Ring of Fire
Sunday, September 1 2013
location: Tall Pines Cabin, rural Hope Township, Hamilton County, New York
This morning we had our Sunday coffee while seated in a plastic "Adirondack bench" overlooking the mighty Sacandaga. There was a split rail fence running along the ledge of the bluff in front of us, and its top rail had been blocking Gretchen's view, so we'd removed it for the duration of our stay.
After I'd finished my first cup of coffee and a bagel, I grabbed another cup of coffee and used a steep "mountain goat path" down the escarpment to the river right there in front of our cabin. The last 20 feet or so of this path was so steep that a knotted rope had been provided to help with the descent. Once at the bottom, there was almost no place to go but into the water. So I immediately began to ford, crossing to a small island only about 20 feet away. But that 20 feet was a surprisingly difficult distance to cover. The bottom of the river channel was comprised of boulders, most of which were approximately the shape of eggs, though they varied in size over a fractal distribution. So while some boulders felt flat against the bottom of my feet, others were so small that they poked into my feet uncomfortably (I was, of course, barefoot). But far worse than the shapes of the rocks was their uniform slipperiness. There was essentially no friction whatsoever between my feet and the rocks. So if I didn't step on a surface that was completely level, I quickly slid off of it into whatever void lay at the bottom of its slope. Because of the fractal nature of the bottom, some of those voids could be a foot deep and lined at the bottom with small egg-sized cobbles waiting to impact the sole of my fast-falling foot. Also, sometimes those voids were V-shaped or narrowly U-shaped, and my falling foot would suddenly and painfully be clenched on both sides or made to twist. All of this forced me to walk slowly and deliberately. Mind you, as I did so, I carried a half-full cup of hot coffee.
Sensing the excitement of exploration, I was soon joined by Eleanor and Ramona. After getting to that first island, we forded another channel (one that was both wider and deeper) to what looked like the Sacandaga's western bank. This was, it turned out, an illusion, since we'd only crossed to the east bank of a large island (43.341558N, 74.270625W).
The Sacandaga in this region is something of a "braided river" with numerous parallel channels running parallel through a complicated archipelago. At any one time, depending on the river's flow, some of the channels might be dry and others might be carrying water, but there is always water flowing in several of the parallel channels.
By now Gretchen had come down the escarpment and begun to ford the channels. She had a somewhat easier time because she was wearing shoes. These not only protected her feet against some of the traumas I described, but they also gave her some traction on those slippery stones.
We found our way up to the upstream end of the island we'd mistaken for the river's western bank, where we could see the river forking to run down another channel to its west. Further upstream, the rapids gave way to a wide swath of smooth water which looked like an olympic-sized swimming hole (43.343782N, 74.270024W).
So Gretchen decided to try it out. Not only was it wide and long, but parts of it were at least seven feet deep. Gretchen was delighted.
While Gretchen swam upstream (against a fairly powerful current), the dogs and I walked along the west bank of another large island (43.343914N, 74.268941W).
Here and there along the cobblestone beach, Lobelias with electric red flowers thrust up between the stones. And just beyond them, forming a low green wall, grew a species of bush dogwood with metallic blue berries.
Gretchen emerged from the olympic-sized swimming hole near the upstream end of the island and she suggested we explore it. Initially this looked difficult, but once we'd pushed our way through the wall of dogwoods, the forested interior of the island was easy to walk around in. Initially there was little in the way of undergrowth beneath the large White Pines, American Beeches, and various species of birch, but as we headed east towards the easternmost of the river channels, the ferns got larger and larger until they were as tall as we were. This was less of a problem for the dogs; at their level, the ferns were just another kind of tree with no undergrowth beneath them.
Somehow we made it back down the river and home without twisting an ankle, although Gretchen slipped at some point and got fell completely into the water and even hit her head, though not seriously. Navigating this slippery environment of cobblestones reminded me of something I'd once read about Neanderthal humans. Though like modern humans in many respects, their legs and ankles were much more solidly built and designed to survive stresses from all directions (modern human legs, by contrast, are designed to deal best with stresses from directly in front and directly behind, that is, in the plane of walking). This suggests that Neanderthals moved about in a world of uneven unpredictable surfaces, ones similar to the cobblestone bottom of the Sacandaga River. Given that Neanderthals moved into Europe as its icecap was retreating (an icecap that would eventually return), it seems likely they would have walked up and down a lot of river valleys whose bottoms were not unlike the Sacandaga's. My ankles are pretty tough and I've never sprained or twisted them, but if I were to live on the banks of the Sacandaga, it would only be a matter of time before some especially unpleasant combination of rocks managed to catch and twist my foot sharply enough to cause damage. For me (especially once Obamacare kicks in), this wouldn't be the end of the world. But for a Neanderthal in Paleolithic Europe, it could be a death sentence.
I'd set up my laptop ("Sailfish") with an additional monitor out on the table in the glazed-in porch, giving myself a perfect workstation with a gorgeous view of the Sacandaga beyond my screens. But the biggest difference between this setup and the one at home was the absence of any sort of internet connectivity. Whatever I hoped to be able to do, I had to be able to do it with the information available on my computer's hard drive. I was used to using computers this way back in the early 1990s, and really learned to love using them this way. But a computer without the internet is a very different tool from what we in 2013 think of as a computer. Though even laptop hard drives are enormous, they lack all sorts of information, particularly when their usual mode of operation involves an internet connection (for example, back in the early 1990s, I kept a "dictionary" application on my Macintosh to help with my writing). While, unlike computers of the early 1990s, modern ones can have lots of music and movie files for offline entertainment, there is no easy way to find answers to questions as they arise. One has to accept ignorance and imprecision as an inevitable consequence of the nature of the environment, much the way people approached the world generally prior to about 2003. (I would have said an earlier year, but I remember it being something of a revelation to use Google to research the distance a toilet should be from a wall in late 2002, and I'm someone for whom this stuff came early.)
