Over the course of many years working in the woods and on the waters, I've come across plenty of unique characters. Some became good friends, a few were sketchy and a couple were even marginally scary.
Fortunately, I've traveled with plenty of good company, and rarely with poor company. But, I must say, the majority of my most memorable trips usually involved Doctor Bob.
When we first met, Doctor Bob managed a franchise of children's dental clinics in northern New Jersey, Westchester County and Manhattan. As could be expected with the position, Doc was a very busy man.
Doctor Bob’s son Sabastian Belfon poses for the camera as the float plane motors up to the beach in front of the camp on Tirrel Pond.
(Photo — Nancie Battaglia)
He worked hard and played even harder, and his greatest pleasure was to spend his very sparse, spare time pursuing brook trout in the remote regions of the Adirondacks.
He was fanatical about brook trout, and of course I was not far behind. However, there were a few major obstacles we had to deal with. The first of which was the fact that Doctor Bob was totally scared of the water. He didn't know how to swim a single stroke.
Secondly, he was so large and top heavy that he was completely unmanageable in a canoe. As a result, I used a guideboat, a motorboat or a raft for our numerous expeditions.
Doc was often so nervous the entire boat would vibrate from his shivering. As the boat lurched forward with each pull on the oars, Doc would hold his breath. I'd stop rowing often to allow him to exhale.
I would try to row as steady as possible until he would breathe easily. But with the next pull on the oars, he'd clam up all over again.
Waves and heavy winds always provided yet more terror that he slowly learned to adjust to. Prior to this adjustment, we were often reduced to fishing from the shore on choppy days, after I had pried his hands from the gunnels of the guideboat.
However, Doc's considerable girth and waterborne fears were not his sole defining factors. It was his appearance and his character.
Doctor Bob was absolutely the darkest, black man I've ever met, ever. He is also by far the most jovial man I've ever known. When he would close his eyes by the campfire, he would literally disappear into the night. He seemed to take great delight in this fact, until a bear paid a visit to camp one evening. It occurred while we were camped on Grassy Pond, at the far end of Low's Lake, back off the Bog River Flow.
The good doctor had been practicing some coyote calls when a slight huffing noise came from the nearby woods. At first, the sound appeared to be coming from a pack of dogs, but it was a low "ruff, ruff," rather than the usual yip, yap and yowl that are typical of coyotes.
I advised him to pay it no mind since the camp was clean and the fire was roaring. However, with a hand gun strapped to his hip, Doc grabbed the flashlight and slipped down the trail to investigate.
His investigation didn't last long, especially after he spotlighted the pair of bears that had been doing all the huffing. Needless to say, both parties parted ways immediately, and in opposite directions. But just in case, Doc decided to spend the night with a rifle on one side and a hand gun on the other.
"I'm really not scared," he explained to me as he tucked a sheath knife into his sleeping bag. "But it doesn't hurt anything to be just a little bit cautious, does it?"
The following morning, Doc appeared shaken as he rolled out of the tent. I asked, "Are you all right? You appear to be a bit off this morning. Didn't you sleep well?"
"What in the hell happened out here last night?" he asked. "Those noises, that hideous laughter, what was it?"
I laughed, "Do you mean the loons, the laughter and the whooo? Why that was just loons calling for a mate. It is kinda eerie, I guess."
"Birds?" he replied. "That wasn't no birds, that was some sort of space aliens or something, don't nothing on earth sound like that! Birds, ha!"
And so went our travels, always with a fresh mixture of laughter, friendship and good company. There was rarely a moment in over two decades of adventuring, when Doc ceased to amaze me with either a quip or a query that wasn't out of far left field.
One of our most memorable fishing expeditions was the fly-in trip we took into Tirrel Pond, which is located on the backside of Blue Mountain. We had planned the spring trip to coincide with ice-out, with hopes the brook trout would be hungry.
I arranged logistics with Herb Helms, a legendary floatplane pilot based out of Long Lake, and we transported most of my gear and a few guideboats into the pond a few days prior to Doc's arrival.
I spent a few days getting camp set up and stocking the woodpile. Spring was late, winter didn't mind and I was on camp time.
Doc arrived with two vehicles and Herb graciously accommodated his many bags, coolers, wine bottles and a host of other ungodly pleasures which included steaks, lobsters, clams, cookies, cakes, pies and more.
Although we had planned on just two flights to get Doc, his wife and the two kids into the pond, it wasn't fully accomplished until the fifth flight landed. The last flight delivered mostly just wine and desserts. Doc had an appetite with an attitude, and I finally understood where he got his girth.
By the time Herb took off, all of their tents were set, and I had a warm fire roaring to ward off the evening chill. Fortunately, Doc's snoring was consistent and loud enough to ward off any wandering bears or passing hikers.
We were on the water early the following morning, and the fishing was fast and furious.
Unfortunately, so was the weather. By noon, temperatures had dropped into the 30s, and the threat of snow was obvious as a crisp wind began blowing in from the north.
Shortly after noon, we were blown off the pond by the whitecaps. Doc wanted to know, "Is there any way we can get out of here today?"
I explained it was too far to hike out, with darkness setting in within a few hours. And even if I did get out, and hitched a ride to Long Lake, there was still no guarantee Helms would even be at his seaplane base.
I told Doc, "If I go out, I may not make it back in."
"Our only hope," I explained, "is to wave a yellow poncho on the beach if you hear a plane passing over."
The "waving poncho" was a signal I had with Helms, and if Herb saw it, he was supposed to put down immediately. It was the way things were done before the age of cell phones.
High winds continued to whip the tents as we pondered the situation, and snow became more apparent on the surrounding mountains.
As I fumbled through the packs to locate my ponchos, the drone of an approaching plane was amplified by the roaring winds. I grabbed the ponchos from the tent, and ran to the beach, where Doc and I fanned them in the wind.
The plane was high overhead and nearly out of sight, as it began to bank slightly over the nearest ridge. Our spirits, which had soared with the sound of the plane, plummeted instantly. The plane was now out of sight, and the roaring winds carried away any hint of a motor. Together, we started back to the tents, dragging ponchos dejectedly behind us.
But just then, just like "Five O'Clock Charlie' on MASH, Helm's little plane roared back from over the near horizon and banked into a slow turn before settling on the pond.
With eyes wide as saucers, and a big smile across his face, Doc turned and exclaimed, "Why Joe, it appears I've got better luck with planes, than I've got with taxis in Manhattan. Hell, I brought him in with the very first wave."
I helped Herb to load some of the gear, and sent him off quickly with the Belfons before the brunt of the storm arrived. They stayed at the Adirondack Hotel in town, while I enjoyed a quiet evening alone in camp, feasting on steak, lobster and a few bottles of fine wine.
Doc flew in with Helms the following morning, and watched as we loaded up the gear.
"Next year," he claimed. "We'll do it all over again next year with a little less excitement."
But it would never happen that way, because life was always exciting when Doc was around.