“…a ticket into the woods, onto still waters and meandering brooks…”

The West Branch of the Sacandaga River winds in close curves, a tunnel of steep grassy banks. Its roof blooms overhead, a calming blue streaky-tattooed with feathery cirrus clouds. It’s narrow, one twist right after another, so you come upon another boat in a hurry and have to paddle in a laughing rush to miss colliding head on.

That ribbon of river is wonderfully disorienting, a world of its own, an atmosphere so strong it erases everything outside itself. You’re not lost there. You stop caring that you don’t know where you are in any precise way. You wind and you wander until that wonder-world widens. The banks flatten into reedy marsh, sun sparkles beckon you through a channel onto a shiny, waved surface. It’s called – really – Good Luck Lake. Around its low shore, camps hide among trees and dark hollows. Tents, fires, log lean-to’s, canoes and skiffs tugged up between rocks onto thin beaches. Some seem so permanent they might have been here all summer, decades or generations of summers.

My passport to the West Branch and Good Luck Lake was the place knowledge of my kayaker friend Tim Owens, the key was my Hornbeck canoe, a bit more than ten feet of yellow gold Kevlar with thin cherry-wood thwarts and gunwales I’ve stained a thin red that sheds drips from the two-blade paddle, like kayakers use. And, like kayakers, I sit low in the hull, unlike the raised cane seat of my previous boat. 

Both my boats are gifts, showing how generous is my family and how stingy I am with myself. 

At my 50th birthday party, I was blindfolded and handed a ribbon to follow from the picnic pavilion at the Girls Inc. daycamp Ellie had borrowed for the day, though pine-scented woods to a slope down to the spring-fed swimming hole so cool, all summer, they called it the Ice Bucket. The ribbon was tied to a thwart in a 16-foot fiberglass Indian River two-seater that I enjoyed for years. 

At that party, my musician brother Jim reunited the Auratones, his high school band, to play tunes that brought tears to my eyes and got my parents dancing, gawking at the long-skirted hippie swirls of Kathy Kenney. At their first break, Ellie led us all along a path into a clearing where people started looking up; I didn’t know why until a biplane appeared. Aerobatic pilot Jeff Seckendorf performed dazzling dives and climbs, loops and rolls. His wife Karen guided him from the ground by radio. “No, go up again – you’re behind the trees.” 

Afterward, but before the canoe gift, more music, barbecue picnic food and cold draft beers. Friends near and far had filled a 30 foot paper scroll with writings, photos and drawings, some jokey but most sincere, friendship tributes sweet and deep. One of Ellie’s girlfriends took her aside, Ellie reported later, and angrily hissed, “You BITCH! No party I’ll ever throw Ray will ever match THIS!” But I digress.

My 50th birthday banana-yellow fiberglass canoe mainly roamed the Mohawk River and Watervliet Reservoir which then had a public fishing area on the shore near the dam, at the end of a forest path from a parking lot. I took everybody I could on paddle trips there, partly to share the fun, partly to help carry its 75-pound hull, paddles, life jackets and water bottles through the woods from my car to the rocky-beach launch site and back. 

Eager from the start, Zak and his friends never needed persuading or inviting twice, but some older friends of mine, nervously cited “Deliverance” misgivings.

A backwater passage on the Mohawk, from my Hornbeck

The Mohawk felt different, bigger, though the current was never much of a challenge except in the spring or after big summer storms. I could easily single-hand that boat upstream among the islands from the dock near the Community College (now SUNY Schenectady) and only had to paddle at top intensity rounding the last island right below Lock 8, Rotterdam on the left bank, Scotia on the right. Closest I ever came to dumping that boat was right there, looping upstream across the island into the full force of storm-water surging over the gates in a foamy, brown, roaring rush, then into the hissing water racing downstream where I felt I was paddling downhill. Otherwise, the Mohawk was a pussy-cat, but I still preferred the Watervliet Reservoir for its privacy. I almost never saw another boat there and only a few fisherfolk along the shore. I, or we, would paddle in between the south shore and the only sizable island in the whole lake; we called it Heron Island for the great blues that fished on the shore side of it. Bald eagles nest on its east end. Then, if Zak and the boys were with me, we’d cross the main deep bay to a clay bank on the north side and fill buckets with it. 

The lake narrowed then, paddling west, into a passage with birches on both sides, before opening up again into a wide space along Rt. 20. Passing under the Rt. 158 bridge, we’d again paddle into narrower waters, the Normanskill that feeds the lake. I didn’t know it then, but this winding waterway was a preview to the West Bank of the Sacandaga years later. But here the banks rise and fall; ferny flats with few trees; or sandy banks that eroded one spring flood time to reveal a Model T Ford buried there. 

