North Country for Old Men

by Robin Wall Kimmerer | Guide to the Great Outdoors 2008

Six guys, 46 peaks and friendship for the long haul

“It was the camaraderie
that came first, then the mountains. And it’s a good thing, because at our age the camaraderie is the only part of us that still works. We’re all old farts now,” says Hugh, 75.

But when they were young, with James Dean good looks and heavy packs, six guys hiked just about every trail in the High Peaks Wilderness and most of the blank spaces in between. In the days before Gore-Tex parkas and nylon tents, before freeze-dried meals and before Route 30 was paved, they began a long friendship with each other and with the Adirondacks. If you’ve been in the backcountry in the last half-century, you may have passed them on the trail or met them at a lean-to, singing into the night, half a dozen men in black berets and checked wool shirts.

They’ve logged more than a thousand miles together. More than 54 springs and 54 autumns they’ve been together, hiking the passage from May trilliums to the last of the quietly falling leaves. In their collective three centuries in the mountains they’ve seen the last days of horse logging as well as the debate over cell-phone towers. They’ve slept in lean-tos that no longer exist and clambered through fresh blowdown that is mature forest today. They saw bald eagles on the lakes, watched them disappear to DDT and, in this blessed span, watched the birds return. Only the blackflies haven’t changed.

I have the pleasure
of sitting around the woodstove with the guys at Camp Enuffa, their bare-bones cabin near the Big Bay Outlet of Piseco Lake, on a beautiful October afternoon. It is the kind of fall day when the leaves are smoky gold and drifting down with a wistful inevitability that fills you with something like sadness and something like joy. The fire is low this warm day, but the woodpile outside is as tall as a man.

The guys are Hank Mazanek, Bob Wall and Hugh Hollowood, from the Schenectady area, and Dean Ottaway and Bill Smith from Binghamton. One of their group, Bob’s brother, Ace Wall, also of Binghamton, passed away before this day of storytelling, and his friends are remembering him.

“We were camped at Lilian Brook and behind the lean-to I could see Ace’s head up over the young spruce and I thought, What the hell?” recalls Bob. “I found him standing on a big stump and staring down. Damned if he didn’t have the map and compass spread out on the ground. He couldn’t see the map up close, so he stood on the stump to bring it into focus.”

“Yeah, his eyes were going. Was­n’t it that same trip he tried to wash dishes with the cheese?” asks Bill. In the lantern light after dinner, Ace had mistaken the block of cheddar for a bar of yellow soap. “He rubbed and squeezed that poor cheese, but just couldn’t get any lather.”

Long before GPS, these hikers explored the backcountry with map and compass and a good sense for the lay of the land. Usually. “We might have climbed a few mountains that we didn’t mean to, but that’s not the same as lost,” says Bob. The men agree that when bushwhacks took them through the aftermath of the big 1950 blowdown, it was easy to get turned around. “You’d be so busy trying not to fall through the logs, that there was no way you could walk a straight line,” recalls Hugh. “Other places, there was balsam thicket all around and we had to lean our whole bodies into it, just to part the trees. If there was a hard way to do it, we usually found it.” Dean experienced the blowdown firsthand near Long Lake on Thanksgiving Day, when 10,000 acres were flattened in a single day. That swath of downed timber was the bane of their bushwhacking for years afterward. But, in the lifetime of their friendship, the forest has come back.

“You know,” says Hugh, “wherever we ended up, we never argued about directions. We just shared the responsibility and took the consequences. And there was not a time when there wasn’t someone behind you boosting you, or ahead of you to pull you up.”

The club began in 1954 when Bob and Hugh started hiking into fishing ponds, then Hank drew them up mountains and gradually the news spread and the others joined in. As the mountains added up, they came to call themselves the Sixers. There were, after all, six of them, all Forty-Sixers (the title given to those who’ve hiked all 46 of the Adirondacks’ highest peaks). They were two brothers and four friends, men who recognized the same hankering for wild places and who were just starting out in life, with first jobs and first babies. Now they’re all long retired and have dozens of grandkids among them.

They have 54 years together, but their individual connections to the Adirondacks run even longer. Bob’s first trip was up Snowy Mountain, a 3,899-foot-high peak near Indian Lake, in 1946. From the top of the fire tower, he watched the last of the log booms on Indian Lake. River drives are long gone today, as are many fire towers. As a young man, Hank would walk into the Cold River country, west of the High Peaks, and bring tobacco to the famous hermit Noah John Rondeau, and they’d sit outside on stumps to talk. “Geez, I imagine that having to listen to Hank’s stories would have tempted Rondeau to go back to civilization,” says Bill.

