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From the August 2013 Conservationist

A view across a lake surrounded by wooded hills

Immersed in Wildness

By Walt McLaughlin

Photos by the author unless otherwise noted

A wild urge stirred deep within. I loaded my pack and headed for Brooktrout Lake as soon as I could swing three days away from work. Brooktrout Lake is located in the heart of West Canada Lake Wilderness in the south-central Adirondacks-a huge pocket of trackless forest that few people visit.

The 20-mile dirt road winding through the Moose River Recreation Area set the right mood. The sight and smell of the surrounding forest unraveled my nerves. I spotted a deer feeding in a glade, and braked for a dozen turkeys crossing the road. Reaching the trailhead in mid-afternoon, I parked the car, shouldered my pack, and set forth. I whistled to my German shepard Matika to follow. I didn't have to whistle twice.

A trail through the dense forest
Parts of the trail are surrounded by a lush
understory that adds to the wildness
of the place.

Heavy rain had fallen around midday and the forest was dripping wet. The lush understory dampened my pants a half hour down the narrowing trail. I was sweating profusely as the midsummer heat turned the forest into a steam bath. Deer flies attacked Matika and me whenever we took a water break. No matter. I reveled in the endless green world enveloping us.

Red efts crawled across the muddy trail. The deep blue petals of closed gentian illuminated the forest floor, along with the starburst white of tall meadow rue. I signaled Matika to stay back as we approached a beaver pond, hoping to spot its inhabitant. No such luck. The pond remained still beneath a formless white sky. The sharp click of my trekking poles against rocks resounded through the towering birches, spruces and firs. The tributaries of Wolf Creek blathered incessantly, but I was happy to listen.

A dog sits at the tent campsite in the woods
The author's dog, Matika, relaxing at
their campsite near Brooktrout Lake.

Soon I spotted Brooktrout Lake peeking through the trees. At the shelter on the far end, I ran into a pleasant twenty-something couple settling in. We chatted briefly before I back-tracked a half-mile to a relatively flat place not far from the water's edge. There I pitched my tarp and made camp.

By the lake, I pumped water into my bottles while watching the sun slowly sink behind the nearby ridge. Dragonflies darted over blueberry bushes along the shoreline, catching mosquitoes. Matika rested on a fallen tree, taking in the scene. When the mosquitoes came out in force, we slipped beneath the netting hanging from my tarp. As darkness swallowed the forest, the loud cry of a solitary loon echoed across the lake.

At daybreak, a raven croaked loudly, startling Matika. Chipmunks chattered, and nuthatches and chickadees chirped away. After splashing water onto my face, I watched a pair of loons swimming and diving just off-shore. They captivated Matika's interest, too. I enjoyed a long, lazy breakfast, then grabbed map, compass and water bottle before taking a short walk to West Lake. Matika discovered all kinds of interesting smells along the way.

While standing on a big rock overlooking West Lake, I recalled previous excursions into this sprawling wilderness. On the far shore I had stopped to rest for a couple days during an end-to-end hike along the Northville/Placid Trail. Years before that, I had camped at Cedar Lakes a few miles farther east before venturing north to Lost Pond. A couple years ago I had sojourned at Sampson Lake to the southeast long enough for the wild to reclaim me. Now here I was completing the circle.

The day was shaping up to be another warm one. Immediately upon returning to camp, I stripped off my clothes and waded into Brooktrout Lake. Matika watched from shore, belly down in cool mud. I hesitated while standing thigh-deep in the chilly water, eventually building up courage enough to take the plunge. I swam about frog-like for some time before emerging from the lake my old self: the same wild man who had banged around the Alaskan bush twenty years earlier. Along with a layer of dirt and sweat, I had just washed off something else.

A loon spreading its wings sitting in a lake
Common loon (Photo: Barbara Nuffer)

Wildness is like that. Once it gets under your skin, it's hard to shake. A primal self quickly rises back to the surface whenever the setting is right. I suspect that the wild lies dormant within all of us, that even the most sophisticated urbanites aren't as removed from nature as they think. After all, our bodies are made of the same elements found in the wildest, most remote places. The earth and our humanity are inexorably entwined. That's why places like the West Canada Lake Wilderness are so important. In country like this, it's easy to sense our link to the world.

That afternoon, I sat against a spruce tree, occasionally scribbling in my journal while watching the loons at play. A pair of canoeists came out of nowhere, crossed the lake, and then disappeared. Once my hyperactive mind settled, I entered that nether region between daydreams and conscious thought. Following a simple dinner of ramen noodles and trail mix, I continued the same thread while staring into a small campfire. Matika chased a chipmunk, and then satisfied her primal urges by chewing on a stick. The sun went down sooner than expected; both man and dog went down shortly thereafter.

The next day I lingered over breakfast, reluctant to break camp. When finally I shouldered my pack and got back on the trail, I was glad to be on the move again-almost as glad as Matika. The hike out went fast. I stopped by the beaver pond again but its inhabitant still didn't show. No matter. Wandering through the woods on a beautiful summer day was all I needed or wanted.

Upon reaching the car, I wiped the sweat from my brow with an already sweat-soaked bandana, and then said goodbye to my favorite wilderness. I'd return soon, I promised myself, and the long drive back to pavement and buildings was pleasant enough. But I'm always a little sad whenever I leave the woods. For some of us, the wild isn't an abstraction.

Walt McLaughlin is the author of several books, including Arguing with the Wind, a memoir about his two-week solo immersion in the Alaskan wilderness. He lives in Vermont with his wife Judy and their dog Matika.