Saturday, April 26, 2014

Cub Schaefer, A Bull Story, And Other Tales of Summer

From left to right - Mathias Zahniser, Francis -Cub- Schaefer. John Hitchcock, Tommy Senate, Tommy TaylorAdirondack summers for the Zahniser clan on Edwards Hill Road in Johnsburg were wonderfully and inextricably bound up with the Schaefer clan. Even these 40 years hence, memories of those years play, as Cub Schaefer told me in July 2000, like videotapes.

Many of those scenes come from summer in Bakers Mills in the 1950s with  The Rainmakers, our young band of avid trout anglers that included Cub, Matt and Ed Zahniser, Johnny Hitchcock, Tommy Senate, and Tommy Taylor. We named ourselves The Rainmakers part way through the summer, realizing that every time we all went fishing, it rained.

The story opens with the whole troupe of us strung out along the diminutive stream through Johnny Robbins old place across Route 8 from Johnny Steve’s farm just beyond the road into the Oehser’s camp east of Bakers Mills. We are all looking for likely holes, meaning a pool deep enough to keep a trout’s dorsal fin from drying out. Willows overarch parts of the stream. All is idyllic until Matt Zahniser, the senior Rainmaker, comes crashing down the middle of the stream below some willows shouting “Bull! Run!” He wasn’t talking Civil War reenactment.

We all took off running in the direction Matt was headed, most of us having by then spotted the large bovine with horns running our direction.

Cub took off sprinting for some distance but soon jettisoned his fishing rod — and somehow his glasses, too– and climbed a small tree to safety.

I was actually closest to Matt when the angry bovine first breathed down his neck and inspired him to cut and run shouting “Bull!” My immediate problem was that my mother Alice had insisted that morning back at Mateskared, our cabin, that I had to wear my “galoshes,” or it was no fishing with the big kids for you, young man. Galoshes were rubber, over-shoe boots that fastened up to calf-level with metal clips. They were designed to slow down sprinters and keep safety-patrol kids dry at road intersections close to schools during suburban monsoons.

By the time I got to plodding along the stream toward the others, the bovine was so close behind me I could hear its breathing. The rest of The Rainmakers started shouting, “Cross the creek, Eddie. Cross the Creek.” In desperation I made a 90-degree turn into three-inch-deep riffles and scooted onto the opposite bank. Miraculously, the bovine veered off. I owe my subsequent education, marriage, and two children to its aversion to getting the bottom-most portion of its hooves wet.

Matt later said he was udderly certain it was a cow, but it had horns and he thought the expletive “Bull!” would best get us Rainmakers in motion out of harm’s way.

The part of the story Cub edited out in later years was how he made Matt, who was 15-years-old to Cub’s ten, go back into the Bull patch and fetch Cub’s fishing rod and glasses. Cub’s actual namesake was St. Francis, but, hey, tell that to Johnny Robbin’s cow.

After Cub headed out West during the summer of 1962, I saw him again only in 1982 and again in 2000 in Jackson Hole. Both times the first topic of conversation had to be the “Bull!” Having re-run that story, we could talk about other life events.

Cub’s Outdoor Gear Expertise

Soon after the summer of The Rainmakers, my brother Matt moved on to other things, like college and marriage, and I had more of Cub’s attention to myself. Even before Matt graduated from The Rainmakers, however, Cub was generally our outdoors gear expert. We Zahniser kids grew up on hand-me-down L.L. Bean boots that we called “Packs.” They have rubber bottoms and leather uppers. In those days you could send them back to Freeport, Maine and have new rubber bottoms quintuple-sewed to the enduring leather uppers in what then appeared to be perpetuity. That made them superb hand-me-downs for our family of four kids living on my father Howard Zahniser’s paycheck from a relatively obscure nonprofit conservation group. For the duration of four kids, my parents never had to dispose of the Bean boots; they just bought a new pair for the biggest kid.

