Sunday, April 21, 2024

On Earth Day, Remembering the Films of Paul Schaefer

Men sit in chairs in a cabin

By the time America marked its inaugural Earth Day on April 22, 1970, Paul Schaefer had already dedicated four decades to safeguarding the Adirondack wilderness. His formidable alliances with conservationists like John Apperson and Howard Zahniser, which we detail in Exploring Cabin Country, were instrumental in these efforts. Schaefer’s notable victories included the storied Black River Wars in the 40s and 50s and his campaign in the 60s against dams on the Upper Hudson that would have submerged the Hudson Gorge in a 35-mile-long reservoir.

Also by this time, Schaefer had played a major role in the routing of the Northway, having served as chair of a citizens’ advisory committee named to advise the Department of Transportation and Conservation Department on the matter. The big decision was whether to go up to the west of Lake George or the east. Schaefer favored and pressed for the “mountain route” we enjoy today.

As he approached his mid-60s, Schaefer now sharpened his focused on the Adirondacks’ wild rivers, about which he wrote eloquently in Conservationist in 1973, a piece that was later included in Schaefer’s collection of essays, Defending the Wilderness.

When Governor Rockefeller’s Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks proposed a Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System, it won overwhelming support, Schaefer writes.

“Related to this proposal was the decision of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks to create a documentary film on the subject. We felt the public needed answers to these basic questions: Where were these rivers? What portions of them would be preserved? And why?”

That was the origin of Schaefer’s first film, Of Rivers and Men. Thanks to David Gibson, Managing Partner of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, we’re pleased to stream it online for the first time along with the film he completed eight years later, Adirondack – The Land Nobody Knows.

A ‘Happy Coincidence’

Fred Sullivan films the West River Gorge.


By what Schaefer calls a “happy coincidence,” a young man from Glens Falls, needing a documentary to get his master’s degree in filmmaking from Boston University, appeared at the association’s offices. His name was Fred Sullivan. He began his work in April 1971 and completed the film in October 1972.

“Guided at times by members of the Adirondack Hudson River Association, but largely on his own, Sullivan and his crew from the university ranged the park, exploring its remote rivers and climbing cataracts to find their sources in high sphagnum swamps and mountaintop lakes,” Schaefer writes. “He quickly found the relationship between clouds, trees, and soil; brought wildlife into his viewfinder; and caught the elusive spirit of wilderness campfires on his film. Thunderstorms, black flies, and snowstorms were part of the story. He related the erosion of fragile resources to people in such a way that the need for better planning and controls became obvious.

“Starting out with no preconceptions as to Adirondack problems, his thesis crystallized the philosophy expressed by the Adirondack Study Commission. It clearly pointed the way for comprehensive action by all facets of our society. The film spurred action on a problem that will require years to solve completely.”

Traveling 25,000 miles throughout the Adiriondacks, Sullivan shot 10,000 feet of film in documenting the deep canyons, waterfalls, rapids and forested watersheds of 12 rivers, including the Hudson, the Ausable, the Sacandaga, the Grasse, the Moose, the Raquette, the Saranac, and the Schroon.

More than 1,000 audiences saw Of Rivers and Men in its first two years. TV stations in New York City, Schenectady, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo gave he film prime time. Many large conservation organizations and many colleges and libraries bought copies. About one million people viewed it.

Sullivan would go on to direct his first feature, Cold River, and then a comic documentary about the making of that film, The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Fitness and Filmmaking. It was warmly received at the 1987 Sundance Film Festival and New York Times film critic Janet Matlin called it a “real delight.”

Sullivan was named Development Director at Paul Smith’s College in 1992. In 1996, he died of a heart attack at age 50 while playing in a weekly basketball game at the college with friends.

Eloise Neal tells the remarkable story of “Adirondack Fred” here.

Mission Accomplished 

Paul Schaefer wanted to develop a “rivers ethic” that would “be the belief that each of us is custodian of the rivers to their ultimate sources and that we exercise concern for their preservation.” Click to view.


Of Rivers and Men did its job. Approved by the legislature in 1972, the Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System ultimately would encompass 1,200 miles of rivers.

As pleased as he was, Schaefer called for more: 

“We need to develop a rivers ethic that will go beyond legislative or state agency mandates. This ethic should be based on a comprehensive knowledge of the total river resource. Few have this knowledge. It also involves appreciation and understanding of the vast network of tributary streams, scores of which are neither named nor designated on any map. The ethic would be the belief that each of us is custodian of the rivers to their ultimate sources and that we exercise concern for their preservation.”

“If we will, we could bequeath to posterity a rich heritage of clean, free-flowing rivers and streams, with countless waterfalls and cataracts, and white-water rapids to challenge one’s skill. If we do, decades hence many youths will walk down winding mountain trails and will hear, as we have heard, the roar of a distant Adirondack river. Their steps will quicken and they will know strange, new emotions. And that night, before their campfire they will experience, as we have, the unsurpassed exhilaration that only a wild, untamed river can provide.”

Adirondack – The Land Nobody Knows

Paul Schaefer and his team at the Couch-sa-chra-ga Association devoted eight years to the production of this film, which premiered February 9, 1980. Click to view.


Shortly after Of Rivers and Men was completed and the act that created the Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers System was signed, Schaefer conferred with other members of his association on what to do next. This was in 1972.

Gazing at the 12-foot-high scaled relief map that volunteers had devoted months to creating on a wall in Schaefer’s Adirondack Room, “we all admitted that we … knew very little about these mountains,” Schaefer writes in Adirondack Cabin Country.

“We decided that night to make a 16-mm film entitled Adirondack — The Land Nobody Knows. We formed the Couch-sa-chra-ga Association to produce the film.”

