Almanack Contributor Christopher Shaw

Christopher Shaw

In the 1970s and 80s Chris Shaw worked as a ski lift operator, the caretaker of a fishing club, a whitewater guide, an innkeeper and as editor of Adirondack Life. His stories and articles have appeared in Outside, the New England Review, the New York Times and many other publications, and he has received Bread Loaf and New York Foundation for the Arts fellowships. Northern Voices, his program on NCPR in the 1990s, profiled writers of the Adirondacks and northern New York, and his book, Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods, about paddling in the Usumacinta River watershed of Chiapas and Guatemala, appeared in 2000. The Washington Post called it "a magnificent achievement." Shaw teaches writing at Middlebury College, where he also co-administers the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism. He and his wife Sue Kavanagh salve the wounds of exile by spending as many weeks a year as they can at their one-room cabin on a remote northern lake.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Clearing: Hadley, 1969

After skiing into Bushnell Falls that March of ’69, our intention was always to move to the Adirondacks as permanently and as soon as we could. Keene and the high peaks were the grail. Soon, however, my college friend, the actress Ellen Parker, told me that her parents, Joe and Sophie, who had been looking for a place in the Adirondacks to start a restaurant, had bought a local bar along the Sacandaga River in Hadley and might need some help.

Joe Parker was a sculptor and painter, and Sophie, who was French, a chef. I had been to their house in Dobb’s Ferry and been treated to the best food and wine of my college-kid life, in an atmosphere of garlic and red wine and art conversation with a French accent.

Joe soon arranged for us to occupy a clearing amid plantation pines on Niagara-Mohawk land across the road from the restaurant—the first Chez Sophie, now a Saratoga institution. In return we hired out as part-time slaves in the remodeling and start-up of the new restaurant, the first “bistro” of any authentic type in the Adirondacks, and to other restaurants, bars and contractors in the area. Gail Stern, Sam Lewis, Pete Groff and I erected a fanciful geodesic structure of interlocking plywood and two-by-four tetrahedrons in the clearing beside the river, on the principles of Buckminster Fuller, and covered it with plastic.

That was the beginning of three or four years of seasonal—May to October—occupation. We slept there, swam and fished in the river, entertained visitors. At various times we grew vegetables or kept bees, but other than that there was little attempt to maintain a “commune.” It was more like a loose affiliation and seasonal outdoor headquarters for our various widespread friends in Montreal, California, Albany and Schenectady. We had no electrical power so no ability or inclination to have loud parties. We nevertheless became known within weeks as the Hadley hippies, for our hair, jug band, nude bathing, and politics (rather bland, really).

The restaurant grew. The menu changed each evening depending on the availability of fresh ingredients. Gail worked with Sophie in the kitchen, I stood by as kitchen help, dishwasher or bus boy—though I was quickly dismissed as being too dreamy for any duty in the front room. Joe, with his cheery round face and moustache, tended bar. He had studied with Fernand Leger in Paris, where he met Sophie, and his paintings and welded rod sculptures were displayed around the room. At the end of the shift we would go out front into the restaurant where Sophie served us tournedos, Cornish hens, or roast chicken. Sometimes late customers hung around after closing and the conversation expanded, carried along on wine and summer ease, turning often to Nixon and Vietnam or to the young men and the woman who helped the hosts and what they thought they were doing living in nature without power or running water, abandoning suburban life and the duties of middle-class adulthood.

In my own case the choice had to do with memories of childhood summers combined with a romantic identification with the wilderness writings of the Beats, Thoreau, various fishing and nature writers and Noah John Rondeau. I thought that if I could deepen my experience in nature and place I could do in the Adirondacks what other writers were beginning to do in the Pacific Northwest and Montana. What I didn’t know was that it entailed as devoted a commitment of energy and time to craft as it did to fishing, hiking and hunting. I had always written and believed I could accomplish publishable adult work in ecstatic outbursts of creativity—as Kerouac supposedly had with On the Road.

