Saturday, November 26, 2016

Place Names of the High Peaks Wilderness

erik schlimmerErik Schlimmer is a man who likes to make lists, and check them off. After he climbed all the highest peaks in the Northeast he decided to climb all the less-than-high peaks of the Adirondacks, hundreds of them. Then he designed and hiked the Trans Adirondack Trail, a route that bisects the Park north-south from Blue Line to Blue Line.

With his beaver-like energy and red-squirrel enthusiasm Schlimmer has also written four books about the Adirondacks. The best of them, My Adirondacks, Ten Stories from Twenty Years, contains personal essays that are funny, thoughtful, and well-written. It recently won the Adirondack Center for Writing’s first prize for memoir.

Almost all the essays are about his bushwhacking trips, beginning with his first one as a sixteen-year-old in 1989. Schlimmer is the first one to admit that off-trail hiking isn’t for everyone.

“Bushwhacking above 2,500 feet is akin to pushing your way through a Christmas tree farm that has ten times more trees per acre than it should have. When it’s raining, bushwhacking through a forest like this is like pushing yourself through a car wash, the soft clothes being replaced with pine-scented scouring pads.”

Schlimmer is not afraid to show his imperfections. In “The Navigator” he sets out to hike up trail-less and remote Van Dorrien Mountain only to realize hours later he’s gone up the wrong peak, pushing his way through thick vegetation on the back side of Ampersand Mountain. Before he realizes his mistake he sees a pretty girl on the summit, which inspires a very funny couple of pages about this fantasy meeting of his new true love, a bushwhacking woman. And in “Two Dark Days” he reveals how his depression can make even the joy of his life—hiking—unbearably difficult.

I am not always a fan of trail, or trail-less, writing, which can become a boring list of mileages and repetitive descriptions of big vistas. Schlimmer has managed to make his essays more than that, with reflections on his past and on the historical past in the mountains. He also has an easy-to-read style, throwing in zingers that made me smile. When he surprises a bear he writes “she was plus-size and beautiful.” Another bear had “breath that smelled like that of a wild animal that had eaten a basket of pine cones, a sweat-soaked t-shirt, and a smaller dog.”

In “Booty Call of the Wild” he writes of finding fleece jackets, gloves, and a pocketknife in the woods. But “looking for treasures in a river is usually not worthwhile for one reason. Most things in the world sink. Wallets, sunglasses, cameras, phones, knives, and so forth; once they go overboard they go down like little Titanics.” (But they can sometimes be seen glinting in the sand. After much cold water diving he unearths a beautiful home-made hunting knife in the Raquette River).

The same conversational writing style is present in Schlimmer’s two place-names books, History Inside the Blue Line and Among the Cloud Splitters. The first book has an alphabetical list of all the names of mountains and streams that are adjacent to the Trans Adirondack route, while Among the Cloud Splitters details the origin of names in the High Peaks Wilderness Area. While these books are intriguing to flip through they’d be too heavy to carry on the trail, especially for Schlimmer, who proudly goes ultralight.

It is better to think of these books as containing bites of history, interesting on their own, or as the start of longer searches into the past. Schlimmer gives extensive bibliographies in both books, and his enthusiasm for his topic is infectious. He writes that each of his books is comprehensive and “dives deep enough to have your ears pop.” In his entry for Oxbow Lake he mentions that a surveying team in 1810 found a large turtle in nearby Piseco Lake and after eating it made eggnog from the 172 eggs they found inside it. “These men, no savages, chilled the eggnog with some ice they found in a nearby mountain crevice.”

Less amusing is the history of Middle Kilns Brook. To make iron from iron ore, thousands of acres of trees were cut and converted into charcoal. On the map of the High Peaks these were labeled as “denuded areas.” Both books have a selection of black-and-white photos of places named in the books. The old photos of bearded men were particularly intriguing in Among the Cloud Splitters: I just had to look up Nye Mountain after I saw Bill Nye’s thoughtful and hairy face.

I hope Schlimmer keeps writing. We need authors in the Adirondacks who appreciate the molehills, as Schlimmer calls the smaller mountains he pursues. And we need writers who can make fun of themselves and write unexpectedly creative phrases. Very few of us have the desire and tenacity to plow through trailless woods for days at a time, but many of us have the fortitude to sit down and read for hours, especially if we can find creative and intelligent Adirondack adventure stories to race through.

Photo of Erik Schlimmer provided.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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Betsy Kepes is a regular commentator on new books at North Country Public Rafdio. She lives in Pierrepont, New York where she teaches piano to children and adults and performs with the Little River Trio.

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