Did You See an Asian Man Hiking in the Woods?

While we had been in in the Adirondack Mountains at Tupper Lake since early June, it wasn’t until mid-July when I could finally hike alone. My wife encouraged me, so now at 1:30pm I felt nervous and excited—like the runner I used to be at the starting line before a distance race. I’d stuffed a knapsack with two water bottles, a hunk of aged cheddar cheese, and several Ritz crackers. For fishing, I’d added a small bag with hooks, split shot, and Panther Martin spinners. I’d decided to bring a five-and-a-half foot graphite rod with a reliable, old Garcia Mitchell 308 spinning reel. The forecast called for a 77% chance of thunderstorms, but on many days when rain was predicted, it simply hadn’t fallen. Still, out of caution I crammed a raincoat and rain pants into a compartment. Wearing hiking shorts, a t-shirt, a plaid shirt, and good hiking boots, I realized this was my first opportunity in over forty years to hike by myself in the mountains. At fifty-eight years old, I hoped I was up to the challenge.

Although I’d once run long distances, after a heart operation eight years before, I’d lessened any serious training, and sometimes, it seemed, my overall ambition. But by 2:30pm I parked at the gate for the Bog River Trail, my truck the sole vehicle. The brown and yellow trail sign read: Goodman Bridge 0.2 miles; Round Lake Outlet 1.8 miles; Winding Falls 2.8 miles; State Route 421-West Trailhead 5.3 miles. After texting a photo of the sign to my wife, I set off.

My plan was to try fishing and walking the 2.8 miles to Winding Falls, then retrace my steps, hoping that my endurance would be sufficient.

It only took a few minutes to cover the .2 miles to Goodman Bridge. Goodman Mountain had been named for Andrew Goodman, who had been a summer resident of Tupper Lake, but had been killed by Klansmen in Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer for attempting to advocate for Black voting rights. The bridge was named for Andrew’s father.

The naming of the bridge and mountain intrigued me, but also reminded me of the racial difference in predominantly white Tupper Lake. I hadn’t seen other Asian hikers during three previous hiking trips up the mountains with my daughter that June, so I didn’t anticipate seeing another Asian on the Bog River Trail. After crossing the Goodman Bridge, I sidestepped down to the wide and slow-moving Bog River. No fish darted out to strike the yellow Panther Martin spinner I cast out, and after a few minutes I moved on, the trail angling southwest like a well-worn passage between the Bog River to the east and an unnamed 1,800-foot mountain to the west. I forded small creeks where rocks and logs had been set down to make crossings easier. Thick mud covered the ground since rainfall had saturated everything. I have to be careful, I thought. I can’t slip or fall, especially hiking alone. 

As the trail skirted fern beds, my worries multiplied and my mind conjured bears. Two days before, my daughter and I had seen one lumber across the road in front of us with all of the immensity of a bulldozer—not far off on Rt. 421 on our way to swim at Horseshoe Lake. I had no bear spray, knife, or firearm now, so if I encountered a bear, my life could easily be over.

I thought again of being the sole Asian on the trail—if I somehow ran into other hikers, I’d certainly by the only Asian. Since early June, the only other Asians I’d seen in Tupper Lake were the family that owned and worked at the China Wok in town. A real estate agent had recently told me about how a local property owner whose housecovered with anti-Democratic signs and the Confederate flag—offended many people, but the owner couldn’t be forced to remove anything because of freedom of speech. Racism was obviously present in the far north; I had concerns about it, as do so many minorities in America, regardless of where they are. The fear mongering by Trump calling Covid-19 the “China virus” and the subsequent rise of assaults against elderly Asian Americans in New York and California, along with the the shootings of Asian women in Atlanta, also preyed upon my thoughts.

Fear didn’t dominate my entire being, though. No, part of the point of hiking for me was to try and leave all that behind, to truly escape the confines of race for a little while, and so I physically and psychologically kept moving on. I focused on how my feet, ankles, calves, knees, lower back, and shoulders felt. Over the years, aside from heart surgery, I’d had bone spurs removed and a torn labrum repaired in my right shoulder. My back had seized up and hampered me a few times walking before. And if my heart beat rapidly, I feared being in atrial fibrillation. Fortunately, for now, everything felt fluid and smooth, like my heart was a dependable engine in a reliable car.