I was also the one among us most committed to the idea of place and “going back” to some prewar wilderness Arcadia. With Sam Lewis I entertained fantasies of logging as the poet Gary Snyder had, growing up in the Pacific Northwest among the old labor anarchists of the twenties and thirties who had found a home in the logging industry. There Snyder had learned the value of work, of living on and with the land within a deeply western vein of frontier self-reliance. But he belonged to perhaps the last American generation to have access to an experience of that sort so unmediated by modernity.

I was hopeless as a roughneck, anyway, at least at first. And it’s safe to say the Snyder-Woody Guthrie-Bulgakov brand of anarchism didn’t translate to the Adirondacks, no matter how many philosopher-woodsmen I met who worked in the woods in one capacity or another or how many of them adopted points of view and ways of life consistent with the deepest American vein. Some eventually came to recognize how an idea like the Adirondack Park Agency Act could protect their freedom to live in a way that most closely replicated and continued that of the mythical Northwoods. But not many.

In those days we viewed reality primarily through the prisms of our cleverness, history and politics. That summer we heard little support for the proposed agency among the old-timers we had coffee with in the morning in Lake Luzerne and beers with in the evening, but whom we idealized and emulated nevertheless. You could always talk about fish, animals, water levels, stumpage prices, weather or land. Late afternoons when the Conklingville Dam shut off we’d wade out on the bare rocks of the pre-rafting Sacandaga and cast flies for the plentiful smallmouth. For trout we drove up the Stony Creek Road to Wolf Creek, with its Hudson-fattened browns, or Stony Creek itself. In August we made our annual trek to Mount Colden via the trap dike. The days seemed to justify themselves beyond all other considerations.

The war went on, along with the violence in the cities and on campuses. When Woodstock happened that summer it already seemed far away, as if some vital link to anything “down below” had been severed, for me at least.

By September the imperatives of place had asserted their hold, and the only choices seemed to be whether or not to move farther north, deeper into the woods, in to wildness and the soon to be protected reality of unmediated experience.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Rain, Colden Trap Dyke, 1962

Rain usually accompanied our hikes out of YMCA camp at Pilot Knob, on Lake George, in the late fifties and sixties, sometimes hard rain. We camped without tents, lying on the bare ground under the sky if the lean-to were occupied or none availed. Often we got wet. Mosquitoes and no-see-ems dined on us at their will. It gave me both a taste for and an aversion to discomfort.

The camp transported us, cattle-like, to Crane Mountain, Sleeping Beauty, the High Peaks, Pharoah Lake, the Fulton Chain and points as distant as the White Mountains, in the back of an ancient Ford ton-and-a-half rack-bed truck with benches on the sides that looked like something out of a WWII movie. We loved that truck, the open-air freedom and daring of it, its antique cantankerousness, though as often as not we huddled together in ponchos against the cab out of the wind and the cold rain or sleet biting our cheeks.

After my first climb up the Colden Trap Dyke when I was 12 or 13 we came down the Lake Arnold trail after summiting, picked up our gear where we had left it at the outlet of Avalanche Lake, and continued down to Lake Colden and the big lean-to across the footbridge over the Opalescent. This would have been 1961 or 1962. Soon after we got there the rain started and continued through the night.

In the morning it kept going, cancelling our climb up Marcy. Trip leaders, Harvey Eakins and Fuzzy Fazzone, from Schenectady, fried Spam and brown sugar all day on a paraffin stove. The campers played cards and made occasional poncho-clad forays to check out the rising waters. By the following morning the river was lapping at the lean-to and the bridges upstream and down had washed out, stranding us. The trail coming down from Lake Tear was a torrent.

Poking around Flowed Land, Harvey and I found an old wooden skiff in the alders, and nearby two boards that would serve as paddles. The skiff floated, as long as you kept bailing. Flowed Land looked like its name: a wide unpredictably boiling eddy where the Opalescent and the overflow of the broken down Colden dam came together. To make it out to Heart Lake and meet the truck for the ride back to camp, the boys would need to be ferried across one at a time, while two people paddled with the boards.