To make The Land Nobody Knows, Schaefer crisscrossed the Adirondacks with cinematographers Walter Haas and Edwin Niedhammer.

“We spent every weekend year round and most of our vacations there. Frequently, we would travel 400 miles on a two-day trip to find that most people we talked to knew very little about the park except for the particular section they lived in or favored. We climbed mountains, slept in the wilderness, and photographed rampaging rivers, great forests, and wildlife.”

“I’m just astounded by how he did it,” Gibson says.

You’ll be impressed by the many aerial shots featured in the film, especially in the opening sequence. These were made possible by Richard Weber, Jr., who owned several planes and helicopters over the years as part of his construction business. Active in Eastern Ski Association, he served on the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of of the Adirondack Park.

Because he was an avid hiker, he knew good landing areas and sites where Haas and Niedhammer would find great views, recalls his wife, Mary. In producing The Land Nobody Knows, she estimates he took them up in his Bell helicopter “at least ten times.”

Down to the Wire

Noel Riedinger-Johnson at a tribute to Paul Schaefer in 1997 on Crane Mountain. From the private collection of Evelyn Schaefer Greene.


Playing an essential role in both films was Noel Riedinger-Johnson, a dedicated environmental advocate and a skilled professional in film production who edited five miles of film shot in the field by two accomplished cinematographers, Walter Haas. Noel wove together narratives that were both coherent and visually stunning.  She also designed the film’s graphics and arranged the film’s original music scores. Later, as Schaefer approached his advanced years in the early 1990s, she also masterfully edited his books Defending the Wilderness and Adirondack Cabin Country.

Eight years after Schaefer and his team embarked on the project, The Land Nobody Knows was scheduled to be premiered on February 9, 1980. Albany Mayor Erastus Corning, Environmental Conservation Commissioner Robert Flacke, and Transportation Commissioner William Hennessy were co-hosting the presentation. A full house of 500 people from around the country was expected.

And yet, as of the afternoon of February 9, Schaefer did not have the completed film In hand and he had not even seen the final version. Making changes right up to the end, Riedinger-Johnson shipped the reel by bus from New York City to Albany, says Gibson.

“Paul watched as the driver unloaded the baggage compartment and came up with no film. ‘Go back and look again,’ Paul demanded. He climbed into the compartment and looked again. This time he found it  at the very back.”

The Persistent Efforts of New Yorkers

After Paul Schaefer’s death in 1996, David Gibson assumed the leadership of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest. Today he continues to be a part-owner of the “Beaver House,” the name Schaefer gave to the cabin he built in Bakers Mills on the edge of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness.


The Land Nobody Knows was awarded prizes throughout the world in such places as Los Angeles, Canada, Portugal, Spain, Malta and New Zealand. It received a Cine Eagle for Non-Theatrical Events.

“There have been many Adirondack documentaries since these two films produced by Paul Schaefer,” says Gibson. “Some have gone on national PBS. But none of these other films, in my opinion, have drawn such a clear through line running between 1885, when the Forest Preserve was created, and the late 20th century.”

“Schaefer’s films are the only ones to document the persistent efforts by New Yorkers to conserve our Adirondack heritage and to make that wilderness heritage come alive as both ecologically and economically important.”

The 1970s were a critical period for environmental legislation and awareness, and Schaefer’s teams were right in the thick of it.

“These were not merely communications projects,” says Gibson. “They were a continuation of the vision that Schaefer’s mentor, John Apperson, had implanted. I think Paul just saw his role as documenting what was coming up for the Adirondacks and the environmental movement.”

Assuming the leadership of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and, later, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest, Gibson today is one of several owners of the “Beaver House,” the cabin Schaefer built in 1960 on a 50-acre parcel near both the original homestead that Schaefer’s parents bought in the 1920s and a cabin that Paul and his brother Vincent bought a few years later in 1926.

The films are now on DVDs, but Gibson still has the trusty Bell & Howell projector that Schaefer used for years to show both films.

“It still works,” he says.

Photo at top: Paul Schaefer often convened meetings at the Beaver House on the edge of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness in Bakers Mills. All photos provided by the author.

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Driven by a passion for storytelling empowered by by technology, the First Wilderness Story Collaboration supports heritage tourism in Western Warren County. Dan's writing comes courtesy of this project.

5 Responses

  1. Todd Eastman says:

    The wilds around us are built by the work of wise elders.

  2. David Gibson says:

    Thank you, Dan. Just to add, the interior photograph is taken by and courtesy of Ken Rimany. Date was Nov. 1993.

  3. louis curth says:

    Dan Forbush has provided us with a fitting Earth Day tribute to Paul Schaefer and all that he accomplished. These memorable films are worth seeing. They illustrate a fragile time in our Adirondack history, but they also recall some of the outdoor fun that brought locals and visitors together during, what seemed to be, simpler times.

    The photo of Paul sitting at home, surrounded by a throng of conservation activists in their red felt crusher hats, is the perfect metaphor for that era. That hat was the preferred choice for hunters, conservationists and so many more. I can’t remember if I got mine at Junior Baroudi’s in North Creek, or Al’s Grocery in Chestertown, or maybe it was Cheeseman’s in Saranac Lake, but I wore it for years, until I traded it for the customized Stetson preferred by most of the rangers back then.

    Thanks Dan. Happy Earth Day to all!

  4. A fitting tribute on Earth Day to the contributions of Paul Schaefer and the conservationist during this period for helping to protect our Adirondacks. I especially like the access to the 1972 film “Of Rivers and Men.” I originally watched it from a VHS copy at the library at Paul Smith’s College. A classic.

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