Thursday, June 27, 2019


“…love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.” 
Kahlil Gibran

“Can we get a kitten?”  It was becoming an oft repeated question in the weeks following the loss of Woody, our cat and only pet.  Woody had come into my life several years before as a tired, grease-stained cat found in the bowling alley parking lot across from my veterinary clinic.  The grease mark made it appear as though it had been hit by a car, but other than being dirty, it appeared relatively unscathed.  At first, I didn’t pay much too much attention to the yellow and white cat sitting in the cage in the treatment area.  However, after a day or two of no one claiming or wanting to adopt it, I began to interact with it a little more.  No one had checked the sex, but the cat just “looked” female, so her name became Mae West in honor of our clinic name of Westwood.  “She” had a sweet demeanor and I started to take an interest in her as the staff began pushing that I adopt her.  I warmed to the idea and gave her a little closer look.  Realizing I had not verified her gender, I lifted the tail and took a peek at the private parts below.  Mae West was a boy!  The name had to go, but I wanted to still try to incorporate Westwood in my choice, so Woody he became.
Woody bedding down for the night with David

Woody was a calm, loving cat who eventually became a fat, happy cat from lounging around our home all day.  He was great with the kids and would hold long conversations with my wife on the staircase.  Our new addition was a wonderful pet with the exception that he was not a healthy cat.  It started with continual diarrhea that splattered the litter box and created an urgency that almost didn’t allow him to make it.  After trial and error I found a diet that would help him, but a few years later the symptoms returned along with vomiting and anorexia.  I diagnosed him with inflammatory bowel disease, and the only thing that I ever found that would control his symptoms was steroids.  The stools would soften, then I would find spots of vomit throughout the house, and then finally he would hide away, not moving or eating until his injection.  Within 24 hours he would be a perfectly normal cat, remaining so until almost exactly six weeks later when the symptoms would again return with a vengeance.  Unfortunately, for all the good they did, the steroids took a terrible toll on his body.  His skin thinned to the point of ripping, and he became diabetic.  With the constant steroids, I could not control his diabetes, and without them he would decline dramatically.  Finally, one day he just lay on the staircase not moving.  I knew the time was approaching we would have to say goodbye, I just wasn’t expecting to come home and find him still on that step at lunchtime.  When I went to check on him, he flopped onto his side and went into a seizure.  It could not wait.  I bundled him in my arms and immediately rushed back to the clinic where I euthanized him through tears.
A sleepy Woody catching a few zzzz's

So there was a great void in our house without our talkative friend.  That’s when the begging began.  I was missing him, too, but I wasn’t quite ready to take on a new life (I needed to mourn Woody for a while) and besides we had a vacation coming up and it would be so much easier not having to find a pet sitter.  The response to the children was that after our vacation to Kiawah Island in S.C., I would begin looking for a possible replacement.  Being a veterinarian, unexpected kittens or stray cats were always crossing our doorstep, so I didn’t think it would be too difficult to come up with a new cat.  Little did I know, the clinic would play no role in the little life that was soon to join us.

Just before we were scheduled to leave on our trip, we received word from my wife’s brother that a friend had a little kitten they had rescued.  Reportedly, the kitten had been tossed into a river; however, I find many rescuers jump straight to the abuse/attempted murder story for any poor, lost animal they find.  I suspected the little kitten was more than likely just found in the vicinity of a river, and the rest was a creative back story.  Nonetheless, we’ve always maintained the thrown in the river angle to add more color to her origins.   We were presented with a couple of photos.  One was of a cute little face with big eyes staring out from between the leaves of an iris, and the other were of the same tortoiseshell kitten curled in the lap of the young girl who now had her.  We hadn’t met her, but we had already fallen for her, so I knew there would be no grand search for a new pet.  She would be waiting on us once we returned from Kiawah.

Our first glimpse.

A week or two later we were presented with a little black, orange and white bundle of fur who was every bit as cute as her picture.  She seemed a little shy, but she would eventually settle onto one or our laps, or my favorite trait, reach out and touch a face with her paw.  The first duty we had was to name her.  Given that the Kiawah trip had been our period of anticipation, we decided to try to pick a name relative to our just finished vacation.  We tossed around names like Kiawah or Bohicket (a marina near our resort), but in the end we went in a different direction.  Each year when we visited this South Carolina island, we would take the kids to a children’s performer named Rick Hubbard.  A big part of his show revolved around presenting the audience with kazoos (Rick eventually purchased the kazoo company) and creating a large kazoo band.  In celebration of his passion, Rick had coined the phrase “kazoobie” meaning “exceptional fun involving everyone.”  Something about that seemed to fit this little kitten, so we shortened the word and our newest family member became known from that day forward as Zoobie.
Baby Zoobie resting on the bed

