The Adirondacks

Black Dome Press, 2005 (reprint) Softcover, 390 pages, $17.95
Black Dome Press, 2005 (reprint)
Softcover, 390 pages, $17.95

In 1916, T. Morris Longstreth, a schoolteacher from Kingston and author of a long list of travel books and novels, spent six months exploring the Adirondacks, mostly on foot, accompanied by a friend and a faithful horse carrying their gear. They began at the North Creek train station in June and finished up there the following December. Along the way, they saw a good bit of the Adirondacks, wandering from Indian Lake to Raquette Lake, from Lake Lila to Cranberry Lake, from Paul Smiths to Lake Placid, from Indian Pass to Keene Valley, and finally back to North Creek by way of Schroon Lake. The Adirondacks, first published in 1917, is the record of those ramblings. It was a remarkable journey, undertaken by a writer who loved the land and described it in an effervescent, occasionally cloying style.

This is one of the last of the travel-and-guide narratives that began with Joel T. Headley’s The Adirondack in 1849 and reached their essential expression two decades later with William H. H. Murray’s classic Adventures in the Wilderness. After Murray, Seneca Ray Stoddard and E. R. Wallace (among others) published a series of guides to hotels and transportation, interspersed with yarns about hunting and fishing, but the leisurely, personal genre pioneered by Headley largely faded away. On the eve of America’s entry into the first World War and thus onto the stage of international politics, Longstreth invoked a 19thcentury genre to assess the condition of the Adirondacks after the establishment of the Forest Preserve (1885) and the creation of the Adirondack Park (1892).

The Adirondacks is a book of meditation and description, combining travel narrative with sweeping personal observation about appreciation of the magnificent Adirondack Park and what its protection meant for the future. It was a time when the Park was settling into its current structure of constitutionally protected Forest Preserve surrounded by large tracts of privately owned land, when much of the forest was beginning to recover from an era of rapacious logging and apocalyptic fires.

Longstreth returns repeatedly to the conservation activity of previous decades, without which “there would have been no great North Woods for future Americans to enjoy.” He recognized the need for statutory or other protections. One event that especially caught his notice and won his approval was the passage of a bond issue in 1916; for the first time, the state was interested in enlarging the Preserve through purchase of available private lands, and this bond issue provided the cash to do so. Longstreth understood the recreational potential of the Adirondack Park and the importance of expanding the Preserve.

This photograph was titled “The Spirit of the Park” in Longstreth’s book.
This photograph was titled “The Spirit of the Park” in Longstreth’s book.

In a chapter titled “The Adirondack Forest,” the author describes the condition of the forest in 1916 and how it had been despoiled by logging and fires: “A lumber company is a source of fortune to its stock-holders and a source of misfortune to everybody else.” He noted the growing authority of the state Conservation Commission but observed that many logging operations remained profligate, with loggers taking out far more than annual growth. In this context, he praised the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, founded in 1902, for its efforts to defend the Forest Preserve and promote responsible logging on private land: “Thanks to the Association, the great Park is still a park, still a refuge for wild game.”

The gradual shift from an era of ruthless exploitation and waste to one of conservation and appreciation struck Longstreth as especially significant: “The advantages of not despoiling the wilderness further are so clearly seen that the tendency to keep and even extend it can be said to be under way. The period of exploitation is being succeeded by the age of conservation, and right glad were we to find it out.”

In earlier American history, he observed, the wilderness was a place to be feared, but by his day, some Americans, like the members of the Association, were working to protect what little remained of the once vast forests. “We will save it, not only for fuel, not only against the flood, but because it is the most beautiful thing on the earth.”

