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Alone The Night

Reflections on Life

From an Adirondack Lean-to

Have you ever spent a night alone in the woods?

I have.

Whether bivouacked in a deer hunter’s mountainside tent, working long summer days as a trail hand from a remote high-peaks cabin, enjoying the cedar log solitude of my favorite lean-to, or simply tucked in against a lakeside cedar tree counting the stars, nights alone in the woods have been amongst my favorite life moments.


I had opportunity for one of those moments recently. Our family’s Bull Rush Bay camp reservation began on a Friday. I knew my brother Ray would not arrive to set up camp until Saturday.

I rowed into camp from South Creek, in my Zen boat, as I generally do. This trip was different though. I was travelling light, carrying just what I needed for one night alone in the lean-to.

Middle Saranac Lake
View From Bull Rush Bay

I assessed the wind, waves & weather as I cleared the mouth of South Creek. The winds were calm, sun shining and warm, the lake morning still. I turned my Zen boat northwest, up the lake, to make a slight detour.

On a hunting trip the fall previous, something along that stretch of shoreline had caught my eye. As I pulled in for closer inspection, I realized what it was. Once upon a century or so ago, there were several great camp constructs along that stretch of lake, as part of the old Bartlett Carry Club.

What I spotted was clearly of human construct, the remains of a stone and concrete shoreline abutment. Clearly the remnants of some long since forgotten dock footing or lakeside structure.

Long Forgotten Great Camp Dock Abutment
Middle Saranac Lake

I took some photos & made mental note. At some future point, I planned to come back and dive that spot. I long ago discovered on my many Middle Lake wanderings, that well-heeled sportsmen from earlier eras were prone to discharging all sorts of interesting artifacts into the lake.

Turn of the century “Blue Rock” clay pigeon
Found off an old Great Camp site
Middle Saranac Lake dive treasure

Most of the land along that stretch of lake still rests in private wealth hands and remains posted. That does not deter me. I’m an Adirondack Outlaw. I quietly rowed my Zen boat into position and anchored offshore. I donned my skin-diving mask and slipped over the side of my canoe. Privileged folk may continue to lay claim to those lands, but they don’t own the water.

I spent an hour or so scouting and scouring the lake bottom in that area. I can’t wear a snorkel or diver’s regulator due to my cancer survivor’s deformities. However, I remain a very strong swimmer with a good set of lungs. I can’t penetrate much deeper than seven or eight feet, due to the simple constraints of human buoyancy. However, in that lake, for my purposes, that does not matter. Seven feet is generally more than enough dive depth for me to find what I am looking for.

The area did not turn out to be the artifact honey-hole I had been hoping for. I did, however, pick up two very nice turn of the century bottles. Probably discarded there by some well to do sportsmen, enjoying cigars and cocktails whilst they shot clay pigeons over the lake and shared exaggerated tales of hunting and fishing prowess.

“Trash & Treasure”
My Great Camp Bottle Dive Haul

I always wonder what stories my dive discoveries hold. Maybe Albert Einstein drank from this bottle, or Paul Smith, or some other famous early middle lake visitor. All things are possible. Who really knows.

Curiosity satisfied and dive venture complete, I slid back over the gunwale and into my Zen boat, treasures in hand, to row down the lake.

As it turned out, I made that move just in time. The winds had picked up steam while I was in the water, and with it the lake healthy chop. Middle Saranac Lake does that routinely, lulling me into a false sense of mirrored morning lake calm security, then firing up the jets, whipping the lake into a whitecapped wind frenzy.

That generally works to my advantage going DOWN the lake, as it did this day. I sailed down the lake in no time, using one oar as a rudder. I barely had to row.

Once safely on shore and in camp, I unloaded my gear into the lean-to. I just love being alone there. Even with the breeze, I’m surrounded by silence. Just the rhythm of waves washing the shoreline, wind rustling the trees, the occasional call of a crow, scolding red squirrel, chattering chipmunk, or “kerplunk” as a falling pinecone hits the roof of the lean-to.

The Bull Rush Bay Lean-to
My Solo Encampment

My cancer survivor’s status actually gives me a tactical advantage in camp. Being completely tube-fed, I don’t consume human food. So, when I’m in camp for a night alone, I don’t need a cooler, ice, camp stove, cooking utensils, or even a coffee pot. All the sustenance I require fits neatly into my big thermos (filled with my rocket fuel coffee), and one ammo dry box.