As she became adjusted to our home, Zoobie became a little ball of energy.  We had just built a new two story house with an open foyer, and the kitten was not the least bit hesitant to explore the stairs.  Thus was born a great fear in me.  What if she climbed to the top, peeked out between the railings of the stairway and decide to jump?  Cats have no natural realization of height, which is why veterinarians in New York City often treat what is called “high rise syndrome” in which cats leap off of apartment balconies several floors up.  I panicked every time she explored the upstairs landing and had to find a way to put my mind at ease.  My solution was to buy netting and staple it around the entire upstairs balustrade.  For the most part it worked, but there was a frightful time or two in which she pushed herself under the netting and was then trapped on the outside on the ledge.  Thankfully, she would allow me to lift the netting and retrieve her.   As she got older, the netting went away, and she never once tempted fate on the edge, much to my relief.
David with his new buddy

Zoobie soon learned the ropes and became a part of our family.  She was not exactly a cuddler, although in the evenings she would sometimes hop onto a lap for a nap.  More than anyone, she gravitated toward our son.  He is the cat whisperer in our family, and she adored him.  Daily they would engage in wrestling matches where he would grab her and she would wrap her legs around his arm and then take his wrist in her mouth.  She never bit down, at least intentionally.  If David was in his room playing or doing homework, you could expect to find her in his lap or laying on his bed watching him.  The more she grew towards him, the more she avoided us for the most part.  At least at night I could count on her making her way into our bed and lying at my feet, but that was it.  As much as I wanted an affectionate cat who would snuggle in close and doze with me, it was not to be.  Zoobie always wanted to be near people, but any direct interactions were few and far between, and only at her initiation.

Like all cats, Zoobie loved boxes

No matter how uncomfortable

She had a playful streak which lasted until her final days.  She was the cat who taught us how much felines enjoy the rings from milk jugs.  It was a serendipitous discovery on our part, one day dropping a ring only to see her toss it in the air and bat it around the room.  From that day forward, milk rings would always be tossed on the floor.  If you went to the bathroom on the main floor of the house, it would not be uncommon to suddenly see a plastic ring slide under the door followed by a little black paw fishing around to find it.  If you flicked it back out, it would quickly return to you with even more force.  The games would continue until eventually she maneuvered the rings to the basement door where she would knock them into the dark unknown beyond.
Watching the birds.

As a kitten she had another mischievous trait.  Our children would often fail to finish their lunch as school and would bring home their sandwiches still in the bag.  These they would set out on the counter when they arrived home, but a little while later, the bag with the sandwich would be gone.  The first time this really puzzled me, until I later found the sandwich under our bed, Zoobie’s hidden lair.  After that, I started paying attention for the sound of cat feet hitting the ground as they jumped down from the counter.  Then you could hear a rhythmic thump, thump, thump as a full sandwich bag bounced up the stairs.  My favorite episode, however, was the time my wife had a large bag of dried beans which she intended to use for crafts at Sunday school.  I once again heard the familiar thump, thump, thump and hurried to investigate.  There, like a leopard hoisting its kill into a tree, was our little kitten dragging a heavy bag, bigger than herself, up the stairs to the bed.  Her habit was more amusing than annoying, but eventually she outgrew it.  However, her bags of stolen booty were replaced by something else- a little stuffed vet.  We bought it as a joke, me being a veterinarian, but Zoobie took a true liking to the toy.  One night I heard a mournful wailing coming from downstairs, and I panicked that Zoobie had injured herself or was sick.  I hurried downstairs and flipped on the lights only to find Zoobie standing there, blinking in the sudden brightness and holding a limp vet in her mouth.  I knew after that whenever I heard crying at night, it was only Zoobie with her little friend.  She would often bring him up and drop him by my bed, much like outdoor cats bring dead mice and birds and deposit them on the owner’s doorstep.  Even in her final days, when it was physically difficult for her to walk, I found her carrying her vet with her.  It remained a constant in her life for 17 years.

Zoobie engaging in her favorite pastime.

