Thursday, February 23, 2023

HISTORICAL PROFILE:  Fish Hawk Cliffs of Lower Ausable Lake

aerial show of lower ausable lake

Overlooking the northern end of Lower Ausable Lake in Keene are two open ledges which are popular destinations for hikers:  Indian Head and Fish Hawk Cliffs.  The lookouts, both of which are accessible via trail, offer spectacular views of the lake, the Colvin Range to the left, and Sawteeth Mountain and the Lower Great Range to the right.  The Fish Hawk Cliffs are reachable in 0.2 miles via the connector trail from Indian Head to the Mt. Colvin Trail but prepare for a steep into a col along the way.  What follows is some of the history behind Fish Hawk Cliffs which you may not be aware of.

A History of the Name

A description for Fish Hawk Cliffs was first given in the 1962 edition of the ADK’s Guide to Adirondack Trails.  Keene resident and historian, Tony Goodwin, states, “I believe that my father [Jim Goodwin] may have been the one who cut that trail – perhaps a year or two before 1956. I do somehow remember his commenting that he could throw off the final pieces of brush that had to be cut and not hear them hit the ground. He thought of the safety angle, but so far no one has come to grief there.”  The earliest map I found which denotes Fish Hawk Cliffs is High Peak Region Adirondack Park trail map, published by the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) in 1962; see

As for where the name “Fish Hawk” came from, it is another name for an osprey, which has nested on the cliffs for years.  Tony speculates the famous Keene Valley artist, Harold Weston, may have come up with the name for the cliffs, since he “was a major force in ATIS for many years and likely inspired/directed my father to cut the trail.”  On the other hand, he thinks the name could have been applied many years before by those who rowed their boats along the Lower Ausable Lake, observing the ospreys nesting on the cliffs.

painting of fish hawk cliffs

Harold Weston’s 1940 painting, “Fish Hawk Cliffs.” (Source: Laura Weston)

My communication with Laura Weston, the granddaughter of the famous Keene Valley artist, Harold Weston, confirmed Tony’s suspicion.  Laura provided a scan of a painting done by her grandfather in 1940 which has “Fish Hawk Cliffs” written along the left-hand side.  As best as I am aware, this painting, currently owned by Laura, is not presented in any publication.  Her aunt, Barbara Weston “Nina” Foster, Harold’s oldest daughter and last surviving child, provided some insight into her father’s naming of the cliffs.  According to Laura, her aunt said, “He would go out there, bad leg & all, & use his arms to pull himself up as necessary into the areas. She said it made other hikers nervous, especially being by himself. She said Grandma never went.” Laura’s grandmother was Faith Borton Weston.

Harold had built a one-room studio in St. Huberts in 1920 and hiked and bushwhacked to many of Keene’s mountains.  He served as secretary of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society (ATIS) from 1948 to 1968 and spearheaded the revitalization of its trails following World War 2.  His heart was surely in the Adirondacks, for he once wrote in the draft for his 1971 book, Freedom in the Wilds: A Saga of the Adirondacks, “[The Adirondacks] is where I belong.  No where else is my home.”  It is through his many works of art of the region and his work with the ATIS that Harold expressed his passion for the Great North Woods.

Harold Weston, Keene Valley Artist (In Brief)

The life and art of Mr. Weston, including his efforts with the ATIS, are extensive as they are intriguing.  The small amount of space available in this medium cannot shed sufficient light on his legacy to the reader.  Thus, I would encourage those who wish to know more about Harold to read his autobiography, Freedom in the Wilds: An Artist in the Adirondacks, Wild Exuberance: Harold Weston’s Adirondack Art by Rebecca Foster and Caroline Welsh, and Anne Mackinnon’s article on Harold published in the January-February 1994 edition of Adirondack Life (available online).  Also take time to browse the Harold Weston Foundation’s website,

Harold Francis Weston was born on February 14, 1894 in Merion, Pa to Mary Hartshorne and S. Burns Weston (for whom Weston Peak in the Nun-da-ga-o Range is named).  You could say the Adirondacks were in Weston’s genes, considering the legacies of his father and maternal grandfather, Charles Hartshorne.  Charles was among a group who, in May of 1887, bought Township 48, a 28,000-acre tract in the Totten and Crossfield Purchase whose timber was under the threat of being logged.  Township 48 included all of Lower Ausable Lake, most of Upper Ausable Lake, and many of the High Peaks such as Haystack, Basin, Saddleback, Gothics, Armstrong, the Wolf Jaws, Sawteeth, Colvin, Blake, Dial, Nippletop, a part of Dix, a part of Colden, and the state’s highest peak, Mount Marcy.  The group named the tract the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR).  In 1894, Hartshorne’s son-in-law, S. Burns, along with Felix Aler and William Augustus White, formed the ATIS, the first trail maintenance group in the state.  The ATIS has cut and continues to manage the trails on the lands of the AMR, such as those in the Ausable Valley.

Harold’s parents gave their son a taste of the Adirondacks at an early age through the summers they spent at their cottage in St. Huberts.  In 1903, S. Burns took Harold and his brother, Carl, on their first climb of Marcy.  Harold recalled how they watched the sunset from the summit, spent the night in a lean-to along the Marcy Trail that was built by his great uncle, and went up to Skylight the next morning to watch the sunrise.  At the age of 14, Harold and his brother acted as guides for their father’s prominent friends, such as John Dewey, William James, and Felix Adler.  These were among many hiking and camping excursions which built up Harold’s hardiness for this rugged and unforgiving wilderness environment.

From June 1909 to September 1910, the Weston family lived and traveled in Europe.  During this time abroad, Harold attended schools in Lausanne, Switzerland and Hannover, Germany.  In August following his family’s return to America, the 17-year-old embarked on a 16-day hiking and canoeing trip across the High Peaks region, the Saranac Lakes, and around Blue Mountain Lake.  According to Foster and Welsh in Wild Exuberance:

“He trotted over trails with a seventy-pound canoe, swam around his island camp before heading off for the day’s journey, and on the final day on the way back to St. Huberts he walked and rowed thirty miles – running the last three and one-quarter miles in fifteen minutes.  The following day he played seven sets of tennis and that night danced and played the mandolin at a campfire gathering.” 

It was shortly after Harold’s 16-day adventure that he contracted polio, which left the nerve below his left knee so damaged that he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.  Despite this physical misfortune, he built up his strength to where he could walk and hike with one cane.  He approached the Adirondack peaks again with as much vigor and fortitude as many of today’s hard-core hikers – if not more so.

In the summer of 1914, Harold attended the Ogunquit Art School run by Hamilton Easter Field.  Field was an artist, critic, collector, and ardent patron of the modern art community who was influenced by the work of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.  Field inspired Harold to adopt the modernist view of art.  He would go on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard in 1916 with a degree in Fine Arts.  In the following year, when our nation inevitably became involved in World War 1, he felt obligated to lend himself to the war effort in service to his country.  The perpetual limp incurred by his bout of polio prevented him from serving in the military, so he signed up with the International YMCA, which was involved with the British Army in the Near East.  During his three and a half years of service, Harold established the Baghdad Art Club for British soldiers.  By the time he returned to New York in 1920, he decided to devote the rest of his life to painting.

The few months he spent in an art school in New York City left Harold dispirited.  Of this experience, he explained, “To learn how to paint from objects or models that meant nothing to me seemed to external a process.  I wanted to get down to what I thought were fundamentals alone with paint.  I felt that if I lived at St. Huberts with the woods and mountains I had known so many summers, the techniques of how to paint would work out.”  In the spring of 1920, at the age of 26, Harold returned to St. Huberts to begin in earnest his life-long vocation.  He and a local carpenter built a one-room studio not far from the Ausable Club.  The frame of this rustic hovel was constructed from spruce, with the walls made from native hemlock.  With no insulation, the only heat to be had was from a pot-bellied boxstove which he kept stoked with two-foot-length logs; he claimed the fire went out only once or twice during the winter.  There was also an outhouse in the balsam grove to the rear of the studio.  Alone in his little studio, he focused on his painting, unbothered by the mice who thieved his apples and ate them by his feet.  One of his modes of relaxation would be sitting by the fire and smoking a cigar while watching the moon rise over Giant Mountain.  Of this “rugged simplicity,” Harold wrote:

“I was as profligate with canvas and paint as I was frugal in living – spoon, fork, knife, frying pan, coffee pot, a few pans and a kettle, axe for wood, warm clothes, high lumberman’s boots and snowshoes, daily milk from a farmhouse down the hill, and monthly supplies from the village three miles away.  These and my paints were the essentials.”

For fewer than three years, Harold holed himself up in his cold studio, dedicating his time and effort to painting.  When venturing out into the field, he carried with him his oils, cardboard to paint on, and a camera.  According to Rebecca Foster, her grandfather had “a passion for paint more powerful than common sense,” so much so that “he stayed on mountaintops past sunset, hobbling back down on his good leg in the dark.”  Many of the artists of Keene Valley who came before Harold seemed to be constrained to the contours and shapes of the landscape before them.  Granted, some took liberties in accentuating the pointedness of summits, the depths of gorges and valleys, and so forth, but Harold’s work reflected, as he put it, “what I felt rather than what I saw.”

In November 1922, Harold gave his first solo show at the Montross Galleries in New York City.  On display were more than 180 paintings, 63 oils on canvas, and the remainder being oils on cardboard.  Most of the paintings were his Adirondack landscapes.  The show was an astounding success and widely praised by critics.  Art critic Ralph Flint exclaimed in the Christian Science Monitor: “In his pictures [there is] something different, something stirring and magnificently bold, a proclamation of a bigger belief in beauty than is usually heard in the galleries.”

On May 12, 1923, Harold married a young Quaker woman named Faith Borton, whom he met the prior year at a winter party in St. Huberts.  Faith was not averse to participating in her husband’s wilderness adventures.  For example, in October of 1923, Faith was with her husband on the summit of Gothics, from which he was painting the sunset.  In describing their hike back home, Harold recalled the two “started down the precipitous side of the mountain toward the Lower Lake, dodging slides and slashes without a trail, without a flashlight, and only a sliver of moon to guide our way.  Since I have to walk with a cane or staff, I slid along in the dark slowly as a snail probing ahead with his feeler.  We reached the road home after the moon had set and walked back to St. Huberts under the stars.”

Harold rose to prominence as an American artist in the 1930s, with his works exhibited in galleries such as the Phillips Memorial Gallery in Washington, D.C., The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  His work expanded from Adirondack landscapes to landscape nudes (Faith was his model), to realism, and then abstraction.  From 1936 to 1938, through a commission by the Treasury Relief Act Project, he painted murals in the lobby of the General Services Administration Building in Washington, D.C.  As vice chairman of the National Council on the Arts and Government, Harold was active in urging art patronage by the Federal and state governments. In the last two decades of his life, he experimented with modernism, but with mixed results. 

HIstoric photo of man sketching on the top of a mountain

Harold Weston sketching on top of Mount Marcy, taken in 1922 by Esther B. Weston. (Source: The Weston Family and Wikipedia)

In addition to his dedication to painting, Harold employed considerable effort in rehabilitating the trails on AMR lands.  The maintenance of the AMR’s trails was largely abandoned during World War 2 due to many of the trail maintainers of draft age being taken for the war effort or left to work in the war industries.  In 1948, Harold became secretary of the ATIS, which involved responsibility for an ambitious program of trail maintenance.  Among the first of his trail crew were two young men, Bob Langman and Harold’s son, Bruce.  By the end of the summer of 1950, all 90 miles of trails were reconditioned, by a combination of hard work, dedication, and “forceful encouragement” from Harold, himself.

In addition to the trail clearing, Harold also led the effort to replace many of the rotting or missing trail signage.  In the summer of 1948, he and the trail crew set up a workshop, in which they carved and painted new signs.  Harold also created a chart showing the location and wording of over 400 ATIS trail signs.  In the same year, Harold and several others created an ATIS trail map, Abridged Guide to Adirondack Trails, which provided brief descriptions of the 35 trails in the St. Huberts and Keene Valley region and sold for twenty-five cents.

Another gentleman who was on the ATIS trail crew was Tony Goodwin’s father, Jim, also a past secretary of the ATIS.  When Harold hired Jim in the summer of 1952 to head the trail crew, he gave him a stern warning: “Remember now, it’s eight hours a day, six days a week, rain or shine.”  At the end of the season, Jim reported back to his boss that he followed Harold’s directives to a T, to which Harold responded in disbelief, “You did?!”  According to Jim in his memoir, And Gladly Guide: “Apparently those Draconian instructions were only Harold’s way of suggesting that we should take the job seriously.  Some earlier trail crews had not shaped up as well.”

