Saturday, October 19, 2013

Lost Brook Dispatches: To My Father

Near DadThis month is my father’s birthday.  We lost him to cancer sixteen years ago; he would have been 96.

I’ve been thinking about my father lately as my interest in Adirondack history has grown in its personal impact.  The palpable feel of the history in the park, the physical sense of it, is the result of a sensibility I owe my parents, especially my father.   His life and values tied me directly to a different time, to a different world that is always echoed in the wilderness, in places that connect all of us to a sense of the primitive and to bygone lives.

Ray Nelson lived part of his youth as a frontier man, literally, in the north woods of Wisconsin.  There he lumbered, built cabins and farmed on a homestead that had been carved out of the wilds.  There was no electricity on this farm, only kerosene.  Power was human and animal muscle, no engines.  Dad was proud into his late years that he still knew how to bridle a horse.  I was born many years after this era but it is moving to me how much I feel such a continuum to it and on through my own life, most of it channeled through the abiding permanence of the Adirondacks.

A remarkable example of this continuum, of the young reach of American history and how much of it my father spanned, is the story of a drum cadence.  Some years ago Dad taught me a drum cadence he had heard as a little boy during a Veteran’s Day parade in Chicago.  It had stayed in his memory for seven decades.  It was distinctive: da-da-dah, DAH…    …dah-dah-dah-DAH-da-da-DAH, da-DAH, da-DAH, dah-dah.  That gap in the cadence near the beginning was poignant to young Ray: an emptiness in the rhythm, a hitch, a hesitation and recognition as men marched off to war and death.

As Dad related the story, the cadence was being marched to by an old infantry brigade, a collection of elderly men one of whom had long, flowing white hair.  This man scooped up young Ray and put him on his shoulders, then carried him for some yards down the parade route.  Dad never forgot that ride on the shoulders of a veteran…  a Civil War veteran.

When I began to be old enough to appreciate my family’s annual summer visits to Blue Mountain Lake the sense of my father’s kindred connection to its history was an integral part of my experience.  He would chop wood and kindling beneath the cottage we always rented, not a motel cottage but a camp with a long past, itself a place of rustic imagination.   I can still hear the ringing of metal on metal as he split wood the way he’d learned as a boy.  And was he ever a fearsome sight with a double-bitted axe.  Whether through his employ of frontier lumbering and woodcraft skills or just through the old tools themselves, or perhaps through the sight of the decaying outhouse left in the woods from lumber camp days, or the cistern and collapsing shacks back in the forest, Dad found a connection to his own past in the Adirondacks.  Through Dad in turn I found a connection to a time I never even knew.  And when I later became fascinated with Upper Works or the remains of the Marian River Railroad and steamship docks, or even Lost Brook Tract, the melding of that to the feel of wilderness itself was a capacity given to me by my father.

Perhaps the physical characteristic I most strongly recall about my father is his hands.  Long-fingered and well-veined, they had a delicacy and patience in action that was quite frankly old-fashioned, whether writing or moving a chess piece.  The way Dad’s hands wrapped around a paddle was beautiful, even in the awkward, outsized match of fingers to shaft.

Dad and I had a morning routine at Blue Mountain Lake.  At 6 AM, when mist still cloaked the lake, we would slide our canoe away from the dock and head across the short distance to Osprey Island.   Many days the fog was thick enough so that before reaching the half-way point of the modest span between the shores, all signs of anything other than fog were lost.  Divorce from the present and entry into some sense of the eternal was an essential feature of the transition.

We would proceed to circle the island along the shore, propelled by Dad’s silent paddle strokes, celebrating all the little signs and spots we had come to love.  One of those was a sunken boat, frightening and mysterious, its greenish/brown prow jutting at an odd angle to within a few feet of the surface, its nether regions unaccountable and forbidden.  An old launch from the turn of the century, it was terrifically evocative of history, inviting vivid imagination of the past lives of those who inhabited the island and abandoned it.  Thus inevitably was our journey a dual immersion into the wild and into the past.  It is only right that my father’s ashes reside in Osprey Bay, his legacy and memory wedded to the ever-present past lives of a wild place.

