Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: How is Lost Brook Still Wild?

As a boy in the Adirondacks I would explore the undeveloped woods on or near Blue Mountain Lake with all sorts of wilderness fantasies as my companions. Being as imaginative as the next kid I was certain that most of the islands and shoreline were akin to the Yukon. I particularly relished imagining that my footfalls were landing when no human foot had trod before.

A few years ago as a man in my forties I enjoyed the same kind of fantasy on a bushwhack to Redfield Mountain with my son Adam. After navigating blowdown too horrible to describe we came to a small streamlet with green, grassy banks that fed the gorgeous tarn at Redfield’s southern base. It was so far away from anything, so isolated and difficult to get to that it was easy to imagine we had stopped to eat a sandwich where no one had ever stopped before. Given that this basin was logged, the water courses mapped long ago and – as it turns out – there was even a trail to Redfield from this direction early in the twentieth century, that imagination was certainly fiction. But such fantasies are not easily outgrown.

Two weekends ago as a man in my fifties I ventured with my brother onto a part of Lost Brook Tract I had not seen before (I have reconnoitered less than half of my land). As we made our way down into a basin on the far side of our property the young boy and the older man in me once again imagined that we were walking where no one had ever been.

Fantasy? Not this time. It may be that an occasional hunter or bushwhacker has come that way; I would even call that likely. But the number of people who have done that, if any, is so small that with more than a million square feet of territory in this basin there is no doubt whatsoever that much of it has not felt a human footfall. In the twenty-first century this is an extraordinary thing.

This is a claim that I’m sure many would disbelieve and assume to be naive. But it turns out that the record is complete enough to know with certainty that Lost Brook Tract is the real deal: utterly wild, hardly ever visited, pristine. I have spent the better part of the year amassing a chronology, almost all of it from primary documents and eyewitness accounts, every fact verified from at least two independent sources. For those who would doubt such a place could exist in the Adirondacks here are a few facts that are not subject to dispute: Lost Brook Tract was never logged.

Lost Brook Tract was never burned by forest fires, at least since the Champlain valley was settled by Europeans (it would be impossible to know the fire history before that without serious scientific study).

Lost Brook Tract was never surveyed until 1948. Even then only the borders and summit were surveyed and the summit was measured for distance to the border from only one direction, with no elevation determination, triangulation or mapping in any detail.

Between 1948 and last fall DEC has no record of any visits to or work on the land. The current forest ranger stationed nearby has never been there. He referred to the parcel as “legendary.” Shortly after we bought Lost Brook Tract we asked DEC to resurvey the lines. They got to it in November, led by DEC’s Real Property Supervisor. He described the rare excitement and pleasure of surveying land that was a mystery, unknown to his office.

None of the authors of published hiking or back country guides for that area of the Adirondacks had been on the land until a few months ago, at our invitation. Even the intrepid Barbara McMartin and her associates missed the old growth forest in the area. Her Discover guides and notes show that she got close as she traversed a parallel valley, maybe within a mile or so. That valley had been both burned and logged.

Last July of 2011 I took Vinny McClelland up to the summit we have on our land. Vinny is a lifelong friend of the previous owner and knows the land as well as anyone. Yet he had never been on the summit and was surprised at its magnificent, multiple views. As we looked out upon the aforementioned basin, Vinny offered his opinion that it is likely no one has ever been there, not even hunters. Vinny knows what he is talking about: not only is he a veteran guide and trip leader who has ranged widely in the Adirondacks, but years ago he hand-built a small cabin in the middle of nowhere on the Alaskan frontier and homesteaded. He lamented that for all its wild beauty Alaska has been “found” and bush planes are a constant in the sky. He opined that the area of the Adirondacks containing our land is in some ways wilder than the Alaskan frontier he loves.

How did Lost Brook Tract make it into the present day in such a wild state? The details paint an entertaining, interesting and unlikely picture of luck and fate, culminating in more recent times in the love of a man who wanted to keep it safe and untouched. Next week I will offer a brief rendition of the chronology of the land from the initial incursions into the Adirondacks by Europeans up until the beginning of the twentieth century. The following week I will give an account of the dramatic events at the turn of the century that constitute its closest call, a hair-raising near miss with destruction. After that I will relate the story of the remarkable man who saved it for posterity.