As mentioned above, Zoobie was not a cat to want physical handling, and she frequently made this knows with a hiss or a growl, a swat of a paw or a quick bite and run whenever petted or if someone attempted to pick her up.  That’s how she treated those she loved.  If you were a stranger, she had even less patience with you, which became a problem during a later vacation.  We had once again returned to Kiawah, but Zoobie was to remain at home with one of my technicians stopping by each day to feed her.  Usually, pet-sits consist of spending time playing with the pet along with feeding it.  There was no playing with Zoobie, and there was almost no feeding her, either.  Zoobie’s food was located in the upstairs laundry room, and when the technician went up to feed her, she turned around to see a fluffed, growling Zoobie blocking her exit.  Fearing for her safety, Amy finally grabbed a rug from the floor, and like a bullfighter keeping his cape between him and the bull, she managed to block Zoobie and maneuver around her.   It was an adventure each time she visited to feed our cat.
Zoobie’s intolerance wasn’t limited to just people.  She despised any other animal.  I wanted to get another pet, but anything I would bring home would be attacked by the queen herself.  Once I brought home two small kittens and kept them in a carrier in our kitchen.  I knew they would be safe and thought maybe if Zoobie could see them and smell them without them being loose in the house, she might be a little more accepting.  On the contrary, she circled the box emitting a low growl, then spitting and hissing, she started swatting the sides of the carrier to attack the innocent kittens within.  Back they went to the clinic for someone else to adopt.

Then seven years ago, a client brought in a wet, cold little kitten she had heard mewing from her front lawn as she headed out for her morning jog.  She found it still sitting there alone and shivering when she returned, so she brought him into the clinic.  He was a little ball of black fur that could easily fit in the palm of your hand.  His pitiful state, as well as his loving personality won me over, so I again tried bringing another cat home.  Zoobie was definitely not impressed and proceeded to curse him in her native tongue, but she did not approach him to hurt him.  I thought maybe this just might work out.  Perhaps she would eventually accept him and they would grow up to be buddies and playmates.  Boy, was I wrong.  She did come to halfway tolerate his presence, but they were never friends.  For the first year, she would still stake out her place in front of the fireplace on cold winter days, and he might be allowed to sleep four feet away, but it never got closer than that.  Eventually, she made the decision to withdraw from the main floor and stay in our bedroom.  Although she was given free reign of the house, she spent the last six or seven years of her life resigned to living only on the upper floor.  I would lock Alonzo, the now grown black kitten, and later his playmate Jasmine, in their own room at night in hopes that Zoobie would come down during the nighttime and have some quiet time along in her old haunts.  I think she did this occasionally, but mostly she remained under our bed during the day and by my feet on top of the bed at night.  She seemed content with this arrangement, and most nights or mornings, we could hear her thundering footsteps as she charged from one room to the next above our heads as we relaxed in the family room, burning off her energy.   However, every so often in the evening, Zoobie would sneak downstairs and attempt to visit us, all the while keeping a vigilant watch for the other cats.  Alonzo, not the brightest cat in the world, never understood Zoobie and tried through all of those years to be her friend.  The more she hissed and swatted and charged, the more he thought she liked him and wanted to play.  His eyes would grow large, his tail would twitch from side to side in an excited fashion, and he would just prance right after her.  She would eventually retreat back up the stairs and as soon as she reached “her territory,” the fight was on.  The growls and hisses became all out screams and I could hear a tussle.  I would yell for them to break it up and then head up the stairs to separate them, but she had usually chased Alonzo away by this time.  Undaunted, he would stop halfway down the stairs, look back up at her and cry sadly for the friend he was forever denied.
Zoobie's new nemesis- Alonzo

A few years ago, I noticed that Zoobie’s water bowl was often dry in the morning when I went to feed her.  For most of her life, the water level hardly budged and only got changed to freshen it from time to time.  Along with the rapidly disappearing water, the litter box grew heavy with increased urine.  I suspected Zoobie was beginning the slow decline of renal failure, and blood tests bore that out.  Yet, despite her diagnosis, Zoobie remained Zoobie.  She continue to eat well, and as she had done for most of her life, she also continued to throw her food up at about midnight two or three times a week.  She had a knack for knowing just when I was falling asleep, then she would stop just outside our bedroom door and start retching.   She still did her nightly laps, racing from room to room, and she still would cry out as she dropped her vet by my side of the bed.  I placed her on a supportive diet and hoped it would slow the progression of her disease.
Her perfect cat pose.

