Saturday, April 21, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Forever Wild

In this week’s dispatch we take up the remainder of the story that delivered Lost Brook Tract intact and pristine into the 21st century. When we last left it smoke was hanging in the air and one edge of the parcel was singed, courtesy of the 1903 fires. Logging and paper companies were moving into the area to salvage lumber from the vast amounts of burned acreage.

Adirondack residents and workers were returning to normal life. Hikers were encountering and documenting the tremendous devastation in the back country, decrying the “acts of God” that caused them. Amazingly, while the damage to the forests was horrific, by and large population centers were spared. That may be a reason why people continued to see these fires as fate instead of folly.
The year 1908 was another turning point for Lost Brook Tract, on two counts. First, it was also a devastating year for fires. Although our land was not directly imperiled by them, civilization was not spared this time. Most notably the town of Long Lake West was entirely destroyed. No more did people blame acts of God; 1908 was the year that finally spurred fire prevention measures that spared the Adirondacks all but one more devastating year of fire loss, that being in 1913 (at the request of a reader I will be writing future dispatches about both the 1908 and 1913 fires).

The second turning point of 1908 was, one presumes, a significantly less incendiary event, but more profound in the long run for Lost Brook Tract: on tax day, April 15th, in Minneapolis Minnesota, Harold B. “Hal” Burton was born.

In the early part of the twentieth century Lost Brook Tract was still unexplored. The official 1911 State of New York Forest, Fish and Game Commission Map shows that the State owned all but one of the lots surrounding the lot containing Lost Brook Tract. This lot and the one containing our land were still owned by J. and J. Rogers Company, undoubtedly with the intention that they be logged. Of the two lots, the one holding our land was more remote, well up an untouched valley and a long way from any access road. Having their hands full with salvage logging from the various fires and virgin wood from the more accessible slopes, and with their business starting to decline, J. and J. Rogers never got to any but the southernmost part of our lot, still well away from our 60 acres.

The most interesting item of note on this 1911 map is that the headwaters and first mile-and-a-half of Lost Brook are drawn in the wrong place and coming from the wrong valley as was the case with the 1895 map. Clearly the area encompassing Lost Brook Tract was still not known.

In 1923, after having exhausted the lumber in the John’s Brook Valley and much of the Great Range, J. and J. Rogers Company started to unload its properties on the State. They sold some acreage by the present John’s Brook Lodge and much more going up into the High Peaks. On April 25th, 1924 they sold the lot containing Lost Brook Tract to the State of New York for $29,917. However, due to the complexities in the title history of Lost Brook Tract, sliced off from the larger lot more than a century ago for nonpayment of taxes (as detailed in a previous dispatch), the State was unable to get a clear title to the parcel. New York law says that the State cannot purchase land without a clear title. Consequently, the documents of sale included a notation that a 60 acre parcel in the northeast corner of the lot was not part of the transaction. Lost Brook Tract remained in the uncertain hands of the County.

In 1927 Ernest W. Parker, County Treasurer, conveyed the 60 acres of Lost Brook Tract to Charles L. Weeks, a New Jersey man who apparently specialized in purchasing small, odd tracts of land for little money, then selling all the timber on the land. Finally there was a clear transaction with a clear title.

When Weeks learned how inaccessible Lost Brook Tract was he “threw up his hands.” Not long afterward Weeks died and ownership passed to his daughter, Mildred Weeks. Neither Charles Weeks nor his daughter ever visited the land.

The Adirondack Mountain Club’s 1934 Guide to Adirondack Trails had a description of an old logging road that came near to Lost Brook Tract. The route was given a detailed treatment, making reference to Lost Brook as a guide, but even that description clearly misidentified the true course of the brook, continuing to place its headwaters well to the north of its actual position. Still unexplored, the land would remain so for another fourteen years.

During all this time Hal Burton grew up, moved east, became a journalist and began to leave his mark on the Adirondacks as a pioneer of the nascent American sport of downhill skiing (many people would be surprised to learn that the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics did not have alpine skiing as an event, as the sport was all but unknown here at the time). As World War Two engulfed the nation, Hal’s expertise in skiing and rock climbing was put to use by Uncle Sam. He helped create the famed Tenth Mountain Division, training American troops to fight in alpine conditions. Hal, whose remarkable and varied life will be given its due in a future dispatch, served with distinction throughout the war.

After the war Hal Burton returned home, used his GI earnings to buy a lot in a picturesque new development in Essex County and erected a camp. He even put a little ski hill up behind his house. But he was restless. Lamenting that civilization was too close to his camp, he began to “feel the restlessness that must have beset Daniel Boone.”

In 1948 Hal decided to do something about his urges. He jumped into an activity he later named “land-finding:” poring over Conservation Department maps looking for little specks of white private land amidst the State Wilderness. It was not long before he found an intriguing target, a little square high in the mountains, surrounded on all sides by the purple of State land. He consulted his friend William G. Howard, Director of Lands and Forests for the NYS Conservation Department, who informed him that the department knew nothing of the land.

Hal then enlisted his friend Adrian Edmonds, the Keene Valley legend, real estate developer and bon vivant, to peruse land records in an attempt to determine who owned the parcel. The convoluted trail led to one Mildred Weeks. Adrian and Hal decided to partner together to buy it and made an offer. An excited and relieved Mildred Weeks was grateful to have their help in unloading her useless tract.

