swim. But I have heard of a diving pig, named Ralph. Used to leap full-on into Aquarena Springs – the head of the San Marcos River in Texas – back in the 60’s and 70’s. Swimming pigs. I was wondering if I had heavy enough line.
We followed miles of dirt roads through the mountain pines – snowmobile trails in the winter, when the snow is deep enough to necessitate directional signs placed 7 – 10 feet up on poles. A few lefts and rights at forks in the road and the road became less a road and more like a wagon trail. Then quite suddenly the trees opened up and the lake appeared.
Now, I’m pretty much a sucker for just about any body of water, but Little Safford, at first glance, looked about the fishiest I could hope a mountain lake to look. We pulled the boat and gear out of the back of the truck and staged it on the shore. By the time Chris had walked the forty-or-so yards back from where he parked the truck, Harry and I had already fought, caught and released a bass each. By the time we decided to actually put the boat in the water, we had managed a dozen between the three of us. No pigs to speak of, but very good fish nonetheless.
Even as we shoved off, the sky looked unhealthy and the misty rain had pulled itself together into respectable drops. A half-hour later and a quarter-mile into the wind, unhealthy gave way to down-right ugly, as if Mother Nature had just woke up with a hangover. Undaunted, we pressed on. We had adopted the tactic of rowing 40 yards up-wind of a likely stretch of bog shoreline and then fishing the 40 yard drift back. And it was working. Even with the worsening weather, fish were still biting in the water along the face of the bog. Then the temperature dropped like a stone. As if to put an actual sound to the falling temperature, a thunder clap shook loose from around the far side of a not-so-distant mountain at the other end of the lake.
An aluminum row-boat. Four or five graphite fishing rods. A good quarter-mile between us and where we put in. And at least 300 yards of bog between us and the safety of the nearest treeline and cover. Now Mother Nature had our full attention. So as to keep from attracting any of her more electrically charged hints, we elected to pull the boat into a small cut-back in the bog, get out onto the bog, and hunker down on the bog as far away from the boat as we could safely tread.
This wasn’t a black, muddy, tractor-pull type bog like you find crowding out a smaller pond. This bog was a 6 to 8 foot thick tangled mat of bramble-like growth that half floats on top of the black, muddy, tractor-pull build-up on the bottom of the lake. Acres of it. Under normal circumstances, most all wildlife avoids these bogs. Well, most wildlife that carries any sort of weight anyhow. False steps and weak spots are met with nature’s equivalent to the carnival dunking booth. And much like the carnival itself, it’s tough to get out once you’re in, and you feel lucky to be alive when you finally do.
We hunkered down and weighed our options–praying the hair on our arms would not stand on end as lightning flung itself like jagged party streamers around the valley. Mother Nature’s own version of fireworks.
Looks like this is going to be around for a while, Chris said. We should make a run for it, I replied. In the boat? Chris asked. Yea. Look for a cloud break, we’ll pace it, I replied. I’m not rowing, added Harry.
And so we rallied and rooted for Mother Nature to give us a break in the clouds.
Now, I’m not sure if it was an actual break or if our imaginations had fabricated that small window, a blue-sky oasis in the clouds. But we all saw it and piled into the boat with the fervor of hunting dogs after waterfowl. Chris was first up on the oars. The wind refused to cooperate though, blowing at an angle across our three man tub. As we zigged and zagged roughly in the direction of where we put in, rain picking up, I grabbed hold of the oars as well and we rowed with the intensity of Vikings approaching an unsuspecting seaside village.
Reaching our port, we dragged the boat up on the shore and raced to the truck to get out of the rain and get some heat going. No sooner did we get the doors closed, our window in the sky closed as well. Sheets of rain and hail, cracking thunder and flash after flash of lightning made sure we understood just how lucky we were to have arrived when we did. After a while the heat sank in to our wet clothes and backbones and our chattering teeth stopped chattering. Harry scarfed down a snack he never had the chance to eat while in the boat, smiling at his dad as if adventures like these happen every day.
Any idea what the weather’s supposed to be like this afternoon? I asked. Calling for more sun, Chris said. Cool, Harry added. I won’t even have to change my clothes.