Hungarian-born Arpad Gerster was a 19th-century Renaissance man, an artist, writer, musician, keen observer of the natural world, early conservationist, pioneer of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and the author of Rules of Aseptic and Antiseptic Surgery, the textbook that set the standard in the United States for maintaining a sanitized operating room.
He was a linguist who spoke six languages and the possessor of considerable wit, humanity and knowledge, usually untainted by the mawkish sentimentality of the age in which he lived. This memoir of events surrounding the doctor’s hunting and fishing vacations at the family’s Adirondack home, Camp Oteetiwi on Big Island in Raquette Lake, provides a fascinating look at camp life here in the late 1800s. Unlike most diaries of the period that are repetitious and poorly written, Gerster exhibits an astonishing literary dexterity in a language that he did not begin to learn until he was in his 20s. He covers a multitude of subjects and illustrates his comments with exquisitely detailed drawings.
Influenced strongly by the work of Thoreau, Gerster was a skilled outdoorsman and accomplished in woodcraft, with a keen eye for observing the habits of everything from bees, frogs and spiders to mushrooms and the weather. He reveled in swimming the cold lakes of autumn, he sailed in high winds when others stayed on shore, and he enjoyed winter camping, something few well-to-do outdoorsmen of that era would have considered.
Gerster was also very much a man of his times. He could be opinionated and prudish, and his hunting and fishing exploits appear excessive by today’s standards, though the resources of those days must have seemed inexhaustible. He frequently chides others who have “fished out” a particularly rich hole, while boasting of taking 14 fish in 10 minutes for supper and catching 103 large trout during a single fishing trip.
Gerster writes eloquently about the creatures he dispatches, reminiscent of the proclivities of soonto- be President Teddy Roosevelt. The thirst for the kill seems virtually inbred in such men, as though they were members of the Royal Family hunting on their private English estates. When, on one occasion, they spot a large bear swimming in the middle of Eagle Lake, Gerster and his partners are beside themselves at not having brought along a gun. One of the men actually considers hitting the creature with an oar, despite the likelihood that such an action would overturn their boat in frigid water. Never does the thought enter their heads that they might simply enjoy the unusual privilege of viewing a bear swimming.
Yet for all this, we come to like and respect Dr. Gerster. He spends much of his precious vacation time ministering to the poor guides and service people around him. Ahighly cultivated man, his evenings are passed reading Homer, Thucydides, Dante and Hume while listening to or accompanying his wife playing Bach and Beethoven on the piano and organ. He records religiously in his diary, the prose elevated far above the norm for such writing: “A furious gale from the west, sky steely blue, covered here and there with flying white clouds, birch and maple leaves, bitten by the late frost, falling fast and carried by the furious blast.”
Another entry records a magical moment at Camp Oteetiwi in the company of his pet daschund:
At about 5 p.m. while I was sitting on our South Veranda, with Brownie on my lap & reading, a beautiful hummingbird came up to within a foot of my chair, perched upon a vine and eyed us for about 10 seconds. It had a gorgeous jeweled back like a mother of pearl, opals and turquoises combined, a fine long beak and a pair of curious beady eyes. Brownie moved and that broke the spell: off went our aristocratic visitor.
Gerster almost certainly suffered from what we would today call obsessive-compulsive disorder. His diary is a paean to the condition, offering page upon page of miniscule directions and the precise order in which they should be followed. Here is a lesson in 19th-century life in the woods—at least as it reflects an upper-class existence. We learn about supplies used, methods for fishing and hunting, how camps are closed for winter and opened in the spring, the repairs and duties that guides and caretakers perform, medicinal care, food preparation, financial payments for goods and services, how portaging and overnight and winter camping are best conducted, what to do if you become lost in the woods, how to select campsites and on and on. It is one of the most comprehensive looks at the camp life of a bygone era that I have encountered, and as such it is a valuable record.
The book also reveals how attitudes toward conservation have changed. Gerster hunts and fishes with abandon. He is not above jacking for deer, which involves quietly paddling or rowing your boat at night along a lakeshore, transfixing the animal in the glare of a torch or lantern and then shooting it—a pastime about to be outlawed, as he surely is aware. He eagerly takes the life of a snake that is simply going about its business eating a frog, in order to free the frog. The principle of not interfering with the natural cycle has yet to take hold. Yet years later, Gerster would become a leader in the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, illustrating how commonly a love of the outdoors first nurtured by hunting and fishing can translate to an understanding of a higher order.
It is also fascinating to see how medical knowledge has changed over the course of a century. Gerster believes strongly that an active outdoor life is good for one’s health, but he partakes of a diet rich in fatty foods and relishes tobacco and whiskey. The treatments he prescribes are often primitive: plasters, licorice powder and antipyrene (a toxic white powder to reduce fevers and pain). Of course, this lack of medical knowledge is no fault of Gerster’s, a famed physician of his day who was still performing surgery at the age of 74, a year before his death.
Full of wit and ever alert to the absurdities of life around him, Gerster puzzles at one point that the train ride back to Old Forge (after he completes a canoe trip to Saranac Inn via the Raquette River) charges $3 for his 35-pound boat and $2.75 for his 200-pound person.
As for the mile-long carry around Raquette Falls, he declares in typically blunt fashion, “It is one of the steepest and ugliest in the North woods, apparently laid out by an idiot.”
That carry is still a tough one today, and it reminds us how little the Adirondacks has changed from Gerster’s time. A day in camp is still a day in camp. The rewards of solitude and renewal are still to be found in these woods and waters, thanks to a century of careful stewardship, the occasional jet-skier notwithstanding.
Chris Angus’s new anthology of writings on the Oswegatchie River will be published this spring by North Country Books.