I ask, “Did you intend to be­come Forty-Sixers?” “Oh, no,” says Bob. “The mountains just started adding up, and when we realized we were getting pretty close we just finished them up. We didn’t just climb the High Peaks; we climbed for that feeling you get on top. We did Noonmark lots of times, just for the view.” Hank and Bob were the first to finish; their numbers in the registry of Forty-Sixers are 582 and 583. Today the Forty-Sixers number more than 6,000.

“The best part,” says Hugh, was the camping. “Man, that was really living. We always had a top-notch camp, with good food and good fire. There was none of this eating beans out of a can or cold trail mix for dinner. It was always a celebration of being there.” The menu was unchanging from year to year. On Friday nights it was cornbread and chili, frozen in old milk cartons so that it was thawed just in time for supper. Saturday they grilled spiedies over the fire and ate the meat cubes with slabs of Italian bread and slices of raw onion. I imagine them in the firelight, tin plates heaped high, their faces content, with the Adirondack night falling around them.

When the dishes were done, the singing began. The woods rang with songs from the wartime days, old Mitch Miller tunes and a sprinkle of bawdy anthems that they didn’t dare sing at home. The repertoire included songs of their own making, commemorating various misadventures and lauding their personal attributes. I can almost hear it, the sound of six men’s voices harmonizing by firelight. A chest-deep bass, two fine tenors; the Scotch smoothed out the rough edges as they sang half the night. “I imagine that we kept somebody awake,” says Hugh.

The harmony of their relationship hangs in the air this October afternoon. How rare it is for men to have a friendship of this longevity. Dean says, “I’ve told hundreds of people about our friendship and they can’t believe it.” Hugh chimes in, “We haven’t had to wipe each others’ asses yet, but we would.”

The ass-wiping has not been needed, but teeth-finding has. After one long night around the fire, Ace stumbled off to the outhouse and came back without his dentures. “The rest of us had to wander around with flashlights, looking for his teeth,” says Hugh. This moment was commemorated at Ace’s Old Fart party by a pair of false teeth mounted on a rubber pizza.

Among the Sixers, “Old Fart” is an honorary title bestowed upon the occasion of a 60th birthday. They’re all Old Farts now. Hank is the eldest at 90 years old and Hugh is the baby at 76. They marked these milestones with legendary parties. At one such gala, someone remarked, “You’d need a blowtorch to light all those candles.” And so they used one.

Making outrageous handmade birthday gifts for each other became the tradition. There was a three-bitted ax welded from old ax heads they’d found at an abandoned logging camp. The berets were a gift as well, brought back from a business trip to Spain. Some of the treasures reside here at Camp Enuffa, like the platter made of a log slab, to replace the one broken when a birthday cake was cut with an ax. Gifts related to navigation were a common theme, such as the compass that points permanently to Macomb Mountain, a joke on the time they tried to hike the (then) trailless peak and ended up on the wrong mountain. Especially for Ace, Hugh transferred a map to a bedsheet so large that he couldn’t help but see it, even without the aid of a stump.

A typical day on the trail started when Hank would set their battered old coffee pot to boiling and make bacon and eggs over the fire. The guys took pride in the fact that in 54 years of hiking they never once broke an egg in transit. “We’d cut the egg box into three sections, and then stack them in Hank’s old saltine tin,” explains Bill. It was then wrapped in a sleeping bag. The bottle of Scotch received the same protection, arriving swaddled in down. More than once they saw Hank’s nose drip into the scrambled eggs. So, at Hank’s Old Fart birthday party, he was presented with a Groucho Marx set of glasses, nose and mustache, to which an enterprising Sixer had attached a dangling nose cup.

They prided themselves on always being warm and dry. A good fire was emblematic of their lives in the woods, of knowing the trees well enough to start a one-match fire in a driving rain. Their old-time gear was fine-tuned to provide comfort and safety, but never more than that. And each piece did double duty—the battered old dishpan washed socks as well as cups, plates, pots and pans; it also fanned the fire and scared off the bears. Camp Enuffa, where they now have their gatherings, was named for this principle of having just enough: what you need but no more.

Their campsites, which they called Good Camps, became beacons for others who stumbled up the trail wet, bedraggled and utterly unprepared for the wilderness. They all shake their heads, thinking of a night when they were settled in, singing around the fire. It was cold and sleeting, but the Sixers were cozy and dry. Out of the darkness came a troop of a dozen Boy Scouts, looking like death warmed over. Their leader must have been 60 years old, they recall. “Geez,” they all chime in. “We thought that was really old—it seems young now!” The guys led them to a site just down the trail to set up their tents. But, Dean adds, “We were afraid the poor kids would freeze, so we brought them over several armloads of dry kindling and fuel along with a big shovelful of coals to get a fire going.”

