Notes Collected in the Adirondacks: 1897 & 1898

Notes Collected in the Adirondacks: 1897 & 1898 By Arpad Geyza Gerster Adirondack Museum, 2010 Softcover, 224 pages, $29.95
Notes Collected in the
Adirondacks: 1897 & 1898
By Arpad Geyza Gerster
Adirondack Museum, 2010
Softcover, 224 pages, $29.95

The library at the Adirondack Museum houses thousands of rare and valuable items, from historic maps and the business records of long-defunct logging companies to the personal papers of major Adirondack personalities and hard-to-find government reports. Among the most fascinating of the many treasures are diaries, handwritten day-to-day accounts of life in bygone times. Some of these are by humble folk, like the poignant journal kept by Juliet Kellogg, living on a remote farm near Minerva in the 1860s and describing the isolation and travails of a hardscrabble life.

At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum is the diary kept by Dr. Arpad Geyza Gerster about life at a camp on Raquette Lake during the years 1895-98. The text of the first two years, with extensive notes by Sidney S. Whelan Jr., was published by the museum in 2005 (reviewed in the Explorer by Christopher Angus, May/ June 2006).

Now Whelan and the museum have teamed up to publish a second volume, covering 1897 and 1898.

Both books are handsome and meticulously produced, illustrated throughout with fine sketches by Gerster himself. Both have been scrupulously annotated by Whelan. The index for volume two helpfully reproduces that from the first, using a different color ink for the sequel. Taken together, the two books provide a splendid addition to the literature of the Adirondacks during the years immediately after the creation of the Park (1892) and the constitutional protection of the Forest Preserve (1895).

Gerster arrived in America from Hungary in 1874. Trained as a physician, he spoke many languages (including English) fluently, read voluminously in ancient and modern literatures, played several musical instruments, and as a boy developed a love for long walks in the countryside. This predilection for the rural prepared him for a lifelong affection for life and sport in nature and eventually led him to the Adirondacks.

Central Europe was in constant turmoil in the mid-nineteenth century, and Gerster decided to practice medicine in the United States. He established a practice in New York City and was soon known as a skillful surgeon. He and his wife first visited the Adirondacks in 1883, staying at a hotel on Raquette Lake. Two years later they were leasing their own camp, one of the first in the central Adirondacks, on Raquette Lake’s Big Island. They named it Oteetiwi, after a Seneca chief, and it became a much loved part of family life. In 1895 he began recording, every few days, “Notes” about his life and activities at Oteetiwi.

Camp Oteetiwi on Raquette Lake circa 1900.
Camp Oteetiwi on Raquette Lake circa 1900.
Courtesy of Mount Sinai Archives

Gerster apparently enjoyed his work in the city and was clearly a talented and sought-after surgeon, but his diaries often show him longing for a trip to Raquette Lake. Indeed, his grandson wrote, he was “happiest exploring the Adirondack woods.” Unlike most urban visitors to the Adirondacks in those days, whose Adirondack experiences were limited to summer, he seized every opportunity for some time off and made his way to the woods at all times of the year, in all sorts of weather. In early November 1896, for example, he discovered he needed to open his camp for repair work by a local carpenter. While others might have arranged for the keys to be delivered by a caretaker, Gerster was quickly on a northbound train. An evening boat trip across Seventh Lake, in the midst of a storm alternating between rain and snow, did not diminish his spirits, and after a night spent at Camp Uncas, courtesy of W. W. Durant, he arrived at Oteetiwi.

There he transferred the keys and filled his day with visits to Raquette Lake neighbors; it was a chance to walk through “the fragrant woods, [and] revel in the balmy freedom of this rare holiday.” In a typical Gerster diary entry, he described the day in exquisite detail, dwelling appreciatively on an encounter with two feeding deer and enjoying immensely every moment of this excursion to the place he loved more than any spot on the planet.

During the winter, stuck in the city but daydreaming of Raquette Lake, Gerster recorded details of Adirondack weather and noted equipment he was assembling in anticipation of spring fishing, including flies and a new spinner. On April 2, 1897, he received word of his “election as a member of the Board of Honorary Trustees of the Adirondack Guides’ Association”—a sure sign of his comfortable relations with the year-round residents he depended on and became friends with.