I think that one of the essential things that calls us to save wild places is this sense of the eternal imagined through history, though connection to simpler, frontier times.  We walk the forests of the Adirondacks and we imagine being in the company of some great guide of lore.  We approach a high summit and a brass mark gives us wonder at the toils of Verplanck Colvin and his crew.  We paddle quietly along the winding passage between Eagle and Utowana Lakes, seeing here and there the old guide logs that once bracketed steamboats en route to the Prospect House and we wonder about the Durants and their guests, see them in period clothing in our mind’s eye as though we inhabit a Stoddard photo.  We can all but feel the toil of the miners at Upper Works and we can all but hear the echoes of Haudenosaunee hunters as we follow the trail to the Preston Ponds or walk the grounds of the wonderful Six Nations Museum.  All of these imaginations extend to an imagination of the land itself and compel us to protect it.

Woven into my personal fabric of Adirondack history is Ray Nelson.  I hear his sledge ring out when I split wood for the winter at Lost Brook Tract and I feel the steadiness of his paddle stroke when I canoe the gray-silk waters of a mist-covered Blue Mountain Lake.  I pass John Brown’s farm and I hear that drum cadence, see my father as a boy, perched on the shoulder of some nameless veteran.

When all these histories meet in the depths of the wilderness, when I stand alone in the silence of a deep forest, the imagination of all the past lives of the Adirondacks unites with the imagination of the future lives that must be able have this place as I do.  Those are the times I want nothing more than to devote myself to the defense of the park.

Whoever these future pioneers are, they won’t be alone.  They’ll feel the depth of time in the place too, sense the fabric around them.  Maybe someone will even wonder at the fate of those who left their faint marks at Lost Brook Tract.  In that fabric will be my thread, wound in and about that of my father.  Thanks, Dad, for that.

Photo:  Between Eagle and Utowana Lakes

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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.

4 Responses

  1. Roy Ives says:

    You’re a good son Pete. Thank you for evoking memories of my own father. He too gave me the gift of peace and wonder in the Adirondacks.

  2. Bob Meyer says:

    Well said Pete. Evoking my own similar memories of my father & mother, the lake, the woods, the history.
    Bob Meyer,
    Cortlandt Manor & Pottersville, NY
    professional percussionist & lover of ALL things Adirondack!

  3. Paul says:

    “And when I later became fascinated with Upper Works or the remains of the Marian River Railroad and steamship docks, or even Lost Brook Tract, the melding of that to the feel of wilderness itself was a capacity given to me by my father.”

    What a great quote. I hope we can all try and keep the wood connected to the history of the mountains for the past as well as the present generation. This is not only a wild place set aside for posterity but one where people have lived and I hope will continue to live, year round, in harmony with the wilderness.

  4. Charlie S says:

    Thanks Pete for this dedication to your dad and the Adirondacks.This story reminds me much of my dad who started taking me to Blue Mountain Lake in the early 70’s.I owe much of my admiration and respect for those enchanting woods to my dad (and mom too) who instilled in me at an early age the appreciation of the wildness that so defines the Adirondacks.Every fall they took us kids out of school on Long Island for two weeks and drove us up to Moose River where we camped way back by Otter Brook.They’d wake us up at three in the morning so we could be on the road by four to beat the traffic. I’ll never forget the hearty breakfast’ of eggs,pancakes,spam,potatoes cooked on a Coleman stove under a fat white pine (which has long since fallen down.) My first experience with an outhouse was deep in those Moose River woods.My favorite story connected to those treks way back then is this: One year when we were camping in Moose River we bumped into our junior high Principal and some of our teachers.They were up from Long Island hunting.What are the odds being so far from home and bumping into the Principal of your school? My dad told me years later that Mr. Stewart (the Principal) told him “These woods are the best school.” My dad was in the woods as an assistant guide at Marion River in 1950 during the big blowdown.My mom was the cook for the guides at Marion River back then.They are both still here and i’m sorry that you lost your wonderful dad 16 years ago Pete. Memories are oftentimes all we have,which is not a bad thing so long as they are good memories….which most of the times they are.

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