Panting and painting along the trail
By Phil Brown
Matt Burnett hiked the Northville-Placid Trail last May. He was in the wilderness for 19 days, usually alone. It rained. It snowed. It got real cold.
He loved it.
“I’ve wanted to do this trip for years,” he said. “It gave me an excuse to tramp through the woods.”
The experience inspired the 28-year-old artist to create a suite of paintings depicting scenes along the 133-mile route. The artworks and excerpts from his journal will be shown around the Adirondack Park this year in an exhibit titled “Glimpses from Within: Paintings from the Northville-Lake Placid Trail.”
Although many artists have been inspired by the Adirondacks, few have been as familiar with the North Woods as Burnett. He grew up on Little Tupper Lake in what is now the Whitney Wilderness. His father was the head forester for Whitney Industries, which then owned the lake and the surrounding lands.
As a boy, Burnett did a lot of hiking, hunting, fishing and camping, but he also developed a knack for drawing. He studied art at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake and went on to earn a degree in fine arts from Plattsburgh State University.
Since graduating, he has held a series of odd jobs—bartender, substitute teacher, assistant forest ranger—to ward off starvation while pursuing his art. He now sells 10 to 15 paintings a year, with most fetching $1,200 to $1,500. Most of his customers are seasonal residents or visitors who fall in love with the Park.
Burnett, who lives in Saranac Lake, received a $4,300 state grant for the Northville-Placid Trail project. He was joined on the trail for a few days by three art students from the local high school. They hiked the 15 miles from Lake Durant to Long Lake, sketching and writing along the way. One of the students later sold a painting of Tirrell Pond for a handsome sum (“He did as well as me or better,” Burnett noted).
The Northville-Placid Trail is not known for sweeping vistas, so it should come as no surprise that Burnett’s paintings focus on small scenes. Some border on abstract compositions, such as “Potholes,” a close-up of bedrock in a stream, or “Meltdown,” a chiaroscuro-like rendering of dirt and snow. Others depict scenes familiar to anyone who has completed the NP: a backpacker on a narrow boardwalk, Long Lake viewed through the trees, the telephone poles along Piseco Road.
As Burnett remarks in the notes that accompany his exhibit: “Those who hiked this trail may or may not recognize these places, but they are what I noticed and how I remember them.”
Burnett’s journal records the highs and lows of hiking the NP. He might wake up to a beautiful morning and spend several delightful hours sketching. Or the weather might be so foul that he would hole up in a lean-to all day. He took it all with good humor, as evidenced by his description of making pancakes in the wild without a spatula: “I began the process by seeking out a suitable piece of bark (for flipping). Once that was accomplished, I mixed up the batter with cut-up dried apple rings. They are light enough and possibly durable enough to patch an air mattress or torn boot heel.”
The final 38 miles, from Long Lake to Lake Placid, took Burnett through familiar terrain—the remote Cold River country he had patrolled as an assistant ranger. This was the only stretch of the NP he had hiked before the end-to-end trek. From earlier trips, he already had finished five paintings of the river, but seeing the region again, he was once more entranced with its beauty: “Last night, as the weather lifted . . . the view of the snow-crusted mountains was amazing as they reflected orange and then purple in the dark sky,” he wrote in his journal. “Today, I’m catching a fish and completing a painting, or dying while trying.”
He must have caught that fish, because three days later, on May 25, he reached the end of trail. His pickup truck was waiting in the parking lot on Averyville Road just south of Lake Placid, and inside the cab were colorful balloons, each with a message from his fiancée. “Congratulations!” said one balloon. “Welcome home!” said another. But the one he remembers best: “Whew! Take a shower.”