Cedar River Homecoming: A Father and Son Rediscover the Power of Nature

by Chris Zimmerman | Guide to the Great Outdoors 2022

The author’s father, Dr. Milton Zimmerman, on Mount Marcy, 1948

I’m sitting in a canoe in the middle of Cedar River Flow, hoping it won’t capsize. Not just because it’s loaded to the gunwales with backpacks and other camping gear, but because my 92-year-old father is in the stern, and he’s six-foot-four and not quite as steady as he used to be.

We put in at Wakely Dam a few minutes ago and are heading upstream—our destination, a primitive campsite on the western shore, where my brother Joel and his son Gareth plan to meet us. They are hiking in with the rest of our stuff on the Northville–Lake Placid Trail.

It’s a perfect day for paddling—sun, high clouds, a light breeze, but no chop. It’ll be even more perfect if we can get through the weekend without an accidental dunking. Not that I’m afraid of anyone drowning, but because it would prove my 89-year-old mother right that Dad’s too old for this sort of adventure. And if Mom wins that argument, what kind of leverage will he have left at home?

The canoe wobbles, and I brace myself. No worries: Dad’s just decided to take off his life jacket (too constricting) and his shirt (too hot). Soon we’re on our way again, gliding past a rocky spruce-covered island toward the majestic mountains rising from the far side of the lake.

Forty minutes later we’re there, dragging our canoe onto a sandy promontory shaded by balsam, maple and birch. Thick beds of goldenrod, asters and the occasional cluster of bottle gentians hug the shoreline. There are blackberries and wild blueberries, too, their leaves already tinged with an autumnal red. Somewhere overhead, a nuthatch cheeps; in a reedy inlet nearby, a beaver whacks his tail on the water in warning and dives out of sight. A marsh hawk flaps lazily by. Otherwise, it is almost perfectly quiet. Just the lapping of wavelets and the soughing of the pines.

I was raised—like my 11 (yes, 11) siblings—in a home that practically revolved around outdoor activities. Dad, a doctor, ran a family practice for the commune that he and Mom had joined in 1959, before most of us were born, but he was hardly the indoor type. Nor were the teachers at our progressive school, whom we addressed by first name. Anne showed us constellations in a meadow at night; Judy taught us how to identify ferns; Roland, how to make willow whistles with a pocket knife. Derek, a former Boy Scout, gave us topographical maps and helped us read them as we made our way up and down old logging roads and through thickets of rhododendron and catbriar in search of the best swimming holes. Winter was for building igloos; spring for maple sapping; summer for camping (and hoeing endless rows of corn and beans). Fall meant day-long hikes.

Hobbies included birding, cobbling together tree houses, and making butcher-paper kites. For pets, we had turtles, crows, ducklings and an overfriendly jay rescued from a storm-damaged nest.

That was our world. But there was another one, which belonged to Dad. It had its own vocabulary, with exotic-sounding names: Marcy, Raquette, Saranac and Speculator. Lake Placid and Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds. Sacandaga and Algonquin. Jessup River, Crotched Pond and Buttermilk Falls.

There were artifacts, too, that hinted of mysterious places: hiking maps and old photos of something called the High Peaks. A toy-sized log cabin with a chimney and balsam incense plugs which, when lit, sent up a wavering column of fragrant smoke. A worn red-butted ax, strangely out of place next to Dad’s rocking chair, surrounded as it was by stacks of periodicals like JAMA and The New England Journal of Medicine. A hand-me-down sweatshirt emblazoned with “Indian Lake.” And finally, an ancient volume of stories written in impossibly ornate English by someone called Adirondack Murray, a Yale-educated clergyman and “father of the outdoor movement,” whose wildly popular anthology of stories about the region went through eight printings the year it was first published—1869—and drew thousands of city dwellers to the wilds of upstate New York.

Among Murray’s Fools, as they were called, were the founders of Backlog Camp, a veritable institution on the southern reaches of Indian Lake. Backlog was run by a family of prominent Philadelphia Quakers, and Dad, a Philly native himself and the son of a well-connected dentist, spent the summer of 1945 there. He was 16. Though at home in museums and ballparks, on subways and trams, he was lured back to Indian Lake time and time again—through his college years at Amherst, during medical school at Penn, and into the 1960s, when he took busloads of teenagers hiking and camping in the area. Bit by bit, he had lost his heart to the Adirondacks. Which is why we are spending the weekend here now.

After setting up camp and eating lunch, my brother and his son set off in the canoe to explore the headwaters of the Flow, and to find out which of the tributaries running into it might lead to a navigable channel upriver. Meanwhile, Dad relaxes on a sun-soaked boulder in a bed of ferns, drinking in the beauty and traveling back in time.

“This is where I gave my life to God,” he says unexpectedly, as we watch cloud shadows moving slowly over the blue-green slopes across the water. It was on a solitary evening walk to a place called Sunset Point at the end of the summer of 1951, he adds. Suddenly he was struck by the grandeur of nature, and the power of the creative force behind it. “I realized that this power was Reality—the substance of all things—and I decided to give my life to it.”     

Later, after dinner, we doze around our campfire, watching the moon rise and halting our conversation as a pair of loons break the silence and transfix us with their haunting, lilting calls. Gareth produces a bottle of Scotch, and Joel a round of cigars. Dad’s contribution? More stories.

