A Bark Eater’s Odyssey

by | 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. In the magazine’s 20th anniversary issue, then-editor Christopher Shaw reflected on his two decades in the Adirondacks.


Lake Luzerne, May or June, 1969:
We always ate breakfast at Walt’s Country Corner Restaurant. Walt, a gnomish Dane, baked fresh sour­dough loaves for toast and sandwiches every morning. Rich and amber, the bread was lac­ed with pockmarks where melted butter pool­ed deliciously. It was easier for us to eat at Walt’s than to cook over the campstove at our summer homestead three miles outside of town on the Sacandaga River—not to mention the availability of his flush toilet.

Like clockwork at nine a.m., Irv crossed Rockwell Street from Parker’s Garage (gone) for coffee at Walt’s. I don’t remember Irv’s last name, and I didn’t know him very long, but his gravelly voice I never forgot. He wore mechanic’s blues, well stained with honest grease, and smoked hand-rolled Bull Durhams. The string of his tobacco pouch always hung from his shirt pocket, below the red and white oval crest that spelled his name.
Irv was an Adirondack version of a griot, that is, a keeper of the tribe’s memory. Every morning without fail his black coffee and strong tobacco produced a story, and if one of the village blowhards held the floor for too long about the TV show he watched the night before, we felt cheated.

I don’t remember how the subject came up, but one morning he started talking about his youth on Lake Clear in the 1930s. “I’d get out on the water early every morning and troll for smallmouth black bass,” Irv said. “A junebug spinner and a worm was the ticket. I’d get my limit and my mother would cook ’em for breakfast. I was usually alone on the lake, un­til one day this guy with long white hair starts showing up. You’d think that one more fisher­man on the lake wouldn’t attract much attention, except there aren’t that many men with long hair up here—” here he cast a scowl in our direction—”at least in those days there weren’t. Another thing about him, he paddled around in this old kayak and he’d be out there with a fly rod just flailing away like anything, only he didn’t know how to cast, so he’d always wind up with his line in a horrible mess. He never caught a thing.

“And he had a real mouth on him, I can tell you,” Irv continued.”You could hear him swearing all over the lake, and not just damn and hell either. So one day I just rowed over and untangled his line and showed him how to rig a spinner and worm and to troll real slow. He started catching bass right away. The next morning he paddled over to me and gave me ten dollars. In those days!

“Wellsir,” Irv concluded, fixing us with his most honest look, “I found out later that old guy was Einstein.”
He let that sink in for awhile. Then he said, “You know, the scientist?”

We said we knew.

“Well, he may have been a genius but he sure could swear!”

Too many Bull Durhams sent old Irv the way of Parker’s Garage short­ly thereafter. I figure I was lucky to have been within eavesdropping distance of him and to have caught the last rattle of his memory.

I only start with Irv because he’s one of my earliest and clearest memories of living in the Adirondacks. He seem­ed to encapsulate Adirondack culture and life in the 70 or so years he in­habited these parts. My own sense of what they mean has since evolved along with changes in the landscape and the unavoidable shift in public feeling about the meaning of the Adirondacks in a shrinking world.

During those same mornings at the Country Corner, we read the Glens Falls Post-Star‘s coverage of the furor over the Horizon and Ton-Da-Lay projects and the jockeying for in­fluence that went on in the state legislature over an Adirondack Park Agency Act. At the time, the report of the Temporary Study Commission appointed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller described a future for the Park that seemed to us—with its recommendations for the protection of scenic river corridors, reintroduc­tion of extirpated wildlife and land­-use standards—too ideal to be possi­ble. Our own sophomoric and roman­tic notions of wilderness in that time of manned moon landings kept us at­tached to an outmoded frontier ethic in some ways sillier than that of those around us, who persisted in seeing their Constitutional rights of private property eroded at every turn. Yet we also thought the Adirondack wil­derness that had been handed down to us was an impoverished approxima­tion of the thing it once was, even in our childhoods, and in many ways that was true back then.

