Sept 7 – 9 there will be a congregation of artists, scholars, historians, and writers in Lake Placid for an exploration of Adirondack cultural heritage (more info). Free and open to the public, it should prove to be enjoyable and informative to all who love this place. I was thinking about this event as I paddled with a group of friends on the Oswegatchie River, in the Five Ponds Wilderness. Our objective was High Rock – not a terribly difficult or long paddle, although it was challenging in places because the water levels were pretty low and rocks were exposed. Having recently returned from almost four weeks in Glacier National Park – where the “big sky” glacier carved landscapes are truly magnificent – I couldn’t get over the fact that I was still moved by the scenery flowing past me along the Oswegatchie.
Orange brown rocks just beneath the surface, covered with colorful paint swatches from all the boats that have scraped across them for more than a century. Massive white pines that probably were too scrawny to harvest during the logging booms of the 1900’s, were now towering over the river. The tag alder filled flood plain that this wild river was meandering through. The Five Ponds Wilderness is a prime example of how this amazing place can inspire.
Herbert Keith published a book in 1972, Man of the Woods, about his life as a guide on the Oswegatchie. Beginning with the first time he visited the area, in 1907, the book is written much the way a grandfather might record his memories for his grandchildren. But these are pretty special memories, both about the spectacular natural environment in the Cranberry Lake/Wanakena area, as well as the changes that came over it in the 20th century. Like the story about the summer when the fishing was so good in the Oswegatchie, that no one was even keeping any trout under 16” in length. It’s a great read, made more special by knowing that the river is now wilder than it was when Keith last wrote about it. The photo on the cover of the book was the view I saw at the start of my paddle.
Paul Jamieson wrote fondly about the Oswegatchie in Adirondack Canoe Waters, North Flow, published in 1975. “Above the Straight the river resumes its meandering through a wide swamp, inching by a series of lazy maneuvers toward high ground first on the east and then on the west. Your shadow circles around the boat. If you take the bends fast enough, the saying is, you can see the back of our neck. Don’t argue with the Oswegatchie. You came to get away from assembly lines. A meander is the pleasantest distance between two points. “
In 2006, Christopher Angus published Oswegatchie: A North Country River, an outstanding collection of essays, stories and poetry by a number of authors. The view from High Rock is on the cover of the book. In the final essay, Angus was inspired to imagine the birth, life, and death of one of the giant, 200 year old white pines along the river. “Throughout the long afternoon, the front saunters in. Hot rays of sunlight are obliterated as a fresh wind gathers the clouds and whips the tree’s branches. A sigh of anticipation sweeps across the esker as the forest prepares for it’s long promised renewal. By nightfall, the wind has grown stronger and a fierce onslaught now appears to be just over the horizon. Sensing the low rumble of distant thunder, the tree shudders, for it was once witness to the lightning strike that destroyed a comrade nearby.”
Is it the rugged wildness, the toughness that has withstood human and natural attacks that somehow moves artists and writers to create? The bountiful forest that has recovered from clear-cutting and forest fires? When I think about the picture postcard panoramic views I saw in Glacier National Park, they are views essentially unchanged since the last ice age (except that the glaciers are rapidly melting in this century). The Adirondacks don’t have as much “grandeur” as the Rocky Mountains, but maybe the opportunities we have to become more intimate with the place is the spark the spurs artistry and poetry.
Attend “Adirondacks: A Place to Dream” in Lake Placid and find out. Information on the event can be found online at adirondacksaplacetodream.com or by contacting the Lake Placid Institute at 518-523-1312.