It didn’t take long for Cub to scorn Bean boots in favor of some all-leather jobbies. And a couple years later the only footgear one would be caught dead in the woods wearing were Peter Limmer boots. Cub assured us they were guaranteed for 2,000 miles even on rocky terrain. The thing was, by then Cub had quit growing, and Larry and I hadn’t. It was about time, most people remarked, that Cub had grown into his feet. When Cub was 10 and 11 years old, had there been surfing in the Adirondacks, he could’ve done it without the board on the spacious soles of his tennis shoes.

The Herter’s Inc. catalog carried a Bowie knife that looked a lot like an ordinary kitchen knife but could also be used, according to the always-ebullient Herter’s catalog copy, to cut eight-penny nails in half with the help of a hammer to drive the blade, which, by the way, would not bend or nick.   My friend Larry Strausbaugh and I quickly bought Herter’s Bowie knives, but when we asked Cub’s father Paul Schaefer to test their sharpness at our cabin one night, Paul ran a finger over their edges and said they were both “dull as a hoe.”

Larry and I were so crushed by Paul’s curt judgment that Larry eventually went into infectious diseases of internal medicine and I majored in English.

Creeling Trout, Not Bagging Peaks

Before Matt flew the nest, the Schaefer and Zahniser matriarchies and kids did a trek into the High Peaks so that the Schaefer women, particularly, could bag more 4,000-plus-foot peaks on their ways to becoming 46ers.

We trekked into the Flowed Lands with backpacks on the expedition that would spark the controversy, probably still raging somewhere, over who had the right to name the mountain that the female contingent of our expedition dubbed Shepherd’s Tooth. Schaefer means “shepherd,” and Zahniser contains the root for “tooth.”

Cub much preferred creeling trout to bagging peaks. Flowed Lands, the former human-made lake in the High Peaks served as our base camp. Cub had the brilliant idea that we could haul into our camp enough night crawlers and their sustaining dirt for ten days of productive fishing. We hauled them in a bailed roofing-tar bucket that we took turns carrying in pairs on a pole between our shoulders.

Lugging that awkward, heavy bucket of worms via pole on our shoulders, and stumbling along uneven trails, brought to our collective consciousness old TV segments of  “Rama of the Jungle.”

The rub was that there turned out to be leeches in the Flowed Lands. Every time we plopped a fat, juicy, long-distance-trail-hauled nightcrawler anywhere near a High Peaks trout, the trout took off swimming like a hell-bent torpedo. No doubt, if Larry Strausbaugh had experienced that summer adventure, he would have gone straight into pre-med from junior high school. I took one or more English classes every year until I graduated from college.

Cub remained my hero on that trip because he always carried a knife. I didn’t. I wore a heavy black sweater every morning when we set out for more mostly fruitless fishing. By now we were using flies, not worms. And flies tend to blow in the wind. And their barbs are great at snagging your own heavy black sweater.

I was dependent on Cub—for the entire High Peaks trip—to cut my fishing fly out of my black sweater so I could get back to fishing. We caught the most trout that trip in cascade pools of the outlet of Flowed Lands. I can still see those lively, back-watering pools now. I have repressed Cub’s impatience with how my sweater cut into his own trout fishing time.

A later summer by brother Matt had the great luck to go to the Adirondacks in late spring with Paul and Grace Oehser. Ever after that he would tell me how much better the trout fishing was in the spring than in July and August, the post-black fly months our family usually logged at our cabin out of Bakers Mills. After Matt matured even more, he said he realized that was the only time he’d done much fishing in the Adirondacks without Cub rushing ahead to hit all the best-looking pools first.

Larry Strausbaugh spent the summer in the Adirondacks with my mother, father, and me about 1960. He was totally enamored of Cub’s effortless woodsmanship. For Cub, going fishing to Bog Meadow, Bog Meadow Falls on Round Pond Brook, and on down to Second Pond Flow was as nonchalant as for Larry and me to walk four blocks to the drugstore at our homes in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

One day Cub agreed to go fishing with Larry and me to those very locations. But first, he said, his Aunt Gertrude Fogarty had said he could go to the Fogarty cabin and make himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. With full gear in tow, Larry and I met Cub at Fogarty’s to go fishing. Well, not quite.

