By Bill McKibben
We stuck our canoes in the water at Round Lake—a name that tells you confoundingly little. There are Round lakes and Round ponds scattered across the Adirondack region; I can call to mind half a dozen without even looking at a map. There’s so unbelievably much water here that it must have exceeded the imaginative reserves of the early settlers. With few Indian names to draw on (Native Americans used the central Adirondacks as a summer hunting ground, not a permanent settlement), the first European arrivals were left to their own devices for designating roughly 3,000 lakes and ponds and countless rivers and streams. Hence Round. Also Clear. Also Mud. Also Fish.
But our trip, more precisely, began at the end of Round Lake at an old rock dam, started in 1892, that was designed to raise the level of the water in the spring so that lumbermen could flush a winter’s worth of logs down to the mill. The dam (which has made the lake anything but round) does in fact tell you something about this place: Though very wild, the land we’d be traveling for the rest of the week isn’t wilderness. People have used it, and in some cases used it hard, since the late 19th century. Perhaps you could say it’s in recovery now; perhaps that’s what this trip was really celebrating.
I was joined in my journey by the Frenette brothers, Jim and Bill. For me, the chance to paddle with the Frenettes was as sweet as the chance to paddle the newly conserved lands that would make our route possible. At ages 76 and 78, respectively, Jim (former chairman of the Adirondack Park Agency) and Bill (a former trustee of the Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack chapter) are nearly as much landmarks of this place as the mountains circling the lakes. After a lifetime of hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding and otherwise reconnoitering this landscape, they were the best possible guides. Except for one thing: They kept disappearing over the horizon, their effortless tandem paddling pulling them steadily away from me in my solo boat.
We set out at noon, on a perfect high-summer day, big fair-weather clouds in a blue sky, a small wind at our backs as we went from Round Lake on to Little Tupper (named for being smaller than Tupper Lake, which was named for the surveyor who’d first mapped it). Little Tupper was long the summer home of the Whitneys, as in, for instance, Manhattan’s Whitney Museum. A few years ago the state finally managed to persuade the family matriarch to sell the lake so it could be added to the nearly 3 million acres of the Adirondack Forest Preserve lands—lands within the Adirondack Park that were designated “forever wild” by the New York legislature in 1885. The remainder of the 6-million-acre park is private land, including small hamlets, timberlands, farms, homes and camps.
And loons. We were halfway down the 6-mile-long lake when we noticed a collection of 11 large birds a little to our left. They looked like loons, but none of us had ever before seen them gather in such flotillas, except sometimes right before they migrate. They didn’t leave us guessing for long—they broke out into a cacophony of unmistakable tremolos and trills and stern laughter, the loon music that would inhabit our dreams each night of this journey. With their benediction at our backs, we paddled past the peninsula where a Whitney hunting camp, Camp Bliss, had been removed and the land allowed to return to forest, and then chased a decorous great blue heron down a short stream into Rock Pond (I can think of half a dozen Rock ponds, too), where we spent the night.
A clear night with the moon just past full, a heavy dew to shake from our tents, a rising sun as we paddled across Rock Pond and an osprey to watch over us as we made our way. “That nest was there in 1960,” says Bill. “Right on the same branch. How about that?” Almost too good to be true, which also could be said of the day’s start: We’d paddled only 20 minutes when the time came to get out, pack gear and start the first of many portages. In the Adirondacks we call them “carries,” but never mind—they’re the same the world over, the sweaty toll extracted for the right to skim these lakes and streams, these highways of the forest. This carry began with a series of epic mudholes. I nearly lost a sandal in the very first and had to stick my arm in well past the shoulder to pull it out, affording me a neat layer of Adirondack sunscreen. Fortunately, Bill and Jim were (as usual) out of sight up ahead, sparing me the indignity of an audience.
The rhythm lasted most of the day: short paddles across small ponds, long carries between them and occasional stops for landmarks, like the spot near Touhey Falls where in the early 1930s one logging baron had built a railroad to get his logs out. The tracks were gone now, but the level grade remained, a reminder that though we were the only people out in these wild tracts, we were accompanied by ghosts of a busier day. Ghosts who were doubtless giggling as we humped the canoes along the last hard carry of the day, and then settled with some relief into the waters of Shingle Shanty Brook, a glorious meander that doubled back on itself in infinite and hypnotic variations. Exploring the brook, barely a paddle’s length across in many places, was like meandering the hallways of a vast country estate: around one corner, and another, and another, never sure what treasure would be revealed next. Cardinal flowers, in this case; great scarlet banks of them.
And then finally, as the sun was losing its sweaty power, out we came from the reeds into the sweeping shallow bay at the end of Lake Lila, a beloved queen of Adirondack waters. Lila Vanderbilt was the wife of the man who owned these lands once—another 19th-century baron, this one named William Seward Webb. In 1978 the Adirondack Nature Conservancy bought the lake and surrounding forests and transferred them to the state. Lila has been a favorite of paddlers ever since. We pulled tired into a campsite along a sandy beach, and swam, and waited. Waited because we knew that Todd Dunham of the conservancy staff was even now paddling in to join us. Waited because we suspected he might be bringing beer.
As it turned out, we were right: Saranac Ale, one of the finer upstate brews. And he brought stories, too—in particular, the story of how the conservancy had come to purchase the 26,500 acres at either end of our trip, the land that made this extended journey possible.
