River of No Return

Over Lexie’s curled form, over the down sleeping bag and the spare coat that has kept us warm through the night, out of the tent and across the small campsite with its thin cover of snow, across the icy flanks of the creek and through the trees that crown the small hill, the sun is shining. It bears no warmth, and its light must burrow through the woods horizontally like a skittish mole, something that creeps at ground level like the rest of us rather than shining down from above. But it has arrived and the world is alight — gleaming, pale, and fresh. The day has officially begun.

Nothing moves except the water in the creek, but from where we lie we are too low to see it. Lexie looks eagerly from her nest of warmth beside me, listening for signs of movement and wild intrigue that simply aren’t there. The sunlight is pointing directly into our space as if I had calculated the precise angle in which to pitch the tent, in anticipation of this very moment, but in reality I am not that clever. Nothing about this moment could have been contrived. The tent is situated where it is because the ground had seemed the least lumpy here. The flap is wide open, as it has been all night long, and since it encompasses nearly an entire side of the dome tent the view of the outside world is unimpaired from where I lie, as the sunlight finds us inside. Only the trees act as a screen, filtering the light so that I hardly need to turn my eyes.

Although it feels like I’m betraying Lexie, who has scant tolerance of the cold these days, I want to get up. She best appreciates this weather from under the covers, where we are both warm and cozy. We have long since worked out a system for cold-weather camping where I afford her a corner of my sleeping bag, and cover the rest of her with my down jacket. She would probably prefer to stay like this until it was time to go home, but I’ve been covered up long enough. I want to stand up, stretch my legs, and get a closer look at the morning. I want to make some coffee and eat breakfast.

When I pull back the covers Lexie reflexively gets up too, does a quick stretch, and trots out of the tent. I am just a moment behind her. The snow on the ground is just a pale layer of dust, as if the forest had been inundated by a very fine volcanic ash. Our tracks from yesterday are all over, mostly my boot prints because I was the most restless of the two, fidgeting all around the site for one reason or another. The ashes in the fire ring are soft and lifeless, all traces of heat long since blanched away. My stove is still where I left it on the angular rock beside the creek.

I release the remnants of last night’s coffee, which arc forth in a pale stream, and when I am done I check the thermometer. I had hung it from the soft bark of a dead spruce tree that stands now only as a tall stump on the edge of the site. Nineteen degrees. Lexie will disagree, but it doesn’t feel that bitterly cold. It feels about right, actually, a comfortable temperature for early December.

Preparing another cup of coffee

Consider how I spent the early part of the evening last night. If you can imagine someone sitting on the ground, early December, temperature dropping through the twenties, back against a log, small campfire, lots of coffee, reading a book, and loving every minute of it, then yeah that would be me. The fire had been big enough to warm my feet and not much else, but warmth wasn’t the main reason I had built it. Nor had I felt the need to bundle up in the down jacket. I was not an ascetic suffering for some elusive ideal, but someone who was deliberately where he wanted to be, doing something that he enjoyed.

I examine the remains of that fire now. The ring of stones stood on the exposed rock shelf on the edge of the creek, between the water and the outermost extent of forest duff. The woods had yielded a wealth of discarded branches, and much of it was maple. These hardwood sticks had been converted into excellent coals early in the life of the fire, and they had sustained a level of intense heat that reduced every piece of wood I had placed on it into ash, all except for a few tips of charred twigs around the periphery.

Coffee. I dip one of the pots into the creek until it is three-quarters full, and set it on the rock ledge next to the stove. The water is brown with tannins, but it will be even darker when I am done with it. I light the liquid gas on the rim of the burner, wait as the orange flame leaps up and then recedes, and open the valve on the tank. When the flame turns blue I place the pot on the burner. Then I scoop out one dosage of the hazelnut-flavored grounds into the filter, and place it inside the mug while the water boils.

I had set up this kitchen right next to the creek, and had there been any risk of fluctuating water levels overnight then the pots and the mug and the stove would have been someplace else right now. But with so little snow on the ground, and the temperature so cold, the water level in the creek has been almost constant. If anything, it went down by a fraction of an inch since I last saw it. It is flowing freely, with no ice to obstruct its path, just a little on the edges to reduce friction and hasten its passage.

