Illustration by Brucie Rosch
We all have experiences that stay with us. Some are firsts—first kiss, first home run. Some are tragic. Some are bookmarks. For me, one of these involved a summer job, a night along a High Peaks trail and a black bear named Cliff.
It was 1984. I’d returned home to Saranac Lake from my junior year at Cornell University. My father worked for the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as director of Region 5, headquartered in Ray Brook; no doubt that was a big factor in my landing a job.
The summer before, I had worked for the DEC’s trail crew. We hiked the trails, picking up garbage; clearing blowdown; building water bars, stringer bridges and ladders; and maintaining the outhouses and lean-tos. We spent time at the Lake Colden Interior Outpost under the guidance of caretaker Jim Waters. A Paul Smith’s College grad in his mid-20s, Jim was a good leader, well organized, tolerant, with a focus on quality and an emphasis on safety.
The outpost included a cabin, storage barn, dock with a canoe and rowboat plus an outhouse. A wooden bridge crossed Cold Brook flowing down from Iroquois Peak. There was a clearing where DEC helicopters dropped off propane, tools and supplies too heavy to carry in.
We had a two-way radio connected to the DEC dispatch center, and a telephone. On those nights when the clouds hung low between Colden and Algonquin and lightning cracked the sky, each strike would make the phone go ping, ping. None of us would pick up the receiver.
One of our tasks was bringing a new phone line to Lake Colden. It was strung on telephone poles from South Meadow to the Marcy Dam outpost. From there it ran on the ground, buried where it crossed trails and streams. At Avalanche Lake we took the cable across in a rowboat. We dropped the line to the bottom, anchored by concrete blocks. At the lake’s far end, the cable continued overground.
At the end of the day we would hike back to the cabin, where we’d grill steaks or pork chops. We’d sit around after dinner and listen to the older guys tell stories about rescues and encounters with bears.
The next summer, when I was offered work almost exclusively out of the interior headquarters, I jumped at the chance. My father and I had hunted on the ridges and valleys off the western slope of Phelps Mountain. I’d killed my first buck there, gotten lost and un-lost there, and spent many nights under the stars. To me it was home.
I hiked up the truck trail, stopping to rest at Marcy Dam. Then I went through Avalanche Pass to Avalanche Lake, past Trickle Falls. The water at the top of the pass drips a few drops at a time off a moss-covered boulder. One splash to the right and it ends up in the St. Lawrence Seaway, one splash to the left and it ends up in the Hudson River, its destiny determined by the wind. I’d then hike around the lake on the trail hewn into the rocks, with the Trap Dike slicing down Colden’s massive shoulder and Avalanche and Algonquin rising hard above me.
Jim always had projects for us. Twelve of the 46 High Peaks are within a day’s hike of the outpost, and we were responsible for the trails to all of them.
The brooks along those trails were so cold that some overhanging rocks had undersides coated with ice even in July. We’d take a couple of beers and secure them in a deep pool as we worked our way up the trail. On our way back down, blackfly eaten and drenched in sweat, we’d crack a cold one.
In the evenings we would row across Lake Colden to patrol the lean-tos and campsites, encouraging hikers to take their garbage out with them, not to use soap or shampoo in the lakes, not to cut trees, and to secure their food so that it, and they, were at reduced risk from mischievous raccoons, but more importantly, bears.
Raccoons were a nuisance, but bears were a problem. A careless hiker could invite trouble by cooking bacon, sausage or almost anything over an open fire. The smoky aroma drew the bears; they’d follow the scent to its source, right into some unsuspecting camper’s tent, pack or sleeping bag.
Raccoons made a mess, usually right at the site. But bears would drag a food bag into the woods, leaving a path of debris and a cache of garbage. We found tuna cans with holes bitten in them and sometimes footprints giving us an idea of the size of the bear.
One especially large bear had taken up residence. Jim named it “Cliff,” after Cliff Mountain, a trailless peak that was one of the original 46, but had been determined to be about 60 feet shy of 4,000. The bear lived in the rocky crevices of that mountain, which offered a convenient overview of, and hiding place from, the campsites at Colden. Cliff had become accustomed to people and increasingly persistent in claiming their food.
We educated hikers on how to hang their food—high up, between two trees. Bears can climb trees, but at least with food bags hung, the bears’ attention was away from where people were sleeping.
When we were finished making the rounds we rowed back across the lake. On clear nights it was pleasant, but if a storm came, the last place anyone wanted to be was in an aluminum rowboat in the middle of a mountain lake. More than once we raced across that lake, one of us rowing as fast as he could, the other tracking the lightning.
Jim and I would work together for a couple of days, then he would hike out for time off, leaving me to the secluded post. I loved those days alone. I had some minor one-man tasks like cleaning trash near the lean-tos or a more humble job, such as carrying a bucket of lime up the trail along the Opalescent to Feldspar Brook, pouring a healthy dose into each outhouse hole.
Privies were important in the High Peaks. Like the lean-tos, these weren’t built on site, but were prefabricated at the DEC maintenance shop at Saranac Inn, disassembled and carried by helicopter to the High Peaks, where they were dropped in the woods.
