Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Piecing together a 78 year old mystery, and a painting

This is the tale of a good Adirondack story, which is all true, but I had to make up a picture to illustrate it! I am an artist who loves to paint wild Adirondack landscapes, and sometimes a few of the Rocky Mountains too. A man was referred to me, who wanted someone to do a painting of a special Adirondack location for him.

The story’s humble beginning

I first “met” Dave when a letter appeared in my mailbox. It was obviously an envelope meant to pay a specific bill as it had the clear window on the front. Nothing showed through the window, but my name and address were scrawled in pencil and the return address covered up with a sticker. There was no stamp – just the “place stamp here” announcement. Postmarked Raleigh, NC – someone had slipped one by the U.S. Post Office!

Inside the envelope was a folded piece of notebook loose-leaf paper, hand-written on one side “Please call me,” with a name and phone number. On the flip side of the paper it looked like someone had been doodling. There was an uneven oval shape, hash-marks of short vertical lines filling in all the surrounding space, what looked like a tiny house on the left side of the oval, and a small circle on the right side of it. Maybe a child had been scribbling and the person who sent the note was simply recycling a used piece of paper – like they had recycled the return payment envelope.

I called the number and soon was hearing a pretty unique story. Over the next 15 minutes Dave shared the details and I took notes on the back of the loose-leaf paper, filling in the empty oval with words until I realized it was actually a map of what he was talking about!

Dave is in his 70’s and a former English professor. He proceeded to tell me how when he was 18 and in college, he had a job as a counselor at a summer kids camp on Chateaugay Lake. I asked “Upper or Lower” – he didn’t know. But, along with another 19 year old counselor, part of their job was to take a group of boys on a week long wilderness camping experience. Now, I quickly calculated and that would make this story take place around 57 years ago -perhaps the summer of 1962 or 63. Dave related how they somehow fit the kids into an old pick-up truck and drove out from camp, for about 45 minutes, heading north or west. They stopped at an old gas station that had just one old pump. When they got where they were going, they parked  in a small pull-off and headed into the woods on a faint trail that had some yellow markings on it. He said their destination was Sugarloaf Mountain – which I had never heard of. It began to rain and the trail petered out, but there were still yellow marks. Then, as it rained harder, they lost the yellow marks on the trees. 

A decades-old discovery

Next, Dave told me why it was such a memorable experience. The backpacking expedition  discovered 2 really interesting things. He told me about them in this order although that wasn’t the order they occurred The first event described, which happened well into the woods, was the discovery of a hidden, secret pond, surrounded by nothing but tall pine trees. No swamps or bogs around it – just trees. Turns out that’s what was drawn on the back of the loose-leaf paper – the oval surrounded by all the hash marks. He told me there was a steep cliff on the right side. The hikers had approached it from above and could look down from the cliff at the water. A beautiful pond surrounded by trees. He remembered it vividly as being so pristine and wanted me to do a painting of it for him. No signs of civilization. I can understand how a wild place can have that kind of effect – I’ve had similar experiences. But I had to ask, “what was the other thing that happened?”

Before the hidden pond was discovered, in the heavy rain and dense forest they were hiking in, the group lost the yellow blazes they had been following. In order to have a better chance at finding the trail, the expedition spread out and began walking through the woods 14 abreast. Then one of the boys stepped on a piece of metal. Then another did. Soon they all gathered together and began searching through the leaf litter, fallen trees and debris on the forest floor and they realized they had found parts of an airplane! A crashed airplane, from a long time ago! Dave said they wondered if they would find any bones! Each of the boys collected a souvenir scrap of metal that they put into their packs and eventually brought back to camp. That got my attention!