The spot where my stove is burning is next to a flume in the creek, where the water is flowing as a thin sheet over the brownish bedrock. Just above it is the upper cascade, a wide ledge that slopes downward to the right where the water drops cleanly, with whitish streams that vaguely resemble the teeth of a comb. Below the flume, the lay of the rock shunts the flow of water away from the campsite and down an angled cleft into a round, dark pool about eight feet below. This is the main feature of the campsite, the star attraction that has lured me here a number of times over the last twelve years. The top of the cascade is flanked by these ledges of open rock, which in turn give way to the surrounding forest with little fuss. The ledge and the campsite, just inside the forest, is one uninterrupted space, with only a fallen balsam tree serving as anything resembling a dividing line.

Bubbles are starting to form on the bottom of the pot, but since this is unfiltered creek water I will need to let it boil completely. Lexie has had enough of the outdoors and is wandering back toward the tent. I watch as she approaches the sleeping bag, realizing only at that moment, it seems, that I won’t be inside it with her to make it as snug as it was overnight. It will never occur to her on her own that she can burrow into it and cover herself with it just like I do. Instead, like always, she does a circle and settles down on top, where at best it will only be able to keep one side of her warm.

The campsite is quite small, and the blue tent occupies the one spot of ground good enough to sleep on. The part of the forest closest to the water is open and inviting, but barely twenty feet back it gets thick with a dense growth of young spruce. There is no obvious way to get to this spot, and no one is likely to stumble through by accident. Considering the vagaries of navigating these woods in general I can think of no better place than this to indulge my hermetic tendencies.

Yes, I have been coming here for over twelve years now, but back then I used to come more frequently. I remember the first time I camped at this spot, when the sound of the falling water entered into my dreams and informed the images that my brain conjured: water flowing in a canal past an open window, someone dragging a Christmas tree across a snowy field. Once, a few years later, I was camping with friends in a lean-to by a stream not much larger than this one. There was no waterfall there, but I remember two guys complaining to each other in the morning how they hated sleeping next to a stream because the noise prevented them from hearing the sounds of the forest. Really?

A wilderness campsite in late fall

Only once did I share this site with someone else, an awkward experience that drew out my possessive attitude. There were two of us that weekend, with two tents, but of course only the one good tent site. I cringed when my friend settled upon a secondary spot towards the back, one that I had previously concluded was not really a part of the campsite but merely an ancillary space, like a crude shed attached to a small house. Then to my barely contained horror he wanted a campfire. I was overtly leery of campfires in those days, a phase when I was convinced that the woods looked more natural when they weren’t trampled by people looking for something to burn. I didn’t openly object to any of these infractions — and I had no standing to do so anyway since it had been my idea to come here in the first place — but I did pass that visit with the same unease that a proud new car owner might feel when letting someone borrow it against his better judgment — but this was more a reflection on me than it was on the quality of my friend. The simple truth was that this is a site I wasn’t prepared to share at the time.

That was six years ago. Another, more disturbing change that I had been observing in this forest back then was the death of all the large spruce. This was a region that had been logged long ago, by primitive methods that had not managed to make much of a long-term impact on the quality of the forest. Men came, built a rough road that must have been impassable except by sleighs in winter, and cut only the trees that were most worth the effort of hauling back to civilization. What was taken was probably not much more than what might have fallen in a single severe windstorm, and the forest quickly recovered. The sleigh road became a faint trail, and the spruce grew tall again.

Ten years ago those spruce trees died, if not all at once, then in such a short span of time that it was clear that an event had occurred, even if no one but me seemed to notice. Nothing was written about it, no alarms were raised. But I distinctly remember how one summer the needles of the affected trees turned pale olive, sometimes even rust-colored, and rained down onto the ground below. The tall, gray trunks of the trees looked healthy, but the crowns had simply given up. Nearly all of the mature spruce trees succumbed to whatever agent was responsible — not just the oldest specimens, but anything mature enough to reach into the forest canopy.

For several years afterward, these trees began to rot where they stood. Their graceful boles became pocked by woodpecker holes, and their limbs began to snap and break apart. It was only a matter of time before gravity began to take its toll and brought these skeletons down. Because there were so many of them, the demise of such a large portion of the forest could not possibly bode well for the future of a faint path and an obscure campsite that no one knew about.

