Adirondacks Style

At six million acres, New York’s funky wilderness preserve, one of America’s largest refuges, is also one of the most alluring. An aficionado explains why

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Developer William West Durant built Sagamore—meaning “wise old chief” in Algonquian—on its own lake in 1897; he sold it four years later to Alfred Vanderbilt, heir to the railroad fortune put together by his great-grandfather Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt. On a three-day visit there, I stayed in a spacious lakeside cabin, one of Sagamore’s 27 structures. A century ago the Vanderbilts, who boarded their own private train for the overnight journey from New York City’s Grand Central Station, disembarked at their personal railhead on RaquetteLake, then traveled a few miles by horsedrawn carriage to Sagamore. The compound had its own hotand-cold running water, sewage treatment facilities, telephone lines and hydroelectric generating plant. “This was a demonstration of the Vanderbilts’ power to adapt nature to their own creature comforts,” says historian Michael Wilson, Sagamore’s associate director.

Athree-story main lodge still dominates the compound. Constructed in Swiss chalet style, its exterior is sided with bark that has withstood a century of rain, snow and ice storms. Massive, iron-studded front doors suggest the entrance to a feudal castle. Paneled in wood, the parlor features a ceiling supported by 13 perfectly matched spruce log beams. They are irreplaceable today, Wilson says, because acid rain, caused by air pollution from power plants in the Midwest and Canada, has devastated Adirondack forests at altitudes where stands of spruce once grew.

The parlor’s fireplace, large enough to roast a stag, is built of unblemished stones. “Workers were ordered not to leave any chisel marks,” says Wilson. Because skilled labor was scarce in the remote Adirondacks, foremen from the great camps made regular forays to Ellis Island in New York City’s harbor, where they recruited disembarking European immigrants. “If they needed masons, they would look for men with trowels,” says Bridger. “If carpenters were needed, they kept an eye out for hammers and saws.”

Workers and servants (except for household staff) lived in their own compound, concealed by a barrier of forest from the luxurious lakeside quarters of the Vanderbilts and their visitors. The sole exception was Wigwam, a two-story, cedarbark-sheathed lodge where Alfred Vanderbilt’s male guests entertained their female guests, imported from New York City and Albany for weekends. Set behind a thicket of trees and above a roaring stream that muffled sound, Wigwam has a back door for female companions who arrived and departed through the workers’ compound. “In good Victorian fashion, what you didn’t see or hear never happened,” says Wilson.

For outdoor entertainment, the Vanderbilts relied on professional guides—locals who knew the trails, the best fishing spots and the whereabouts of game. The Adirondack Guides Association was formed in 1892 to ensure the competence of the woodsmen and to guarantee them a minimum wage. In the 1950s, the association lapsed into inactivity, but a successor organization was founded in 1980. Its former president, Brian McDonnell, 46, who runs his own guide service, invited me on a ten-mile canoe journey along waterways that were once virtually the private domain of Gilded Age oligarchs.

On a September afternoon, we paddle through interconnecting glacial ponds south into UpperSaranacLake. Along the shorelines, huge tracts of forest were logged in the late 19th century; today, those dense woodlands are gradually making a comeback. Birches, often “the pioneer species in natural reforestation,” says McDonnell, are only now being displaced by heavier hardwoods. Under a cloudless sky, we canoe into a region rich in snapping turtles, hooded mergansers (a species of duck), squadrons of monarch butterflies and dragonflies, deer and beaver. Fat trout and bass swim in the shallow, limpid waters, seemingly close enough to scoop up by hand.

Weather in the Adirondacks is rarely so perfect. “When you come here on a three-day vacation—which is about average these days—you are bound to encounter some rain,” says McDonnell. “But too many people have been raised to stay dry, and they fully expect the sunshine they see in the brochures.” His clients include families and school groups, billionaires and “average Joes.” But he keeps a special eye out for adolescents from New York City and Long Island. “It’s important to make them feel that AdirondackPark is theirs,” says McDonnell, who worries about budget cutbacks in state funding for the park. “They are the future voters and taxpayers, and we need all the outside help we can get.”

After four hours of leisurely paddling, we reach Eagle Island, on Upper Saranac Lake. Constructed in 1899 as a family camp for Levi Morton, who was Benjamin Harrison’s vice president, EagleIsland has been a Girl Scout camp since 1937. But by September, only property manager Pete Benson is still on hand, mainly to oversee repairs of ancient roof shingles and bark-sheathed pine columns. Benson, 50, has spent enough seasons here to encounter campers whose mothers also summered here as scouts.

When I ask him what has changed from one generation to the next, he unhesitatingly answers: “Aconcern for the environment.” To illustrate the point, Benson leads the way to the Great Room—originally the main building’s parlor—with its 30-foot ceiling and a score of big-game animal heads, including moose, stag and Rocky Mountain sheep—still mounted on the walls. While the mothers of today’s campers may have been impressed by these trophies, scouts nowadays tend to register dismay. One 10-year-old, Benson recalls, looked up at the taxidermied heads, only to declare solemnly: “And now, we must bury them.”

I repeat this anecdote a few days later to Anne LaBastille, an outspoken activist who has spent more than three decades fostering a conservation ethic here. She smiles approvingly. The first title in ecologist LaBastille’s four-volume (so far) memoir—Woodswoman—appeared in 1976. The books recount 33 years in the Adirondack Park, living alone on a peninsula jutting into a lake whose name she asks me not to reveal.

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