The Fogarty’s weren’t there. We had to wait while Cub cleaned out entire jars of peanut butter and jelly and used more than half a loaf of bread making that proffered sandwich. For Larry and me the suspense was arduous and continuous, because the sandwich Cub was eating, he would tell us, was the last one. But when he finished it he made the next one, regaling us with stories all the while.

We finally made it back in the woods about mid-afternoon. There Cub taught us how to improve Adirondack trout waters by getting rid of chubs, the feral bait-fish that were the bane of trout anglers. We ended up calling the process “derricking chubs.” You could often tell by the feel of the strike that it was a chub and not a trout. If so, you lifted your fly rod and then gave it a sweeping pull back so that the chub exited the beaver pond and went flying past you above the beaver-meadow grasses until you jerked your fly rod forward, snapping the chub off to flop in the beaver meadow grass and thereby improve trout fishing. At least that was our reasoning.

This was great if you were as experienced and coordinated as Cub was. Larry and I were not always so. On the upstroke with our flyrods we sometimes flicked when we should’ve jerked, so that the chub came streaming back and slapped us in the face. Even Cub could misfire sometimes, although with different consequence. One strike signaled “chub” to Cub and he went into derrick mode, only to see a larger fish roll over orange in the water. He knew he’d blown it on a nice brook trout. Cub didn’t swear, but he could create the aura with different words.

No Problem

The greatest patience I ever remember Cub showing, besides cutting fishing flies out of my black sweater, was one night when he was on Edwards Hill alone and my mother invited him up to dinner. It was a Friday, and the Vatican still had its fish contract in effect with the Hanseatic League. My mother forgot about it being Friday and Cub being Catholic, and she made a huge pot of great Spanish rice with hamburger crumbled up in it. Cub sat there for two hours picking bits of ground beef out of his Spanish rice. Except for the modest mound of burger bits, he eventually cleaned his plate. My mother felt terrible, but Cub kept picking away and saying “No problem.”

The biggest food debate I ever had with Cub was actually with both he and his high school buddy Les on a trip we made to the High Peaks one weekend. We ended up at Livingston Pond to fish its then nearly pristine waters. It quickly dawned on me that I had been brought along to cook.

I was 15 and just back from six weeks in the Sheenjek River country of Alaska’s southern Brooks Range and then down in what is now Denali National Park with Olaus and Mardy Murie and Adolph and Louise Murie. On the High Peaks trip with Cub and Les I had brought my square, cast-aluminum griddle. This was a good thing, because the only utensils we had were our small hunting knives. We cut woodchips with our ax to serve as a mixing spoon, and I had to flip our pancakes.

The big food debate, however, was over whether we should eat the humpbacked trout Cub caught in Livingston Pond. Cub, who by far outstripped Les and me for compounding imagination, was convinced the trout hump was a tumor that could give us cancer. Les thought it might be a broken back that had healed crooked. But Cub’s theory definitely spooked Les. I didn’t know what to think, nor can I remember whether we ate that humpbacked trout.

The summers of my junior and senior years of high school I worked for Cub’s father Paul and the Iroquois Hills construction outfit, living at the Schaefer homestead in Schenectady. Carolyn Schaefer was off those two summers cooking for the weather station on Whiteface Mountain, so Evelyn, Monica, and I took on all cooking duties for ourselves, Paul, and Cub.

Neither Ev, Monica, nor I were experienced cooks, so we worked as a committee. Evelyn had some basic knowledge, Monica was good with a cookbook, and I had hung around my mother’s cooking so diligently that I knew what things were supposed to look like. No matter that the Schaefer oven had only two settings—either hot as hell or off.

