Friday, July 21, 2023

Before there were motor free lakes

man with walking stick in front of a lake with a mountain in the background

Although by 1973 Wilderness areas had been officially designated on about one million acres within the Adirondack Forest Preserve, the question of whether waterbodies within those million acres would be similarly free of use by motors was still highly uncertain.

In June 1973 the first Commissioner of the new DEC, Henry Diamond, “announced a complete ban on airplanes and mechanically propelled boats in Adirondack Forest Preserve waters classified as Wilderness, Primitive and Canoe….One of rarest, hence most valuable, recreational assets is solitude – a chance to get away from the sight and sound of others,” the commissioner said. “We want to provide areas in which intrusion by man and his works are minimal” (DEC Press Release, June 1973).

DEC issued a list of 700 Wilderness lakes which were, by regulation, to be free from such mechanization. The list of lakes was far from roadways and within designated Wilderness zones. Diamond pointed out that many larger lakes populated by motorcraft were completely untouched by the new regulation, places like Lake George, the Fulton Chain of Lakes, Indian Lake, Long Lake, Tupper Lake, Lake Placid and the Saranac Lakes.

Indeed, only three percent of acreage of Adirondack surface waters was affected by the wilderness regulation. Still, the negative response from many hunters, fishers and the few bush pilots with the skills to fly them into remote wilderness lakes was strong. A pattern of motorized uses growing since World War II was disrupted, and that plainly unsettled and upset some.

Public hearings were called to hear from and record public sentiment about the new regulations. One hearing, held October 31, 1973, was in Rome, NY. The founder of Friends of the Forest Preserve, Paul Schaefer, was there. Here are his remarks.

“It was my privilege to have been an advisor to the Joint Legislative Committee on Natural Resources from 1950-1965. It was this committee which put together for the first time the philosophy of preserving the best wilderness regions existing within the Adirondack Park. As one deeply involved in this concept of wilderness areas, I can assure you that we were not thinking of less protection of all Forest Preserve lands afforded by Section 1 of Article XIV of the State Constitution, but rather more protection than the constitution was providing.

A typical example of the problems of wilderness preservation may be found in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness. Here is a wild and beautiful region containing more than one hundred thousand acres of Forest Preserve in a contiguous block, much of it owned by the State since the 1890s. It is threaded by more than a thousand miles of crystal clear rivers and streams and enriched by fifty seven lakes, fifty mountains and splendid forests. About 1950 its numerous trails penetrating the interior began to get chewed up by motor vehicles….I recall vividly a trip I took into the Siamese Ponds one summer day with a nationally known outdoorsman from Washington, D.C. …Three miles in, the trail crossed the river, which we waded, and began a long, gentle climb to the ponds. Reaching them, we startled two deer feeding on a far shore and several ducks circled above the water.

My friend was enthralled with it all. We had enjoyed every foot of the hike in, the ferns, the mosses and the song of a wild river. Yet here was something very special – a sense of peace and quiet of great quality, made real by the remoteness of the place.

A few minutes later our conversation about the richness of the experience was rudely shattered. A plane came in over a low mountain, circled the lake with an increasingly loud roar and taxied up to a small island. The motor was cut and a radio blared rock music across the still waters. Two men made appearance, one with a fishing pole and another with a high powered rifle which he started using on a huge boulder on the shore.

Needless to say, we were both shocked to realize how fragile wilderness really is. I still remember the loss we both felt and the acute disappointment that overshadowed the splendor of the day and spoiled a long trip from Washington for my friend.

Consider the facts. A single plane had degraded not only the Siamese Ponds but essentially the whole wilderness surrounding it. The special quality of solitude in the deep woods had been shattered not only by noise but by the attitude of those who destroyed this increasingly rare experience.

New York State has three and one half million acres of lakes. Most of this water – an area more than half as large as the entire Adirondack Park – is available to aircraft. The 700 lakes and ponds protected by order of the Commissioner of Conservation involve only a few thousand acres of water.