All was well until a few months ago.  It was becoming apparent that Zoobie was losing a considerable amount of weight.  The water was still disappearing quickly, but the food bowl was not emptying as it had for nearly 17 years.  She started taking a couple of attempts to jump onto the bed.  I repeated blood work and it confirmed that the kidneys had indeed continued to decline.  After a couple of months of this, she was no longer able to make it up on the bed by herself.  I had heard her try a couple of times only to hear her fall.  From that day on, she began coming to my side of the bed and crying until I picked her up.  At the same time, she had gone from laying at the foot of the bed, to starting each night by my side demanding I pet her.  Little Miss Independent wanted affection!  The sicker and weaker she got, the more affectionate she grew.  By morning she was still at my feet as in days of old, but bedtime meant an hour of stroking her head and scratching her chin before she would allow me to fall asleep.
Zoobie's favorite day of the year was Christmas.  Even in her older years she joined us on Christmas morning.
Another change occurred during the final weeks of her life.  Zoobie started reappearing downstairs!  At first she only came down when my wife had something baking in the oven.  She would follow the smell downstairs and plop herself under the oven while Sara cooked.  Then she was making appearances at other times, sitting by our patio doors and taking in the fresh air from the backyard.  She was doing this at a time where it was more and more difficult for her to even walk, let alone climb stairs.  I still do not know what prompted this.  Did she want to be close to us, seeking comfort in her waning days?  Did she maybe realize the end was coming and wanted to reconnect with the pleasant memories she had from kittenhood?  We will never know, but Zoobie, poor weak Zoobie, was in our lives once more.
A younger, fatter Zoobie napping almost in the spot she would leave us years later.
Then came the final days.  Zoobie was now so weak she could not even climb into her litter box, instead leaving a large puddle just outside its entrance.  As weak as she was, however, she came down the stairs one last time.  She was staggering and could barely stand.  It had been days since she had eaten more than a bite of food.  She lay by the open patio door and made no attempt to move or return to the upper floor.  I brought a litterbox down, and with her final effort she climbed in, fell into the litter and urinated where she lay.  I got her back out and she again lay by the door.  I knew she would not be going back upstairs.  She was a mere skeleton of her former self, yet somehow her fur remained soft and shiny as it always had.  I knew I needed to make that final decision.  As a veterinarian, it is usually easy for me to recommend an owner euthanize their sick pet.  However, as a pet owner, I am a total wimp.  I knew it was time, yet I could not do the deed.  I went as far as to bring home a catheter and euthanasia solution, and I dug a grave in the backyard.  Yet, in my defense, Zoobie was not showing any signs of pain.  She was weakening quickly, and I knew she couldn’t last long.  If I handled a leg to feel for a vein, she would pull away with what little strength she had left.  How could I, the person who fed her and cared for her, the person who had replaced my son as the one to whom she showed the most affection, take her life?  And how could I make her last moment on earth be one where she must be restrained, the act she hated most her whole life, while I search for a nearly non-existent vein in her weak, dehydrated body?  Had she shown me she was in pain and suffering, the task would have been easier, but she wasn’t.  I knew she couldn’t last much longer, and I felt she would just slip into unconsciousness and pass.  But this was Zoobie.  She was a stubborn fighter right up to the end.  We moved her to the kitchen and placed her on towels since she could no longer walk to a litter box.  She lay there dozing on and off for three more days.  She neither ate nor drank.  Somehow, the first day or two, she managed to move herself about a foot off the towel, but I still don’t know how.  Finally, even that stopped and she just slept, often with eyes open.  Each morning I would come down expecting to find her gone, but she clung to life.  Her breathing remained steady.  I broke down one evening, knowing I was not doing her any favors allowing her to go on like this.  I took down the syringe and solution, I got a wet paper towel to wet her fur and highlight a vein, and I sat by her on the floor.  I dissolved into tears thinking I was about to end the life that had been a part of my own for the past 17 years.  My wife came over and stroked Zoobie’s head, something Zoobie had never allowed before.  Rather than resisting, Zoobie pushed harder into Sara’s hand.  I felt she was saying she was not done fighting.  I put the supplies away.  In the end, I decided Zoobie should leave this world on her own terms.  She had been so independent her entire life and had such a fighting spirit, it would not be fair to deprive her of that.  Again, she showed no signs of pain, only sleepiness.  On Wednesday afternoon, I petted her head and told her I loved her as I went back to work.  She stretched her legs slightly, but did not more her head.  A few hours later, my wife texted me that she had passed.
Waiting at the top of the stairs.  This is where she greeted me every night.

That evening, I placed Zoobie in a box, the stuffed vet between her paws and a rose blossom by her head, and I buried her beneath the dogwood tree at the back of the property.  This was what she looked out on those final days as she once again breathed in the fresh air of outside.  In the morning, as the sun slowly rises over the roof of the house, this area is thrown into light.  Zoobie always followed the sunny patch around the room.  Now she does not have to seek it out, the sunlight finds her each morning and warms her little patch of earth.  Life is so different now.  No longer is there the cry at the top of the stairs when I come up at night, and those bright eyes are not there peeking through the balusters.  I search the patches of sunshine on the bedroom floor in the morning, but no cat is stretched out on them.  Jasmine and Alonzo have been a little more needy and affectionate since Zoobie got so sick, but I’m not a cat psychologist, so I don’t know why.  They kept a wide berth of her as she lay on the floor, but they have more freedom now.  I feel I have more freedom, too, but I would trade it all away just to have Zoobie back in my life once more. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Time Traveller

     Last weekend I, along with my family, was presented a unique gift.  My niece and her husband allowed us all to travel back 30 years in time, and it only took an hour by car!  The destination was 1987, the year my father sold our trailer at Nevins Campground along the shore of Raccoon Lake.  I've written several times about my years growing up in the woods and on the water of Raccoon Lake.  I count those two decades as among the most enjoyable and most formative years of my life, and I thought they were gone forever. 