Every morning I made a huge batch of sourdough pancakes before Paul and I set off to work. Cub worked for Paul’s mason Louie, so he set off by himself. Late in the summer I got up my nerve to try to bake a cherry pie. It was a big success, and Paul, Evelyn, Monica, and I each had small pieces.

Cub was out with his girlfriend and didn’t get back until I had gone to bed in the loft of the Adirondack Room, which Cub and I shared. When I got up in the morning the pie pan was empty. When Cub got up, he said it had been a very good pie, even after he found out that I made it. I didn’t bother to make another.

One morning when Cub got up he asked me how I liked working with Paul’s crew. I said fine. Cub said, “Well, are you sure? You were talking in your sleep last night complaining like crazy on and on about what a bad time the carpenters were giving you!” I swore him to silence.

Truth to tell, the crew could make you miserable, except for Uncle Nat Keseburg and Louie the mason, who were good as gold and tried to take care of me all summer. The carpenters were eligible for “Good Citizenship” awards compared to the plasterers. Cub used to laugh when he was mixing mortar for Louie and I was carrying the plaster that Uncle Nat was mixing for the plasterers, who were working in another room.

If Uncle Nat got the consistency of the plaster wrong, I caught holy hell from the plasters, who had strings of foul invectives I had never imagined. They would also accuse me of going out with girls all night and doing all manner of  lewd sounding things I still have never heard of elsewhere—nor hope too. Cub was full of brotherly advice for me on the job site, but I can’t remember anything but the plasterers. No wonder builders use drywall now.

One Saturday Cub wanted to go climbing down in the Shawangunks and offered to take Monica and me along for the ride. Monica and I packed a large grocery bag full of food for lunch and dinner. The trouble was, we left that cornucopia of a grocery bag on the kitchen table. When we got to the ‘Gunks, we realized our error. We each pulled out our money, and decided we had better divvy it up evenly. We each got 75 cents for food for the day.

Cub and Monica looked askance on my purchases. I bought two bananas and a large box of Milk Bone dog biscuits. I didn’t go hungry. At one point Monica—who in those days carried her guitar everywhere—was trying to get me to go sing with her for food in the campground. But Milk Bone trumps performance anxiety, and one box of those biscuits lasts a body a long time.

You may wonder why someone of Cub’s size and speed never played high school football. Well, he explained to me that he had a condition the doctor just translated into plain English for him as “a soft head.” If he took any sort of knock on the head, he said, it gave him excruciating headaches that lasted for days. So no football.

He was Paul Schaefer’s son, so I didn’t know whether to believe him, but it was true that Cub didn’t play football. Of course, he didn’t really need to. Long before high school, we had the complete “Bull!” story under our collective belts. What gridiron glories could match such an adventure?

When I get to heaven, the first thing I’m going to do is put on my black sweater and go fly fishing, I’m sure Cub will be there with his knife to cut out my snags. But you can bet I’m not gonna fish anywhere near Johnny Robbins green pastures. No way. I plan to arrive on Friday. That night, Cub and I can go eat Spanish rice, and this time no pickin’ out the burger bits. For dessert we can have peach ice cream and Milk Bone dog biscuits. Honest Cub, I’m just kidding.

“No problem.”

Photo, from left to right: Mathias Zahniser, Francis “Cub” Schaefer, John Hitchcock, Tommy Senate, Tommy Taylor.

Related Stories

Ed Zahniser retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer - a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).

5 Responses

  1. Oh, the wild days of innocence in the back woods! Wonderful story Ed and wonderful to be able saunter back with you in these memories of Cub who I never had the good fortune to meet. Sounds exactly like many of the stories I have heard; including some of his climbing feats out in Colorado with my buddy Naj. Now I want to read about a 15 year old boy’s adventures in the Brooks Range with the Murie’s! What a life!