Their good deeds did not go unnoticed. One day, hiking an old fire road from Coreys toward Blueberry lean-to, they met a couple of forest rangers who recognized them by their berets. One of them said, “Say, we’ve been hearing stories of some Good Samaritan types over at Johns Brook. They say if you’re in trouble, look for the six guys with berets.”

“One night at Johns Brook lean-to,” Bob remembers, “we were sitting around the fire and a couple came hobbling up to the lean-to. No light. No gear. The woman had badly sprained her ankle. So they sat by the fire while Dean patched her up. It was much too swollen to get back in her boot but the pair insisted on walking out that night. So somebody lent her a pair of spare sneakers and one of our flashlights, so they could safely walk out to their car, which was parked at the Garden [a High Peaks Wilderness trailhead]. We told them to just leave the sneakers and the light under Bill’s car and we’d get them on Sunday.”

Unfortunately, the kindness was not repaid, for there were neither light nor shoes on Sunday afternoon. “True, but that was an exception,” Dean says. “Most everyone we met in the woods were good sorts.” Bob adds, “We’d leave our whole camp set up and never have to worry about anybody taking our things. In all those years, it never happened. You hear about how no one will help you anymore, but that’s just not true.”

I ask them about changes they’ve seen over their years on Adirondack trails. The first thing they say is, “More people.” Decades ago they’d often go for days without meeting another party. But today even trailless peaks have steady traffic.

The way people camp has changed too. Bill remembers the best sleep he ever had, at Slant Rock lean-to, in the High Peaks, on a bed of freshly cut balsam. “Soft, springy and fragrant—it was heaven.” That was fine when there was no one else in the woods, “But, if everybody did that now, there’d be nothing left,” he says. Even firewood has gotten scarce. “It used to be you had all the wood you could burn, dead stuff just lying around, but not anymore,” he says. Today the rule is that High Peaks campers must cook on stoves, which is fine, but something is lost. You really can’t serenade the stars sitting around a propane canister.

The old kind of camping has gone with the arrival of the crowds. But there are compensations, like the lightness of the gear. The Sixers began hiking in heavy leather boots and always wore wool. Still not a bad idea. Their tarps were weighty smoked canvas and their ropes of manila hemp. Today the guys wear fleece and microfiber rain gear, but they never gave up on real food and real fire, always carrying enough for a “Good Camp.” They rarely carried a tent, instead planning their trips around lean-tos, which were plentiful throughout the park. That’s another change they’ve seen: the removal of many high-elevation and lakeside lean-tos.

No wonder Ace had to stand on a stump to see the map. There’s a lot to bring into focus. These guys have been witnesses to tremendous changes. When they began hiking, the Adirondack economy still relied on mining and timber. The mines at Tahawus were still producing titanium. “You had to be on the lookout for mine trucks barreling over the roads,” says Hugh. Log trucks were constant, as pulp, lumber and veneer logs came out of the forest.

As a graduate of the Ranger School, in Wanakena, Dean was cruising timber in 1953 and saw the last vestiges of horse logging. He remembers logging camps in the backcountry, where men would live for weeks. There were rows of tents and a cook shack to feed everyone. “Now there are so many roads,” he says, “loggers can simply go home at the end of the day. What was a way of life is now an eight-to-five job, the end of an era.” Raspberries and pin cherry have covered over the rusting remnants of logging camps. Coils of logging chain molder in the duff, and all that’s left of that life is a pile of whiskey bottles and tobacco tins.

The group camped all over the backcountry with their unspoken rule: always leave a place better than you found it. Dean would rebuild fallen-down fireplaces, and they’d clean out the springs where they drank. Striking camp was finished with a last inspection to be sure the lean-to was ready for the next visitors. Without fail, they left a pile of wood, safe from the rain, to welcome some fellow woodsman who came down the trail wet and cold. They didn’t just leave remnants from last night’s fire, but a careful stack of kindling, clean-split fuel and handfuls of dry tinder to start the blaze. I like to think of the relief the next folks might feel on a dark night, at this small but significant gift. Leaving firewood seems to me to be the perfect way of honoring the relationship between men and mountains. That stack of wood says, “I don’t know who you are, but I know that your feet are tired because mine sure were.” A pile of waiting wood is a message of reciprocity laid out in hard maple and birch bark curls. Doesn’t that wood tell the next guy the law of the land, that you always look out for each other and give back a gift in return for what you’ve been given? I ask them how often the favor was returned. “Hardly ever” is the reply. But they did it anyway.

As the decades went by, more people came to the woods without this respect for each other and for the mountains. “It got so you’d come to a lean-to and it would be a dump,” says Dean. “Idiots had left trash, sheets of plastic—all kinds of crap that you had to clean up before you could use it.” On many occasions their homeward packs would be filled with garbage from people who seemed to think that “carry it in, carry it out” didn’t apply to them.

