Maybe 400 feet closer to heaven than we were When we started climbing we sit beside the outlet To the sphagnum-bed spring atop Eleventh Mountain We siblings in age-order to the youngest, me, Being Matt Esther Karen and then our Mom Alice The logistician of our many wilderness forays As even now we pause to sit beside the streamlet To lunch on gorp and our tunafish sandwiches And stare out across the valley and then low hills To the mountains off toward and then in Vermont But the view can’t compete with the big surprise Of tomatoes we watch Mom dole out until Karen Incredulous asks “We each get a whole tomato?” Only her inflection giving away that it’s a question. This unheard of event in our 1950s family life Turns out to be a plump round juicy fact indeed.
There’s a great deal weighing on people’s minds this early November, starting with how they’ll get through another Adirondack winter, keep their family healthy, and earn a living. Some are wondering if they’ll be elected on Tuesday, others confused about who they’re going to vote for. One town supervisor I spoke with in July informed me that four of his town’s five rural post offices would be shuttered in 2012, and asked me if the fate of local post offices concerned me. I said it did.
My Adirondack Wild colleague Dan Plumley and his neighbors lost their Keene Valley local post office this year. I do recall a citizen campaign waged decades ago to keep the only small post office in Hallowell, Maine – near where I was born. It succeeded. Hope is always a crucial part of any early November day. Some lose their immediate November worries and thoughts in the fall hunt, or adventure. My conservation mentor Paul Schaefer was in hunting camp this time of the year, beginning in 1931 when as a 23-year old he first guided the Cataract Club into the Siamese wilderness until the mid 1980s when his bad knee finally gave out on him. Often, Paul and other members of the Cataract Club would climb Cataract Mountain which stretches for miles above the East Branch of the Sacandaga River valley in Bakers Mills. That’s not the mountain’s designated name. On maps it is Eleventh Mountain.
Paul wrote in his book Adirondack Cabin Country (Syracuse University Press, 1993) that “Half a century ago a number of us who hunted that mountain and were enthralled by its magnificence, decided to give it a more fitting name. ‘Cataract Mountain’ it has been, and it is for us, U.S. Geological Survey maps notwithstanding. Five crystal streams tumble off the thickly forested peak that stretches 3, 249 feet in elevation. Some of the cataracts that form are spectacular.”
This past weekend I bushwacked up Cataract Mountain with my friend Herb. I think we were going to find something, not to lose our thoughts or troubles, relatively light as those may be – perhaps to find a coyote standing tall on that peak, yipping and yelping and looking out on their wild domain. Despite the slow, tough climb around boulders, birch, beech and balsam thickets, Herb said he was determined to summit.
When we finally reached one of the mountain’s five summits, we rested and looked out at the valley of the East Branch of the Sacandaga glimmering 900 feet below us, Rt. 8 winding to its left. We gazed on Black, Harrington and other mountains in the blue distance. Suddenly Herb exclaimed, jumped up and found coyote scat not 20 feet from where we were eating our lunch. Look, Herb said, a coyote did survey his domain from this very spot! As had Paul Schaefer, many times.
Paul writes in Adirondack Cabin Country: “There are numerous spots where I can stand on a rocky ledge above the precipitous forested slopes dropping off to the valley far below and experience a solitude so wonderful that it causes emotions I can not describe…Here on Cataract Mountain – protected by the ‘forever wild’ covenant – the work of the Divine Artist is all about us, from the lichens clinging to the bare rocks to the hawk wheeling in the sky far above.”
It was true. The rock, lichen, ferns, shining, soaking moss had a luminous intensity during Herb’s and my adventure. We checked our watch. Fleeting thoughts of home and of gathering darkness found its crevice and latched on. We’d better go. Picking our way down the steep slope, we reached the trail in good shape as the sun was setting, pleased with ourselves. A mile away on the other side of the mountain, the Cataract Club was settling into their camp, now in its 80th fall season. As for their quarry, the sagacious white-tailed deer, it was long gone – like that coyote.
Photos: Above, Paul Schaefer at his Adirondack cabin below Cataract Mountain; Below, Herb at the summit of Cataract, or Eleventh Mountain.
