(The beginning of a book I’m gonna write.)
In the summer of 2006, I realized that I had a finite number of jumps off the bluff left to me. Of course, I would not be vacationing in Saranac Lake forever, and even if I did keep going there into my old age, sooner or later, I would have to give up jumping off the bluff. Jumping off the back bluff on Bluff Island is the signature event of our vacations at Saranac Lake, and the realization that the number of such events remaining to me was, in fact, quite limited, was a profound realization.
That summer, as our two weeks drew to a close on Friday evening, Elaine and Nate and I motored out in the Boston Whaler to Bluff. It was late and getting a little chilly and windy, with a slight chop on the lake. I grabbed a small towel and we took off. As Elaine circled in the channel between Bluff and Partridge Islands, I dove, or rather, jumped heavily, off the boat, into the bracing, cleaner-than-you-can-believe water of Lower Saranac Lake. Nate and I swam to to the bluff, found the natural seat just below the waterline of the granite, and clambered up, adding a few more droplets into the small pockmarks that the rain has begun digging into the surface. Up top, which is only about twelve feet high, we looked into the water, hesitated for longer than seems necessary, and jumped in. I sank down below the surface, and, as always, it seemed a long time before rising to the top.
I swam to the boat, pulled myself up on the swim ladder, shivered, and dried myself off inadequately, teeth chattering, but smiling broadly. One more jump. A fitting, but bittersweet, ending to another August vacation on Lower Saranac Lake.
As Elaine drove back, I focused on the sky, the clouds, the boulders, and the pine-covered islands: Halfway, Otter, Green, Fern, Eagle, and The Sisters. Nate took the helm after a few minutes. But as we overtook Eagle, I grinned and insisted that I wanted the wheel. I pushed the throttle forward and we sped through the Sister Islands channel faster than we do when swimmers might be around. As we neared Ampersand Bay, the wind blew the tears out of our eyes. Friday night, and it was over.
While being the central memory of our vacations at Ampersand Bay Boat Club (ABBC, a resort at the east end of Saranac Lake in New York’s Adirondack Park), we never jumped off Bluff Island in our first four years. From 1998 through 2001, we had puttered around in small rental boats and canoes, and satisfied ourselves with auto-accessible destinations. But on August 14, 2002, now outfitted with our own 13-foot Boston Whaler, I asked John, the low-key owner of ABBC, if there were islands on the lake that we could use. “Oh,” he brightened up, “you mean day use areas.” In previous years, we had seen the many islands dotting the lake, but they all seemed to be reserved by, and used by, overnight campers. To pull up a boat on just any old spot would be something like trespassing.
“Yes,” John continued, “there are day use areas, here on Eagle, here by the river, and here on Bluff Island.” He circled the spots on the map, which I gratefully accepted. That was John, low-key to a fault; he was friendly and helpful, and I loved him. But, if we hadn’t asked, he wouldn’t have volunteered.
Elaine, Ericka, Anna, and I boated out to inspect more carefully this Bluff Island, which we had seen many times; the south side of the island rises eighty feet above the lake, in a nearly-vertical bluff. “Nearly vertical” enough for people to jump off. Not necessarily middle-aged men with two young children, but crazy young guys. At Adirondack Medical Center, they have two usual causes for admissions to the ER: fishhooks jabbed into people’s soft parts and dislocated shoulders from people jumping eighty feet off the main bluff.
We circled the island once or twice, looking for a place to beach the boat. We’re a pretty cautious bunch of boaters: Elaine, Joe, and I. (And then there’s Derek.) So we reversed course at the big bluff and inspected the island closely, keeping it to our left, but at a safe distance. Nothing looked good as we rounded the eastern tip of the island. And as we tried to edge around the north side, rock buoys and smaller islets kept us off. Circling around to the northern tip, the bedrock sloped off into the water. Still nowhere to pull up. But, this was a day-use area, there had to be a spot to pull up a motorboat. Rounding the northern tip, we spotted the smaller back bluff. Much smaller, only about ten-fifteen feet high.
“There!” We spotted a promising little nook just left of the bluff, “I can see where people have pulled their boats up. Motor on slowly, and I’ll look out from the bow.” I throttled back and nosed the Whaler in cautiously. “It’s okay, okay, okay.” Elaine called out. “Watch this one rock on the left, and you’ll be fine.” I killed the motor and we drifted in the remaining few feet. As the boat thunked harmlessly onto the sand, we tied up. Ever cautious, I threw out the stern anchor too.
We were delighted. On the the northern spit of the island, a flattish peninsula about 100 yards long, there were three fireplace areas, each large enough to accommodate a group of several families. The main island large was enough for nine year-old kids to explore but not large enough to lose them, informal trails criss-crossing the whole place, all leading to the top of the big bluff with a magnificent view of the lake, the islands, the entrance to the river channel, and distant mountains. And best of all, the small back bluff for jumping.
It never crossed my mind that one day I would be counting the number of times I had jumped off the bluff, nor that I would be planning how to squeeze in one final jump.