This was around the time of Earth Day, and other more dramatic mani­festations of our national hysteria. Ed­ward Abbey’s (gone) The Monkey Wrench Gang was on the best-seller lists, and more and more often my friends and I encountered defilements perpetrated thoughtlessly or, as we im­agined, maliciously upon the place we had chosen as home. It made us talk about taking action in some material fashion, as environmental Robin Hoods. It turned out to be all talk.

Some things never change; most do. Then, as now, the question has been one of “accommodating the land­scape,” and in a place like this, that can be the hardest part. As an old friend told me just last night—a man whose familiarity with the territory bridges a good 20 years—to him the Adirondacks have remained “a mystery.” I’m sure he shares that feeling with many people who after half a lifetime still walk to the end of their dock on a September morning and shake their heads in wonder at a scene that by now should be as familiar as their own face in a mirror.

The mystery is what keeps us here, or keeps us coming back.

Beauty is the main property of the world that I’ve leaned and grown toward, like a plant toward sunlight. Its abundance is the main reason I live here, though I was influenced by re­lated matters early on. From age five I remember a vacant corner lot in the Schenectady Stockade that was later paved and sprouted automobiles. Be­fore that it grew evergreens and tall grass in uncultivated freedom. The lot was little bigger than a basketball court, but when the neighborhood kids played there, the possibility of becoming “lost” in the woods added a dimension of adventure and risk.

My mother still owns a small un­signed oil painting which hung in our house, of a small cabin surrounded by snow-covered spruces. There is silver moonlight on the snow and the light of a single oil lamp in the window. On the streets of the suburbs where we moved later on, no such feeling of cozy peace emanated from the houses. I felt something similar when we drove through the mountains at night, past lone cabins beside the road, with lamplight in their windows.

After a few summers I felt more at home in the Adirondacks than dur­ing the school-dominated months. I equated “north” with freedom, the woods with happiness. When I grad­uated, divination by tossed coins, tarot cards and astrology was popular. In none of those exercises did the prospect of wealth ever figure in my future. I decided that if I was to live by the equation beauty + freedom = happiness, sacrifices would be called for, which in my case meant achieve­ment of the ordinary kind. Beauty—at least of the natural kind—was free.

In the spring of 1969, Gail and I, with our friends Sam Lewis and Pete Groff, got permission to erect a rough modified-geodesic shelter of two-by-­fours and plywood on private land beside the Sacandaga. From there we traveled to the Cedar, the Cold and the Boreas rivers; to Blue Ledge, Col­den Dike, The Range, and ate our breakfasts at Walt’s. Every afternoon at five, the bottom dropped out of the river when the turbines at Stewart’s Bridge dam were shut off, and we took up fly fishing for the big smallmouths that stranded in the pools. Our re­spective friends would visit for days and weeks at a time, driving a succes­sion of wretched vehicles. We at­tracted a lot of attention in town for our customs, much of it negative.

In July of our second summer there I visited a friend in Montreal for a couple of days, alone. On the way home I thought I’d drive a little out of the way to climb Mount Colden. This wasn’t long after the last leg of the Northway opened between Pot­tersville and Keeseville, in 1967. The Adirondack Mountain Club parking lot at the Heart Lake trailhead was then a little clearing with a couple of signboards and a hitching post in the long grass. I drove down Heart Lake Road on Saturday morning prepared to find a full lot—maybe two dozen cars. But they started lining the shoulders of the road just past the bridge over the West Branch, and they formed a solid line all the way to the trailhead, ten times more ve­hicles than I had ever seen. I felt in­vaded, violated, co-opted.

I headed back towards Whiteface and walked into Copperas Pond (still undiscovered) for the night, and slept in the old lean-to on the southern shore (gone). When I woke up White­face projected above a levitating bank of mist like a pyramid in the morn­ing light. I drank coffee and watched the mist dissolve, alone, until I was joined by a young hiker and her dog. She was barefoot, and bare-legged and oblivious to the odd mosquito which whined through the small clear­ing. In those days you were still glad to meet other people in the woods; chances were that you shared a backwoods ethic regarding such basics as tree defacement, cat-hole sanita­tion and the sharing of lean-tos. You would leave a can of beans and a cou­ple of fires-worth of wood behind when you vacated a shelter. Equip­ment was safe at your campsite until you returned from a climb or a day’s fishing. So I welcomed the hiker with a cup of instant coffee and we watch­ed the morning evaporate over Cop­peras Pond without the need for conversation.

