It swept me like an October windstorm, my sap plummeting and years rattling and ripping loose. Although I was wearing shorts and standing amidst a seesawing cloud of honeybees, I almost expected to glimpse snowflakes.
Perhaps the chilly panic had accompanied my awareness that the midday light had slanted into a syrupy late summer glow. Perhaps the irradiated tips of the goldenrod had reminded me that my son would be starting kindergarten or that I hadn’t always been going bald. Whatever the case, I fled the imaginary change in weather and my apiary, hurrying up the long gravel driveway, tilting into a wind that didn’t exist, averting my eyes from the small family graveyard.
And before I reached the front door of my home, I decided we should go to the Adirondack Mountains.
I felt an urgent need to lay up stores ahead of a winter gathering strength somewhere in time beyond the pastures and hills surrounding my home — a hunger to store memories of green mountains ringing the loons and my family on remote lakes — because whatever wildness home possessed in the dairy country of southwestern New York, it could not satiate the feral urgings of my panic.
But in the Adirondacks I could imagine that permanence was actual: that like protected wilderness, my family and I would be unchanged forever.
Human change hunts my pastoral region: the new vacation home pounded together on parceled land that was once farm meadow, the anxious blinking of yet another cell phone tower, the hilltop howls of logging. Like the wolves our ancestors slaughtered, the developers and loggers also circle the Adirondacks, seeking an opening in which to slash, but they are held at bay for now by the solid clause in the New York State Constitution that the Adirondack Park shall remain forever wild.
The summer of my panic was the first I took my children to the protected Adirondack Park. And until last year we spent a week of every subsequent summer on wilderness waters, storing memories that might be passed down for a generation or two until our voices are forgotten — our photographs heaped in a descendant’s attic box, touched only by the radiation from the cell phone towers.
And when away from the wilderness lakes and rivers — almost the entirety of each year — I yearned to glide across them as if water so pristine could never swallow us.
As if I had paddled into the novel or movie A River Runs Through It, I had become “haunted by waters.”
On the morning following my panic, I threw a half-inflated inner tube atop our compact car and over that strapped down the dented aluminum canoe that when younger and childless I once carried for five kilometers on a portage in the Algonquin wilds of Ontario. Surviving the big trucks on the New York State Thruway — each passing us with a blast of wind that smashed into the canoe and rocked the car as if it were a small sailboat — we reached North Lake in six hours.
My wife, Margaret, took the bow, the dog and I the stern, and the two children squeezed side by side on a vinyl canoe-pack. The season for black flies and mosquitoes had passed, and on our faces and forearms we wore only watery breeze and wavy sunshine and saw no other canoes or boats between us and the distant curving, green shoreline.
On water, I felt grounded.
We found a good tent site near a small stream with a wide granite basin where my son would throw stones and launch stick boats of mossy spruce and on occasion even hold still in reverie. It soon became evident that my 7-year old daughter had a special talent for imitating the loons, and one night in the tent I woke to their cries and then found her at the gently nudged shore, the campfire long out, her flashlight beam undulating as she conversed with the unseen drifting birds in a language as mysterious to me as the Irish she can now speak.
Her nose damp and lifted and twitching, the dog was in olfactory bliss all week, absorbing the molecules of creatures, her eyes as bright as the surface of the lake. Ten years later would find her blind and miserable, and on an autumn afternoon I would lead her from our home and return alone, except for the .22-caliber rifle in my shaky grip.
Margaret and I took nearly 30 photographs at North Lake, but none did justice to our store of stories — our memories alive, the dog’s nose and eyes still absorbing joy.
During the night trip back from North Lake, I fell asleep eight miles from home. Margaret grabbed the steering wheel and yelled me awake, saving our family.
Summers passed and Margaret lost her enthusiasm for rainy paddling and bug repellant and smoky clothing and realized that with the rest of us away she could vacation nicely at home. But the children and I went on canoeing and camping.
I confess that now when I speak the names of the waters we visited in the Adirondack and Algonquin wilds, I feel the peace that supplicants gain from their murmuring of the Our Father.
Some of the waters I like to chant.
Little Clear Pond and Bear Pond and Kit Fox Pond and Big Crow Lake.
The very sounds transport me in two directions at once — one with memories, the other with plans — as if time has been abolished and it is always summer.
I recall that on one sunny morning, our site on Lake Lila was visited by a leach-laden snapper that kicked and wriggled its hindquarters into a wedge of sand between boulders beyond the shade of the big white pines, and that when the loons beckoned my daughter to the shore that evening, the turtle had gone, having deposited her leathery eggs to be warmed under a blanket of sand, hatched by new days, by the Adirondack summer that I desired to last forever.
Yet of course — chant as I may — permanence is an illusion unless by permanence we perhaps mean God, whom I am too stupid and selfish to know.
So I have sought permanence in wilderness, its clean waters, old trees, eggs, the vibrations of its waves and creatures and wind, have made my smoky offerings — but I have failed to find it.
Because my daughter had finished college and moved away and my son had taken a full-time summer job to help pay for his fall tuition, last summer I paddled the Adirondacks in a small one-man canoe.
I had intended to put in on the West Branch of the Sacandaga, weave with the river to Good Luck Lake, bushwhack a short way to a remote hiking trail, carry my canoe and gear to Spectacle Lake and there make camp. That was the plan — but in the meandering of time, plans are almost as illusory as permanence. On the narrow, green-draped river, I was caught in a gusty downpour that forced me to pitch my tent on the south shore of Good Luck, the rainfly slapping my chilled streaming face until I could stake down the fabric.
Early the next morning I woke to misty sunshine and found that I was the only human on Good Luck. I decided to stay put in the company of the two loons.
I plan to paddle alone again next summer. I plan to recall the sensations of permanence.
Nonetheless, it strikes me aslant that a wilderness lake might be a good place to die on a beautiful summer day — though many years from now, of course — my body launched overboard by a coronary, the bullheads and crawfish and microbes eventually consuming my flesh.
Once while fishing at dusk with a jitterbug, a stout and glug-glugging surface lure, I hooked and landed a crashing bass off the shore of Long Pond in the Adirondacks, quickly killed and gutted it for a late supper and discovered within a perch as alive as Jonah.
Back home I once witnessed a bald eagle swoop down from nowhere — or everywhere — and seize a mallard from the surface of my acre pond, the hen squawking so pitifully as she was carried away that for the only time in my life I somewhat regretted an encounter with an eagle.
Far better to be eaten dead than alive as was my father by the ravenous cancer in his bones, his veins coursing with morphine, his mind throbbing with pain and hallucinations, his last permanence the indignity of bedpans.
Yes — a wilderness lake would be a good place.
The eastern slopes of the mountains were darkening as a long fish that I supposed to be a pickerel broke the graying surface of Good Luck Lake.
It seemed to remain suspended there forever in the last of the light.
Mark Phillips, who lives near Cuba, New York, is the author of the memoir My Father’s Cabin. His daughter, Hope, graduated from Notre Dame in 2009.