“Seven or eight years ago, International Paper did an analysis of what it was costing them to pay taxes on the bodies of water where they couldn’t grow any trees,” Dunham says. “Even with leasing lands to hunting camps, the taxes on waterfront property were so huge that they couldn’t cover their costs.” The company brought together a variety of Adirondack interests, including the conservancy, to discuss the prospects for the lakes, but real action waited until a real-estate agent found a buyer for Round Lake, the 800-acre gem where we’d begun our journey. “Their buyer was ready to meet IP’s price,” Dunham adds. “But when they were a month from closing, the company said to us, ‘If you can match this price, you can buy it.’
“It wasn’t cheap,” says Dunham. “But when was the last time someone sold an 800-acre lake around here? So we started throwing all sorts of various pieces on the table. Would you sell us this, and this, and this? By the end, we were up to 26,500 acres.” The land was protected less with an eye to particular rare species (indeed, much of the acreage had been heavily and repeatedly logged) than with the knowledge that it would consolidate some 195,000 acres of protected land around it—including the Five Ponds Wilderness, one of the Adirondacks’ largest Wilderness Areas. That it would also round out the great canoe routes of the area was a bonus. “We got one tour of the property in an IP pickup truck, but that was enough to help us realize the recreational possibilities,” says Dunham. That helped interest the state of New York, which is in the process of purchasing some of the land from the conservancy for inclusion in the Forest Preserve.
Anywhere else in the eastern United States, 26,500 acres would be a huge land purchase. In the Adirondacks, the deal will add less than 1 percent to the total protected land in Adirondack Park. Which raises the question: Is it as urgent to buy land here as in other places? There’s no perfect answer to that query, but here’s why I think so: There’s almost no other place in the country, and certainly nowhere else in the East, where the chance exists to complete, not begin, the cycle of protection. Elsewhere it’s crucial scraps and remnants and odd corners that get bought in a mad scramble to save them ahead of the developers. But here, because of the century-old state commitment to wilderness, those scraps and corners are rounding out a whole, allowing us to imagine what a truly conserved landscape looks like. In many places we have no choice but to save fragments of the old tunes, allowing us to imagine what once they sounded like and what they might sound like again some day in the distant future. In the Adirondacks, as in Alaska, you can hear the symphony as it was meant to be played.
Philosophical reflection ceased at 8:30 the next morning, which was the hour we finished our paddle across Lake Lila and plunged into the woods. This was the carry we’d been talking about since we began—relatively short but absolutely trackless, save for a few pieces of flagging along a route that Jim had explored a few weeks before.
It was here that my canoe really came into its sweet own. Built by Adirondack craftsman Pete Hornbeck, it’s a high-tech knockoff of a cedar-strip design built in the 19th century for George Washington Sears, a.k.a. Nessmuk, an early Adirondack explorer and writer. It paddles beautifully on open lake, and even better in narrow channels, but you really bless its builder when you come to a carry like this one. That’s because it weighs about 14 pounds. You can put on your pack and sling the boat over your shoulder like a giant handbag, then negotiate fallen trees, moss-slicked rocks, crowding alders, scraping spruces. It took us 20 minutes, and suddenly we popped out into the sunshine at Harrington Pond, another long, flowing, marshy land, this one rich in purple pickerelweed.
We hauled the canoes out of the water once more half an hour later, this time on a railroad track, the one that was used for generations by freight and passenger trains running north from Utica through the mountains all the way to Lake Placid. Jim and Bill were soon telling stories. “I can remember watching the train stop at Dr. Webb’s private depot,” says Bill. “We’d scratch the frost off the windows and watch the people getting down, the staff with lanterns there to greet them. It was real pretty.” Their grandfather had been an engineer on the railroad. In fact, in 1908, when a great fire ignited by sparks hitting logging slash had swept through the area, he’d backed the train down these tracks into the tiny community of Sabattis to rescue the encircled inhabitants. Now, shielded from the hot sun by the boats on our heads, we just trudged slowly along.
After crossing diminutive Clear Pond, we spent the night in a grove of hemlocks on a little peninsula jutting into Bog Lake. I swam for a while and then wandered off along the old logging roads on the only kind of biological survey for which I am well-qualified: I found not only blueberries, not only lush and heavy raspberries, but even a few bushes of early, perfectly ripe blackberries.
At sunrise the next morning, we set off on our final day’s paddle, out the marshy outlet of Bog Lake and on to Lows Lake, another long, narrow, well-loved sheet of Adirondack water. It had been the center of Augustus Low’s 19th-century empire. At one time, insisted Bill, the maple trees in this vast sugarbush had produced more syrup than the entire state of Vermont. “And it would win all the medals at their state fair, too, till they made a rule that the entries had to come from Vermont.”
The longer we paddled, the longer I listened to the stories of the Frenettes, and the more I saw the old rail tracks and the scars of the logging fires and the remnants of the 19th-century baronial camps, the more I understood why these purchases seem so vital to me. The Adirondacks are perhaps the world’s greatest experiment in ecological recovery, a place hard used a century ago and now slowly reverting, slowly proving that where humanity backs off, nature rebounds. And these parcels are paradigmatic: Few places in the Adirondacks have been worked as many ways, have had as much timber and game and beauty wrung out of them. And now all of that hard use is slowly ceasing.
I tried my theory out on Jim. “Yeah, I guess,” he says. “It’s like an old man that works hard all his life, and then when he’s done he gets to sit still and relax.” And then he winked and tossed his canoe up on his shoulders and trotted off across the next carry.