On the banks of Lake Champlain, the scars of floods and fires

lakeside-apartments-plattsburgh-nyPLATTSBURGH, N.Y.
Lakeside Apartments was already drowning. Hurricane Irene just held it under a minute to finish the job.

The brown, concrete complex on the edge of Plattsburgh was built in 1960 and has the open, geometric elements that are a hallmark of that time. One corner points toward Lake Champlain, looking for all the world like the nose of a ship at the edge of the beach. Only it has run aground.

I don’t know what it was like in the 1960s. No one talks about its heyday, if it had one, in which perhaps families arrived in slick, metal cars full of beach umbrellas and archaic societal attitudes.

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The units were occupied by low-income, mostly short-term tenants when Lake Champlain flooded in May 2011, washing away the beach and flooding the property. Lakeside Apartments was evacuated of about 200 people who were told they’d be able to move back later that summer. But that wasn’t to happen.

First there was a fire, in the weeks following the flood, that damaged several units when a squatter is alleged to have left incense burning in a shrine.lakeside-apartments-plattsburgh-ny8Then, in August, Hurricane Irene. 

The Category 3 storm tore up the Caribbean, and eastern United States, killing at least 53 along the way. She flooded Long Island and devastated the Catskills. In the Adirondacks, she caused landslides on her way to Canada, where power lines and buildings were damaged as far inland as Montreal.

And, of course, the Lakeside Apartments would never recover.

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“Right now it really is a distressed property,” Mayor James Calnon told the Press Republican last year. “We  want to get it out of distress, and we hope that will happen.”

“That” is a development project proposed when the land was sold in 2014 by Montreal businessman Collin Nieme, according to the Press Republican. If all goes well (though “goes well” is a matter of perspective), the land will be gentrified, with long-term leases and fancy hair salons.

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The Lakeside, at last, might be out of distress. For now, it is broken and smells of ash and worse things. Though police are said to drive by when they think of it, no one stopped me from wandering around the property, though I had to avert my eyes when I turned the corner to the lake side and made eye contact with a woman carrying out some delicate business in the back seat of a car.

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Through the blinds: Once-removed from motel theatre

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y.
The drama played out in muffled sounds across the smooth black parking lot of the motel.

Knocking first. Insistent. Hollow. Without echo, although the long low brick was mirrored on our side.

We lifted our second-storey blinds enough to spy on a blond woman pacing on the asphalt, phone in hand, periodically banging on the door, circling a car that was black but for the orange “city taxi” sign on top. The other side of the motel was mostly low-income housing, monthly rentals in front of which were colourful plastic chairs and swept-clean walkways. The curtains were drawn on all but two: through those windows we could see a large TV flickering; another had a fox skin on one wall and at least three taxidermied heads on the opposite wall. 

We didn’t want to get involved in the theatre downstairs, but I was in the midst of an allergy attack and my meds were in the car. Melani took her time and reported back, Benadryl in hand.

“I think the person inside called her, and she’s worried about whatever she heard.” The idea gave the flat thumping a more ominous tone, made this feel like something other than a lovers’ tiff.

There were words exchanged between the woman and the cab-driver, and the woman and a man who was sitting nearby, in front of his own motel unit. We couldn’t make out individual words.

A pattern emerged, more frantic with each repetition: knock, say a few words to the man, or the cabbie, pace, knock again. Melani was dying to help, because she’s like that. I was dying for her to, because I can’t stand not knowing the story. It seemed impossible that this one could have a positive ending. We hunkered down and hoped it wouldn’t escalate dangerously, peeking out the blinds less and less often.

“There’s an ambulance there now,” Melani hissed some time later, and my stomach flipped. The cab was gone, and the paramedics were pulling on gloves, leaving their doors open as they spoke briefly with the woman. The man who had been sitting on his front stoop got up, stood closer to her. There were people on the upper balcony — but not on our side, which was made up more of transient weekend visitors, not long-term residents as across the lot.

A paramedic banged on the door and waited. From across the way and through the dark, we could see the woman’s panic rising. The paramedic looked over his shoulder at his partner, but we couldn’t read his expression. A police car pulled up and parked behind the ambulance with its lights off. The cop got out of the car slowly, and he seemed perfectly relaxed. He hung back, staying out of the paramedics’ way, but within sight of the other players in the drama.