  2. Naj Wikoff says:


    Yes, I knew Cub, witnessed his ability to put away food, love and ability to catch trout, dance up cliffs, and tell stories that stretched the truth to near breaking. I also owned one of his dusters and received payment for work I did for him in the form of a pair of Peter Limmers that he said were better than cash. We worked and hiked together here in Keene Valley, over near Stowe, and out in Jackson Hole and Steamboat, and I had the pleasure of attending his wedding in Boulder where the most of the party climbed the red rocks pre ceremony.

    Your story really captured his spirit, and was a great gift to experience on this chilly spring day. Many thanks. If you are ever in Keene Valley, do look me up.


  3. Dave Gibson says:

    Ed, Naj, Dan – there’s a cabin near the Siamese Wilderness where I think we all should meet and talk some more.

    I just cleaned out the mouse and squirrel nests, so for a few minutes the place would be all ours, but the cabin’s rusticity is good for all two and four footeds.

    Ed, liked your piece very much, your photo, and the comments to date.

  4. Jim Schaefer says:

    Great stories.
    And yes, he WAS Paul Schafer’s son. What else can one say!!!
    We ride in the back of Paul’s truck. Before leaving we would load up small rocks to throw at roadside signs on the way north through Northville and Wells to Baker’s Mills. I can still spot some signs with Cub/Jim dings. One big rock came back and hit the back wheel, causing Paul to veer across the midline. Paul only hawked a few more streams of saliva out the back.
    Cub and I were born the same year and spent a lot of time together.
    I went west after high school, so lost a lot of contact. Cub did visit us in 1972 in Montana with his CJ5 Jeep typical “the best.” I was teaching at UMN at the time. Cub stayed a day or two and then went to Glacier for some rock time as I recall.
    Regarding The Flow and Diamond Brook scenes — one August he and I did the trek and were catching lots of pan fish which we dipped in a fire heated paint can filled with cooking oil. Fish on line dipped in — cooked and eaten off the line — careful of the barbed hook. Back to worm and beaver pond. Caught another — cooked and eaten. Until we were pretty full. THEN we get this– stripped and plunged into the pond. Nice. Cooled off and splashed around. Boys having fun. BUT upon emerging and drying off in the August sun found that we has attracted dozens and dozens of leeches. Not funny. No salt. We had to pull off those we could see and pinch off many on each other that were in places we not only could not see but where the sun didn’t shine. Okay, laugh. It was not funny at the time.
    We also hunted with Paul’s crew. Cub and I were always drivers, wolf howls towards the set line of hunters on a ridge or swale. I can’t imagine how we ever found our way back to the hunting camp on Diamond Brook. Paul always knew the way. Cub must have screwed up his back that one year when he carries a buck out on this Kelty backpack frame (the best) — the deer weighed 225# when we got it to the butcher. Cub never stopped for a rest on the way out to the cabin over that familiar boulder strewn trace (trail/road/way) we knew so well and dreaded so much.
    Miss the lad.
    We should have spent a lot more time bragging to each other on the merits of boots, poles, gear, gloves, packs, ways to properly prepare pancakes, eggs (no cellophane edges), and the like. Cub was one of a kind. The world is worse off without him. I still buy his former brand — Schaefer Outfitter’s — makes me feel warmer.

  5. Jim Schaefer says:

    One other quick story of Cub.
    We were 14 and went the the ADK Winter Mountaineering School at Heart Lake. Camped out in the lean-tos. It reached 40-50 below that week. Each morning we showed up for hikes. After two days Cub and I were leading treks to Cascade, Porter, Wright, Algonquin, Iroquois and others. Our goal was that wonderful “V” badge that signified that one had climbed five (5) mountains in the severe cold of winter. Cub and I bagged 7 each 4 of them solo. Boots and snowshoes. Blasting down on return — 15 foot plunges and slides. Awesome.
    We were cozy and well fed during the time in camp with the fire reflecting heat into the place we slept. The only negative that haunts my fingers to this day is the carrying of boxes and related equipment across the frozen ground to the vehicles on the last day. Badly frostbit my fingers. It was cold.

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox