The Great Wild Silence
At West Lake there are no trucks or cars roaring in the distance, no train whistles, nothing to suggest the bustling world beyond the trees but a crosshatch of contrails left by jets in the sky above. The only structure standing next to the lake is a hiker’s shelter. The nearest road of any sort is six miles away as the bird flies. The lake lies in the middle of West Canada Lakes Wilderness – the largest roadless area in the Adirondacks. It’s a place where one can walk for days without encountering anything but the wild. And that’s precisely why I wanted to go there.
I found West Lake while poring over topographical maps, looking for a blank spot to satisfy the wild urges awakened by my sojourn in the Alaskan bush many years earlier. I first attempted to reach the lake in 2002 by hiking south along the Northville/Placid Trail. I accessed that trail a few miles beyond Wakely Dam. I set aside six days to reach the lake, hang out there for a while, and get back to my truck. On the second day I strayed. I left the NPT at Cedar Lakes, following an inviting, narrow path that took me to another place deep in the woods called Lost Pond. That digression reaped great rewards yet left me longing for the original object of my desire. Years would pass before I’d get another shot at it.
In 2006 I thru-hiked the Northville/Placid Trail from south to north. A day and a half out of a little town called Piseco, I finally reached West Lake. It was a warm, breezy afternoon in the end of summer. I had the place all to myself. No other people, that is. I shared the lake with wild creatures only – a couple loons, a few songbirds, and some ducks minding their own business. After settling into the shelter, I grabbed my fly rod and rock-hopped as far as I could go beyond the shoreline without getting my feet wet. Then I rolled out my line, dropping an artificial fly among the real ones rising to the lake’s rippling surface. Wild trout were taking their evening meal as sun dipped below distant trees. The sky turned crimson. The lake became glass. Suddenly the world was incredibly silent and still. And it stayed that way long after I returned to camp and went to bed.
In the middle of the night I awoke to the sound of my own breathing. I opened my eyes to see the moon shining high in the sky over the lake. The wild world around me was just as quiet as it had been at dusk. It was so quiet, so still that I could barely comprehend what was happening. Or perhaps I should say, what was not happening. I wanted to shout something to break the spell, but no utterance spilled from my gaping mouth. Instead the silence swallowed me whole, making me aware of something greater than myself. In her book Holy the Firm Annie Dillard wrote: “We wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God.” Clearly she too had experienced that awakening somewhere in the wild. It is hard to imagine it taking place anywhere else.
What is it that we escape when we venture into deep woods? More importantly, what is it that we seek there? Some 19th Century American thinkers considered the wild a remedy that could sooth souls sickened by a brand new phenomenon called industrialization. “We need the tonic of wildness,” Henry David Thoreau asserted in his book, Walden. “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” John Muir added a few years later, expanding upon the theme. The many benefits of civilization should not be underestimated, nor should they be taken for granted. Yet something else has happened to us during the past century or two – a disturbing change in our frame of mind that’s the direct consequence of too much technological success.
We have reached a point where wilderness is no longer a threat to us, where the wild itself has become something endangered. To a great extent this wildness consists of the tangible things that constitute the natural world: the flora and fauna around us, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the earth we trod. Yet there is another facet to wildness, an intangible aspect that stirs deep within us. And that’s precisely what rises to the surface whenever we allow it to do so, whenever we are in a place that cultivates it, when we are in a truly wild place. In such places, it is easy to question our civilizing tendencies and wonder what is happening to us as a consequence of them. What is gained in the process? What is being lost?
It does no good to disparage civilization as a whole, or the various cultures that have arisen from it during the past ten thousand years. Likewise we do ourselves a great disservice when we write off our distant ancestors as troglodytes incapable of appreciating art or sophisticated ideas. These polarities insult the wisdom of the ages, thus devaluating the human. There is more to being human than most of us are willing to believe. There is more to being human than accumulating great surpluses of food, making tools, devising complex systems of interaction or embracing some credo. Much more. And in wild places, in those places similar to where humanity emerged, there is room enough to see this. Exposure to the wild opens the mind.
Before continuing my hike along the Northville/Placid Trail, I spent a day at West Lake doing a lot of nothing, simply grooving with the natural world. I jotted down random thoughts in a notebook while lounging in the rocks along the shoreline. I daydreamed while enjoying the company of dragonflies. I stripped off all of my clothes and went for a swim, getting clean in more ways than one. I tended a small campfire long after fixing dinner, just to watch its flames dance. That cleared my head. “What did you do out there?” people often ask when I tell them that I just spent several days in the woods. Bagging peaks, catching fish, and hiking trails end-to-end are activities that make sense to the average urbanite. After all, they are appropriately goal-oriented. But to just be there? What for? What’s the sense in that? I usually don’t succeed when I try to explain it. Truth is, some of the best things in life can’t be explained. They have to be experienced.
I wish I could articulate the great wild silence, putting into words the way it consumes me. I long to vocalize the unfiltered reality of nature, thereby making it intelligible to empire builders, dreamers of heavenly cities, and other utterly urban folk. But that’s not how it goes. Some people are in tune with their wild selves, others are not. And words cannot bridge the gap between them. Words can’t even bridge the gap between one hiker and another. Two people can travel through the woods together and have entirely different walks: one experiencing a wild epiphany while the other merely swats mosquitoes and longs for the comforts of civilization. The great wild silence isn’t for everyone. It speaks only to those who are ready and willing to listen.
There is a limit to how much one can talk about wildness without sounding foolish. Countless artists have tried to capture the wild on canvas only to caricaturize it. Countless poets have rendered it silly and dreamlike. Misty mountains, roaring waterfalls, soaring eagles and all the rest of it – the sublime becomes a cliché all too easily. And our stories aren’t much better. The high drama of wilderness survival is entertaining enough, but that too misses the point. After all, it’s the small, inconsequential aspects of the wild world that reach deep within us, rocking us to the very core of our being.
I like the company of children when I go into the woods. Adults carry too much baggage with them. Adults are all wrapped up in their desires, distracted by workaday lives, stifled by all the rules of social engagement both written and unwritten. Children, on the other hand, live in the moment. Dogs even more so. They may not interpret the silence the same way a brooding thinker like me does, but they rarely miss the hoot of an owl in the distance or a passing chipmunk. And therein lies the beauty of their wild encounters. Their wildness is straightforward, more earthbound. Their wildness runs much closer to the surface.
In 2008 I returned to the West Canada Lake Wilderness. This time I went only as far as Sampson Lake. Once again I sat for a day, and once again I sensed something about the world around me that’s greater than myself. One of these days I’m going to go deep into the woods and stay there for a week or more, doing as little as I did when I was in the Alaskan bush. That will be a rewarding outing, no doubt. But I won’t have much to write about afterward. The great wild silence renders an attentive listener mute every time. There is no expression that doesn’t trivialize it. There are no words or manmade images that can adequately describe the phenomenon. It is, by definition, unspeakable.
Walt McLaughlin is an avid outdoorsman who has written extensively about his backcountry experiences. His work has appeared in Conservationist, Vermont Life, Writing Nature and dozens of other periodicals. He has several books in print, including a narrative about his immersion in the Alaskan bush, Arguing with the Wind, and one about hiking Vermont’s Long Trail, Forest under my Fingernails. His narrative about hiking in the Adirondacks, The Allure of Deep Woods, was recently published by North Country Books. He lives in Saint Albans, Vermont with his wife, Judy.