The rest of the story kind of blurred together. After finding the plane and the pond, they continued on in the rain and finally set up camp in the middle of the night. The next day they hiked to the top of the mountain and camped there for several days. On the way out, which was a nice day, they passed by the pond again. (I was asked to do the pond painting as a nice day.) Dave said it might have just been 5 days of camping, not a week. One thing he clearly remembered was they were very excited to get back and share their discoveries. On the drive back, the other counselor pulled through the little gas station and squeezed the truck between the pump and building, apparently not even stopping! Scared Dave and the kids! After telling their story back at camp, he thought maybe it was Fort Drum that had been contacted and that some officers had come to the camp and verified what kind of plane had crashed. He’d forgotten the details. But he kept his piece of yellow fuselage and it had adorned a dresser in his family’s home, with a framed topo map above it. The name at the bottom of the map was Sugarloaf. That is until he was off into his own career and his younger sister took over the room – and threw everything out.

Searching for the spot

As far as the painting, we agreed upon a size and a price and I said I would go through all my photos and see if I could find some of isolated little ponds, especially with a steep, cliff side, that I might be able to use for reference. It turned out that what looked like a little house sketched in his diagram of the pond and cliff was a lean-to. There was not actually one there – he thought maybe something would be needed to visually balance the cliff on the right side of the pond. I convinced him it wasn’t necessary, especially since it really didn’t exist. My intent was to send him some of the pictures first and make sure they would be OK. But what did I really do? I got on the internet and started to Google!

I had once visited Tanager Lodge, a kids camp at the bottom (southern end) of Upper Chateaugay Lake. It was boat access only – no roads, so it probably was not the camp where Dave was a counselor. I looked for other kids camps and found Camp Chateaugay, with road access, on the west side of Upper Chateaugay Lake. Looking on topo and satellite maps, I could see there were some dirt roads that headed west from the camp. Then I tried searching for Sugarloaf Mountain – turns out it’s a popular name and there were several on hiking websites, but nothing near Chateaugay Lake, so I just zoomed into the online topo maps and started looking at the names of mountains. The “W” Range was to the west of Upper Chateaugay Lake and it was familiar to me from my trip to Tanager Lodge. There were some small isolated bodies of water in that area. A large one named Ragged Lake had topo lines indicating one side was very steep, coming off of Ragged Lake Mountain. But the satellite maps also showed a road to it with camps and docks along the shore. There was a Figure Eight Mountain and several others, then all of a sudden there it was: Sugarloaf Mountain. East of the small community of Mountain View, and Mountain View Lake.

Ragged Lake Mt satellite map – shows logging skidded trails

From the comfort of my living room, I then explored this area, west of Upper Chateaugay Lake and south of Malone. I used a mapping app and set my starting point at Camp Chateaugay and my destination as Mountain View and up popped a driving route that was 31 miles, on paved roads, and that was predicted to take 47 minutes. You had to drive north from the Chateaugay Lakes, then turn left and head west to Malone, then turn south and head down to Mountain View. But then I changed the specifics from “driving” to “walking” and a new route popped up on the map. This time it was 18 miles, on dirt roads (might have been some gaps between roads), and predicted to take 6 hours of walking. That was a doable hike from Upper Chateaugay Lake to Sugarloaf Mountain. Dave told me they drove for about 45 minutes to get to the trail head so perhaps they came on the rough dirt logging roads. Looking at a contemporary DEC land usage map for that area, there are a lot of different parcels of land – but no hiking trails as it is almost all privately owned and now under conservation easements. Fifty-seven years ago it was probably similar – so rather than a hiking trail, perhaps the wilderness expedition was following a marked boundary, it might have been the Franklin-Clinton County Line, or maybe just a trail made by local hunters or fishermen.

