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The Real Adirondacks

This article originally appeared in the summer 1997 issue of the since-defunct Snow Country magazine.  It was recently published in an anthology of new Adirondack writing called Rooted in Rock (Syracuse University Press).

The black flies will eat you alive, the natives are hostile, the mountains are low and boring, the trails are muddy and slippery, and the fishing sucks thanks to acid rain. So if I were looking for a place to hike or camp and have a wilderness experience, the last place I’d head for is the Adirondacks. And as a place to live, forget it. The winters are cold and long, the schools are terrible, and about the only place you can get work is in one of our many prisons. The only reason I’ve been living here for the last ten years is because I can’t sell my house. Every morning when I get up I ask myself, what am I doing in this godforsaken forest?  So I’ve made it my personal mission to warn all you downstaters, flatlanders, suburban yuppies, and aging boomers who are thinking of moving up to the country: Don’t come to the Adirondacks. Vermont is the place for you. Keep the hell out of here.

            As one of my neighbors puts it, Vermont is like Austria, while this side of Lake Champlain is more like Bulgaria. In Vermont everybody is an ex-hippie or a Democrat, and they all drive around in Volvos listening to NPR and shopping at the winery, the cheesery, and the bootery, and it’s so quaint and politically correct that you want to barf. Over here, Democrats and ex-hippies are about as common as mountain lions. (There’s actually supposed to be a couple of them-cougars, that is-over the mountain from our house.) The native Adirondackers-the mountain people who have been here for generations-are extremely laid-back and would never pass muster in Vermont. They have their old cars and refrigerators and everything else they ever owned in their dooryard, and they haven’t finished putting up the siding on their house and probably never will. They’re a dying breed; there are only a few families left in our town. I recently asked one of them what his attitude about life was, and he said, “I more or less live day to day and try to figure out how to get the things I want without going into debt or asking anybody for anything.”

      There’s an updated type of native who drives around in a brand new pickup that he keeps spitshined. He has a dish that gets a hundred channels and a lawn that he mows religiously and an American flag that he runs up each morning. He’s usually the next generation of the laid-back type and picked up his neatness in the service, or he’s got a profession and an image that he has to present. But all of these guys have pretty much the same outlook. Some of them have great senses of humor; others seem to have none at all until you get to know them and discover a wit that’s “drier than a popcorn fire,” as one man described it. They’re sturdy people whose values were forged in a harsh environment and reach back to pioneer days. If one of them dies or burns himself out of his house, the neighbors will pitch in and help. Otherwise, everyone respects each other’s space. No one cottons to being told what to do, especially if their property is concerned.

      So it comes as no surprise that the zoning restrictions imposed by the Adirondack Park Agency haven’t gone over too well with the local population. “The goddam APA,” as one man called it, has jurisdiction over what happens within the Blue Line that encloses the Park’s six million acres. It controls everything from lakeshore development to the way property can be passed down to your kids. In 1975, someone dumped a truckload of cow manure on the porch of the APA’s headquarters in Ray Brook. And in the 1990s, when a commission appointed by then-governor Mario Cuomo proposed even tighter restrictions, a group of protesters blockaded the Northway (the interstate that runs from Albany to Montreal), three APA agents making a site inspection at Black Brook were shot at, and a woman on the APA’s board who almost always nixed subdivision proposals had her barn torched in Wadhams. One of our local gas stations put up in its front window a portrait of Cuomo with a toothbrush moustache and labeled it “Adolf Cuomo.” But violence is a rare, and I would even say uncharacteristic, response up here. This said, there are pockets of it, like the bleak pass between Keene and Elizabethtown where in the last few years two crusty oldtimers have been murdered. The first was killed by a drifter who saw him flashing a bankroll in a nearby bar, the second in mid-January

(A section of text is missing here which we will restore shortly.  Please pardon the error!  October 18th)

by paper industry, which was concerned that the timber would flood the market, and they prevailed.

       The Oswegatchie basin includes 50,000 acres of old-growth pine and spruce that were hit hard; long considered one of the wildest and gloomiest parts of the Adirondacks, it is now even more so. You can canoe for days back in there without running into anything human.

