Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Anne LaBastille Rediscovers Verplanck Colvin

Fifty people in a room can seem like a crowd. Not so in a great church full of pews, or when spread out on a slope or under trees in the Adirondacks the impression is of a small, intrepid band. One Adirondack celebration with 50 people stands out in my mind. Anne LaBastille helped organize it.

As Anne just passed away, she is much in the collective mind this summer. The year was 1992, the Adirondack Park’s Centennial Year. Anne’s co-conspirator was Norm Van Valkenburgh, the retired director of Lands and Forests with the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and a surveyor from the Catskills. Both were keen admirers of the 19th century Adirondack surveyor Verplanck Colvin (1847-1920, and Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey, 1872-1899), who did so much to improve awareness, understanding, knowledge of the Adirondack mountains, and to inspire legislative action in the creation of the Park itself.

While many events were underway to honor the Park Centennial during 1992, none were intended to expressly honor Colvin. So, Anne and Norm conspired and created Friends of Verplanck Colvin for the sole purpose of memorializing this great Adirondack explorer in the 100th anniversary of the Park he had advocated. Their invitation read “We would like to propose that a group of private conservationists and land surveyors join together with us as Friends of Verplanck Colvin, to donate personal funds for two special plaques to be erected during the Centennial. One would be place near his grave in Coeymans, and the other near a rock where Colvin engraved his survey marks in the western Adirondacks.”

Theirs was a hard invitation to refuse. I had to see that mystery rock, and I kicked up a lot of dust on the Stillwater Road trying to get to the boat in time, operated by the owner of the Norridgewock Hotel in the hamlet of Beaver River, reached only by boat off Stillwater Reservoir. As we motored down the lake, we watched loons sink low in the water as we approached the rickety dock. There, Anne LaBastille, in her familiar plaid shirt, greeted us. Many had driven a long way to be here, others were local – like NYS DEC Forest Ranger Terry Perkins. Ranger Perkins herded us down the road, and then off on an unprepossessing trail shrouded in balsam fir. He led us single-filed to a large, moss covered boulder with balsams growing off its crown.

Anne LaBastille came to the head of the line, stood next to Terry, removed a wire brush and proceeded to brush the lichen and moss away from one spot on the boulder. To our collective amazement, lettering and a directional line were revealed chiseled in the stone. The lettering was aligned vertically: TC, SNY, AdrSur, 1878, VC. The directional arrow pointed west with the initials F.T. beneath it, and the letters McC to the left.

As described in Nina Webb’s book Footsteps through the Adirondacks: The Verplanck Colvin Story (1996, North Country Books), these symbols stand for: Totten and Crossfield Purchase, State of New York, Adirondack survey, the year in which the work was done, 1878, and Verplanck Colvin. The directional arrow points toward the nearest measured corner in the survey, and F.T. are the initials of the survey’s assistant, Frank Tweedy.

The past president of the American Surveyors Association stepped forward to read from the 1878 survey. Colvin described this as a great corner of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase, a very important achievement and one the Superintendent himself took time to chisel in stone 114 years earlier at this very spot. After chiseling, Colvin ordered his crew on a forced march back to camp for a meal of hardtack and jerky, and the remains of some venison.

Boarding a bus to the hamlet of Beaver River, we walk next to the railroad track to a point above Norridgewock Pond where another large rock lay covered by one of Anne’s faded plaid blankets, and a balsam wreath on top of it. Bob Glennon, Executive Director of the Adirondack Park Agency, remembered Colvin and his significance today. It finally fell to Nina Webb, Colvin author and admirer, to offer her tribute, and to pull Anne’s blanket away to reveal the plaque: “In Tribute to Verplanck Colvin, 1847-1920, Land Surveyor; Founder and Champion of the New York State Forest Preserve and the Adirondack Park; Remembered by his friends and admirers on the Centennial of the Adirondack Park, May 20, 1992.”

Anne LaBastille, like Verplanck Colvin, could not live out her life at home. Both were placed in institutions. Mills Blake, Colvin’s assistant in the survey, always visited him. Anne’s friends were similarly faithful to the end. Most important, Anne and Norm and Nina Webb, and many others have kept faith with Colvin, enabling the rest of us to gain inspiration from the great explorer’s writing and life that was lived for the Adirondacks.

Verplanck Colvin – the passionate, very determined Adirondack scientist and explorer who wrote: “A region of mystery over which none can gaze without a strange thrill of interest and of wonder. One looks out upon thousands of square miles of wilderness which, since forest it became, hides today the secrets of form, and soil, and rock and history. It is upon this that we ponder.”

Photos: Above, a drawing from of Verplanck Colvin’s surveys; below, Verplanck Colvin

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring 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 managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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