Monday, November 29, 2010

Dave Gibson: A Greenhorn at Hunting Camp

When I was wet behind the ears, in an Adirondack sort of way, Paul Schaefer took me to the sturdy cabin at the edge of the wilderness that he had built sometime in the early 1960s in the Town of Johnsburg. Paul had located his cabin, named Beaver House, on high ground with a distant view of Crane Mountain, but in the shadow of Eleventh or Cataract Mountain which lay in silhouette immediately to our west. It was November and somewhere below Eleventh Mountain in the gathering gloom of a wilderness afternoon lay a hunting camp populated with men who Paul had recruited into the Cataract Hunting Club years earlier. In fact, the original club members, including fathers and grandfathers of the current generation, dated to around 1931 when Paul hired a teamster to take them in by horse and wagon. In 1987 they were still going in that way courtesy of local teamster Earl Allen.

By 1987, the knees of the 78 year-old conservationist and hunter Paul Schaefer no longer supported his tall frame on the several mile tramp over rough terrain to reach the Cataract Club’s camp on Diamond Brook. So Paul did the next best thing. He sat in Beaver House before a roaring fire talking about the history of the region, its people, conservation history, hunting experiences, and the Siamese Wilderness he knew so well.

A light rain was falling outside, but the light was fading much faster. I was really getting comfortable in the warmth of that room, listening to Paul, when out of the blue he said: “now, Dave, reach into the pocket of my jacket and take out the piece of paper.” I gave him the paper. “I need you to hike into the wilderness and hand over this camping permit to the boys in camp. If the ranger shows up and they don’t have this permit, they could be in a lot of trouble. So, you’d do me and them a big favor by hiking in there.” My heart jumped. I had never been into hunt camp before. “How do I reach their camp, Paul?” Paul gestured with his big right hand, his head cocked, emphasizing. “Go down the trail here to the junction, and then follow the wagon trail west, keeping the mountain always on your left. A mile in, you’ll reach the height of land. Stop right there. A tall red spruce stands ahead on a rise. Don’t go past it. Bear left, keep the mountain on that side and follow the stream down another mile. You can’t miss it. And tell the boys I may try to go in there tomorrow, but I’m not promising.” He gave me a rain slicker and a flashlight, and a hearty “You’ll be back in no time.” With the camping permit in my pocket, my heart pounding, but my voice full of confidence, I headed out the cabin door.
The rain was falling steadily, and afternoon light had all but faded as I tried to determine if I had reached the height of land. I had gone up and down. Height of land seemed a frustrating matter of impression in these big woods. Trying to keep the mountain in sight I veered left and trusted to luck. I suddenly realized my jeans were soaked through. Trudging on, the trees were noticeably larger, including red spruce. How could horses drag a wagon full of gear all the way back here, I remember asking myself. But I was on a mission for Paul. Stumbling on and on down the rough wagon trail, crossing innumerable small streams, I finally smelled wood smoke. Excited, I went uphill into some balsam and spruce, following my nose. In the gloom below, the long tent appeared. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I had made it. I heard muffled laughter. Then my mouth dropped. In the glow of my flashlight, a huge antlered deer hung from a pole. I found the tent entrance, pulled the tent flaps open and walked in. I remember the hissing of those kerosene lamps. All conversation ceased, as ten hunters looked up at me from the chow they were eating on a long table. “Gosh, Dave,” someone said, “you look kind of wet. What can we do you for”? “Guys, Paul sent me in with your camping permit.” At that, I reached into my jeans and out came the paper, dripping wet. Nobody said a word. Bill broke the silence. “Give this to me straight. Paul sent you in here tonight to give us that?” I nodded. The tent erupted in roars of laughter. Dave got up and gave me something warm to drink and a place by the stove. The good natured kidding went on for a while. I felt a whole lot better about life and a bit dryer, and with new found confidence headed back to the cabin. I did leave that permit. The cabin lights were like a port in a storm as Paul welcomed me back with that enormous handshake, and a plate of food. “Take a seat and tell me how the boys are doing.” As I ate, I knew that I had passed some test that mattered to Paul, the first of many to come.

Photos: Cataract Club members Dave Conde, Bill Townsend and Doug Miller (l-r) at Beaver House before heading into camp; Beaver House, the cabin Paul Schaefer built near the Siamese Ponds Wilderness.


David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for nearly 25 years, much of that time as Executive Director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and then as first Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is a partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




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