     Our destination did not actually exist all those years ago.  The family was called to gather at a
small cabin situated on a hill adjacent to our old, beloved campground.  As a boy, this hill was forested and was my main path to enter and explore the surrounding woods.  I would slip away from our trailer and walk to the edge of a steep ravine.  I had two choices.  I could turn left and head to the muddy lowlands full of jewelweed, which grew in abundance in this flood prone area, and skirt the hill altogether, or I could continue forward and accept the challenge of the ravine's sharply angled sides.  For me, the choice was nearly always the latter. 

     Traversing this chasm involved two stages.  The slope down from the trailer side  of the ravine was steep, but it was one in which you could stay upright as you descended.  That was not to say it was an easy trek.  You stood and gathered your nerves before starting a run down the hill.  The run was in no way controlled other than to try to stay on your feet as you accelerated faster and faster toward the bottom.  There was usually a small stream trickling along the bottom, but the speed you acquired charging down easily carried you over this ditch and partially up the other side.   Now gravity took over and slowed you until you stopped and started slipping back down towards the water.  The opposite side was steeper than the first, and walking up its face was nearly impossible.  Rather, you searched for exposed roots to grab and pull, and you kicked to plunge the toes of your shoes into the side of the hill for a foothold.  Time and again, your feet would slip and you would suddenly fall forward supported only by a root or small sapling, or if not holding onto a root, you would slide until you were left standing in the muddy stream below.  Bit by bit you clawed your way to the top.  On the return trip, however, one employed a different tactic. To charge down this side was akin to running down the vertical side of a building.   So rather than risking an out of control run, you simply squatted and skied down this part of the hill on your shoes and rump.  The seat of my pants usually bore muddy witness to this maneuver, much to my mother's dismay. 

The trailers as seen from the cabins
     On the summit, this hill was relatively flat and easy to hike.  It ran parallel to the first row of trailers, so I would always stay to the far side in order not to be seen by the other campers.  From this side I had a great view of the rest of the woods.  As I stated before, the lower area closest to the water was a stand of jewelweed, and I would sit on the hilltop and watch hummingbirds fly from one flaming orange  blossom to the next.  But as you made your way further from the water, the jewelweed gave way to scattered mature trees and young saplings.  As a young boy, this would be the site of a planned hut, but more on that later.

     In the spring this hill was covered with wildflowers such as phlox, bloodroot, dog-toothed violet, trillium and hepatica.  I gathered several of these plants and transplanted them into a little garden I had created on our lot.  The flowers were still blooming in this little patch years after we had sold our trailer, but sadly that patch of ground has since been buried in fill as the current resident has changed the grade of the property.  Although near the camp, the hill was a quiet retreat where I could be alone and commune with nature.  I recall napping amongst those spring ephemerals in a little patch of sunlight.  The light breeze, the warmth of the sun and the song of the birds lulled me to sleep.  I can remember awakening to the sight of a kettle of vultures circling above me.  At the time, I thought they had mistaken me for a dead body, but now I know better.  I'm sure they just caught a good thermal radiating upwards from my sunny patch of woods.  On another day, while sitting there, I heard movement in the leaves to my side.  Startled and unsure of what was approaching, I froze in place watching the fallen leaves moving on the ground.  Suddenly out popped a mole that had emerged from its burrow, looking blinkingly into the sun.  Unaware of my presence, he made his way back into the leaf litter and was soon gone.  It was one of my favorite areas in the woods, but today it is a gravel lane leading from the camp road all the way to the tip of the hill where 40 years ago I was gathering my nerve for the mad dash into the ravine.  Sprinkled along this drive are four small cabins and a few surviving trees.  Don't get me wrong, it is a very nice campground with a wonderful view of the lake, but it is not my wooded hill.

