The Fourth River

Fiction: “Rewilding,” by Heidi Diehl

By on June 20, 2013

From the porch, Mitchell watched his daughter Jamie roll her sleeping bag on the lawn. The rest of the gear was already packed in the van: tents, mess kits, tarps. Mitchell had been collecting camping supplies secondhand for years, and he had enough for the nine girls and Bev, the other troop leader, who’d agreed to chaperone the trip.  Mitchell had big plans for the weekend—canoeing out to the campsite, a hike on Pitchoff Mountain. On Saturday, survival lessons: improvised watercraft, with the girls building rafts from branches, and then foraging, followed by lunch. He knew the girls were ready for it. They’d just finished sixth grade, and he’d watched them get taller and more opinionated over the last year.

The girls began to gather in the yard, exaggerating the weight of their backpacks, waving to their parents in idling cars. Mitchell waved, too, and when Bev arrived with her daughter Cassie, he joined them by the van. From what Mitchell knew about Bev, he was interested: she was divorced, a guidance counselor at the high school, a sprint-distance triathlete. At the last few troop meetings, she’d seemed to be giving him the eye; she laughed at his jokes and touched his arm upon parting. She knew that Mitchell was a single father, and though he tried not to indulge his vanity—he didn’t work out to benefit his appearance—he was aware that his weight bench and daily bike commute had left their mark.

Bev was pretty but not delicate, and this was important, because Mitchell had invited her on the camping trip as a test. There were things he didn’t know yet, if she’d complain about sleeping on the ground or demand a hot shower. He needed to gauge her comfort in the woods before taking their flirtation any further.

“Is the dog coming?” Bev asked now. She pointed to Mitchell’s German Shepherd on the porch.

“That’s Tinder,” Mitchell said.

“He’s on the BARF diet,” Jamie said.

“That’s an acronym for bones and raw food,” Mitchell explained. “Tinder knows how to handle himself in the woods.”

“It’s because he’s diabetic,” said Jamie. “He’s 15.”

“You’re not allergic, are you?” Mitchell asked Bev.

“No, we’re not.”

He wondered if Cassie would be resistant to the survival lessons. She was a sweet kid, though not as athletic as Jamie. When Jamie had wanted to join the Girl Scouts last year, Mitchell was happy to get involved. He was teased at work about being a leader, and he knew some of the parents questioned his intentions at first. He’d have been a Boy Scout leader if he had a son. Leading was an easy way for Mitchell to teach Jamie what he wanted her to know—how to be prepared and resourceful—without upsetting her. She could be with her friends, and they needed these skills too. As long as the activities were fun and slightly competitive, the girls responded.

The same was true of Mitchell’s students at the community college, where he taught CPR, wilderness survival, composting. He ran different workshops every semester—Green Disinfectants, Wild Edible Weekend. He had his students over for home-brew and dehydrated bell peppers and then cut right into it: the Earth was changing, faster than anyone wanted to admit. Mitchell knew that oil was going to run out. He rigged his van up with biodiesel and filled his basement with home-canned vegetables. All he could do was set an example and hope that it took off.

Still, he tried to protect Jamie from his worst fears. He presented his gardening and biking as environmentalism. He cited their need for thrift, which, in light of his small income, was certainly true.

When everything was packed, the girls climbed into the van and Bev’s station wagon. Jamie was next to Mitchell in the van’s front seat; she sat sideways and chattered to her friends. In the last few months, she’d complained to Mitchell about the van, impatient as he tried to get the shuddering engine to hold. She refused to go with him to pick up leftover oil from Burger King. “It’s disgusting,” Jamie said, even though she still begged him to buy her French fries.

“Did you bring fruit jerky?” Jamie asked Mitchell now. They’d made it a game when he got the dehydrator. Blueberries, peaches, squash.

“I brought every kind you like.” These days, Jamie wanted him to buy fancy shampoo in the supermarket, disdaining the apple cider vinegar he kept in the shower.

Mitchell took a service road out of town. Strip malls lined both sides of the asphalt, and once he was on 90, the view was equally uninspiring, just semis lumbering between Buffalo and Albany. He watched Bev in his rearview instead. He pictured them driving out here together, though he’d have to get her car set up with biodiesel, and from the looks of her Ford, she didn’t have a diesel engine.

He was grateful to exit the thruway. A narrow highway studded with brown signs led into the Adirondack Park. Mitchell’s ears filled with the change in elevation. The scent of pine and fir came through the van’s open windows, and another hour passed this way, with the air cool on his arms.

Cascade Lake was an almost tropical bluish-green, tinted by limestone caves far beneath the surface. Mitchell paid for the canoes at the ranger station. It would take an hour of paddling to reach a cluster of tiny islands, each with its own campsite. The girls loaded the boats and snapped up their life jackets, and Mitchell helped the dog into the last canoe.

The sun was hot on the metal seat. There were more jetskis and motorboats than he remembered from his earlier trips out here. But the new activity on the lake didn’t cut into his enjoyment. His group was behind him, purposeful, and Bev was just ahead, her arms flexing.

Mitchell wanted a partner. He was tired of making decisions about Jamie by himself. And he needed to share his urgency—the melting ice, the overflowing oceans. Because when oil ran out, the rustic life would be the only option. He didn’t want to be out here alone.

He also wanted to get laid like a normal adult—in bed, rather than a scramble on the couch while he listened for his daughter’s light step on the floorboards overhead. He’d dated women in the last years, but it rarely became serious enough for him to let them spend the night. Jamie’s mother, Denise, left when Jamie was a baby. Denise’s presence had been limited to infrequent, bizarre gifts—stale chocolate, a Frankenstein figurine with Ronald Reagan’s face—and scratchy phone calls from Oregon, where she lived with a union organizer named Tammy.

Mitchell took the lead again as they approached the campsite. In the shallow water around the island, rocks and logs, nearly invisible beneath the surface, made it more difficult to maneuver. He climbed out of the canoe and, waist-deep, pulled each boat to shore.

“Stay,” Mitchell told the dog. As Bev floated past him, she removed her baseball hat, releasing her buoyant hair. He watched her as they unloaded the supplies: food, gallons of water, everything they needed.

Just beyond the beach, previous campers had left a fire pit circled by logs. It excited Mitchell to see this home in the woods. The sun breaking through branches unlocked something in him, always. A sense of purpose, of anxiety soothed. He wanted to pause here, with the smell of the trees and nothing else.

He lifted Tinder over the side of the boat. The dog sniffed invisible trails and stretched out on the carpet of orange pine needles. The girls went into the woods, where Bev helped them pitch the tents in a loose cluster. Mitchell found a fallen tree and split it with an ax. He enjoyed the weight in his hands.

Later, the girls stacked branches in the fire pit. As the sun went down, they wrapped vegetables in foil and huddled around the fire, waiting to eat.

“You should try my pickles,” Mitchell told Bev, offering her the jar. “I’m doing a class in deep lardering next semester.”

She extracted a thin spear. “Girl Scouts have been canning for generations,” she said. “You’re right in step.”

Her easy smile reassured Mitchell; he’d felt he should approach Bev slowly, an open palm towards a nimble deer.

“Did you bring hot dogs?” Kim Lopinto asked.

“We’re vegetarian,” Jamie said. “The carbon footprint.”

“Though if I lived out here, I’d be catching stuff,” said Mitchell.

“What are you going to eat, a raccoon?” Cassie asked.

Mitchell glanced at Bev, who was going along with what she probably perceived as a joke.

“That’s sick.” This came from Lauren Baker, and Mitchell laughed with the girls.

“There is no freaking way I would eat a raccoon,” Jamie said.

“I might,” Mitchell said. “Wilderness sauce. Everything tastes better out here.” He wasn’t kidding, though he didn’t need to tell that to Jamie now. Or Bev.

The girls were quieter as they washed their mess kits. Mitchell loaded the food into a trash bag and hoisted it over a tree branch, letting the goods dangle.

“Critter alert,” he said.

“Do the critters swim out here?” Bev asked.

“It’s a good habit.”

The girls scattered off, armed with flashlights, and after they zipped into their tents, Mitchell sat with Bev by the fire. Tinder was still working his jaws around his dinner bone. As the voices from the tents fell away, the noise of the forest picked up. Mitchell could hear faint music from a party somewhere across the lake, people enjoying themselves in the dark.

“Let’s get together when we’re back in civilization,” Bev said.

“You mean besides the troop meetings?” Mitchell stood up and added branches to the fire. He didn’t want there to be a reason to leave.

A boat hummed out on the water, its sound amplified in the stillness.

He returned to his seat. “You didn’t hear motorized boats on this lake five years ago,” he said, letting his arm press against Bev’s. “Things are changing so fast.”

“People can’t enjoy a getaway,” Bev said.

He realized how little he knew her. This wasn’t a vacation. But it didn’t break his good mood; they were just beginning.

He heard rustling and a tent zipper. Then a flashlight beam cut through the line of trees.

“We have to pee,” a voice called out.

Bev stood up and brushed pine needles from her jeans.  “We’d better not keep them up.”

“We’ll have a good day tomorrow.” Mitchell pictured her just ahead of him on the trail, stepping carefully over jagged rocks.

Bev moved into the darkness, and Mitchell stayed with the fire until it was small enough to stamp out.

 

 

When he woke up the next morning, green light filtered through the tent’s nylon walls. He recognized the soft beat of rain, the sound reminding him of a trip to Piseco Lake, years earlier, when Jamie was four. Denise had come with them, one of the few times she’d visited. A soaked morning—he hadn’t laid the tarp out properly. And the perfect trip he’d planned, the three of them snug in the tent, was spoiled. But it wasn’t the rain that ruined it. Denise was like a caged animal, biding her time. When Mitchell woke up that morning, Denise was waiting with her eyes open, staring ahead.

This time, he got the tarp right. He unzipped the tent and laced up his boots. Tinder didn’t follow him out.

“You want to wait here?” The dog curled into the sleeping bag.

Mitchell walked to the other side of the island to relieve himself without risk of being seen. He enjoyed this moment, despite the rain, or maybe because of it. Now, early in the morning, there was true silence. A loon dipped down, breaking the water’s stillness, and he wanted to swim, though without a suit, he knew he shouldn’t. But the girls probably wouldn’t be jumping out of bed at 6 a.m. Mitchell stripped to his underwear and ran into the water. He gasped with the cold and marveled at the clarity: everything was visible beneath him.

When he got back to his tent, Jamie was waiting, keeping dry next to a tree trunk.

“Do you like Bev?” she asked. Jamie had thick dark eyebrows, which made her look especially cross. Mitchell didn’t know where these eyebrows came from—he’d never met much of Denise’s family.

“What do you mean?”

Jamie crossed her arms. “She’s Cassie’s mom.”

“I took you swimming in this lake when you were a little baby. You can’t even remember that, you were so small.”

“Why does it have to be Cassie’s mom?” Jamie asked. “It’s embarrassing.”

“I promise I won’t embarrass you.”

“Cassie’s lame,” Jamie said. “She barely knows how to do anything.”

“You’re going to have to try to get along with everyone in the troop.”

Jamie squinted at him. “Why is your butt wet?”

“I went swimming,” Mitchell said. “Don’t tell anyone.”

He got a trace of a smile before she walked away.

 

 

He found Bev crouched by the fire pit, rubbing her hands over a pyramid of twigs. He touched her shoulder and she looked up at him, eager, he hoped, to respond.

“I’ve got some dry matches,” he told her. He turned a log on its end and reached to unknot the dangling food bags.

“I already have a little flame going,” Bev said. “The trees block most of the rain.”

“It works better if you blow on it.” Mitchell leaned over the fire to demonstrate.

He mixed oatmeal and water in a pot for the fire and the girls began to gather, sullen and groggy.

“Don’t be afraid of a little rain,” he told them. “We’ve got breakfast going.”

“Did you two sleep in the same tent?” Taylor Hicks asked.

“Of course not,” Bev said. “I was in with the giggle twins.”

“Then why did you guys stay up after we went to bed?” Taylor grinned, and Cassie and Lauren Baker, already tickled by Bev’s nickname, lost it completely.

“Adults stay up later than children do,” Mitchell said. “And if you don’t know that by now, I can’t see how you ever made it to sixth grade.”

Jamie was by herself at the end of the log, but he couldn’t catch her eye.

“What were you doing?” Taylor asked.