First, from Adirondack Murray, shared verbatim by means of favorite selections that Dad and Mom have typed up and distributed to family and friends over the years. Dad has brought photocopies along. Then his own tales: About crossing this same lake to Wakely Dam in the summer of 1946 in a boat, by night, ferrying a fellow camper who’d been injured by an ax. (Another camp boy was sent eight miles over land to fetch a car and alert a local doctor.)

Memories of Backlog Camp’s “master,” Thomas S. Brown, a Latin teacher at a private school near Philly, and his wife, Nan, who recruited so-called camp boys like Dad and paid them $10 per week, plus room, board and laundry. As Dad recalls, “My classmates back home surely made more money with their summer jobs than I ever did. But none of them had more fun.”   

Duties consisted of chopping wood, supplying the camp kitchen with kindling, and hauling water from the well; keeping the fires going at night; and meeting the five o’clock pack boat from Sabael, eight miles up Indian Lake. Once it docked, the boys would carry luggage for arriving or departing passengers, unload food supplies—oil, flour, rice and eggs—and deliver the mail, which contained, among other things, Dad’s daily copy of The New York Times.

Other chores included changing the sawdust in the icehouse and cutting fresh balsam boughs to spread on the floor of Backlog’s horseshoe-shaped “Focus Tent,” where “Uncle Henry”—Dr. Henry J. Cadbury, a noted Bible translator and professor at Harvard—led morning devotions and weekly meetings.

Dad has stories about fishing trips too, and eating fried trout with your hands, like corn on the cob. Then there’s his most unforgettable excursion—a 15-day wilderness trip he took with his best friend, Howard Teaf, in the summer of 1948: five days hiking the southern Adirondacks; five more days canoeing from Blue Mountain Lake to Tupper Lake via the Marion River and its carry, Raquette Lake, Long Lake and the Raquette and Cold Rivers; and finally, five more days hiking the High Peaks—a total of 73 miles on foot, and 67 more of paddling, after which they hitchhiked from Keene Valley to Saratoga Springs, and took the train home to Philly via Albany and New York.

It’s time for bed: an air mattress and a pop-up tent for Dad. The rest of us sleep in the open. It’s still warm, and though it’s hardly believable, there are virtually no mosquitoes.

The next morning after breakfast we leave my brother to tend camp, while the rest of us set out for the Cedar River lean-to, several miles upstream. Why? Because Dad camped there in the late 1940s, and the remote beauty of the spot still hasn’t let go of him. 

Gareth’s in the front of the canoe, I’m in the back. Dad’s in the middle, leaning against the wooden yoke and cushioned by life jackets. The water is crystal clear, the packed sandy floor glistening. As the lake becomes a river, reeds and alders give way to trees. Evanescent rings spread across the surface, and there’s a sudden flash—a fish jumping and disappearing again. To one side, a magnificent stand of tamaracks comes into view; on the other, lofty white pines tower over a sandy bluff. There are dead spruces covered in reindeer moss. Wild profusions of late summer flowers hang over the riverbanks, dripping with dew and buzzing with insects. We make our way around a beaver dam. Coming around one oxbow, we startle a flock of what we think are hooded mergansers.

Finally we reach our destination. Amazingly, a group of hikers is there to welcome us, including several veteran members of the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Appalachian Trail Conference. After jovial introductions, we exchange hiking tips, pose for a group photo and say goodbye—they’re off for a day hike. 

It’s getting hot. We have plenty of water, but Dad wants to drink from the Cedar River. “If this isn’t clean, nothing is,” he notes.

Before we leave, we take a quick dip. Emerging, refreshed and dripping, I look up to see Dad resting, half asleep, in the sun—the picture of perfect contentment. I suddenly find myself thinking of another book—not Murray’s—that always seemed to be lying around our house when we were kids: Rachel Carson’s Sense of Wonder. In it, she wrote that if she had the power, she would ask, “for each child in the world … a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life … an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

Going on in the same vein, she suggested that “those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment.” Those who contemplate the wonders of our planet, she concluded, “find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” Thank you, Dad and Mom, for passing on that conviction.

But enough philosophizing—we’ve still got a good bit of paddling to do before we reach the dam where our truck is parked. Plus, there’s weather coming in from the west. 

Hours later we’re halfway home to Kingston, eating dinner at a brewery in Lake George and listening to one more story. This time the subject is Dad’s famous three-day trek from the Upper Works at Tahawus to the Lake Colden lean-tos, to climb Marcy and other nearby peaks.

It was the summer of 1964, and he was leading another group of high-school kids. Dwight, a friend and fellow chaperone, had insisted on bringing along a donkey to use as a pack horse. It was a hilarious experiment, but not a very successful one: Eeyore (who had ridden along in the bus, and been fed with fresh hay gathered by his teen admirers from along the Thruway, during a stop made for this purpose) balked at every opportunity. He refused to cross footbridges. He sank up to his belly in mud. His too-wide load kept getting stuck between the trees lining the too-narrow trail. Finally Dad convinced Dwight to leave him at a ranger’s station, to be retrieved on the way back.

The evening wears on. Dad is beginning to fade. He threatens to appoint himself our designated driver for the rest of the journey home. That does the trick—we head back to the truck right away. Canoeing the Cedar River Flow? Great. But letting Dad drive us down I-87, on a Saturday evening? Forget it. Besides, who knows what trip he’s dreaming up for next summer?    

Chris Zimmerman is a high-school teacher based near Kingston, New York, and a volunteer with the Mohonk Bike Patrol.

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