With a rock star’s charisma, a movie star’s allure, and an environmental advocate’s passion, Anne LaBastille was a larger-than-life figure who tramped across the wild and wooly narrative of the Adirondacks with gusto. She stood just 5-foot-1 and weighed barely a hundred pounds, but she packed a wallop in the public imagination as a fearless woman who in some ways out-Thoreaued Thoreau. She lived alone in a small rustic cabin that she built, without electricity or plumbing, on Twitchell Lake near Old Forge. Her only companions were her beloved German shepherds and the cathedral of pines that enveloped her clean, well-lighted place. She wrote movingly about solitude and what it felt like to be one with nature.
To outsiders, her life seemed austere and simple, but she was a bundle of contradictions: tough yet tender, naïve yet calculating, and repulsed yet attracted by the power of her celebrity. She spoke in a near-whisper, allowing her writing to do the shouting. She had few peers when it came to stubbornness. Still, she was admired for steadfastly fighting for the preservation of the natural world. Her appeal was broad and lasting, yet her footprint on the earth was light and fleeting. She found all the philosophy she needed in the still, crystalline waters of a mountain lake at dawn.
She wrote: “Sometimes I sit in my log cabin as in a cocoon sheltered by swaying spruces from the outside world. … Life seems to have no beginning and no ending. Only the steady expansion of trunk and root, the slow pileup of duff and debris, the lap of water before it becomes ice, the patter of raindrops before they turn to snowflakes.”
When LaBastille died on July 1 at age seventy-seven at an assisted-living facility in Plattsburgh after struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, she was remembered by a legion of fans of her books, folks from across the state, the nation, and the world who saw her as an inspiring voice for women and the environment. To her Adirondack friends, though, her personality was overlaid with more complex truths. They spoke of a woman who worked tirelessly to promote the writing that supported her financially by creating a persona that ended up typecasting her in its folksy backwoods idiom. The “Woodswoman” role she played to the hilt had come to seem more like incarceration than freedom long before the slide toward the end—when dementia had robbed her memory, unmoored her on a current of paranoia, and sealed off all avenues to the fertile mind and fierce intellect that produced sixteen books, more than 150 magazine articles, and two dozen scientific papers.
“It’s hardly an exaggeration to call Anne the Carl Sagan of conservation,” said James Lassoie, a professor of conservation at Cornell University. He was a longtime colleague of LaBastille, who held a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Cornell and who taught there as an adjunct associate professor. “To many, she embodied the Adirondacks because she was able to communicate a feeling of concern and ownership to countless readers worldwide.”
Her outsize image left an indelible mark on a region that has produced more than its fair share of colorful characters, harmless eccentrics, and memorable misfits. The power of LaBastille’s myth had not been seen in the Adirondacks since the hermit Noah John Rondeau held court at his log hut in Cold River City in the 1940s. Decades after the 1976 publication of Woodswoman: Living Alone in the Adirondack Wilderness, which launched her writing career and sold more than a hundred thousand copies, sacks of fan mail continued to arrive by boat at her remote cabin, forwarded from her publisher.
Smitten men drove long hours to see her, bearing trophy fish they had caught and wrapped in newspaper or wooden handicrafts they had carved. Some asked for LaBastille’s hand in marriage. She was, after all, a skinny-dipping, pink-lipsticked babe in Daisy Dukes who drove an old pickup truck and knew how to gut a brook trout, pitch a tent, and cook over an open fire.
“She was every outdoorsman’s fantasy,” said Joe Hackett, a guide and outdoors columnist for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise who had known LaBastille since the early 1980s. “She had her detractors, but that was professional jealousy from guys who liked to take potshots because she was a woman. There’s no question she was the most influential Adirondack guide of the twentieth century. ”
LaBastille was a charter member of the New York State Outdoor Guides Association when it was reorganized in 1981, nearly a century after its founding. She was among a few pioneering women who broke into the male-dominated field. She created envy among some of her fellow guides, with her Ivy League degrees and renown as a scientist, along with several books and a high-profile article on the Adirondacks in National Geographic to her credit. She received awards from numerous organizations, such as the World Wildlife Club and the Explorers Club, as well as honorary degrees from colleges. She was a commissioner of the Adirondack Park Agency, a post she held for seventeen years as she routinely took environmentalist positions that clashed with the agendas of snowmobilers and sportsmen.
