Days with warm weather and sunshine are few and far between in upstate New York. Most of us from the north know how to take advantage of the brief and fleeting (sometimes nonexistent) summer season. When I was young, during summer vacation, it became a kind of tradition for my dad and I to seek adventure in the great outdoors.
We’d start by digging out maps and compasses. We’d unearth our hiking boots from the closet and exhume our fishing poles from the garage. We’d pack up the beat-up Jeep Cherokee with binoculars, bug spray, and extra pairs of socks. I’d bring an action figure or a pad of paper to draw on, critical pieces of survival for an eight year old. In the car, I helped pick out the unknown territory we were about to explore; to me, it was a shaded polygon of mystery on a topography map, but my father knew more than he let on. It was more or less a ploy so he could go fishing, but of course, he also wanted to instill in me a love and appreciation for nature.
We’d make a customary stop at a convenience store to buy Gatorade, corn nuts, sunflower seeds, Andy Capp’s Hot Fries, pepperoni, and other road trip junk food essentials. We drove and drove for what seemed like forever. My father would impart his wise musings on the subject of classic rock while I watched the trees and fields whip by my window.
THEN, we’d pull over, and with a feigned sense of urgency, my dad would insist we explore a particular spot. He would concoct some mystery or propose some philosophical question for which there would be an answer if we explored further down the stream or in the woods. And, of course, I was ALL about it.
Ruins of an old mill contained secrets about the past, scat on the trail told us about the animals nearby, tracks in the earth painted a picture of a forest without mankind’s interference. We’d hunt for fossils, scour for bait, shave walking sticks into spears with our pocket knives, and seek out plants to identify.Those berries aren’t edible, but here are some raspberries. Those are deer pellets, not “beans,” put them down.
I was not a squeamish little girl, possibly because I almost always had to help snatch a snake from under a log, dig up worms from the dirt, bait my own hook, and hold up a squirming fish for a picture. We’d stir up a pond with a net, pull up frogs to examine, tadpoles to interrogate, and leeches to ogle. And I really did once pick up a handful of deer pellets thinking they were some strange type of bean. We’d bring plant identification books, fossil identification books, geology books, and try to decipher the secrets of the wilderness. Every phenomena came with questions and consequently the delightful challenge of producing an answer.
And my dad would whet my interest to visual arts, pointing out natural features and suggesting how they would make a great photograph, drawing, or painting. We’d collect leaves for collages, stones for collections, but leave only memories behind. My dad even assisted me with my youthful habit of naming trees and discussing at length their spirits; I was a pretty whimsical kid.
He taught me to observe, to think creatively, and to always be prepared. That was how I spent my time outdoors, learning to patiently understand the nuances of the natural world, both philosophically and pragmatically.
One hot summer day in August, my dad and I ended up on an expedition in the East Branch of Fish Creek State Forest in New York. We walked along the water, practicing catch and release, discussing fish species and their habits, their favorite foods, and where they like to hide. I remember looking for crayfish in the water, upturning stones gently so that the mud wouldn’t obscure the water, the way Dad showed me.
Suddenly, across the water, we heard a crashing through the foliage, and noticed movement– it was a large black animal. We crouched and quietly watched as the mysterious beast revealed itself to be an old black labrador retriever. We whistled and called him over, and the obedient pupdog charged through the shallow stream, tail wagging. With no collar it was tough to say, but based on his personality and appearance, we doubted he was a stray. He probably belonged to some household nearby and he, like most country dogs, wandered the wilderness freely. But for the afternoon, he was ours.
We patrolled up and down the stream for hours, fishing, catching bait, exploring, and the dog followed amiably, wagging his tail and smiling. I named him August and spoke with him at length, imparting onto the dog the wisdom my father often imparted onto me.
As suppertime approached, it was time to return to civilization and say good-bye to August. I remember being exhausted, covered in mud, smelling like bug spray, and my hands sticky from holding fish and knotting worms to the hook. But it was sad all the same, leaving the day and the dog behind. It was a bittersweet lesson in letting go, accepting that some things don’t last forever, and understanding that moments all-too-quickly turn into memories.
We headed back towards the suburbs and as usual my dad suggested we get ice cream, a reward for all our hard work in the great outdoors. It’s an indisputable fact that all the best days should end with ice cream, so we picked up malted milkshakes and drank them on the way home.