In 1971, Harold published his autobiography, Freedom in the Wilds: A Saga of the Adirondacks.  The third edition of this book was edited by his granddaughter, Rebecca Foster, and published in 2008 under the title, Freedom in the Wilds: An Artist in the Adirondacks.  Harold Weston died on April 10, 1972 in New York City.  He left a legacy in Keene Valley and is among the pantheon of great artists to have worked in the Adirondacks.

The Cliffs by Another Name

In closing, Fish Hawk Cliffs apparently went by another name: the Devil’s Pulpit.  In a sketch written by the 19th-century author and poet, Wallace Bruce, which was published in the June 1883 edition of Outing: An Illustrated Magazine of Recreation, he recounts canoeing across Lower Ausable Lake with the famous Adirondack guide, Orson Schofield “Old Mountain” Phelps.  As Phelps was rowing, he pointed up and noted “Indian Head” on the left and “Devil’s Pulpit” to its right.  Phelps turned to Bruce and said, humorously, that “he was frequently likened to his Satanic Majesty, as he often took clergymen ‘up thar.'”  I could find no other reference to “Devil’s Pulpit” in any other historical literature beyond what Bruce has written.  Thus, this term for Fish Hawk Cliffs appears known to only Old Mountain himself.

Photo at top: View of Lower Ausable Lake from Fish Hawk Cliffs


Goodwin, Tony. “Inquiry about Fish Hawk Cliffs.” E-mails to author, January 8-9, 2023.

Goodwin, Tony. Adirondack Trails: High Peaks Region, 13th Edition.  Lake George, N.Y.: Adirondack Mountain Club, 2004, p. 85.

Wallace Bruce, Wallace. “The Adirondacks.”  Outing: An Illustrated Magazine of Recreation. Vol. 2, No. 2, June 1883, pp. 33-35.

Weston, Laura.  Facebook direct message to author, February 8, 2023. 

Weston, Harold.  Freedom in the Wilds: A Saga of the Adirondacks.  St. Huberts, N.Y.: Adirondack Trail Improvement Society, 1971.

Weston, Harold and Rebecca Foster (ed.).  Freedom in the Wilds: An Artist in the Adirondacks, 3rd Ed.  Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2008.

Foster, Rebecca and Caroline M. Welsh.  Wild Exuberance: Harold Weston’s Adirondack Art.  Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2005.

Mackinnon, Anne. “A Passionate Nature: The Consummate Art of Harold Weston.” Adirondack Life. Vol. 25, No. 1, January-February, 1994, pp. 28–35, 65–66.

Pell, Robin.  “Part One: The Artists of Keene Valley and Their Milieu.”  Two Adirondack Hamlets in History: Keene and Keene Valley.  Fleischmanns, N.Y.: Purple Mountain Press, 1999, pp. 133-146.

Foster, Esty.  “Harold Weston: An Informal Appreciation.”  Peaks and Valleys: A Centennial Celebration of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society. St. Huberts, N.Y.: Adirondack Trail Improvement Society, 1997, pp. 95-111.

Harold Weston Foundation. (Accessed February 6, 2023)

Sasso, John.  HISTORICAL PROFILE: Nun-da-ga-o Ridge and Weston Peak.  Unpublished work.  September 20, 2018.

Goodwin, James A.  And Gladly Guide: Reflections on a Life in the Mountains.  Self-published, 1999, p. 105.

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John Sasso is an avid hiker and bushwhacker of the Adirondacks and self-taught Adirondack historian. Outside of his day-job, John manages a Facebook group "History and Legends of the Adirondacks." John has also helped build and maintain trails with the ADK and Adirondack Forty-Sixers, participated in the Trailhead Steward Program, and maintained the fire tower and trail to Mount Adams.

4 Responses

  1. Eric Hancock says:

    This is fantastic; thanks for posting. I often think about what it was like there, before so many roads and trails had been cut. Must have been amazing.

  2. George Nigriny says:

    A wonderful piece. Harold Weston… a revelation to me. I know something now I didn’t know before.

  3. Thanks for this wonderful explanation about the Indian Head and Fish Hawk Cliffs. My great uncle, John Apperson, and his good friend, Irving Langmuir went skiing there (cross-country) in 1911. I believe that the photo taken that day (photographer unknown) mentioned Ausable …and when I published my book (John Apperson’s Lake George, p. 17) I said that Apperson and Langmuir were looking down into Ausable Chasm, but it should have been Lower Ausable Lake). Good to be corrected!

  4. John powers says:

    What a life. Great piece.


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