       Dead wood is a big part of the forest landscape. Maybe a third of the balsams on my land have been knocked over by wind storms or snapped by ice storms over the years. But that just opens space for seedlings. At Christmas, you look for double-needle balsams (most are singleneedle). They make the best Christmas trees.

       Then there are the smaller acts of nature, which can wreak serious havoc on your career and your appliances. One morning I was clattering away on my lap-top on deadline for a slick New York City magazine when suddenly the power failed and I lost the whole story. A beaver, it turned out, had dropped a poplar tree over a power line down in the valley, plunging us back into the pre-Edison era for a couple of hours. Poplars, by the way, are known locally as “popples.” There are four species in these parts. One is known as “Bommagilia” (for Balm of Gilead, a reference to its nice-smelling buds). I’m always on the lookout for local lingo, of which there isn’t a whole lot left at this point. The Adirondack twang is subtler than the grating ones of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, and it takes a while to develop an ear for it. A lot of men have this deep, gruff way of talking so you can hardly make out what they’re saying. Sometimes you’ll catch an old-timer saying “eaves-trough” instead of gutter, or “I be” for “I am.” “Jeezam Crow” is the big North Country swear word; the name of the Lord isn’t taken in vain up here the way it is downstate. We’re too smart for that. Clyde Rabideau, the mayor of Plattsburgh, our biggest town, has a Jeezam Crow award that he gives every week to an Adirondacker who did something positive for a change. The winner is announced over the radio and can stop by Rabideau’s convenience store and pick up his or her prize, a free T-shirt or a touque, which is French-Canadian-Northern-Adirondack for a woolen ski-hat. Everyone perfects his own personal slant to his touque.

       Not long ago I called the mayor’s office and Rabideau himself answered. I like a mayor who answers his own phone. He told me a lot of locals around Plattsburgh and over to Tupper Lake are of FrenchCanadian descent, and though they don’t speak French anymore they still use French reflexive grammar, as in, “Hey, I remember dat, me,” or “You got any more wine, you?” Then he faxed me a hilarious memoir he had written about his grandpere, Medor Rabideau, a trapper who used to brew his own dandelion wine. Farther south, by the time you get to Elizabethtown or Keene, the French component is vestigial. It only survives in local surnames like Jacques, LeClair, and Gagnon, and some of the people who bear them look kind of French. The best French-Canadian Adirondack fiddler, by the way, Donnie Perkins, works at Wendy’s in Plattsburgh.

       Back to the subject of acts of nature (that’s another thing that happens if you live in the North Country long enough: you start to digress): Last summer, lightning struck a pole halfway up the hill, traveled up my phone line, and fried my computer. I’d just gotten on the Internet, and so far that’s the only significant thing I’ve gotten from it. I should have learned my lesson, because the summer before I’d lost a TV and two phones the same way, but I didn’t.

       Probably our most characteristic and awesome natural phenomenon, however, are the slides. A lot of the High Peaks-Dix, Gothics, Giant, Whiteface, and, of course, Big Slide-have them. There’s a new slide on Kilbourne, a foothill of the Sentinel Range outside of Lake Placid. To get there (not that I’m suggesting anything!) you take the Lake Placid-Wilmington road, park at the plaque commemorating the founding of the Forest Preserve, pick up a herdpath across the road that will soon take you to an old lumber road on which you hang a left, and walk for fifteen minutes through bug- and nettle-infested jungle until you get to a streambed choked with an avalanche of tree trunks, boulders, root systems, and soil. It’s a scene of incredible devastation, believe me. Then you make your way up the streambed to a thousand feet of sheer naked bedrock where the stuff used to be growing, until it was loosened by pounding rain and came crashing down. The bedrock is billion-year-old anorthosite, a form of granite unique to the Adirondacks but one of the major components of the moon and some of the oldest rock on earth. About five million years ago, it erupted through the Appalachians in a dome about 160 miles in diameter roughly centered on Blue Mountain Lake. From the streambed, you can bushwhack over to Copperas Pond, which is a nice place to swim. This takes about half an hour unless you get lost or run into a pack of wild dogs, which you probably will.

