Many, if not most, visitors to New York’s vast Adirondack Park lay claim to a favorite vantage point. Mine is the summit of Coon Mountain—actually a craggy, wooded hill that rises only 500 feet above Lake Champlain. Coon Mountain will not induce the adrenaline rush of a whitewater rafting trip down the Ausable River Chasm in the northeast corner of the park. Nor does it offer the sense of accomplishment that comes from scaling Mount Marcy, at many, if not most, visitors to New York’s vast Adirondack Park lay claim to a favorite vantage point. Mine is the summit of Coon Mountain—actually a craggy, wooded hill that rises only 500 feet above Lake Champlain. Coon Mountain will not induce the adrenaline rush of a whitewater rafting trip down the Ausable River Chasm in the northeast corner of the park. Nor does it offer the sense of accomplishment that comes from scaling MountMarcy, at 5,344 feet the tallest peak in the state, 15 miles to the west.
But weather permitting, I climb Coon Mountain once or twice a week during my annual Adirondack vacation. The wildflower-edged trail, which can be hiked in half an hour or so, winds past towering hemlocks and oaks; ravens and nuthatches call from the branches. At the summit, the forest thins, giving way to boulders smoothed by retreating glaciers. To the east, the wind chops little white nicks into Lake Champlain, its coves bordered by dense woodland that conceals the little town of Westport (pop. 1,362) and its waterfront residences. To the west lie mountains known as the High Peaks, including Marcy. Below me are pastures and cornfields anchored by red barns and white clapboard farmhouses. Depicting “the Adirondacks without making the pictures look like postcards is a continual challenge,” says landscape painter Paul Matthews, one of scores of artists seduced by the region’s mountains, waters and skies during the past 150 years.
Today, the Adirondacks face challenges common to many wilderness parks—acid rain, logging, off-road vehicles, the encroachment of vacation homes. Still, this wilderness has survived serious threats in the past. During the mid-1800s, trappers hunted animals valued for their pelts—particularly beaver—to the verge of extinction. Patches and slivers of farmland are all that remain of 19th-century homesteads—a testament to the foolhardiness of trying to grow crops in the thin, rocky soil that nonetheless supports vast forests.
Although nine million tourists flock to the Adirondack Park annually, only about 130,000 permanent residents live inside its borders. Even before the European discovery of the New World, few people inhabited these lands year-round. “Native Americans used the Adirondacks about the same way New Yorkers do today,” says John Collins, former director of the Adirondack Museum, a handsome 22-building complex housing regional history and cultural exhibits near the center of the park on Blue Mountain Lake. “They came for the summer and fall to fish and hunt, and then they went home.” In winter, this territory was considered so inhospitable that only the most marginalized tribes stayed on. They were derisively called “Adirondacks”—“Bark Eaters,” in Iroquois—by the dominant peoples from more temperate neighboring areas where food was more plentiful.
Undisturbed throughout the colder months, the Adirondacks teemed with wildlife. Ever since 1609, when French explorer Samuel de Champlain sailed down the lake that was later named for him, Europeans coveted the lustrous pelts of beaver, fisher, marten and otter. The lucrative fur trade sparked continual conflict between French and English settlers, a struggle for territory that culminated in the French and Indian War (1754-63), ultimately giving the British possession of the Adirondacks.
In the 19th century, timber also provided great riches. “At first, logging was a winter occupation because you could skid the logs over ice and snow,” says Collins. Logs were hauled to frozen lakes, then, in spring, floated down rivers to sawmills. This technique worked well for relatively buoyant softwoods but not for heavier hardwoods, which would sink and, therefore, were not harvested. The advent of railroads, however, reduced river transport and would, by the late 1800s, lead to the explosive growth of logging.
Already, by the mid-19th century, the exploitation of wild animals had reached alarming levels. In the 1870s, C. Hart Merriam, a biologist surveying the region, asserted that beavers “have, excepting a few isolated individuals, been exterminated.” In his 1997 history of the park, The Adirondacks, Paul Schneider writes that by the mid-1800s, “wolves, moose, and panthers [had become] extremely scarce. A trapper couldn’t make a decent full-time living [from] lynx, fisher, marten, and most of the other furbearers.” Fears grew that excessive logging would turn the Adirondacks into an arid wasteland, depriving New York City and other downstate cities of water. “If the Adirondacks are cleared, the Hudson River will dry up,” Forest and Stream magazine warned in 1883.
To ensure that the Adirondacks “be forever kept as wild forest lands,” as a 1894 amendment to the New York State Constitution mandates, Adirondack Park was created in 1892. Encompassing six million mountainous acres and thousands of lakes and ponds, it is larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined. The entire state of New Hampshire could fit within its confines.
The muscle behind the establishment of the AdirondackPark came from the very same industrialists whose railways, mines and financial activities had jeopardized the wilderness. The Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morgans and others of the newly rich now embraced a new spirit of conservation, overlaid with nostalgia for a simpler life close to nature. They purchased large tracts of Adirondack lands and created preserves—initially for their own use, and later for public benefit. They constructed family “camps”—compounds consisting of multiple buildings that recalled European villages; indigenous materials—stone, wood and bark—were adapted to Old-World-style rustic architecture.
“Back to nature” became a summer mantra. But in the Adirondacks, it was carried out with retinues of servants and an astonishingly lavish infrastructure. “The great camps were the Gilded Age equivalent of the Winnebago,” says Beverly Bridger, executive director of the nonprofit foundation that runs Sagamore, the Adirondack camp once owned by the Vanderbilts and now open to ordinary vacationers from late spring through early fall.