There is nothing that suggests order and tranquility in the world like a properly loaded motorcycle. The perfect balance of panniers and tightly lashed gear hint at competence, drive, and strong organizational ability. My first bike always looked like the delivery vehicle from hell’s flea market. There was crap lashed all over it whenever I had someplace to go and stuff to carry.
This early Saturday morning in April, 1977 was no exception. I was out for a day trip and wasn’t carrying much, but the backpacks I had to put it in were either too small or way too large.
The day’s objective was to ride my bike to a pretty little lake about 70 miles distant, where I would meet one of my closest friends (Ihor Jaroslaw Sypko) and spend five or six hours fishing for perch or small-mouth bass. Fishing is equal parts philosophy, natural science, personal reflection, and rehabilitation for the soul. It is the pursuit of thinking men that occasionally results in a fabulous dinner derived from the most rewarding techniques of the hunter/gatherer. Fishing is the ability to overcome the sensory perception of an adversary that has been more than 500 million years in evolution — relying on nothing more than $800 or $900 worth of highly specialized gear.
I had condensed the gear I wanted into a little pile of odd-sized plastic boxes, which in turn fit neatly into the confines of a battered pack. The vest was a different story. It had a dozen pockets on it, each bulging with stuff deemed “essential.” Folded, the garment became an irregular lump of material that resisted being shoved into the pack. It was slightly less so rolled, but the pack took on a shape that could only be described as “haphazard,” which was not the image I wanted to convey.
“Screw the image,” I thought to myself. “I am what I am.” The sissy bar on the back of the 1975 Kawasaki H2 now held a beat up pack that looked like a pillowcase sporting straps and buckles, a three-foot-long canister that contained two lengths of a fishing rod, and a trout net. At the last minute, I bungeed my old fishing hat to the rig as well.
It was 4 am when I left the house, an apartment on Boulevard East, in Guttenberg, NJ. Looking down from the cliffs that ring Manhattan on the west, it was like someone had pressed the “mute” button on “The City.” New York may be the “city that never sleeps,” but it gets a little drowsy about an hour before first light.
The H2 started like a velociraptor clearing its throat. A reassuring cloud of blue smoke issued from all three pipes, hanging in the cool morning air about a foot above the ground. I snicked the bike into gear, and headed off on the twisty, three-mile stretch at the top of the cliffs, before picking up the highway at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, and heading north.
Route 17 in New Jersey is a meat-grinder of a highway lined with strip malls and abrupt feeder lanes which can make for an interesting ride, but one devoid of any visual stimulation worth a damn. I had covered this stretch hundreds of times, and it was traffic free at this hour of the day. The sky was just starting to lighten as I passed through Paramus. I was tempted to twist the throttle wide open, but I kept coming across police cruisers (looking for the last of the Friday night drunks), and changed my mind.
Crossing the state line at Suffern, NY was like stepping through a trap door. Little mountains popped out of the terrain, creating valleys lined with villages that still held their colonial charm. Thin, tilted headstones in churchyards offered mute recommendation to sermons delivered under stone steeples still straight and true. Route 17 is the main street in places like Sloatsburg and Tuxedo Park, but it had real personality 30 years ago.
I would be on time for meeting Ihor, who came from another direction, driving a 1948 Willy’s Overland Station Wagon.
(Above) Here is a beautifully restored Willys Overland Station Wagon that was like Ihors. This one is definitely not his (which was yellow and black). This car is owned by C. Stevens. Picture taken from the Internet.
Sixty or seventy miles north of New York City lies a chain of lakes and forests strung together in a beautiful necklace of state parks, that stretch west from the majestic Hudson to the bucolic and creek-like Ramapo River. It is a cathedral of woodland repose for three seasons out of the year. Deer, fox, turkey, and bear ghost through these hardwood-covered foothills of the Catskills, and from anyplace high, you can see ridge-top fold into misty ridge-top.
This heaven becomes hell in the summer though.
