Charley’s Back Yard

by Kenneth A. Wilson | From the Archives

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. This 1975 profile of Charley Nolan, who spent years manning a remote forest ranger cabin, highlights that overcrowding and bad behavior in the backcountry are perennial concerns.

A Chat with Charley

You may wonder what a graduate engineer is doing in a cabin all by himself back in the wilds of the Adi­rondacks. “Im doing what I always wanted to do since I was a little boy,” noted Charley in a conversa­tion we had at his cabin just three days before this issue went to press, “living in a cabin in the woods.” Unfortunately, the original log cabin is no more and the solitude of the woods is slowly vanishing. Charley is thinking of moving on, “maybe to Alaska, although that may be ruined in a few years.”

But it is not just the loss of his cabin or the increase in the number of campers each year that bothers Charley. It’s the frustration: “I have no authority to enforce the laws. People are chopping up picnic tables for firewood, littering the woods so fast that I can’t keep up with it, cutting live timber, and in general, destroying the woods. And then there are the hikers who head out on a trip with no map, no compass, and no idea of the dangers in the woods. I don’t know how they survive out in civilization.”

Charley’s frustrations are a warn­ing to us all, for he lives in a picture window on the Adirondack woods. He is an intelligent, well educated, well read man, and he can sense im­pending doom for the area that he loves long before any of us who only journey to the heart of the wilder­ness on occasion. Let us take heed in his message. Let us think before venturing into the woods. And let us pray that those people who litter will some day realize the terrible damage that they do.

A drum of water with a canoe paddle
resting in it sent a ripple of curiosity through my thoughts as I passed the cabin in a clearing on Lake Colden’s northwest shore. A line of winter blankets hung in pale sunlight. Over the brook the only human resident of this region moved slowly up the trail, preoccupied in conver­sation with a hiking friend from Keene. Later, I would be shown the mechanics of the puzzling water drum, a backwoodsman’s washing machine utilizing brook water, cold water detergent, and a canoe paddle for agitator.

Precious few opportunities re­main for a person to live by work­ing year round back in the bush. And few places exist that are as beautiful as the Colden region. Charley Nolan has been a lucky man these past 14 years (6 of them by himself), manning the Adiron­dack’s most remote ranger station four seasons of the year. His easy smile and his pleasant round fea­tures, punctuated by an ever­present pipe, speak well for a solitary life in the wilds. Solitary—not really, for a constant stream of hikers and skiers of all ages flows past Charley’s cabin throughout the year, stopping to chat and share a cup of tea with this affable man of the woods.

This was one of my several packing trips up to Colden since late in the 60’s. The fine log ranger’s cabin with its skillful ax work and splendid granite­-boulder chimney was gone now. In its place, across Cold Brook, a rather spacious house had been built three years before with ma­terials ‘coptered in, load by load. “Just another house,” remarked Charley with a mixture of regret and mild contempt. The log cab­in’s west end had begun to rot; a little rain and snow had worked into the upper floor. The state de­creed its more than 30 years of usefulness and beauty were enough. Burned in December 1971, only a pile of chimney stones mark its passing. It was a sad day for Charley. But the steel drum heater, the library of books and magazines and pictures, the rustic furniture, and all the things a scholarly woodsman accumu­lates through years went over the brook into the new house—all the things but the sylvan charm of a hand hewned log cabin. “It’s nice, but it’s still just a house.” Charley Nolan is a man married to the woods.

“Winter is the best time of year,” in Charley’s opinion. The beauty of the cold season at Col­den would soften even the most confirmed winter-hater. Notice­ably little changes season by sea­son except in winter, but then evergreen spruce and balsam are cake-frosted, and the mountains radiate silver to their peaks. The purity and quiet, especially in these times, seem unreal. Winters aren’t as cold as summer hikers may presume. Charley’s ther­mometer will dip well below zero but seldom to the lows of nearby Saranac Lake or the mi­nus-forties recorded in Wanakena to the west. Steep mountainsides soften the winds. Lake Colden lies in a bowl below the highest landpoints in the State, and in that bowl Charley’s cabin weath­ers out the winter and provides a haven to cross country skiers, snowshoers, and winter moun­taineers who venture by.

We launched the long green canoe beside a new dock and knifed quietly by Cedar Point. My memory turned back to my first autumn evening in the leanto there. Framed by the wide front opening, a mile of shadowline worked its way up Avalanche and Colden mountains from the lake, painting a warmer and warmer alpenglow above until Colden’s summit caught a last radiance of red light. I sat in my sleeping bag, propped against the leanto’s rear logs, absorbing, in stillness, an incredible framed panorama: mountains, lake, and foreground cedars on the point. As twilight faded, stars, brightest first, pricked pinholes in a blue-black sky, and a beaver smacked the lake with a mighty keer-bloomp. This was Charley’s back yard, and I began to see what kept him here 12 months of the year.

