In McMartin’s footsteps: Bill Ingersoll keeps guidebook series alive
By Paul Grondahl
A songbird’s call pierced the stillness of the hardwood forest. It sounded like “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” Bill Ingersoll identified the bird by its call. “That’s the ovenbird,” he said. “Barbara taught me that.”
That would be Barbara McMartin—the prolific Adirondack guidebook author, passionate preservationist and indefatigable booster of the joys of hiking—who died last year at age 73 after a long battle with cancer. McMartin couldn’t have chosen a more astute protégé than Ingersoll, her handpicked successor to whom she passed the baton as guiding spirit to keep her remarkable series of 11 guidebooks, Discover the Adirondacks, updated and in print.
“Barbara’s books introduced me to the Adirondacks, and I’m honored to be carrying on her work,” said Ingersoll, 31, who’s single, lives north of Utica, works in technical support for a bank and devotes nearly all his free time on weekends to hiking in the Adirondacks with the purpose of gathering material for the guidebooks.
Ingersoll met McMartin six years ago, after writing her a fan letter about her Discover the Southwestern Adirondacks book. It was more than a quick note of appreciation, though. Ingersoll’s observations went on for five pages. His letter suggested some hikes she hadn’t included and corrected her on a few things he felt she got wrong.
“Looking back on it now, it was pretty presumptuous of me,” Ingersoll said, but it drew a response from McMartin. She wrote back and said she was intrigued by his suggestions. They began corresponding (he found out after she died that she’d saved all his letters). Around this same time, Lee Brenning, one of McMartin’s longtime guidebook contributors, passed away. McMartin asked Ingersoll if he was interested in helping her to revisit trails and to make revisions. Their loose, informal arrangement eventually grew into a formal partnership after Ingersoll passed muster with McMartin—following an apprenticeship and his acing a test she devised to assess his trail knowledge. After that, the two struck a deal: She would pass along the stewardship of the guidebooks to Ingersoll after she died as long he promised to keep them going.
“Barbara told me my compensation would be peanuts so I shouldn’t quit my day job or buy a new car,” Ingersoll recalled. There are more than 220,000 copies of McMartin’s guidebooks in print. The Discover series titles sell slowly, but steadily, and have so far generated enough revenue for Ingersoll to break even with the enterprise. He plans to bring out about 1,000 copies of each volume and is currently working to publish revised editions of three volumes now out of print: Central, Eastern and Northwest.
For someone in love with the outdoors, updating the guidebooks is a labor of love. “I consider them my second job, the fun one,” Ingersoll said.
We’ve paused for a water break while hiking on a glorious summer morning to T Lake, west of Piseco Lake, in the southern portion of the West Canada Lake Wilderness. Ingersoll’s constant hiking companion has come along, too. Lexie is a 5-year-old female Chow mix he adopted from the pound. She displays an independent spirit and a deep familiarity with the Adirondack woods. He tries not to make comparisons with his late, beloved Purdy, a three-legged, part-Greyhound mongrel who hiked with him for years in a remarkably agile hopping gait. She thrived after surgery to remove a cancerous leg, but old age caught up to her, and Ingersoll reluctantly put down his special canine friend. “Lexie is a good dog, but Purdy was one of a kind,” he said. “We had great times on the trail together.”
On this morning, we’re undertaking a moderate, four-hour, 7.4-mile round trip that has a 1,000-foot elevation change and ends at an unusually shaped little lake whose name fits it to a T. This is the guidebook’s description: “As you approach the valley you follow and cross a small stream, then at 1.9 miles you cross Mill Stream on rocks, having descended 250 feet. The confluence of the streams, which flow over pink feldspar, is quite lovely.” That last description has the ring of McMartin, although Ingersoll said he tries to add his own updated information with a seamless quality that makes it hard to know where her prose leaves off and his takes up.
Our hike this day to T Lake is covered in Discover the West Central Adirondacks, which Ingersoll recently revised and updated for a third edition published by his own Wild River Press. His humility is on display on the book’s cover, as well, since he takes the secondary author credit after McMartin’s name.
