As a boy in the Adirondacks I would explore the undeveloped woods on or near Blue Mountain Lake with all sorts of wilderness fantasies as my companions. Being as imaginative as the next kid I was certain that most of the islands and shoreline were akin to the Yukon. I particularly relished imagining that my footfalls were landing when no human foot had trod before.
A few years ago as a man in my forties I enjoyed the same kind of fantasy on a bushwhack to Redfield Mountain with my son Adam. After navigating blowdown too horrible to describe we came to a small streamlet with green, grassy banks that fed the gorgeous tarn at Redfield’s southern base. It was so far away from anything, so isolated and difficult to get to that it was easy to imagine we had stopped to eat a sandwich where no one had ever stopped before. Given that this basin was logged, the water courses mapped long ago and – as it turns out – there was even a trail to Redfield from this direction early in the twentieth century, that imagination was certainly fiction. But such fantasies are not easily outgrown. » Continue Reading.
Posts Tagged ‘wilderness’
As a boy in the Adirondacks I would explore the undeveloped woods on or near Blue Mountain Lake with all sorts of wilderness fantasies as my companions. Being as imaginative as the next kid I was certain that most of the islands and shoreline were akin to the Yukon. I particularly relished imagining that my footfalls were landing when no human foot had trod before.
I just returned from an impromptu March visit to Lost Brook Tract, having had a reason to come to New York State on business. Short but sweet, the visit began in winter and ended in spring. Given the winter weather the Adirondacks have had I was happy to encounter any significant snow at all.
Accompanying me was my brother Michael. Michael is roughly my age and is actually my nephew but we call each other brothers; that’s the kind of relationship we have. .. and despite the tough slog in, still have, thankfully.
We began the trip on a property owned by a friend where we are allowed to park our cars. We strapped our snowshoes to our packs as there was little more than a dusting. It was sunny and crystal clear but cool and crisp; the forecast had promised winter temperatures that day and night. » Continue Reading.
Over the last two weeks I have been involved in quite a discussion in another venue about wilderness as a matter of subjective point of view versus wilderness as an objective designation. Simply put is wilderness only a matter of opinion? Are we left with one person’s wilderness being another’s spoiled back country Grand Central?
At the same time in my last Dispatch I explored Joe Hackett’s point of view about the “stamp of man” being unavoidable in the Adirondacks. The vehicle for that exploration was a trip to Flowed Lands which, for all its seeming primeval beauty and remoteness, has been thoroughly altered by industry of one kind or another. There is no doubt that the imprint of humanity is omnipresent in the Adirondacks, if not always noticed. But does that mean that wilderness is nothing more than an idea in the mind? » Continue Reading.
As a former high school Art and Humanities teacher, one of my favorite time periods of American history was the mid-nineteenth century when the Hudson River School of Painting was at its peak. Thomas Cole had sparked the whole movement with his first paintings of Katerskill Falls and other Catskill wilderness scenes in 1825. Prior to that time, only one of every ten paintings was a landscape, but by the 1850’s, nine of every ten were paintings of wild American places.
At the very same time that our country was on the path to fulfill the charge of Manifest Destiny! Settlers were cutting down trees, damming rivers, clearing fields and building roads. The Erie Canal had just opened and railroads were pushing farther and farther into the remote areas of the continent. From a limited number of landscapes that were merely backdrops for pastoral farm, military encampment, or village scenes to an abundance of masterful paintings of unspoiled wilderness was quite a development and it had more of an impact than many people realize.
The popularity of American wilderness landscapes in the 19th century is partly due to the new, young Republic’s search for a heritage that was not linked to Europe. The political break of the Revolution had left America a newly born nation without a past. European painting was based on tradition and history. They had mythology, ancient Greek and Roman ruins, medieval castles, Gothic cathedrals, and centuries of civilization to glorify or refer to in their various art forms. America had the heroes of the Revolution, but not much more. In “Fair Wilderness: American Paintings in the Collection of the Adirondack Museum” Thomas Cole is quoted as saying that the most distinctive characteristic of the region was its wildness, “distinctive because in civilized Europe the primitive features of scenery have long since been destroyed or modified – the extensive forests that once over shadowed a great part of it have been felled – rugged mountains have been smoothed, and impetuous rivers turned from their courses… the once tangled wood is now a grassy lawn…”.
Cole’s biographer wrote that in the spring of 1823 “It was now that a great thought came to Cole, and told him he had gone to work wrong. Hitherto he had been trying mainly to make up nature from his own mind, instead of making up his mind from nature. This now flashed on him as a radical mistake. He must not only muse abroad in nature, and catch her spirit, but gain for his eye and hand a mastery over all that was visible in her outward, material form, if he would have his pictures breathe of her spirit.”
In 1825 Cole moved with his family to New York City and a painting placed in a store window sold for $10 and financed a sketching trip up the Hudson River that autumn. That trip, which corresponded to the 10 day celebration marking the opening of the Erie Canal, resulted in 3 new paintings, which sold immediately after being put on display in New York city, and the era of the Hudson River School began. The name was coined because most of the paintings were produced within the Hudson River watershed – the river valley itself, the Catskills, and the Adirondacks.
Popular philosophy of the early 19th century associated nature with virtue and civilization with degeneracy and evil. Artists like Thomas Cole, and writers like Emerson and Cooper believed nature to be synonymous with both personal and national health and viewed the city, the bank, and the railroad as producing sickness by encroaching upon nature and finally by destroying it. Cole illustrated these beliefs in several of his allegorical series of paintings like “The Course of Empire”. It showed that the replacement of nature by civilization results in the ultimate collapse of civilization. When combined with the growing national pride, it seems that Cole’s wilderness paintings became “an effective substitute for a missing national tradition. America was thus both new and old”. ‘New’ in being previously undiscovered, with unsettled, wild territories, and ‘old’ in terms of the ancient wild mountains, older than mankind.
Our wilderness became a substitute for the European historical past. It also became linked directly with the divine destiny believed to belong to Americans – that the continent was there for us. In a nation founded on concepts of religious freedom, and whose Protestant colonists practiced their religion in environments devoid of religious art, 19th century landscape painting almost becomes our religious art, the essence of the spiritual beliefs of the country. We proclaimed separation of church and state, yet never abandoned the belief in “God on our side” as we conquered the wilderness and the virgin bounty of the continent.
The spiritual message contained in many of the landscapes of the Hudson River era was repeatedly mentioned in the literature of the era. From “The Knickerbocker”, in 1835: “God has promised us a renowned existence, if we will but deserve it. He speaks of this promise in the sublimity of Nature. It resounds all along the crags of the Alleghenies. It is uttered in the thunder of the Niagara. It is heard in the roar of two oceans, from the great Pacific to the rocky ramparts of the Bay of Fundy. His finger has written it in the broad expanse of our Inland Seas, and traced it out by the mighty Father of the Waters! The august TEMPLE in which we dwell was built for lofty purposes. Oh! that we may consecrate it to LIBERTY and CONCORD, and be found fit worshipers within its holy wall!” America’s Transcendentalists, like Emerson and Thoreau, believed that bonding with nature’s solitude and silence nurtured spiritual development and character. The paintings mirrored these beliefs.
Tied to the spiritual message was current aesthetic philosophy. Landscape painting was usually classified as sublime or beautiful and picturesque. European landscapes were generally considered picturesque, with their ancient ruins and craggy, snow-capped Alps. Because America was lacking in the picturesque, and also since much of the known landscape consisted of split rail fences and burnt or hacked off trees, the unknown, wilderness scenery, vast and diverse, was easily accepted, once artists began painting it.
The sublime aspect of the wilderness landscape was also apparently well discussed in artistic circles. While scenes could easily be rendered beautiful and picturesque, to evoke the sublime, was uniquely special. Sublime is the addition of something terrifying, fear or awe-inspiring in its power or potential – bringing to the viewer a feeling for Divine authority or design. Many of the Hudson River artists intentionally included the sublime in their paintings – the distant threatening storm clouds, dramatic sunsets, the rushing, over-powering torrent of a cascading waterfall, or the gnarled and broken tree, evidence of the awesome power of nature (God).
In “Kindred Spirits”, the strong connection between the artists and writers of the Hudson River region was exposed. The rawness of the American landscape, with its lack of polish and historic ruins, came to be ignored by both artists and writers who focused on the wildness and freshness of the New World. The writers created and publicized the legends and folklore in characters like Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane and Natty Bumppo. The lack of a past was replaced with the unlimited potential for the future and the relatively new historical sites, like Fort Ticonderoga could substitute for the missing ancient ruins. So while the writers were supporting and describing a positive, patriotic recognition of the assets of the continent, the artists capitalized on this with their paintings. In response, they received public praise from the writers, and the artists also published their own poems and essays in support of their work. For nearly 50 years, the Hudson River School painters and the Knickerbocker writers enjoyed common and self-supporting popularity. It is interesting to note that this mutual focus on the uniqueness of America extended right through and past the Civil War, almost totally ignoring it.
Paintings: “Katerskill Falls”, by Thomas Cole and “Twilight in the Wilderness” by Frederic Church.
In these dispatches and in other Almanack posts over the last two weeks there has been quite debate going about wilderness. Is there really such a thing in the Adirondacks? It is only in the eye of the beholder? Has it been defined primarily by 19th-century aesthetic paradigms? Would a more substantial version of wilderness be “rescue-free?” These and other issues illustrate the complexity of how we experience our park.
In last week’s dispatch I suggested three different ways to frame the question: the ecological, the anecdotal and the experiential. I devoted most of that post to the anecdotal perspective, having as I do a predilection for good stories, of which there is no shortage in the Adirondacks. Whatever the truths about wilderness, our experience of it is deeply engaging, romantic in a broad sense. I think that’s why the anecdotal perspective is valuable. Stories of the wilderness feed our romantic notions, inspire us, remind us of our own stories and evoke memories and images that are part of our history, both real and imagined. » Continue Reading.
It was early June in 2011 and we were planning our first extended visit to Lost Brook Tract, to take place over most of July. Our plan was to explore part of the land, try to find at least one side of our property lines, evaluate different bushwhack routes in, haul enough gear back to establish a permanent base camp and rebuild the lean-to which was on the verge of collapse, its roof having long ago caved in.
Another part of the plan was to make camp ready for visitors. We expected a couple of my relatives to maybe come up for two or three days. We expected a dinner date on the land with Vinny McClelland. And then we expected Shay.
Amy has a brother, Dan. Shay is his wife. They have two young children, Sofie and Jonah. Dan, Shay and family are not hard core hikers and bushwhackers like we are. With Lost Brook Tract being a bona fide wilderness experience it was incumbent upon us to give some thought about how to best accommodate and provide for the needs of more ordinary campers like them.
To be honest my concern had a narrow focus. Dan is not exactly a wallflower. He is a triathlete and marathon runner who has hiked in the Adirondacks with us before. Three years ago I sent Dan and Amy on a two-day hike from The Garden to the Upper Works via the Great Range. One of Dan’s boots fell apart on the way up Pyramid and he completed the hike with a boot on one foot and a collection of leather and rubber held together with duct tape on the other. Dan’s charitable, warm and loving references to me during his descent of Saddleback have become treasured family lore, although sadly they cannot be repeated here. Meanwhile if I have learned anything over the years of being a parent it is that there is no bipedal creature better equipped to thrive in the Adirondack back country than your average small kid, so Jonah and Sofie were no concern either.
That left Shay. Now I don’t want to mislead anyone. I wasn’t really worried about Shay. She may not be an avid hiker and camper but she has chutzpah. Shay typically tends to doubt herself more than anyone else does, denying that she can or will do something. But more often than not she eventually does it anyhow. Summiting a High Peak was a “No” until she did Giant. Winter camping has always been an unequivocal “No,” accompanied by a whiff of tone that suggests she thinks Amy and I are disturbed. But now I notice a “maybe one night” in her lexicon. There are, however, some hard lines in the sand.
As one gets to know Shay she becomes more and more precious, a primary reason being that she is one of those extremely rare people who is completely authentic. There is never any nonsense or posing with Shay. This is coupled with a lovely, self-effacing verbosity. Shay has a remarkably innocent way of just coming out and saying whatever she is feeling. If there happens to be a line in the sand related to any potential adventure under discussion, Shay will state it succinctly and unquestionably. So for example when Dan and Shay were planning to car camp in the Central Adirondacks not too far from our new property and I was talking to them about spending a couple of nights in the wild with us, Shay’s denial of any interest in using a hole in the ground to take care of her business was laid out in clear terms.
Already having charged myself with considering the welfare and comforts of potential guests of Lost Brook Tract, I reassured Shay – perhaps a little too reflexively – that we would have a lovely, cozy, clean privy with a real seat waiting for her when her family arrived. As I recall this assurance was met with a “heh heh,” but I could be misremembering. In any case I’d said it and so there it was, left in the air, needing to be fulfilled.
Considering that the closest one can get a car to Lost Brook Tract is something over four miles away and two thousand feet down, I had made a non-trivial promise. But I was damned if I was going to break it, so I began to sketch out a design. I wanted to come up with a privy that was light, yet strong enough and private enough to do the job. Amy and I also added a requirement that it be a composting privy.
With Amy’s help I arrived at a design that seemed clever enough. The bottom two feet and the roof would be reasonably canonical but made with light pine waterproofed to within an inch of its life. The whole top of the seat area would hinge off for composting purposes and an opening in the back would facilitate air flow. Between the bottom and the roof there would be nothing but four 2 x 2 posts with screening stapled between them. The door would be a lightly framed screen door. At the top on each side, nestled under the roof, we would have red and blue waterproof tatami-style mats rolled up that could be rolled down between the posts for privacy, creating an ambient purple lighting effect not unlike a fortune telling parlor.
This level of thinking began to move the project target from functional-and-not-unbearably-heavy to downright toney; the whole thing evolved into an intentional testament of my love for Shay, a deep and affecting love that has quite frankly grown to immense proportions. So we really went for it. Amy added a Japanese pattern fabric for the bottom half of the door and a neat battery-powered LED light. We rounded it out with various hooks and niceties, candles and a laminated Hebrew prayer about healthy orifices. The final design… well, we’re talking a Taj Mahal of back country privies. All that was left was to get the materials back there and actually build the thing.
Discretion being the better part of valor I decided to pre-build Shay’s privy to see if the design made any sense. I cut the wood, sank a few screws, held the rest together with duct tape and erected most of it. Now, our neighbors have learned to give us a wide berth. For example we design and operate an elaborate haunted house every year for the Green Bay Packers (don’t ask) and we typically build, stage and test new props, devices and scene elements in our driveway starting in late summer. It’s usually quite a mess. I’ll never forget the time our next-door neighbors, desperate to sell their home after months of trying, held an open house on the same afternoon we were perfecting our exploding walking dead effect in a front yard littered with body parts, blood and clown suits. The grateful look in their eyes spoke volumes. But I honestly think that watching a full-sized outhouse go up out in front of our garage was the last straw for a few of them.
The design seemed to work; so far so good. But then came the dis-assembly and as the parts piled up it became evident that my clever weight-saving strategy had left us with only a couple hundred pounds to haul miles into the middle of nowhere. And that was before the waterproofing changed the light pine into not-as-light-pine.
Haul it we did. Including the hand tools and other gear we needed five trips and brought in an estimated six hundred pounds of camping supplies and privy components (thank goodness we had three adult teenage boys to help). My first pack load was close to ninety pounds and left me propped against the lean-to, near death. The second trip was worse. In addition to another fifty pounds of boards on my pack and about the same weight in hardware and tools in Amy’s pack we each took one end of a bundle holding all the seven foot lengths of wood. I hope by now that readers, recognizing my unqualified expertise and sage wisdom, will believe me when I tell them that there is nothing more pleasant than bushwhacking four miles uphill with a thirty-pound collection of seven-foot-long lumber. My affection for a certain young woman to whom I am not related by blood – and who I hope is reading this – was given a proper and thorough test that day.
Tribulations or not, at last we had all the materials back on our land. We found a perfect spot, elevated, in good soil and sheltered by a large rock wall. Amy dug the hole, leveled the ground and we assembled Shay’s palace with hand tools (those of you who possess the latest power drill really need to feel the wonderful sensation of a screw grabbing into wood under the influence of a big, beautiful hand auger). It was a joyful experience and we were very proud of our labors. The second picture you see accompanying this dispatch is our youngest son staring with what I hope is amazement at the result (sans roof).
A few days later Dan, Shay, Jonah and Sofie arrived, hiking in with us on a beautiful day. Our triumph in revealing the privy was somewhat overshadowed by Shay’s discovery that a statement I had apparently made assuring her that the camping area was “open,” perhaps evoking a nice big Wisconsin prairie field in her mind, was patently false. This was an understandable miscommunication on my part; after all I am an Adirondack type and so “open” to me means I found a twenty-square-foot area in the woods for a tent that is actually sort of flat and sort of clear of trees. You can find such openness on Lost Brook Tract if you look very hard. But despite the fact that Dan and Shay spent an afternoon terraforming a tent site, the visit was perfect. The kids had a great time throughout, the weather was spot on and the privy was a star performer – as was Shay, who in all seriousness was wonderful throughout a truly wild back country experience.
I know you are reading this dear… be careful: these kinds of adventures are catching.
Photos: Assembling Shay’s Privy, and the The Finished Product.
The other day at a recreation planning meeting in Lake Placid, I participated in a time-honored Adirondack meeting ritual. It goes like this: someone at the table brings up the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP), the document that defines land classifications (wilderness, wild forest, etc.) and lists the guidelines for their use. Next, nearly every stakeholder at the table agrees that the SLMP is outdated and that a major review is long overdue. The ritual concludes with everyone agreeing that meaningful review of the SLMP is unlikely, and probably not worth pursuing. The conversation then moves on to other topics.
The SLMP states “Major reviews of the master plan will take place every five years by the [Adirondack Park] Agency in consultation with the Department of Environmental Conservation, as required by statute…” but the last review was in 1987. I wondered how implementation of the relatively static SLMP has evolved over the years, and how these changes have manifested themselves on maps. » Continue Reading.
The wonderful thing about entering the primeval forest is that you feel it before you really see it. This has been my experience in old growth forests in other places but it is heightened at Lost Brook Tract because of the elevation gain and the remoteness, both having their own attendant sensations that add to the overall effect. Or perhaps it is heightened because I love the Adirondacks more than any place I’ve ever been. Whatever the underlying reasons, it is a powerful feeling.