When I was wet behind the ears, in an Adirondack sort of way, Paul Schaefer took me to the sturdy cabin at the edge of the wilderness that he had built sometime in the early 1960s in the Town of Johnsburg. Paul had located his cabin, named Beaver House, on high ground with a distant view of Crane Mountain, but in the shadow of Eleventh or Cataract Mountain which lay in silhouette immediately to our west. It was November and somewhere below Eleventh Mountain in the gathering gloom of a wilderness afternoon lay a hunting camp populated with men who Paul had recruited into the Cataract Hunting Club years earlier. In fact, the original club members, including fathers and grandfathers of the current generation, dated to around 1931 when Paul hired a teamster to take them in by horse and wagon. In 1987 they were still going in that way courtesy of local teamster Earl Allen. By 1987, the knees of the 78 year-old conservationist and hunter Paul Schaefer no longer supported his tall frame on the several mile tramp over rough terrain to reach the Cataract Club’s camp on Diamond Brook. So Paul did the next best thing. He sat in Beaver House before a roaring fire talking about the history of the region, its people, conservation history, hunting experiences, and the Siamese Wilderness he knew so well.
A light rain was falling outside, but the light was fading much faster. I was really getting comfortable in the warmth of that room, listening to Paul, when out of the blue he said: “now, Dave, reach into the pocket of my jacket and take out the piece of paper.” I gave him the paper. “I need you to hike into the wilderness and hand over this camping permit to the boys in camp. If the ranger shows up and they don’t have this permit, they could be in a lot of trouble. So, you’d do me and them a big favor by hiking in there.” My heart jumped. I had never been into hunt camp before. “How do I reach their camp, Paul?” Paul gestured with his big right hand, his head cocked, emphasizing. “Go down the trail here to the junction, and then follow the wagon trail west, keeping the mountain always on your left. A mile in, you’ll reach the height of land. Stop right there. A tall red spruce stands ahead on a rise. Don’t go past it. Bear left, keep the mountain on that side and follow the stream down another mile. You can’t miss it. And tell the boys I may try to go in there tomorrow, but I’m not promising.” He gave me a rain slicker and a flashlight, and a hearty “You’ll be back in no time.” With the camping permit in my pocket, my heart pounding, but my voice full of confidence, I headed out the cabin door. The rain was falling steadily, and afternoon light had all but faded as I tried to determine if I had reached the height of land. I had gone up and down. Height of land seemed a frustrating matter of impression in these big woods. Trying to keep the mountain in sight I veered left and trusted to luck. I suddenly realized my jeans were soaked through. Trudging on, the trees were noticeably larger, including red spruce. How could horses drag a wagon full of gear all the way back here, I remember asking myself. But I was on a mission for Paul. Stumbling on and on down the rough wagon trail, crossing innumerable small streams, I finally smelled wood smoke. Excited, I went uphill into some balsam and spruce, following my nose. In the gloom below, the long tent appeared. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I had made it. I heard muffled laughter. Then my mouth dropped. In the glow of my flashlight, a huge antlered deer hung from a pole. I found the tent entrance, pulled the tent flaps open and walked in. I remember the hissing of those kerosene lamps. All conversation ceased, as ten hunters looked up at me from the chow they were eating on a long table. “Gosh, Dave,” someone said, “you look kind of wet. What can we do you for”? “Guys, Paul sent me in with your camping permit.” At that, I reached into my jeans and out came the paper, dripping wet. Nobody said a word. Bill broke the silence. “Give this to me straight. Paul sent you in here tonight to give us that?” I nodded. The tent erupted in roars of laughter. Dave got up and gave me something warm to drink and a place by the stove. The good natured kidding went on for a while. I felt a whole lot better about life and a bit dryer, and with new found confidence headed back to the cabin. I did leave that permit. The cabin lights were like a port in a storm as Paul welcomed me back with that enormous handshake, and a plate of food. “Take a seat and tell me how the boys are doing.” As I ate, I knew that I had passed some test that mattered to Paul, the first of many to come.
Photos: Cataract Club members Dave Conde, Bill Townsend and Doug Miller (l-r) at Beaver House before heading into camp; Beaver House, the cabin Paul Schaefer built near the Siamese Ponds Wilderness.
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