The crew would hike to the intended site to retrieve and build the structure. Unfortunately these outhouses rarely landed in an optimum spot—on dry ground, visible from the trail or next to a lean-to—and it wasn’t like we were on the ground directing traffic as the choppers dropped them. The trail crew director marked on a map the general location where the pilot thought the load landed.
We’d go to the designated location and fan out in concentric circles until the sling load was found. Sometimes we wouldn’t find it at all on the first try, and Jim would go back on his own to search. Usually it ended up half-buried in a swamp, half a mile from where it was to be erected. We would carry the materials to the site, dig a hole as deep as we could through roots and rock, fell a small cedar tree, cut it and level it into a base, and assemble the privy.
Another task was relocating an outhouse once it was full. This involved digging a new hole, building a new base, then (ensuring no one was inside), carefully tipping the structure on its side, moving it and filling in the old hole. This generally fell to the low man on the totem pole, which, the previous summer, had been me.
Filling in an old outhouse hole, while very unpleasant, carried with it some responsibility. The person doing it had to ensure that the top was firm enough so no unsuspecting hiker would step off the trail and into a mess.
At the cabin a surprising volume of hikers would stop, seeking information on everything from weather to bears to trails and camping sites. The forest rangers would also come to share a meal and coordinate on trouble spots that would need our attention.
Before dark I would go across the lake to the cluster of lean-tos along the Opalescent, between Lake Colden and the Flowed Lands. I talked to hikers on their use of the land and told them how to avoid problems with bears.
That summer Cliff had gained quite a reputation. While I hadn’t seen him, I had cleaned plenty of drag sites and enjoyed telling tales of the paw prints we’d seen and claw or tooth marks we’d found in cans and debris. People were appropriately impressed. I was itching to see the bear myself.
One evening, not unlike most others in that basin, I made my patrol. It was cloudy and July warm. July warm, in the evening, in the mountains, is a comfortable kind of cool—no jacket required if you are moving, but a friendly kind of chill that makes you sneak in a little closer around a campfire.
That night I decided to walk around the lake instead of taking the rowboat. It was only a short hike, maybe half a mile, and relatively easy. By the time I had finished chatting with people it was getting dark, so I crossed back over the dam and headed for the cabin.
When it gets dark up there it gets really dark, especially on a cloudy night or a night with no moon. This was one of those nights. I was a short distance down the trail when I decided to pull out my flashlight. I was comfortable in the dark and knew the trail well, but I was moving at a pretty good pace, and there were plenty of rocks and roots.
I flipped on my flashlight. It sputtered weakly, then died. I flipped it on and off. The batteries were dead.
I continued on, making my way gingerly. I reached a point about halfway around the lake when suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks.
I couldn’t see anything, but I could feel a presence in front of me. I could feel its bigness, not 10 feet away. I could hear it breathing—loud, labored breathing, sounding like a horse. But this wasn’t a horse.
It was Cliff, the bear.
I stood motionless, trying to stay calm. The bear seemed to move a little closer. It gave a few short snorts as it processed my scent. I could see a reflection off the backs of its eyes, nothing else. They were even with mine. I didn’t know if the bear was standing up or on all fours. If I reached out my hand I could have touched it, which meant it could touch me.
I wanted the bear to know exactly where I was, and what I was, so I yelled in a scolding voice, like a parent would use when chastising a child, “Ha! Ya! Go on, Cliff! Scram! Get out of here! Ha! Ya!” I didn’t move an inch, giving the bear every opportunity to choose its own way, hopefully not through me.
The bear moved off the path, crunching softly through the brush. I could still hear heavy breathing. It didn’t move far. Once I was confident that I had its location pinpointed off the trail above me, I moved, walking, not running, carefully at first, then picking up speed. I made my way back to the cabin and Cliff did not follow.
I congratulated myself on how calmly I had handled the encounter. Then I looked down. My shirt was drenched in sweat. My heart was pounding. I’d just had my desired encounter with Cliff, up close and personal, in the dark, alone.
Cliff continued to roam the Marcy basin, and hikers continued to have their campsites ransacked. Our warnings grew stronger. Could the bear be relocated? Apparently not. Besides serious logistical issues in relocating a 500-pound bear, the animals have incredible range. Many bears return to where they were taken from. To relocate the bear would be to relocate the problem. Cliff was part of the wilderness and belonged there, but safety was becoming a real issue.
About the time I was ready to return to college, my father informed me that one of the rangers had shot a male black bear of more than 500 pounds. It had been done quietly on his order, a controversial decision.
I’ve often thought of Cliff and that night. I’ve always felt a kindred spirit to the creature, as we both patrolled the terrain that summer around those high mountain lakes. We each left the mountains. I went back to college, on into the Army and the life that followed. Cliff went wherever nature’s creatures go after life on Earth.
That Christmas my mother made me a stuffed black bear. I named it Cliff. I still have it. As long as I live, Cliff lives, in a space in my soul, in the rocky ridges above the Opalescent, overlooking the lean-tos, the trails and the cabin beside that high mountain lake.