Issue 6

Creative Nonfiction

Aaron Bigler Lefebvre

Tree Eaters


To get to the bridge, my brother Marshall, his friend George, and I traveled up a twisted stream, meandering at its own pace, no longer wrenched by the detonation of dams by lumberjacks. We had drifted slowly through flanks of lily pads and white and yellow blossoms upstream in a canoe with paddles, much like our entire Adirondack vacation. We passed through the days as they crumpled into a ball, like a used and discarded map. Rotate the balled map and the highlighted routes would lead to mismatched places. With a mind set to the mountain vibes, Adirondack memories run along twisted fern-laden trails and bending stream paths, time becomes unimportant—the movement of the sun and the moon serve as the instrument to knowing time. The names of weekdays disperse and exist separated by nothing but daylight and night. Feeling like a mountaineer turned back to some more primitive train of instinct, enlightenment without the typical noise of society, a woodsman without a care in the world so long as the woods don’t catch fire.
At the bridge, somewhere half way between the beginning and the end of the vacation, the only solid structure closing the gap on the null and void span of time, the three of us sat diving with our eyes into the glassy water of Lake Durant. The reddish water shifted under the planks and lake grass floated like ghost blades. George whittled a pine stick to a fine point with the gleaming machete he’d bought at the Long Lake General Store, while Marshall found his own stick, tied a red bandana around his head and ran back to the bridge.
“Avast ye!” Marshall cried.
George stood, machete in hand, and silently accepted the duel with a nod.
They sword fought, one with steel, one with forest pine. As they swung at each other, I watched, hoping George’s aim was good and that Marshall’s fencing lessons had paid off. Instead of being a buzzkill and asking them to stop before losing limbs to the water below, I etched a metaphor with their duel: a machined metal blade against wood, a murky reflection of the lumberjacks deforesting here a few hundred years ago.
Marshall’s abilities weren’t enough and the steel machete sliced his wooden sword in half. The loose half flung through the air and landed in the water, calmly drifting downstream towards
the dam at the other end. I watched it float and turned my attention to the floor of the stream. It was at least twelve feet deep. It was a phantom world I wouldn’t dare dive into. I knew there were fish down there, but was there any chance of lake monsters? Something legendary snaking its tendrils along the lake and stream beds below the bridge I stood on?
The wooden bridge was built in the vernacular style. Think of log cabins like the great Sagamore Camp: wood from the forests lining the lakes, logs of indeterminate pine species, built from the stream floor up, reaching the mountain air in a minimalist Lincoln Log fashion. Was there a legend of a monster in the woods or in the water like Bigfoot or Nessie? To avoid giving into childish nightmares, I thought of what I’d seen during my visit to the Adirondacks. Perhaps there was a more concrete legend or power that belonged to the Adirondack
Mountains. This place that I had a romantic connection with, was it real or just a glimpse of what it had been? Is it the myth and present feeling that defined this place, or would a pragmatic understanding of its history change the raw feelings
I’d associated with the Adirondack State Park and Lake Durant in particular?
Marshall and George chuckled and resumed their battle with a fresh wooden stick, not bothering to sharpen it. As Marshall’s old stick floated further off, I found I was too curious
to just live in the moment. Something about my instinctual love of the Adirondacks had suddenly become dislodged.
Before Lake Durant was a recreational attraction for campers, it was a center of business. When I went home after
the vacation and had the resources to explore it, I found the history of its past from two hundred years ago. In the 1800s forestry, among other trades like mining, was a premier business. The Adirondack Mountains held vast acres of evergreens:
cedar, hemlock, pine, and spruce. There was also balsam fir, which grew in forests unscathed by fires or men. It’s worth thinking that these sweet-smelling evergreens succeeded
years of logging that razed the forests. I could wander into the forest and stand under a balsam fir tree and inhale its sticky Christmas smell.
Each winter, before Theodore Roosevelt and the state of New York proclaimed the Adirondacks a state park, when the lakes froze, lumberjacks felled trees and dragged them down to the lakes covered in thick ice. The logs, easier to glide on the snowy ground, were stockpiled on top. When the lake ice melted, they filled with the light, buoyant evergreen trunks. Dams had been built for reserving the lake water for freezing and they blew them up. This was how they released the logs downriver each spring. They blew them up with dynamite, with very little caution and multiple injuries and several deaths. Once the dams opened, lumberjacks directed the trees along the river with peaveys, long iron rods with hooks at the ends. The logs found their way to the rivers and floated downstream for miles to mills, to be fashioned into boards and wood pulp.
Lake Durant, the lake whose footbridge we sat on, was owned by William West Durant, who used it for his lumbering company before the Adirondacks became a state park. William
West Durant was the man who contracted Sagamore to be built, the great Adirondack vacation home later owned by the Vanderbilt family. Like most structures in the Adirondacks, the footbridge included, it was fashioned from pine trunks and birch tree bark.
I hadn’t known any of this until the dislodgement at the bridge. When I was finally able to check out the history of Lake Durant, I found that it was called the 34 Flow. It was a man-made lake, dammed to ice up every winter.