The paramedic put a hand on the window, looked back at his partner again. He did the one thing the woman, in her fear and excitement, hadn’t thought of: He pushed the window open. He leaned his head inside and yelled something — a name we couldn’t make out. He yelled again, then stepped back.

The entire complex was still but for the carnival lights of the ambulance.

The door cracked open and then, a breath later, was pulled all the way open by an elderly woman with a cane. The paramedic said something to her, and she must have answered him, because he poked his head into the room, then turned away and shrugged at his partner. They each stripped off their white gloves and returned the ambulance.

We put the blinds down for a few minutes — spying was fully indecent now that we knew there was no danger. Still, the next time we peeked, there was a pile of things on the walkway in front of the woman’s room. Residents were in motion, too — the blond woman with the phone, the man who had been sitting to watch, someone else from an upper floor. They rushed up and down the central stairs, heads together, into and out of a different room. The taxi was back. The driver didn’t get out this time, though he popped open the trunk. The blond and the man had a brief, intense conversation that ended with a hug.

When the taxi pulled away with the blond inside, every door closed and most lights flipped off.

The motel was silent, as though nothing had happened at all.

The not-quite ghost town of Venosta, Quebec

VENOSTA, Que.
We were inspired to spend a weekend in the municipality of Low when an opinion piece on the importance of saving Quebec’s ghost towns came across my desk. We have gone ghost-town hunting in Pennsylvania and in Texas, but searching in our own back yard had never occurred to us.

Venosta, the ancestral town of the writer, isn’t strictly a ghost town, as many homes are obviously lived in and the lush land is still farmed. Settled primarily by Irish immigrants in the 1800s, this region in the Gatineau Hills about 50 kilometres north of Ottawa is an agricultural and logging area, and so has benefited and suffered from the historic highs and lows of those industries.

We got more than we bargained for with our rented cottage in Low, and a little less than we expected in the ghost town, a collection of picturesque falling-down buildings surrounded by high grass, and fields and trees beyond.

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No rest for the wicked in this cabin in the woods

GATINEAU HILLS, Que.
I’m pretty sure that Airbnb was haunted.

I didn’t realize it right away. We pulled in just before midnight, parking to the side of the white bungalow. A stone’s throw away, across the drizzled grass, was a white church, its windows dark.

The wet fog and mist turned to heavy rain as I cut the engine and we dashed onto the wooden porch, trying not to make too much noise, though we couldn’t see our closest neighbours. A lone streetlight a hundred metres away highlighted the outline of barren road twisting away from us.

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The front door had art-deco stained glass that vibrated as Melani worked at the lock. The sounds were swallowed by the rain and our giggles as we burst into the cottage.

Directly in front of us, a vaguely glowing rectangle, when lit, morphed into a giant painting of an owl holding a ball of fire, or the earth, or sitting on a shining egg-soul or somesuch. Opposite this horned monster was an ancient off-white and rose piano intricately carved and lovingly propped on its one good leg.

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This discordant music and art room was separated from the rest of the house by sweeping black curtains. I pulled them apart to step through, thinking of the owner, “she’s pagan,” as one might realize “she’s Irish” or “she likes owls.” There was a collage of pagan flourishes on the wall over a dozen crystals placed carefully and exactly in a cross pattern on a round altar. The collage said: “Life deeply loves you.”

Yet as we explored the house, lighting corners, we turned up more spiritual imagery: there were votive candles and angels, Native American wards, Cinco de Mayo and vodoun pieces, burnt sage. A Buddhist shrine. Tibetan prayer cloths. There were candles and incense and crystals on every flat surface.

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“She’s covering all her bases,” I thought, trying to ignore the foreign creaks and gurgles coming from the dim kitchen. “What is she protecting herself from?”

I was following four-year-old Jilly to the second storey when she said, in her way, “I like the stairs in this haunted house, Mum.” I stopped dead.

haunted airbnb piano 2“Why on earth would you say that it’s haunted?” I asked, my voice an octave higher than I’d intended. She was already on the landing, so talked down to me: “The floorboards creak. Floorboards only creak in haunted houses.” She demonstrated on a loose section of hardwood in front of a darkly stained door labeled “Private.”

