Anne LaBastille’s Legacy

by James Odato | October 2016

Anne LaBastille, right, with her longtime friend Leslie Surprenant. Photo courtesy of Jane Gray

Anne LaBastille
surprised her friends, even years after she stopped trekking through the Adi-rondacks as a wilderness heroine with a German shepherd in tow. Even after her death.

Two days after passing away at age 77 on July 1, 2011, LaBastille, the author of the Woodswoman memoirs, caught her trailmate Leslie Surprenant off guard once again. Lake Placid attorney Richard Terry broke the news to Surprenant that it was up to her to handle the final directives of the woman who had been her role model. She gasped.

Recalling her reaction, Surprenant, a 58-year-old former biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), shakes her head, still dizzy from the events of the last five years. Her work as executrix of the LaBastille estate has led her to a deeper understanding of her longtime hiking companion. She learned that her friend had modeled apparel as a teenager. She also realized that the brown-eyed LaBastille was actually a brunette, not a blonde. She found out that LaBastille was far from the only eccentric in her family. And she discovered that the Thoreau-like chronicler of the natural world began jotting down observations about her surroundings when just a girl.

They’d spent many days together in the woods over three decades, camping, guiding groups in the Adirondacks and traveling to Colorado. Never had LaBastille mentioned that she intended Surprenant to settle her debts, dispose of her assets and fulfill a to-do list in a detailed last will and testament. It was a bear of a job, but Surprenant never blinked, says Timothy D. Foley, an estate lawyer from Old Forge who helped. Typically, executors are bystanders, he says, but not Surprenant. LaBastille set down one of the most challenging wills Foley has seen in 30 years of handling estate law.

As if tackling a second full-time job, Surprenant bustled between her Catskills home and the Adirondacks. Her efforts would result in keeping LaBastille’s 32 acres along Twitchell Lake, near Big Moose, “forever wild” and linked with 50,000 acres of adjoining state wilderness. Surprenant arranged to maintain LaBastille’s famous log home intact, paying to have it moved and interpreted as an “Adirondack Experience” exhibit, to open in 2017 at the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake. Surprenant also set up an annual scholarship program for women in science at Cornell University. And she helped endow a permanent writers’ retreat, hooking up with the Adirondack Center for Writing, of Saranac Lake, to nurture more wordsmiths like LaBastille.

As Foley put it, Surprenant carried out LaBastille’s will, even if not word for word. “I actually think I achieved something that is more durable and accomplishes what she wanted to achieve,” Surprenant says.

To get it done, she literally rolled up her sleeves. She realized that though Mariette Anne LaBastille “lived like a pauper,” she had amassed more than two million dollars in assets. And she had dreamed big. Yet her friend had not accumulated enough funds to sustain the foundation she called for in her 2005 will. She wanted to keep her log home in the woods as a retreat for study, writing and inspiration, but that proved too costly and impractical.

Besides going through boxes of LaBastille’s things—manuscripts, letters, pictures, journals and notes dating as far back as the 1930s—Surprenant tracked down any living relatives and tried to interpret the motives behind the list of directives. As she maneuvered to meet her responsibilities, she thought: What would Anne say?

Foley fretted that she was working too hard. “I was actually worried about her health at one point,” he says.

Even though LaBastille revealed personal thoughts and background in their talks over the years and dished a bit in her many books—touching on divorce, romance, loneliness and guilt—Surprenant broke new ground. First, she sorted through the piles of papers.  “She lived up to her reputation as a pack rat,” Surprenant says. Her friend had stashed documents, from junk mail to manuscripts, in and under her woodland hermitage, accessible by boat or a hike over the ice. LaBastille had tucked away even more in storage lockers.

Surprenant sent items to Anne’s friends, relatives and the museum. Much, including numerous unpublished works in poor condition, was discarded.

Several discoveries were eye-opening. Some remain private. Surprenant found a trove with LaBastille’s modeling photos from the early 1950s. The agency shots capture her friend “wholesome and healthy” and were among thousands of pictures—more than 35,000 slides alone.

On her first canoe trip to the cabin as executrix, she found some of her friend’s most valued possessions: nestled in the sleeping loft were a shotgun and a loaded rifle and a box with gold coins and photos. The treasures included pictures of LaBastille with her mother or her stepmother. Personal notes showed that LaBastille was close to the latter and had a turbulent relationship with the former, Surprenant explains.