I haven’t noted exactly where it happens, but somewhere on the way up the bushwhack route the forest changes as one moves beyond the territory that was logged in the early part of the twentieth century. Continuing on into the virgin forest a completely immersive feeling descends. I can’t put it into words very well but I want to say that it is a weight, an immensity, some combination of sight, sound and smell that presses in. Every time I come into the area of Lost Brook Tract I experience a sense of awe, of hushed breathing, even a tiny spark of fear. This is followed by a distinct and exquisite sense of beauty. My wife Amy describes it as being swallowed up. » Continue Reading.
It’s funny the questions people ask me these days. Earlier this week some colleagues were talking about whether or not to restore a dilapidated lean-to that sits on private land somewhat accessible from a new recreation corridor. The issue was debated around whether the lean-to would become an “attractive nuisance” encouraging travelers to camp at the site. If so, perhaps it should be left to go back to nature, as it were. As the conversation wore on someone turned to me and asked “why do people travel distances and sometimes even risk trespassing on private property just to stay in a lean-to, when they could simply camp elsewhere?”
I understand in years past the Department of Environmental Conservation organized lean-tos in clusters at backcountry campsites. This would have encouraged a sense of community, society and for the faint of heart: safety in numbers. Lean-tos are also often situated at strategic locations to encourage camping in a certain spot. I’m told that many experienced campers find lean-tos cold and buggy compared to the warmth and shelter of a tent. While other backcountry wayfarers may be traveling without a tent, in which case a lean-to is essential in certain conditions.
This begins to address the practical reasons ‘why’ in response to the initial question. However if you know me, you know that I am not the intuitive choice to answer questions about backcountry preferences. And so my response to a question concerning the appeal of a lean-to comes from culture and from story. The Adirondack region, particularly its “wilderness” areas are as rhetorical as they are physical. Their geography is narrative and their landscapes follow a mythological contour. This is what is meant when poets talk of “entering” the world. They’re talking about going in, in philosophical sense.
When we enter a physical landscape this way, we cross over into one or another meandering corner of its identity. I was reminded of this when Steve Signell joined the Almanack team to write about mapping. In his first post he mentions an early description of the region as “parts but little known” with “drowned lands” that are “impassable & uninhabited.” As a romantic I am hopelessly drawn to these tentative descriptions more so than the main content of his fine essay, of databases and downloadable files. I believe that while modern maps tell us how to get to a place and how to navigate around once we’re there, it is through the lore of the landscape that we enter that world and that we follow a path through its terrain of cultural descriptions.
I think travelers in every season continue to seek out lean-tos for more than a dry floor and a partial roof. That names and dates will forever be carved into the rounded walls as a declaration, as evidence, that the ribbon of time opened up and someone slipped in to hear Emerson’s wood-god murmer through the leaves.
Photo: A lean-to near the summit of Mount Marcy (above and beyond in photo) in 1973 (EPA Photo by Anne LaBastille).
The Adirondack Museum third 2012 Cabin Fever Sunday series, “Nature: From Howling Wilderness to Vacation Destination” will be held on Sunday, February 12, 2012. The event will be offered free of charge.
Drawing on landscape painting, photography, traveler’s accounts, and other sources, this presentation by Dr. Charles Mitchell will explore the evolution of American attitudes towards nature. Beginning with perceptions of the American landscape as a howling wilderness, a wasteland to be tamed and transformed, the lecture will trace the social, cultural and economic forces that led to the perception of wild nature as something of value to be experienced and preserved. Key topics and figures along the way include the sublime, romanticism, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School, John Muir, Ansel Adams, and the Lorax.
Dr. Charles Mitchell is Associate Professor of American Studies at Elmira College. Mitchell has been on the faculty of Elmira College since 1993. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Lynbrook (on Long Island) he still occasionally refers to everything north of Yonkers as “upstate.” He teaches a side variety of courses in American cultural history, with specific
interests in environmental history, the history of ideas about nature, and the representation of the landscape in literature and art.
This program will be held at the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts at Blue Mountain Lake, and will begin at 1:30 p.m. For additional information, please call (518) 352-7311, ext. 128 or visit www.adirondackmuseum.org.
It was Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, 2010. I had driven through the night to make it to the Adirondacks from my home in Madison. I had to see for myself the amazing opportunity I had stumbled upon while browsing around on the web. I was already tired, unknown territory lay ahead, and there I was, face to face with one of the most imposing natural wonders in all the Adirondacks: Vinny McClelland.
No doubt many Almanack readers are familiar with Vinny, but if you don’t know him he is the owner of The Mountaineer in Keene Valley among other vocations and he is intimately involved in the community in a plethora of ways. Amy and I have come to have great affection for Vinny. He is a “salt of the Earth” kind of guy: capable, authentic, generous of spirit.
