Story type: Essay
It ought to be said, by way of explanation, that my being lost in the woods was not premeditated. Nothing could have been more informal. This apology can be necessary only to those who are familiar with the Adirondack literature. Any person not familiar with it would see the absurdity of one going to the Northern Wilderness with the deliberate purpose of writing about himself as a lost man. It may be true that a book about this wild tract would not be recognized as complete without a lost-man story in it, since it is almost as easy for a stranger to get lost in the Adirondacks as in Boston. I merely desire to say that my unimportant adventure is not narrated in answer to the popular demand, and I do not wish to be held responsible for its variation from the typical character of such experiences.
We had been in camp a week, on the Upper Au Sable Lake. This is a gem–emerald or turquoise as the light changes it–set in the virgin forest. It is not a large body of water, is irregular in form, and about a mile and a half in length; but in the sweep of its wooded shores, and the lovely contour of the lofty mountains that guard it, the lake is probably the most charming in America. Why the young ladies and gentlemen who camp there occasionally vex the days and nights with hooting, and singing sentimental songs, is a mystery even to the laughing loon.
I left my companions there one Saturday morning, to return to Keene Valley, intending to fish down the Au Sable River. The Upper Lake discharges itself into the Lower by a brook which winds through a mile and a half of swamp and woods. Out of the north end of the Lower Lake, which is a huge sink in the mountains, and mirrors the savage precipices, the Au Sable breaks its rocky barriers, and flows through a wild gorge, several miles, to the valley below. Between the Lower Lake and the settlements is an extensive forest, traversed by a cart-path, admirably constructed of loose stones, roots of trees, decayed logs, slippery rocks, and mud. The gorge of the river forms its western boundary. I followed this caricature of a road a mile or more; then gave my luggage to the guide to carry home, and struck off through the forest, by compass, to the river. I promised myself an exciting scramble down this little-frequented canyon, and a creel full of trout. There was no difficulty in finding the river, or in descending the steep precipice to its bed: getting into a scrape is usually the easiest part of it. The river is strewn with bowlders, big and little, through which the amber water rushes with an unceasing thunderous roar, now plunging down in white falls, then swirling round in dark pools. The day, already past meridian, was delightful; at least, the blue strip of it I could see overhead.
Better pools and rapids for trout never were, I thought, as I concealed myself behind a bowlder, and made the first cast. There is nothing like the thrill of expectation over the first throw in unfamiliar waters. Fishing is like gambling, in that failure only excites hope of a fortunate throw next time. There was no rise to the “leader” on the first cast, nor on the twenty-first; and I cautiously worked my way down stream, throwing right and left. When I had gone half a mile, my opinion of the character of the pools was unchanged: never were there such places for trout; but the trout were out of their places. Perhaps they didn’t care for the fly: some trout seem to be so unsophisticated as to prefer the worm. I replaced the fly with a baited hook: the worm squirmed; the waters rushed and roared; a cloud sailed across the blue: no trout rose to the lonesome opportunity. There is a certain companionship in the presence of trout, especially when you can feel them flopping in your fish basket; but it became evident that there were no trout in this wilderness, and a sense of isolation for the first time came over me. There was no living thing near. The river had by this time entered a deeper gorge; walls of rocks rose perpendicularly on either side,–picturesque rocks, painted many colors by the oxide of iron. It was not possible to climb out of the gorge; it was impossible to find a way by the side of the river; and getting down the bed, over the falls, and through the flumes, was not easy, and consumed time.
Was that thunder? Very likely. But thunder showers are always brewing in these mountain fortresses, and it did not occur to me that there was anything personal in it. Very soon, however, the hole in the sky closed in, and the rain dashed down. It seemed a providential time to eat my luncheon; and I took shelter under a scraggy pine that had rooted itself in the edge of the rocky slope. The shower soon passed, and I continued my journey, creeping over the slippery rocks, and continuing to show my confidence in the unresponsive trout. The way grew wilder and more grewsome. The thunder began again, rolling along over the tops of the mountains, and reverberating in sharp concussions in the gorge: the lightning also darted down into the darkening passage, and then the rain. Every enlightened being, even if he is in a fisherman’s dress of shirt and pantaloons, hates to get wet; and I ignominiously crept under the edge of a sloping bowlder. It was all very well at first, until streams of water began to crawl along the face of the rock, and trickle down the back of my neck. This was refined misery, unheroic and humiliating, as suffering always is when unaccompanied by resignation.
