Cracking The Adirondack Reader is like getting dropped deep in the backcountry. It’s dense, with little open space between the essays and excerpts, and it’s large, encompassing 495 pages, including 31 pages of biographical notes on the 117 writers, many renowned, all deeply familiar with the mountains at various times over the past four centuries.
You’ll find some passages that are dark and old, like Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues’s account of being marched through the Adirondacks by Iroquois captors who gnawed off his fingernails. Ralph Waldo Emerson goes deer-jacking at night at the storied Philosophers’ Camp on Follensbee Pond (as it was then often spelled) and shows himself to be a bad shot and inept sportsman. James Fenimore Cooper’s fictional Hawkeye canoes up Lake George pursued by enemies in the French and Indian Wars. He, unlike Emerson, is a dead shot.
The consumptive author Robert Louis Stevenson breathes the restorative air of Saranac Lake, as recounted both by him and by his mother. The 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid are a resounding success for U.S. athletes, although the competitive field during the Depression is thin, with relatively few international competitors. North Elba’s John Brown makes an appearance in these pages, too. So do a failed abolitionist settlement movement and echoes of residual racism.
There are polluting tanneries, a killed lumberjack, Great Camps, legendary guides, struggling farmers, entrepreneurial hoteliers, and the government. You’ll find documented the establishment of the state Forest Preserve in 1885 as well as the local resentment against the land-use regulations that the Adirondack Park Agency began imposing on private land in the 1970s.
After a while, though, it’s clear you’re not bushwhacking blindly through the history and literature of the Adirondacks. What seems at first a faint herd path reveals itself as a well-marked trail, blazed by one of the region’s extraordinary guides, the late professor and outdoorsman Paul Jamieson. His ten chapter introductions alone are worth the $39.95 price of the book. He’s an elegant writer and widely informed, having brought a professor’s rigor and a literary eye to a complicated subject and made it live and breathe through judicious editing. It’s an education. Born in the flatlands of Iowa, he joined the English Department at St. Lawrence University in 1929 and later wrote the classic paddling guidebook Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow. He died in 2006 at 103.
In his introductions, Jamieson discusses, among other subjects, the billion- year-old geology of the region, the colonial and subsequent migrations, the region’s troubled economy, residents’ tensions with part-timers and visitors, and the evolution of a wilderness ethic. The book also reprints one of Jamieson’s own essays, “Some Uses for the Canoe.”
The old North Woods beckoned explorers and adventurers of various stripes and still does. This third edition of the Reader, edited by Neal Burdick and published by the Adirondack Mountain Club, has added thirty-two articles, most of them written after Jamieson’s 1982 second edition. It’s an essential list also, with Anne LaBastille, Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Folwell, Christopher Angus, Christine Jerome, Philip Terrie, Dick Beamish, Phil Brown, Amy Godine, Chase Twichell, and others. The late Paul Schaefer and Barbara McMartin also grace these pages. And older accounts of places such as Lake Tear of the Clouds and Indian Pass can’t help but resonate for those of us who have been there.
“Sharing another’s discoveries is only a warmed over pleasure. Everyone must make his own,” Jamieson wrote. “Discovery is a never-ending experience in the woods.”
The writers and their mainly truelife characters (sometimes they are one and the same) include such luminaries as the Revolutionary soldier Ethan Allen, surveyor Verplanck Colvin, the Adirondacks’ promoter William H.H. Murray, future president Theodore Roosevelt, hermit Noah John Rondeau, and the artists William Stillman and Harold Weston.
At the book’s center are thirty-two pages of illustrations, mostly color, of photographs, sketches, and paintings from Winslow Homer, Seneca Ray Stoddard, Rockwell Kent, Stillman, Weston, and others more recent, whose names you may not know but should if you like the others.
Readers interested in wilderness preservation will be drawn to “The Land Ethic” by the late Warder Cadbury, a philosophy professor. Based on a 1975 talk on the Park’s future, he makes a plea for a sense of morality that encompasses the human relationship to the natural environment.
“Recreation is spiritual recreation and a re-creating of the human spirit, and it seems to me, at least for most of us, that this is really what the land ethic is all about …” Cadbury said. “My conclusion is not a prediction, but a plea that in addition to all the other things that we are doing it is most urgent and most important that we try to articulate why a wilderness experience is so important, why it is that we need it for our identity, for our sanity.”
Occasionally, moving through the book seems like a slog—my interest flagged a bit in reading about nineteenth-century guides and early-twentieth-century rich—but many of the pieces are page-turners, including Burdick’s account of the century-old unsolved murder of millionaire Orrando Dexter on his vast estate near St. Regis Falls.
The book contains great guidance for the outdoors person, as well as the stuff of epiphanies, familiar to those who have refreshed the soul among the region’s peaks and waterways. Jamieson wrote this about one of his early canoe trips:
“As a newcomer to Canton many years ago, I had my initiation on the ten-mile float that begins in Harrison Creek, comes down the Grass River, and ends on the Little River at the Park Street bridge. I saw a muskrat, a great horned owl, two great blue herons, and a herd of cows splashing through a hollow of marsh marigolds. I picnicked on a knoll of violets and bluets. This upriver pastoral made me a canoe bum for life.”
That led him south toward the Adirondacks, where canoe bumming gets more strenuous, and ever deeper into the North Woods.
As readers, we can only be grateful it did.