Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Night in Panther Gorge

By Ira Smith

From early morning in late October, 1983, I trekked day-long from St. Hubert’s on NYS Highway 73 over the summits of Colvin and Blake, across the land bridge between Lower and Upper Ausable Lakes, up onto Bartlett Ridge by the base of Haystack and down deep into Panther Gorge where the sun sets early.

I arrived at the log lean-to by Marcy Brook just at dusk expecting a lonely evening. Two young men, Tom and Ed, from Connecticut, had arrived moments before – the first humans I had seen since I left St. Huberts. They had already gathered wood and were about to make a fire. Their space blankets were spread on the floor and Ed offered me a spot on one. When coffee was ready, he poured me a cup. He reminded me of my son, Bert, especially the way the fire cast his facial profile on the wall and the way he went about making camp.

Tom and Ed cooked on a gas burner; I left mine home because I couldn’t get it to work. Being ravenous, I ate my can of corned beef hash cold rather than wait to heat it on the wood fire. While eating Tom pointed over my head, “Look up there on the shelf!” Someone had left three fingers of Black Velvet whiskey in a quart bottle. “Do you think it’s real?” I jumped up to cautiously check if a previous camper was playing a nasty trick. “It is real!” Imagine a St Bernard finding us this far from civilization. After supper, we split it three ways, savoring each sip by the fire and sharing our ambitious plans for the next day – they, climbing Haystack and me, climbing Grey and Marcy and going out to Heart Lake near Lake Placid to be picked up by my wife and mother.

For the rest of the evening, I focused on the presence of Marcy Brook. This narrow boulder-filled stream amid leaning alders with entangled high-water debris sang with guttural resonance. Though the sound level was substantial, her inner voice crept into my subconscious as I lay relaxed in my sleeping bag. Our shirts and shoes were hung on nails in the rafters. The sputtering fire, kept alive by gusts of wind, made their shadows dance on the glowing ceiling while whiffs of hemlock waft by.

Marcy Brook – unspoiled by man, her only intersection with humanity was the trail crossing near the lean-to. Her birth from rivulets of pure water on the headwall of the gorge and her quiet demise in Marcy swamp far below, gave me a sense of something continually passing mingled with something ever present.

I yearn to return to Panther George, this time without Black Velvet, and lie alone beside Marcy Brook in the solitude of the night, to listen to her without distraction, to hear her whisper as she calls the past into account, to reveal things that have changed and the things that must remain unchanged.

“All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they will return again,” The conflicted Soloman says, “This is meaningless!” The Proverb says: “Blessed is the man who finds wisdom.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

Philosopher William James wrote to his wife on July 19, 1898 regarding his night’s stay in Panther Gorge:

“It was one of the happiest lonesome nights of my existence, and I understand now what a poet is. He is a person who can feel the immense complexity of influences that I felt, and make some partial tracks in them for verbal statement. In, point of fact, I can’t find a single word for all that significance, and don’t know what it was significant of, so there it remains, a mere boulder of impression.”

From Philosopher’s Holiday
The Adirondack Reader
Paul Jamieson, Editor

Ira Smith © 2010


  1. Ira,
    Thanks for taking me along in your backpack. What a trip! I loved the way you used so many senses to tell the story - the cold canned hash, the hot coffee, the smooth Black Velvet; the visual of the shadows dancing "on the glowing ceiling"; the "whiffs of hemlock" wafting by.

    Your description of Marcy Brook: "Her birth from rivulets of pure water . . . and her quiet demise in Marcy swamp below, gave me a sense of something continually passing, mingled with something ever present" was simply beautiful.

    The piece flows so well from the single quest in the beginning to the joined easy camaraderie, between like-minded strangers in the middle, back to the solitary intense focus on the moment at the end. It is echoed at the end with the "circle of life" passage from Solomon. One can easily feel and understand the genuine yearning of the writer to return to this place full of mystery and delight. Through your writing I'm beginning to realize what I've missed all these years by not hiking, camping etc. - maybe it's not too late!

  2. You transported me to the quiet wilderness. Thank you. -Jan

  3. What a lovely piece Ira. Alone does not mean lonely. To return via memory is also wonderful. Describing the solitary walk and the naturalness of the area was very real. We sometimes forget what quiet is. A pleasure to read. Sharon

  4. Ira - I was blessed to have walked multiple trails with you. Years have blurred the memories, long sense shelved. However your words have helped me to blow off the dust and reenter sacred times. I was too young to truly appreciate the depth of the adventures. Missing details for youthful exuberance. Thank you for the journey back and reigniting a flood of memories. This time with a clearer appreciation. - Joey Bigalow