We also find Vinny to be – and I can’t think of a better way to say this – hard core. Vinny has this way of looking at you, a certain sort of sizing-up. It is not egotistical and it isn’t judgmental of your worth as a human being, but it is as if to decide whether you know what you are doing. Either you do or you don’t, either you make the cut or not. Vinny knows what he is doing. I don’t really know how many things he is expert at: mountaineering, skiing, building, guiding, landscape engineering, exploring… it’s a long list. Vinny knows the Adirondacks; for example he knows that if you are going on a day hike four miles into the wilderness on no sleep, off trail, in new territory, in winter conditions, with two hours of daylight, two thousand feet of climbing and a lot of ice… well, either you know what you are doing or you don’t. Probably you don’t.
At the moment Vinny was looking at me with what I would describe as a level of skepticism. From what he had to go on at that point I didn’t blame him.
Amy and I had been daydreaming, searching on real estate sites for small houses we might buy on the cheap and fix up over several years before eventually fulfilling our long-held plan of moving to the Adirondacks. One such MLS search produced a list that included a sixty acre parcel with a picture that showed a beautiful, densely forested mountain view. These are the sorts of listings I have learned to ignore seeing as I am not a multi-millionaire. But the asking price of this acreage was unbelievably low, far less than any other listing I’d seen except for those that turned out to be poor or recently cut-over land. The picture sure didn’t make it look like it was poor land. How was this possible?
Incredulous, I called the realtor whose site I had been using and asked her to contact the listing agent with a few basic questions. When she called back to tell me that the parcel held mature timber and views and was embedded in State Wilderness I was stunned. Apparently the price was low because the tract was inaccessible, with no road or trail to it and no possibility for development. In other words it was perfect! It was the embodiment of my life-long dream to own wild land in the heart of the Adirondacks, a dream I had never once considered could become reality.
I was seized with the kind of fear one gets when a miraculous opportunity seems too good to be true. In the unlikely event that the land was anything like it was being represented, then to a value system such as mine it was priceless. Surely there were like-minded people who would covet such a piece of wilderness and be all over this offering. I was sure it was already gone. The realtor called me back: no, it wasn’t sold but an offer was imminent.
Time was of the essence. I decided to be rash. It was Thanksgiving week and my college classes were not in session. I consulted with Amy, she agreed and I headed for the driveway with a pair of boots and a sleeping bag.
On my way through Illinois the realtor called to discourage me from coming out as the offer was expected at any moment. Besides, she said, the listing agent told her that the land was “difficult to get to” and that the last potential buyer he had sent back to look at it “got lost” and never made it. This sounded better and better by the moment. “Too late,” I said, “I’m already in the car and on my way.”
We arranged to meet at 1 PM at a café in the nearest town after which I would hike to the land. In the meantime the listing agent continued to express his concerns. He provided her with a map containing GPS points on the route in. “I hope he has a GPS,” he said. “There is snow up there,” he warned, “It’s off trail.” I assured her that I was experienced.
No doubt harboring a healthy measure of reserve, the listing agent decided to attend the meeting too. I have since speculated on what his thought process must have been… “Here is some guy who lives in the Midwest. He’s driving through the night to look at a piece of land without having the slightest idea what he’s getting into. He’s probably a lunatic or an idiot; I’d better see for myself…”
By now you have guessed the name of the listing agent. Vinny McClelland is also a real estate professional. He typically represents marquee properties but as fate would have it he was selling this little forgotten swath because he had a personal connection to it going back years. He is one of the few people in the world who has actually been there.
It was nearly 1:30 PM before we got started with our meeting. Vinny had assembled an impressive packet on the parcel with a name on the cover: Lost Brook Tract. I asked some questions. Vinny seemed anxious for me to go. He reminded me that late-November days are short, that there was snow up high and a lot of ice. “Do you have gear?” he asked. I said that I did (I had boots, after all). I asked another question or two. “You need to get going,” Vinny urged. “Do you have GPS?” I replied that I never used GPS (I can’t stand the idea of it). At this point I could tell that the “idiot” assessment was prevailing. I decided to play an assurance card. “Vinny,” I told him, “My most recent bushwhack this summer was Allen to Redfield,” knowing full well that not a lot of people try that one. I wanted to think it helped a little but Vinny showed no outward sign that he was impressed. Now that I know him better I think that saying I’d just done the North face of Eiger might have helped more.
In any case, off I went. The way up was indeed icy and progress was slow. I did not get all the way there – at least I never saw his flagging – but I did bushwhack to a small outcropping on the way with a view of the parcel from a short distance. It looked beautifully forested, dark and dramatic, utterly wild. I was enchanted.
I returned to Madison. We made an offer, prevailed somehow and closed on the property two days after Christmas.