Piecing together the plane crash

So the week of wilderness camping, and climbing Sugarloaf Mountain seemed entirely plausible – now I wanted to find out about this plane crash. If I could find it, then I could look for a pond between it and Sugarloaf Mountain. I did a Google search for Adirondack plane crashes. I saw an Adirondack Almanack “Summary of Adirondack Plane Crashes”, (https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2009/11/a-short-history-of-adirondack-airplane-crashes.html) published in 2009, but nothing in the area I was researching. A couple of articles popped up about Forest Ranger Scott Van Laer (https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2015/07/on-the-hunt-for-adirondack-aircraft-wreckage.html and https://aviationweek.com/air-transport/aircraft-archaeology-high-adirondacks) and how he is researching plane crashes, trying to locate the sites and get gps coordinates for them. There was a pretty extensive list of crashes, but none that matched what I was looking for. The next place I chose to search was the website of Historic Newspapers of Northern New York. I selected Franklin and Clinton Counties, the term “plane crashes”, and the dates 1912 to 1963. I picked 1912 because in one of the articles I found it indicated that was the year of the first plane crash in the Adirondacks. Besides nearly going blind trying to read blurry old black and white scans of old newspapers, I was shocked by how many plane crashes there have been! One would literally never want to fly if you read about them all. After an afternoon of squinting and skimming text, I gave up and worked on some other stuff. When I got back on my laptop I returned to the newspaper site and just typed in “Chateaugay plane crash”. BAM! There it was – and what a story it was.

Plattsburgh Daily Press, June 18, 1942: headline all the way across the front page in big type, all caps: “1 DEAD, 5 HURT, 2 MISSING IN 4-PLANE CRASH. Subtitle: LAST OF 4 PLANES SIGHTED; EXPECTED DEATH TOLL TO BE THREE. Article heading: Planes Were Part of Flight of Nine That Maneuvered Over Adirondacks Tuesday Night; RCAF Task Force Join State Police, Conservation Men in Search.

Four Royal Canadian Air Force planes, part of a group of 9 that had been flying a training mission between Montreal and Ottawa, had gotten off course and crashed. Each plane had an instructor and a student pilot and they were basically flying without modern technology, using maps and compass to navigate, training for night time bombing runs. The ones that survived visually followed the St. Lawrence River. When relating this story to a friend, I found out he had been born in the Chateaugay area in 1942 and had been told that his mother was driven to the hospital during a black-out. So as remote and far away from World War II battles as the North Country was, they still had taken precautions and required black-outs. Can you imagine flying a single engine plane into the Adirondacks, trying to navigate with map and compass at night, with no lights on the ground? Also, when sharing this story with an artist friend who lives near Chateaugay, she said there is a lot of iron ore in the mountains there and that might have affected their compass navigation. Sure enough, that very thing is mentioned in the next story I found.

Further investigation

My curiosity was now really peaked as I looked online for more and found a very detailed description of the event on a website where people can publish their own stories. Someone named Ellie S. Thomas had written “Destination: Adirondack Mountain” in 2012 (http://www.storyhouse.org/ellie21.html), but it is so full of details, I suspect she may have been related to a law enforcement or conservation officer involved back in 1942, and if a child, or teenager at the time, that it must have made a big impression.

She describes how word of the crashes became known because one of the survivors managed to walk out of this remote area. He turned up at a store in the tiny community of Owl’s Head at 7:30 am on June 17 and explained his plane had crashed about 11:10 pm the evening before. He had made the decision to try and hike out because his student pilot was unconscious and badly injured. Ellie wrote how he “wandered through the forest until he spotted the lights of a camp across the water. Somehow, he was able to break the lock and get into a boathouse, launch a canoe” and eventually reached another occupied camp. He was given assistance on the 6 mile dirt road journey to the village and the telephone. It’s worth following the link to read the full story.

Another article popped up in my searching – a Franklin County Historian blog post written in 2011 (https://franklinhistorian.blogspot.com/search?q=RCAF) that included a newspaper article from the Chateaugay Record, published on June 19, 1942. It related much of the same details as the other newspaper, with one known dead and only 3 of the 4 crash sites reached by searchers. At the end of the post, the blog writer observed “Curiously, there was no further reporting in the local press on this tragedy. Wartime censorship may perhaps account for this resounding media silence.”

Tempted to try one more search, I found “The Lost Squadron:Tragedy in the Adirondack Mountains” (http://chaa-recovery.ca/index.php/2015/10/03/the-lost-squadron-by-shawn-wylie/). It was published in 2015 on a C.H.A.A. website, which stands for the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association and it has recent photos of the some of the plane wreckage and the Forest Ranger who is documenting crash sites. The planes involved were yellow Harvard aircraft.