The campers packed and assembled at the edge of Flowed Land. You wouldn’t do this today. Every trip across was touch-and-go—the craft not quite worthy, the load too precarious, the waters too nasty. It would have been easy to capsize at any moment. Campers had to pass a quarter-mile swim test to go on the hike, but these were bad conditions with no lifejackets. It took an hour to get everybody over. In the end, though, nothing bad happened, and the rain continued.

The trail was mud, the balsams closing in on either side soaking us more than the rain as we brushed through them. We ate drowned peanut butter sandwiches on the porch of the Colden interior cabin and reported in to the ranger, who had people out there in worse shape than we were. Then we made our way back over Avalanche Pass to spend the night at the lean-tos there or at Marcy Dam. By now we were completely drenched to the bone but getting along fine, thinking our way from point to point, beyond caring.

We got to Avalanche to find the lake water high and most of the Hitch-up Matildas floating free from the granite cliffs. We clambered where we could and waded deep or swam with our rucksacks on where we had to, and eventually got around the lake. Across the lake, the dike, the great gash in Colden’s steep slides, which we had climbed so excitingly the day before, had become a crashing waterfall fifteen or twenty feet wide, plunging a thousand feet straight into the lake. Not a scene you would ever choose to miss for the sake of a little comfort and safety.

It always stayed with me, that scene and the feeling of being completely soaked, a little at risk, and surrendering to the sensations that came with it—your skin cold and tingling in the raw elements, your resistance dissolved along with the suffering it caused. You wouldn’t have had these images or sensations in a suburban high school, for instance, nor the lawns of the usual subdivision—even though a wise person would have used that “wild” experience back in the normal world to deal with similar sensations of discomfort and resistance.

I wasn’t wise. But the same feeling did come back to me twenty years later on the Hudson Gorge, which I have written about before: a day of rain, mist and high water, when I regarded the multiple white cascades pouring off the amphitheater of Kettle Mountain straight into the river, as in a Tang painting, and felt my flesh dissolve into water, a total immersion in the “flow of concrete experience,” as William James had called it.

Everything was water, inside and out. Mind was water. Sitting there becoming water beside the Hudson I remembered the water crashing through the Colden Dyke on that saturated day back when I was a stuttering gawk in the High Peaks. Certain themes always followed you, I saw. It made sense to pay attention.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Bank Swallows: Thurman, 1955

O swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point….

From “The Blue Swallows,” Howard Nemerov

In the mid-fifties, when I was four or five, I started visiting an old bootlegger’s hideout in the woods of Thurman with my friend Dinah, Dinny, who was a year and a century older than I was, and infinitely wiser, and whom I admired and adored.

The place belonged to her father, a surgeon who was our landlord in Schenectady. You reached it down a narrow track that opened into a long oval drive surrounding two or three acres of Arcadian white pines. The house stood at the end of the long oval, atop a bluff surrounded by a 180 degree bend in Patterson Brook. A wide screened flagstone porch supported by large pine logs gave way to a central frame structure two stories high, with one-story lean-tos built off the sides housing another bedroom, bathroom, and the kitchen.

A balcony surrounded the central hall and led to the upstairs bedrooms, which were small and rough, the bathrooms wainscoted and tiled. From the balconies you looked down on a large living room of cozy bamboo couches and chairs, coffee tables, lamps and magazine racks filled with Life, Look, National Geographic, The Conservationist, Field and Stream, and Superman comics. A bear rug covered the floor in front of the fireplace, another decorated a wall, and a moose head hung over the wide, open hearth fireplace.

The electricity came from a generator in a log shed located out of earshot at the far end of the driveway, a big Chrysler six that ran only in the evening, used enormous amounts of gas and had to be frequently coaxed into life by the caretaker, Ken Bonner, whom I knew twenty years later as an old-time fiddle player in Stony Creek. The kitchen had gas appliances, and they burned gas and kerosene lamps in the rest of the house when the generator was on the fritz, which it usually was.

