65 Jumps – A Real Blind Man’s Bluff

We were not the only ones to enjoy jumping off the bluff. It’s a popular destination for anyone out on the lake, and other families frequent it, although more locals than tourists, many of whom prefer the smooth aisles of the Lake Placid Benetton to the pine needles, tree roots, and uneven bedrock of Bluff Island. Many times, another family or another group would appear, and we’d all share that feeling you get when just you and a few other people know some secret.

On August 16, 2002, two days after our discovery of Bluff Island we went back again. This day the Windels (Derek, Liz, Nathan, & Anna) came out too. After we were settled, another rather noisy large gang pulled up in canoes near the base of the bluff. It seemed to be youth group, with adult leaders and distinctly less-than-capable teenagers. They were blind. We couldn’t believe it. It was an “Outward Bound” type youth outing, bringing blind and disadvantaged kids canoe-camping in the Adirondacks for a few weeks. They tied up their watercraft and the leaders brought them up to the bluff. And they loved it.

The blind teenage boys fell into two stereotypes: big, strong black guys and skinny, pale white kids. The guides were middle-aged, and managed their charges with a casualness that surprised us. They all spread out and we all chatted and interacted. I was with one of the white kids, who wanted to sit by the water, right at the water’s edge, with his feet dangling in the water. “No, I don’t know how to swim,” he said. But when I pulled him back or moved him, he insisted that he wanted to feel his feet in the water. Somewhat ashamed that I had not grasped his interest in sensing the cool water of the lake lapping at his toes, I relented and brought him back to the edge.

Elaine noticed one of the larger black blind kids, Ellis, who was large enough, but not that muscular, and distinctly even less capable than the rest. “Stephen” she called in a voice of studied casualness that I understood immediately, “throw me one of those white cushions from the boat.” Yeah, one of the white life-saving cushions that Ellis could grab onto while he flailed in the water. I had rigged up a yellow line, extending down into the water, to assist out new sightless friends getting out of the water. (Many of them could swim, and had been jumping in.) But poor Ellis, he seemed to spend most of the time splashing away, half-drowning, hollering, and fumbling with the cushion and the rope, while Elaine watched and helped him as much as she could. He must have been more capable than he appeared, because the guides never made a move for him, and despite his continuous gurgling protests, he neither drowned nor did anyone haul him out of the water.

Ellis’ behavior, and the guides indifferent approach to it, helped set up the final scene. Many of the blind kids had gone in the water, they all seemed to get along, and there were plenty of adults right there. It all seemed safe enough. When one of the big black blind kids picked up one of the skinny white ones, and took him to the edge of the bluff, with the intent to throw him in, I didn’t think much of it. The smaller kid was protesting, but no more vehemently than any sighted kid in the same situation. I glanced at the guides, who were unconcerned. The big kid stood up, raised the smaller one up high, faced right out onto the wide open lake … and then, to my speechless, frozen, horror, threw the damn kid sideways, … bouncing and scraping and howling down along the steeply slanting bluff. A few people went right in after him, and pulled him to safety, none the worse for wear, other than a long nasty scrape on his forearm.

We were all pretty shaken, and when the blind group paddled off, we were relieved that nothing worse had happened. The late afternoon sun went behind the clouds, the wind picked up, the temperature dropped, we packed up the boats, and headed in.