I stepped out onto my deck this morning, bird feeders in hand, and was met with the cool, crisp air that is common on an early November morning. The sun was low on the horizon, and the woods were relatively quiet. The smell of wood smoke from a neighbor’s chimney floated on the ever so slight morning breeze. It is the sort of morning that transports me back to another time and place.
Once more I was back at Raccoon Lake, our home away from home for the first two decades of my life. Our little trailer tucked into the woods of Parke County, Indiana was our weekend retreat, and the cooler temps of autumn did not discourage us in the least. Gone were the hours of fishing and boating, but in their place was hiking the woods and enjoying the sights and smells of autumn. The fragrance of fallen leaves was ever present, even though we had thoroughly raked our own lot, either pushing the leaves deeper into the woods, or piling them in long rows along the gravel road to be burned. What fun I had setting match to dried leaves and watching as the pile began emitting its heavy smoke before finally erupting into flame. As the mound shrank, and the brown and golden leaves were replaced with black, charred skeletons with red glowing edges, I would take the rake and stir the pile to bring the unburned fuel to the surface to mix with air and again burst into flame. Often burning leaves would cling to the tines of my rake, and I felt like a Greek or Roman god delivering fire at the end of his mighty staff.
Early in the morning I would sneak down to the lake itself to glimpse life on the water. Often a thin layer of fog hovered just above the calm surface of the water, and from it emerged the shadows of migrating Canada geese and small coots. I was a city boy, and geese were far less common in those days, so to watch these beautiful birds drift lazily over the water, or hear a small formation honking overhead, tracing a “V” in the sky before descending, noisily and making a splashing touchdown on the lake thrilled me. Interspersed with the large silhouettes of the geese were the small, black coots. I would see them in small numbers during the summer, but they were more concentrated at this time of year. Occasionally, one would “run” across the water’s surface in an attempt to become airborne. Although the birds were much closer to me at this time of year, they were still rather skittish and I had to approach slowly and crouch behind exposed tree stumps in order not to force them farther across the lake.
The stumps were exposed at this time of year because the lake would be partially drained each fall. Raccoon Lake is a man-made reservoir that is part of the flood control for the Wabash River, so each fall the water level was dramatically lowered so the area could function as a receptacle for potential floodwaters later in the season. This process opened up an entirely new world for me to explore. The various inlets, or bayous as we called them, which had been broad expanses of deep water all summer, were now no more than streams cutting through muddy ravines. Trunks of trees sacrificed when the area was first flooded to create the lake still clung to the soil, their roots now fully exposed. In other areas, the ground was strewn with large slabs of sandstone and shale. The island which sat in the middle of our bayou was at this time of year, a sandy rise in the middle of a muddy field.
Using our hill as the starting point I could go either to the northeast or to the southwest along the lake’s border. My preferred trail was the one going to the northeast, and that was always my first exploration of the year. Starting from our trailer, I would head down the steep, muddy bank which led to a small rivulet of water. In the spring, this stream would be alive with spawning shad, but at this time of year it was quiet. Anxious to begin my trek, I first had to overcome the most difficult obstacle of the entire hike which was the ground itself. The soil, having soaked up water for nine months of the year, was a quagmire consisting of soft clay and areas that were akin to quicksand. I would hope for a cold morning where the ground would be frozen enough to support my skinny, ten year old frame, but that was rarely the case. More than once I became trapped in the muck, only to have it pull my boot or shoe from my foot. This usually occurred after convincing myself I could mentally make my body lighter as I tiptoed across the soft, grasping clay. I would imagine myself growing lighter as if filled by helium, and as I stepped forward I was positive I was not resting my full weight on my foot. Then I would sink halfway to my knees and have to struggle mightily to escape. I guess my repeated failures in this mental exercise were one of my first lessons in physics, but apparently I was a slow learner since I applied the same approach year after year. Try as I may, I could rarely find a point at which I could cross the stream, so my solution was to follow the shoreline until it reached the woods, then trace the stream into the woods until it became narrow enough to jump or a fallen tree provided a natural bridge. Then I would return through the woods to the far side of the inlet where I would again emerge on the shoreline. As long as I stayed with the high ground, I could navigate this area of the cove.