The most important difference, though, lies in the behavior of the user. I found myself having an intensity of focus that is impossible when any moment of slight boredom can be pushed aside by a quick visit to Facebook, Slate, or the Huffington Post (places that can similarly be fled at a moment's notice, leaving a stack of incomplete inquiries of potentially-infinite depth). The project I was working on involved adding some features to those business simulation games I've been working on here and there since February. I'd brought the entire webroot of the site as well as a fresh copy of the database on my hard drive, and my task was to puzzle out how to add some particularly difficult-to-add features to a game that wasn't working well with a set of common libraries. Some of the work was so vexing that there were many occasions where the presence of an internet connection would have permitted me to go off to seek relief in a stupid article at Salon.com about how transhumanism cannot ever be achieved. But without that option, I had to push through it and do the work. It was strangely exhilarating to find myself so limited.
As I worked, I mostly listened nostlgically to MP3s of Moody Blues songs from the late 1960s, since that was what I was most into back in 1984 when my father and I last went to stay with his friend Ralph Kretz in western Québec at his old farm house. That place had some of the same smells and æsthetics as Tall Pines, though it also lacked electricity and running water (for entertainment I had to read old copies of Mad Magazine).
In addition to the poor quality of the bed, last night my sleep had also been troubled by the moldy bedsheets we'd used to dress my bed. Those sheets had come from the closet of our master guestroom back in Hurley, a place where mold tends to grow when summers are humid. Today I took those sheets down to the Sacandaga at the place where there are wooden steps leading down to a swimming hole and washed them in the river using some melon-scented antibacterial soap from the cabin (believe or not, it was the least environmentally-inoffensive soap I could find; this is, remember, a cabin whose only illumination comes from power-hungry incandescent bulbs). I washed the sheets sort of like a third world housewife, dripping tiny droplets of soap hear and there across its surface and then submerging the sheets and stamping on them as though they were grapes and I was trying somehow to make wine. I brought them out, wrung them out, and submerged them again repeatedly until the chemical simulation of a melon smell ebbed away to something I thought I might be able to sleep with.
Later I fixed myself a cocktail of grapefruit juice and Devil's Springs vodka and returned to check on my drying sheets. The sky was overcast and there wasn't much of a breeze, so they weren't drying very quickly. So I worked on drunkenly worked on shoring up the dam for a bit. Then I took off all my clothes and forded the channel to the south end of the large nearby island. I was walking around the end of it to explore it further when, not far away, I saw a plump woman wearing a one-piece green swimsuit. Being naked (aside for my glasses), I didn't want to freak her out, so I immediately retreated. But, as described earlier, it's not easy to cross a channel of the Sacandaga quickly, and by the time I got to the other side, I could see that the woman was part of a contingent that included a pot-bellied man and a girl of perhaps 13. They were on the west bank of the Sacandaga and moving south. They were also acting like they hadn't seen me, but that might have just been a courtesy.
Back at the cabin, I took a long nap to make up for the shitty sleep I'd had yesterday. After I awoke, Gretchen made some sort of Asian dish based on rice and tempeh, which we ate out on the Adirondack bench looking out over the Sacandaga.
Earlier today Gretchen had found a wicker chest containing hiking and other tourist information, and in perusing this material (something I entirely outsource to her), she learned of an interesting ritual that happens down on Great Sacandaga Lake every year on Labor Day Eve (which, this year, would be tonight). People all along the shore make huge bonfires, a spectacle that is eventually joined by a fireworks display. It's called "The Ring of Fire." Gretchen wanted to go.
Since Eleanor hates fireworks, we decided to leave the dogs in the cabin. The kayaks, on the other hand, got to come. I hadn't yet had any reason to take them down off the roof of the Subaru.
I drove us down to Northville, the village at the north end of the Great Sacandaga Lake. As we approached the lake, we could already seen fireworks going off in various places. Clearly there wasn't just one entity launching them. In Northville, people seemed to be parking their cars and waddling Upstate-style towards the water's edge. We saw maybe one bonfire, but it seemed we were missing the whole "Ring of Fire" experience, because we didn't have a good view of any distant shores. We'd hoped maybe there was an alehouse or a faux Irish pub somewhere in Northville where we could sit outside overlooking the water and have a drink, but it seems no enterprising gay couple has yet brought such obvious amenities to Northville.
Happily, though, Gretchen's smartphone was working, and this allowed her to navigate us down to the end of a peninsula that reached down from the north to cleave two lobes into the lake, making it resemble a deformed heart.
Near the south end of this peninsula, there were a couple of houses for sale and one of them looked as though nobody was there. So we parked the car on the street and snuck through its yard into the back. We expected there to be a shoreline right there, but the houses were maybe three hundred feet from the water and we had a fairly long walk in the darkness across first mown grass and then sand. It all paid off, though, when we found a well-developed partially-floating dock complete with built-in benches. From there we had a commanding view of the entire lake except for its distant northward lobes. We could see the orange glow of dozens of bonfires (including one so close that I could make out a human silhouette standing in front of it). There were also a good dozen or so separate fireworks shows playing out in various unsynchronized phases. Some were obviously low-budget private affairs being overlooked for this one night by otherwise-overworked fire officials, while others were elaborately-choreographed spectacles paid for by the taxpayers of the various villages along the lakeshore, some as many as five miles away. There were also a number of high speed boats coming and going; I had to imagine that most of those being transported were drunk and/or drinking.
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