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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At loose ends in the late 1960s after her divorce from an Adirondacks innkeeper, LaBastille embraced the back-tonature advocacy of her childhood hero, Henry David Thoreau. “I read Walden as a girl and assumed Thoreau had spent his whole life in the woods,” says LaBastille. “When I found out it was only for two years, two months and two days, it was like discovering there wasn’t a real Santa.”

She built her home, a 24- by 12-foot log cabin without electricity, with the help of two friends on a 30-acre plot of woods bounded by lake, pond and old-growth forest. When she first moved in, the closest permanent residents were five miles away. In winter, blizzards ripped down phone lines and halted the mail; LaBastille’s occasional shopping forays across the lake for supplies could turn into terrifying ordeals. The water turned syrupy before freezing, slowing her small motorboat. “God help me if I fell out,” she says. “With luck the shock would kill me instantly. Otherwise, I was facing a three-minute death.” Reaching the mainland shore where she kept a car, she would have to light several matches to thaw the door lock and ignition switch. When temperatures got below freezing, she would spend days huddled with her two German shepherds, never too far from a wood-burning stove fueled by split logs cut from trees felled during storms.

But on an Indian summer day like this one, it is easy to understand what has kept LaBastille here for so many years. Fragrant white pine, red spruce and balsam fir shade her cabin. Chickadees and juncos chirp a spirited chorus, interrupted by the scolding of red squirrels. Hiking from her cabin a halfmile uphill, LaBastille bounds over mossy logs I clumsily straddle. At the end of our climb lies Thoreau II, a tiny shack with a pristine view of a pond and 50,000 acres of state forest. This is where LaBastille writes—on one of her five Smith Corona typewriters.

She no longer considers the land her larger cabin sits on true wilderness. “The mania for snowmobiles and Jet Skis is everywhere,” says LaBastille. “We have 250-horsepower boats roaring at full speed on this two-mile-long lake.” These days, she doesn’t dare drink the water without filtering it. Acid rain, and phosphates and nitrates leached from laundry-detergent runoff at new vacation homes, killed the native fish; the lake has been restocked with a species of Canadian brook trout more resistant to such toxins. According to an exhibit at the Adirondack Museum, some 500 of the 2,300 lakes and ponds in the park no longer support native plants or indigenous aquatic fauna.

The deteriorating ecosystem turned LaBastille from virtual hermit to activist. From 1978 to 1995, she served as a commissioner of the Adirondack Park Agency, which regulates development of the park’s privately held lands (3.4 million acres in all). But by the early 1990s, LaBastille’s pro-environment positions had infuriated some Adirondack residents. One night, when she was attending a meeting, arsonists torched her barns in the Champlain Valley, where she lived on a small farm several months a year. Apolice investigator, she says, warned her that her dogs might be poisoned next. “So I decided to resign as commissioner.” Today, LaBastille confines her activism to leading small groups into old-growth forest and on canoe expeditions. “That’s how you make the real converts,” she says.

In his history of the park, Paul Schneider insisted that battle lines in the struggle to preserve wilderness are rarely clearly drawn. “Practically speaking, in the Adirondacks,” he wrote, “conservationists have never won a major battle without the support of the trappers and their far more plentiful brethren, the hunters and anglers.”

According to John Collins, formerly of the Adirondack Museum and a passionate conservationist, Schneider’s assertion that a common ground exists between environmentalists and hunter-trappers in the Adirondacks has merit. “People may be glad they aren’t trappers, but they are glad somebody is,” he says. Collins cites the thorny issue of beavers. Back from the edge of extinction here, the species is once again prolific. Beaver dams, now a common sight on streams and ponds, are sometimes blamed for flooding roads. “The beaver is lovely, wonderful—and a pain in the butt,” says Collins, adding that the problems the animals create would be even worse if it weren’t for trappers.

The decline in the popularity of fur has left few full-time trappers. Charles Jessie, 69, a former Navy Seal who grew up in the Adirondacks, is a trapper turned artisan. He makes a good living at what he calls “antler art”—fashioning chandeliers, lamps and coffee-table stands from deer antlers. In his home workshop in the town of SaranacLake, he stores stacks of antlers. “Sometimes, people will ask, ‘How many deer died for these?’ and I’ll tell them not a single one,” he says. The antlers are “drops,” shed by maturing stags in early winter and collected by local Boy Scouts, who auction them off to dealers. “I’d never get enough antlers if I depended on hunters,” says Jessie. Demand for his work is brisk.

After leaving Charles Jessie, I drive 30 minutes southwest to the town of Tupper Lake to meet Nellie Staves, at 87 perhaps the most famous living Adirondack trapper. As a young woman at a lumber camp where her husband was a logger, she cooked for 57 hungry lumberjacks on meal shifts that began at 3 a.m. and ended at sundown, seven days a week. “My husband took me to a movie only once, and I just slept through it,” she recalls.

Staves still walks several miles twice a day to check her traplines for beaver, muskrat, mink and her favorite, red fox. She is also a fungus artist, etching wild animals and bucolic scenes on the flat surfaces of large, woody tree fungi. It is an Adirondack art form that goes back at least to the mid-19th century. Staves collects the shell-shaped fungus from dead trees and logs in summer when it has a new, spongy coat. Using the point of an old school compass, she pricks the surface of the fungus to release a natural, brown-tinted liquid that provides the only coloring for her etchings. The deeper she plunges the compass, the darker the hue. Staves must complete her animal figures and landscapes before the brown tint dries, or else the etching will look discolored. “Sometimes, I’ll work through the night so it won’t dry on me,” she says. And even then, there are no guarantees. Falling asleep from exhaustion after 20 straight hours on an etching, Staves once woke up to discover the tint had disappeared like invisible ink. “I wish I could remember what tree that fungus came from, because I’d make sure to stay away from it,” she says.

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