When she finally spoke, the hiker’s voice had a sharp edge. The sun’s rays cleared the ridges and struck the forest full force, casting the abstraction “green” in concrete. A pileated wood­pecker’s hollow tattoo echoed from shore to shore.

“This won’t last much longer,” she said bitterly, surveying the perfection that surrounded us, “not since they opened the Northway. Pretty soon it’ll be no different here than Yosemite or Yellowstone, a giant drive-in amuse­ment park for two-car families from Chagrin Falls.”

I told her my experience on Heart Lake Road. She snorted. “Forget about the High Peaks,” she said. “Can’t get near the place anymore.”

She finished her coffee while we sat in silence, surrounded by the shared perception of impending loss and ir­revocable change.

She stood and cast her grounds in-to the firepit. “The hell with it,” she said. “I’m moving to Canada, maybe Alaska, away from the crowds.” She thanked me and continued on down the trail, whistling for the dog.
I wonder if she ever made the move, and if so, where she moved from there when the century closed her in.

I write of cold by way of dispell­ing the permanent chill that in­habits my bone marrow. I write of cold as an absolute in an am­biguous world. For years it was one of the chief considerations of my life. In the winter of 1978-79, Gail and I lived in a high bowl at 2,300 feet, as caretakers for a club on the undeveloped side of Gore Moun­tain. I worked that winter at the top of Gore, helping skiers off the Straight Brook chair lift with Tony Skoda, of Friends Lake. The summit of Gore is 3,583 feet, so I computed my mean daily altitude as 2,950 feet, give or take a few.

Already I was starting off with a climatic handicap, so in February, when the thermometer didn’t climb above zero for nine out of 12 con­secutive days, I didn’t stand a chance.

People skied anyway. Tony and I faced plenty of problems beside discomfort; sluggish thruster or emer­gency brakes, plastic chair seats that snapped apart in the cold, unexplain­ed lift stops that left skiers hanging in frigid space. We reduced our shifts outside from 20 minutes to ten, but it only took a minute for the frost to penetrate as many layers of wool, felt and down as we could pile on. No matter how much snow we shoveled or how many calories of junk food we consumed, by two o’clock in the after­noon our feet were concrete blocks, our synapses gelled and our brains turned to fudge.

Prolonged exposure to cold pro­duces a particular state of mind. As Jack London wrote, the most auto­matic motor coordination requires the application of will. Below minus 30 or so, the difference in sensation isn’t all that apparent as the temperature drops. It’s a matter of effect. Patches of waxy yellowish frostbite bloomed like lichen on the exposed cheeks and noses of skiers, and I froze a couple of toes and fingers repeatedly through­out the snap so that today it takes little exposure to freeze them again.

It was a siege. Every night the mer­cury plunged at least into the high minus 30s. The ice in the pond beside our house was four feet thick. One dawn I stepped outside to start and warm up my Jeep. You know it’s cold immediately without looking at the thermometer, without even a breath of wind. It’s a sense of something pro­foundly absent, some essential con­dition of existence. The thermometer we hung outside the door read minus 39. I knew it read a few degrees high from the wood-heated aura of the house, but that’s still pretty cold. I pumped the pedal on the Jeep and it started right up, though revving high, and I went in the house for another cup of coffee.

Back outside, when I tried to kick down the choke on the Jeep, the pedal stuck and the engine revved even higher. I ran to the unheated main lodge of the club to check the mer­cury thermometer that hung on the porch. At about the same time that my eyes registered the reading of minus 52 degrees—equalling the state record—a silver birch behind me ex­ploded like a stick of dynamite. With my heart beating wildly, I hurried back to the racing Jeep and saw flames shooting from its underbelly. The stuck choke had sucked raw gas into the hot catalytic converter, where it ignited. I put out the flames with an extinguisher from the house, kicked down the choke and drove to work.