“Being a woman in a man’s world was hard for her, to say the least,” said Doris Herwig, a close friend of LaBastille’s for more than fifty years and operator of Hayfield Tours in Queensbury. “She was strong, determined, knew her stuff, and was also thick-skinned. When she put her mind to something and wanted it, you better move aside. Her tenacity was remarkable.”
Even before she gained notoriety as a fierce defender of wilderness in the Adirondacks, she had spent years doing field research at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where she struggled to save the endangered giant grebes—a flightless and pied-billed bird. Beginning as a graduate student in the late 1950s, she used charm, political guile, and a relentless work ethic to save the big birds, which she chronicled in a 1990 book, Mama Poc. Her success in preserving the habitat of the birds from commercial development, unbridled tourism, and the cutting of reeds for baskets could not overcome an earthquake that opened up a fissure that caused the lake’s water levels to drop precipitously. As a result, the giant grebes became extinct.
“That was a profound setback for Anne, and she took it very hard because she had devoted her life to saving those birds,” recalled Dick Beamish, founder and chairman of the Adirondack Explorer and a close friend since the early 1970s. “Anne would never admit it, but she lived a rather lonely existence. She tried several times, but I don’t think she was cut out for living with other people long term. She became a loner.”
Unpopular pro-environment positions she took as an APA commissioner also contributed to her going it alone. “Her dedication to nature and protecting it was fierce,” Beamish said. “She was an arch-environmentalist to the end. No matter what, she took the position of protecting nature.”
Near the end of her APA tenure in 1993, after facing a rising chorus of haters and threats, a barn on her property in Westport burned down in a fire that was later ruled arson. “That shook her to the core. She wasn’t really the same after that because she was alone and she was a target,” Beamish said.
LaBastille was married once, early in her life and for only a few years, to C.V. “Major” Bowes, owner of Covewood Lodge on Big Moose Lake. He declined to be interviewed at length about LaBastille. “I had a lot of respect for her,” he said. “She was the one who got me interested in the environment.”
To those who knew her well, perhaps the biggest contradiction in LaBastille’s life was that she professed to crave solitude and to dislike signing books and giving talks, but she was tenacious when it came to setting up her own public appearances and building the Woodswoman brand.
“The fans just kept coming, and they all wanted to touch the hem of her garment,” recalled Betsy Folwell, a writer and creative director at Adirondack Life who watched LaBastille hold hundreds in thrall at public readings and writing workshops. “She was an Adirondack celebrity and truly one of a kind. Nobody can take that away from her.”
LaBastille had the marketing of her persona down to a science. She told a group of aspiring authors at an Adirondack Writing Center workshop at Silver Bay that she never went out in public without her dogs and a red-and-black flannel shirt. She role-played for her students about how they should approach chit-chat with a fan at a book signing. “She could really turn it on,” Folwell said.
On the other hand, she played fast and loose with her birth year and routinely tried to shave two or three years off her age even with friends. Her given name was Mariette Anne LaBastille. To detractors who nitpicked her about the facts—many said she was prone to embellishment—they were missing the point about what she was trying to sell: the notion of a lone woman surviving in the wilderness and doing it as well or better than most men could.
That’s why hundreds of women would queue up to ask her to sign one of the Woodswoman books or to snap a picture of the pigtailed, blond-haired effervescent woman. At the annual Author’s Night at Hoss’s Country Corner in Long Lake most of the wordsmiths would sit next to stacks of unsold books, feigning disinterest, while LaBastille’s corner was mobbed and she sold case after case.
“She had very high standards and would not compromise, which is laudable except that it leaves you lonely,” said Ellie Horwitz, retired chief of information and education for the Massachusetts Division of Fish & Wildlife and a friend since both were at Cornell in 1967. “She ended up having a hard time just being Anne instead of the role of the Woodswoman. The irony is that she taught so many of her readers how to conquer their fears, but she couldn’t come to grips with her own. It’s too bad more people didn’t know the real Anne.”