There can be no compromise on this issue. The entire wilderness system philosophy rests on the very simple fact that to permit mechanized access of any kind in the approximately one million acres so designated is to destroy the system. It’s just as simple as that.”

Plaque remembering Paul Schaefer on private land in Johnsburg.

Photo at top: Adirondack Wild founder and student of Paul Schaefer Dan Plumley on a summer’s day at Siamese Ponds. Photo by D. Gibson

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

16 Responses

  1. Great article! Any chance we can increase the amount of non-motorized water in the Adirondacks?

  2. Smitty says:

    Jet skis, the scourge of the Adirondacks. Not much purpose other than to waste gas and annoy people. I understand that Vermont only allows them on lakes over 300 acres. That would be a good start.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I agree Michael & Smitty 100%.

  4. Gretchen Barfoot says:

    I canped on Lows Lake back in the days when planes were allowed and they were a major disturbance not only the noise of the planes but also the folks who came in without the effort of paddling had little appreciation for the wilderness peacefulness. When the Whitney property was new and before being developed for camping we attended a rally to have it classified as moterless. What a difference it would have made it that hadn’t passed. Little Tupper is such a delight with lovely sites and peaceful suroundings.

  5. I am glad to learn about this battle against airplanes at Siamese Ponds, and am pleased to be able to read Paul’s description of it! Keep up the good fight!

  6. I am glad to learn about this battle against airplanes at Siamese Ponds, and am pleased to be able to read Paul’s description of it!

    In the 1990s, one of John Apperson’s admirers, Chester Sims, who purchased the old Lake View annex property in Huddle Bay, took up the cause of fighting against the proliferation of jet skis at Lake George. I think Chester deserves credit for a regulation currently on the books, against “noisy personal water crafts.” Jet skis are now restricted in use between 8:00 a.m. and 7 p.m.

    Keep up the good fight!

  7. louis curth says:

    Another fine article from Dave Gibson (and a good photo of Dan Plumley at Siamese too) which should remind us all how special the lands and waters of our Adirondack Forest Preserve are, in a world where all of nature is under constant threat from so many directions.

    The realization of “how fragile wilderness really is” cannot be overstated. It has only been kept alive through the efforts of generations of determined conservationists – john Apperson and Paul Schaefer among them. Let’s hope that our youths of the future will continue this fight to preserve and protect our wild places with the same energy and conviction as those who have gone before.

  8. Amen, David. As canoeing enthusiasts who appreciate the solitude and quiet of remote paddles, my husband and I support the efforts to maintain motor-free waterways and preserve natural settings for the wildlife that live there and the people who value that stillness and serenity.

  9. Tom Williams says:

    Is there now a proposal to “re-motor” one or more lakes?
    If so, put me down as a “no.”
    Motorboats and seaplanes have their place, but not on wild lakes.

  10. Ken Mosher says:

    The dishonesty of the discussions made by the Adirondack Park Association have been made through the years with mush disregard of the area residents. Sadly it has not been a partnership,

  11. Michael Fritts says:

    A hundred years ago, my grandpa’s brother Earl Fritts and his partner invented the seaplane in Oneonta. It made sense at a time when roads and runways were few.
    On behalf of the family, I apologize. My fondest childhood memories are of enjoying family summer vacation on a motor-free Adirondack lake

  12. Paul says:

    There are many water bodies that are by default motorless. Many on wild forest parcels. No way you could get a motor in there or land a plane on them. The numbers of designated motor free waters is quite misleading. Also, there are also lots of parts of ‘motorized’ waterways that motors can’t go due to the fact they are not navigable. Why paddlers on parts of the Saranac Chain stick to the navigable channel so they can argue with motor boats that won’t slow down for them is crazy. Life is too short. Let’s learn to share. I can paddle my canoes on parts of that chain where I am so far from an inboard that I can see it but I can’t even hear it.

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