Wednesday, January 27, 2010

We Were Here First...

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)


Unknown said...

Mr Jack "r":

your writing is so melodic, I was glued to every word until . . . the snake reared its head.
My uncle used to have Jeep collection. I remember a long time ago around 1958 we went to visit him and he drove us up the mountain on some trails in his Jeep something or other, which looked like the one in your photos. A few years ago I asked what happenend to the Jeep, and he said it was parked in the shed. And it was. Not fast, but unstoppable, sort of like your H2

bobskoot: wet coast scootin

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Bob Skoot:

In lieu of useful facts, the writer must use other techniques with which to sucker the gentle reader. This story was just one of some amazing things that happrened to Ihor and I.

By the way, the postman just delivered a package for me, that was apparently sent by you. I opene it and marveled at the contents. It will be the subject of my blog in two days.

Thank you for thinking about me.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad
Twisted Roads

BMW-Dick said...

I'm so glad I checked my computer this afternoon. I agree with bobskoot; this story kept me glued to every word. It was a delightful read, that resurrected memories of wonderful fishing experiences. As you know, I was raised in Brooklyn, NY, so unlike Bob, my uncle had neither a jeep nor a shed. He lived in a rent-controlled high rise and used the subway for transportation. Going fishing to him meant taking a trip to fish market in Sheepshead Bay on the unstoppable BMT.
My Grandfather, who also lived in a high rise(6 stories was high in those days) had a 1936 Chrysler in a shed behind some lady's house. He loved fishing and traveled as far as Montague at the end of Long Island and into Canada to fish.
Gramps bought me my first fishing rod and took me on a "Party Boat" sailing out of Sheepshead Bay. I still remember that first fishing trip as if it happened yesterday.
Thanks for writing this piece. It triggered some great memories.

Unknown said...

Jack "r":

excellent muse, to keep rotating the photos to keep us "hooked" and coming back for more.

When I saw that Item I immediately knew I had to purchase it for you, for your topcase. Take a look at the receipt, then the amount of freight to get it to you. I wasn't sure you were worth the $24.

bobskoot: wet coast scootin

sgsidekick said...

Jack: Thanks for the ride thru NY to your fishin' lake. It was a fun ride. I can remember visiting my dad's relatives in Upstate NY, so I could picture the hills rolling by, the colors and aromas. LOVE Ihor's 'stash! Can you help me talk Ron into growing his out like that?

redlegsrides said...

Hi Jack, though never been attracted to the manly art of fishing, you made it sound quite soothing and desirable an activity....though I was surprised to not see alcohol mentioned anywhere in the supply list.

As to defeating creatures with so many millions of years of adaptation with equipment costing $800-$900. Might I suggest grenades perhaps? Yeah, it's not sporting but they would have come in handy with that invading crowd of noisemakers as well.

Canajun said...

We have a 3-foot northern water snake that takes up seasonal residence on our dock. Note I said "on" and not "under". That gives him/her/it maximum sun exposure and keeps the riffraff away. And since my philosophy is if you don't bother me I won't bother you, I'm quite happy to step around him/her/it when the urge to go for a swim needs to be assuaged. Better than a German Shepherd and you don't have to feed it.

Conchscooter said...

You'd have been the guy who said he kept anchorages to himself by standing naked on the bow waving a bottle of rum and shouting "let's party" when another cruising boat approached his Eden.
I do not pit my wits against fish. Losing would be embarrassing and winning means cleaning the effing things.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Bob Skoot:

No ruse. I knew I had a better picture of Ihor from the last time I was up in the Adirondacks. I just couldn't find it when I laid out the story the first time.

Ihor and I have been fishing and camping hundreds of times. Hunting too. I shot my first pheasants with Mr. Sypko.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear SgSidekick (Tena)

Thanks for dropping by and dropping me a comment. You can tell you are from out of town. To any New Yorker who ever lived in the North Country, "Upsate" is anyplace north of Albany or above the east/west line of the New York State Thruway. Sventy miles north of the "City" is picnic country.

Ihor started growing that mustache in college. He was traveling through Eastern Europe at one point, on a train, and some women were laughing at his mustache, not realizing he spoke their language -- Ukrainian. He said something like, "Want to ride on it?"

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Charlie6 (Dom):

I expect to ride through Upsate New York this summer and I will be carrying a collapsible rod with some gear. There is nothing quite as relaxing sitting back in the shade, with a cool container of iced tea, waiting to see if a passing trout will hit your line. Nothing tastes like fresh fish right out of the water.

The only time I ever really enjoyed gin or rum when fishing was on the Outer Banks. Surf casting lends to itself to plinking a chair down at the water line, while sipping a Tom Collins.

Thanks for reading and for writing in.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Canajun:

Snakes don't really bother me, though I once came upon a rattler in the woods not far from where this story took place. The rattle snake went one way, and I went the other.

I have heard of other riders hitting snakes on the road, one of which wrapped around part of the engine.

Thank you for reading my stuff and for writing in.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Conch:

Over thirty years ago, Scott Volk, Bobby Pearson, and I hiked for over ten hours to reach a place called "Wallface Pond," in the heart of the Adirondacks High Peaks Region.