Throughout April, by way of telegraphs from W. W. Durant, designer and builder of most of the Great Camps around Raquette Lake, he tracked the ice-out, finally noting on the twenty-ninth, “Spring Has Really Come!” It was two weeks before he could get away, but by mid-May he was back at Oteetiwi, joyfully fishing and camping with friends and recording details of the inevitably variable weather. On every page, the overriding theme is Gerster’s palpable delight in all things Adirondack— always expressed in articulate, precise prose. One fall morning, hunting near Seventh Lake, “creeping along like a shadow, scanning every bush, straining my eyes so that the smallest bird is observed before he notices me, I cannot get sight of my quarry. But such are the fortunes of hunting!”

Although Gertser never mentioned the creation of the Adirondack Park or the adoption of constitutional protection for the Forest Preserve, he was intensely aware of the need for state protection of the scenic magnificence that made the Adirondacks so appealing. In early September of 1897, he set out from Raquette Lake on a trip to Indian Pass. This involved taking a steamer across Forked Lake and into the Raquette River, where he was appalled to discover especially gruesome signs of recent logging. It was a scene of “desolation … caused by the lumbermen stripping this entire township. Every stick has been cut for two or three rods on the right bank.” Right before Buttermilk Falls, the loggers had constructed a substantial dam, and his “indignation over this destruction of … the finest scenery of the Raquette was boundless.”

Dr. Arpad Gerster
Dr. Arpad Gerster
Courtesy of Mount Sinai Archives

Notwithstanding this evidence of the vulnerability of his beloved Adirondacks to the ravages of unregulated logging—still perfectly legal on private land—Gerster and his companion steamed down Long Lake, with the “noble mass of Mt. Seward … in the far background with its fine jagged skyline clearly defined against thick masses of rising mist.” They stopped to examine the Camp Islands and then, after shifting to canoes, entered the Raquette River again. They were following the classic canoe route via Stony Creek Ponds to the Saranacs. After a wagon ride to Lake Placid, they set off on foot from Heart Lake.

Like other hikers who have marveled at the stupendous gorge of Indian Pass, Gerster was fascinated with its geological history and speculated about the sequence of glaciation and avalanche that formed it. Slipping into the familiar nineteenthcentury rhetoric of the sublime, he found the pass to be “the most stupendously chaotic and awful spectacle of elemental violence.” After a night at Lower Works on the Hudson, they traveled by wagon to Long Lake and Blue Mountain Lake before finally getting back to Oteetiwi by guideboat and the Marion River Carry.

The expedition is narrated in high and often humorous style by a masterful and perspicacious writer, with pithy observations about nature and people. The literature of leisure in the Adirondacks during this golden age is rich and plentiful, with contributions that have become mainstays of the Adirondack canon—Joel T. Headley’s The Adirondack (1849), William H. H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness (1869), and Charles Dudley Warner’s In the Wilderness (1876) to name a small sample. Gerster’s diaries, with their engaging, often wry accounts of everything from field sports to miserable weather and their mix of an urbane, sophisticated worldview with the quotidian details of camp life, belong among them.

A bivouac in the burnt ground, Fish Lake, near Sacandaga Lake. Oct. 7, 1897. The subject is Gerster’s guide, Warren Courtney. Courtesy of Adirondack Museum
A bivouac in the burnt ground, Fish Lake, near Sacandaga Lake. Oct. 7,
1897. The subject is Gerster’s guide, Warren Courtney.
Courtesy of Adirondack Museum

Throughout the diaries, Gerster finds delight in the ordinary. One dreary, blowing, rainy day in May 1898, he decided to row his guideboat out on the roiling surface of Raquette Lake. Protected by “rubber boots, a rubber coat, and old hat,” you “buck your tossing way against the black squall and numberless, unceasing files of oncoming, whitecapped seas. It makes your blood tingle, and brings out the sweat under the jacket.” It’s a half-hour of exhilaration followed by “shelter, a good fire, and dry clothes.” It’s a moment we can all identify with, neatly and amiably described.

Gerster’s life was one of privilege, to be sure. He was wealthy and refined and could enjoy the Adirondacks in ways denied to most New Yorkers of the day. But he was no dilettante. He enjoyed solo camping; he relished dreary weather, endured the black flies, and assiduously studied natural history. His diaries, so carefully produced for us in these appealing volumes by the Adirondack Museum and Syd Whelan, open a fascinating window into what one corner of the Adirondacks was like over a century ago.