The rain had slowed to an unnervingly rhythmic staccato on the tin roof and we could hear the splashing of the creek behind the house, and the fertile cries of frogs and bugs. With no moon or stars and the streetlight faded into the mist, the world was black outside the windows. I decided I would not be afraid in this old wooden house that was trying so hard to be welcoming and to fend off things that might scare us.

I opened a downstairs door expecting the promised third bedroom and instead found a large mudroom hung with man-shaped coats and rubber-soled shoes and there, against the inky window, was a strange shape with broken curlicues. I leaned in closer and found myself staring hard into brown eyes that were judging or longing, framed by a sepia-toned face and hair that hinted at romance. The woman in the picture wore puffed sleeves and ribbon and a pearl choker. I looked at her, and she was looking right back at me.

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A room away, Jilly had sat at the piano and was playing something tuneful. Yet no one has ever taught her how to play.

I tripped over my ankles backing out of the closet and shut the door. I don’t remember what I said to Melani, but I know I told her she wasn’t to open the door again. Searching for a wine glass I found the stash of extra votive candles, incense and tarot cards. The owner was on a mission to keep this home safe and grounded. Who were we to doubt her?

Yet I sat for a long time with my back to the wall, and I would not look at the closet door.

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The case of the missing dam and the great stick rescue

NEW RUSSIA, N.Y.
The backroads from Plattsburg to West Winfield follow a wide rocky creek called the Bouquet River that appears and vanishes and curls under low bridges and behind tall pines.

My friend Laurie and I had a very loose roadtrip schedule — 24 hours to do a five-hour drive — so we were open to spending some time closer to the water on one of the first hot days of spring.

“Let’s go there!” one of us said with the enthusiasm of a mom set free and desperate for adventure when we passed a sign for Thrall Dam. Except was the last and only Thrall Dam sign we would see. We watched for it, but maybe the whole dam thing was a hallucination. All we wanted was to get closer to the water, and we wanted it five minutes ago, and there was that river coiling just out of our reach like a housecat. We swerved into the first pullout we found and climbed down grass, dirt, and tree roots to get to the Bouquet.

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Upstream were pockets of calm and a picturesque bridge. Downstream, a glassy pool into which a young fisherman wearing khakis and flat sneakers was casting his line, a beagle-shaped dog at his side.

Yet there we were between the two, where the rocks were at their thickest and most uneven and the ice-clear water had to bubble and force its way to tumble loudly down a two-storey-high waterfall.

00bouqet river ny stick1Laurie had taken her sandals off at the top of the embarkment; I let my rubber soles slide over the moss till I found sure footing.

“There’s a walking stick in there,” Laurie said, pointing.

“Huh,” I replied. I had nearly fallen while standing still on a rock. I was mortified. Plus, I wasn’t sure where she was going with this whole walking stick business.

“Or it could be just a stick stick. Look at it.”

I squinted into the blurred brook. There was a good-size stick in there, indeed, that looked smooth and straight, with a slightly pointed tip and what could have been a thicker handhold.

“I’m going to get it,” she announced.

It was smack in the middle of the river, at the head of the waterfall, and so I said (as is my custom), “Don’t kill yourself.”

If she rolled her eyes at me, I didn’t see it, so busy was I staying soberly upright as I attempted to take pictures of the rushing river with my phone. She stepped into the glacial water and set one dainty foot on a large, slippery rock. I was paying attention now — I didn’t know how I’d get my friend from the bottom of the waterfall if she tumbled in.

“Be careful,” I said again, in my best mom voice.

She threw me a look made of humour, annoyance, and self-preservation and stepped back onto the rocky bank.

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The story should have ended there, but I felt bad. She clearly wanted that stick badly enough to risk a bloody head injury and hypothermia. Plus, you know, I really love it when rocks and water come together to make something beautiful. I kicked off my sandals — nearly falling on my own head again, and stepped ankle-deep into the water.

It was the kind of icy that forces a lump into your throat and sends chills up your sciatic nerve, along your spine, coming to rest somewhere at the base of your neck like a hunk of snow that gets in under your scarf and coat that you know is going to melt and run down your back and make you freeze from the inside out.