“This isn’t an appropriate conversation,” Bev said. She dished out the oatmeal, filling Mitchell’s bowl last.

“Who’s ready to hike?” Mitchell asked. The oats were too hot in his mouth.

“I’m not going,” Jamie said. Her eyebrows were one line. “It’s raining.”

“I thought you said the forecast looked good, Mitchell.” Bev squinted at the sky.

“It’ll clear up,” he said. The weather report had included a little precipitation. Nothing major. “You’ll need sunblock before too long.”

Jamie didn’t smile. Mitchell was stung by her lack of enthusiasm. He had to bring her back.

“Today we’re going off the grid,” Mitchell said. The girls looked up from their bowls.

“Aren’t we already there?” Taylor asked.

Not yet, he thought.

“Our hike today is going to give us a chance to cooperate with nature,” Mitchell said. “The wilderness is disappearing—we’re ruining it—but we all may very well have to live in it one day.”

“What are you talking about?” Jamie asked.

“Things are changing faster than you might realize,” Mitchell said.

“What things?” Taylor asked.

“The climate is already permanently altered. Our water is filthy. And oil is going to run out.”

He’d been waiting to talk to Jamie this way, not sure if she was old enough to handle it, but now he thought it might be too late. He should have made the urgency clear, instead of trying to protect her.

“Canoeing is about more than just recreation.” He took a deep breath. Bev was listening to him, and she needed to hear this, too. “There may come a time when we’re going to have to bike around, or canoe around. The world isn’t always going to be as easy as it is now.”

“Why?” Taylor asked. Her windbreaker hood was cinched tight around her face, framing her disagreement.

“We’re using our resources too quickly, for starters. We’ve already created a world prone to disasters. We’re not being as careful as we should.”

“Why are you so freaked out about disasters?” Cassie asked.

“Because I know what’s coming.” Mitchell heard his voice getting tighter. “We’re not going to be able to drive our cars and drink sodas forever. It’s up to your generation.”

“That’s why we did our Earth Day badge,” said Cassie.

“I’m talking about something more serious than planting flowers. What if there’s no more gas? What about hurricanes?”

“There’s oatmeal in your beard,” Jamie said. The girls laughed and Jamie curled her lips without parting them, a smile she’d probably learned from television.

“Let’s get packed up for the hike,” Bev said. Her face was still—Mitchell couldn’t tell if she was as skeptical as the girls. “Rinse your dishes.” The girls moved to the water jug; wet oats scattered across the ground.

“Get your non-cotton layers and your rain gear,” Mitchell said. “I’ll pack lunch and we’ll meet on the beach in ten minutes.”

Everyone dispersed, including Bev. Mitchell’s pulse was still going. He secured the food bag in the tree, leaving the bread and peanut butter stowed. He wasn’t going to bring lunch. He wanted the girls to forage. They needed to appreciate how much was out here.

Mitchell returned to his tent for Tinder. He put his hands on the dog’s lumpy fur and helped him struggle up. In the rain, Mitchell decided, it was probably best to skip the improvised watercraft lesson. The drizzle continued on the twenty-minute paddle over to the base of Pitchoff Mountain. The peak was obscured by thick clouds, the stone sides fading into the sky. If there was thunder, it wouldn’t be safe on the face of the mountain. But getting to the summit wasn’t important. Mitchell was more interested in teaching the girls the survival lessons. The rain would add interesting challenges—they could practice starting a fire without matches, and maybe purify rainwater on the open flame.

“We’re going to abbreviate our hike because of the weather,” Mitchell told them when they’d made it to the pebbled shore. The trailhead was just off the beach, the woods flush with the lake, and when Mitchell craned his neck, all he could see was dense green against grey. Somehow the dark trail would lead them up. “But that’ll give us more time to forage. We’ll supplement our PB & J with the wild edibles you can find out here.”

He was going to wait to tell the girls that he hadn’t packed any sandwiches. While they hauled the canoes, he went to the trailhead to sign the register. Girl Scout Troop 56, he wrote, Utica, NY. Pitchoff via Upper Cascade, undeterred by a summer shower. Hoping for blueberries on the trail.

Tinder was stretched out on the wet sand, refusing to stand up.