Ingersoll is a lanky, loose-limbed fellow whose long strides are slow and sure, almost plodding. He has a round, open face, close-cropped sandy hair and wire-rimmed spectacles. His flat, reedy voice hitches with a slight stammer. He seems constitutionally incapable of rushing; he leaves that to Lexie, with her exuberant darting to and fro in reconnoitering missions along the trail. Ingersoll dresses the part of a veteran hiker for whom form follows function. He wears Sportiva boots, Dickies chino work pants and an Adirondack Mountain Club Duo-Fold T-shirt under a long-sleeve nylon fly-fishing shirt. He sports a soft, wide-brimmed tan hat also designed for fishing, which he rarely does. His Mountainsmith day pack is frayed and pulling apart at the seams from excessive use. He carries a topo map and compass, two Nalgene water bottles, and peanut butter sandwiches in a Tupperware container.
“He’s kind of reserved until he speaks his mind about the Adirondacks, in front of a group,” said his friend and fellow hiker, Paul Kalac, of Gloversville. “He’s a font of knowledge about the Adirondacks, and he’s forceful when he’s standing up for the mountains.”
Growing up in Oneida County, raised in a family that had little affinity for the outdoors, Ingersoll saw very little of the Adirondacks aside from a few trips to Lake Placid. He joined the Boy Scouts but, by his own admission, “didn’t have a lot of aptitude for it.” At the age of 11, during a winter campout with the Scouts, his boots filled with snow, his cotton socks remained wet and he ended up being hospitalized with severe frostbite in all 10 toes—which recovered after treatment, although he still has problems with numbness in his toes. “I was pegged as a non-outdoors type after that and even started believing it myself,” Ingersoll said.
In high school, he was a middle-distance runner on the track team and wrote stories and drew cartoons for the school paper. He organized an art club that painted a large mural. He was drawn to comic books and science fiction. “My high-school social life wasn’t the best,” said Ingersoll, who was labeled a nerd. “Thank God you’re not stuck with the image you’re assigned in high school.”
Following the Boy Scout winter camp-out mishap, it took grit and perseverance for Ingersoll to reinvent himself as a woodsman comfortable in the wilderness. He spent the 20th anniversary of his frostbitten toes (March 7, 2006) by going on a snowshoeing trip and winter camping outing near Giant Mountain.
“Bill is really good in the woods, and he’s so adept with a map and compass that he always knows where he is, even when we’re bushwhacking,” said Doug Tinkler of New Hartford, who got to know Ingersoll through going on hikes with the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Iroquois chapter, of which both are members.
Ingersoll’s latest cause is a campaign to designate the Cotton Lake area in the southwestern Adirondacks as the 19th wilderness area within the Blue Line. Currently, this remote tract is part of the Black River Wild Forest, but he argues that it deserves the more stringent and protected designation.
Ingersoll brings a fresh eye and new skills to the guidebooks, which is evident throughout. He’s added a pleasing new re-design; more and better photographs; expanded and updated trail descriptions and background notes. McMartin, a mathematician by training, brought an algorithmic precision to the guidebooks. By contrast, Ingersoll has a bachelor of fine arts degree from Rochester Institute of Technology and focused on painting. His senior project was a series of Cubist-inspired abstracts in which he mixed sawdust and corrugated cardboard with his paint to achieve a textured, dramatic canvas. He puts his artistic and technical skills to use doing illustration and layout work for the revised guidebooks on his home computer using Adobe Illustrator software.
Continuity is foremost in the mind of Ingersoll, who sends a draft of his guidebook manuscript to McMartin’s husband, Alec Reid, a retired IBM executive who lives on Canada Lake. Reid proofreads the book and offers suggestions. Ingersoll also sees a continuance between him and McMartin on Adirondack issues. “Barbara and I agreed for the most part in our views toward the Park,” he said. “I certainly favor the conservation side of things, as she did.”
Ingersoll sees the Adirondacks as a natural treasure, encompassing a variety of wild lands–mountains, rivers, lakes, lowland bogs. “When you look around the rest of the Northeast, there is nothing quite like the Adirondacks,” he said. “We have everything here.”