She says her friend compartmentalized her life, so no one person had the full story. Surprenant located and contacted cousins in Canada, Germany and Brazil. LaBastille had studied the giant grebe in Guatemala and owned property there. Surprenant tracked down a neighbor and sold it to him.

LaBastille had fond memories of Central America from her youth. In an early letter, the thrilled six-year-old described a cruise with her mother to the region, detailing her clothing and telling of the refreshing taste of Coca Cola, which she would love her entire life.

Like an investigator, Surprenant, who recently retired as head of the DEC’s invasive species unit, built a family tree that reached to the 17th century. She concluded that LaBastille came from a long line of prodders, probers and accomplished oddballs.

LaBastille’s mother, a world-famous concert pianist, divorced her father, Ferdinand LaBastille, a professor of German, and changed her name from Irma Goebel to Kate Thornhill. It suited her new persona—running a stevedore operation on the docks of Miami. Swearing in several languages,  “Tugboat Kate” also spearheaded cleanup of the Miami River, kept snakes and became a “bigger than life” boss at a time most women were expected to keep house.

On LaBastille’s father’s side, Sir William Phips struck it rich in the 1600s when he found a sunken Spanish galleon and its load of gold. Appointed the first governor of Massachusetts, he presided during the Salem witch trials, was accused of corruption and summoned to Britain. Her mother’s father, Julius Goebel, a collector of folklore and professor of German, became the center of controversy over academic freedom when he was fired after criticizing the administration of Stanford University.

Like her predecessors, LaBastille also drew heat for her actions, particularly her activism for the environment as a commissioner of the Adirondack Park Agency,  and she shared a love of adventure. The girl wrote to her mother that she would visit her in Florida during a school break if she could wear jeans and search for buried treasure.

LaBastille was not as extroverted as her mother, whose well-written yet unpublished memoir Surprenant found among LaBastille’s papers. But she had a similar independent streak. In a journal spanning 1964 to 1983, LaBastille emphasized her thirst for the outdoors, her quest to bust down barriers and her determination to get out of her mother’s broad shadow.

Her private papers disclose her fondness for her father and Aurelia, his second wife. Aurelia outlived Ferdinand, who died at age 70 in 1964, by nearly three decades. LaBastille laid a stone in the woman’s memory near her lakeside cabin, Surprenant discovered.

Tracing her friend’s roots “helped me understand Anne,” Surprenant says. Recalling numerous excursions within the Blue Line with LaBastille, she smiles, tossing her salt-and-pepper hair: “We were a study in contrasts.” Her blonde, pig-tailed friend hiked in bare feet, with pink toenail polish and a matching bra, worn pants and floppy pack. Surprenant wore practical outdoor garb.

Raised in the Adirondacks at Eagle Bay, Surprenant recalls the first time they met on a wintry road in the western Adirondacks. Surprenant was about 10 years old and very cold. Parked in her pickup with her German shepherd Pitzi, LaBastille jumped out of the vehicle. She directed the shivering Surprenant into the truck’s warm cab, saying, “And cuddle with that big dog, he’s not going to hurt you.”

Surprenant started writing to LaBastille when she was a student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse University. The two exchanged many letters.

When Surprenant got a state job in the early 1980s patrolling 50,000 acres of Adirondack forest, LaBastille contacted her and said it was time they met again. LaBastille put her to work dealing with a stack of correspondences. She shared her Rolodex, filled with some of the biggest names in the environmental field. From then on, they often did things together.

“She was humble. She was warm,” Surprenant says. Her friend, who had no children, once told Surprenant that she would have been proud to have her as a daughter, she recalls. Her friend also asked her to always look out for her dog if something should happen to her.

Dementia took what remained of LaBastille’s immense intellectual and physical reserves, but her will provided for the last of her five German shepherds, Krispy Kreme. Surprenant had already taken the dog home when her friend moved to a nursing home. Her adopted daughter, Olivia, then seven, empathized at once. “She said: ‘You gave me a forever home,’” Surprenant says. “‘Krispy Kreme needs a forever home.’”

LaBastille’s legacy continues: Olivia has taken to carrying a copy of Woodswoman with her on hikes.

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