“Come on, Tin,” Mitchell said. For years, the dog had bounded ahead of him on trails all over the Adirondacks.

“He’s too tired,” Jamie said. She led the dog to lie down under one of the flipped canoes. “You’ll stay dry here.”

Tinder curled his body into the boat, sheltered from the rain.

“Why did you bring the dog over?” Bev asked.

“He likes being out here.” That was true—Tinder was happiest outside—and Mitchell left him with a hefty bone.

On the trail, the girls ran ahead, instructed to look for the round blue trail markers fixed to the trees. Mitchell planned to stop for lunch at a lookout two miles in.

“Let’s talk about our ideas for badges,” Bev called up to him. The path was narrow, and they were walking single file. “They should do a service project.”

“I’d love to get out here for a winter camping trip.”

“Your wilderness stuff is great, but they need to see women in charge. I want the girls to shadow female professionals. Maybe something with local businesswomen during cookie season.”

“We don’t do cookies.” Mitchell stopped to face Bev. “There are plenty of ways for them to learn leadership skills without overpackaging and corn syrup.”

“My girls sold 2,000 boxes last year. They won a trip to the Sellers Jamboree.”

“I’m sure that was rewarding.” He chose his words carefully. “I just want them to get practical experience.”

“The cookies were great for their self-esteem,” said Bev. “I definitely want them to take part this year.”

Mitchell started walking again. He didn’t want her to see his disappointment.

“You know what we need tonight? Marshmallows.” Bev said this brightly, as though steering them back to their earlier flirtatious potential. “Cassie’s father and I used to go camping,” she continued. “Doobies and s’mores.”

Her words spread out in the stillness.

“It was a long time ago,” Bev added.

But it wasn’t the mention of her ex-husband that bothered him. He sensed, again, that this trip was merely recreational for her. A temporary escape rather than a way to live.

“I’ve been coming to the Adirondacks since I was a kid,” Mitchell said. “They’re not going to be here forever.”

“These mountains seem pretty permanent, Mitchell.” Bev laughed, an invitation, but he was far away from her now.

“Maybe,” he said. “It’s the water and the animals and the trees that I’m worried about.”

“It’s beautiful here.” She said this firmly, but without much conviction, and this time, his disappointment registered in his stomach. He felt his desire leaving him, like a tire with a slow leak. Barely perceptible, and he wanted to ignore it, to keep riding along until he was absolutely without air.

“We should catch up with the girls,” he said. “I don’t want them to miss the turn for the lookout.” He quickened his pace. The girls were waiting where the trail widened at the edge of a steep drop-off. The view was lost in fog, and with the rain still coming down, Mitchell was glad to keep their focus in the woods.

“This is the halfway mark,” he said. “It’s lunchtime, and we’re going to forage.”

“What exactly are we looking for?” Bev asked.

“We’re going to find blueberries and purslane. Dandelion, acorns, mushrooms.”

“That seems risky,” Bev said. “It’s not safe to eat wild mushrooms.”

“Let’s start with greens.” Mitchell scanned the underbrush until he found a familiar pointed sprig. “Gather as much of this sorrel as you can in the next ten minutes. Look for the jagged leaf. Come back when you hear my whistle. Then we’ll talk about ground nuts.”

“Stay close, everyone,” Bev called after them. “Stay in pairs.”

The girls dispersed into the woods. Hundreds of feet down, rain fell on the lake. On a clear day, Mt. Marcy would be visible from here. Yesterday, Mitchell had planned to tell Bev about the 46 high peaks of the Adirondacks. He’d already climbed 29 of them, and he thought they could work on the rest together. But he knew he couldn’t offer this anymore, even with Bev standing right next to him.

“I’m not letting them eat mushrooms,” she said. “You should have discussed your plans with me before the trip.”

“I’ve been teaching mycology workshops for the last six years. I’ve done the research. And I brought my handbook.”

“I’m not trying to teach them how to be pioneers,” Bev said. “They’re twelve years old.”

“They can handle it,” Mitchell said. “They’re learning.”

“I don’t want you to be the only one telling them what to do,” Bev said. “I’d like to model some positive female behavior. Let me navigate for the rest of the hike.”

“Sure,” he told her. “I want the girls to feel empowered. But I can’t help it that I’m a man.”