Adirondack conservation policy has undergone a huge transformation, from relatively unregulated public lands to the intensive planning instituted in the 1970s by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA). This is a special place, say the Sixers, and we need to take care of what we have. In some ways they’ve seen the place grow wilder with time. In their years together the men have also observed changes in wildlife. Turkeys weren’t here when they began hiking, but now they’re everywhere. They’ve witnessed bears habituated to dumps returning to the wild as towns have closed landfills. In addition to eagles, moose are coming back, as are fishers and martens. “Good things can happen when people take responsibility,” Bob says.

As we talk, one realization prompts the next. In their shoeboxes of photos, there’s one of the Gothics lean-to, in black and white. Sure enough, in the same box is a later view, but in color. The Sixers’ albums span the evolution of cameras, from black-and-white to Kodachrome and now to the digital photos they share by e-mail.

“You know what’s different now, something I really miss?” asks Bob. “Water. Just cupping your hands to an icy cold stream and drinking.” When the Sixers began hiking, they drank freely from trailside springs and brooks. Often someone would leave a tin cup on a branch alongside a spring for the next thirsty traveler. But, since the arrival in the mountains of giardia, a parasite that’s spread by feces and causes diarrhea, one of the trail’s great pleasures has been lost.

The men get quiet for a minute. They seem surprised at how much has gone by. It’s as if they never stopped to think about it before, the way their story intersects with the story of the mountains. From watching the last log drives, to the APA, from blowdown to recovery. There is a tinge of amazement that they’ve lived so long and never quite noticed where the time went.

They think back on favorite campsites: Scotts Clearing, Johns Brook, Lake Colden, Elk Lake, the Miami River. Bob speaks up, “We’ve had some pretty good times. Perfect fall days on top of a peak … skiing down the logging road at Perkins Clearing in the moonlight. These are near religious experiences,” he says, “when the sun is low and the maples are all red and purple, just as the light starts to go.” “Yeah, on those days in the woods, I just feel gratitude,” adds Bill. “It’s good to be alive.”

“Yeah?” Hugh says. “Well, I felt gratitude if I could fall asleep before you started snoring.” But then he tells about the time a chickadee landed on his shoulder at Camp Enuffa. And then he asks, “Remember when we sat right here and saw the ermine? And then the pine marten came and chased it away? We were that close.” The stories flow: Remember the newborn fawn in a bed of ferns? The otter sliding down an ice bank? Each encounter a gift.

“Truthfully, those are the things that kept us out here,” says Dean. “We have a great respect for Mother Nature and everything that has been given to us. That’s why we always toast the gods of Tahawus.” This was the guys’ ritual of thanks to the mountains. The first coffee of the morning always belonged to the gods; so did the first Scotch of the evening. They’d pour a ceremonial offering onto the ground, with the words, “Here’s to the gods of Tahawus,” keepers of the places they loved.

We’ve been talking for hours,
and the Sixers get serious now, speaking of the immense appreciation they have for all they’ve been given by the Adirondacks. Hugh says, “The way I see it, I owe a lot, because I’ve been given a lot.” I ask them about this idea of reciprocity with a place, about returning the gift. They’re reluctant to toot their own horns, but I learn that among the Sixers are a town supervisor and several councilmen, scout leaders and members of school boards. Hugh dismisses it with a wave at the circle of men around the fire, “Everybody does his share in giving back.”

With the light turning gold outside, talk turns philosophical. Dean speaks of the particular joy of days by himself in the boonies. He says, “You’d be walking down a logging road and get the feeling that you weren’t alone.” Then he’d meet the eyes of a deer. “Such wonders,” he says. “I’d have to stop and think to myself, What hath God wrought?”

Hugh is a church-going man, and Hank used to give him a hard time about religion. Hugh would turn it right around and ask Hank, the old sinner, why he never went. Hank’s ready response was: “I’m closer to God in the woods than you ever are in church.”

Darkness comes early this time of year. I can hear a stomach or two growling and know I must be on my way. I’ll leave them to their evening, when for one of hundreds of times together they’ll toast the gods of Tahawus, light their fire and sing. In one of their made-up songs, a verse goes like this: “I’ve been happy in the mountains, but I now have the yen, to start all over and do it again.”

I ask if there are any chores I might help with before I go, but there aren’t. The Sixers talk about work parties at E­nuffa, painting, maintaining trails. They come here less and less nowadays. Still, before they strike camp, they check to be sure to leave it better than they found it. Bob says, “We don’t need to cut any more wood. The woodshed is full; it’s more than we need. It was always our rule to leave firewood for the next guy. It looks like we probably will.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer is the daugh­ter of Bob Wall and a professor in the department of environmental and forest biology at SUNY–ESF. Her book Gathering Moss won the 2005 John Burroughs Medal for outstanding natural history writing.

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