We ate our way up the mountain. Grabbed what we could as we walked and crammed it into our mouths. We didn’t worry about rinsing off any dirt, bird poop, or germs; it had rained last night and the sun hadn’t yet burned off the morning dew. The lush purple goodies were ripe and sweet and irresistible.
Fourteen girls, the current residents of Cabins Six and Seven, on the last summer of childhood before high school, make up, cars and boys, no, we didn’t care. We were still invincible, still innocent, and we were conquering the world. Or least some of it.
Echo Camp for Girls on Raquette Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York offered a full summer program. Six weeks of swimming, boating, archery, horseback riding, hiking and camping. Arts and crafts, talent shows, and for the older girls, a dance night with the boys from the camp across the lake.
So many choices, so much to do and see and learn, every day structured except for Sundays and yet we didn’t feel restricted or restrained. Our parents paid for all of it, but we could choose; not interested in learning how to survive when your canoe capsizes, well then, use that extra hour to go down to the stables for more time with your favorite horse.
I had made a choice that summer, that last summer, to miss the final dance and go on the week long hiking trip. I wasn’t interested in the boys from the other camp because I had a boyfriend at home. We had shared our first kiss on the last day of eighth grade, the last day of junior high. I was true blue to him, so I chose to climb mountains.
Not just any mountains; these were the Adirondacks and we were climbing five of the highest peaks in the state. We would join an exclusive group of adults who had hiked up these mountains. It was a big deal back then to be part of the High Peak Club.
We started the journey by crossing the broad expanse of Raquette Lake in the camp’s two big motorboats. At the public dock, we piled into three canoes. Our lone camp counselor was Patty from Cabin Six, my counselor and at eighteen, four years older than us and our hero and mentor. We paddled our way to the first stop, put on our backpacks and hoisted upside down canoes on our shoulders to hike into the deep forest.
We dumped everything at the campsite near the first mountain and Patty led us up the trailhead. It was our first challenge – hike the smallest of the High Peaks before we ran out of energy and sunlight. We almost made it.
We reached the summit of Phelps Mountain and marveled at the gorgeous view, nibbled gorp (trail mix), and signed our names in the hiker’s book. Patty found it in a small wooden box nailed to a tree. The little notebook was filled with signatures and had room for many more. Phelps wasn’t a popular hike for day-trippers – it wasn’t steep, but the trail was a find-your-own-way-up once you reached the midway point. Day hikers wanted easily marked and cleared trails. Intrepid adventurers, like us, just scrambled through brush, scraggly trees and around boulders until we reached the top.
After signing my name, I glanced at the opposite page. A familiar name caught my eyes. “Hey, I know this boy! He’s one of Sean’s friends.” I probably blushed saying my steady’s name; Love was brand-new for me and one of the few things I was shy about learning.
Patty leaned over and pointed out the group name at the top. “Boy Scouts. They were here last week.” I smiled, feeling a warm connection to this boy I barely knew, we had climbed the same mountain, this Randy Eldred and I, what a coincidence.
The beginning glory of the sunset spread out before us, so close and breath-taking, was our nudge to return to camp. We scampered down the mountain, laughing and screaming, mere steps ahead of the dark, and landed in breathless heaps at the bottom of the trail. Patty grinned at us, a serene goddess of fitness, barely sweating, and sweetly said, “Time to make camp.”
We groaned and stumbled forward to pitch tents, build a fire and cook over it, but a glorious smell hit us when we entered our clearing. A cheerful fire blazed in the pit, the tents were pitched and an actual dinner had been set up on picnic tables. Patty informed us that this was our first reward. There would be different ones each time we conquered a high peak.
“But how?” someone asked. Our counselor pointed at the line of trees. “There’s a road and public campground right over there. The Skipper sent the kitchen staff here to set us up for the first night. After this, though, we’ll be on our own, so enjoy it!”
The next day, and for the rest of the week, we shouldered our canoes and packs, trekking through dense forest and tiny creeks, to reach open water. It was always a relief to get in the canoe and glide across a lake to the next mountain. Paddling was easier than walking, at least for the first hour or so.
We followed a stream up Mount Marcy, the tallest peak in New York. It wasn’t the toughest mountain and it took forever to reach the summit. Once there, we received our geography and history lesson. The owner of Echo Camp, the Skipper, made sure her girls learned about the land. Marcy was a long boring hike, made fun only because Patty let us play in the stream. That became a tiny trickle near the summit and disappeared into the bare ground. Patty pointed to the spot and proclaimed, “Girls, this is where the mighty Mohawk River begins.” She turned us around. “And from here, you can see across five different states.”
I was impressed, but too tired to hang onto the feeling. This tallest peak was, for me, a disappointment and all I could think about was that long boring hike back down to camp. Lonnie, my best buddy that summer, suddenly said, “Well, I don’t know about five states, but I do see thunderclouds.” We all turned the other way and squealed at the black masses of clouds heading toward us. Patty shouted, “Go, follow the creek, but do NOT walk in it. Go, girls, fast as you can!”
