Around 2 a.m. on a stormy night in August 2013, vicious winds from a microburst exploded onto the southeast shoreline of Upper Saranac Lake, directly onto the property of Mary Watson. The winds ripped trees into piles along a swath next to a 120-year-old main camp building.
Just up the shore, in a home on the Watson property Sonny Young heard the mayhem and headed out.
“I went down in the middle of the night, and when I got there, there were so many trees blown down,” Sonny recalls. “Nothing hit the camp, but I had to go down the shoreline and up through the woods to make sure they were all right.”
This was more than just exceptional neighborliness. It was in the line of duty for the Watson family’s longtime caretaker. “Part of my responsibility as I see it is to check on them,” he says.
The family was unhurt, but the intense storm left them temporarily cut off from the outside world. The first order of business for Sonny when day broke was to cut enough of a path through the fallen trees to allow them to drive out if they had to. It was a month and half before the blowdown was fully cleared.
Conditions that would drive most of us to shelter in our homes are just the sort of thing that will bring an Adirondack caretaker out into the elements to check things out and respond with whatever needs to be done. Windstorms, blizzards, power outages are calls to action.
Sonny, who grew up in logging camps that his father ran around Old Town, Maine, has always been at home in the outdoors. And so his second career, following a life in the Navy and Coast Guard, combines two of the most traditional lines of work for Adirondack residents: caretaking and guiding.
Sonny spent some years stationed at the Port of Albany as a bosun’s mate in the Coast Guard. It was an occupation that as it turns out was ideal training for a future caretaker. “A bosun’s mate is a jack-of-all-trades,” he says.
While in Albany he fell in love with the Adirondacks, traveling north to camp, hunt, and fish. When he left the military in 1980, he moved to the Park and found that it lived up to his hopes. “I’m here right in the heart of the Adirondacks, and I can go fishing for most any kind of species I want within five or ten minutes of home.”
For hunting, though, he has to travel a little farther afield. “My wife doesn’t like killing anything, so I don’t even hunt the area,” he says. “She said, ‘I’ve got all of the deer named.’”
Sonny is caretaker for three properties on Upper Saranac Lake and one on Kiwassa Lake, though this winter he plans to reduce that load by two. “I’m getting along in years and want to spend more time with my grandchildren. Caretaking can take up all your time.”
He and his wife, Sheila, also operate Adirondack Foothills Guide Service. He handles the hunting and fishing expeditions, and she leads people on hikes and other trips. They see the work as an opportunity to spread understanding of the Adirondacks. They have worked for an outdoors program for women and another for troubled youth.
“I feel that guiding today is more teaching than actually guiding,” Sonny says.
In addition to making sure his employers are safe, Sonny’s duties include snowplowing, handyman work, supervising subcontractors for large jobs, pulling boats out of the water for winter, and redirecting hunters who wander onto the private land he is responsible for.
Most hunters trespass by mistake and don’t complain when he asks them to move on. Occasionally they put up an argument, some relying on contorted reasoning. “I’ve had people tell me that I couldn’t stop them from hunting because there’s state land close by,” he says. Eventually they comply. “I’m rather convincing.”
Sonny is clearly at home as he shows visitors the grand buildings and wooded lakeshore of his properties. As he talks, his eyes shift to a pair of loons crossing the lake.
“They’ll be gathering up here. I’ve seen as many as twenty-one loons in a flock before they take off.”
He also feels a close connection with the old-timers who guided and looked after the affluent visitors of the nineteenth century.
“It’s a fact that no matter how much of a guide you are, you can’t make a living guiding,” he says. “So you have to have something else. The old-time guides worked for a hotel, did odd jobs. I feel very close in the fact that I’ve got to have another job to survive.”
In talking with longtime Adirondack residents you sometimes hear resentment toward the seasonal visitors who come to the Park with the kind of wealth that allows them to live their dreams in a style that will forever be out of reach for those who work for them.
It’s a sentiment Sonny doesn’t share but does understand.
“It’s hard to live here in the Adirondacks. Everything is expensive to the local people. They’re not making the dollars. And then you get people with money come to the area. They buy a camp. They want somebody like me to give my time for pennies. I haven’t had people treat me like that, but I know some people who have.”
On this September day the lifestyle seems to fit him just fine. A warm sun is shining on peak autumn foliage, the loons will soon be gathering, and the seasonal homes will mostly go quiet, leaving the lake, the woods, and the wildlife to the caretakers whose year-round home this is.