Saturday, January 31, 2015

Ducks On Fish Backs, Walking

Linesville PA carp and ducksOn rainy nights, if you listen closely, you can hear opera music coming out of the stout wooden bench in front of our Adirondack cabin’s fieldstone fireplace. That’s what Paul Schaefer told us when he brought us the piece of beam and said it would make a fine bench for our indoor fireplace.

Paul was a contractor in Schenectady, NY, who built early American style homes. He and my father Howard Zahniser were also Adirondack conservation partners, beginning in 1946, when I was six months old. Paul served as middle-man when my parents bought our cabin near Bakers Mills from Harold and Pansy Allen that August.

Paul claimed to have salvaged the large, hand-hewn beam from the old Albany opera house. Over the years, he said, the beam soaked up more high culture than it could contain when the relative humidity rises indoors.

In truth the beam came from the stone chapel on Chapel Street near Albany’s Ten Eyck Hotel. It was a roof beam in a large, open room that officers of the American Revolution frequented for dances. Paul had used piece of the same timber in the Adirondack room of his own stone home in Schenectady, now part of the Union College Kelly Adirondack Center.

We Americans have expected much from our forests and their trees and wood, but even a centuries-seasoned, hand-hewn timber of such proportions—however long supportive of the arts—could be expected to retain only so many arias indefinitely.

When Paul brought us the bench beam, our cabin, Mateskared, had no electricity. Zahnie, as my father was known, frowned on vacation radio use. He agreed with ecologist Aldo Leopold that the best outdoor recreation stood in sharpest contrast to one’s work-a-day life. Nevertheless, music wafting into cabin life on a rainy night from our fireplace bench would not have been unwelcome.

Zahnie was a great joke teller, but when it came to the peculiar genre of tall tales, I remember his besting Paul Schaefer but once. He pulled this off by telling Paul a fish story that was true. It just sounded like a tall tale.

Pennsylvania was both my parents’ native state. Zahnie told Paul that the Keystone State boasted a large reservoir thickly populated with carp overfed by tourists. Just behind the dam, within food-tossing range of tourists, the carp were so thick that ducks walked about on the carps’ backs to scarf up bread intended for the fish.

My father told Paul this tale, no doubt with dramatic flourishes and precise comedic timing, late one night at Mateskared. I was five years old and already fast asleep upstairs.

“Nonsense!” was Paul’s pronouncement on Zahnie’s story. “That’s ridiculous.”

But my father insisted on his story’s truth. My mother backed him up.

“Nah, that’s ridiculous!”

“What if we got Edward up, and he told the same story?” my father challenged Paul.

“Nonsense!” my mother pronounced to both of them, not looking forward to reactivating me after having accomplished the chore of getting me off to sleep. It was a task doubly difficult whenever Paul, whom I idolized, was present and holding forth with his outsized Adirondack tales and lore. I thought Paul was what the Adirondacks would be like if they could walk and talk.

At length Paul and my father persuaded my mother to make this great sacrifice for the sake of settling the issue of the ducks and carp.

When I was sufficiently awake to talk, I proceeded to corroborate in enthusiastic all the details of my father’s fish story. At the bread stand you could buy stale round loaves. Tourists would fling them as far out into the dam as they could. Because carp have small mouths, all they could do was push them up and down the lake, waiting for them to get soggy enough to eat.

All this was, indeed a true story of our recent family trip to the Pymatuning Reservoir in Pennsylvania. The trip’s larger mission had been to visit Robert Griggs, a member of the governing council of The Wilderness Society, where my father worked since late 1945.

Dr. Griggs, as we kids knew the retired scientist, lived near the reservoir. He had led the National Geographic Society expeditions to the vast Katmai, Alaska region and its Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes after the massive 1912 volcanic eruption of Novarupta. No doubt Dr. Griggs could have regaled Paul with true tales taller than the Adirondacks’ highest peak. Paul’s response still would have been “Nonsense! That’s ridiculous!” The latter pronouncement was more epithet than adjective for Paul. He pronounced it ruh dick’ uh lous, and Southern Comfort made it more pronounced. The way he pronounced it softened its impact in later years when it came as criticism for my errant thinking or foolhardy action. I was to work two of my high school summers for Paul in Schenectady.

Before the first moonwalk I don’t recall Paul’s ever admitting any superlative existed outside the Adirondacks, Catskills, or New York State. No doubt that partly inspired my father’s ploy— setting his tall but true fish tale in my parents’ native Pennsylvania next door. Until my father finally persuaded him to come to Washington, D.C., I’m not sure Paul Schaefer had been outside the Empire State. Still, he held the entire known world as inadequate compared to the Adirondacks and New York State.

Truth to tell, I have never heard, even on the rainiest of cabin nights, our fireplace bench beam break out in an aria or the amorous banter of Revolutionary war officers. But having once watched ducks scavenge stale bread by walking on the backs of massed swimming carp, I do listen when conditions might be right.

Photo of Pymatuning Reservoir in Linesville, PA courtesy Jim and Nanc at Running Down Our Dream.

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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).

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