Deer flies and horse flies buzzed my head like miniature drones, so I put on a baseball cap and logged at least a mile. As well-marked as the trail was, I still hoped that I was on the right trail and then felt grateful hearing the Bog River again. The trail descended and soon paralleled the Bog. I felt excited about fishing, but the river looked too shallow, the water tea-colored, tinged brown from decomposing organic matter. This was usually a sign of healthy water in the Adirondacks, but I’d been told the fishing in the Bog wasn’t very good. I still hoped to catch a trout or two, maybe even one to keep for dinner. If needed, I’d hike with the perseverance of a backcountry guide through the worst brush or bramble to reach a likely spot.

I heard faster moving water and then spotted a long, deep pool at least ten yards across with submerged rocks and a fast sluice of current spilling out. Since a fish could be lying in wait, my spirits rose. I stepped quietly onto rocks at the head of the pool, cast the Panther Martin spinner, and caught a small yellow perch. I sighed since perch weren’t what I was after. After several more casts, nothing else struck the lure, so the eerie possibility settled in my mind that due to the pool’s being right by the trail, the water was fished over already, any trout long since gone.

After several hundred more yards, a second pool presented itself right by the trail. When I cast, nothing pursued the spinner, so I hastened away, the trail veering from the riverbank to higher, more open ground. In time, I spotted a slow moving pool below that I could only reach by bushwhacking through high weeds and blown down trees. The pool looked good, filled with logs and rocks, so I pushed aside branches, climbed over tree trunks, and stepped carefully, making my way down.

As I cast by the shadowy depths near a large rock, a fish rose and swiped at my Panther Martin spinner. In that instant I recognized the hooked jaw and bright-colored spots of a native brook trout. Suddenly the fish freed itself from the hook as if it’d decided it didn’t want to be caught by a mere mortal like myself. Humbled, I thought at least I’d seen a trout in the Bog River.

Deer flies and horse flies pestered the top of my head and the back of my neck as I started off again, retracing my steps through the blow downs. Eventually the trail descended and stayed along the river, and after a time, I discovered a long deep pool fed by rushing water. My eyes read the current like a guide would have, gauging that the deeper stretch in the middle might hold a fish. Stepping carefully, I hopped from rock to rock until reaching a cluster of large boulders. As relief swept through me that I’d made it without falling, I sat on the flattest rock above the water. After I caught my breath and relaxed, the river rushing around me on all sides further soothed my mind. Due to the air currents stemming from the river’s passage, a constant wind filled the air around me, preventing any bugs from landing. Time seemed to slow; I felt a sense of peacefulness that I hadn’t felt during the entire past thirteen months since the Covid-19 pandemic had begun.

I smiled. Along with the sense of being enveloped by nature, I felt content. Somehow I need to retire early, I thought and could have sat there for an eternity.

After drinking half a bottle of water, I cast the Panther Martin into the run by the shore and let the spinner tumble with the current. Nothing bit, but then I cast directly downstream in front of me and retrieved the spinner through where the fast water flattened out. I felt the bump of a fish taking the lure, and the graphite rod bent sharply.

I saw the silver blur of a trout leaping out of the water. The fish splashed back down, zipped towards the river’s eastern bank, and the line tightened. I kept reeling and finally brought the trout to my feet, keeping it in the water. It was an eight-inch brook trout; I marveled at the silver, purple, red and yellow palette of its colors and carefully reached down and worked the hook from its mouth. As the fish swam off, I gazed around and felt giddy, marking the spot, hoping it would stay in my memory.

I felt satisfied and happy and sat absorbing the tranquility of the river’s splashes and watching the leaves being moved by soft breezes. The river, I thought, would remain there as long as it was left unharmed. I slowly worked my way back across the rocks to the shore, and, hiking again, I decided not to stop until I reached Winding Falls.

The trail broke away from the river and led up and down hills and through more broad fern glades, between white birch stands, and through majestic forests of balsam firs. After more than two miles, the trail returned to the river, which was now slower and wider now, obstructed in places by beaver dams.

Grasses rubbed against my shins above my hiking socks as I negotiated overgrown trail sections. I hoped there wasn’t poison ivy. The river narrowed and soon my ears discerned the roaring sound of tumbling water—it had to be the waterfall.

I spotted the falls to the south. The trail curved around the falls, though, and I wanted to see them up close. I reached a sign that read it was 2.8 miles back to Goodman Bridge and State Route 421, and 2.5 miles on the Winding Falls Trail to the State Route 421 West Trailhead. Checking the time, I saw that it was 5:30pm, and realized there was no cell phone signal. I told myself to be mindful because darkness fell at around 8:00 pm. The rarity struck me of how I still hadn’t seen another human being; part of me felt safe due to the solitude, but it’d taken three hours to reach the falls. Still wanting to see them up close, I backtracked and found a worn side path.