Mitchell sat down on a rock. Bev took slow steps away from him, finding partial shelter under the boughs of a massive spruce.

Taylor and Lauren came back first, clutching an assortment of leggy greens.

“Where are the sandwiches?” Taylor asked. The rain was more steady and her jacket was shiny, her backpack saturated.

“Hang on,” Mitchell said. “Let’s get everyone together.” He blew into the whistle that hung from his neck, and the girls began to appear around the rocks, laying their greens in a soggy pile.

“Can we eat the peanut butter and jelly now?” Kim Lopinto asked.

They were all watching him, greedy for what they thought he could give them. The noise of the rain seemed far away; the wind was caught up in the trees. But it was right there, impossible to ignore.

“We don’t have any sandwiches,” Mitchell said.

The girls made little sounds around him.

“We’re going to look for crab apples next,” he said. “And nettles, which are pretty cool.”

“You really didn’t bring any lunch?” Bev asked.

Jamie was right on him. “We don’t have any food?”

“There’s plenty here.” He pointed into the woods. Staying calm was crucial. “You just have to be patient.”

“I brought some granola bars.” Bev unzipped her backpack. “We can divvy these up.”

Mitchell thought about the plastic wrappers, shiny and colorful. The trucks, trailing gray smoke, that brought the granola bars to the supermarket. The machines that processed the oats, the lights in the factory, the people in the marketing office who drank coffee in styrofoam cups. The cardboard boxes, the plastic bags from the supermarket.

“If this were a real emergency, I don’t know that you’d be so quick to gobble up the last of your food supply,” he said.

“It’s not an emergency,” Jamie said. “We’re just camping.”

The girls broke the granola bars and ate the pieces quietly. Mitchell wished he had anticipated the rain.

“We have to go back,” Bev said. “There’s food at the campsite.”

“We can’t cross the lake in these conditions,” he said. “It’s not safe. Let’s eat what we can find around here.” To demonstrate, he took a sprig of sorrel and bit the leaf, releasing a bitter taste in his mouth.

“No,” said Bev. Her wet hair was flat and straight. Her eyes looked bigger as a result, her cheekbones sharper. Her beauty was abstract again. “We’re going back to the boats, and as soon as it starts to clear, we’re going to the campsite. We’ve got plenty of food there.”

The girls watched him, silent until Cassie spoke. “Can we go home?”

“It’ll stop raining,” he said. But he didn’t know that this was true. It might pour all night, and though he had rain flies and tarps back at the campsite, he hadn’t prepared for this moment, stuck across the lake with the girls soaked and hungry, aware of what he hadn’t foreseen.

“If we get to the campsite soon, we can canoe back to the cars.” Bev looked straight at him as she said this, as if daring him to challenge her. But there was fear in her eyes too, and he knew exactly what he’d lost.

The ranger station wouldn’t be open that late. Even if the storm blew over, they wouldn’t be able to return the canoes. But there was no point in telling Bev now. The sky was dark gray, and he couldn’t risk crossing the lake until it was much lighter.

“We have to check on Tinder,” Jamie said to Mitchell. “He might be cold.”

He was pleased that she’d thought of the dog. But he was deeply uncomfortable, too—Jamie was using the rational thinking he’d cultivated in her, and she knew he shouldn’t have brought Tinder. She stood by herself, blinking, and when Mitchell tried to put his arm around her, she stepped toward the trail. Bev was already moving away, just a shape at the front of the line.

“Pay attention to the markers,” Jamie said. Both her pride and her apprehension were clear on her face. “We should see a blue circle every fifteen feet.”

She’d listened to what Mitchell had told her. The girls were with her, their coats and bags bright against the deep, dim trees. He wanted to hear what Jamie was going to say. But he waited before he followed her. He was alone with the faint noises of birds and insects, their presence just barely there. He looked out at the lake. From this high up, it was easy to imagine everything hidden behind the clouds.

 

 

 

 

Heidi Diehl’s recent fiction has appeared in Colorado ReviewSlice Magazine, and Hobart. She received her MFA from Brooklyn College and has been awarded fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and the MacDowell Colony for her novel in progress. She lives in Brooklyn.

Cover image adapted from the David Rumsey Map Collection.