As we made forays out from Mateskared, our family’s cabin in Baker’s Mills, most often Schaefers were the way-showers and Zahnisers their eager followers. On their 1946 backpacking trip to Flowed Lands and Hanging Spear Falls on the Opalescent River in the High Peaks with Ed Richard, Paul Schaefer went so far as to carry my father on his shoulders across one difficult and hazardous approach by narrow ledge to the falls themselves up through the boulder-strewn canyon of the Opalescent. Paul’s accounts of the trip never mentioned that fact, gleaned from my father’s journal. But it set a suitable tone for our families’ joint wildlands outings.
My mother and we four kids would go off backpacking for trips of several days to a week with Carolyn and the four Schaefer kids, while, especially in the early years, Paul and Zahnie might be barnstorming for wilderness preservation around New York State. In the late 1940s they rallied opposition to the series of dam projects threatening Adirondack wilderness on Forest Preserve lands in the western Adirondacks.
On one trip back into the wilderness behind Mateskared, our joint clans plus Grace Oehser set up camp at Mud Pond. That trip is multi-family famous for two of Grace’s antics there. During the night she had to get out of her sleeping bag at Nature’s so-called prompting. During this confined struggle — Grace was six feet tall — my mother overheard her exclaim, “Why doesn’t someone invent a drop-seat sleeping bag!”
Grace was both artisan and artist, in skills and temperament. Her exasperations often expressed themselves in innovatively practical ways. In retrospect I’m surprised she didn’t mock up her own drop-seat sleeping bag idea.
Mud Pond is well back of beyond. My mother and Grace one night convinced themselves there, after the passle of us kids had dropped off to sleep, that they heard mature male voices in the nearby woods. To warn off any possible shenanigans hazardous to our all women-and-children party, Grace and my mother took up a loud and supposedly spousal conversation. Grace played the exaggeratedly basso profundo husband my mother addressed as George.
Whether anyone else was nearby, we never knew, but their ploy obviously worked — no one bothered us.
Another night Grace and my mother heard a bear munching down on blueberries right in the same patch by which my sister Esther lay sleeping in her bag.
In 1953 Carolyn convinced the four Schaefer kids that she and they should become 46-ers. This status could be claimed then only by climbing all 46 Adirondack peaks over four thousand feet in elevation. The 46-er tradition began with the indomitable Bob Marshall, his brother George, and their guide Herb Clark. One summer they decided to do all these peaks and did. Subsequent measures of altitude have corrected the count of peaks that actually make it to four thousand feet or more, but the 46-er moniker has stuck.
Monica is the youngest Schaefer and younger than I am by several months. She was to become the youngest ever 46-er of her day and to hold the title for many years. Today that title has been pared down to first graders, maybe to pre-schoolers now, who probably play Suzuki violins and argue about Montessori educational methods as they climb. Once having become 46-ers, the Schaefer women — Cub was usually engrossed in fishing — began to devise their own record schemes for the High Peaks. For example: Who could make the most ascents of Mt. Marcy barefoot? Mary Schaefer may still hold that record. The first-ever recorded ascent belongs to Ebenezer Emmons in 1837.
The summer of 1954 our Zahniser and Schaefer matriarchal contingents combined forces for a peak-bagging expedition. The trip is recounted in Carolyn’s book The Schaefer Expeditions: 1953–1956, privately printed by her family in 1989 with end-papers hand-drawn map of “The High Peaks of the Adirondacks” by the late architect Frederic A. West. We base-camped at two Calamity Brook lean-to shelters within hollering distance of each other in the Flowed Lands area of the High Peaks. On this trip an all-female Schaefer-Zahniser party climbed an unnamed peak they would christen Shepherds Tooth, from the German Schaefer for Shepherd and Zahn-iser for Tooth.
“Some of us hoped to climb ‘Herbert-Clinton-Marshall;” Carolyn later wrote of the trip, “we didn’t know what to call it, but here we were and there it was. The only directions we could get were to climb by way of a stream that emptied into Flowed Lands. But what stream?” Setting off from the lean-tos they found a stream, but it proved to be the wrong one.
“For about a hundred feet it was nice going, and then we encountered blowdown. Being sure it was only temporary, we kept going over and under and along tree trunks for hours. We could hardly see the ground. The trees were like jackstraws, and we picked our way from tree to tree. But underneath us we could see the friends’ Irish setter wondering what we were doing up there. It was fascinating, but hopeless for a route up a mountain.”