The summer before, Longstreth and the same friend (and the same horse, apparently) had toured the northern Rockies. His response to the Adirondacks often reflects the inevitable urge to compare two very different terrains. Recalling, as anyone would, the sublime grandeur of the West, Longstreth loved the Adirondacks for being “domestic,” not overwhelming: “quiet lakes and haunting vistas that are unutterably satisfying to a man’s soul.” Contemplating some pleasant bushwhacking in the southern Adirondacks, he remarked, “For sheer joy in comfortable exploration one can stumble upon no more appetizing country than the richly wooded, high-shouldered, and well-watered slopes to the west of Piseco Lake.”

On a road north of Speculator, Longstreth came upon three men with a stalled Ford. He understood that the advent of the automobile signaled the onset of a new form of tourism and, with a hint of the elitism that has so often degraded Adirondack discourse, regretted the changes to be wrought by auto tourists; he felt “a shadow of sadness that the woods, at last, have been found by the million.” It’s worth noting that a similar lament circulated among certain Adirondack aficionados after Murray’s best seller and has surfaced with monotonous predictability ever since. Notwithstanding apprehensions that the Adirondacks might be appreciated to death, he had to admit, “Despite all modern conveniences, the Adirondack wilderness remains.”

After climbing Snowy Mountain and examining the forest’s recovery with the fire watcher on the summit, he exclaimed, “You breathe in relief to realize that, despite fire and pillage, there are such stretches of forest left.” The woods could soothe a soul troubled by modernity: “Long did we lie on the moss of the ledge, steeping in the sunshine, and the calm of the marvelous bowl below. It was a vision of serenity worth far greater struggle to attain. We forgot, for the moment, that we were on a planet that was mad.” It was 1916, and Europe was engaged in an annihilation of human life unprecedented in humanity’s already dismal history. His discovery of nature’s solace in the midst of horror resonates 90 years later.

Another lamentable change in the Adirondack environment was the extirpation of wolves and cougars: “They are gone, and great romance somehow perishes with them.” The region’s largest ungulate, the moose, was also gone, and Longstreth—incorrectly, I am glad to say—saw this as a permanent loss: “The moose is another animal that will probably never again thrive in these mountains because it demands large range.” The forest was recovering from decades of abuse, and it’s no wonder that Longstreth could not foresee the return of the moose. The fact that this magnificent animal has indeed come back to a part of its ancient range is one of the great environmental successes of recent years. Perhaps the missing predators will someday complete this saga.

Astudent of the wilderness and its ways, Longstreth shared this hope and acknowledged that wildlife is elusive: “It gives a thrill to twilight, the knowledge that they are there. Not to see them, except the rare shadow of some sleek body, only to hear occasionally some disembodied call in the dark, and yet to know that the ravines and lakeshores are haunted by thousands of beautiful animals, draws the fringe of fairyland very close. And some day—who knows?—out of the still great and mysterious reservoir of the north may come back the other beasts, the panther and the wolf.”

The Adirondack lean-to had already become an institution in Longstreth’s day.
The Adirondack lean-to had already become an institution in Longstreth’s day.

Toward the end of the book, there is a fulsomely adulatory section on the Lake Placid Club and its founder, Melville Dewey, with studious avoidance of Dewey’s anti-Semitism, which was explicitly written into the club’s policies. This oversight—certainly willful, given the fact that Longstreth returned to the Lake Placid Club and lived there for 10 years—is a disappointing blemish on a book that is otherwise appealing. It’s also a sign of the times: Longstreth could no more see Dewey’s racism than he could acknowledge his own class-based reluctance to welcome tourists in cars into the Park.

But Longstreth, like most of us no doubt, was inconsistent. Despite his innate elitism, he was a promoter of democratic access to natural resources. He knew that the Adirondacks constituted one of New York state’s most-treasured resources and saw its protection as a triumph for American values: “The spirit of the Adirondack Park is stated in the law that says the land ‘shall be forever reserved and maintained for the use of the people.’ Every such statement, when backed up by enforcement, is a victory for democracy, and every victory for democracy is an advancement of the truest civilization. It is strange that we should have to go to the woods for the fulfillment of civilization. But it is very satisfactory and comforting.”