My Survivor’s Camp Smorgasbord
This, plus a thermos of coffee, represents a 4–5 day food supply.

I generally don’t have a big agenda during my solo night forays into camp.

Sometimes I explore my Adirondack Outlaw’s artistic side.

“Adirondack Scrimshaw”
The Bull Rush Bay Lean-to
Hand sketched with the blade of my pocketknife
On Artist’s Conk

I most usually, however, seek but two things:

Thing number one being solitude, and thing number two, a long nap.

I did though, on this trip, bring my axe, splitting maul and saws. I figured I’d do my part in setting up camp by procuring and processing a good supply of firewood before my brother arrived. For me, gathering, cutting and splitting firewood isn’t work. It’s camp therapy.

There is something about scouting alone through the woods, spotting the right dry wood fallen log, the smell of the wood, hauling it back down to camp, the rhythm of the saw as I cut it to length, the feel of the axe in my hands as I read the grain of each freshly cut log while splitting and stacking it.

I gathered, cut and split a respectable first night in camp’s supply of tinder, kindling, and firewood. My brother Ray prefers birch. I myself prefer ironwood. I find that blown down “ironwood” (American hophornbeam, I think, technically), is of manageable diameter, straight grained, abundant, splits easily, and burns hot and long, making it perfect in camp, either for cooking, or nights just spent sitting by the fire.

In truth though, by the time I harvest fallen logs from the forest, some of them are so extremely well aged, I’m not entirely sure what tree species they are. I just know that if I get them back to camp and let them dry a bit in the wind, cut and split, by that point in their life, most logs I choose tend to burn pretty good.

This particular evening though, despite the breeze, was quite warm. So, seeing as how I had no need to kindle a fire for my supper, I decided to go fireless for the night, and just drift. Tending a fire is work. Plus, if I chose to keep a fire going all night, I’d burn through the whole nice load of wood I’d just spent the afternoon stockpiling. A bit of camp irony, I guess. I worked all afternoon gathering wood. By the time evening descended, I was proud of my day’s work and loathe to actually burn any of it.

So, I didn’t.

Instead, I hooked up to my feeding tube and settled into the lean-to for a night alone with my thoughts.

My set-up whenever I’m in camp alone

My U.S. Army issued poncho liner, canteen cup, and my hand-hewn handled camp hatchet. I keep that hatchet good and sharp. It’s my last-ditch emergency hand to hand combat bear defense. I’ve long thought that if it came down to it, I’d make my last stand against a rampaging bear with my hatchet, from the outhouse.

So, if ever I mysteriously disappear while in camp…

“Custer’s Last Stand”

Folks know where to look first.

Although, sometimes, the bear gets his licks in too.

Regardless, give me those three items, plus my sheath knife, a couple of good sharp fishhooks, some monofilament line, a tarp, my Zen boat canoe, and a good length of rope. If I were still whole, I could easily disappear into the woods with that packing list and sustain myself for the long haul.

This night though, all I wanted was to connect with my inner self and eventually find sleep.

Our family had been in camp already, a couple weeks earlier. I thought back through that trip. Each day in camp, when I awoke and trekked down to the water for a chilly morning swim in lieu of a shower, the family of eagles in the big nest overlooking camp stood guard, on surveillance, watching over me.

But by this point in time, their eaglets had fledged. The nest was silent and empty. The eagles had flown.

My wife Robin and I had, one windy afternoon, ventured out onto the lake for a ride in our family’s Honda powered Lund Outlaw boat. As we cleared the bullrushes, Robin spotted something on the water, out in front of us. An unidentified floating object. We investigated. All sorts of unexpected events transpire on that lake. Always worth checking things out. One just never knows.

Upon our arrival on scene, what we discovered, was a child’s ridiculously humongous sliver and blue sparkled starfish floaty. As we saw no indication or sign of its occupant anywhere nearby in the water, we proceeded to retrieve the ridiculously mongo sparkly starfish monstrosity from the water and conduct an immediate lake scan, seeking the point of its attempted escape, and its owner.

Our first thought had been that it came from over by the long, sandy, Ampersand walk-in beach, at that moment filled with day-tripping families and boats. However, given the wind direction and currents, we quickly concluded that could not be our oversized passenger’s point of origin.