A longer time than I knew was consumed in this and repeated efforts to wait for the slackening and renewing storm to pass away. In the intervals of calm I still fished, and even descended to what a sportsman considers incredible baseness: I put a “sinker” on my line. It is the practice of the country folk, whose only object is to get fish, to use a good deal of bait, sink the hook to the bottom of the pools, and wait the slow appetite of the summer trout. I tried this also. I might as well have fished in a pork barrel. It is true that in one deep, black, round pool I lured a small trout from the bottom, and deposited him in the creel; but it was an accident. Though I sat there in the awful silence (the roar of water and thunder only emphasized the stillness) full half an hour, I was not encouraged by another nibble. Hope, however, did not die: I always expected to find the trout in the next flume; and so I toiled slowly on, unconscious of the passing time. At each turn of the stream I expected to see the end, and at each turn I saw a long, narrow stretch of rocks and foaming water. Climbing out of the ravine was, in most places, simply impossible; and I began to look with interest for a slide, where bushes rooted in the scant earth would enable me to scale the precipice. I did not doubt that I was nearly through the gorge. I could at length see the huge form of the Giant of the Valley, scarred with avalanches, at the end of the vista; and it seemed not far off. But it kept its distance, as only a mountain can, while I stumbled and slid down the rocky way. The rain had now set in with persistence, and suddenly I became aware that it was growing dark; and I said to myself, “If you don’t wish to spend the night in this horrible chasm, you’d better escape speedily.” Fortunately I reached a place where the face of the precipice was bushgrown, and with considerable labor scrambled up it.
Having no doubt that I was within half a mile, perhaps within a few rods, of the house above the entrance of the gorge, and that, in any event, I should fall into the cart-path in a few minutes, I struck boldly into the forest, congratulating myself on having escaped out of the river. So sure was I of my whereabouts that I did not note the bend of the river, nor look at my compass. The one trout in my basket was no burden, and I stepped lightly out.
The forest was of hard-wood, and open, except for a thick undergrowth of moose-bush. It was raining,–in fact, it had been raining, more or less, for a month,–and the woods were soaked. This moose-bush is most annoying stuff to travel through in a rain; for the broad leaves slap one in the face, and sop him with wet. The way grew every moment more dingy. The heavy clouds above the thick foliage brought night on prematurely. It was decidedly premature to a near-sighted man, whose glasses the rain rendered useless: such a person ought to be at home early. On leaving the river bank I had borne to the left, so as to be sure to strike either the clearing or the road, and not wander off into the measureless forest. I confidently pursued this course, and went gayly on by the left flank. That I did not come to any opening or path only showed that I had slightly mistaken the distance: I was going in the right direction.
I was so certain of this that I quickened my pace and got up with alacrity every time I tumbled down amid the slippery leaves and catching roots, and hurried on. And I kept to the left. It even occurred to me that I was turning to the left so much that I might come back to the river again. It grew more dusky, and rained more violently; but there was nothing alarming in the situation, since I knew exactly where I was. It was a little mortifying that I had miscalculated the distance: yet, so far was I from feeling any uneasiness about this that I quickened my pace again, and, before I knew it, was in a full run; that is, as full a run as a person can indulge in in the dusk, with so many trees in the way. No nervousness, but simply a reasonable desire to get there. I desired to look upon myself as the person “not lost, but gone before.” As time passed, and darkness fell, and no clearing or road appeared, I ran a little faster. It didn’t seem possible that the people had moved, or the road been changed; and yet I was sure of my direction. I went on with an energy increased by the ridiculousness of the situation, the danger that an experienced woodsman was in of getting home late for supper; the lateness of the meal being nothing to the gibes of the unlost. How long I kept this course, and how far I went on, I do not know; but suddenly I stumbled against an ill-placed tree, and sat down on the soaked ground, a trifle out of breath. It then occurred to me that I had better verify my course by the compass. There was scarcely light enough to distinguish the black end of the needle. To my amazement, the compass, which was made near Greenwich, was wrong. Allowing for the natural variation of the needle, it was absurdly wrong. It made out that I was going south when I was going north. It intimated that, instead of turning to the left, I had been making a circuit to the right. According to the compass, the Lord only knew where I was.