On the afternoon of December 29th Vinny took us up to Lost Brook Tract, following an old bushwhack route he first took as a child. For two miles it was easy, relatively open woods and a gradual climb. At the halfway point near a pair of huge boulders Vinny paused for a moment to inform us that the route got “gnarly” from there. The snow deepened, the forest thickened and the grade became formidable. Our snowshoes were subpar, our packs were heavy and we fell well behind. After an exhausting climb we came upon Vinny sitting at an old lean-to, contentedly enjoying a late lunch. He told us he admired our family for doing this, wished us a happy new year and bid us farewell.
We had arrived in a winter paradise. The first thing we all noticed was the snow-draped spruces towering overhead. Some looked to be more than eighty or ninety feet in height, something I’d never seen at this elevation in the Adirondacks. We were filled with wonder at the sight of them. “I think this is old-growth forest,” I whispered. We dug through four feet of snow, pitched our tents and make a fire pit. The temperature dropped to twenty below.
We spend two magnificent days. We explored the immediate area and the interior of the partially collapsed lean-to. We made our way down to Lost Brook, frozen and under a sea of snow. We uncovered part of an original fire ring and for a time got two fires going. Just before leaving I blazed a tree by the brook so as to be able to find the land again. We hiked out on our own, following the snow trail we had made going in. I thought of all the writers of old from my tattered copy of the Adirondack Reader. I recalled their reverent descriptions of the primeval and the wonder of discovery with a new understanding. This is what it is like.
Lost Brook Tract is a miracle both modern and ancient. Steeply situated on a high ridge in the central Adirondacks, miles from the nearest road and with no trail to it, it is a sixty-acre swath of Adirondack territory virtually unknown to all but a handful of people. That it exists today, an utterly unspoiled piece of high mountain boreal forest tracing unbroken lineage all the way to the ice age, can only be explained as a remarkable accident of fate.
As it turns out, that is indeed how it is explained. In future posts I’ll tell that story, how this little jewel came to be spared and saved from the debilitations that were suffered by most of the Adirondacks. For now it is simply there, a virgin forest never logged, never burned, largely spared even from the depredations of acid rain. Surrounded on all sides either by strict conservation easements or by New York State lands designated as Wilderness, it is in the fullest sense primeval. » Continue Reading.
The decision won’t be made until after engineers inspect the dam, and it will be based in part on the condition of the dam and how much it would cost to fix it.
Aside from these practical considerations, there is a philosophical question: do dams belong in Wilderness Areas at all?
In the January/February issue of the Adirondack Explorer, I report that there are at least four other dams in Wilderness Areas: at Lake Colden and Henderson Lake in the High Peaks Wilderness, at Cedar Lakes in the West Canada Lake Wilderness, and at Pharaoh Lake in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness. That was based on DEC’s inventory of dams in the Forest Preserve, but there may be more. For example, someone e-mailed me recently that there is a dam at Moose Pond in the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness.
The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan defines a Wilderness Area as a region “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” The document forbids the construction of new dams but does permit existing dams to be rebuilt with natural materials.
A DEC policy manual seems to take a stronger position against dams in Wilderness Areas, asserting that in most cases they should be removed when they become unsafe or need to be replaced or reconstructed. Nevertheless, policy provides several loopholes for keeping a dam, such as maintaining a fishery, preserving a view, or providing recreation.
The view of the surrounding mountains from Marcy Dam is one of the iconic vistas in the Adirondacks. Clearly, DEC could justify rebuilding the dam under its policy. But should it?
Christopher Amato, who until recently had been DEC’s assistant commissioner for natural resources, contends that no dams should be rebuilt in Wilderness Areas.
“Either you be true to the definition of Wilderness and not rebuild the dam or if the dam is that important you reclassify the area as something else,” Amato told the Adirondack Explorer.
But Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, told the Explorer that he thinks Marcy Dam should be repaired. “For many New Yorkers, that classic beauty at Marcy Dam is their Adirondacks,” he said. “It serves so many New Yorkers that I feel it is justified.”
Regardless of whether DEC rebuilds Marcy Dam, it does intend to build a bridge across Marcy Brook, either at the dam or another location.
Tropical Storm Irene damaged the dams at the Duck Hole and Marcy Dam Pond and forced DEC to confront these questions now. But the same questions eventually will arise when other dams in Wilderness Areas fall into disrepair. Indeed, the questions can be raised about dams in Wild Forest Areas as well. After all, the state constitution requires that the entire Preserve “shall be forever kept as wild forest lands.” Altogether, there are about fifty dams on the Forest Preserve, according to DEC’s inventory.
Click here to read the full story on dams in the Preserve. Then let us know what you think: should Marcy Dam be repaired? What should be done with other dams in the Forest Preserve?
Incidentally, the photo above is from the 1930s. It shows what Duck Hole looked like before the dam was built and presumably what it might look like again in a few years.