Names reveal so much about places. Humans are creatures
of communication, and the symbolism that comes with a name can draw up a number of images. Lake Durant was a prettier way of saying that the lake was a fake and used by Mr. Durant to capitalize on the Adirondack forests. 34 Flow would be a more appropriate name still, but I can’t think of many vacation goers who’d be excited about spending their relaxing days and evenings roasting hot dogs near the shore of the 34 Flow. (“Oh, boy, I can’t wait to wake up and go for an early morning paddle around the 34 Flow.”) Industrial names, for me at least, bring up images of sludge, smoke, and bald land with nutrient-depleted soil. I wouldn’t really want to camp at the 34 Flow.
There was no Native American name for the lake because it was made for the lumber industry. Lake Durant and many others like it were scooped out of the area, permanently transforming
the landscape. Yet I, and many others like me, found this lake alluring and calming and worthy of tamping down our tent stakes.
I wondered what the Native Americans would have named an industrial lake. The name Adirondacks is Mohawk and describes
the people who lived there during the winter. It refers to the eating of the bark of the trees, because in the barren winter there is nothing else. And during the winters of the lumber
industry, there wasn’t even that. The lumberjacks share the name in some ways: the Adirondacks, the Tree Eaters.
On the morning of the first full day in camp, a mountain lion woke me early from sleep while the forest was still dark. When the sun lit the sky, I left my tent cautiously having heard what I thought were the scratching and paw thudding of a large cat, or a bear, or a band of raccoons. Maybe even squirrels,
amplified by the silence of the forest, jumping from trees and searching under the campsite table for food.
I emerged slowly, watching for the beast that woke me. Seeing nothing, I walked to the edge of the lake and crossed over a few stepping stones and logs to a large boulder twelve or so feet from the lake bank. I sat as the mists rose with the brightening sun. The other side of the lake was blurry at first, only a single row of pines stood visible, until the mist cleared and revealed the remaining rows layered behind the front-line trees. Eventually the stone faces of Blue Mountain were visible.
Concentrating on the lake, the place felt fresh, like a glacier
had passed by and rubbed an evergreen populated, lake-pocked world into existence. Cool, crisp, clean. It felt more like nature than anywhere I’d been before.
After my meditation, I returned to camp and woke Marshall
and George. Convinced they’d want to partake in the morning mists. I let loose that something had been prowling
around earlier. Marshall explained that it was probably just George snoring and rolling around in his sleep. George smiled and nodded.
I told them that it was hard for me sleeping alone in the tent, that paranoia of the sounds of the night grew worse.
My brother said, “At least you don’t have to sleep in a tent with George.”
But it didn’t change anything. Each night following I woke and listened to the sounds of snaps and crackles and rain dripping from pine needles to the rain fly of my tent, and I swore each day I woke that there had been a night prowler in the camp. I tried to tell myself that it was just George sleeping,
but my imagination wouldn’t let me believe those sounds came from him. My imagination poured out and produced toothy projections that walked around my tent, never letting me sleep.
A reoccurring theme emerged later that week, when we visited the Wild Center at Tupper Lake, where Marshall and George read about glaciers on a sign in front of a large wall representation of a one. At the exhibit the glacier shifted and nearly fell on me. Like any normal person with a fight-or-flight response, I jumped back in the cold air as an ice chunk fell to my feet. Water spouted from the gash in the glacier wall and the noise was deafening. The air was instantly cooled and became moist. Then it stopped, and I realized that the wall was robotic. My brother laughed as I tried to understand how I broke the wall. When I finally realized that I was frightened by mechanical fake ice, I accused it of cheap tricks and the glacier
shard moved back to the spot from which it split. I didn’t bother to stay and watch the wall break again.
I noticed that so much of what I’d experienced in the Adirondacks
had so far been a façade or misrepresentation of what I’d thought the Adirondacks were. It wasn’t wild after all. Everything defining the place was pointing to a big lie. I felt like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes, seeing the Statue of Liberty, finding that I’d been home all along and that home as I knew it was gone.
The same evening we went to the Wild Center at Tupper Lake, we decided to go to Long Lake, where we dined at the historic Adirondack Hotel. Dinner there was a nice change of pace from our camping food that after two weeks of camping had begun to dwindle.
There was a wait at the restaurant and since it was raining no one minded, the bar had good beer on tap and we were in no rush to get back to our muddy camp. While the rest of the group sat inside with their drinks, I sat on the porch with looking out over flower boxes attached to the latticed porch railing down the long corridor of the lake shrouded by the cold rain that had moved into the area.
I was waiting for Marshall and George to return from the general store with a machete George had bought to win a bet against Marshall, a bet that he wouldn’t buy it. At seventeen and eighteen years old they weren’t old enough to drink and considering they were buying foot long steel blades to win bets, this was a good thing. But I was, and I had opted to indulge in Lake Placid Pale Ale from the hotel’s tap.
The beer’s name reminded me that a monster was supposed
to live in the waters of Lake Placid, also in the Adirondacks.
