For some time I have been musing about the question of what we call wilderness, how we deem an area to be wilderness, what it means in the Adirondacks and what it means to me. Is Lost Brook Tract really wild? Can I think of something as wilderness when it is possible for me to run from the heart of it to a warm car and a coffee shop in an hour if I have to? This is complicated question.
Several weeks ago when I began these dispatches I resolved to write about the question of wilderness. Then last week came the most recent post from Steve Signell, our resident mapping expert, his topic being Adirondack land classifications. The debate it engendered in the comments section addressed the very subject I was just beginning to write about. Serendipity!
One of the comments on Steve’s post said this: “People this is all Wild Forest if we have to give it a label. There is nothing ‘Wilderness’ about the High Peaks Wilderness.” My reflexive response to that comment is disagreement. I experience plenty of what I would call wilderness in the High Peaks. But I think I know why the commentator said what he said. With eroded trails, numerous signs and markers, hoards of people, camping areas, bridges, dams and so forth, and with the knowledge that such as it is the High Peaks area is an artificial wilderness created and maintained by human beings, he has a point.But how much of a point?
It seems to me that there are three perspectives from which to investigate the question of wilderness in the Adirondacks: the scientific perspective – essentially what ecologists tell us; the anecdotal perspective – what stories and lore tell us; and the experiential perspective – do we experience wilderness? How do we say so? How does it feel? What takes us out of that experience, or takes away from it?
The scientific argument is more or less a slam dunk. UNESCO has designated the Adirondacks and the Lake Champlain Basin a Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest in the world. Ecologists tell is that the Adirondacks constitute one of the few intact biomes on the planet. Except for a handful of species, most of them from the top of the food chain, these mountains harbor many places with an ecosystem that is essentially as it was before the arrival of civilization. Moreover, it is an ecosystem that is considerably more complete than it was a century ago.
But while the ecological answer is gratifying it is not particularly intimate. Whatever the science may say, when I am in the woods an ATV, a couple of chainsaws or a pile of garbage can take me out of wilderness in a heartbeat. As a storyteller I am more interested in the experiential and anecdotal perspectives. This is a big subject and I’m going to take three dispatches to cover it. In the next dispatch I will write about the experiential perspective; following that I’ll write about the wildness of Lost Brook Tract itself. But I prefer to begin with the stories.
There are of course many stories that speak to the question of wilderness: that assume it, that exalt it, that reveal its beauties and terrors. These stories may not render truths about wilderness but they become part of the fabric by which we experience and value it. Some, like the tragic story of young Douglas Legg and the Santanoni Preserve, are well known. Some, like the story of Japanese Climbers that got lost trying to scale the front of Castle Rock, are obscure. Some, like the story of Verplanck Colvin’s discovery of Lake Tear, invite pithy comparisons, for example the fact that the Hudson’s source was discovered after the source of the Nile, Mississippi, Missouri and Columbia Rivers were found.
Perhaps my favorite story of just how wild these mountains are relates to a discovery of certain artifacts deep in the woods of the Western Adirondacks. How they got there makes for quite a story. It does not relate to Lost Brook Tract in a direct way, but it does involve territory I have described before, including the same area where the C-46 crashed. Like many stories of Adirondack lore it is beautifully intertwined with American history.
It was January of 1776 and colonists were at war with Great Britain, though independence had not yet been declared. At that point the question of whether to break with His Majesty King George was very much undecided. Northern New York was still sovereign British territory, recently won from the French following decades of war, and there were many strong loyalists opposed the Continental rebellion. One of the most influential of them was actively plotting to oppose the rebels, secretly accumulating arms and even raising and drilling his own army. American General Philip Schuyler, in possession of intelligence to this effect, ordered a force of 3,000 troops to stop his activities. Off they set, marching to Johnstown to disarm Sir John Johnson.
