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

Adirondacks Wikimedia Commons

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.

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.

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.

Adirondack style is also enjoying a renaissance in home design—a trend rooted in nostalgia for the decorative tastes of the great old camps of the Gilded Era. Examples of it include thick-cushioned sofas upholstered in Native American geometric designs, dining chairs embellished with carvings of twigs, porcelain plates featuring game-animal motifs, and bearskin rugs. “Rustic without roughing it—that’s the easiest way to define the style,” says Jon Prime, who co-owns the Adirondack Store, a half-century-old gift and home furnishings emporium, with his mother, Ruth, in the mountain resort and Winter Olympics training town of Lake Placid.

In the town of Lake Clear, not far from Lake Placid’s ski slopes, Jay Dawson has turned his grandfather’s former speakeasy into a workshop and showroom for furniture he fashions from driftwood. One piece, a chair, features a back support and seat crafted from a single piece of cedar driftwood, salvaged from a river. “I work with lumberjacks all over the Adirondacks, and they call me if they come across unusual stuff,” says Dawson. The ice storm of 1998 that devastated the park’s forests proved a bonanza for him. “Alot of dead trees were covered with ice and bent over but didn’t snap,” says Dawson. “I sell them as entrance archways for summer camps.”

In Keene, an hour’s drive south, Bruce Gundersen creates startling dioramas of Adirondack scenes from pine-cone scales, soil, twigs, bark and other materials that he collects in nearby woods. “The northern European fairy-tale feeling of the old Adirondack camps really influenced my work,” says Gundersen. But his occasionally sinister fairy tales can sometimes turn the Gilded Age ideal of “rusticity without roughing it” on its head. In one diorama, a great camp lodge contains a bear’s den; the tableau also depicts wolves prowling through another wing of the house.

Painters have long been identified with the enduring aesthetic of the Adirondack style. During the past century and a half, artists including Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Winslow Homer and Rockwell Kent lived and worked in these mountains. Some 500 paintings by 145 artists—all of them at one time Adirondack residents—are in the collection of the AdirondackMuseum. What defines an Adirondack artist? “More than anything else, an Adirondack landscape,” says Atea Ring, owner of a Westport gallery that bears her name.

Painter Paul Matthews has taken as his subject the skies over this vast wilderness. In his works, turbulent clouds dominate the landscape. “I’m drawn to thunderheads,” Matthews tells me during a visit to his studio in Keene. “I have to get away from the trees to see the skies.” In this quest, he has scaled mountains and even braved the open space of a garbage dump to make sketches or photographs of clouds, which provide the raw material for his paintings. “Clouds change and move so fast, it’s hard to paint them directly,” he says. Matthews’ canvasses hang in the AdirondackMuseum and the Atea Ring Gallery.

Clouds are massing ominously a few weeks later as I stand on the shores of a pond in the northern region of the park. This is the moment when loons converge in flocks, preparing for their annual migration south. The bird is strikingly beautiful, characterized by a velvety black head, ruby eyes and dagger-like bill; but it is the loon’s poignant, eerie cry that haunts anyone who hears it. Nina Schoch, a research scientist, heads the Adirondack Cooperative Loon Program, a project jointly run by state and nonprofit private groups to protect and monitor the birds.

Schoch has monitored several loon families on this pond since 1998. It is the height of the autumn foliage. Russet maples and golden birches—along with the scudding clouds—are mirrored on the clear water as we launch our canoes. “I’m looking at how many loons are returning to the pond and the reproductive success of the birds,” says Schoch. Among the threats facing the loons are motorboats and Jet Skis; wakes from those sources swamp nests on the water’s edge. Another is lead from sinkers, which fish consume and the loons consequently ingest. Another major concern is mercury, an airborne pollutant that precipitates out of the atmosphere, concentrating in lakes and ponds, thus contaminating the food chain and making its way from bacteria to insects, fish and birds. “Because of their heavy fish diet, loons are far more susceptible to cumulative mercury poisoning than ducks or geese, who have a more herbivorous diet,” says Schoch. Females deposit mercury in their eggs, passing on toxic amounts to newborn chicks. Until additional studies are conducted, Schoch and her colleagues cannot say definitively what the long-term consequences of this exposure may be.

The researchers capture loons at night by using recorded loon calls to lure the birds near a boat. They then blind them with a spotlight, scoop them up with a large net and cover their heads with a towel to calm them. The scientists take blood and feather samples for mercury testing and band the birds; the process requires 20 to 40 minutes. After that, on a weekly basis, Schoch paddles out on the pond to monitor the adults and determine how many chicks hatched and survived fledging.

We paddle in slowly. During the next couple of hours, adult loons take turns plunging underwater for 45 seconds or more in search of perch and crayfish to feed their chicks. Across the lake, the haunting wail of loons echoes eerily. An adult male emits a low tremolo, warning us and a chick that we are getting too close. When the youngster catches up to the parent, the two jabber in a series of hoots. “The chick is telling the father to stop talking and dive for some more fish,” Schoch says. As we paddle back to shore, I notice a bald eagle, one of the loons’ predators, wheeling high overhead. Surely, I think, its presence will spook the birds, but they float placidly on the pond. Schoch surmises that the loons somehow recognize that the eagle is too young to pose a real threat.

A few days later, a cold snap desposits a blanket of snow on nearby Whiteface Mountain. Within a week, the loons are gone. Soon, the brilliant autumn foliage will fall away, leaving only bare branches and the black lace of twigs stamped against dark winter skies. Like the Iroquois long ago, I will retreat to more temperate surroundings—in my case, an overheated Manhattan apartment—to await another Adirondack summer.

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