My first destination was the island that sat in the middle of our inlet. Because it was inaccessible the rest of the year, the island always held a particular fascination with me. To call it an island is to be rather generous. It was a small sandbar on which a handful of willows and grasses had taken root. What my sister and I found particularly interesting there were the large, gelatinous blobs that hung from the branches which had previously been submerged. We did not know what these were, but we mistakenly assumed they were collections of frog eggs. In reality, what they were were bryozoans, a community of invertebrate animals, known also as “moss animals,” which have ciliated tentacles and feed by filtering plankton from the water. Regardless of their true identity, they were exotic and always a prized find. Sadly, over the years, the bryozoans disappeared, and as erosion increased with boat traffic, so did the island itself.
Having explored the island, I began making my way around the lake’s perimeter. Some of the muddiest hiking was this first inlet until I reached the rocky point jutting out into the water. Here was where the chunks of sandstone and limestone began. I scanned the surface of each stone, looking for fossils of the prehistoric ocean and tropical landscape which had once existed here. Sometimes I would uncover a piece of coral. At other times, a chunk of petrified wood might be exposed. Likewise, ripple patterns of the shore of some long forgotten lake could be found frozen in stone. On breezy days, I would sometimes stack the rocks to make a small fortress where I could hide from the cold wind racing across the remaining water and relax in the warm sunshine.
Leaving the rocky area, I retreated into the maple grove that had sprung up on the point. In the spring, when the water was high and the crappies were spawning, this was a favorite fishing hole. However, at this time of year, my interest lay not in the shoreline, but in the foundation of an abandoned farmhouse now consumed and hidden by the young trees. There is a frustrated archeologist in me, and I never pass up an opportunity to explore the “ruins” of a past life when they present themselves. Very little remained of this home beyond a foundation wall, some old fencing and the occasional cracked drainage tile. So for me, it was the darkness of the woods and the ghostly presence of a long, lost family that created the attraction.
Emerging on the other side of the maple grove I continued on with my shoreline exploration. The ground was generally drier in this area, and it allowed me to get a little closer to the water. My focus from this point on was to search for hidden treasures among the gnarled roots of the surviving stumps and the branches of newly toppled trees. These were the hidden hazards that had claimed many a fisherman’s line the prior summer. I would look for a flash of fishing line waving in the breeze or emerging from the surrounding sand. Following this, I would trace it into the depths of the stump until I could locate its “business end.” Here I might only find a couple of lead sinkers and a rusted hook, but if I were lucky I might stumble upon a fancy lure or new jig. My tackle box was full of these sacrificed artificial baits, and I believe I still have a few tucked away 40 years later. The only problem was how to transport them home if I had a particularly successful hunt. The treble hooks would embed themselves into my pockets or canvas knapsack, but somehow I managed.
|Some of my "found" lures|
|A closer look|
Another treasure for which I was constantly on the hunt, but much less successful, was lost anchors. The same clay which would sometime claim my shoe would also on occasion refuse to give up a lead anchor which had buried itself a little too deeply. More commonly it would again be a submerged tree stump into which the falling anchor had drifted and wedged months before that held the prize. So every scrap of nylon rope emerging from the sand had to also be explored, and in doing so I was able to add a couple of anchors to our collection over the years.