First Island view from Bull Rush Bay

So, gauging the wind, instead we turned our Honda powered Outlaw Lund boat towards First Island. Sure enough, as we rounded the point past the danger buoys, there was a young mother standing on the sloping rock shoreline, frantically waving her arms over her head in the international “Someone please rescue my child’s ridiculously humongous silver and blue sparkled starfish floaty!” signal.

I maneuvered the boat in as tight to the island as I dared. Lots of submerged rocks in that spot. A great canoe landing spot, but not motorboat friendly.

I shouted to the young mother over the wind:

“I’m going to circle around and come in as close as I can, above you. My wife will throw your child’s floaty your way as best as she can. You’ll have to wade out and grab it in the water. After that, you are on your on.”

The young mother nodded and did as instructed. I circled around. My wife gave that ridiculously mongo starfish floaty a toss. The woman retrieved it, gave us a thumbs up and a wave. We were off.

I smiled to myself as I sat in the lean-to reliving that memory. It’s amazing the things families will sometimes drag into camp.

Including our own.

A glimpse of what Monroe “Camp” looks like when the whole family’s around.

As rocket fuel coffee enhanced fluid dripped is way through my tube and evening’s shadow’s descended, I thought back to other things I had noticed during our family’s recently completed camp trip.

Aside from the all too frequent overcast haze of Canadian wildfires, I had noticed something else. In my opinion, the lake water was noticeably warmer this year. Not just a little bit warmer, a LOT warmer, and sooner, than in past seasons. That may not seem odd to most folks, given the high temps in many areas of the rest of the country. However, in this area, actually, compared to last summer’s record heat, in my opinion, air temperatures into early July had not been too far off normal.

So, I pondered. Why was the water so warm? Was the rain itself this year somehow warmer? I wondered.

I had seen several things during our earlier trip that struck me oddly. Were these climate change related things I was witnessing? I’m not sure. I just know, based on half a century on this lake, that they were different.

I’d been out fishing more than once and seen fish at the surface, seemingly taking in air. Perch and sunfish in the shallows near the river. To the best of my recollection, I’d never seen that before.

Then one day, again in the river, while out fishing, my brother Ray and I ran into this fellow, sitting there facing the shoreline, initially with his back to us.

Middle Saranac Lake
Mouth of the River
Shoreline beaver

He seemed in some distress, like he was having trouble breathing. He let me get out of the boat and approach within feet, no tail splash on the water, no movement, no acknowledgment of danger or my approach, no nothing.

I looked for signs of injury. I thought maybe he’d been struck by a boat prop or had a fishing lure lodged in his mouth. I saw no signs of either. Though, in truth, if I HAD seen a fishing lure in his mouth, I don’t quite know what assistance my brother & I could have rendered.

Finally, after several minutes of close scrutiny, followed by me returning to the boat for my camera, and a photo shoot, the beaver just turned tail and rather slowly swam off.

Something else my brother Ray & I observed in the river that we’ve never encountered there before: Loons.

There was a pair of them in there the entire time we were in camp. While loons are quite a common sight on the Middle Lake and up into Weller Pond, neither of us recalled ever before seeing loons in the river.

Loon on the river
Between Middle Saranac Lake and the locks

The loons had no chicks with them that we could see. We saw no sign of a nest. They did not appear in any particular way to be in distress.

These things, these observations, the warmer than normal water temperatures, fish on the surface, beavers on the shore, loons in the river, were they somehow climate change related?

I do not know the answer to that.

I just know, based on over half a century of observation and experience that, like the ever present Canadian wildfire smoke, they all simply fell into one category:


From there, I drifted slowly to another recent memory image. This one much more familiar. My brother Ray & I had uncovered a cloud of freshly hatched bullhead hiding in the shadows beneath his pontoon boat one day as we prepared to push off from shore.

Newly hatched bullhead cloud
Parents standing guard

Both parents were vigilantly standing guard and quite agitated once their newly hatched brood was discovered.

All of these recent memories, reflections and thoughts drifted through my mind as the last drops of formula dripped through my tube, the evening descended into darkness, and I drifted off to a peaceful night of solitary cedar log camp sleep.

For folks who have never experienced a night alone in camp, I highly recommend it.

Just keep a sharp hatchet close at hand, have an emergency last ditch bear defense escape route planned to the outhouse, and don’t let the bed bugs take too big a bite!


Until Our Trails Cross Again:


(Author’s Endnote: This story appeared in the 8/8/23 online edition of The Adirondack Almanack.)