A Lake Hopatcong Humbling
By Bill Woolley
I got this.
I was due to load up a rental truck and move back to my home state on Saturday, October 8, 2016 after 43 years of self-imposed exile in Massachusetts. To launch my return to New Jersey, I’d registered up for an event that looked like a fun opportunity to meet some people and learn about my new environs.
Growing up in Morristown, I’d heard of Lake Hopatcong, but didn’t know much more than how to pronounce it. “Lake Loop 2016,” a get-fit fundraiser for the Lake Hopatcong Foundation, offered several sporting options and I boldly decided to try one from each category.
The 20-mile bike ride around the lake would start from Hopatcong State Park at 9 a.m., followed by a 1.5-mile walk around the grounds at 11 a.m., and a 2.5-mile canoe paddle shoving off at 1 p.m.
Sure, it was scheduled for the very next day after my move, but I was undaunted. I casually waved off my friend’s warning that it might be too much to tackle all in one weekend. Pffft.
Newly retired at the age of 63, I’d spent the last 22 of my working years commuting to work, logging at least 10 miles a day, by bicycle. In New England. Year-round. Regardless of the weather.
The last eight of those years, I’d started every other day at 6 a.m., working out at the gym. Stretching. Lifting. Jogging. Then pedaling to work.
“Are you sure you’re up for this?” asked my friend when I showed up at the park to check in for the Lake Loop that wet and windy Sunday morning. “You don’t have to do everything, y’know.”
“I got this,” I told her in my best Clint Eastwood voice, and swaggered over to my mountain bike for the start of the ride.
A few miles in I was cruising along, all bundled up and packing a double pannier of confidence. There were some pretty long and steep hills, but …
“Another one?,” I muttered to myself, as I downshifted, distinctly recalling the event Web site said “rolling terrain” with “no significant hills.”
That’s when it occurred to me. The routes I’d considered hilly as I biked back and forth to work along the coast of Massachusetts were, compared to the Lake Loop route, relatively level. If my seaside rides were actually as flat as a proverbial pancake, I was now pedaling across a Belgian waffle.
(See diagram comparing elevations in feet: Lake Loop route in red; my old route to work in blue. Seriously.)
By the time I reached the northernmost reach of the lake, I was already gasping in the shadow of yet another steep incline. I started cursing in hushed tones and could swear I heard my quads begging for mercy. I downshifted, yet again, and was relieved to see the mid-route rest stop ahead.
The table, loaded with snacks and drinks, was hosted by St. Peter’s Church in Mount Arlington and nearly made me want to become Episcopalian. At that moment, those volunteers were my salvation.
After a 15-minute break, I returned to the road and, again, faced a succession of hills, each of which started to look more Everest-like than the one before.
Suffice it to say that by the time I pedaled my way to the finish line, I’d been humbled. Profoundly. I dismounted my bike gingerly and wondered if anyone was noticing how wobbly I was walking in my search of a grassy patch on which I could discretely collapse.
Then my friend saw me and hurried over. At that moment, naturally, I was feeling very deserving of whatever sympathy and accolades she was about to offer.
“The walk is just about to start,” she said, pointing. “They’re right over there!”
“Already? Are you serious?”
Readers born before the mid-’60s might recall comedian Tim Conway’s popular “Oldest Man” routines on TV’s Carol Burnett Show. That’s pretty much the way I shuffled my way through the entire 1.5-mile walk. (For younger readers, see the video below.)
After the walk, I had all but convinced myself to skip the paddling part of the schedule. It was still damp, increasingly chilly, and the wind was relentless.
I slowly made my way to the food tables, under cover of the pavilion, and quickly piled a plate with pizza, salad and two chocolate-chunk cookies the size of hubcaps. Newly fortified by the food and a hit of hot coffee, I started to rethink the canoe trip.
After all, I had already recruited my friend to assist me on the paddle, and it was my legs that were feeling gimpy, not my arms. Sure, I was a novice in a canoe, but how hard could it be?
Paddles in hand, we boarded the boat and set off into the wind. Ninety minutes and at least that many more muttered obscenities later, we were back on the beach, somewhat vexed but victorious.
So, I left Hopatcong State Park that afternoon, well aware that I’d either grossly underestimated the difficulty of the Lake Loop, or greatly overestimated my physical prowess. Quite likely both.
Although I may have headed home with various aching muscles, I didn’t carry a single regret.
I had raised a little money for a small but earnest non-profit organization working for the betterment of New Jersey’s largest lake.
I had met some very dedicated volunteers and some very friendly event participants who, for some reason, didn’t appear to be as exhausted as I.
I had some laughs, primarily at myself, and undoubtedly gained a much better idea of what locals mean when they say “rolling terrain.”
And next year, when it’s time to register for Lake Loop 2017, I’ll be hoping it will have expanded to include a mid-morning Adirondack chair-sitting event.
That’s right. Sign the tough guy up for that.