Born on Nov. 20, 1933, in Montclair, N.J., she was reared by parents considered brilliant and eccentric. Her father, Ferdinand Meyer LaBastille, was on the faculty at Columbia University. Her German-born mother, Irma Goebel, was a stage actress and musician.
Even toward the end of LaBastille’s life, when dementia set in and caused her to push away even her closest friends, there remained a grace and deep well of strength in her. Writer and guide Elizabeth Lee met LaBastille by chance at the post office in Westport four years ago, and a friendship blossomed. Lee helped LaBastille stack firewood and rake leaves at her farmhouse, and they talked as they worked. “She was brave and courageous despite her health problems,” Lee said. “I saw her age in two years as much as many people do in twenty. But self-sufficiency was a real value of hers, and she held onto it as long as she could.”
Lee visited LaBastille at the assisted-living center in Plattsburgh, where she pushed her in a wheelchair and listened to her stories when the words came. “She had memories of different people and places, and things were fuzzy, but she still had a sense of humor and sarcasm.”
Lee took LaBastille outside two days before she died. She longed to be in the fresh air and complained about being stuck inside. The two women ate strawberries in the sunshine, and LaBastille spoke about how she loved the smell of fresh basil in her garden.
“I came along at a time when she was really lonely and isolated, and I feel lucky I got to know her,” said Lee. “I was never interested in whether she embellished the facts or not. It’s part of a good guide’s job to spin a tale, after all. So what difference does it make?
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james fulginiti says
Anne and I exchanged mail for years ,she helped me through some rough times . I was a New York City Police Officer at the time and we became pen pals.She was coming to NYC to visit and was going to visit myself also but it never happen. She wrote me letters ,notes on napkins ,and never missed one letter I wrote her ,she would respond within a month and I don’t recall her address but it was after months of writing back and forth that she sent me an address other then the one everyone was using .Her response to my letters came quicker as hers to me.I was so lucky to be her friend and her mine ,I sent my book to her Woodswoman and she wrote me a note and signed it for me.What she wrote I will never reveal ,and it was spirtual in meaning nothing else. I just decided to look her up and sadly I see she has taken the journey , but I know we will meet sometime in the next life and atlast a handshake ,Rest in Peace Anne.
Oregon Woodswoman says
Like so many others I was drawn to her books, not because of her living alone in the woods. I live alone in the real woods, but the key point for me, was being a woman alone, period. I am glad to read here that she had a friend at the end. We all need that.
Patricia strahl says
A friend lent me a copy of her book when I was very I’ll this passed year, woods women. I lived in NYC all of my life and longed to live in the Catskills where I had hunted, fished, hiked since 1973. My dream came true in 1990 when I moved to Shokan NY with my partner to live in the country. Reading Anne’s book brought me even closer to why I always wanted to be where she was. Her book helped me heal and brought me bach to a place that I lost. I know that Anne has left us but I needed to express how I felt about her life and her writing.
darrell roeters says
After reading most of her books, i was curious where she lived. The local newspaper had photos and described the dismantling of her log cabin. It was moved this winter to the Adirondack museum to be on display in 2017. Twitchelle rd led to the boat launch and trailhead at Eagle Bay. The lake is still desolate an d has clean water.
darrell roeters says
Twitchelle rd. Is a dirt rd. And was closed in April with snow still evident along the sides in late April.
Carolyn B Matlack says
I am so glad folks were with her at her end. I was and remain a kindred sole who still gets so much from her writing and honesty. It was an honor to visit the Adirondack Museum and see, view and here about her and her life. I shed reverent, tears of admiration and respect.
Dina Carr says
Was lucky to find a few of her books with inscriptions to the same friends and a special handwritten note by Anne in the Toadstool bookshop in Peterborough NH. I cherish these and have her titles as suggested reading for women’s hunting seminar I teach. I reread Mama Poc, Woodswoman and Beyond Black Bear Lake every winter since I found them. Thanks to her friends “Jean” and “Andy”who sent her dogs gifts and obviously were trusted friends. I am taking good care of your books.
