In the February Thaw

Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, continues his story from last month, about mysterious happenings in the Ramapo mountains…

There had been an early February thaw long enough that most of the snow had melted off and there was a lot of critter movement. Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, had come out and wandered about, staring at their shadow in the bright winter sunshine. Then they went back into their dens, because seeing their shadow meant winter would last another six weeks. But if it is a long mid-winter thaw, the groundhogs hang out for a few days and poke around for something to eat. Deer mice come out and hurry about looking for food with no fear of snakes, as the snakes don’t travel far from their winter dens. The mice do need to keep a watch out for raccoons, foxes, coyotes, weasels and hawks—but at least not the snakes. Raccoons and skunks take long naps in the cold weather; not quite hibernating, but long enough to make them very hungry when they come out from time to time. Trappers of these animals bait their traps with oil of anisette, which smells like licorice and is a delicious attraction for hungry coons and skunks.

Geoff Masters went walking along beneath one of the terraces of Torne Mountain to ‘freshen’ up a few traps with some lore he carried in an eye-drop bottle. It was a mixture of anisette, tea tree oil, and skunk urine. The coon population was very much on the rise, so he was doing his best to capture and kill as many of them as he could. The fur was worth as much as $15 an animal, and the meat was the secret ingredient for the Ramapo Burgers, cooked up at his cousin’s Burger Shack. It was the second day of a February thaw and it was early, just past sunrise, when Geoff came around a clutch of boulders along the south slope of the ridge, and nearly walked headlong into a man coming from the other direction. They were both startled and they both stepped back and stared for a moment. This man wore a canvas backpack and was carrying a wooden handle with a curious metal hook at the end of it. The man smiled and said something about it being a nice day for a hike. Geoff agreed and they walked past each other.

But Geoff only went a few feet and then hunkered down and waited behind a large egg-shaped boulder. He feared that this man was a trap stealer and that his curious stick with the hook on it was what he used to snap up the traps he stole. So, after a few minutes, Geoff followed back to track the man. But as he came around the place where they first met, he saw that this man had not gone on down the trail, but instead had gone up the cliff side. Geoff followed up the cliff just a bit and then, out above him, he saw the man setting up a little place, and then proceeding to sit down and watch the broken load of rocks, with the sun on his back.

Later, Geoff said to Uncle Mal at the paint shop, “Mal, I spied on this fellow for at least half an hour and all he did was sit and watch those rocks.”

Mal said, “Was he crazy?”

Geoff shook his head and said, “Except for the watching the rocks thing, he seemed sane enough.”

Me and Ricky where listening to the two men talk about this from where we sat on a heap of canvas drop sheets petting Old Mike, the Shop Dog. Ricky said, “Uncle Mal, how could you tell if a fella was crazy?”

Mal said, “By his behavior, by the way he acts.”
“My Gram says, one man’s crazy is another man’s normal.”
Mal looked down at him and said, “Your grandmother talks to trees so I don’t think she’s a good judge of crazy.”

“She says crazy is something only people can be, animals don’t go in for being crazy.”
Geoff laughed at this. He said, “She’s got a point there.”
Ricky looked into Old Mike’s fuzzy, black face and said, “You ain’t much crazy, Mike!”

Mal said, “Yes sir, the old lady’s right about that. Crazy is something we humans take credit for.”
He then looked at Geoff and said, “But I wonder if this here fellow sitting up on those rocks in the thaw ain’t watching for snakes…”

“Snakes?” Geoff said, “Why would a man watch for snakes in February?”
Mal shrugged and said, “I don’t know, but last month the boys found a froze-up black snake down by the river and that don’t seem right either. You think this fellow might have something to do with that?”

Geoff shook his head and said, “I don’t see how the one thing is connected to the other.”
Ricky looked up and said, “My Gram says everything is connected to the other.”
Mal said, “And she’s the woman who talks to trees, boy!”

And Ricky said, “She likes the oak trees and says they’re the smartest. Pine are serious and the Birch are silly.”

Mal shook his head and told us to go out and talk to some trees. We did, but I couldn’t help to wonder if he wanted us out of there so they could talk some more about this mysterious stranger, up in the mountain staring at snake dens.

Mystery at Lake Antrim

Last month, Chuck Stead, our beloved camp storyteller, told us of his day sponging up water from the floor of Mrs. Sutherland’s basement, and the brief glimpse he caught of an old garage on her property. Read on, as the story continues…


After Uncle Mal and Slip McCloskey fixed the leak in Mrs. Sutherland’s basement, Mal decided we ought to do a spring clean-up in her back yard. I was eager to do this because when we were there a month ago, I noticed an old garage full of interesting looking stuff. I got Ricky to come along with us by bribing him with an ice cream reward.

We rode over in Mal’s pick-up truck. He backed the truck down into the yard and stopped a few feet from the open garage door. We jumped out and ran around to the big open doorway and fixed our eyes on all things metal and wooden and old and mysterious. Uncle Mal came around the other side of the truck and handed us two pairs of small canvas work gloves. He said, “We ain’t going in there. We’re doing yard work!”. Reluctantly, we followed him to the right side of the building and into the back yard, which sloped down to the shore of Lake Antrim. It was a great place to have a back yard, right there on the lake. The only thing was that half of the lake was filled in by the New York State Thruway. The Thruway was as tall as a two-story house. It was close too; if you jumped into the water you could swim to the gravel in a few minutes. And it was loud—especially when a big eighteen-wheeler truck went by. Where we lived in Hillburn was close to the Thruway, but not this close.

Uncle Mal stood clear of us and swung away with a grass sickle. We had a couple of leaf rakes and were pulling the leaves away from the side of the building. Where the yard dropped off to the water line, the garage had a lower room facing the lake. We walked around this back area and discovered that this end of the building looked like a little house. It had a couple of windows and a door in the center. We looked into the first window and saw some furniture arranged in there like someone used to live inside.

“That was a very special place,” Mrs. Sutherland said from behind us.
Mal walked over with his sickle in hand and said, “You two get away from there!”
Mrs. Sutherland said, “No, Malcolm, let them go inside.”

Uncle Mal walked around the old lady and opened the door with some effort, as it was jammed. He got it full open and told us not to touch anything. We stepped into the dank musty room and saw that cobwebs, like a hundred miniature fairy curtains, were everywhere–draped over wicker chairs and a plank table. There were three old steamer trunks, a bunch of garden tools, and an old-fashioned icebox. We stepped into the middle of the room. There was a feeling in this space, a sad feeling.

Ricky said, “This place needs to be happy.”
Uncle Mal said, “You two need to rake up them leaves!”
But Mrs. Sutherland said, “The boy is right, Mal. Enough time has passed. This was such a good place. It needs to be happy again.” She looked at me and Ricky and said, “This summer, you boys come back and I’ll pay you to fix up this place.”

Uncle Mal told her we only needed to be paid in ice cream, but she said she would pay in dollars. As we walked back outside, the old woman said, “And bring your friend Cindy. This place needs a girl’s touch!”

She then looked across the lake at the Thruway and said, “Yes, this place has been sad for too long a time.”


To Be Continued this summer at The Nature Place…