       I’ll tell you two more beautiful hikes, if hike you must, and that’s all you’re going to get out of me. For the first one, you need two cars and some partners. One group parks at Newcomb and the other at Adirondack Loj, and you both make for Indian Pass. You can meet for lunch and swap keys at Scott’s Clearing, a big old clearing left when a beaver dam went out a while ago. Or you might want to go up to Avalanche Pass, which offers some of the most dramatic mountain scenery this side of Yosemite, and climb Colden Dike up to the top of Colden. This is one of the most spectacular climbs in the Adirondacks, but it’s a bit hairy in a few places, and if you fall to your death, don’t blame me.

       The Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake is one of the finest regional museums in the country. It has some of the most beautiful guideboats, old wooden motor launches, Rushton canoes, and Adirondack chairs ever made. There’s Sunset Cottage, a masterpiece of mosaic twigwork from Whitney Park, the private 55,OOO-acre compound now run by the flamboyant heiress Marylou Whitney (who said at the cottage’s dedication that it was where everybody changed into their bathing suits and that she was sure her late husband Sonny had made love to a lot of women in it before she got involved with him). The museum also has the private railroad car of one of the robber barons, among them J. P. Morgan and various Vanderbilts, who built palatial rustic camps on remote lakes in the forest and entertained in black tie.

       If the museum is the center of scholarship on the Adirondacks, Burdick’s Chain Saws in Jay is where I’d go to get a blast of the local culture. Dale Burdick, who runs the place with his wife, Joy, blows away Leno and Letterman as a stand-up comic in my and a lot of other people’s opinions. Bernie Rosio sharpens the chains and has one of those deep, gruff deliveries you can barely understand. I asked him one time where he was from and he answered with two bullfrog croaks. Finally it sank in that he had said “Black Brook.”

       There’s always a lively scene at Burdick’s. Two gents with their touques slanted just so stop in for coffee most mornings. One time I met two guys from deep in the northern Catskills who had come up to roast a pig for a wedding. Another time a Lenape Delaware Indian carne down from Port Kent with an old beat-up Stihl.

       “I need a new blade,” he told Bernie.
You need a new saw, that’s what you need,” Bernie told him after looking at it.
“I need money, that’s what I need,” the Indian said.
“Can’t help ya with that,” Bernie said.

       It took several visits before I heard a joke from Dale that was printable, and it wasn’t even a joke, it was something that happened: the day Ralph LeClair, who is no longer with us, God rest his soul, lost his favorite dog and his wife asked him for a divorce. Ralph picked up the dog, which was a beagle and had been hit by a truck, off the road, and when he got into the house, his wife had coincidentally just happened to decide that she’d had it with their fifty-some-year marriage and wanted out. “Look, I just lost the best dog I ever had,” Ralph told her when she informed him of her decision. “Quit trying to cheer me up.”

        When deer season comes, “I let all my men out and they all try to kill something with fur,” Dale told me.  Getting your deer is the defining ritual of the Adirondacks. Between the 24th of October and the first Sunday in December half the work force goes on unemployment, and if you have a problem with your plumbing or electric, you have to fix jt yourself, because pretty near every able-bodied local tradesman is in his hunting camp. Until a few years back, the high schools used to let out every boy over fourteen so he could get his deer.

       “It’s what you looked forward to all year,” one of the many Smiths in our valley, who took me into his camp, told me. “Just being back in camp and going hunting.” The Smiths were Scots-Canadian and carne up the Ausable River from Lake Champlain with the first settlers in 1816. Bucky, as I’ll call him, has a full beard and speaks real old-timey: He drinks “woine,” goes for a “hoike,” and abhors “voiolence.”

       “Long as I can remember, there was the tradition of going into camp,” he told me. “You’re jess born into it. My dad had me hunting partridge, rabbits, and squirrels when I was eight year old.” Bucky’s sons are still in town, but they don’t go into the woods much, “because they’re too busy doing other things.” But the ritual of getting your deer is still going strong, even if it has undergone some recent modifications. The modem hunter rides into camp like Rambo, in a four-wheeler with a plastic scabbard for his gun. Some camps have TV. If you don’t get your deer, it isn’t the end of the world. You play poker and drink with your buddies. “Getting drunk is the true meaning of deer season,” says Dale Burdick. And as anyone can tell you, more deer get shot in the bars than out in the woods.

