Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Adirondack Sporting Experience

What follows is a guest essay by longtime local guide Joe Hackett:

The Adirondack Park has a long and storied history of outdoor sporting adventures.

For centuries, the region was a favored hunting ground for the Iroquois and Algonquin nations. Indeed, the area provided the first commodities of trade in the New World as Adirondack beaver pelts became crucial to early commerce.

The woods and waters of the North Woods were also the proving grounds for such notable outdoorsman as George Washington Sears, (aka Nessmuck), author of Woodcraft, which was considered the definitive guidebook for 19th century outdoor adventurers.

In his formative years, a young Theodore Roosevelt developed his love for sport and an appreciation for all things wild while spending summers on the shores of the St. Regis Lakes. It was there he authored the guidebook, Birds of Franklin County and first discovered a lifelong interest in conservation.

In 1901, Roosevelt was whisked from the shoulder of Mt. Marcy to his Presidential inaugural in Buffalo following the assassination of President McKinley.

Since those early days, travelers have continued to seek outdoor adventures across a land so vast, that no one can claim to know it all. It is this sense of discovery that continues to draw sportsmen and women to the region’s recesses to pursue opportunities for fur, fish, fowl and game.

Though sporting enthusiasts in other parts of the nation may lament free lands to roam, the problem doesn’t exist here. Within the Adirondack Park boundary known as the Blueline, the difficulty arrives in deciding where to go, among over 3 million acres of public woods and waters.

Due to the foresight of advocates in the later part of the 19th century, who sought protection of wilderness, the Park of the 21st century is wilder today than it was a hundred years ago.

Additionally, through the best management practices of professional foresters, game managers and fisheries biologists, the current opportunities for traditional sporting adventures with rod and rifle are among the best available anywhere in the country.

There are a precious, few places in the world where nature has been afforded opportunities to restore forests and wetlands, streams and ponds to the extent available within the 6 million acres of the Adirondack Park.

It is a unique mix of woods and waters, raging rivers and soaring cliffs, towering summits and staggering swamps contained within a blend of public and private lands. It is a wild section of country that still captures the imagination as it did over 100 years ago.

It is place where sportsmen and women remain indelibly linked to the land; where they read its subtle signs and feel it’s pulse and still use these rhythms as a natural calendar, to measure the year not by the month, but by the season.

Maple season comes in the early spring, followed by mud season and finally the trout season. A returning loon’s mournful tune beckons anglers to open water, signaling that ice has finally cleared the ponds and the trout are hungry.

Seasons for Northern pike, walleye and bass follow in short order, as black flies and mosquitoes give way to mayflies, and flyfishermen delight. Still later, these are replaced by horse flies and deer flies and tourist season begins in earnest.

June bugs bounce off window screens as fireflies twinkle in the night skies and summer folk return to the lakes. Beaches and bar-b-ques fill the day, while swimming holes and fishing poles command a young boy’s dreams.

Berry picking commences and life slows to a crawl as the dog days of summer take hold. Evening fires crackle as thunder rumbles in the distance and the gentle pitter-patter of rain on a lean-to roof lulls a camper to sleep.

Then, like a crack of lightning, yellow school buses begin to roll and the hills take on colors which deliver the sportsman’s seasons. The High Holy Days of autumn are at hand. Velvet still drapes a buck’s rack as coyotes yip and yap from the hills in the cool, night air. A musty pungency lingers in the forest air, as oyster mushrooms sprout from an old beech log and the barking of geese sounds from overhead.

This is a time of great opportunity and even greater indecision. There are just too many choices. Are ruffed grouse to be pursued, as a bird dog leads the way? Or are decoys to be displayed in an attempt to coax ducks or geese within range, as a retriever sits quivering in anticipation? And what about that wild turkey that was promised for Thanksgiving?

Do we head off to a backcountry pond where brook trout have developed spawn colors to rival the attendant foliage or wade the rivers where salmon return for the same purpose?

The air turns crisp as frost seizes the ground and days grow shorter. Leaves crunch underfoot and the woods open up. Suddenly, the hills are cloaked in first white and rim ice begins to sets up on the ponds. Pickup trucks with empty gun racks line the back roads and tradesmen call in sick to work.

Regular life is put on hold for the Big Game season, which begins with Early Bear in mid September and ends in early December. It is one of the longest sporting seasons of the year.

When wood smoke again scents the air; Buffalo plaid jackets become the fashion of the day and long johns the lingerie. Good friends gather in small hunting camps to rekindle old memories and restore friendships earned around a warm woodstove. It is a place where traditions are passed on and the spirit of the hunt commands the soul of the place.

It comes at a time when the faces on Main Street become increasingly familiar and the question, “Did ya get yours yet?” again serve as a formal greeting, whether at the Post Office, the Town Hall or the church.

This all happens in a land of extremes, of extremes in terrain, of weather and sporting passions. It occurs in a place of endless swamps and unforgiving cold, of deep snows and even deeper forests. It is big country and it will never be a place for the unprepared.

This is a place where neighbors take care of neighbors and where both are willing to extend similar courtesies to strangers. No matter how lonely the road, no one stays stuck in a ditch for long around here.

Cold gradually takes hold of the land and ice begins to seize the lakes. In many a hunter’s dreams, last season’s bucks are shot, re-shot or missed again. There are many “if onlys” which never make it to the dinner plate and no nourishment was ever gained from track soup. Happily, hunts go down in memory to be revisited later, over warm stoves in the cold season.

As ice firms up, small villages of ice shanties begin to crop up across frozen Adirondack lakes and the next season unfolds. Packbaskets filled with tip-ups and ice augers will be dragged on sleds, so tiny holes can be drilled in hopes of large fish.

Temperatures continue to drop, the lake ice rumbles in the night and snow squeaks like styrofoam underfoot. Ice crystals hang in the air like fairy dust and each breath is evident as a fog before your eyes. Jumper cables and dry gas become precious commodities as woodpiles begin to dwindle.

It finally ends, as the first sweet stream begins billowing from the vents of a sugar shack roof and another year begins.

Knowledge of fish, game, the land and an appreciation of the weather are a sportsman’s essential traveling companions, but nothing can replace common sense and proper preparations for wilderness travel. Always know where you are going and let someone know when you’ll return.

Sportsmen are kin to hikers, paddlers and all other wilderness wanderers in this regard. So too, they must be in appreciating and protecting our natural resources.

Respect our natural resources and be considerate of all other users in your travels, as the land belongs to everyone, regardless of their pursuit or interest.

If you hunt in fair chase, fish within limits and honor all creatures, the woods and waters of the park will continue to provide for future generations, as it has till now. To insure such opportunities in the future, take a kid along on your next journey and show them the way. Sporting traditions will only survive if we all take the time to pass them along.

This guest essay was contributed by the Adirondack Forest Preserve Education Partnership, a coalition of Adirondack organizations building on the Leave No Trace philosophy. Their goal is to provide public education about the Forest Preserve and Conservation Easements with an emphasis on how to safely enjoy, share, and protect these unique lands. To learn more about AFPEP visit www.adirondackoutdoors.org.

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