Around the point and down an arm of water we landed at the low dam on Colden’s outlet, and struck out on foot to visit clusters of leantos along the Opalescent and head of the Flowed Lands. Charley carried several huge gar­bage bags. His most constant and disagreeable job is gathering up a nauseous collection of litter. All of it must be collected, bagged, and ‘coptered out. “We flew out 400 bags last summer,” he re­marked. “We can’t bury much more, the land is actually filling up with rusting junk. We continu­ally dig right into old garbage pits. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why people do this or figure out what kind of people they are. We are now find­ing more and more plastic and foil wrappers from those dehy­drated foods, and you would think that the people who buy those, they’re not cheap, ya know, would not be the type of folk to just throw the containers on the ground. But they do. It’s not as if those little wrappers would break their backs on the way out.” These were sad words from this conser­vationist-woodsman, tinged with despair like the lament of the parent of a wayward child.

The Adirondacks offer no wilder river than the Opalescent. And I think none more primeval, free, beautiful. Most of its short course is high, fast, and wild. Its clear water, aquamarine in pools, falls over refracting crystals of opalescent feldspar. Fed in part from Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, it ends directly in the upper Hud­son River.

Too many leantos, perhaps. Overused. Hard to understand how people can litter such an ex­quisite region, and vandalize leantos, toilets, and guideboards. We carried two bags of trash back to the canoe.
As we paddled up the lake against a stiff breeze and under a sky working itself toward rain, I had another view of the moun­tains. Towering Algonquin, sec­ond highest after Marcy, rises di­rectly from Lake Colden. A chal­lenging trail ascends Algonquin from north of Charley’s cabin. I recall the dwarf conifer forest up there, between Algonquin and Boundary, twisted old trees only inches high—and stunted, spe­cialized alpine plants that blos­som and fruit in a harsh, brief season. These are gentle moun­tains, they take few lives. Air­plane pilots and rock climbers have their grief, but few hikers suffer serious mishaps. Charley tells me of the time a light plane came down on the high ridge be­tween Algonquin and Boundary. If he hadn’t been below with the emergency telephone, the moun­tains might have claimed a life. Hearing the crash in the quiet, Charley sought immediate help, a doctor-bearing helicopter. One more reason for a solitary life in a wilderness cabin.

Charley’s big St. Bernard dog, Pebbles, met us at the dock. “Don’t let him jump in the canoe, he’ll sink us,” Charley remarked with a chuckle. Pebbles usually accompanies his master on the daily rounds of trails and camp­sites.

You will not find another lake or pond in the Adirondacks out of maybe 2,000 or so quite like Ava­lanche, with its steep shoulder of Mt. Colden on one side, harsh declivity of Avalanche Mountain opposite, and the bouldered trail, equipped with ladders and cat­walks, between lake and moun­tain. Portions of lake water must be crossed on bridges named Hitch-Up-Matildas. I had hiked up the six-plus miles from South Meadows by way of Marcy Dam. It is a rugged passage to Colden, through the pass, around the lake. Guaranteed never to be forgotten—on beauty alone.

We beached the canoe, walked up to the cabin. We sat at a round table with a section of tree trunk for a base, talking and drinking cups of Charley’s favorite spice­-flavored tea. A powerful transistor radio, connected to several large dry cell batteries, was near at hand. Bottled gas runs the ‘frig, a stove, and one lamp. Gasoline powers additional lanterns and a stove. “No electric bills to pay, out here!” The shed is packed with wood by late fall. Chunks fed into the drum stove keep up a cheery glow; a teakettle and cof­feepot perk out puffs of steam on its top side. The big window fogs when cold days arrive. A wilderness man lives snug in winter, enjoying fruits of his sawing and chopping—warmed twice.

Charley talked of an eventful life as a civil engineer—of build­ing air bases in the Pacific during World War II, then Japan, and oil refineries in South America, and after that the U.S. Air Base in Greenland. His hometown is Portland, Pennsylvania in the foothills of the Poconos, so he comes by a love of mountains naturally.

It was on vacations in his junior and sophomore years of Lafayette College at Easton, Pennsylvania that Charley first experienced the Adirondacks’ Keene Valley and John’s Brook region. After World War II the mountains called him back; he discovered the wild charms of Lake Colden. A woodsman’s way of life had its beginning.

Although the new wilderness mandate meets with his approval, there comes from it one regret: friend Herb Helms of Long Lake can no longer fly in with supplies. Lake Colden is off limits to com­mercial flights. Staples come in by state helipcopter, fresh fruit and meat more frequently by members of the trail maintenance crew—mail maybe once a week in summer, a lot less often in winter. It’s a good life, with birds and squirrels and chipmunks and bear for neighbors, and a colony of beavers damming Cold Brook into little ponds, all unmolested, Charley’s friends.

Town holds few lures. Trips out are infrequent and brief. “Three or four days and I’m bored,” noted Charley. Vacation time piles up, often more than a year between hikes out. The way of life makes many friends of people who love the woods. The welcome is out to them, but a plague on the “goofer” with their litter and spoilage.

Sprinkles of rain were coming out of the west as I shouldered the pack and said “so long for now” to a darting figure smiling and grabbing blankets from the line. I would be back, that much was certain.

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