       Bucky’s dad and his uncle built the camp in the 1940s on land they had leased for ninety years from Finch, Pruyn, the paper company, which sold the land to the state. The state is still honoring the lease, which has forty years to go, so this is a legal camp on state land. There are others that aren’t legal. They’re known as “outlaw camps.” As we bushwhacked up to the camp, we kept passing deer runways with fresh prints, some of them big. Bucky said he’d never seen so many deer as there were this year. “If you know the runs, there’s not much of a trick to killing ’em. It’s just being there at the right time. I don’t shoot any thing under ten point. I seen three that were presentable this fall.”  Bucky doesn’t shoot black bear any more either, and he doesn’t trap fisher cats and pine martens, which is how he supported himself when he came home from Korea in 1959, because the money you get for their skins isn’t worth killing them, and there are so few of them now that it doesn’t feel right. Bucky still spends several hours a day wandering in the woods, as I do, collecting useless bits of information like the location of seasonal springs. He knows his trees and shrubs cold-hardhack (ironwood), the preferred wood for ax handles, and the three kinds of “shumack.”

       The camp, named Hedgehog Den, was a gem, ten by fifteen feet, with six bunks and a woodstove. It had nearly been washed away by the floods a month earlier. That was last year’s exciting act of nature-the worst floods in the Adirondacks’ recorded history. It started raining buckets on Friday, November 11, and when it finally let up the next morning, bridges had been swept away, roads were gone, and places like Peasleeville and Black Brook were completely cut off. The damage in Essex County alone was estimated in the millions. “The flooding raised hell with the hunting,” Bucky told me. “Everybody had to come out and see if his house was still there.”

       We walked down the brook and an hour later we were drinking beers in Bucky’s brother Ronnie’s living room. Ronnie had just retired from the Air Force, and he was devoting his retirement to golf. You wouldn’t think the Ads (as some of us call them; others call them the Dacks) would be a golfer’s paradise, but they boast some of the oldest and most scenic courses in the country. I’ve played most of them (there are more than forty open to the public) and these are my favorites: the East Course of Malone, Saranac Inn, Whiteface Inn, the Lake Placid Lower, Craig Wood, Westport, Sagamore, and Thendara, and in the nine-hole category, the Ausable Club, the Barracks and Top 0′ the World. Some of the courses have resident red foxes that follow you around and take an interest in the game, curling up below the tee and almost seeming to roll their eyes when you slice into the woods. A few years ago I smacked a career drive on the sixth hole at Craig Wood, and a fox pup ran out on the fairway and took off with my ball.

       The drive from Keene to Lake Placid through the Cascades Lakes is one of the most scenic stretches of highway in the Ads. Rock climbers this July morning are clinging to the cliffs of Pitchoff, off to the right. (Chapel Pond Slab and Poke-O-Moonshine are the other climbing meccas.) The hiking trail up Pitchoff takes forty-five minutes. Two huge erratics, or boulders deposited by a long-gone glacier, are poised on the summit. The flumes-cuts of water through tilted, fractured strataare another of our natural wonders. Krumrnholz-the stunted, impenetrably dense balsam-fir forest near the summits of the forty-three “High Peaks” over 4,000 feet-are our most singular vegetation type. There was an old Indian named Henry Nolat who lived in a one-room shanty at the foot of Pitchoff until he died a few years ago. Nolat had long streaming hair and knew the mushrooms, and he used to go up on Pitchoff and cut the inner bark of black ashes into strips of bast that he wove into pack baskets, which is one of our indigenous Adirondack crafts.