You are invited to contribute to the discourse, re-interpret the topic and skew the pitch. Join in the process and take part in influencing the way we think about land use and ethics. SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s Northern Forest Institute invites submissions for its Symposium of Interdisciplinary Scholarship in Land Use and Ethics, to be held at the Adirondack Interpretive Center on Huntington Wildlife Forest in Newcomb. See full symposium details here.
On its best day, philosophy succeeds in sending “the conversation off in new directions.” With a free exchange of ideas and a commitment to inquiry, philosophy as both catalyst and conveyor ought to “engender new normal discourses, new sciences, new philosophical research and thus new objective truths.”
I envision this project as an opportunity to open up the dialog around issues of land use and ethics on local, national and global scales. This is the place for ideas in-process, unfinished research and to introduce work in its various stages of development. We’re welcoming research from across professions and disciplines on topics related to balancing individual and community priorities with respect to land use and the associated expectations for human and ecosystem stewardship and social and environmental ethics.
I hope to see independent scholars alongside industry and agency professionals and students from across the humanities and the sciences. Presentations are meant to generate conversation around a variety of approaches to land use, the moral implications of these approaches, as well as the ways that they influence the ongoing debate over how to achieve social and environmental justice.
Philosopher John Dewey referred to active discourse as “breaking the crust of convention” and I’d like us to use this symposium to get together and get on with it.
For information on how to join the conversation email email@example.com
References from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty
Photo of Arbutus Lodge, compliments of Huntington Wildlife Forest, Newcomb, NY.
In his poem The Adirondacks Ralph Waldo Emerson begins to describe an expedition into the Adirondack wilderness by noting that the travelers unburdened themselves from their day-to-day lives:
Happier as they
Slipped off their pack of duties, leagues behind,
At the first mounting of the giant stairs.
No placard on these rocks warned to the polls,
No door-bell heralded a visitor,
No courier waits, no letter came or went,
Nothing was ploughed, or reaped, or bought, or sold
I can appreciate this imagery and the attraction of leaving it all behind for a holiday. But many of us reading the Almanack live in the Adirondacks and so our lifework, as I like to think of it, can’t be taken on and off like Emerson’s pack of duties. With that in mind and in light of what seems to be our national predilection with busyness, I’ve been giving some thought to what exactly is in Emerson’s pack?
First, I looked into what it means to be busy and I discovered that an interesting thing happened on the way to the 21st century. It seems that the word “busy” didn’t always signify the frenetic style of hyperactivity that many of us wear like a badge, the depleted yet slightly self-satisfied way we often announce “I am so busy!” These days we declare ourselves in this way as if we’ve accomplished something meaningful simply by darting between moments like hummingbirds, hovering without ceasing at one task before zipping on to the next. In contrast, “busy” used to refer to our earnest engagement in something enjoyable, yet somewhere along the way we began to veer wildly away from this sensibility towards a constant occupation with – what exactly?
At this point I’d hoped to open up Emerson’s pack to discover what all this busyness was all about, but it seems it’s a little bit like that drawer full of random things that don’t have any real relationship to each other or to me. The stuff doesn’t fit into any category yet inexplicably, I need what’s in there. And a “junk drawer” is born. Are we living lives analogous to junk drawers? This seems particularly offensive in a landscape whose pure earthly delight has been an inspiration for poets, philosophers, scientists, artists and novelists for generations.
I don’t know exactly when the common meaning of “busy” changed, or when our gaze shifted from the good life or the beautiful life to the busy life as a thing of virtue. I suspect it was right about the time we created the handy conjunction “busy-work” aptly defined as something that takes up time but isn’t actually productive, never mind earnest or meaningful (the whole notion of which brings Socrates to mind and his caution against the barrenness of a busy life).
My dear friend Craig, with whom I have been writing letters (yes, actual letters) for 19 years, wrote a while back that his delayed response was due to being caught up in “all those things Thoreau railed against.” He was busy, in the contemporary sense of the word. And it’s true that this affliction is at least as old as Thoreau who admonished that “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”
Ultimately, the question of what on earth we’re doing is a personal one and I won’t presume to root through your pack (and let’s agree to keep our hands out of each other’s junk drawers). The question and the intimate cadence of your response will flourish, as everything meaningful will, along a horizon of uninterrupted and unhurried contemplation. Fortunately for those of us committed to a beautiful and a thoughtful life here in the high-country, we aren’t subject to the inevitability of a too-short holiday that as Emerson describes, is fruitful, but must end;
One August evening had a cooler breath;
Into each mind intruding duties crept;
Under the cinders burned the fires of home;
Nay, letters found us in our paradise:
So in the gladness of the new event
We struck our camp and left the happy hills.
(Oh and Craig, you owe me a lengthy letter. Get busy.)