My boys, Nick and Teck, wanted to do something up in the woods. But it wasn't until October that we could get it together. I was 76. It was getting a little late in the season, mine and the year's.
I proposed camping out at their Great Grandpa Tom Beahan's lumber camp on the Little River in the Aldrich Pond Wild Forest, on the edge of Five Ponds Wilderness in Adirondack Park. We'd get there by canoe or on foot, whatever it took.
Grandpa and his brothers had worked in the woods for others, but on the Little River they were jobbers working for themselves. They had a crew of 20 lumberjacks; teams of horses; a barn; a sleeping camp for the men; plus a cook house where Uncle John, Aunt Liva and their kids slept at one end and she cooked at the other. Grandma and Grandpa had another cabin back in the woods.
The Beahan Camp was two miles east of Aldrich, a mill town on the Carthage and Adirondack Railroad. The railroad brought relatives up from Carthage weekends and "Sports" from the city for Grandpa to guide.
I was raring to go. But my back went first. My right hip is never real good and my knees stepped up their complaining. So I modified the proposition to three nights at Houghton College's Star Lake Campus. Houghton students are given the opportunity to study in the wilderness here; the public can reserve rooms when space permits.
We could day-trip from the campus to Grandpa's Camp and, if we had time, paddle the Oswegatchie.
Star Lake Campus would assure my bones a mattress, accommodate my old man's prostate and provide power for my CPAP machine. The thing blows air into to you all night long to overcome the tendency for older airways to collapse during sleep. Believe it or not, I sleep better with the darn thing. The kids refer to it as "your life-support system." They're jealous because I look like a jet pilot in the mask.
Nick lives in Vermont and would meet us there. Teck and I left Buffalo about 6 p.m. on Oct. 12 in a driving lake-effect snow storm that would become known as the October Surprise. The storm eventually dumped two feet of snow on Buffalo and left our houses and the rest of our families without power for 10 days. But once out of Buffalo, we had fine weather for the whole weekend.
We arrived at the Star Lake Campus at 11:15 p.m. in pitch dark. The driving kicked up my sciatica, so I was relieved to get out and stretch. A light was on in the main lodge where we found four students in front of a fireplace listening to one of them plunk a guitar.
Groping our way in the dark, down what used to be a ski hill to our oversized boathouse cabin, we found Nick asleep in its most remote room. We knew once he was asleep it was pointless to try to disturb him.
In the morning we enjoyed our bacon and pancakes in the company of Terry Borrowman, the camp manager, 10 students and two professors. Borrowman pulled out his maps and we honed in on a route to the Beahan Camp.
My Dad was born there in 1904. He gave me a 1916 map that was drawn before there was a Route 3. It indicates the camp a half-mile down river from where the old Schuler Camp perched on top of the falls just south of Star Lake. The map calls our place the Youtsey Camp. Our family lived there for 10 years, so we call it the Beahan Camp.
On the map a creek, sometimes known as Beahan Creek, according to my uncle Raymond Beahan, drains a pond directly north of the camp. A corduroy road runs from Aldrich toward Star Lake and crosses the Little River at the camp.
Age gets to your brain, too. I reviewed Dad's map and packed it. When we were about to plunge into the woods I could not find the vital document. So we borrowed Borrowman's map and Teck set GPS coordinates based on our best recollections of Dad's map.
We took Borrowman's recommendation to forge the river. He thought we could find a spot to do it in knee-high boots. That made a short hike of about two miles, if we didn't mind a bushwhack and possible swim.
We would take the dirt road south from Star Lake, past Readaway Ponds, to the Little River. Borrowman mentioned a "flat spot" on the cliff overlooking the falls of the Little River as a landmark.
"You mean where the Schuler cabin used to be?" I asked.
He said, "I didn't know there was a cabin there."
I enjoyed a perk of old age, to have seen a thing that others, younger, can never see. In this instance, it was having witnessed Schuler's outhouse. When I first reached that spot some years ago, the cabin was mostly gone but the outhouse perched eaglelike on the verge of one of the prettiest waterfalls in the Adirondacks. It was the world's sturdiest privy, a two-holer constructed of solid brick, now gone forever.
