As I write this, the debate is continuing to rage over how much motorized access should be allowed on former Finch, Pruyn lands sold to the state, but regardless of the decision, the age of private hunting and fishing clubs on those lands is quietly drawing to a close.
We’re in the middle of a ten-year slide to oblivion for the iconic Gooley Club, the Polaris Mountain Club, and others, but this is a significant year in that slide. As of a year ago, there were thirty-three clubs leasing land from the Nature Conservancy, which bought the Finch, Pruyn properties in 2007 in the most significant land acquisition since the creation of the Adirondack Park. Of those, twenty-three have or had camps, as in permanent structures, on their lease-holdings. A few of those have already folded operation. More will follow year by year as doomsday approaches, until, by September 30, 2018, every vestige of those camps will be gone at owner expense, all leases will end, and an Adirondack way of life will slip into history. Regardless of how the lands are classified and managed, they will become wholly public lands.
Removing all the physical structures is no small thing. In the case of the Gooley Club, it means dismantling a small hamlet on the shores of Third Lake. The dozen camps of the Polaris Mountain Club are strung along the Hudson like a settlement, and some are substantial all-season dwellings. Undoing these camps is going to be expensive and a lot of work. For Fred Monroe, longtime supervisor of Chester, whose father was co-founder of the Polaris Mountain Club in the early 1950s, the inevitable is a tender matter, steeped in sadness. No doubt similar feelings run strong in many of the clubs.
No matter how you feel about public versus private, respect is due to those who took such good care of these lands out of, admittedly, enlightened self interest. Now begins the age of public use of lands in private hands since before the Civil War, with all the pluses and minuses that go with it.
Now, with the deer and bear seasons in full swing, the clubs are experiencing a significant jolt in terms of privacy. As of October 1, the clubs have exclusive use of only one-acre envelopes around their camps (as well as dirt access roads). But dropping from 16,000 leased acres for the exclusive recreational use of Gooley Club members and families to one acre is quite a thud. So is the loss of all-terrain vehicles for bringing in hunters with aging legs and creaky joints to interior posts or for deer drives along the sixty miles of interior roads. According to the rules newly in effect, ATVs can be used only to drag out a deer—not to drag in a hunter.
For my dear old friend George Canon, longtime supervisor of Newcomb, Gooley Club membership was about fishing, especially the spectacular trout fishing on stunning Third Lake of the legendary Essex Chain Lakes. I counted eight camps close together inside Gooley “village,” plus a large and well-made clubhouse and a modern-looking his-and-hers bathhouse.
George explained that the club owns the camps and other buildings as well as the aluminum rowboats with small gas and electric engines tied up to two docks. Club members can rent one of the camps for indeterminate periods, and families often have stayed all summer. Because the club stocked several lakes with brook and rainbow trout as well as land-locked salmon, many members were in it for the fishing, although there was always a hard-core, men-only hunting group for the deer season. And winter access for the hardy by snowmobile. In its heyday, there were two caretakers, one serving as an excellent cook. Now they’re down to one, said George, and the future is what it is.
“There’s an online auction going on for club members to sell off club memorabilia,” he remarked as we passed by an Old Town Canadienne canoe along the shore. ‘‘It’s up to $300 on that canoe.”
George, who has belonged to the club for six or seven years, doesn’t plan to renew his membership. He suspects he is not alone. The club is down to between seventy and ninety members.
Gooley Club member Bruce Mitchell of Indian Lake gave me a thumbnail history of the club, named after early settlers Mike and Olive Gooley. Their farmhouse along the Hudson served meals to log drivers, and the farmstead became the site of the original Outer Gooley Club, which predated the sister Inner Gooley Club on Third Lake by many years. Many sportsmen belonged to both clubs. Now the Outer Gooley Club is disbanded, though the clubhouse remains—at least until the state decides what to do with it.