I shared all this research with Dave, in North Carolina, and he seemed very pleased at learning even more than what he remembered about his Adirondack wilderness adventure in the 60’s. It was especially poignant to know that Dave and the other counselor were 18 and 19 years old, and the pilots and students whose RCAF planes had crashed in 1942 had also been just 19 and 20, preparing to go to war. My own dad was 19 in 1942!

Putting it all together

Crash sites superimposed on topo map, ponds colored in

Yet the question that still remained: where was the pristine pond? I was able to make contact with the Forest Ranger, who had actually been to one of the crash sites, and he shared a map that marked the crash sites, made in 1942. He suggested they may not be fully accurate. One plane crashed on W Mountain, two were not far from each other on Ragged Lake Mountain, and the fourth was on a lower elevation of Ragged Lake Mountain called Frasier Hill. Nothing on Sugarloaf Mountain. When discussing this dilemma with Dave, he said they may not have hiked Sugarloaf Mountain. It just happened to be the name at the bottom of the topo map. So now there were four possible locations for the unknown pond.  I studied topo maps, both current and historic ones available online. I checked various different satellite maps where I could literally see every tree in the forest. I looked into GIS mapping sites available online (although I’m not sure I know how to use GIS properly), and I researched the DEC Sable Highlands Conservation Easement map (https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/sablerecmap.pdf), which covered this area. I could not find any ponds near any crash sites. Most of the lakes and ponds are at the lower elevations. In fact, a lot of the ponds were like strings of jewels along a brook, where beavers had made a series of dams. I spent hours scanning these maps, looking for ponds that had a steep cliff on one side – just about everything I found had marshes and bogs or beaver meadows around them.

I contacted people I knew in the Owls Head/Mountain View area and they did not even know that four RCAF planes had crashed there. I was able to track down Ellie Thomas, who had written the story published online in 2012 and she told me she had actually met the surviving pilots and interviewed them when they returned for a reunion. (Which explains how she knew what they went on to do for their careers and how many children they had). Keep in mind I was doing all this research in the middle of winter, so there was no opportunity to actually go and do any exploring in the area, plus I could not find any hiking trails in the Sable Highlands. Ironically, I had driven some of the old logging roads the previous summer, looking for interesting spots to paint. And this is the same area the two escaped convicts from Dannemora had passed through. I tried emailing and then wrote a letter to the Director of Camp Chateaugay – it has been there for a long time. I asked if there were any traditional hiking or camping locations that they took their campers to, but no one ever responded.

Once the snow melted and the roads dried out, I drove to Camp Chateaugay and tried to drive west towards Mountain View. The road was gated and marked private, so I ended up doing some exploring and then driving paved roads over to the Mountain View area – which is possible to do without driving through Malone. I’d asked Dave if he remembered driving through any communities, and he said no – although he had not been the one driving. Once I got to the Owls Head/Mountain View area, I found Sugarloaf Mountain and views of W Mountain. But further exploration will have to wait – since I was spending much time at home because of Covid-19, I decided I just needed to get to work on the painting.

I love to take photos, so I went through my 70,000 digital photos, and show boxes of printed photos, and found several of ponds that had trees right to the water’s edge. Clear Pond, in the St. Regis Canoe Area, became my “model.” Then I found photos of cliffs going down into water – I sent some to Dave and asked which one reminded him most of what he remembered. He selected a photo of Bluff Island in Lower Saranac Lake! 

Then I got to work. I sketched out a composition – a pond surrounded by trees, except with the steep cliff on the right side, going right down into the water. I put W mountain in the background. I enjoy capturing the details of nature in my paintings, so I applied all the features I could remember or actually see in my reference photos. Fallen trees in the water, white pine, spruce and hemlock trees around the pond. I picked a sky from another one of my reference photos. I completed the 18×36” painting and sent a digital photo to Dave and he was delighted. His wife hinted that maybe a moose would be nice and so I added one in, on the opposite shore, because I had seen moose tracks in the road when I was exploring in the Sable Highlands. 