When I arrived at the summit of Gore it was still in the minus 40s, but windless and bright. The sun rose high above the Green Mountains across South Bay to the east. Tony and I checked the lift switches in the brittle silence and our breath froze in­to faceted crystals that floated before us in the air, surrounding our heads like sparkling nimbuses. We stayed outside the shack voluntarily until the ski patrol arrived to ride the lift, super­charged and surging with our own vivid heat.

Somewhere along the line I arrived at the notion that belief systems are determin­ed by surroundings, that, somewhat like a photographic image is latent on undeveloped film, cosmo­gonies and perceptions of a world beyond ourselves are connected inex­tricably to the landscape we inhabit and the way of life to which it binds us. The manner in which we make use of our particular portion of the planet’s surface—for good or ill—is the medium of actualization, the “developer.”

I remember the precise moment it occurred to me, and naturally I thought it was my own idea.

In the ice-free months, I canoed around the perimeter of the spring-fed pond at the club every morning and evening. Most of the year I had it to myself. Sometimes, I trolled an idle streamer or drifted and cast a sub­surface fly to the native brook trout the water held in abundance, or the retrograde hatchery rainbows the members stocked for their faster growth rates. Mostly I just followed the irregular shoreline with my inner dialogue disengaged, trying to achieve perfect silence.

If I didn’t look back toward the club buildings, it was easy to pretend I was paddling into a wilderness time warp, the shoreline was so primordial. Ar­butus, sheep laurel and Labrador tea fringed the shoreline; pond lily, duck­weed and blue flag iris in the shallows. On the low ground around the inlet bay balsam grew thick, straight and dark; on the south-facing headlands white pines grew tall as Saturn rock­ets. The ground below them was carpeted with needles and winter­green and when the sun shone hot on the ground their aromas blended voluptuously.

Most evenings beavers carved silent wakes through the mercurial surface film. When I paddled past their shore­line lodge in the spring, I could hear their kits mewling inside. In late sum­mer when they ferried a piece of aspen or willow to their winter food pile, it looked like a whole sapling swimming across the pond. They never adjusted to my presence, but sounded their warning tail slaps around me to the point of overstatement.

Deer were common, standing in the late light near the inlet. With some dependability I would round a point and surprise a bear or two feeding in the shallows, or escaping insects there. I could float quite near to them as they squinted myopically at my shape on the water. As soon as they wind­ed me they vanished in a blur of black hair and broken vegetation.

A pair of otters passed through for a few days each month on their cir­cuit of the waterways around Height O’ Land Mountain. One dusk I was casting toward some snags in the in­let bay when a half-dozen shiners flashed out of the water behind me. I turned around and they did it again, followed by the silky roll of an otter in pursuit. It surfaced the distance of a short cast away, floating with its back arched and its head and tail out of the water, crunching on a fish. I tried to be as still and silent as I could but a mosquito made me flick my hand. The otter spooked and dove, then surfaced two more times, trying to make sense of my silhouette against the darkening sky. When it disap­peared again I watched the surface un­til it rose straight out of the water to the level of its belly button, right in front of me. It stood there half out of the water on the sculling of its power­ful tail, with its forepaws held in sup­plication like a begging dog. It stared at me with a goofy look of alarm, the whiskers twitching on its monkey-like face. Our eyes met.

The steep southwestern flank of Gore faced the water, black with spruce and fir. It looked completely different than it did from the valley, more dome-like and without the or­namentation of ski trails. It showed me the nuances of mountain light. I stayed on the water until the last brush of pale coral faded from its bare headwalls.