But the story must begin with the Native Americans that lived in or near the Adirondacks. In order to do this properly we must first be disabused of the oft-repeated notion that Indians neither stayed in nor had any settlements in the Adirondacks. Both ideas are tropes that have gained strength through repetition, much of that through the kind of “tagging-along” that is so common to casual Adirondack writing. I have the privilege to be in direct correspondence with an anthropologist and life-long Adirondacker who is an expert on the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). Between his knowledge and the research of other credible writers I have read, most notably Stephen Sulavik, I have come to understand that the Adirondacks were frequented by Indians since the retreat of the ice age glaciers.

This history begins in prehistoric times with the Paleoindians who occupied the Champlain valley. The archaeological record seems to show that they stayed near water courses of which they made great use. But as the tundra evolved to woodlands during the archaic period Indians wandered further inland than might have been presumed. The notable local historian Mary McKenzie possessed a knife blade that was unearthed in North Elba and dated back 5,000 years to aboriginal tribes, proving as she said that “prehistoric Indians antedating the Iroquois were familiar with this region.”

Eventually the tribes of the Algonquin language group extended their presence into the park, so far as we know primarily for hunting purposes. The regular paths they established through the forest are undoubtedly reflected in the course of many present-day roads. Most of these hunting routes followed or stayed near water courses for the obvious benefits of transportation and easier hunting but there is nothing to say that they did not range more widely.

By the middle of the last millennium the Algonquins and their Canadian allies the Hurons were challenged for territorial supremacy by the Haudenosaunee who waged constant warfare with them. The Haudenosaunee, known in Euro-speak as the Iroquois League, were a remarkable alliance of five different tribes ranging from the Mohawks on the east to the Seneca on the west. By the seventeenth century the Haudenosaunee had asserted control over the region.

The extent to which the Haudenosuanee inhabited the Adirondacks is an open question. Oral tradition says that at the time of the leaf-falling moon (October) hunting parties would venture north from their longhouses by the Mohawk River into the Adirondack wilderness, hunting primarily deer for meat and hides. The parties would keep to the river valleys where the deer were most plentiful. After stocking up for the coming winter they would return home except for a few who would stay during the winter for beaver pelts. Most of these hunting routes were along the great rivers of the western Adirondacks including the Raquette and Oswagatchie Rivers, or along the Lake George and Lake Champlain corridors to the east. There is some unconfirmed evidence that Haudenosaunee parties skirted the interior of the High Peaks region via the Hudson River to Lakes Sanford and Henderson, the Preston Ponds and on into the Cold River area. Wherever they went there must have been settlements of one kind or another to support hunts of that size and the processing of pelts and furs.

There is evidence of summer presence as well including a sizable Mohawk encampment on the Plains of Abraham. McKenzie was told by a member of the St. Regis tribe that there was also a summer camp on an island in Lake Placid and that the St. Regis regarded Whiteface as a sacred mountain and used it as a lookout post.

Whatever the Native American presence in the park, it was not pervasive. In particular there is no reason to believe that Indians visited the area of Lost Brook Tract. For one thing none of the known paths or routes went near it. The valley leading to it, though sizable, is not part of a reasonable through route in the mountains. For another access was and is difficult, with significant mountain barriers to the north, south and east and nearly impassable ranges to the west. Furthermore its elevation makes it less than ideal hunting territory. Being land off the beaten path and of no strategic value, it is likely Lost Brook Tract remained unvisited. My anthropologist friend doubts that Indians set foot there.

With the coming of Europeans to the Adirondacks, starting with Samuel de Champlain in 1609, a new chapter in the history of the region began. But it was still many years before human beings set foot on Lost Brook Tract.

Photo: Indian Pass from Iroquois Peak, two of many Native American references in the Adirondacks.

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

2 Responses

  1. JSB says:

    I look forward to the next installment…

    A side note: as a lad at Sabattis Boy Scout Camp near Little Tupper Lake, I often felt that same feeling when I looked at the shores of Bear Pomd while in my canoe. I, too, was the “first man” to explore those wild regions. Thanks for the memory jolt!

  2. catharus says:

    Very interesting…I look forward to more in the sequence of posts…