       I pass a neighbor in his pickup, and we greet each other by raising the first fingers of our right hand off our steering wheels, in keeping with the local etiquette. Half an hour later, I am driving through Saranac Lake, which is very funky and has seen better days like a number of our bigger towns (Port Henry and Malone also come to mind) and is a good example of the habitat a friend calls “deep dark New York.” During Prohibition, Saranac Lake was a thriving center for Canadian bootleggers, and itis still full of bars. The liveliest one, the Water Hole, has live music on weekends. Last Saturday, a black woman who had come up from Virginia with her bass player and her drummer played electric guitar and belted out the blues in a style between Lightnin’ Hopkins and B. B. King, while several derelict long-haired mountain men types whirled around on the dance floor like dervishes.

       I stop at Chuck Jessie’s studio to check out his latest collection of chandeliers, lamps, chairs, and coffee tables, which he makes from tree burls and the antlers of deer and elk. Chuck is Adirondack born and raised, and is a retired Navy Seal. He built his chalet, on a little lake; completely from scavenged wood, but you wouldn’t know it because the craftsmanship is so superb. Chuck built his dream camp in his head as he lay awake on long, dark nights in Vietnam. He embodies the Adirondacks’ self-sufficient ethos and self-taught creativity as well as anyone I know; and if you want to see his stuff and meet the real deal, give him a call.

       I pass a house that had just burned to the ground. The impact of fire, accidental and otherwise, on the North Country’s real estate has been horrendous. Most of the grand old hotels and the finest rustic great camps have gone up in smoke, their existence documented only in photographs. Someone, perhaps a disgruntled former employee, has been torching the buildings of the old Lake Placid Club one by one over the last few years, and the local police haven’t been able to nail him. I know of one man who burned himself and his wife and their thirteen children out of five houses before he died a few years ago; he kept heating them with green wood that gunked up the chimneys with creosote.

       Continuing up to Gabriels, I take the road to a remote outpost in the hinterland called Onchiota, “where the men are men and the sheep are scared,” as Dale Burdick jokes. The center of Onchiota consists of little more than an establishment nicknamed Blood, Sweat and Beers, Inc., which used to be a grocery store until Hayden “Bing” Tormey, the guy who owned it, retired. He keeps his tools there now and uses the place as a workshop, and locals still come in to gossip and pass the time.

       On the way out of town a sign says “Leaving 67 of the Friendliest People in the Adirondacks (Plus a Couple of Soreheads).” This is a little more hospitable than a sign in the equally remote and tiny Hawkeye (down the road a piece from Swastika) that says “We Shoot Every Third Visitor and the Second One Just Left.”

       If you take a left at Onchiota, there is a nineteen-mile loop my son and I took on bicycles one time through backwoods with lots of lakes that are drained by the Saranac River. Just as you are about to cross a bridge over the river, there is a spring off to the right where you can stop and drink some famously pure and refreshing water gushing out of a pipe. The halfway point of the loop is Loon Lake (not the one in E. L. Doctorow’s novel, which is a composite of several different lakes in the central Ads), a once-exclusive summer colony with a golf course that has fallen on hard times. Some of the buildings were designed by Stanford White and are in various states of dilapidation and restoration. On the way back, you pick up Route 3 at Merrill Corners, and after a mile or so you hang a right, which will take you back to Onchiota. While you’re there, you want to stop at the Six Nations Museum, created and run by an Iroquois family who care deeply about their heritage and offer one of the most authentic Native American experiences available to the casual tourist that I’ve ever encountered in my travels. The Iroquois called the Algonquins, who hunted in the Ads in the summer, the Anaducksue, which means Bark Eaters and was not complimentary (the implication being that they were lousy hunters). A great battle between the two nations was fought at the mouth of the Oswego River, as told in a seventy-five-foot-long band of pictographs circling the walls in the museum that is the longest piece of beadwork in the world.

       No one lived full-time in the Ads until the white man came. It was a zone of peace, and even after the white man came people were basically supportive of each other because they never knew when they might need each other’s help. My theory is that the harsh environment, where the temperature can swing eighty degrees in twenty-four hours, has had an equalizing and harmonizing effect on the people, and this is where the live-and-let-live attitude that is the essence of the local culture came from. But I don’t feel like I really have a handle on this place. Maybe my grandchildren will, if they choose to live here, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.