In July, an opportunity arose to camp with a friend for several nights on a quarter-acre island on Middle Saranac Lake in New York’s Adirondack Park.
My friend warned me that she didn’t do a lot on the island. We could kayak, cook, swim, read, nap, and stay up late by the campfire. If the wind whipped up, as it often does on Middle Saranac, kayaking was probably off the list, along with the campfire. If it rained, reading would be confined to various contorted positions in my tent.
Island living might be cozy and relaxing – or claustrophobic and boring. Was a quarter acre island big enough for a maniacal traveler?
After a day spent driving and packing up my kayak, I paddled across the lake, reaching the island at dusk. That first night, swimming in the dark beneath the Milky Way, the island hardly seemed claustrophobic. Here was an entire universe!
It took me a day or so to adjust to the idea that I had no place to go and nothing to do. The weather helped reinforce this nothing-ness, as the wind had picked up during the night. Tall white pines thrashed above the clearing where we had set up camp. Throughout the day, gray clouds threatened rain. On the western end of the lake, we could see gray sheets of rain falling, but in the end, only a few sprinkles blew over the island.
I covered the list of activities: cook, read, swim, nap. In the early evening, when the wind died down, I kayaked over to Hungry Bay, passing a few remote campsites and waving at a couple of people on shore. The exercise and the solitude felt good.
We built a fire and stayed up until midnight, on this island with nothing to do.
The next day, the lake was glassy, the wind almost non-existent. After breakfast, we pushed off in our kayaks and paddled west and then north towards Weller Pond, which is connected to Middle Saranac Lake by a narrow passage. En route, we passed a couple of occupied campsites, but mostly had the lake to ourselves, especially once we entered Weller Pond.
Back in 1931, writer Martha Eben came to Weller Pond to camp and stayed from late spring through the fall. Martha was an invalid, suffering from tuberculosis, when her Adirondack guide Fred Rice transported her to the campsite in a bed he’d fashioned inside his canoe. When they arrived at Fred’s camp, he installed her in a comfy bed set up beneath the pines.
Then in her early 20s, Martha had been suffering from tuberculosis since she was a child. Her family had sent her to Saranac Lake Village for rest and treatment at Edward Trudeau’s Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium. In this era before antibiotics, tuberculosis was progressive and deadly, but in the 19th century, physicians in Europe had learned that rest, isolation, and good nutrition could slow the progress of the disease and sometimes even cure it.
Martha had endured several surgeries (probably procedures aimed at collapsing a lung so that lesions and cavities could heal) as well as stays in other facilities. She finally decided that she’d had enough, and hired Fred Rice to take her to Weller Pond and take care of her in the wilderness. Her adventure was an extreme take on the idea of the sanitarium: that rest, fresh air, and wholesome food would bolster the body’s immune system to fight the infection.
At her campsite, Martha rested, read, and sat with Fred by the campfire. They weathered rainstorms, chilly nights and Fred’s generally bad cooking. Fred took her out in his canoe on fishing and animal-spotting expeditions. Martha learned to peel potatoes and gradually was able to take on some of the cooking.
By the time late fall arrived, Martha’s health was restored. Enamored with her simple existence at Weller Pond, Martha returned to the woods with Fred for six seasons (and eventually ended up spending winters in Saranac Lake Village with Fred and his wife). Ten years into her adventures, Martha learned that she was free of tuberculosis (although she died what we now consider the young age of 58 from congestive heart failure, a condition likely exacerbated by her damaged lungs).
In the 1952, Martha published The Healing Woods, the first of three books about her Adirondack experiences. What strikes me in reading Martha’s book is that she focuses on her adventures and not on her condition, which hangs in the background, sometimes limiting her activity but never her enthusiasm.
I’m sure Martha had her days when she felt tired and was tired of camping –- sitting out days of rain in which everything gets wet is tedious no matter how much you love the outdoors. But she omitted complaints and frustrations from her narrative, instead choosing to write about her discoveries and her wonder as she learns about life in the woods. She deliberately chooses to focus on the positive even if she sometimes felt negative.
The experience of the woods that Martha conveys is much the same as ours today. Weller Pond still feels remote and wild, removed from the hum of cars along Route 3 as it passes by Middle Saranac Lake. We see one other paddler, an ambitious guy intent on exploring every nook and cranny of the shore. Paddling through the lilies in the slough, we spy turtles lazing on rotting logs and hear redwing blackbirds singing.
On my third morning on the island, I woke up to a glassy lake. I had to go home, but could have stayed longer. Instead of doing nothing, I’d enjoyed three days of being more fully present in my experience. That’s island living, Adirondack style.
Sources and resources
The Healing Woods, by Martha Reben. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1952.
Saranac Lake Islands Campground, operated by the New York State Department of Environmental Protection, offers 72 boat-access campsites scattered on the islands and show of the Saranac Lakes.
For more on Martha Reben, see “Martha Reben” on Historic Saranac Lake.