A concrete ramp outside led downstairs under the kitchen into the “cool cellar,” where the family stored vegetables and beer, and which had originally been the liquor vault. In bootlegging days cars backed down the ramp, loaded up and made the quick shot to Saratoga, Albany and points south. Sometimes Dinny’s older brother Jeff trapped porcupines and raccoons there.

At first the deep woods’ sensory field disoriented me. Lying alone in my bedroom, with animals prowling sometimes audibly outside, I felt even at five or six connected to a greater if more uncertain and more thrilling reality than the one on the street and in the yards of downtown Schenectady and along the Mohawk. Waking in the night I couldn’t identify or locate the sound that came from the wind in the trees, which reminded me of the bodies and pews rustling together in church and seemed to come from everywhere. The creek roaring below after a night of rain brought a similar far-off echo of white noise, a gigantic hush that drowned out the noise going on in your head. Perhaps that was the first time I noticed the world slapping me into attention.

The place generated other patterns. The days had a morning adventure and an afternoon adventure—catching frogs, rock hopping in the creek, fishing. We played on the sawdust mountain outside the mill at the end of the driveway and came home with its rich piney smell on our bodies. Cool evenings by the fireplace, the doctor or his brother, also a doctor and a jazz clarinetist, told stories. They were not sportsmen themselves, but their colleagues nearby were, and we heard a lot about fishing, hunting and wildlife.

With Jeff we crawled through the alders to the edge of clear pools in Patterson Brook and spied on wild brookies hovering on their fins as if in midair, magnified in the water’s lens. One evening at dusk, driving home from the rodeo at 1000 Acres, we skinny-dipped like trout in Stony Creek. That was interesting and the last time the adults allowed it to happen.

The Hudson braided under the Thurman Bridge a couple of miles from camp among green islands supporting rare ice-meadow flora, the consequence of jagged bergs scouring the wide low banks each spring, which we knew nothing of at the time. Beef cattle grazed on the bigger, grassier islands downstream.

On the Thurman side a cut-bank fifty feet high ran along the river, nesting habitat for a huge colony of bank swallows, thousands swirling in the evening light for mayflies hatching off the broad shallows when we drove back to camp with ice cream cones.

After I moved to Hadley in the summer of 1969, I would cross the bridge and turn right into the maze of dirt roads that ran among the knobby mountains between there and The Glen, trying to find the camp and measure it against my memory. Usually I got lost, but more than once I made my way down an overgrown path in the woods to the broken down generator shack and bare concrete cellar hole. The ramp to the booze vault was still intact but the house a pile of ash. The chimney survived. How could such a thing have happened? Dinny’s father had lost the place in a bad real estate deal, it had changed hands and been left uncared for. It burned. The next time I found it nothing remained of the huge pines but a few redwood-sized stumps.

Much else had changed in the ten years since I had stayed there. When I heard that Dinny had died of cancer a few years ago I remembered the last time I’d seen her, when she and her father had driven into the four corners of Stony Creek on a summer afternoon in the mid-seventies at the precise moment when I happened to be crossing the street from one bar to another with a beer in my hand. The doctor had retired. Dinny was married, a nurse, employed and mainstream. They had been cruising the old roads and visiting their former haunts.

The doctor followed me to our rented farmhouse five miles from the town center at the headwaters of the creek and I made them tea. It seemed wrong to him, I could tell, that I had turned up uncertainly employed and rough in such a place, a counter-culture outcast. Dinny and I talked awkwardly about their attempt to find the cellar hole and recreate in their minds the way the place had felt back when the pines and house still stood.