I could only tell them about it.
Leaves were off the trees, giving us good visibility and promising to make our expedition easier. From the barrier on the Readaway Pond Road we walked the half-mile to the Schuler site where, with the new lightweight and horrendously expensive hearing aids I was trying out, I could hear the roar of the falls, possibly quicker than the kids who were addicted to rock 'n' roll.
We worked our way through brush and over giant moss-covered boulders to a view 50 feet down to where the rushing white waters pounded through a narrow defile to plunge another 30 feet to a rocky pool. Don't take my word for the heights involved here. They are the estimates of a panicky father watching two sons, averaging the age of 50, still outdoing one another's perilous maneuvers to see which one could give their parent his first heart attack.
In my own small way I joined the competition and crawled out on some slimy green boulders high in the air. A sweeping view of late fall forest, distant hills and glistening rock-strewn waters rewarded my dangling above the cascade. I retreated. The boys also gave up their gymnastics, only to compete in finding the infrequent blazes and traces of trail that mark the portage westward. The going was tough, through brush, spruce scrub, fallen trees and mud. It comes out on a weedy stretch along the river where a wide rocky arc of shallows looked fordable.
Teck had begun the hike in knee-high rubber boots. He was halfway across when I got there. Nick was 30 yards back in a spot he liked. He changed into rubber sandals and was soon across, wiping his now blue feet on a towel without complaint.
I changed out of hiking boots into waders and sealed my digital camera in a plastic bag. Shepherded by Teck, I made my way across the 75- to 100-foot way on partially submerged rock and through depths I measured with a ski pole that also was a great aid to my balance. I neither danced nor pranced across like the younger members of our party, but I made it dry. And then I remembered Uncle Raymond's story about Grandpa carrying him on his shoulders as he jumped from log to log on a dammed up section of this stream at a time when neither one of them could swim. Grandpa wasn't 40 yet.
Fighting our way along the south side of the river was a chore. The bank is mucky though covered with emerald vegetation. The forest had been virgin timber when the Beahans got there. Now it is a dense tangle of second growth.
We finally came to the site of the old camp. There was a big squarish clearing about 50 feet from the water with a pile of rocks at one end. There was an unusually big boulder in the stream that looked familiar and there was that suggestion of a road. Back in the woods, Nick found a rusty old spade and a double-bitted axe suspended in a tree.
In my mind's-eye I saw Grandpa and his crew gathering to have their picture taken, cousin Bessie as a little girl burying herself in the horse's oat bin, Uncle John taking time to fill and light his pipe before putting out Aunt Liva's kitchen-roof fire. My kids will be able to tell about Nick finding my hearing aid in the middle of the woods and me forgetting the crucial map.
Back at Star Lake, Borrowman asked what other adventures we planned and he loaned us one of his 80-pound Grumman war canoes. The hitch was that we had to haul it up the ski hill. Perhaps I should not say, "we." The boys did the hauling. It's mighty nice having a couple of strapping 50-year-old sons who like it outdoors and who will still put up with an Old Grandpa.
We did a day on the "Oswegatch" and when we were done we called Lyn in Buffalo to find both her and Teck's wife, Cindy, without power, cold and lonely. Fortunately, our water-pressure-driven backup sump pumps were keeping the cellars dry. Burlington had missed the storm so Nick's house was OK. We said goodbye and headed home to the rescue a day early, hoping to buy emergency power generators on the way.
I pondered: Who was better off, the Beahans in their camp on the Little River where they heated with logs and read by candle light, or the Beahans of Buffalo, dependent on electricity for heat, dry basements and computers?
If you go
Public accommodations are available at Houghton College Star Lake Campus for $20 a night per person, space permitting. (Fall is a busy time with students.)
There are dorm-type accommodations in the main lodge; plus seven cabins that can house from two people up to 11 beds. There is a one-time charge of $10 if you want linens supplied. Meal service is provided for groups of 15 or more.
Address inquiries to: Terry Borrowman, Houghton College Star Lake Campus, 60 Campus Drive, Star Lake, NY, 13690 or call (315) 848-3061.
For information on classes, go to www.houghton.edu or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.