Best Friend


Duke and his son John

on a later climb of MacNaughton Mountain


(This 1078th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 20, 2011.)


Earl Francis Colborn Jr. died on November 3.


That name will mean little to most readers, but Duke Colborn was, aside from my immediate family, my best friend, filling that role 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.


I honor our friendship in this essay, not with our achievements - we did manage some, like climbing all of the Adirondack 46 high peaks - but instead with a few of our misadventures. I'm sure Duke would prefer that.


That friendship began when we were each five years old. Duke claims that we met on the school bus carrying us to kindergarten in the Rochester suburb of Brighton. According to him I sat down next to him and immediately announced, "I'll bet I can make you cry." "No, you can't," he responded, whereupon I forced one of his fingers against the window screening until he did indeed cry. I doubt that story and in fact wonder if the roles weren't reversed, but at least our friendship dated from that time and continued until his last email message reached me just days before he died. In it he mentioned nothing about his own trials but instead asked to be kept informed about the welfare of my son.


Duke went on to earn Phi Beta Kappa magna cum laude Cornell and Harvard Law degrees. He retired as senior partner in the largest law firm in Minneapolis. But he was also the only person I know who as a teenager fell off the merry-go-round at the old Roseland Amusement Park on Canandaguia Lake. As if that were not embarrassing enough, his date didn't miss him until the carousel slowed to a stop.


Some of our trips to the Adirondacks in upstate New York 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 climbing date with a full and bright moon. We staggered into our campsite at about two in the morning.


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, but the car had its own idea. It slowly slid sideways down an embankment and tipped us 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 back to the first. This usually worked fine until I left my car's headlights on. When we reached it at the end of a day of hiking, its battery was dead.


Our solution: we would coast down the mountain. Not as easy as it sounds, because our mountain was not a perfect cone: there were uphill sections. So we manhandled the car around so that it pointed downhill and for the next hour we sped down steep inclines hoping to gain enough energy to make it up the next rise. There were several places where we had to push to maintain momentum, but much to our surprise we made it, coasting to the bottom and directly into a service center.


But easily our most embarrassing episode was also on the Appalachian Trail. We were organizing our packs for our day's walk when we were joined by about a dozen newcomers to the trail. They immediately identified us as experienced hikers and urged us to tell them about our trips along the trail. We were happy to do so and regaled them with stories for a quarter hour.


We finally wished each other well and Duke and I set off at a fast pace (much faster than we usually hiked) 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.


Duke washing and Bob Bugenstein drying

at a Boundary Waters canoing campsite


Finally, there was the lunch stop on a Minnesota Boundary Waters canoe trip. Without warning, a full-grown moose with a huge rack crashed out of the woods and right through our campsite. Four of us sat stunned for a moment as the big beast thundered off into the bush until Duke, thankfully facetiously, whispered, "Move over, this seat's wet."


Hail and farewell, partner.-- Gerry Rising