The spur cut closer to the Bog River directly above the falls where the water churned, and soon I stared from a rocky crag overlooking the falls at tons of water cascading eight feet down. My ears heard only the din of the endless torrent. Caution pinged inside me; careful to not stand too close to the crag’s edge, I felt insignificant, there for only a short time on the planet while the falls had been plunging sharply downward for a millennium.

To my left, I noticed two smooth memorial stones. One read, Dad There is Never Enough Time, the other, PA Memories Never To Be Forgotten. Both markers were for a man named Hebe Costello who had leased a cabin nearby until he passed away. It felt easy to intuit how someone would want to be buried there, perhaps with ashes interred or scattered in the currents, or how the family had wanted to leave the memorial stones there for perpetuity. I’d later see in writings about the falls, and on maps, how some called the spot Pa’s Falls. The stones made the overlook feel solemn and more cherished, like a sacred space. The falls beyond the gravesite poured down sharply to the southeast in a level trough, and then came a second vertical drop, the falls spilling on an eastern course down a large granite hill. Returning to the side path, I descended to the base of the falls where I cast the Panther Martin spinner but had no strikes. Fishing didn’t matter so much; the sun was lowering at what seemed like a faster rate. My phone revealed it was 6:00pm. Why is there never enough time for so many of us in the wilderness? I thought. Our journeys are always too brief. While the Greenland Shark or the Giant Tortoise can live for hundreds of years, we’re on limited time.

I tugged the rain pants out of my knapsack and pulled them over my shorts so I could hike without worrying about walking through the overgrown sections of the trail. I regretted not having better more breathable hiking pants. Common sense told me to rehydrate; I finished the first bottle of water.

I figured it would be best to hike straight out. My wife would be concerned despite how I’d told her I might not be back until dark. Setting out with a full stride, and since the air still held the heat of the day, I quickly grew warmer, perspiring more.

As much as I wanted to hike non-stop, after half a mile, rounding a bend along the river, I halted, sensing eyes were upon me. Then I saw a beaver was watching me, its head and back floating above the surface. We stared at each other. I remembered hearing how beavers could actually become aggressive. Once when I was fishing at Lake George, a beaver had slapped its tail repeatedly as I steered my boat too close to its thatched den on the eastern shoreline. I’d also heard that beavers preferred not to be seen and would always submerge to seek cover. But as I brought out my cell phone to take a photo, the beaver remained motionless in front of me, not seeing me as a threat, but as an object of curiosity. We kept starting at each other, as if we each knew no harm existed between us. I stood outside of time, caught up, appreciatively sharing the woods with this other animal. When the beaver finally swam away, I videotaped it for a long while since it moved slowly, staying above the surface. Did I know how lucky I was to see such a creature behaving without fear? I knew. Then I started walking once more, my concern about the sun going down returning; maybe I’d lingered too long. I thought I could hike a mile in half an hour, though, which would put me back at the trailhead around 7:30pm.

My legs and shoulders felt sore. Fatigue, after such a strenuous afternoon, was catching up with me. The rain pants, although keeping my shins from being irritated by grasses and brambles, were retaining warmth.

I kept on, but several uphill stretches significantly winded me. My heart, I realized, was beating fast. Since my breaths were more labored, I felt older, suddenly more vulnerable. I pressed on, not wanting to falter, but with each passing step my feet felt heavy, not as easy to pick up, and upon cresting a long hill, I attempted to hike with a fuller stride, but my legs refused. Lactic acid, I thought, had accumulated, weakening my calves and hamstring muscles. The long hill had significantly diminished me, and then on a short flat stretch that should have been easy to traverse, my left foot didn’t step high enough and caught on a tree root.

Damn. I fell hands and face first, at least, but with a full body sprawl. Picking myself up, I sat and felt stunned but took inventory. My hands were scraped, but I hadn’t injured a knee or ankle—no broken bones hindered me, as well—yet at the same time, I thought that if I’d hurt myself badly in any other way, I was nearly two miles from the trailhead. Was I too old to hike alone? If I became hurt, out of cell phone range, how long would it be until my wife summoned DEC rangers, and the call would go out, Did you see an Asian man hiking in the woods?

I opened the second water bottle and drank half of it. I stood, started walking again, and felt glad that I seemed to be all right. As I passed through parts of the forest with thicker balsam firs, the light was dimmed so sunset felt more imminent. My heart rate was still fast, my breaths strained. Keep going, I thought. But at least I was going.

The trail paralleled the Bog River for a while. At a slow section, I stopped and ate some of the cheese and crackers that were in my knapsack. What a strange thing, I thought, to be eating sharp cheddar aged 7 years and to be simultaneously battling exhaustion.