On that trip in the middle of the decade, that one time when I brought my friend to this campsite, the trees were already beginning to come down. The path along the ancient sleigh road was hard to find even in the best conditions, but fallen spruce trees were starting to crisscross it faster than anyone cared to clear them. As we sat around the new campfire ring that we had constructed that night, I noted how dead spruce seemed to loom around the edge of the campsite, indifferent to the direction in which gravity would inevitably pull them to the ground. I wondered what I would do if this favorite spot ever ceased to exist.

Three years later I tried to get here, but by then it was clear that too few people visited this valley, and that my fears were being realized. Overall the forest was faring well, since it was only this one species, red spruce, that had been killed. And even then, there were plenty of younger red spruce trees that had survived to ensure the species would survive. Anyone who had not been returning here over this same span of time, or who had not been paying attention to the death of a few trees, would not necessarily notice anything amiss now. Forests are full of rotting logs, turning into moss on the leafy ground.

The water on my stove has come to a boil, so I turn the stove off. I’ll let it sit for a moment so the water can cool a bit; for coffee, the water only needs to be hot, not boiling hot. So it was three years ago, and three years after I had last come here to camp, that Lexie and I came to this valley one fall day to check on the status of things. The first part of the path nearest the highway was (and always has been) well cared for. No surprise there. But as we proceeded up the path the conditions became more primitive. As I had predicted, the spruce trees that had died in the epidemic were coming down and making a mess of the trail. No one was clearing them out. We reached a spot near a prominent bend in the creek where an entire stand had been toppled, creating a small clearing where brambles were creeping out of the ground in the new abundance of sunshine. The trail was blocked by scuffed spruce logs, and while I have encountered worse blowdown in other places I suddenly lost interest in continuing to the campsite. What if the same thing had happened at the waterfall? What if the campsite had been lost? I decided in the midst of that patch of blowdown, perhaps even as I was straddling one of the logs, that if the site was buried under a pile of fallen spruce trees then I didn’t want to know it. Like a close relative who had died from a horrible disease, I preferred to remember only the good times.

Eventually that attitude began to change, and beginning this past summer I began to think that I really did want to know what had happened to one of my favorite campsites. But it wasn’t until last week that Lexie and I finally made the effort to return.

I pour the hot water through the grounds in the filter until the mug is full, and then let it sit some more to steep. The sun is no longer sitting just over the top of the knoll, but at the same time its feeble trajectory will never allow it to clear the tops of the trees today, either. It will arc lowly through the forest, unambitiously gliding through the limbs as if bound by gravity to the earth.

Lexie the backpacking dog

When Lexie and I set off up the path last week, there was more snow on the ground than there is now. We encountered a strange set of hoof prints up one long section, either made by a very large deer or a rather small moose. When we reached the patch of blowdown where we had stopped previously, I was delighted to see that someone had been through with a saw fairly recently. The trail was passable, and only a small number of the spruce trees that had been killed ten years ago were still standing.

Whoever had cleared the path had routed it closer in one section closer to a large vly on the stream, which wound through the expanse of grassy hummocks like a shallow canal. A bear had rambled through, leaving its tracks in the thin snow and brown grass. The clouds were low and hung like fog over the tops of the surrounding mountains, and in the background I could hear the rush of water over distant rapids. It was like the hum of an engine deep within the hull of a ship, unseen, a dynamic energy that seemed to power the landscape.

The path veered away from the creek like it always had, and we began to pick our way cross-country toward the campsite. The tips of little lycopodiums poked out of the snow, the green-on-white pattern reminding me of the back of a dollar bill. Rotten spruce trunks crisscrossed the woods, their branches snapped and twisted. The exposed wood of the limbs, where the bark had long since sloughed away onto the ground, was by turns rust-colored and amber. We snaked around them, finding the woods to not be too obstructed, the fallen trees no more of a nuisance than the pockets of swampy ground or tall hobblebush that we also encountered. The terrain still seemed more or less familiar, despite my long absence. I knew for navigation purposes that there was another vly somewhere on my left, and the ledge that creates the falls somewhere on my right, and if we moved in the direction of the creek and kept these two landmarks in their proper orientation then we would reach the campsite, in whatever condition it would be in.