     In my youth, as I explored the woods, there was always a point at which I would have to come off that hill.  Again, I had a couple of choices.  The hillside here was even steeper than that which had carried me out of the campground.  To move down its side usually meant another long slide on my rump, and I was not always brave enough to even do that.   I did feel emboldened one year and discovered a way to "hop" down the hill.  I would stand at the precipice and leap off the top.  With feet spread wide, as soon as I hit the ground, I would spring straight up in the air and land a few feet further down where the process was repeated.  The movement resembled rappelling, but was done facing outward and without a rope.  It was exhilarating and a very effective way of moving down the hill, but alas my magic bounce was but a fleeting skill.  Not long after, I was hiking with my sister and her boyfriend, and I had explained my newly acquired talent.  Her boyfriend was an amateur photographer, so he positioned himself with his camera so he could catch me in the air.  Try as I may, I could not bounce down that hill, and sadly, I never did again. 

     The other way off the hill was to proceed to its end where the descent was much more subtle.  Again, a stream, wider than the one we had simply hopped across behind the trailers,  traced its way along the bottom of this ravine, creating yet another obstacle to be tackled.  The answer was to look for a fallen log as a bridge.  As there were usually several logs lying across the stream at any one time, this was not difficult.  The challenge was to pick one that was not rotting and ready to break into two soggy halves or that did not threaten to shed your shoes with the slime mold that grew along its surface.  My sister was more of a daredevil than me, so she would sometimes pick a tree spanning the ravine feet off the forest floor.  Personally, I chose to stay no more than a foot off the ground.
My bridge

     Several hills sprouted from this central position in the woods, so there was any number of ways to proceed from that spot.  In one direction, you would scale one or two more hills and emerge in Highland Acres, a small housing edition.  I rarely took this path since it seemed like I was trespassing, and besides my goal was to avoid people.  There was also a path that the camp owner had created that passed through this area.  Trail 1 emerged just above the swimming pond on the camp road.  It was the trail on which my dad would sometimes take me on my sister's Honda 70 minibike.  Or you could just climb one more hill and emerge near the fishing pond that also sat next to the camp road.  I did not like this path because the hill to the road was steep and there was thick undergrowth in that area.

My boyhood bibles
     I was more fascinated by the flat lowland between the hills.  This is the area I mentioned earlier, where as a 10 year old, I set out to create a "home."  It was the year of 5th grade, and I had just read the book My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.  This book chronicles the tale of a boy running away to live off the land in the Catskill Mountains.  In the story Sam Gridley had lived in a hollowed out hemlock tree.  My woods lacked such a giant tree, so I envisioned more of a wigwam type structure.  That summer, I met another boy of about the same age and shared with him both my book and my dream.  He quickly bought into my vision, and one weekend we headed out into the woods with knapsacks on our backs, ropes over our shoulders and my trusty WWII equipment belt with its original canteen and my little hatchet buckled around my waist. 
Although not my original gear, this is an exact replica from the Military Antiques Museum

     We picked out a corner of this bottomland where two streams came together.  The ground was relatively open with the exception of scattered saplings.  These were to be the ribs of my little hut.  We found three or four trees spaced just right and began pulling them inward toward the ground.  Our goal was to bring them towards the center, tie them together at the top (allowing their branches and leaves to act as sort of a natural roof), and strap poles around the edge.  Then I was going to peel bark off the fallen logs in the area and lay that against the frame as siding.  Outside the door of this hut, I carved out a depression in the dirt and gathered river rock from the nearby streams to create a ring around it.  This was to be my fire pit.   Our aspirations exceeded our efforts, however.  We tied the trees together, strapped on some poles and even found a few pieces of bark, but the building never
materialized beyond that.

     Although I frequently visited this spot, I never built my little home in the woods.  But it remained one of my favorite spots.  I recall from this vantage point I could see an animal path nearby that led to a den halfway up the adjacent hill.  It was at the hole of this den that I found animal bones and collected a skull for my collection.  The hill that housed the animal den also yielded morel mushrooms in the spring (as did the hill on which the cabins now sit.)  Another geologic feature making this the ideal homestead was a small limestone outcropping just across the stream.  This "cave" was to be my safe spot in storms or a tornado.  In truth, there was only room enough to lay lengthwise just under the ledge, but to a young boy, it was an exotic cave.  Perhaps I could even carve deeper into the hillside to create another secret home.  The possibilities were endless in my na├»ve mind.

