Book Reviews: An Adirondack Passage

An Adirondack Passage: The Cruise of the Canoe Sairy Gamp
An Adirondack Passage: The Cruise of the Canoe Sairy Gamp Amazon

An Adirondack Passage
Christine Jerome

George Washington Sears was an obscure 19th-century Pennsylvania shoemaker, a gnarled, self-sufficient, feisty little man — "nearly as big as a pound of soap after a hard day's washing," a friend described him — whose lifelong joy it was to camp and canoe in the Eastern woods, especially New York's Adirondack Mountains. He gained a patchy if ill-paying renown as a writer of witty books and articles about the outdoors under his pen name, "Nessmuk" (borrowed from an Indian friend), in which he contended that he never lied "more than the occasion seems to demand."

In 1883, at age 61, Sears traveled alone in his specially built, 10 1/2 pound, nine-foot-long canoe for 266 miles across a string of lakes and portages in the Adirondacks. Christine Jerome, a writer-editor from Massachusetts, retraced Sears' trip in a similar canoe in 1990, and An Adirondack Passage is the result. Foremost among the book's many virtues is its resurrection of Sears, a wonderful character whose knowledgeable, self-contained and quirkily good-natured personality sets its tone.

For example, when Sears was caught on a lake in a sudden nasty storm, the kind that springs on the unwary from behind the peaks like a pouncing tiger, he struggled to retain his equanimity much as Jerome and her husband did in similar circumstances 107 years later. "It is not to be supposed that a man far on the wrong side of fifty can take an all-night soaking," Sears wrote. "It was a long distance either way to human habitation or to human sympathy. . . . I sat down on a soaked log, and nursed my wrath to keep it warm."

Jerome blends quotations from Sears' account of his Adirondack passage with a narrative of her own trip, laced with snippets of nature lore and Adirondack history. It is a tricky technique, dependent on a smooth weave of sometimes awkwardly juxtaposed elements, but it works. Sears' 19th-century sensibility and Jerome's contemporary observations mesh neatly in their shared love for the sweet serenity of canoeing and what Sears called "the blessed calm of lonely places" away from "the buzz of civilized racket." Jerome, who was a canoeing rookie when she first encountered Sears' story in a museum in 1988, comes to appreciate as he did the satisfying simplicity of "life pared to its essentials — paddling, portaging, arranging food and shelter. . . . Canoeing is like meditation, forcing you to remain firmly in the moment."

The dark woods that crowd the shores of Adirondack lakes shelter dozens of good stories, and Jerome's research fleshes out her paddle-and-carry tale with a gallery of fine characters. Long Lake, for example, became mildly celebrated in the past century as the lake of choice for Adirondack hermits. Jerome tells of two who dwelled on opposite shores, a man named Harney and another, who came later, named Bowen. Bowen, an agnostic, stoutly and repeatedly resisted the attempts of a local minister to change his mind about God, but on his deathbed he set the preacher's heart fluttering by summoning him urgently. The churchman arrived only to have Bowen tell him, with great satisfaction, that he remained a skeptic.

Jerome describes the great Adirondack resorts and summer homes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and genteel summer residents like Mrs. Anson Phelps Stokes, who once received a telegram from her son saying that he was bringing 96 friends to their home that evening. Mrs. Stokes wired back, "Many guests already here. Have only room for fifty."

Paul Smith, who ran the grandest of the Adirondack hotels at the northernmost point of the route traveled by both Sears and Jerome, was known for his shrewd exploitation of his upper-crust clientele. A clerk at the resort's store once reported to Smith that someone had charged a pair of boots, but he forgot who the customer was. Smith's profitable solution was to add the cost of the boots to the bill of everyone staying at the hotel at the time; only two guests lodged a complaint.

Ned Buntline, author of a string of trashy 19th-century novels about the West, was another Adirondack character, albeit a loathsome one. According to Jerome, he fought a dozen duels in his unsavory career, was "unsuccessfully hanged," deserted from the Army, incited a fatal riot, married a half-dozen times and drank more or less steadily when he wasn't delivering temperance lectures. Buntline, whose real name was Edward Zane Carroll Judson, did his drinking for a spell at a cabin on Eagle Lake, once reportedly a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Jerome is particularly adept at evoking the history of once-occupied patches of forest that have reverted to wilderness, the overgrown clearings that in another era were the sites of restaurants or lodges or great houses, places like the 19th-century inn called Mother Johnson's, where out-of-season deer was identified on the menu as "mountain lamb." Nature obliterated Mother Johnson's as it did a hundred others: "One seedling takes hold, then another, and a road reverts to forest. Weeds push up flagstones, moss colonizes a shingle roof, wind and rain splinter clapboard walls. Floors sag, joists dry into powder, sills warp, nails fall, and soon there are only wild blackberries nodding in sunny cellar holes." The woman can write. The writing, in fact, is a constant pleasure. Jerome has a style that suits her subject, quiet and gentle as a paddle in still water. She delivers her lore with wit and whimsy, with fine descriptions and without shrill preaching or righteous posturing. My only complaint is that it is sometimes hard to remember which lake we're on.

She has the good sense to return to Sears whenever the woods grow quiet, and the little shoemaker never disappoints. Among other things, he was an ardent conservationist and wildlife protector long before it was remotely fashionable. His writings helped inspire those who preserved the Adirondacks and made the region the fine state park it is today. The great conservationist Bob Marshall (Smithsonian, August 1994) grew up reading Sears and trekking Adirondack trails. Sears expressed the argument for preserving wild places in a pointed, angry language that is considered impolite in today's environmental dialogue. The enemy, he wrote, was "the petty, narrow greed that converts into saw-logs and mill-dams the best gifts of wood and water, forest and stream, mountains and crystal springs in deep wooded valleys."

He also wrote with the eloquence of a poet-naturalist-witness, for instance, Sears' encounter with a loon: "[The bird] settled within ten rods of the canoe, raised himself on hind legs (they are very hind, and he has no others), turned his white, clean breast to me and gave me his best weird, strange song. Clearer than a clarion, sweeter than a flute, loud enough to be heard for miles. Never, as my soul lives, will I draw a bead on a loon. He is the very spirit of the wildwoods. Fisherman he may be. He catches his daily food after his nature. . . . Don't, please don't, emulate Adirondack Murray [a local hunter] and waste two dozen cartridges in the attempt to demolish a loon."

Sears died seven years after the great adventure described in this book, at 68. Death, to him, was "the dark carry," life, a hoax; and he wanted these lines on his stone: "Life is the dullest of jokes / He's a fool who supposes it serious. / Death puts a nub to the hoax / And the rest is immensely mysterious."

Donald Dale Jackson writes from his home in rural Connecticut.

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