As last summer was ending, our silver Tacoma climbed through the Cascade Mountains with four adults and a jon boat in tow. Moss-colored peaks, like giant green gumdrops, corralled us through the highway toward our Adirondack vacation. My cousins and husband visualized a respite from suburban South Jersey - fishing, dining, shopping, and relaxing.
But I'd been apprehensive about this wilderness week. I'd prepped myself with camping videos on YouTube and researched survival products. "Did you really spend $50 on bear spray?" my cousin asked. I had, indeed. Upon arrival, however, I saw that our well-appointed cabin was steps away from others. And Lower Saranac Lake stretched rippleless five yards from our door. Varnished woodwork and pine-tree views teased me to think I was back at summer camp, four decades gone. Perfectly innocuous.
But what was that clattering sound outside the casement window? Need I face rattlesnakes? No, all was well. Apparently, Adirondack squirrels have a much huskier chatter than those of Cherry Hill. I began to relax. In addition, no bears were in sight and we'd yet to see a deer.
The town of Saranac Lake abuts pretty Lake Flower, and the shops of Lake Placid line lovely Mirror Lake. A 20-minute ride between the towns, we frequented both, as well as destinations in between. Early in the week, we had enjoyed folk music at Saranac Lake's Hobofest, staged at a scenic railroad station. We learned the train's final trip of the season was that day, and within the hour - starting from Lake Placid. We hastened to our car, dodged Labor Day traffic, and boarded the train minutes before departure. My railroad-buff husband beamed as the train took off.
Soon, we were beholding skeletal trees overwhelmed by swamps, and verdant, leafy forests. Two young sons of a train employee were along for the ride. They wore engineer caps and walked the aisles, asking, "Are you enjoying the trip?" One patron, amused, asked them whether they lived on the train. Their conductor-mother chuckled in reply.
By Wednesday, we called this place home. Temperate weather coddled us. Sunsets mellowed us. The New York "wilderness" proved most pleasant, and the men didn't even complain that they hadn't caught any fish.
That evening, I ate too many of my cousin's semisweet chocolates. Sensitive to caffeine, I lay awake at 1:30 a.m. At 1:45, I said my prayers. At 2, a breeze swept the room, and then I heard it: a high-pitched, three-note howl from the darkest night. I shuddered to think of the creature of prey. Another howl and silence. At 2:30, howlers again, now closer. I pulled the covers high and resolved to wake no one.
When daylight returned, I quashed my fears. I was to learn I'd heard the wail of the loon. Not a wild beast seeking dinner, but an aquatic bird's haunting call - beautiful like no other.