Faraway places with exotic names tug at our imaginations and our sense of discovery and adventure. Yet, adventures are often accompanied by risk and childhood adventures are no exception.
Among the pack of kids who lived in my neighborhood in rural New York, there were two destinations spoken of only in hushed, secretive tones: “Cat’s Cave” and “Devil’s Island.” Both places lay just beyond the usual bounds of our territory, too far to venture if you were six, but within striking distance if you were a determined ten year old. Their evocative names sounded as if they were lifted straight from the Hardy Boy books that so many of us grew up with and elevated these places to the status of forbidden territory. Of course, this made them completely irresistible to my over active imagination.
I was a very low ranking member of the neighborhood gang and my opinions counted for very little, so my nagging requests to accompany the older kids on expeditions initially went nowhere. Eventually, however, when I was about nine or ten years old, I talked my way into an ill-fated trip to Cat’s Cave. I say “ill-fated” because a couple of my friends who didn’t make the trek snitched on me to my mother. My parents trusted us to explore the world around our home, but to my mother, “Tom went to Cat’s Cave,” must have sounded perilously close to, “Tom has fallen into a bottomless cavern!” She responded in the only way she knew how and sent my Dad to fetch me.
It was a Saturday afternoon and my Dad, who must have just settled in to watch some college football, was not amused to have routine interrupted by this nonsense. However, urged on by my mother, he set off to retrieve me. He was guided to the cave by about half of the boys in the neighborhood who knew I was in trouble and were anxious to witness my punishment.
Frankly, I was disappointed even before my Dad arrived, because the “cave” did not live up to its billing. It was really just a series of crawl spaces amid a tumble of boulders in a ravine. No cats (the cave was named for the bobcats who allegedly lurked in its recesses) and, in reality, no cave. Hardly worthy of the Hardy Boys, and certainly not worth the swat to the butt I received when my Dad did catch up with us. I was shocked to see him and the neighborhood posse arrive, but instantly put the whole picture together in my head, “Mom must be really scared.” Of course I was terribly embarrassed by this scene, but my righteous anger at the snitches helped me get over that.
Despite this misadventure, I led several of my own expeditions to Cat’s Cave over the next few years, sometimes with friends, and at least once in the company of my younger brother who had to see this legendary spot for himself. On these occasions, shorn of my initial expectations, I remember being impressed by the beauty of the spot; a small stream flowed though the bottom of the leafy ravine and the passageways between the moss covered stones were fun to explore.
A year or two later, I was invited to go on my first trek to “Devil’s Island” and this time I was not disappointed. Though, I had no clue that this first innocent visit would lead to one of the most frightening and memorable nights of my life.
Devil’s Island was located in a swamp nestled into the low point between several large hills - including the hill my neighborhood was perched on. During the summertime, the swamp was an impenetrable bog, but in the middle of our northern winters, dense sheets of ice allowed easy access for light footed kids.
Typical of woodland swamps, this was a thickly forested spot with countless trees growing from a dizzying archipelago of islands, many of which were smaller than our kitchen table. There were thousands of these tiny tree-dotted islands, but rising at the back of the swamp, Devil’s Island formed an impressive twenty to thirty foot high mound that towered above its diminutive neighbors. It was crowned by a massive tree and looked almost regal with its rounded snow draped shoulders.
I remember when I first caught a glimpse of it; my heart was already beating fast from the exertion of our trek through the snowy woods, but I felt a genuine thrill seeing the island amid the many little tufts of earth. My imagination ran wild, no doubt fed by the stories recounted by the kids who guided us in. I don’t remember why they called it, “Devil’s Island”, but it certainly looked like the kind of place a swamp-sailing pirate might bury his treasure.
I returned to Devil’s Island with members of the gang on several other occasions, we used to play hockey on a small open pond near the edge of the swamp and would occasionally wander in to go exploring.