But what struck her the hardest, she said, was the swallow colony, wiped out by Ddt, sand mining or some combination of both and whatever other outrage we couldn’t imagine. It was the last such profusion of animals, almost Serengeti-like, we remembered in the Adirondacks. “It’s so sad,” she said, mourning we weren’t even sure what. I know now that it was the beginning of the long sorrow, the realization that no elsewhere existed for us any more that would somehow keep alive the expressions of an earlier reality in the sounds of wind and water, and the whirr of thousands of tiny wings.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Inklings of Change: Bushnell Falls, 1969

On the spring equinox of March, 1969, I snowshoed and skied into Bushnell Falls, on the slopes of Mount Marcy, with Sam Lewis and two friends of his from college: Henry, a young English professor, and Doug, who had recently graduated with Sam from Franklin and Marshall. It had been the first of a series of major snowfall winters, and we made our way along the John’s Brook Trail after the usual college kids’ late start in the gloom of another approaching storm. The accumulated snow lay seven feet deep in the pine plantation, as we judged from the height of the telephone line to the ranger cabin that we had to step over periodically as it zigzagged back and forth across the trail.

We broke trail on wooden Northland and army surplus skis with screwed on metal edges, cable bindings on hiking boots, and climbing skins. It was half a dozen years ahead of the cross-country ski boom of the mid-seventies brought on partly by those same snowy winters. My bindings kept getting screwed up. We carried one aluminum frame pack, a pack board, and two canvas rucksacks: one army surplus, the other a nice European model. We wore army surplus silk glove liners and silk union suits. John’s Brook Loj was closed, half buried, the only signs of life the fresh red squirrel tracks that led from the foundation under the eaves into the nearby spruces.

We passed the Loj after drinking tea from a thermos and eating gorp out of a plastic bag. The trail climbed. It was dusk. Deeply mounded cushions of powder blotted out everything, including sound. A party of real climbers, alpinists with ice axes and good equipment, their faces and beards frost-rimed, met us coming down from the summit of Marcy. “Bad ice and fog,” one of them said. “Don’t try to climb it now.” We wouldn’t, we said. We were only heading to the lean-to at Slant Rock. “If you can find it,” he said.

The light was gray and flat. It was almost dark when we found the rounded tumuli at Bushnell Falls, below Slant Rock, that showed where the lean-tos were buried. We chose the easiest one to reach and dug our way in through the space where the lean-to’s log sidewall met the wall of snow that closed it off. Inside, we lit candles, placed them on the shelves and spread out our equipment—a cotton duck-feather sleeping bag for me, the others had good down and nylon bags. Then we scooped a hearth out of the snow a few feet from the front of the lean-to and built a fire with dead pine branches on a base of aluminum foil. The concave snow wall, the smoke hole at the top and the air holes we dug out at the sides created a perfect draft. Within minutes the interior snow wall had glazed over and filled the lean-to with reflected heat and flickering light that kept us warm and well-lit through the night. Sam’s ski thermometer, which he had hung on a nail outside, read zero F.

Henry had a brass Svea stove and we soon had it going and camp food boiling. Henry was older by a few years, an English instructor at Franklin and Marshall, with a bushy black beard—a meditator and follower of the Beats. He had winter camped and climbed in the Sierras, in California, where he was from, and in the Cascades, and had memorized Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, one of the Ur-texts for Sam’s and my Adirondack excursions at summer camp on Lake George, and together on weekends. We were budding conservationists and wilderness advocates in the spirit of the times, had read Aldo Leopold, John McPhee, Colin Fletcher and Rachel Carson. It was Henry and Doug’s first time in the Adirondacks, and Sam and I filled them in on what we knew of the place, our experiences there, and the pending legislation, long in the works, for an Adirondack Park agency that would regulate development and wild-land use in the six-million acre protected area in New York State’s prominent northern bulge.

After dinner we shared the brandy we had decanted into aluminum bottles and read to each other from William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson,” from Wallace Stevens, and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Boozy good fellowship obtained. We decried rumors of the secret bombing of Cambodia and shared stories of draft avoidance and evasion, our own and others we had heard of—a major preoccupation of draft-age men at the time. Henry told of a reporter friend in Oakland who had been assigned a Man On the Street piece on the bombing rumors. Most of the responses were predictably non-committal or against the war—it was the sixties in the Bay Area—but the quote of an African-American veteran stood out. “Man,” he told the reporter, “Richard Nixon is a lying motherfucker and his heart pumps shit.”