Sometimes I’d paddle up the Normanskill until the hull scraped stones, passing secluded shacks and boats moored in the shallows or tugged up on shore. Once on the way back toward the reservoir from there, I sat still in the boat, resting, the paddle across my knees. A great blue heron lazily cruising upstream as I drifted down only spotted me from a few feet away and flapped frantically to fly over me; I could hear its gasping breaths under the wing-noise. 

As I got older, fatter and less fit, I had trouble rounding up a crew or single-handing the boat. Lift the boat onto my car’s roof-rack; tie it down with webbing straps, bow and stern and over the hull; drive to the water; unstrap it; lift it off and onto my shoulders to carry it on the yoke. I’d tote it 100 yards through the woods, avoiding roots or mud-holes trying to trip me. At the end of the portage, I’d descend a steep sandy bank, not tall but treacherous. Then I’d take it off my shoulders and into the water and away I’d happily paddle; knowing I’d have to do the same thing twice more.

So, I sold it, before I ever got around to painting on the bow, as Zak and I joked, the Russian words for “Good Suitcase.” The thought of that always cracked us up even if we never painted it on there. 

Selling anything feels difficult for me since I hate parting with any possession and always worry that I might not be delivering value for the money. But in this case, I didn’t mind that as much as usual since my family had – for a later birthday – gifted me a Hornbeck.

I knew about this, sort of – it was less a surprise than the first boat on my 50th. Ellie and I had visited the Hornbeck works in Olmstedville in the Adirondacks and determined what size boat I needed by test-paddling a number of them and seeing how my weight sat it in the water. Now, how it felt in the water was simply magical, after the heavier canoes and kayaks I’d paddled up to then.

It was efficient; a few paddle strokes set it moving fast. It had enough rocker (the keel rose at both ends from the center) that it turned almost eagerly, and if your strokes balanced, side to side, it tracked straight as if on rails.

When Ellie and our friend John snuck back up to Olmstedville and brought back my own Hornbeck, I was the happiest birthday boy around.

Hornbecks aren’t just fabled Adirondack water-craft, styled after John Henry Rushton’s legendary hull designs; they’re a life-changing joy. People almost never sell used Hornbecks, they list them in their wills. 

One of the guilty pleasures of a Hornbeck is showing off its light weight. Watch somebody struggle to tug a kayak off a roof-rack and try not to feel and act smug, showing off by carrying a Hornbeck in one hand, paddle and provisions in the other. 

They make paddle-trips SO easy. No need to recruit or cajole a paddling-and-portaging partner, and getting it into the water happens fast. In 20 minutes, I can pack the boat myself, drive to the Mohawk or Collins Lake – my main neighborhood paddle spots – unpack the boat, tote it to the water’s edge – smugly, one handed – and set off.

On Collins Lake, I’d count mossy-backed snappers and sleek painted or box turtles, spook giant gray carp, zippy bass or flat sunfish, admire water lillies and yellow blossoms whose names I haven’t bothered to look up yet.

On the Mohawk, I’d paddle into hidden passages so primordial in their quiet isolation they felt like pathways into other worlds. My favorite vanished years ago when hurricane floods reshaped the shore, must as they swept away snags where egrets, herons, ducks, geese and turtles sat in the sun. After one of those hurricane floods, I spotted bits of swept-away barns, including a room-sized square of thick flooring; a week later it was gone. A pair of bald eagles hung out in a giant oak on the Scotia bank, watching me, unafraid.

A great blue heron who didn’t care that I was there; he’d seen me before

I found the same serenity other paddlers sought in their Hornbecks, including Patrick Sisti, a print-shop salesman who visited my PR agency job. He was so quietly charming I steered any work I could his way. Lean, balding, beard to mid-chest, he took on a holiday persona as Father Christmas, nothing as crass as Santa Claus but a velvet-gowned, vaguely saintly apparition. 

Sisti died at a remote pond after paddling there alone and putting his Hornbeck back on his car-top.

And the day after Christmas – Britain’s Boxing Day and the wedding anniversary of my late in-laws – Peter Hornbeck died, too; suddenly, with his boots on after a family hike, as his obituary states.

Hornbeck’s obituary also states, correctly, that “Over the years, Pete’s little boats have given thousands of people their , where they could watch birds, catch fish and just be.” 

Thanks for my ticket.

Rocking Around the Christmas Tree

Christmas eve/day, 1977

The ground was bare as my brother Jim and I walked into the now vanished Towne Tavern in Rotterdam, all those Christmas Eves ago – but it was cold.

Inside, everything was warm and ready for this rock ‘n’ roll bash. The stage was full of instruments, amps, lights and PA, a long buffet table offered mostly Italian foods, and the bar was busy, open and free.