Placid could describe any of the Adirondack lakes. As far as I knew, the creatures closest to monsters there were sturgeon, an ancient breed of fish mixed between crocodiles and sharks, growing to several feet. They rarely surface and were thought to be extinct just a few years ago. We’d seen a few at the Wild Center. None of us had ever run into wild surgeon
during our stay, but we did see plenty of loons. The large black waterfowl with red eyes that could lend their nightly calls to horror films.
We had seen loons on the lake sometime before the night at the hotel. This was also the same time that the water of the lake was most placid. As dusk settled on the lake, smooth as glass, mirror-like with ripples from fish catching bugs at the surface, if canoeing, the depths became visible several feet down. The only monsters in the lakes were the shadows of dead trees under the water, growing up, never reaching the air, unable to be part of the forest’s reflections on the lake’s surface.
How far down in the water did each dead tree go? Some of them were upright from the lakebed. Maybe flooding had carried the full-branched trees into the lake, or maybe they’d been submerged for hundreds of years, drowned by the floodwaters of the lumberjacks as they turned their home into a reservoir. Here were the placid monsters of the lake.
They were the ghosts of the trees from around the lakes. I was finally able to steal a glimpse of the secrets below the water’s surface. The giant, gnarled-black hands reaching up, trying to grab at those above the mirrored surface wouldn’t show up in pictures of the state park. The 34 Flow too, like the lumberjacks, and being their bastard child, was a tree eater. The definition of Adirondack remained even when starving people and hungry manufacturers had gone. It’s stuck below the surface of the 34 Flow as long as the dam is kept in place.
After our sword battles on the bridge, we turned to new endeavors. Marshall and I went in search of the finer things we could find in the woods. They were dense and dark like an epic movie forest, seemed like they were full of magic. And if not magic, then say . . . spirit. Constantly the balsam fir trees filled the senses with that sweet pine, always breathing
a sense of enlightenment. I felt like a Buddha, as silly and spiritually sentimental as that can be.
Before the sword fight on the bridge, my brother and I explored the trail stemming from the footbridge leading to the dark forests with peat floors. We had hoped to hike further in, but we walked only a hundred feet until we were forced to stop because the previous night’s heavy rains had muddied the path. We looked up the trail, where the mud became an impassable bog.
“I love forests like this,” my brother said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He stated what I’d already sensed, “Forests that are old and dark, they seem ancient, full of magic.”
There were orange and white toadstools sprouting around a rotting stump in the midst of the trail. We were barefoot and I’d never felt a floor gentler on my soles, even if it were squishy and moist with mud.
“It’s so clean,” Marshall said, “just look around. Nothing but nature.”
Yes, clean. Full of dirt and mud, but purely clean as it should be.
I left him there to take it in. No longer trusting the illusion like my brother, I imagined that there had been lumberjacks walking on the moss around me once. The forest couldn’t be as old as Marshall had said, “old and dark, they seem ancient,” but it did still present the feeling an old forest, woven
through with vines, brush, fallen limbs and skeletal pines should.
There was no litter, except one item posted on a tree. As I walked back to the bridge where George lay, I noticed the letter in a resealable plastic bag that had been thumbtacked to a tree. My brother and George had already opened and read the letter, afterwards telling me it was nothing. It said something along the lines of “Hey (so and so) hope you see this letter. We’ll meet you up ahead.” Had the letter’s author not been the few hundred feet ahead that I’d just returned from? It must have been posted sometime before the rain made a mess of the trail. The letter didn’t look old, it was dry, but there was no way of telling if it had been there for a few days or a few weeks because as the bag was sealed. The letter gave me the impression that it had been left there for me to find. How many times had people seen it, read it and replaced it? Was there something about this place that stuck things in a timeless hole in space like the Bermuda Triangle? I really hoped that I wouldn’t mystically run into lumberjacks wandering around, only to tell me some absolute truth about the Adirondack woods that no one knew anymore. I would assume the lumberjack to be a hermit, if not a hallucination, insane and spreading rumors about the woods.
“These woods aren’t real, me and my Pa cut ‘em down years ago. This here lake was dug up and filled in when we put that dam up. This is what it looks like when trees have grown for 200 years,” he’d say.
I’d probably just walk away and ignore him, assuming he was carrying an axe.
I tacked the letter back on the tree, then walked back to the bridge where George lay in the sun, fiddling with his machete and pressing buttons on a cell phone from time to time, receiving enough reception to communicate with those outside the park. I just wanted to bathe in the warm sun on the bridge and not worry about anything but the vacation. I looked at the water again. Something was down there, taunting
me, trying to get in the way of my believing that Lake Durant
was a true preservation of the Adirondacks. Some letter addressed to anyone, posted on a tree and forgotten, giving directions along a path I couldn’t go down. I was being forced by the waters of the lake to rest peacefully on the bridge, lay across the bridge belly-down, let my fingers pull small currents
in the drifting water, staring into the shifting brown glass of the water with a reflection of myself against the blue sky.