Pearl Reed-Klein says
After all these years of reverence for Anne, I just see that she died of Alzheimer’s disease at an assisted living facility in Plattsburg, NY. My tears rolled down my face, my heart sad knowing that Anne would never want to be indoors at a facility, but also would have never wanted to lose her brilliant mind. I came to know Anne through her books and tried to find her cabin years ago. I met Anne in Ithaca, NY and knew that this eccentric woman had left an imprint on the lives of many women and men alike. It was Anne who gave me inspiration to be independent and find adventure and nature to be important and deserving life qualities. Thank you Anne for your words of wisdom, empowerment, grief lessons, strength and grit. Thank you for teaching and enlightening me during my life experience. Rest and relax Anne.
Carol. Wilkerson says
I love all her books. Her love of nature and the preservations of the Adirondacks was certainly a passion. I related to her in many ways. Blonde, pink lipstick, flannel shirts, but still feminine and a bit of a tomboy. I love the woods, fishing, all what the mountains and what the lakes offer. All of her heart when into this. It’s truly a passion of the heart. I think of myself in a cabin in the woods, away from people and all the stressors it entailed. Yet, I love people. But I love the quiet solitude when fishing and I only hear the call of the loons. Now, that is the music I want to hear. I lived in Plattsburgh from 1988 to 2006 and knew the place she lived towards the end, but never knew she was there. I would love to have met her after reading her books. I felt a real commaradarie, as I’m sure many did. But then, who really lived and loved the woods as she did with the passion in her heart.
Patricia Ciminello says
My husband, then new boyfriend, bought me the original ‘Woodswoman’, in one of our first Christmas Season’s together (1980-81), and bought me all the rest of Anne’s books over the years. I read the first book several times over the years, read portions to friends on a cold winter’s night when we thought WE were cold. When we moved from the East to the West to Oregon, and now WA State, I was overjoyed and my husband was too, to live as close to the woods and the earth as we could, while working and paying for,school loans, etc. Bit it has been a good life here, Anne’s words always encouraging us on. We never made it to Twitchell Lake, when we traveled back East, it was always about family then. We almost did make it one time, but we were on our way to a wedding in Tupper Lake and did not want to be late. But at least we were able to see the area, as we took the long way to Tupper Lake, near to her place. Maybe one day we will. . I Miss your presence on this earth Anne. Thank you for your service dear woman.
Peter Corrigan says
You could go to the museum at Blue Mountain Lake .I knew her briefly she was older than I was . Everyone was drawn towards her when she was on Twitchell Lake . My recollection was of her at a dance at the Twitchell Lake Inn. She had pig tails and I think she wore a flowered dress that evening so long ago . They had saw dust on the floor and music and a caller for the evening . It seemed to me that the whole lake was there .
Was disappointed to find Anne had moved on to her next thing. A bit beyond my now life possibilities. But she moved me.
Lynn Cox says
I have most of Anne’s books. Have read and reread them over the years. Had a chance to meet her at a book signing at the bookstore in Plattsburgh, ny around 2003, and didn’t go, for some reason. Guess I figured there would be other times. Didn’t know I’d never have another chance. Makes me so sad. I loved your stories, your pictures, and your dogs and lifestyle. Rest in peace, my dear, we’ll get to meet and talk one day!
Melissa Hart says
You might be interested in this upcoming virtual lecture about Anne: https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2021/02/virtual-lecture-on-anne-labastille.html
I read Woodswoman while I was still in high school and I graduated in 1981. My family was an outdoor family so the book had a profound influence on me. I did not want to follow the typical role of women at the time. So I applied for an Outward Bound scholarship and shortly thereafter joined seven others on a two week course in the Boundary Waters and the Quetico. From that trip forward I worked exclusively in the outdoor world as a guide and purveyor of outdoor goods for nearly twenty years before I entered a typical career path and became a weekend warrior. I am now moving full circle back to the outdoor life that I once lived all day every day. I’ve had an amazing outdoor life thanks to Anne and Woodswoman coming along at just the right time.
Thank you Anne. May you rest in peace.
Melissa Hart says
Thanks for your comment! In case you are interested, there’s a virtual lecture about Anne coming up on the 18th: https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2021/02/virtual-lecture-on-anne-labastille.html
Mary Ann Wettler says
Hi Melissa. Is there a way to view the lecture? Thanks.
