Earl Francis Colborn Jr. died on Nov. 3. That name will mean little to most readers, but Duke Colborn was, aside from my immediate family, my best friend for 80 years. As youngsters, our relationship centered around school and social activities and sports, but in midlife it turned to hiking and canoeing trips.
Duke was a Phi Beta Kappa magna cum laude Cornell and Harvard Law graduate, and he retired as senior partner in the largest law firm in Minneapolis.
I honor our friendship in this column, not with our achievements, but with a few of our misadventures. Duke would like that.
Some of our trips to the Adirondacks were in spring when the summits were still snow-covered, high trails were more like heavy-volume waterfalls and hypothermia hovered close. Our most memorable day was, however, in mid-summer when we climbed the three peaks in the Santanoni Range. That day was a demonstration of our many inadequacies as woodsmen. We hiked in and camped where the herd path led up to the three summits. Early the next morning, we set out for our climb and, making good progress, we made it over Panther and Couchsachraga and on to Santanoni, reaching the third peak, tired but with plenty of time to hike back.
Unfortunately, we lost the path while returning and wandered down the back of the range. After hours of bushwhacking, we reached a well-defined trail, but it meant another dozen miles of hiking around the base of the mountains to our campsite. And we soon found ourselves in the dark with no flashlights. With our usual luck, however, we had chosen a date with a full and bright moon. We staggered into our campsite at about 2 a.m.
Trailheads seemed to be a problem for us. At one on the Appalachian Trail, Duke pulled his jeep over to the side of the road to park. It slowly slid down an embankment and tipped over on its side. More luck: a farmer saw us and brought over his tractor to pull us out.
Our Appalachian hiking was in day trips. We would park one car at an access point, drive some distance to another access point, park the other car there and hike to the first car. This worked fine until I left my car's lights on. When we reached it at the end of a day of hiking, the battery was dead.
Our solution: we would coast down the mountain. This was not as easy as it sounds, because our mountain was not a perfect cone: there were uphill sections. So for the next hour, we sped down hills hoping to gain enough energy to make it up the next incline. There were several places where we had to push to maintain momentum, but much to our surprise we made it.
Our most embarrassing episode was also on the Appalachian Trail. We were organizing our packs when we were joined by about a dozen newcomers to the trail. They identified us as experienced hikers and urged us to tell them about our hiking. We were happy to do so and regaled them with stories.
We finally wished each other well and Duke and I set off at a fast pace down the trail. We had walked about a mile before we noticed that the sun was in the wrong direction: we were going the wrong way. Even worse, we had to hike back past those people to whom we had posed as established pros.
Finally, there was the lunch stop on a Minnesota Boundary Waters canoe trip. Without warning, a full-grown moose crashed out of the woods and right through our campsite. We sat stunned for a moment until Duke facetiously whispered, "Move over, this seat's wet."
Hail and farewell, partner.