That was my brother Matt’s dog, Rocky. Carolyn was not about to give up on a mountain. The next day the women decided to climb Iroquois and look over the situation. Carolyn writes:
“As we stood on top after signing our names in the register, we looked over at Herbert. ‘It’s a long way over there, but what’s that little peak in between?’ ‘It’s early in the day; let’s see if we can get to that.’ We went down to the end of Iroquois, tangling our hair in the spruce branches, getting down on our hands and knees to crawl beneath them, dropped down to the col, and found a corner to ascend the little peak, the only place we could see that was possible.”
When I showed my wife Christine a few pictures from that trip, she remarked that “Women still wore head scarves then.” Several wore bandanas tied over their hair — Carolyn on one summit with Monica, and at least Evelyn and probably my sister Esther at a rest stop in the thick of the blowdown. Christine hadn’t had the benefit of reading Carolyn’s account of tangled hair.
The intrepid climbers were on the unnamed mountain as Carolyn continues: “The top was like a little meadow and we sat down to eat our crackers and cheese. ‘Where are the tin cans and bottles and candy wrappers? There aren’t any around. Wonder how many people ever come over here.’ We took out the map. Elevation 4,500. No name for this little bump.
“‘We could name it and leave our names in a water bottle under some rocks. Now what shall we call it?’ After much deliberation and no decision someone suggested our own last names. But they were German and didn’t sound right next to Indian names. Our German student commented that Schaefer meant ‘shepherd’ and Zahniser meant ‘iron tooth.’ ‘And it looks like a tooth, sitting up here in the sky, and you can just imagine a mountain sheep standing here looking down on the surrounding forest.’ We found a pencil stub in a knapsack, and a candy wrapper wasn’t hard to find. After burying our container and thinking we might soon be back with a better one, we made our tortuous way back from the newly named ‘Shepherd’s Tooth.’”
I still recall how exhausted the climbing party looked when they got back to camp. On their no-trails approach and climb they fought blowdown from the 1950 storm that had leveled trees across 400,000 acres of the Adirondacks, leaving the woods full of downed trees stacked criss-crossed like an obstacle course. Even Irish setter, Rocky, who could go under much of the blowdown, came back utterly pooped. The boys — Cub Schaefer and my brother Matt and I — had opted to go fishing. Later we could make no matching claims of piscatorial glory to distinguish our day.
How I forgot the incident of the day before I don’t know, but Carolyn recounts it. Cub and Matt had set off to fish Calamity Pond, where Cub had caught two fine trout the year before.
“The two boys went down the trail with poles and tackle but soon were back,” Carolyn wrote, “their eyes as big as saucers. ‘What happened?’ we asked. ‘We saw two mountain lions crossing the stream! They had long tails!’”
As Carolyn calmly reports: “The next day they went fishing again.”
Fishing was mostly a disaster from the start for that entire High Peaks trip. Determined to supplement camp fare with plenteous trout, we brought in such gobs of nightcrawlers we had to carry them in a large, bail-handled utility bucket. Worms, dirt, and bucket weighed so much we ended up carrying the bucket suspended from a pole set between two people’s shoulders. (This is the true so-called “missionary position” from indigenous people’s standpoint.) It is not convenient on rock-strewn trails when you are already burdened with your backpack.
To add insult to injury, the first time we cast bait from our hard-won worm cargo toward those High Peaks trout they scattered in fright. They would no more take our luscious nightcrawlers than wait belly-up on the water’s surface for a great blue heron. As near as we could figure out, our night crawlers looked too much like leeches for the trout’s comfort. After a couple days of scaring trout, we admitted defeat and abandoned the worms. The few trout the three of us caught that trip were fooled by artificial flies Matt had brought. Perhaps trout are simply conservative feeders, and the High Peaks probably hadn’t seen a native nightcrawler since before the last Ice Age.
Because we could not glut ourselves on fresh trout, the Zahniser lean-to ran out of every edible but our staple starch, white rice, before the end of the trip. We were far too proud to let on to the Schaefer lean-to that we had provisioned poorly. So, for two days or so we ate nothing but rice. My mother cooked it in whatever ways she could imagine to keep this mono-diet palatable.
We ate rice with reconstituted powdered milk and brown sugar for breakfast, balls of rice for lunch, and rice patties for dinner. Matt was the senior male in camp, and his fishing assumed a determined character but still returned next to nothing.
Rice it was — the closest I ever came to a strict macrobiotic diet, which I had not heard of then and only if white rice qualifies.
Photo of Zahniser Cabin in Bakers Mills courtesy John Warren.