Melissa Hart says
Yes! It’s archived here … and it’s very informative.
Richard Connery says
I had the pleasure of flying with Anne from New York to Albany sometime in the 60s. We happened to be seated next to each other and I commented on that beautiful Nikon in her lap. We talked about photography and her work Guatamala came. She seemed embarrassed when I recognized her from her recent National Geographic article. A most interesting flight. I was buying Woods woman books after that.
Scott Warren says
I remember meeting her in Guatemala, my parents had just adopted my baby brother from there and we were still finalizing paperwork and visas for travel. Ann asked “ where I was from. “ I said “Arkansas “ say said “where in Arkansas?” “ uhhh a very very small town called Marvell “ she laughed I know someone from Marvell, do you know Buddy Bass,” I was stunned “ yes we go to the same church and recently went hunting together. “ it just shows what a small world we live in.
Nancy Snyder says
I came upon Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman books at my local library a few years ago. Having vacationed in Eagle Bay for over 30 years, I was immediately drawn to them knowing her cabin in the woods was somewhere in that general area. After doing more research, I realized her stomping grounds was literally just up the road from Big Moose Inn! I now own the series of books, and even found a signed copy. At the end of Sept, my husband and I went up to Big Moose Inn for an overnight to leaf peep. A map hanging on the wall inside the office clearly showed just how close we were to Twitchell Lake. So I dragged my husband up there, stood at the boat launch and trailhead, and was just in awe. A couple of locals drove up with a truck load of wood, and started loading it on a floating dock. So I started peppering them with questions. Yes, they had known Anne back in the day…she was quite a character. Yes, her cabin had been moved, and her second structure Thoreau II on Lilypad Lake, was now gone as well. The West of the Wind property, I believe they said, was now a State campsite. After that stop at Twitchell Lake, I convinced my husband to go to the ADK Experience to see her cabin. What a thrill! Anne did all the things I would have liked to have done as a younger woman in the 70’s, but never got the chance to do. She paved the way for many, and it makes me realize I could have do so much more with my life in the outdoors. So now retired with time, I joined the ADK Mountain Club, have many friends “up North,” and plan to spend as much time in Anne’s neck of the woods as I can before I am robbed of my good health. Thank you, Anne, for being such an anspiration for so many women!
Mary Ann says
Just read Woodswoman and am inspired by her resolute love of nature. Oh to be near or in nature. I live in Southern California and head for the hills to trail run. I feel out of place in this concrete jungle yet yearn for trees, dirt, sun. I don’t recall who turned me on to her first book but am beyond grateful. Thank you Anne for being unabashedly you. You’ve led the way to honor oneself and honor nature. Rest well.
Linda M. Grasso says
I just read Woodswoman as I vacation in a “camp” in beautiful Wanakena, New York, not far from LaBastille’s home. LaBastille presents a fascinating portrait of an ambitious, determined career woman, whose fame and appeal, I am certain was, and continues to be, aided by 1970s feminism. As a narrative, the book is artfully and strategically plotted and I was struck by the inclusion of perilous situations in each chapter. Interestingly, LaBastille provides no discussion of her recoveries from serious injuries–how she manages, etc. The persona is most definitely mythic and in conversation with mythic male figures whom she had read and admired. Thank you Paul Grondahl for a gorgeously written and nuanced obituary.
Catherine Livingston says
Being a Woodwoman myself, I have admired Anne for her writings and inspiration. I too have built my own cabin in the woods, where I do my writings. There is nothing like the solitude and quiet of the woods. Nature surrounds my small dwelling with huge Sycamores, Cedar forests, creeks and bluffs. At one time, when in the Adirondacks, I was quite close to where Anne had built her cabin. A local man who owned an antique store, had paraphernalia about Anne. When I began questioning him about her whereabouts, he told me the location of her cabin. As a Woodswoman, even though I was excited to meet a kindred spirit, I declined because I knew that she deserved her solitude, and didn’t want to bother her, as many people had. I had the chance to meet her, but didn’t, and was sorry that the last part of her life was spent inside a nursing home. No Woodswoman should of had to endure such an end. But, she lives on in all the woodswomen out there that have been inspired by such a soul.