I’d heard about this Christmas Eve musicians’ party for years but I guess I needed Jim’s presence to authenticate my invitation. He’d played with hosts Louie and Ralph Mauriello since they were all in fourth grade, rocking hundreds of high school dances and bar gigs and recording a few songs, before they graduated.  Then the rest of the band had moved out to Oklahoma, where Jim studied music theory and composition, to resume playing together. That hadn’t worked out, but they were still friends. One night on a previous visit, we went to Allen’s on Rt. 50 where they were playing. Jim brought a sax, and in the middle of a song, he stood on his chair and started playing along. 

On this particular Christmas Eve, he’d come east from Santa Barbara to visit family for the holidays; or maybe he came mostly for Louie and Ralph’s bash. The stage was as open as the bar: If you had the nerve and the chops, you’d just get up and jump into the song. Jim played some, mostly harmonica, I think. These old musical friends played with more cooperation than competition. The solos got pretty assertive at times, but people played mostly within the songs; old rock ‘n’ roll and blues songs for the most part. However,  all kinds of people played various kinds of music, including a novice classical pianist who wobbled uncertainly through some Debussy. Everybody applauded everybody.

When the wingding wound down around 4 a.m., a new world waited outside: Two feet of snow had fallen. Even if it had fallen all at once, with a thud, the music inside was so loud we wouldn’t have heard a thing.

Jim and I dug out my old VW squareback station wagon – good in the snow, but with little or no heat in the cabin – and took nearly an hour to drive from Rotterdam to my home in Alplaus. My wife Ellie had left before the storm, heading west to join her big family (she’s one of 10) in the old farmhouse in the hamlet where she grew up. Called Newville, it’s closer to Little Falls than anywhere else familiar, but it really isn’t very close to much else at all. Newville is 12 or so houses and no businesses, just a church and a Grange. After two feet of snow, it’s a Christmas card,

Jim and I slept a few hours, bundled up again and hit the road on Christmas morning. Driving the 60 or so miles to Newville took two hours, over snow-drifted roads through beautiful white countryside that was equal parts Norman Rockwell and Stephen King. I don’t think we passed another car, in either direction, and if we had slid off the road, we’d have been stuck until spring.

The big white farmhouse stood quiet among the drifts as we skated up the long driveway. We clumped into the back shed on the back of the house and into the kitchen. There, the whole family stood waiting for us in a long line, with gaps for us. The family custom was to line up in age order and to march in procession into the living room with the Christmas tree and gifts; they had left spots in the line for Jim and me. While they waited, they had fired up the snowblower, grabbed shovels and cleared every driveway in Newville. They had also done some caroling: Sorry, but nobody in the family has much of a voice and they wouldn’t have lasted long onstage at Louie and Ralph’s party. It was a moderately big crew that year; maybe not as big as the 30-plus who celebrated Christmas there one year, when opening gifts (one at a time) took more than two hours. But it was big enough that Jim and I were both nodding off as gift after gift emerged to happy ooh’s and aaah’s. 

Then it was time for dinner, then to watch “Amahl and the Night Visitors” – the whole family knew every word – and to play board games and do jig-saw puzzles.

It was as perfect a Christmas as anyone ever enjoyed, starting with the warm, loud welcome of a rock ‘n’ roll/open-bar/old friends’ get-together; the drama of a shock snowstorm and two harrowing drives; and the second warm welcome of finding our places in a big-family fandango scrupulously honored/awaited – and all those people were happy to see us.

Wise-ass Wednesday

Well, sort of… Even a wise-ass feels grateful, like now.

When…

When I lean over my plate to savor the aroma of handmade pasta with vodka sauce and discover, when the condensation fog on my glasses clears, that some kind soul at the table has filled my wineglass.

When I walk through an alley in my neighborhood with Zak – searching for features my hero-wife Ellie has photographed on her early morning walks in our daily “Find this!” challenge; and we find a discarded, obsolete but immaculate PC; Zak lugs it home, we connect it up and it boots eagerly to read old 3.5 inch floppies I’d found but despaired of ever reading again.

When a friend in Maine phones and reports his broken leg is healing better/faster than he and his doctor expected.

When another friend, incommunicado for months, breaks radio silence (and my anxiety) by reporting his creative impulse has dragged him into the studio for hyper-creative activity and/or hyperactive creativity.

When my brother in Nashville sends eight CDs of his ironically titled CD “Home for the Holidays” (aren’t we all?) album and I delight in his sweet or sassy virtuoso re-imaginings of holiday songs – then send seven to friends – and am reminded why Jim Hoke is my favorite musician.

When a snowstorm threatens but I remember – unlike other such early-winter episodes – to park near the street end of the driveway to reduce shoveling and to bring snow-brushes inside so I don’t have to sweep snow from the door-handles and get my gloves all wet-useless.

When gift packages arrive from friends and family near and far – and I realize we’ve sent gift packages to ALL of them.

When such stuff happens, the gratitude that arrives with Thanksgiving and stays until spring feels especially sweet.

When I was working, I’d look forward to that first winter afternoon when I’d leave my office to find the sun was still up. That was Sun-Up Day, to celebrate.