The inclination of persons in the woods to travel in a circle is unexplained. I suppose it arises from the sympathy of the legs with the brain. Most people reason in a circle: their minds go round and round, always in the same track. For the last half hour I had been saying over a sentence that started itself: “I wonder where that road is!” I had said it over till it had lost all meaning. I kept going round on it; and yet I could not believe that my body had been traveling in a circle. Not being able to recognize any tracks, I have no evidence that I had so traveled, except the general testimony of lost men.
The compass annoyed me. I’ve known experienced guides utterly discredit it. It couldn’t be that I was to turn about, and go the way I had come. Nevertheless, I said to myself, “You’d better keep a cool head, my boy, or you are in for a night of it. Better listen to science than to spunk.” And I resolved to heed the impartial needle. I was a little weary of the rough tramping: but it was necessary to be moving; for, with wet clothes and the night air, I was decidedly chilly. I turned towards the north, and slipped and stumbled along. A more uninviting forest to pass the night in I never saw. Every-thing was soaked. If I became exhausted, it would be necessary to build a fire; and, as I walked on, I couldn’t find a dry bit of wood. Even if a little punk were discovered in a rotten log I had no hatchet to cut fuel. I thought it all over calmly. I had the usual three matches in my pocket. I knew exactly what would happen if I tried to build a fire. The first match would prove to be wet. The second match, when struck, would shine and smell, and fizz a little, and then go out. There would be only one match left. Death would ensue if it failed. I should get close to the log, crawl under my hat, strike the match, see it catch, flicker, almost go out (the reader painfully excited by this time), blaze up, nearly expire, and finally fire the punk,–thank God! And I said to myself, “The public don’t want any more of this thing: it is played out. Either have a box of matches, or let the first one catch fire.”
In this gloomy mood I plunged along. The prospect was cheerless; for, apart from the comfort that a fire would give, it is necessary, at night, to keep off the wild beasts. I fancied I could hear the tread of the stealthy brutes following their prey. But there was one source of profound satisfaction,–the catamount had been killed. Mr. Colvin, the triangulating surveyor of the Adirondacks, killed him in his last official report to the State. Whether he despatched him with a theodolite or a barometer does not matter: he is officially dead, and none of the travelers can kill him any more. Yet he has served them a good turn.
I knew that catamount well. One night when we lay in the bogs of the South Beaver Meadow, under a canopy of mosquitoes, the serene midnight was parted by a wild and humanlike cry from a neighboring mountain. “That’s a cat,” said the guide. I felt in a moment that it was the voice of “modern cultchah.” “Modern culture,” says Mr. Joseph Cook in a most impressive period,–“modern culture is a child crying in the wilderness, and with no voice but a cry.” That describes the catamount exactly. The next day, when we ascended the mountain, we came upon the traces of this brute,–a spot where he had stood and cried in the night; and I confess that my hair rose with the consciousness of his recent presence, as it is said to do when a spirit passes by.
Whatever consolation the absence of catamount in a dark, drenched, and howling wilderness can impart, that I experienced; but I thought what a satire upon my present condition was modern culture, with its plain thinking and high living! It was impossible to get much satisfaction out of the real and the ideal,–the me and the not-me. At this time what impressed me most was the absurdity of my position looked at in the light of modern civilization and all my advantages and acquirements. It seemed pitiful that society could do absolutely nothing for me. It was, in fact, humiliating to reflect that it would now be profitable to exchange all my possessions for the woods instinct of the most unlettered guide. I began to doubt the value of the “culture” that blunts the natural instincts.