Sir John Johnson, 2nd Baronet of New York, was the son and heir of Sir William Johnson, one of the earliest and most famous of Adirondack personages. No doubt many of you are familiar with the story of Sir William, so I’ll give an abbreviated version. A landed man of means, he was the original Adirondack rusticator, establishing a summer residence called Fish House along the Sacandaga River (its location long ago submerged by the forming of the Sacandaga Reservoir). More important, Sir William was a key figure in British affairs in the colonies and in the French-Indian Wars because of his political and military acumen, ambition and most of all his unprecedented relationship with the Iroquois Confederacy.
Having settled in the Mohawk valley, Sir William learned the Mohawk language and Iroquois customs thoroughly (he would even partake of ceremonies in full Mohawk regalia). He engaged in much trade and commerce with the Six Nations and being atypically fair in his dealings he became their most trusted white ally. It was primarily through his connection to them that the Iroquois remained steadfast allies to the British in the French and Indian wars. Sir William commanded Iroquois and colonial militia forces during the last French-Indian War, earning a British victory at the Battle of Lake George and capturing Fort Niagara from the French. These accomplishments and others brought him the title of 1st Baronet of New York and appointment as British Superintendent of Indian Affairs. He held this post until 1774 when amidst rising continental tensions and in the midst of a difficult Indian conference at Johnson Hall, his home in Johnstown and headquarters of his offices, he was seized with a stroke and died. His titles, land and responsibilities were passed on to his son, Sir John.
Sir John was well regarded and savvy in his own right. He was also a fierce loyalist. He made it known to British military commanders that he could raise a battalion of five hundred Iroquois warriors to oppose the colonists. Thus it was that the American force marched to Johnson Hall in January of 1776 to disarm him. Knowing they were en route he acquiesced, relinquishing his arms and agreeing to a parole in return for desisting from any further anti-colonial rabble-rousing.
Of course his promise was an empty one. Allies and arms continued to come to Johnson Hall, some apparently coming from Canada via an ancient Mohawk Indian trail that wound through the hostile and unexplored wilderness to the north. Sir John undoubtedly knew of this trail; indeed his father Sir William had located Johnson Hall quite deliberately at the intersection of six Indian trails where for centuries there had been meetings, trade and celebration. The trail to Canada was one of them and was a chain of commerce.
In May of 1776 American military leaders were tipped off to the fact that Sir John had once again raised arms and forces. They immediately dispatched more troops, this time to arrest him and end his threat once and for all. Loyal allies in Albany sent word to Sir John and he made a quick decision. As a byproduct of the French and Indian War Johnson Hall had been fortified with block houses on either side as well as two cannon, one weighing 1,300 pounds and one 700 pounds, mounted at the entrance. But these defenses were no match for the army that was coming. The only option was a hasty retreat to Canada and the only possible route to take was the old Indian trail.
Accompanied by a party of three hundred Tory loyalists and an unknown number of Mohawk guides, Sir John Johnson fled to Canada following the ancient trail, becoming the first recorded white man to traverse the interior of the park. Convinced that they were pursued close behind, Sir John left quickly and traveled with haste. Apparently it had been a hard winter, for it is recorded that the party traveled in winter conditions, wearing snowshoes and using sleds to haul equipment and supplies.
As near as I can tell from the multiple sources through which I combed, the trail proceeded as follows. It began traveling north past Fish House, then along the Sacandaga River roughly following present-day Route 30, skirting the north end of Lake Pleasant, then bearing northwest near what is now Jessup River Road, continuing along the present Military Road right into the heart of the West Canada Lakes Wilderness. From here the route is unknown but it probably passed to the north of Cedar Lakes, turned due west to avoid the large ridge to the north and came into the Moose River Plains where it resumed a northward direction to the Fulton Chain of Lakes. Here the route is known again: up the Fulton Chain to Raquette Lake, to the outlet of the Raquette River and along the Raquette to Long Lake, up the eastern shore of Long Lake then west just north of its outlet, passing to the north of Anthony Ponds, proceeding northwest just below Tupper Lake, to the Grass River, up to the St. Lawrence and thence to Canada. This was a distance of somewhere around two hundred miles, through the harshest wilderness on the continent. The journey took them nineteen days. Anyone who has hiked around the West Canada Lakes and Blue Ridge Wilderness areas has a pretty good idea how forbidding this route was.
