- Brian K. Mahoney
- It won't be long now till Steve Fisher arrives.
It was the last thing Steve Fisher said to us before powering away across the lake in his motorboat. We stood on the shore, watching him cut across the light chop, contemplating our next move and wondering who the hell Steve Fisher was.
We were on our annual canoe camping trip to Adirondacks. Every Labor Day weekend for almost two decades, some friends and I head up to Middle Saranac Lake and paddle across the big lake and into a remote pond, where we spend a few days sleeping in tents, swimming, lying about in hammocks, cooking over an open fire, telling stories both new and repeated, laughing until we cry, and being gobsmacked by the profusion of stars in a night sky mostly unspoiled by light pollution. Without cell service. Some of us even choose to leave our phones in the car. Some of us can’t handle that.
To be clear, we’re not roughing it. Everyone’s got an air mattress in their (capacious) tent. We bring camping shower bags that warm up the water for bathing. One year we brought out a case of Veuve Clicquot. Marcus roasted a whole suckling pig on one trip. We’ve made Croque Madame for breakfast and various meats with complicated sauces for dinner. This year, my brother Conor brought a cocktail bar set up, with little Nalgene bottles filled with various spirits, along with a variety of bitters, fruit, and herbs, as well as cocktail implements. A few years ago, we replaced the toilet seat in the outhouse at our favorite campsite. (Somehow, I got stuck with the unpleasant task of kneeling over the toilet in the outhouse for the removal/installation.)
But before any of this can happen, we need to paddle across the lake. We cram the boats full to bursting with all of our gear, then set out. It’s about a 90-minute trip from the put-in on South Creek out to Weller Pond. Some years, the lake is so calm the only disturbance on the surface of the water is the slice of our boats. Some years, you can rest a can of beer on the floor of the canoe as you paddle and not spill a drop.
This was not one of those years.
At the put-in, it was the usual chaos: Nine people porting all their belongings from the car to the dock and loading it all into canoes. It’s a lot of hustle and bustle without clear direction. It’s what I imagine a forced evacuation of an upscale apartment building might look like. Yes, darling, I grabbed Cards Against Humanity. Did you remember the dog’s allergy medication? I made the usual noises under my breath about us having too much gear and too much food, but was in no position to demand that people leave stuff behind. For 18 years we’ve packed too much stuff in and brought it back out.
The weather was suboptimal. The sky was leaden and it was cool, in the low ’50s, and was supposed to get close to freezing that night. And it was windy—we had glimpsed whitecaps on the lake as we drove by on our way to the put-in. As we were loading up, a motorboat piloted by a square-jawed guy wearing a Red Bull hat pulled in from the lake. He offloaded some gear, shot us a disapproving look, and headed back out to the lake. As we navigated the channel out to the lake, we passed some canoers on the way in. I asked one of the young dudes how the lake was. “It’s pretty rough out there,” he said. “We’re going to wait a few hours before we try and paddle across.” The woman in the front of his boat looked a bit shocked and frightened at the same time, like she’d narrowly avoided a horrific car crash. Amateurs, I thought to myself.
Exiting the channel, there’s about half a mile of open water to cross before the relative shelter of the bay on the other side. On warm, sunny days, this part of the lake would be filled with pontoon boats and water skiers. I saw no boats on the water today as I pointed my kayak into the whitecapping waves. Normally we stay relatively close to each other, but once we hit the whitecaps, everyone went their own way. James and Lauren set out straight across while everyone else took various shore-hugging courses, steering clear of the wind and whitecaps for as long as possible.
It was hard going, paddling into the teeth of the wind, and I sang most of the Simon & Garfunkel tunes I knew by heart to keep my spirits up. A trip across the lake that normally takes 30 minutes was a harrowing hour in length. When I looked around to see how everyone was faring, I couldn’t see Conor and Joe’s canoe. They had fallen behind when we first got on the lake, and I figured they were just hugging the shore. But then I saw the splashing back out in the middle of the open water. Conor and Joe had capsized. This had never happened before.
I paddled as quickly as I could to our designated halfway meeting point, Duane Island (so named for Mark’s beloved camping-loving Pomeranian). We emptied the remaining canoes and a bunch of us set off on a rescue mission.
By the time we got there, Conor was already on the shore of a nearby island. We paddled up. Joe was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s Joe?” I asked. Conor pointed out on the water. Joe was in a motorboat with a square-jawed fellow in a Red Bull cap, fishing flotsam out of the lake with a large net. After half an hour of canvassing the water where they capsized, Joe and the square-jawed fellow motored to shore.
The most strenuous part of the rescue mission was emptying the dozens of cans of beer from the bottom of the boat and refilling the coolers. And, luckily, all the Nalgene bottles of booze floated as well. What didn’t float were the two backpacks of clothes and gear. They sank straightaway. We’d need to go back to town for some warm clothes.
Before the stranger left, he lectured us for a solid 15 minutes on water safety. It was clearly a talk he’d delivered many times before. The speech’s crescendo was his recitation of this fact: He’d performed CPR five times, twice successfully. (Personally, not something I’d mention, but I was in no position to start giving notes to our rescuer on his savior patter.) And then he said, “I’m Steve Fisher. Google me.”
When we got into town to buy more gear after a few hours, I did Google Steve Fisher. Turns out that Fisher is one of the world’s premier whitewater kayakers, the kind that drops off 100-foot waterfalls and kayaks, whitewaters through previously unnavigable rivers like the Zambezi, and is mentioned in phrases like “cheated death again.” In 2013, he was named adventurer of the year by National Geographic. He’s even got a TedTalk about risk mitigation. But don’t take my word for it. Google Steve Fisher.