Henry’s friend reported it dutifully and handed in the piece. “It’s a great quote, but we can’t use it,” the editor said, to his friend’s disappointment and our great amusement. Henry, it seemed, was fond of turning quaint turns of phrase or expressions into musical rounds, to be sung while consuming various mind-altering fungi. He handed around a bag of psilocybin mushrooms and after a couple of attempts assembled from the quote the following round, which we sang (at length) in four parts and to the tune of “Frere Jacques.”

Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon
Heart pumps shit, heart pumps shit
Lying motherfucker, lying motherfucker
Heart pumps shit, heart pumps shit.

“You had to be there,” Sam would say later, when telling the story. “And tripping.”

It was more than two years before the New York State legislature passed the APA act and Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed into law the most comprehensive and visionary land-use law of its time. It was also four months before the first Earth Day; four years before the first gas crisis, four years before Watergate and six before the last helicopters fled Saigon. Outside the lean-to more snow fell softly over all the living and the soon to be dead, whose stories and memories would merge like snowflakes into the pool of general myth, confused feeling and sentimental distortion that would come to stand for the vanished Adirondacks of the industrial frontier.

That night we slept the sleep of the clueless, the fire lighting our wilderness womb through the night. The next morning we skied down the firm, snow-cushioned bed of John’s Brook on eighteen inches of new powder, glissading over the frozen falls. Sitting on the bridge to Lower Wolfjaw in the snow muffled silence I saw myself in a distant adult future, reading by lamplight in a wilderness cabin, surrounded by books. Thus I had read of Harold Weston, the artist and activist, doing when he lived and painted in St. Hubert’s in the Twenties. It should be possible, I thought, however naively, to live that way again.

Later that morning Sam informed me that Doug and Henry were a couple and that they were helping him apply for a draft deferment on the basis of being gay. (He wasn’t.) Big choices and commitments were in the air. I was attending college in Toronto but spared the draft by a 4-F deferment based on the inflated diagnosis of a minor condition by my family’s doctor, a Korean War veteran and amputee. I had considered emigrating but here was a reason to return. There was a feeling of a new kind of thing coming into existence—right here in the Adirondacks!—something that ran counter to the general violence and confusion playing out around the country, and we could be part of it.

The vestiges of the industrial frontier had grown dim, with all its rustic imagery and technology, but the new thing hadn’t formed yet. The Northway hadn’t penetrated the high peaks. We camped in floorless canvas tents, had only recently stopped building our mattresses out of balsam tips. The accepted paradigm at DEC was that moose would never be able to coexist with deer in the Adirondacks because of a nematode the deer carried that made the moose crazy. You drove for miles without seeing another car. Whitewater rafting, a Western invention, was a decade in the future. But a common feeling existed, a flavor of experience that resided in the effects of seasonal light, sound and smell combined with echoes of the regional twang.

After lunch at the Spread Eagle Inn we stopped at Skyline Outfitters, in Keene, located in the blue and white Victorian on Route 73 that’s still there. It was run by “Ma” Schaefer, wife of the early conservationist Paul Schaefer, a neighbor of my family’s in Schenectady. (She was also the mother of long-time Johnsburg resident, Evelyn Greene.) We were looking for a new burner for Henry’s Svea and in the course of watching her dig around in the jumble of stock and hiking gadgets—good outdoor equipment was less fussy and more utilitarian then—the conversation drifted toward the snow, change, the “act,” old-timers, and such archetypes as Rondeau, whose journals we had devoured in Maitland DeSormo’s estimable self-published biography. She had known Rondeau, had camped at the hermit’s Cold River City during her summer-long hiking outings with her children. He was a drunk, she said. “Of course all those old characters are gone now,” she added, no spring chicken herself by then.

We nodded to acknowledge the passing of a reality of which we knew nothing, and turned to the door.

“Except me,” she said, solemn faced. We left her standing behind the counter on a snowy late afternoon in early spring, watching us leave.