One evening I free-floated in the center of the 40-acre pond on a smooth surface that in color and depth was indistinguishable from the firmament above. I braced my knees on the inside chine of the canoe and closed my eyes, reveling in the sensa­tion of pure buoyancy. There was a feeling of gliding on the surface of a cosmic brass doorknob, an apprehen­sion of the sphericity of the planet and its traversal of time and space. It re­minded me of the insight Thoreau wrote about, of looking down a well and seeing the sky reflected there in a circle, and that the universe was “in­sular, not continent,” composed of fragments of ideas held together by a tenuous and mystical glue. I realized my view of creation had become in­distinguishable from the elements of my surroundings, from the Adiron­dacks, and that everything human or otherwise which occurred among them reflected the shape and color of universal things.

The shape of my canoe on the sur­face recapitulated the trout under­neath. As I cleaned a member’s brookie that September, the carmine of its belly, its $pots of azure and violet, the white slashes of its fins and the gravid pink mush of eggs that poured from the cut in its abdomen all recapitulated the crisp air of 2,000 feet and the boggling eruption of col­or in the surrounding forest; swamp maple, tamarack, mountain ash. The trout lay across my hand in a simple arc. Its eviscerated heart, the size of a pea, beat on my fingertip for a full minute or more.

Being human—that is grasping, consuming, ar­dent, system-oriented—and armed with this simple understanding, I came to expect more such spirit fodder from the land­scape. There was an essential secret I presumed lay hidden among its tangle of rhizomes, mycelia and decay­ing leaf matter.

I hunted and fished for sport, too, as a way to participate on an atavistic level in the chain of life. One clear November 22 I lobbed a .30-.30 bullet across a drained beaver flow, where by luck and destiny it lodged in a vital part of the neck of an 11-point buck, bringing it to the ground, instantly dead. I’m sorry to say its head now adorns the back-bar of a popular back­country gin mill. The white patch under its neck is stained with nicotine. Sometimes during hunting season it sports a green felt chapeau, or a pair of designer sunglasses.

Off and on I “worked in the woods,” felling or bucking timber in­to four-foot lengths on the header with a chainsaw, pulp hook and peavey. I enjoyed the smells of the fuel mixture, of the green, freshly muti­lated cellulose, of the pine and hem­lock pitch that wouldn’t wash off my body at the end of the day, like the blood of Duncan. I also loved the silence that followed killing the saw. I wish I could say I was more compe­tent at that work than I was.

As a whitewater rafting and flat­-water canoeing guide, as I was for 15 or so years, I may have sometimes appeared distracted or distant to my customers. To them I take this oppor­tunity to apologize. I loved the work, but by 1980 whenever I was in the woods for any length of time, I was less aware of anything outside the im­mediate surroundings. As it became more important to me to extract the hidden secret from the landscape, I listened harder and harder for its whisper, to the exclusion of the most basic exchanges of information.

In the winter of 1981-82 Dick Carlson and I lost a pile leasing a lodge with 12,000 acres and 40 miles of trails on the southern rim of the High Peaks for cross-country skiing. The snow was abundant, but so· were our ex­penses. Our customers were satisfied, though, including one Coptic Egyp­tian who’d made his fortune in Manhattan real estate. He also made his own wine and brought us a cou­ple of bottles of baco noir as samples. One evening we sat in the kitchen with him and his glamorous compa­nion sipping his latest vintage. He ask­ed us, as a fellow business person, how our season was faring, and how much profit we expected to make our first year. Well, we told him, the lease was pretty expensive and we were looking at this as laying the foundation, so we didn’t expect profit for three years. His eyes widened and he looked at me in disbelief. “No pruffit?” he said.

The following spring, broke and in debt, I freelanced during the spring rafting season on the Hudson, work­ing day to day for whatever outfit needed an experienced guide. It was a good year as far as water levels were concerned and at one point I work­ed nine consecutive days, even though I slept on friends’ couches and, more than once, in my Jeep. While work­ing for an outfit from Maine one day, I had another fleeting intuition of the Secret.

Besides Cold, the other basic ele­ments of Adirondack spring are Wet, and Gray. In all three cases, the day in question would have been typical. The river was running in the high sevens on the gauge—which is pret­ty big—and the temperature fluc­tuated between 31 and 33 degrees; the relentless rain and snow changed back and forth accordingly. Through the fog and low clouds we could barely see the boat ahead of us. Pellets of sleet adhered to the gunwale tubes of the raft. For this my customers were pay­ing around 75 dollars a piece. I was sure all of our minds were taken up with similar thoughts of hot tubs, back rubs, dry firewood, clean sheets and neat whiskey.