     Time has remodeled this little patch of woods, but I wanted desperately to once again explore it.  If this weekend of time exploration was to be successful, I needed to find something that seemed familiar from my childhood.  No longer was I able to charge down and up my old ravine.  The lane on which the cabins sat already had carried me to the far side of that.  The best way to head into the woods was through the lower approach.  Here is one place where time has totally altered the landscape, but for once I can say it was for the better.  The soggy area that had been full of jewelweed and pokeberry has be redesigned by both man and nature.  Gone are all the maple saplings and willows that once choked the edges of the lake.  Stacked stone along the shore minimizes erosion and creates a picturesque border.  Over time, seeds of cypress trees from somewhere far across the lake have floated into the woods during periods of floods, and as the water receded, they have taken root and grown.    Where once a stream began to cut into the woods, a gravel covered path now meanders.  It begins under the soft shade of the cypress trees and winds deeper into the woods.  Rather than walking logs over the streams (which I still chose to do) there are now wooden foot bridges.  And scattered here and there along the gravel pathway amongst the trees were small boats and canoes.  I guess their owners want easy access to the lake, but do not want to carry their boats down steep hills, so they have tucked them into the recesses of the woods.

My "cave" keeping watch on the far side of the stream
I followed this path until I felt I was near the spot of my old hidden campsite.  I needed to get my bearings so I headed to my right until I could find the old stream bed at the base of the steep hill down which I had once bounced.  There on the far side sat my little outcropping of stone.  Nothing had changed with my "cave."  It still sat covered in mosses and lichen.  Maiden hair ferns still took hold in its
crevices, and spiders still made nests in its dry interior.  When I saw that, I instantly knew I was in the right place.  I returned to the flat land to scan the ground.  What had once been saplings were now mature trees about seven to ten inches in diameter.  The rope had rotted away decades ago and the trees had straightened in the sun.  Yet there stood a group of trees in a location my memory told me was the spot those limber young saplings had once been bent to our will.  I needed to find more proof that I had returned to my magic spot, so I kicked around in the leaves until I found some larger rocks.
There they were, my fire pit stones still trying to form their ring.  Most of them were gone, but enough survived to tell me this was my camp.  The woods seemed much smaller now than it did 45 years ago, but all those magical things of our youth get smaller and duller as we age. 

My old campsite
     There was something else I needed to find; one last thing that would carry me back in time and place me on that spot.  That something was a beech tree on which I had carved my initials nearly 40 years ago.  I can still remember the day.  I had been hiking through the woods, as I had so many times before, when suddenly movement ahead caught my attention.  I looked through the trees and saw something large and brown flashing in the distance.  I thought I had found a deer, so I started moving towards the commotion.  Suddenly, my "deer" rose into the air and flew away!  I realized I was actually watching a large hawk, having just claimed some poor woodland creature, laboriously taking flight into the trees beyond. The chase was on.  I started running, trying to get close enough to identify the bird and get a glimpse of what it had just captured.  The chase led me up the hill, my adrenalin easily propelling me up the steep sides with little effort.  However, by the time I reached the summit, the bird was gone.  I remained looking for it for several minutes before making my way back towards the lower ground.  I stopped just above my little cave where a pair of beech trees rose before me.  I felt my pocket knife sitting in my jeans pocket and remembered the stories of Daniel Boone carving his name on trees as he explored the frontier.  I have always been against graffiti, but on that day I had a Daniel Boone moment.  I wanted to commemorate my hawk siting, so with my little knife I carved my initials and the year '76 into the smooth bark of the tree.  Now standing by my old fire pit I looked towards the stone outcropping.  Yes, there were still a pair of beech trees growing above it.  I climbed a fallen log to cross the stream, then just as in the days of old, I searched for handholds among the roots and fought to ascend the steep hillside.  It took several attempts, but finally I drug myself up the hill until I was standing between the two trees.  There before me were my initials.  They were now flattened scars, widened by four decades of growth, but they were still very
legible.  I was once again that young boy chasing hawks, building huts and leaving his mark on the land.  Bulldozers and chainsaws may have taken away part of my woods, and houses encroached ever closer, but here on this spot, I was alone in the woods and feeling like my fourteen year old self.   The time machine had delivered me to the time and place I wanted to be.
     The woods did not disappoint, but the more public areas of camp were another story.  It had begun on the drive into camp.  The dusty gravel road that winds its way through the hills and woods to the top of the campground used to pass two ponds.  The first of these was the old swimming hole.  It was a cold pool of water with a floating dock where we kids would swim while dodging deer flies or scanning for water snakes.  The second pond was just up a small hill from this and was the fishing pond.  Here I would bring my little pole and can of worms and fish for bluegills and sunfish.  The fish were small, but so was I, and that was all the excitement I needed.  On this trip into camp, there were no ponds.  Both had long since filled with silt and mature trees rose from the depressions that marked their previous existence. 
The old fishin' hole back in the day