Other discoveries were more serendipitous. These included lost sunglasses, cigarette lighters, a lost (but empty) wallet, a nice skinning knife and sheath which I still own, and what I seem to recall as being a small animal pickled in a jar. The latter may be one of those memories that the brain creates or expands upon over the years, but I can clearly see in my mind a jar with what looked like a baby monkey stuffed inside. Perhaps someone had tossed out an old biology specimen jar, or maybe a container of some foodstuff had fallen into the water and the material inside had molded creating a fuzzy form. As for myself, I choose to believe I found a pickled monkey.
|My skinning knife|
Situated a couple of points over from our trailer was a hillside containing houses and apartments. For a few years a family with a black lab resided there, and she would frequently join me for my walks. Moseying down from grassy hill, she would come up to me with wagging tail and beg to be petted. I would look for a stick to toss her and she would obligingly retrieve it, living up to the characteristic of her breed. Together we would proceed on, exploring rocks and stumps together until the bank became too steep to safely traverse. Here I would do an about face and return home, leaving my walking companion back at her home.
The hike in the opposite direction was just as enjoyable, but usually much less productive. Here the shoreline was nearly entirely rocky and very few stumps existed to explore. I seem to recall a greater collection of fossils from this path, but few finds beyond that. But it always felt like new territory to me, and with new territory comes the promise of new discoveries. That is a feeling that still motivates me. Just walking down a new street in a familiar neighborhood gets my heart pumping a little bit faster.
|Another piece of an a prehistoric tree|
As the season became colder, our visits became fewer, but we were fortunate enough to return a few times during the dead of winter. Now the lake could be approached without the threat of becoming mired in clay and muck. I could now explore the frozen lake, although that was only when I was convinced the ice was several inches thick. One winter, I found a pair of old ice skates in the basement and took them with me to the trailer. My plan was to clear an area of ice and skate on the frozen lake. I made my way out to the small patch of ice that remained in our bayou and using a broom swept away the snow. Conveniently located at one edge of the clearing was a stump, and it was there I sat to switch from boots to skates. Having secured my ice skates, I stood up from the stump to get a feel for the ice. Immediately I began moving away from the stump, although I had not made a move. In clearing the ice, I had failed to notice that the water level below the ice had at some prior time dropped, and the entire lake surface had cracked and buckled inward slightly. The stump had been at the high end of a very large, slanted slab of ice and as soon as I stood up, I began sliding downhill. I did not know how to ice skate, and I certainly didn’t know how to skate uphill, so no matter how fast I moved my feet, I continued to slide backwards away from the stump and my boots. I suspect in the end, I just fell over and climbed my way back up hill where I forever gave up my dream of skating on the lake, slipped on my boots and trudged back to the trailer.
Yet I still found other ways to enjoy the frozen lake. Once I followed some ice fisherman to what was nearly the center of the lake one year. They walked single file, each tethered to the other as they tested the ice. Once in the center, they used an auger to drill a large hole through nearly a foot of ice. What I remember most about that day is the low, moaning of the ice, and the hollow yet thunderous sounds it would make as it cracked and shifted. It was an eerily beautiful sound, and although there were numerous fissures running in all directions over its surface, the frozen lake was in no danger of opening and swallowing me.
Once spring returned, I usually made a repeat trek around the lake’s perimeter before the water started to once again rise. I knew there were no more treasures to be found, but spring fever urged me on. I watched the trees bud and the fish return to the shallows. Soon the lake would rise, the temperature would warm, mushrooms would sprout, wildflowers would explode on the hillsides and another year of adventure would begin anew.
As with the lake, there is a natural ebb and flow to life. I have experienced many highs and lows in the intervening years, but always with the promise of new adventures still ahead. But also like the lake, I have felt a drain – a drain on my memory. For the past two years I have tried to put down on paper some of my favorite recollections of the past. However, my mental water level is also at a low point, and I’m afraid I have written all that I can recall that I felt was worthy of a story. So for now I close my blog. Perhaps something will come to mind in the future, or one of those hoped for adventures may yet bring some excitement. If so I will share it with you. In the meantime, the old stories will remain here. Check in every once in a while just in case I have some rare inspiration, but don’t expect to see much new. Again, a huge thanks to the few of you who have stopped by to share my “ramblings” these past two years. It has been a pleasure sharing them with you, and I am thankful for the new friendships they have helped create. I truly wish I had more to share. Keep sharing your own memories, and my very best to you all.