The story has it that the winter snowpack, deteriorating in the spring thaw, failed the party at the site of a large lake. There they abandoned their snowshoes in a pile before continuing. Hence the name we have for the lake to this day, Raquette Lake, “raquette” being the French word for snowshoes.
Even though there were plenty of Native Americans who used the route, the retreat of such a large party under adverse conditions in war time, over the kind of trail and terrain many of us know so well, makes for an impressive story. But as the saying goes, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.
At the very beginning of the 20th century hunters in the wilds of the Western Adirondacks stumbled upon a find in the deeps woods just south of Tupper Lake. The exact circumstances are not recorded but one account makes “stumble” literal, as in someone tripped over it. It was a projectile shape sticking out of the ground. A quick examination revealed it to be not stone but metal, brass to be exact. Long story short, it was a cannon, sunk completely into the earth save for a few inches. A second cannon was found not far away. One weighed 1,300 pounds and the other 700 was pounds. A large beach tree growing through the remains of one of the wheels proved that the cannon had lain there for well over a hundred years. History records that the American troops found that the cannon were missing from Johnson Hall when they arrived. Sir John Johnson and party had dragged a ton worth of artillery more than 120 miles through the Adirondack wilderness on trails more primitive than what we hike on today.
The mind boggles at how they got those cannon that far. One presumes that they sledded them. But what did they do when the snowpack failed? If snowshoes were abandoned at Raquette Lake, then why not the cannon too? From the Fulton Chain of Lakes to the spot where the cannon were found the route is a water route and the typical method of passage would have been canoes made on the spot. Did they build a canoe that could hold a 1,300 pound cannon, carriage, wheels and all? Did they build a raft or a barge? If so they must have had a hell of a time on the Raquette River, which I would not describe as raft-friendly. Did they stay on land? No one knows.
Think about the fact that to do the trip in 19 days means a pace of about ten miles per day. I would challenge a contemporary hiker to put on a fifty-pound pack and do the same route at the same pace. It is an astounding effort to contemplate.
How does this tale, interesting as it is, inform the question of wildness? For one thing, the fact that the cannon were found in the twentieth century is telling (there is a story that the great guide Mitchell Sabattis knew of the existence of the cannon in the middle of the 19th century but no one knows for sure). But I’m more interested in the contemporary condition of the route itself. Certainly the water route up the Fulton chain is no longer wild, nor is Long lake or Raquette Lake (although many parts of Raquette Lake are unspoiled). But the land part through the West Canada/Blue Ridge/Moose River plains is as wild as it was in Sir John’s time. So is the part past Long Lake and headed to Tupper. Segments of the hike would be arguably wilder than they were then, as the Indian trail and its uses are long gone.
Consider the following – suppose that one decided to duplicate Sir John’s “cannonical” journey with the admittedly artificial choice to stay in the woods when traveling parallel to roads like Jessup River Road or when skirting populated waterways. How close could one come to Sir John’s wilderness experience? Well, other than a handful of old logging roads here and there one would come face to face with civilization very infrequently. Specifically it would be necessary to cross either Route 30 or Route 8, then the Limekiln Lake – Cedar River Road, then Route 28. That’s it. In a hundred and twenty miles one would cross two minor highways and a dirt road. Virtually the entire rest of the route to where the cannon lay would fool Sir John himself. Given that we are in the twenty-first century, that is a remarkable thing.
For those who would object to the artifice of avoiding roads and developed waterfront I would simply say that we have to go to some lengths to get to wilderness in any case. That’s a fact of the modern world. The point is that we can, we can avoid civilization almost altogether in the Adirondacks.
The Wilderness is either there to find or it isn’t.
Photo: Trail-less view in the Adirondack park.