     More troubling still was the camp itself.  Many, if not most, of the trailers from our time there are now gone.  In place of the larger mobile homes, there are now smaller campers and RV’s, usually with large decks build nearby.  It makes sense there would be change over.  We purchased our first trailer nearly a half century ago, and they were older models even then.  Yet for someone who navigates by familiar landmarks, I felt totally lost in what was my second home for over two decades.  All three of the trailers we had owned at one time or another were gone, and I was only positive of one of those sites. 
Our first lot now
Our first trailer was the middle of three  that sat in the bottom loop of the figure eight road the cut through the first hill of camp
The road still traces that same path, so picking out our old lot was relatively easy.  The other two sat on the side of the road with no strong physical landmark tying them to their original positions.  I could make out the general topography of one of our old lots, but my memory now fails me.  I could not recall whether this was our second or last trailer.  There was very little that looked familiar at all.  My garden
Looking at our first trailer from the opposite side of the loop.
of spring flowers was long since gone.
  The tire swing that had hung behind the Gossman trailer was nowhere to be seen.  The path we took to where we docked our boat had long since become overgrown in weeds, and erosion had stripped part of the hill away.  I felt like a person with dementia lost in his own neighborhood.  I should know where I was, but darn it, I just couldn’t place myself for the life of me.
Looking up the road at the site of our second and third trailers
Our third and final trailer

     Continuing down the road, the trailers thinned and there were empty spaces where my mind told me a trailer should be sitting.  The large turnaround at the end of the road was gone.  Posts now sealed off the area where once we had parked to fish.  The road ends at the tip of a hill which juts out into the lake.  Beyond the turnaround was a small triangular patch of woods where I also would play.  Sadly, years of flooding have killed nearly every tree on the point, transforming the entire area.  The only thing familiar about this part of camp was what we had always considered our beach area.
The turnaround as it now exists
The beach

Enjoying the beach 30 years ago
     The beach was just a small slip of sand next to where our friends would tie their pontoon.  You took a little path through the willows and emerged on a section of shore covered in fine sand.  Here the land gently faded into the lake, creating an area in which even small children could safely walk and enjoy the water.  Here was the spot where my sister's dog, Pumpkin, would swim until she had to be pulled from the water having exhausted herself visiting swimmers and retrieving floating sticks.   Here was where I would make sand sculptures of bodies lying on the shore.  The beach still exists, but it is much smaller now and you have to walk a little further down the shore.  Yet it still served its old function when on the second day of my visit, my nieces and grand nieces splashed in the water and played in the sand as we had done once long ago. 

Pumpkin enjoying the water once upon a time
  I waded along the sandy shore and focused on the rocks scattered in the shallows.  These are the stones carved and polished by the glaciers who pushed their way across the state 17,000 years ago.  There they were deposited in the soil, which now is being eroded by the constant wave action of the lake.  Pieces of granite, shale, sandstone and basalt decorated the water's edge, and provided great missiles with which the little ones could test their throwing abilities.  As a boy, my eyes were always focused down, searching the ground for the more colorful and interesting rocks or the
occasional fossil, and I admit my habits haven't changed.  I scanned the stones, and there among the rocks was a piece of limestone crowded with the remains of ancient crinoids, a sea dwelling animal that looked more plantlike than animal.  It was one of the first fossils I learned to recognize, so it felt so right to look down and see them once more.  Also scattered among the detritus were the exoskeletons of crawdads and the bones of a large fish picked clean by hungry raccoons.  Nature remained the one constant.  Yes, the shoreline may have been remodeled, but all the components were the same, and the familiarity eased some of my discomfort.
Fossilized crinoids

         I left the lake with mixed feelings.  We are all familiar with Thomas Wolfe’s declaration that “you can’t go home again.”  I understand, for try as I may to recapture those early days, they are gone.  The camp has changed, the woods have changed, the wildlife has changed.  The residents I knew are mostly dead now, their trailers have long ago been sold for scrap or hauled to the dump.  Bulldozers and erosion have reshaped the land around the trailers.  Only those things most intimately tied to the earth - the trees themselves, the stones, the play of light off the water, the smell and sound of burning wood, only those things have persisted.  Equally important, I have changed.  Gone is the carefree, agile, slip of a boy who could dart through the woods like a wild animal.  In his place is a stiff, aging, overweight man with responsibilities and worries.  I now trip over the roots, scratch my face on the low branches and heave for breath at the top of the hills.  My mother is no longer around to scold me for muddy clothes, and Dad must stop to rest walking the camp road.  Yet the memories are there, like ghosts prowling the hills.  I can still see and hear them, but they are slowly fading into the vapor.  And it was for that privilege - the chance to once again lie back and watch shooting stars, to touch my initials on an old beech tree, to feel the cool lake water on my skin - that I was thankful for the gift my niece had given the family.  As imperfect as it was, it was still a trip back in time, and for that I will be forever grateful.