In those days, the out-of-state raf­ting outfits still conducted their com­plementary steak roasts on the river. This resulted either from the blind op­timism of the small businessman or gross ignorance of geography. At the head of Harris Rift, where the river makes a sharp swing to the right, we pulled our boats to shore for the odious banquet. I was happy to split dead aspen for the warming fire while the outfit’s full-time guides cooked over the charcoal they had brought along for the purpose.

Our people didn’t complain, but stood numbly around the fire concen­trating blood flow to their extremities. When I was handed my steak after all the customers were served, I retired surlily to a private spot beside the water to eat in solitude. The meat swam in its tin plate in a sauce of coagulated grease and slush, with a garnish of dead hemlock needles. Under the circumstances, a side dish of wormwood and a cup of bile would have fit right in with my mood.

I ate out of instinct rather than ap­petite, while rain dripped into my plate from my hat brim and down my neck. I was thoroughly soaked, cold and gray in every quadrant of my be­ing. My feet were numb; my hands bloodless, fish-white and wrinkled from constant immersion in cold water. My thoughts turned to warm distant places, desk jobs, and I remem­bered Mark Anderson, of Blue Moun­tain Lake, who spent a similar day on the river the year before. He’d forgot­ten to wear his neoprene wet-suit booties, and his unprotected feet froze in the bilgewater. By the time he reached the float-out miles below the mouth of the Boreas his hypothermia was advanced. He hallucinated a turn-­of-the-century railroad car, furnished with red plush and brass, parked on the riverbank. The warm glow of oil lamps emanated from its windows. Framed in each window stood willowy sirens in lace and decolleté, beckon­ing to him with snifters of rare VSOP.

With my thoughts thus occupied, I was visited by a sensation I’ve known a handful of times since then, usual­ly associated, paradoxically, with high discomfort and deprivation.

The passage of weather caused a rent in the shroud of mist and fog, revealing the 1,000 foot eminence of Pine Mountain across the river. Its shiny rock faces rose vertically from the water’s edge. Thin cataracts of white spume plunged from every declivity and disintegrated into vapor before hitting the water. Billows of cloud came and went, hiding and then exposing the scene in a magic lantern illusion, with the punky scent of wet aspen smoke in the air. It was like one of those Chinese landscapes painted on silk by a master of the late T’ang, with exaggerated mountains and canyons and titled something like “Sadness of the Gorges.” I was the single figure in the scene, a poet, oc­cupying an infinitesimal but central position and represented with perfect accuracy by a single daub of the brush. For a moment I was unable to distinguish between myself and the surrounding water and mist. In the most ancient reptilian center of my preconsciousness a little prayer flag snapped in the wind and on it was written the word “DELIGHT!”

In February of 1984 I was house­sitting a place on Quaker Moun­tain, in Wilmington. The south­western expanse of the house overlooked Wilmington Notch and the valley of the West Branch of the Ausable River through an entire wall of plate glass. The slides and ski trails on Whiteface loomed Alp-like over the valley to the north. To the south was the forested dragon’s back of the Sentinel Range. The inverted chevron of the Notch cleaved them like a hat­chet stroke. When cooler air rolled in from the west—upstream—you could watch the fog roll out like a carpet over the bed of the river.

Every day I witnessed an entirely original sundown behind the outline of that topography. By this time I’d come to the abominably North American conclusion that somehow the landscape owed me something besides its mute beauty and role as a sacred context for my adventures and humiliations. I would stand on the deck of the house and watch the fading light in full anticipation of another insight. I wanted it. I thought I deserved it for having spent so much time accommodating the imperatives of my chosen landscape, with small reward, and now, by God, I wanted something back. Crazy as it sounds, I listened for actual words, watched for messages carved in granite by glaciers and addressed to me. The more I watched and listened, the less I heard or read. At the end of Feb­ruary I closed the door of the house and went to Florida for six weeks.