Thousands of folks (and I do mean thousands) from the Big Apple converge on this place every summer afternoon, with boom boxes, tons of litter, and absolutely no respect for the setting nor anything else. The noise level alone is frightening.
At the time of this story, Ihor (pronounced EEE-whore) and I were still city boys. Though avid campers, we had just discovered the true religion of fishing and thought nothing of the two-hour pre-dawn drive (ride) to spend the day casting in comparative solitude.
The solitude was temporarily guaranteed by the cool, rainy nature of spring, and New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation, which declared these lakes could only be used for fishing. This guarantee was upheld by two rangers responsible for about 1200 square miles of park. Remarkably, they could hold the crowd at bay, when they were there. Their job was easy on chilly spring days. Ihor and I were determined to squeeze every last hour out of the solitude season.
Yet the weather turned unseasonably warm on this particular day and the crowd arrived weeks ahead of schedule.
The lake we favored covered about 50 acres. There was a walk of just under a mile to reach the far end of it, which offered a huge boulder to sit on and to cast from, within the shade of the trees, but without the interference of their branches.
We were in mid-cast on this boulder when an apparent Mardi Gras burst from the trees. At least twenty people equipped for a major party set up bar and churned into the water not 50 feet from our lines -- barely separated from us by a stand of birches. Their boom box was rippling the coffee in my thermos cup.
Ihor Jaroslaw Sypko —archaeologist, sportsman, man of letters — my friend and dietician for 35 years. To quote P.G. Wodehouse, "We were boys at school together." Here we see Ihor with a beautiful trout he seduced from the AuSable River using a light rod.
My friend is the classic sportsman in every respect. I've never known him to swear nor to even raise his voice. Rolling his eyes and reeling in his line, Sypko's expression conveyed heartfelt disgust. There were seven big lakes within a few miles of each other. The crowd could have gone anyplace. Instead they came straight to us.
About this time I glanced to the side of our rock, and noticed a sinister-looking copper shape coiled in the shallows.
"Look at this snake," I said. "I think it's a deadly swamp adder."
"It's probably a stick," said Sypko.
"Well the stick just flicked its tongue at me."
"What kind of head does it have?" asked Sypko.
"What do you mean what kind of head does it have? Do I look like a hat salesman to snakes? It has the flicking kind of head common to the deadly swamp adder."
Sypko leaned over edge, studied the reptile below, and announced: "Common is right. It's a common water snake. Round eyes and a slim head that's nearly under water. Poisonous snakes hold their heads high in the water."
The northern watersnake... This one is destined for Congress. Photo by the University of North Carolina, via the internet.
"I once read that deadly swamp adders are often identified as common water snakes," I said authoritatively, still attempting to compete with Sypko’s wealth of wood lore.
"There is no such thing as a deadly swamp adder, certainly not here. That's a common water snake. It will swim away with its head nearly underwater."
To prove his point, my friend drizzled a few twigs down the side of the boulder, which started the snake (head practically submerged), out into the lake.
"See," noted Sypko. And then he got an odd look in his eyes. It was the sort of look I imagine Jack the Ripper got when shaving.
Adjusting the trajectory of several more twigs and little pine cones to hit the water just right, Sypko steered the swimming snake around the spit of trees and into the adjacent festivities as if by remote control.
Nothing happened for a few seconds. Then the Mardi Gras exploded into a stampede. Twenty people came screaming out of the water -- many in various stages of undress -- barely pausing to grab chairs, towels, and shoulder-mounted stereo equipment in their flight to the road.
The following silence was both immediate and stark, like suddenly being thrust under a bell jar.
"Suppose that snake had been a deadly swamp adder," I asked.
"We were here first," said Sypko.
"Actually, the snake was here first."
"Then remind me to bring a mouse for our host next week," said Sypko, casting a line into the lake.
©Copyright Jack Riepe 2003
AKA The Lindbergh Baby (The Mac Pac)
AKA The Vindak8r (Motorcycle Views)
AKA The Chamberlain — PS (With A Shrug)