The place was utterly beautiful... but marshy. It had one campsite, which we quickly occupied. The chance of anyone lse coming in here was utterly remote. Yet we could hear multiple voices on the trail.

Scott and Pearson tied me to a tree, and I did all the animal sounds I knew. Two couples stepped out into the clearing and found me raving.

"Don't worry about him," said Scott. "We'll leave him tied for the night." Peason hid his face in a bandana because he was laughing so hard. The two couples left and camped on the edge on the marsh on the far side of the lake.

It was hysterical.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

cpa3485 said...

Enjoyed this story very much. Not much of a fisherman myself these days, but my parents used to love fishing, and many childhood vacations were spent in Minnesota (land of 10,000 lakes, or so they say, don't you know).
We would visit a different lake each day. One day we went to "Leech Lake" and it was very aptly named.
Our propeller became mired in some weeds, and I regrettably volunteered to jump in the water to free the propeller. Just in the water a few minutes, but had 10 to 12 leeches on me by the time I got out. I didn't die, obviously, but have never developed a love for leeches ever since. Not a fan of snakes either.
But there is something to say aboput eating a freshly caught walleye or trout.

Anonymous said...

Clarification by Ihor Sypko (sent to the author):

I let my lip grow in on Columbus Day 1973 in Hartford, Conn..

The stunning women who commented,
"Would you want to kiss and taste that?" were on a subway train in Prague. Since Helen (S/O) was next to me and I didn't want to get into a Czech argument or fight, I flashed them a smile and a nod. They got the hint and blushed brightly.

Czech women are some of the loveliest on Earth, as were these two. Helen thought the incident amusing. I get as much Czech as a Scotsman gets listening to conversations in Tennessee or Alabama, about 62%.

I should also mention that walleye are supposed to be delicious and are on the "Do Not Eat" list for a few ADK lakes. Too bad as I hooked one on Franklin Falls Flow on the summer fishing trip with Zmoda. The fight lasted 2 seconds with the line cut at the hook. Next time a wire leader will be employed.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear CPA3485 (Jimbo):

I seldom combine fishing with motorcycle riding because the guys I ride with do not fish, and becaue noe, here in Pennsylvania, the environment I like to fish in is not easily available.

I have heard it said by experts, that if you are not tangling your line, or getting "bird's nests, " nor snagging the bottom, than you are not fishing. I find leeches disgusting too. But nothing is as repulsive nor scary as finding yourself camping on the shore the day the larvae of the Dobson fly crawl out of the water and shed their skin.

Thanks for reading this story and for leaving a comment.

Fondest regaeds,
Jack • reep • Toad
Twisted Roads

ADK said...

Jack Riepe said...

The only time I ever really enjoyed gin or rum when fishing.......

Was when it was in a bottle.

Jack Riepe said...

Dear ADK (Chris):

With your riding season only eight months away, are you working on getting that piss-yellow fairing reepaired?

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Lance said...

Jack, I really enjoyed your installment. I was born in Poughkeepsie, and your story brought me back to the days we went camping and fishing in the lake of upper state NY. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

PS - Could you send me your book? I would love to read more from you. Thanks!

irondad said...

If it helps gets women to run out of the water in various states of undress, I may just have to adopt a water snake.

A quite enjoyable tale!

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Lance:

Thank you for the nice compliment. I learned to love the mountains of New York, especially the High Peaks region of he Adirondacks. There is history, culture, and real adventure there, whether you find it by bike or by canoe.

This story took place on the shores of Lake Skannatati, off Seven Lakes Drive, in Harriman State Park. This place is a far cry from the Adirondacks, but it is without a doubt pure wilderness compared to Central Park. I just wish folks coming uyp from New York City understood the whole "park" concept.

I got your email asking for a shirt and a book. Thanks for the order. (I have two speeds, slow and reverse.) I am lout of the shirt size you requested, but the book will be sent out on Monday. 9I have a bunch to send out.)

Once again thank you for the compliment. I deeply regret that too many of these stories are true.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

Jack Riepe said...

Dear IronDad (Dan):

As a BMW rider, I have a snake that encourages women to undress at the drop of a hat.

I originally wrote this piece in 2003. Even then it was 28-years-old. The dialogue with Ihor is almost word for word. We have been on trips together where virtually hour was drenched with comedy of some sort. Our last deer hunting trip, which involved have guides schlep our gear into the woods, was utterly hysterical.

I'm glad you liked this one.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad

classicvelocity said...

Dear Jack,

Another delightful read. Whether it is fishing, cycling, hiking, or motorcycling, we can all appreciate the value of solitude. Unfortunately, we probably all have experience with jerks and the inconsiderate. I enjoyed your vengeance as if it was my own.

Ps: Snake steering is a valuable art, and Ihor might want to think about consulting.

classicvelocity (Wayne)

Jack Riepe said...

Dear Classic Velocity (Wayne):

I'm delighted you liked the story. In truth, I have had some unusual times with friends of mine, which would have made great televison. There have been times when I have worked hard to be alone, and found myself surrounded by like minds, who made the solitude last. And I have been in places where all it too way three or four guys with a boom box, firecrackers, or a barking dog.

Thank you for reading and commenting on my bog.

Fondest regards,
Jack • reep • Toad