I covered more ground and took out my phone and saw a text from my wife; somewhere, I’d gotten back into range. Are you alright? she was asking. I texted back that I was fine and on my way out. She texted back, Okay. 

Was I fine?

The trail swung northeast away from the river. After walking for a long while, I realized my breathing had settled down, and I was maintaining a steady pace, as if I’d picked up a second wind after four a half miles of hiking. I’d been smart to rehydrate and eat a little. As tired as I felt, I thought, This isn’t so bad.

I still hadn’t seen anyone else. The woods remained like another country, and I realized not a drop of rain had fallen all afternoon; the weather reports had been wrong again. Since the river wasn’t audible, and even with trail markers in sight, I hoped once more that I was heading in the right direction, as if I could have somehow turned onto the Round Lake Outlet Trail. I felt like any kind of mistake having gone so far would put me at a great risk. But then I noticed a birch tree that had fallen to the side of the trail, and perceiving that it looked familiar, I knew I was okay. Deer flies still dive-bombed around my head; I swatted one from my neck, and then reaching where a small stream cut through the muddy trail, I stepped carefully across on wet rocks, trying to avoid soaking my boots.

As I returned through more fern groves, along the side of the unnamed 1,800-foot mountain, I questioned once more what I’d do if a bear—or worse yet a bear with cubs—interrupted my private quest, this solo expedition playing out on a post middle-age scale. Would I equip myself with bear spray next time? I’d hiked for years as a teenager in the Adirondacks before moving away without thinking about needing any kind of bear deterrent, but since then people had encroached too much on the forests, leaving wild animals with not enough land of their own. My supposedly more progressive older generation hadn’t treated the planet any better than past generations. And we’d been worse, with global warming and its onslaught of hurricanes and droughts and wildfires now occurring regularly across the country, so I thought I needed to become even more vocal in my support for reforms.

Now since my heart rate had slowed, and considering my age, I judged that I was fine. No chest pains of any sort slowed or deterred me. My wind was still manageable. I could certainly still hike alone. I kept walking, and for a long while, I felt the pleasurable sensation of moving across the earth under my own power, like any other creature out in the wild. I felt grateful that I could still be like a deer or antelope, or become calmer in the middle of the river, or commune with a beaver in another kind of quiet. Sweat soaked my t-shirt and shorts and the lining of the long rain pants, but the last leg of the hike was all that remained.

I still have some solo hiking left in me, I thought with a measure of satisfaction. I felt glad that my wife hadn’t needed to send out any kind of alert. I remembered now that I’d fallen before while hiking when I was much younger, and I’d picked myself up then and felt fortunate to be uninjured. Who was to say that falling now should discourage me? I might, I thought, need some hiking poles for stability in the near future, and that wouldn’t be the worst thing. What the mountains offered alone—the fishing, the solace, the time away— was still more than enough to outweigh any risks or perils.

And the Adirondacks still offered a respite for me from the outside world’s pressing issues of race and culture; it was a relief knowing there was a place where I could peacefully hike and fish alone. I thought, however, of how I also wouldn’t mind seeing more people of color in these same woods; I didn’t need to be the only one. These days prospective hikers of color only needed to study maps or consult hiking books like I had to find out where to go, and of course there was the internet, with its web pages telling all. We didn’t need to wait to be invited or made to feel welcome by anyone; no, I would have never hiked or fished anywhere if I’d waited for that. But for any first time hiker, I’d recommend going with someone.

When I reached the Goodman Bridge, it was 7:15pm. I figured I’d covered 2.8 miles in just over an hour, taking a little additional time to commune with the beaver and then pick myself up after falling. I shucked off the rain pants and saw fish of some sort were rising, feeding on insects on the Bog River’s smooth surface maybe forty yards to the north. I made a mental note of the location, and after stuffing the rain pants back in my knapsack, drank the last of my water. The sun was getting low; stillness predominated the land. I took in the remaining blue of the sky and beheld the dense white clouds, and hearing frogs peeping everywhere, I wanted to hold such a feeling of being surrounded by only nature within me like a shield, or carry it as a reminder of how there are spaces without contention.

At the trailhead, my truck waited, undisturbed, on the other side of the gate. I still hadn’t seen another person the entire time. Where else could I find this depth of solitude? There were many outdoor spaces, I knew, but since this region was where I’d grown up fishing I felt extremely fortunate that I could temporarily traverse it again. I vowed to return and hike more, hopefully a substantial number of miles, for as long as my mind and body would allow.



Image: Winding Falls, photo provided by the author.

Allen Gee
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