Special Report


Where Was the Birthplace of the American Vacation?

First in rustic tents and later in elaborate resorts, city dwellers took to the Adirondacks to explore the joys of the wilderness

Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake, New York, was once a retreat for the Vanderbilt family. (Bridget Besaw / Novus Select)
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As I explored, I met another staff member, grad student Nina Caruso. “Robert Pruyn once wrote that, ‘There is independence, delight and peace in the isolation,’” she said. “Santanoni still has that. You get a bit of your soul back when you come up here.”

It was hard to imagine that anyone had ever thought of letting the elegant edifice vanish. “It’s easy to judge, but the 1960s and ’70s were the low point of public awareness of the great camps,” says Engelhart. “They really saw them as white elephants. But the public’s attitude has evolved over time. Today, we see the camps as valuable, because they reflect a design ethic we have come to embrace.”


In Murray’s day, the remotest corners of the Adirondacks could be reached only by canoe, often along hauntingly beautiful streams and rivulets. It’s still the same today. About one million acres, a sixth of the park’s area, is designated wilderness, its highest level of protection, ensuring that no motorized boats or wheeled vehicles are permitted, not even bikes. The High Peaks region around Mount Marcy offers the most dramatic topography, and I hiked in to overnight at Johns Brook Lodge, a base for long-distance treks that has been operated by the Adirondack Mountain Club since the 1920s.

But Murray was not a fan of foot travel. With few trails in the 1800s, pro- gress over fallen trees was painfully slow. “Key to Murray’s Adirondacks was the idea of hiring a guide and traveling by river,” says Bond. Murray waxes lyrical about guides with nicknames like “Snake-Eye” and “Old Mountain,” who were raised in tune with nature. His ideal was one John Plumbley, “the prince of guides”—“a man who knows the wilderness as a farmer knows his fields, whose instinct is never at fault, whose temper is never ruffled, whose paddle is silent as falling snow.” The Gilded Age guides even designed their own type of canoe, the Adirondack guideboat, with a shallow draft suited to navigate the smallest creeks, and lightweight enough to be carried across land.

For a trip that Murray would have approved of, I headed to the remotest stretch of the park, along the Oswegatchie River near the Canadian border. There, I signed up with Rick Kovacs, the last guide based in the town of Wanakena. “A century ago, there were 15 guides working this river, each one with his own fishing camp,” Kovacs told me as we paddled along the ever-narrowing Oswegatchie, whose waters were a rich brown from the tannin of decaying leaves and branches. “Now we’re barely holding on.” Like many of the 137,000 year-round residents in the Adirondack Park, he and his family company, Packbasket Adventure Lodge and Guide Service, struggle to make ends meet when the summer season ends.

The river snaked back and forth upon itself in tighter coils, as we paddled beneath enormous half-fallen trees from recent storms. “Easy bends, slow bends, sharp bends, rapid bends, and just bends everywhere,” wrote a traveler of his 1907 trip here. Robins swung low overhead, and raccoon tracks could be seen on the banks. At one point, we pulled the canoe over a beaver dam. By late afternoon, we set up camp at the Spring Hole Lean-to. When I dove into the river to cool off, it was like swimming in iced tea.

Not a soul passed us by, and it was easy to assume that little had changed since the 19th century. But nothing in the Adirondacks quite meets the eye.

“It looks like pure wilderness,” said Kovacs. “But even back in Murray’s day, a lot of the forest was being logged, clear-cut and burned. In the early 1900s, a logging railroad even went right by this river. The biggest trees would have been 300 to 400 years old, and grown as high as 150 feet. Even though the logging stopped a century ago, it will take a couple of hundred years more to get back to its original state”—assuming that recent weather extremes, which are affecting the forest, do not take their toll, he adds.

To some, that history of recovery is itself a kind of triumph. “Yes, the vast majority of the Adirondacks was cut over,” says Engelhart. “But the fact that we can treat it as wilderness is itself a human creation. We’re not leaving a wild area alone—we’re recreating a wild area by leaving it alone. To me, that’s equally, if not more, beautiful as an idea than if it had always been wild. It shows how we’ve changed as a people. We agree that wilderness is not something to be exploited, but something to be valued.”


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