Florida! The Sea! Palmettoes and hibiscus! Shell middens big as houses, with wild palms growing out of their summits! Squadrons of pelicans veer­ing low over the surf in strict forma­tion! I was a newly minted coin, a virgin. The landscape owed me nothing, nor I it. I wrote 80 pages of a novel and was home in time for raft-ing season.

The day after I returned, I took a boatload of co-ed state police from Vermont down the Hudson at big, big water. The weather was cold and gray but above 8 1/2 feet it doesn’t matter anymore. The cops were good paddlers so we had a clean run. At Giveny’s Rift I felt confident enough to take a risky high-water route, cut-ting the eddyline just left of the ferocious mid-river hydraulic known as Soup Strainer. We broke over the crest of the drop aligned perfectly to hit the wave below; we wavered there suspended for a heartbeat. Just as the nose of our boat plowed into the wave’s bottomless trough, I felt the rare thrill of technique and execution in perfect synch, the union of intent and outcome, before the wave closed over the boat and we were obliterated under a crushing force of water. We blew out the other end full to the gun­wales and laughing like monkeys. The cops raised their paddles over their heads and shouted “Yahhooo! Yahhhhhh-hoo!”

In Florida, I envied the gulls that stood in ranks of one or two dozen, all facing to windward with their eyes closed in dumb rapture and the breeze licking at their feathers. They filled their ordained niche in the landscape’s scheme with so little fuss or bother. They reminded me of the poor white families who em­barked from their station wagons early on Sunday mornings, and took to the beaches with plastic garbage bags to scavenge the thousands of deposit bot­tles left behind by Saturday’s masses. Everyone from grandmas to toddlers participated and when they drove away the beach was relatively pristine.

I spent seventeen years wandering aimlessly around the Adirondacks, like Stanley in quest of Livingstone, only without such an explicit quarry. When I closed the door and walked away from the house on Quaker Mountain I ended an attenuated search for the vaguest of possible rea­lities. For me, as a child of suburbs, that was to absorb, internalize and understand the character of one of the most singular geo-political entities in North America – the Adirondacks—and so imbibe its essence. Its essence was elusive and abstract, com­posed of fragments of childhood mem­ories, dreams and impressions as disparate as the smell of black muck in a beaver flow, the sting of a bull­head’s spine, the last color of sunlight extinguished on a bare rock face. It wasn’t until I gave up trying and walk­ed away that it happened, and I felt myself sculpted and worn into shape by my surroundings as much as any dwarf spruce at timberline. The out­look I carried to the world was a pro­duct manufactured by place and stamped “Made in the Adirondack Mountains.”

When we settle in a place domin­ated by landscape and climate we live there on some kind of terms with it until one day a silent exchange takes place. We enter into a contract with the land. Certain obligations are ex­pected from each party and we are re­quired to give as much back as we ex­tract, even if it’s only the benign ap­preciation of its beauty, which is an exploitation of its own kind. We tolerate government agencies em­powered to define and translate the abstraction “Adirondack essence” into policy because we know land outlives property and that the contract is com­ing due. We recognize less and less the barriers separating our human selves from our natural surroundings be­cause once the exchange takes place we realize distinctions are futile and that We and It are one.

Old Irv was certainly It, and he knew it and declared it, whereas the gulls on the beach probably have somewhat less self-awareness. It’s good when you finally drop the barrier bet­ween the interior landscape and the outer one. It frees up energy for im­portant things like holding your pad­dle over your head and shouting “Yahhhh-hoo!” or just standing on a summit at midnight and howling at the moon.


On Newsstands Now

December 2022

’Tis the Season! Adirondack holiday traditions, plus wildlife photography, forest-inspired decor, late-season mountain biking trails, backwoods misadventures and more.

Adirondack Life Magazine

Subscribe Today!

Latest Articles

Search

Follow Us

Adirondack Life Store

for calendars, apparel, maps and more!