We reached the last knoll where the spruce saplings grew thickly, each tree waiting for its opportunity to break out of the pack and reach for the sky, beyond which I would finally have the answers to my questions. We waded into this mass of green, of course finding more downed trees and limbs here as well. When we crested the knoll the full sound of the waterfall became clear. We picked our way through the tangle of trees, which was really hardly any worse than it had been a decade ago, and certainly not the mass of devastation that I had feared it would be. The majority of trees in the canopy, I now noticed, were hemlocks, not spruce, and much of the downed wood on the ground was from maple trees — casualties of age and weather, not the massive carnage of a spruce dieback.

We walked into the campsite from the back end, finding it hardly any worse for wear. Two trees had come down. One was indeed a spruce that had once been leaning menacingly over the site. That’s the stump where my thermometer is now; the rest of the tree fell harmlessly to the side. The other tree was a small balsam fir at the edge of the woods beside the creek, which may have been tipped over in a flood. It fell at an advantageous angle between the tree line and the water line, creating a place beside the creek to sit. When this tree came down, it took a small maple sapling with it.

The campsite itself had been untouched, and no other dead spruce trees threatened it. Having expected the worse that day, we had only come with a daypack. I set up the stove and made lunch, letting my brain grow accustomed to the idea that this favorite spot hadn’t met its demise, that it was still here and ready to use, and had been so all along. I had honestly expected the opposite. I had been prepared to accept that a chapter of my past had been closed, and that my visit would be spent reflecting on the passage of time and the effects of natural changes on an environment where few people paid attention. But the River of No Return had not been crossed, the chapter was still being written, and indeed the future seemed full of possibility.

Snow-lined stream in the Silver Lake Wilderness

I take my coffee now and sit on the balsam log, straddling it so that I can see the falls on one side and the campsite on the other, my fire ring and stash of wood near my foot. The old fire ring was gone, erased from the ledge where my friend and I had left it six years ago. Not even a smudge of charred rock remained to mark the spot. Either a flood of water and ice had knocked it apart, or someone had been offended by its presence and dismantled it. Perhaps somewhere there is another person with solitary habits and possessive tendencies. Now there’s an interesting theory to ponder. I know that other people have been here, because I’ve uncovered a small spade, a spatula, and a few small pieces of foil this weekend. What if the old fire ring had been removed by someone who took pleasure in tossing the stones back into the creek in order to restore a sense of proprietary control? What would happen if one of us should ever wander into this spot when the other was already here? It would be a paradox with universe-shattering consequences, the collision of matter and antimatter. Nothing would be the same afterward.

The two otters who passed through yesterday were probably of a similar mind. Lexie had heard them coming and alerted me to their presence. They were on the opposite side of the creek, following it downstream on their way from one wetland to another. They of course couldn’t swim down the cascades and flumes so they were bypassing them through the woods. They had been about to descend the final steep slope to slide into the splash pool at the base of the falls when they realized they weren’t alone, and being curious creatures they stopped to investigate us with the same fascination that we extended to them. Their dog-like faces regarded us side-by-side for several seconds before they deemed us to be non-threatening. Then they continued on their way. For the rest of the afternoon Lexie was sensitive to the slightest noises, hoping that something else of interest would come her way — and I was usually right beside her, wondering what she heard. But the woods really and truly have been ours this weekend.

The coffee is good, and I notice that I am once again sitting at ease on a snowy log in cold weather, with no fire this time — but that will come later. I am vaguely aware that mathematically speaking, if I am the only person out here doing this, living comfortably in these conditions while the majority of people that I’ve ever met daydream about their fleeting vacations in the more southerly latitudes, then I am an anomaly, an oddity that defies explanation. But nothing about this feels anomalous to me. I wouldn’t want to live like this on a daily basis, but I know I will remember fondly the hours that I spent here by the fire with my book last night, comfortable in my setting and my own company. Contentment such as this, however momentary it may be, requires no justification.

With my mug now empty, my thoughts turn toward breakfast. Before I prepare my own meal I customarily set some food out for Lexie first. She lifts her head up in anticipation when she sees me coming toward her, and I crawl inside and rub her belly. In return she licks the side of my face. She’s warmer than she thinks she is, and I know that as much as she professes to not like the cold that she’d much rather be here with me than anywhere else.

So I fill Lexie’s bowl and then return to my stove beside the creek, a ribbon of water that begins at a small pond deep in the backcountry and winds from vly to vly, a continuous flow that has never gone dry as long as I’ve known it. When it reaches this site it skips and dances over the rocks, a secret performance that only the anomalous few, we hunters of solitude, will ever get to see.

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