Illustration by Annie Carbonneau-Leclerc
A memorable rescue—or robbery?—on Middle Saranac
First light in camp is my favorite awakening. Zipper alarm clocks: my son R. J.’s sleeping bag, then the tent flap, twice. A yawn, a stretch, one half-open eye, breathing the morning from snuggled half-sleep. Snapping twigs, the strike of a match, a crackling fire. Coolers opening, that Coleman stove hiss. R. J. rummaging in the food bag, laying claim, no doubt, to the last powdered donut on his way down to shore. The rhythm and creak as oars splash—then silence once more. I smile. What was once me is now him. A young man alone with his thoughts, off to fish the lake’s early calm.
My morning begins as each morning does, with this prayer: “Thank you, Lord, for yesterday, today, and each and every day of life. Amen.” Then I unzip my bag, don camp shoes and hoodie, and exit our tent to shake off the chill by the fire.
Cancer is humbling. With R. J. off fishing, and the coffee now perked, I make preparations to take on the day—no easy task. No tongue, half a jaw, I barely recognize what remains of the face in the mirror. I’ve seen death’s doorstep. Twice. I eat through a tube in my stomach. I haven’t tasted human food in nearly nine years. Breathing and swallowing are primary concerns. But I am here. In this moment.
Simple things allow me these nights in camp. A reclining chair so I don’t choke in my sleep. Gravity feeding bags to tree-branch hang my homemade concoction of prescription formula, fortified with a generous dose of java and sugar. Camp coffee may not be prescribed, but it connects me to life, to something human that was. My docs were all brilliant. They kept me alive. Now it’s my job to live.
On this particular trip, as usual, my brother Ray had ferried me to our Middle Saranac campsite on Dad’s old Starcraft. During the trip upriver, we passed a man and his wife in kayaks. The man’s kayak was set up to accommodate his wheelchair. When I see others who overcome, I’m inspired. I’m not alone on these waters.
While I finish my coffee concoction by the fire, Ray rustles up breakfast and R. J. returns to regale us with fish tales. Then we tidy up camp and head off to gather more wood. By the time we finish replenishing the woodpile, noon is upon us.
Ray has errands in town. After we run him to the Ampersand walk-in, R. J. and I find ourselves with the Starcraft, an afternoon, and no chores. We go fishing.
There are a lot of good spots to fish on Middle Saranac, but our favorite is on the river above the locks. I drive and troll while R. J. casts with poppers along the weed beds. We meander slowly downstream.
As we near our destination, I cut the engine so we can drift. Several cedar spurs jut out from the shoreline above and below water. Framed by lily pads, with overhanging maples, it’s a great spot to pick up a nice bass or pike.
On this day, however, there’s a commotion ahead. A mother Can-ada goose and three goslings are raising a ruckus near shore, foiling our planned casts. As they honk and flap their wings, we speculate that momma is teaching her kids how to fly.
But something is not quite right. The mother and two of the goslings splash their way through the weeds, but one poor gosling is getting left behind. It appears to be stuck, honking and flapping to no avail.
“Hey, R. J.! That one’s leg must be caught in some fishing line or something,” I say. “I’ll bring the boat around towards shore and we’ll see if we can’t get that poor bird untangled. Grab a canoe paddle and watch out for logs.”
We ground the boat in the shallows and disembark. Armed with a paddle and a boathook, we begin gently probing around the desperate gosling, trying to catch the invisible fishing line.
While momma and siblings watch from the far shore, I approach the halfling goose. It’s clearly exhausted now, lying with its wings half-spread on the water, giving an occasional tug, flap or weak honk.
I stab the boathook into the water right under the bird’s leg and tug, hoping to catch the line from underneath. Unexpectedly, my boathook grabs something heavy.
“I don’t think it’s fishing line. I think she’s somehow got her leg caught in a log,” I say. Just then, I feel something give way. “Wait a minute—HOLY CRAP!” At that moment, the whole bottom seems to rise from the swirling mud in front of me and I suddenly understand. It isn’t a log or fishing line, but a giant snapping turtle. It has the gosling’s leg in its jaws, my boathook around its neck, and my bare feet beneath it.
Unhappy with the sudden turn of events, the snapper releases the gosling and disappears in the murk. Fearing imminent turtle counterattack, R. J. and I skedaddle back to the relative safety of the boat.
Free at last, the gosling makes for the far side of the river, but momma and siblings have already fled. Somewhat stunned, R. J. and I sit there for a moment, collecting our thoughts. The gosling seems OK—alive, at least, and mobile. We have all toes intact. The prehistorically huge turtle is nowhere to be seen. We shove back from the mud and head for camp.
On the way upstream, we encounter momma and siblings. In a show of international goodwill, I point downstream and address Madame Goose in my best classroom French: “Pardon, Madame, mais votre enfant est là!” My instincts are right—it’s a French-Canadian goose family. They turn and head back downstream.
When my brother Ray returns to camp with my nephew Forrest in tow, we relate our adventure over hunter’s stew. A lively fireside debate ensues. Were we heroes or villains? R. J. and I put forth our defense. Forrest vigorously argues the snapping turtle’s case. In the minds of some campfire jurists, R. J. and I are now felons who owe one turtle a foie gras buffet.
Regardless, that rescue (sorry Forrest) is a shared moment with my son. It’s ours now, to keep.
That night, as I retire to my reclining camp chair, I once again recite my prayer: “Thank you, Lord, for yesterday, today, and each and every day of life. Amen.”
And to those who battle with cancer, those in wheelchair kayaks, those who struggle to find a reason to face the day, I say stay strong, keep the faith, live in the moment.
You just never know, you may someday be called upon to rescue a gosling from a snapping turtle.
A version of this article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Adirondack Life. Subscribe now to receive eight issues per year.