On June 21st, 1948 Mildred Weeks sold Lost Brook Tract to Hal Burton and Adrian Edmonds for the staggering sum of $250. Martha Lee Owen, daughter of Adrian Edmonds, recalls much merriment over the purchase, with the wives chiding their husbands for buying such a remote piece of land, sight unseen, questioning what they could possibly do with it. Knowing that the 1903 fire wreaked devastation well up the shoulder of the ridge holding the tract, Hal wondered if the land contained a healthy forest or instead only burned ground and “puckerbrush.”

New York State law provides for a procedure known as “survey in common.” That is, whenever private property is bounded by Forest Preserve land, the state is required to make the survey and establish the boundaries. In August Hal Burton made such a request to his friend Bill Howard who dispatched rangers to Lost Brook Tract to “try and actually locate this remote inholding.”

In September, Surveyor Albert T. Davis and Assistant Surveyor Henry F. Gannon and team were sent to survey Lost Brook Tract. The nearest “known” corner, all the way back from Richards’ 1812 survey of the Old Military Tract, was located in the middle of a cliff, unreachable without rock climbing. So Davis had to instead come in from the South Meadows, quite some distance indeed. Davis and team successfully located Richards’ original northern line, even finding (in 1948!) some of the Richards’s 1812 survey marks in the process .

Davis calculated an intersection point and began chaining (the magic of surveying, then and now, will be yet another future dispatch topic). Apparently just to get to the land from the intersection required more than a mile of hard hiking and hacking and the better part of a day. Thus it was decided to airdrop tents for the surveyors so that they could remain in the back country until the survey was complete. Sadly, a strong wind pushed the drop off course and the tents were lost for a week, so the exhausted surveyors had to hike in and out every day.

After more than a week of hard work by Davis and his men Lost Brook Tract was laid out, blazed with the traditional yellow paint and piped in the corners, 24.5 chains by 24.5 chains, exactly 60 acres square in the northeast corner of Richards’ original lot. The survey referred to having skirted cliffs and ledges on the northern border and having locating a summit 4 chains south into the parcel.

One week after completion of the survey Hal Burton explored his holdings. To his relief and delight he found that only a small corner of Lost Brook Tract had been burned, maybe fifty feet. The rest was primeval boreal forest Hal made a sketched map of what he found and wrote a letter to his friend and co-purchaser Adrian Edmonds describing the land. The primary subject of the letter was his discovery of a “promontory” with views that in his opinion exceeded the Upper AuSable Lake views (which is saying something). He suggested the possibility of cutting down the trees on the promontory which would open a 360-degree view, then building a cabin on top.

Shortly thereafter Hal Burton and Adrian Edmonds hiked up to Lost Brook Tract for an extended camping trip. They were enchanted by the primeval forest. In a later article about the land written by Hal for Adirondac Magazine he evoked Winslow Homer’s 19th-century Adirondack wilderness aesthetic: “…it was magnificent spruce and balsam, old Adirondack forest such as Winslow Homer painted. Overhead, the branches met so that we walked in perpetual twilight. On the ground, forest giants were green with moss, and on each fallen tree, a dozen seedlings stood in a soldierly line.” Burton remarked upon Lost Brook itself: “Fed by the slow drippings of a primeval forest, it was a rushing stream. That same day, the 14th of a searing drought, the brook down by my camp was barely flowing.”

In the fall Hal and Adrian used green logs to build a lean-to on the summit. A party of six went up to hunt and camp. They make a bonfire: “…we felt it safe to build a fire of huge logs. We sat around it, alone in the wilderness, feeling like Homer’s hunters of the 1880’s…”.

The second half of the twentieth century was a quiet one for Lost Brook Tract under Hal Burton’s stewardship. Burton and Edmonds did petition the Conservation Department to grant a temporary easement to establish a horse trail to the summit of Lost Brook Tract for the purposes of hauling in materials to build and supply a cabin. The Conservation Department granted the easement, specifying a maximum trail width and enumerating very strict restrictions on the number and type of trees that could be cut. For reasons unknown the plan came to nothing and knowledge of the summit and its views slipped away. The lean-to fell into disrepair and faded into the wilderness. Hal, his son and teenage friends did built a second lean-to in 1970, this one down by the brook, but other than that they left the land as they found it: pristine, primeval, a perfect wild jewel.

Natural events over the years largely spared Lost Brook Tract. The Big Blowdown of November 1950, which leveled millions of trees in the park, sheared the mature timber from the summit, which as a result is now a typical, tangled cloak of balsam and birch. The bulk of the tract was on the leeward side and was spared. Acid rain, which devastated spruces throughout much of the Adirondacks, left the trees on lost Brook Tract largely undamaged, one assumes due to prevailing wind patterns and topography. The remnants of Hurricane Floyd may have downed some trees but not many. The great ice storm of 98 snapped the tops off plenty of birches but they have since made a strong recovery. The effects of Irene were, to our relief, unnoticeable.

In 1974 Hal Burton concluded a conservation easement with the State of New York, protecting Lost Brook Tract from development, logging or misuse in perpetuity. The rights to construct a simple camp, cut firewood, trails and limited clearing for a summit view were explicitly reserved. Otherwise the land was to be protected forever. And so it will be, an ancient miracle delivered through the vagaries of time and human industry, to our time.

Photo: A crystal wading pool at Lost Brook

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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.

One Response

  1. catharus says:

    Absolutely fascinating! What seemingly almost random sequence of events of ownership, discovery, and weather, leave you with such a jewel today! Thanks as always, for your scholarship and sharing of the story!

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