Two nights in the woods

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…I wanted to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.   —Thoreau in Walden

As I read through the five-day forecast, my spirits sank.  A winter advisory was in effect: perhaps three to five inches of snow, giving way to a wintry mix of sleet and freezing rain, high winds and thundershowers—not the best prospects for cooking over an open fire and sleeping in a tent on the forest floor.

Still, I had taken the time.  Already the clocks had been set; there was no turning them further forward or back.  The time was now.  We decided to proceed with our plans.

The snow fell that Friday, swirling down in buckets from the sky all along the highway from the grey rocky cliffs at Matamoras to the great interstate merge just east of Scranton. Eventually, the snow gave way to heavy rain interspersed with pockets of hail as I headed first south, then west.  Saturday dawned clear and cold.  A brief shower produced the ephemeral blush of a rainbow in the late afternoon sky.  A bright Sunday morning faded to an overcast afternoon, although the sun was still shining as I pulled into Little Pine.

My friend had arrived two hours before and was just coming back from a short trek to survey the lake from the dam breast.  He had set up the tent and stowed the gear in the center of the site.  After a quick lunch we set out in search of firewood and returned with two sizeable logs.  The pine proved to be green, burning with a smoky flame.

By late afternoon the rain began to fall.  We heated our one-pot meal on the Coleman camp stove under the dining fly as the ground turned muddy beneath our feet.  Afterward we hovered around the smoky campfire as it sputtered and hissed in the steadily falling rain.

Temperatures dropped into the 20s overnight.  We pulled stocking caps over our heads and crawled into our bedrolls, shedding only our shoes.  I drifted off to the sound of rain drumming against the nylon tent. When I awoke in the middle of the night, only the nearby rushing stream resounded in my ears.

The change from storm and winter to serene and mild weather, from dark and sluggish hours to bright and elastic ones, is a memorable crisis….Suddenly an influx of light filled my house, though the evening was at hand, and the clouds of winter still overhung it, and the eaves were dripping with sleety rain.

We awoke at first light to a backdrop of calm overcast skies against the tall wispy pines.  We split the sawed sections of pine logs and coaxed a stubborn fire first to flame and then to coals, enough to cook a hearty breakfast of fried potatoes, bacon and eggs.

At Little Pine Lake across the water we spotted a bald eagle perched among the gnarled branches of an ancient tree.  I fancied I had seen an eagle earlier that morning soaring above the pines against the far mountain, and this sighting confirmed it.

The sun broke through, sending mists sailing up the mountain sides dappled in dashes of snow.  We drove to English Center, headed north to Morris, then turned west along Babb Creek to Blackwell, where we disembarked to hike the old railroad bed that borders Pine Creek through the canyon.

Red-wing blackbirds announced our arrival as we crossed the village green.  The pea-green Pine slipped by as we strolled northwest past the fishermen’s bungalows and cabins.  We paused to photograph a cataract as it cascaded down the mountainside and watched two male Mergansers bobbing in the creek.  One dove deep and surfaced further downstream, choking a small fish down its throat.  Then the two of them beat their wings against the water and finally broke free, like small aircraft taxing in tandem down a grassy airstrip.

Lightning and thunder heralded the downpour that drove us back to the village, but the storm was short-lived.  We headed down the winding macadam road through Slate Run and Cammal to Waterville.

I knew that it would not rain any more.  You may tell by looking at any twig of the forest, ay, at your very wood-pile, whether its winter is past or not.

That evening we burned the last of the fat oak logs that my friend had brought from home.  Most of the piles of snow along the access road had melted during the day.  We sat under the dining fly and watched the flames as they danced in the rain.  The area around the fire circle had turned into a small shallow lake.  We pulled a few flat rocks from the stream and laid them down in the muddy mess: tiles on which to rest our cold feet.  A cacophony of spring peepers rose in the night air.

The following morning we were up at five.  It had rained heavily through the night.  We rolled up our bedding inside the tent and stowed it beneath the dining fly.  The charred logs lay wet and cold in the fire circle.  We boiled a pot of water on the camp stove and used it to make oatmeal and hot tea.  Momentarily, the rain ceased; and we quickly broke camp.

We followed Route 44 south along Pine Creek.  The river had surged with the overnight rains and turned a coffee-milk brown, overflowing its banks in its harried descent.

As we headed east on the highway, I glimpsed the distant mountains silhouetted against the grey morning sky, and paused to turn their mysteries over once more in my mind.

At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of Nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

(Author’s note: With the exception of the introductory quote, all subsequent italicized passages are quoted from the “Spring” chapter in Thoreau’s “Walden.”)


3 comments on “Two nights in the woods

  1. David Elpern says:

    Fine piece. Agree with HDT: “We can never have enough of Nature.” Anyone can enjoy a fine sunny day — rain and hail challenge us; but when one is out in them, they invigorate and make for vivid memories. D

  2. td says:

    If only the camp host had stayed home …
    “You know what I’m saying”.

  3. td says:

    The photos we took don’t compare to your descriptions.
    No “thousand words” could be better than yours …

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