Some of us had grown up in this area, played with family at Lake George, camped here before, but others were city girls and didn’t understand. I grabbed Lonnie’s hand and hurried her along. My New York City girlfriend gasped, “The stream is easier to run through.”
“No! If it starts to rain, it’ll flood and be too fast, too dangerous,” I said.
She stared at me and the ankle-deep creek. “Trust me. We have to get down before it overflows.” I lost track of the group, tugging Lonnie along with me, crashing into boulders and trees, frantically praying the storm would pass us by or hold off for just one hour.
Thunder rolled and rumbled. From one step to the next, it was suddenly very dark. Another slam of sound from the clouds and the rain hit. It slashed down through the trees with enough force to drench us in minutes. Lonnie started crying. I held onto her and remembered my woods-lore: keep the creek on my left and keep moving downstream. The sight of flashlights and the sounds of voices shouting for us almost made me join Lonnie in crying.
We had made it and were greeted by two park rangers. The girls didn’t know it then, but Patty’s route was being watched, we weren’t really as “on our own” as she made us believe. The rangers led us back to camp and showed us how keep a fire burning in a downpour (tucked halfway under a roof made of green pine branches). It got smoky under there, but it warmed us. They stayed for dinner, flirting with Patty among giggling girls. We were no longer cold, wet and scared. We had conquered another High Peak, so where was our reward?
We received it the next morning. Instead of breaking camp, we hiked to a road and climbed into a bus. Our ride took us to Wright Mountain. It was a pretty hike, with no surprises. The best part was the bus ride back and forth, giving us a chance to rest our legs and arms.
We canoed across Lake Placid the next day, easing up to a scrap of land at the base of Whiteface Mountain. We faced a wall of dirt, rocks and scrawny trees jutting out from the cliff. It wasn’t a sheer cliff and it wasn’t a rock cliff, but it wasn’t a normal hike, either. We would be doing actual climbing, like scrambling out of a ravine or climbing a tree that happened to be growing alongside a hill of dirt. But that wasn’t just a hill, that was a mountain and it would take hours to claw our way to the top.
Patty gave us a choice: We could get in the canoes and paddle to the other side of Whiteface and the easy trail or we could conquer this Peak from here, taking the expert way up. I wonder now if when our parents signed all those forms that they were told exactly what their daughters would face that summer?
We climbed. The dirt was firm enough to hold us and soft enough to shove fingers and feet into with the help of tree roots and rocks. We paused on ledges and turned to gaze out at the beautiful lake far below. We pretended to be mountain goats and jumped to the next ledge before sticking our hands into holes and climbing again.
The last few feet of the climb was the real challenge. There the cliff was sheer and hauling our tired bodies up to the overhang took everything we had. I scrabbled my fingers over the lip and found a surprise. There was soft grass under my hands. I scooted up the rest of the way and rolled onto freshly mowed turf, a manicured and maintained lawn. We all reached the top, helping each other over that cliff edge. Our group stood up and broke into gales of laughter at the sight before us.
Tourists. Families in clean t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, drinking soda from cans and staring at fifteen muddy, bedraggled apparitions who had just appeared out of nowhere. Civilization in the form of a gift shop and ski lodge, the parking lot full of cars, the chair ski lift giving summer visitors rides here on the summit of Whiteface Mountain.
Our reward was a picnic lunch catered by Echo Camp’s kitchen staff and a ride down the mountain in another bus, sneering at the hikers walking the easy trail up the mountain that was next to the road. We did have to hike around the base of Whiteface to reach our canoes, but we were full of energy again because we had climbed a CLIFF!
It rained all night and cleared up in time for our hike up Mount Algonquin. The second tallest peak in the park was a beautiful trek with a delightful perk. This was our last mountain, our last day, and it was the best one of all.
On either side of the trail, in full rich ripe glory, we saw blueberries. The trees were few, the bushes were all. There would be no wandering off the trail here; the entire mountain was covered in blueberry bushes. We swiped handfuls of them in passing, the plump berries bursting with sweet juice, filling more than our tummies. Sun-warmed berries, chirping birds and a bright blue sky. We were young, strong, healthy, and we had done more in one week than most people achieve in a lifetime.
This was Summer.
My last perfect summer, it turned out. The summer I strive to remember when I feel I can’t cope with one more day of adult life. I did something that summer, something no one else in my family could lay claim to: I climbed five of the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. The chubby, half-blind, asthmatic child had been strong and brave, helpful and knowledgeable.
I sometimes wish I could freeze Time to that moment, that Summer, when the filthy, wet, muddy and tired girls of Cabins Six and Seven stepped off the boats and returned to Echo Camp to the cheers and hugs of the younger kids. We felt like conquering heroes, we WERE heroes, and it was glorious! 😀