Mountain Monikers

by Annie Stoltie | August 2008

Guide Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps cut the original path up Mount Marcy and was the first to ascend and name a handful of High Peaks. He carried mail in Keene Valley, hung out with Mark Twain, turned urbanites onto the Adirondacks, even had a mountain named after him. According to Russell M. L. Carson in Peaks and People of the Adirondacks, Phelps “had the soul of a philosopher and poet.”

That’s why Julie and Breck Turner, of Lake Placid, named one of their sons after him. “We admire Old Mountain Phelps’s outlook on life—how he lived his life,” says Breck. Today Phelps Turner, 30, is a lawyer, living in Montreal. He’s a bibliophile and a nature lover who, with his twin brother, Fred, climbed the Adirondacks’ 46 highest peaks by age five.

Bestowing another’s name on a child really is the ultimate honor. It means carrying a legacy into the future, not to mention having a colorful anecdote for cocktail parties. And who doesn’t hope character and integrity will transfer onto a namesake through some kind of moniker osmosis?

Some Adirondackers do the same with place. For those of us who live within the Blue Line, and, perhaps, visitors who’ve had a high-altitude epiphany or seen a sunset here that left them weepy, why not give a kid a handle linked to something geographically dramatic? Or maybe it’s a shape that looms in the distance each day as blinds are drawn or the lawn is mowed. In many ways, where we are defines who we are.

Crane Mountain hangs over Bill McKibben and Sue Hal­pern’s home in Johnsburg. “We’d probably climbed it 300 times,” says McKibben. So that’s what they gave their daughter, now 15, as a middle name. “It was a way of situating young Sophie in her native place,” he says. “For years we would ask her for permission to go climb ‘her’ mountain—she always said yes.”

When he was a little boy, 13-year-old Mackenzie “Max” Paul, named after McKenzie Mountain (his parents picked an alternative spelling), in his native Saranac Lake, “would point to it and know that’s what he was named after,” says his dad, Matt Paul. Matt and his wife, Maria DeAngelo, had sought an “m” name, so it was a perfect fit.

Twenty years ago Sheri Amsel and her husband, Rich Prime, had just re­turned to the Adirondacks after a stint in Montana. “I was pregnant, living in the Lake Placid woods on Connery Pond,” says Amsel, who now calls Elizabethtown home. “We liked Colden—we climbed the peak many times. We were nervous because it seemed like an odd name,” she explains, but Colden, a student at Hamilton College, has “really grown into it.”

Alicia and Tracy Lamb, who recently moved to California from Lake Plac­id, also christened their 12-year-old son Colden. They lived on Colden Ave­nue and could see the mountain from their house. Plus, they liked the way it sounded. Alicia says that if the peak had been called McMartin, as it was for a bit in the 1830s, she and Tracy would’ve chosen something else.

“I’m eternally grateful my parents didn’t name me Dix or Nippletop,” says Marcy Neville, of Keene Valley. Fifty-five-year-old Neville, who was born in the High Peaks hub, says when she was a kid most people would ask “if I was named after the mountain or if the mountain was named after me.”

If nine-year-old Tommy Adirondack Maron’s parents, Chris and Michelle, of Westport, had known they’d return to the park after a job transfer to Indianapolis, Tommy’s middle name would have been Indiana. “We love the place [Adirondacks],” says Michelle, but she adds that the name is probably more interesting if you live somewhere else.

And what about animals? Around here it’s not unusual to know a furry Baxter or Porter or Saranac—even a Couchsachraga. Nicole Crist, who lives in Sar­anac Lake with her husband, Daryl, has had Marcy the pit bull–mix, Cascade “Cady” the husky-mix and Little Tupper, a Great Dane/yellow Labra­dor com­bo. The Crists are expecting their first child at the end of July. Though they won’t reveal what they’re going to call their baby, they say they’re leaving the Adi­rondack names to their dogs.

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