It began to be a question whether I could hold out to walk all night; for I must travel, or perish. And now I imagined that a spectre was walking by my side. This was Famine. To be sure, I had only recently eaten a hearty luncheon: but the pangs of hunger got hold on me when I thought that I should have no supper, no breakfast; and, as the procession of unattainable meals stretched before me, I grew hungrier and hungrier. I could feel that I was becoming gaunt, and wasting away: already I seemed to be emaciated. It is astonishing how speedily a jocund, well-conditioned human being can be transformed into a spectacle of poverty and want, Lose a man in the Woods, drench him, tear his pantaloons, get his imagination running on his lost supper and the cheerful fireside that is expecting him, and he will become haggard in an hour. I am not dwelling upon these things to excite the reader’s sympathy, but only to advise him, if he contemplates an adventure of this kind, to provide himself with matches, kindling wood, something more to eat than one raw trout, and not to select a rainy night for it.
Nature is so pitiless, so unresponsive, to a person in trouble! I had read of the soothing companionship of the forest, the pleasure of the pathless woods. But I thought, as I stumbled along in the dismal actuality, that, if I ever got out of it, I would write a letter to the newspapers, exposing the whole thing. There is an impassive, stolid brutality about the woods that has never been enough insisted on. I tried to keep my mind fixed upon the fact of man’s superiority to Nature; his ability to dominate and outwit her. My situation was an amusing satire on this theory. I fancied that I could feel a sneer in the woods at my detected conceit. There was something personal in it. The downpour of the rain and the slipperiness of the ground were elements of discomfort; but there was, besides these, a kind of terror in the very character of the forest itself. I think this arose not more from its immensity than from the kind of stolidity to which I have alluded. It seemed to me that it would be a sort of relief to kick the trees. I don’t wonder that the bears fall to, occasionally, and scratch the bark off the great pines and maples, tearing it angrily away. One must have some vent to his feelings. It is a common experience of people lost in the woods to lose their heads; and even the woodsmen themselves are not free from this panic when some accident has thrown them out of their reckoning. Fright unsettles the judgment: the oppressive silence of the woods is a vacuum in which the mind goes astray. It’s a hollow sham, this pantheism, I said; being “one with Nature” is all humbug: I should like to see somebody. Man, to be sure, is of very little account, and soon gets beyond his depth; but the society of the least human being is better than this gigantic indifference. The “rapture on the lonely shore” is agreeable only when you know you can at any moment go home.
I had now given up all expectation of finding the road, and was steering my way as well as I could northward towards the valley. In my haste I made slow progress. Probably the distance I traveled was short, and the time consumed not long; but I seemed to be adding mile to mile, and hour to hour. I had time to review the incidents of the Russo-Turkish war, and to forecast the entire Eastern question; I outlined the characters of all my companions left in camp, and sketched in a sort of comedy the sympathetic and disparaging observations they would make on my adventure; I repeated something like a thousand times, without contradiction, “What a fool you were to leave the river!” I stopped twenty times, thinking I heard its loud roar, always deceived by the wind in the tree-tops; I began to entertain serious doubts about the compass,–when suddenly I became aware that I was no longer on level ground: I was descending a slope; I was actually in a ravine. In a moment more I was in a brook newly formed by the rain. “Thank Heaven!” I cried: “this I shall follow, whatever conscience or the compass says.” In this region, all streams go, sooner or later, into the valley. This ravine, this stream, no doubt, led to the river. I splashed and tumbled along down it in mud and water. Down hill we went together, the fall showing that I must have wandered to high ground. When I guessed that I must be close to the river, I suddenly stepped into mud up to my ankles. It was the road,–running, of course, the wrong way, but still the blessed road. It was a mere canal of liquid mud; but man had made it, and it would take me home. I was at least three miles from the point I supposed I was near at sunset, and I had before me a toilsome walk of six or seven miles, most of the way in a ditch; but it is truth to say that I enjoyed every step of it. I was safe; I knew where I was; and I could have walked till morning. The mind had again got the upper hand of the body, and began to plume itself on its superiority: it was even disposed to doubt whether it had been “lost” at all.