I scanned each rock just below the clear surface, planning a path to the stick that avoided stepping into a wild whirlpool between me and it. It wasn’t going to be possible. Doubled over, with each foot on slick stone and fingers castled over rocks that turned their faces to the sun, I did an awkward slippery dance in a half-circle toward our prize. It was almost in reach. One foot was in the vortex, pulling me with more strength that I’d imagined toward the waterfall and the fisherman, who had thrown in the towel and was climbing the embankment with his dog. He either ignored our girlish squeals or couldn’t hear them over the roar of the falls.

I was wibbly-wobbly, but the stick was just there. Laurie was yelling encouragement in the form of hilarious taunts.

I developed this very non-graceful method of sliding my foot down a sharp rock till it found the place where it met another rock, then lifting my other foot to a stone on the opposite side, sliding till I found a similar foothold, all the time bending nearly double to steady myself with other rocks. I spent a good minute in the vortex, trying to plot my next move.

Two stones later, I leaned — closer closer closer — no longer concerned with my numb ankles, or the jagged stone on the soles of my feet.

Closer, till my fingertips like a lover brushed the sweaty tip and it was that gentle touch that renewed my resolve and with one more push forward and down my palm grasped it at the slippery base. Rather than recoiling at its wet and waxy flesh, I held it aloft and yelled something savage and triumphant as Laurie captured the moment digitally.

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Aglow, I looked down to check my footing, only to discover one side of my tank top had been yanked down during my passionate dive.

“AH! My boob!” I yelled. “One more without the exposure!”

I posed, and though it didn’t document the exact moment of triumph, the photograph drips with the residue of my joy.

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That dam stick set the tone for the rest of our journey, which saw Laurie conquer a giant tree stump, the threat of skinny dipping upriver, the crossing of a rickety, rotten bridge for no reason other than to cross it … but never a stop at the mysterious, missing Thrall Dam.

A walk in the park: Flume Gorge

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

LINCOLN, N.H. — Some stories must be told vertically.

Website developers and lovers of the iPad’s ubiquitous 1000×750 images might argue the point. But they would be wrong.

Some stories must be told vertically. The story of Flume Gorge is one of those.

The adventurer credited with discovering Flume Gorge in the early 1800s wasn’t your average explorer: She was a 93-year-old auntie, and she was just out looking for a new fishing hole when the gurgling of a brook drew her to the gorge.

That sound enticed Aunt Jess Guernsey into the brush that had curtained a giant gash in the side of Mount Pemigewasset. There it was before her in its vertical glory:

Granite walls rising 90 feet with just 20 feet of air between them. Nearly as high as the clouds was a monstrous egg-shaped boulder suspended miraculously atop the gorge. The gorge itself, blanketed in ferns and moss and dripping with stone-sweet water, was at least 800 feet long. An unseasonably cool, damp air cascaded through it above the deceptively powerful Flume Brook.

Life blooms near Avalanche Falls.

Eighty years later a great storm would wash away the boulder and create Avalanche Falls, 45 feet high and loud enough to be heard from a mile away. The Sentinel Pine, a giant of a tree that stood above the still waters of a pool halfway up the gorge, weathered that storm but would be felled by a hurricane in 1938. It would be repurposed as a bridge, to continue its watch over the pool.

But back in 1803, Auntie Jess scrambled over the rocks for a better look, then rushed back to share her discovery with her family. But she was 93, remember. They didn’t believe her.

The stories don’t say how long it took the family to get on board. Maybe she gave up trying to convince them. Maybe she was eventually followed to her magical fishing hollow by one of the littles, who confirmed her tale.

Faced with believing an auntie or a little … well, we’ll never know, will we?

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three wheels

After much discussion, we are giving Flume Gorge three stroller wheels out of a completely arbitrary five. We leaned toward four, but the final decision comes down to cost vs. fun.

The $16 per person price tag is prohibitive; $48 for two hours of exploring is just too much, even though Jilly got in free, and even though we believe strongly in supporting the public parks system.

But it was stunningly beautiful in there and the cool air was just what we needed. There was an excellent mix of wide easy trails and fun twisty wooden walkways along the side of the rock. This is not the sort of place you’d want to bring a stroller, however — the stairs and few rough trails would be far too frustrating.

The White Mountains are just beautiful and this was a good way to get up close and personal with them for two hours.