But the nicest reward for doing this painting was the reaction from Dave he got to see the painting in person for the first time. On the top of the rock cliff, I had painted a small pine tree. Dave said that would have been him, as an 18 year old, standing right at the sloping brink of the cliff, his hand on the shoulder of one of the 12 year old boys, making sure they didn’t step any further, but standing together in amazement, observing the beautiful pond before them.

Enjoying art should be a moving experience and I feel pretty good that I produced something that was successful in that way. Personally, I didn’t enjoy making it up – I would rather be out on location painting a real place. But I know I made my client, and his wife, happy with their Adirondack wilderness painting. (You have to look pretty hard to find the moose). I’m still intent on finding this hidden pond! I haven’t exhausted the possibilities and resources yet. If any reader has suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

— Sandra Hildreth, 518-832-0081, [email protected]

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Sandra Hildreth

Sandra Hildreth, who writes regularly about Adirondack arts and culture, grew up in rural Wisconsin and is a retired high school art teacher. She lives in Saranac Lake where she was spends much of her time hiking, paddling, skiing, and painting.

Today, Sandy can often be found outdoors Plein air painting - working directly from nature, and is an exhibiting member of the Adirondack Artists' Guild in Saranac Lake. She is also active in Saranac Lake ArtWorks.

Sandy’s work can be seen on her website sandrahildreth.com.




17 Responses

  1. Philip Terrie Phil Terrie says:

    What a lovely story!

  2. What a great story, Sandy. You did such careful detective work.

  3. Anne Diggory Anne Diggory says:

    Sandy – great research, fun narrative and wonderful painting. Bringing it all to life. Those clouds you chose really dance with the branches .

  4. Christine Denno says:

    Great story, thanks.

  5. Jim Fox says:

    One of the benefits of Adirondack winters gives oldies the opportunity to learn things way below their years, like digital mapping and searching for authors from their living rooms. Not the kind of researching we knew fifty years ago. And all preparation to create a custom piece of art to delight a fond fading memory of a former camp counselor a thousand miles away. I’m sure that’s not how most artists fuel their creativity, but keep on doing it your own doggoned way, Sandra! (I was referring to myself as an oldie, Sandra)

  6. Jim Fox says:

    One of the benefits of Adirondack winters and stay-in-place pandemic guidelines gives oldies the opportunity to learn things way below their years, like digital mapping and searching for authors from their living rooms. Not the kind of research we knew fifty years ago. And all preparation to create a custom piece of art to delight a fond fading memory of a former camp counselor who lives a thousand miles away. I’m sure that’s not how most artists fuel their creativity but keep on doing it your own doggoned way, Sandra! And it’s beautiful! (Disclaimer: I was referring to myself as an oldie, Sandra)

  7. Lorraine Duvall Lorraine Duvall says:

    Sandra, A great story. Thanks for sharing your research in such an entertaining way.

  8. chick robinson says:

    Sandra, I loved reading this article. Very well written. No surprise to me that your client was thrilled with your painted interpretation. ChickRobinson

  9. Nancy Gordon says:

    Quite a story! Thanks, Sandra, for the story and the photo of your lovely painting. I was particularly interested, as I was a camp counselor close to the time Dave was (Camp Whippoorwill, of North Country Camps, on Augur Lake, near Keeseville). And also remember climbing Wright and Cascade as a kid with the AuSable Valley ADK chapter, and knowing about a plane crash on Wright (years later than the 1942 crashes related in your piece).
    I’m impressed by your research and smiling at its results.

  10. Jim S. says:

    I bet a lot of hikers will be searching for Dave’s pond.

  11. Gary LEE says:

    Great story and beautiful painting, I did see the moose.

  12. Betty Bird says:

    Great story! And the finshed painting is lovely. We have spent time on Lake Titus near Malone, so are somewhat familiar with the area. There are so many beautiful lakes in the Adirondacks. They are jewels.

  13. David says:

    I submitted a ‘comment’ last week and it’s not there. Why is that?

  14. David says:

    this story

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