His lifelong quest: To protect wild nature
By Dick Beamish
When Clarence A. Petty died at 104 on November 30, the Adirondack Park lost one of its greatest champions, the woodsman who laid the groundwork for the protection of a million acres of wilderness and 1,200 miles of rivers inside the Blue Line. With his passing, the Park also lost what may be the last living link to an earlier era known mostly through history books and old-time photographs of guides, trappers, lumbermen, and grand lakeside hotels.
Though he was born in 1905, Clarence’s early years more closely resembled a subsistence life of the previous century. His father, Ellsworth, was in fact a nineteenth-century guide, having migrated from Crown Point to Coreys as a young man in the 1880s to help his cousin take care of the city “sports” who came here in search of fish and game.
Ellsworth was born in 1862, early in the Civil War, and he lived to be ninety-four. He died of a heart attack as he was rowing his guideboat home, through stormy waters, from Deer Island in Upper Saranac Lake, where he was still employed as a caretaker, a job he’d begun a half-century earlier. Ellsworth “died with his boots on,” which is the way he would have wanted it, according to his son Clarence. As things turned out, Clarence would live ten years longer than his father had, finishing up at a retirement community in Saranac Lake.
“I lived for a hundred years,” he said not long ago. “After that I only existed.” His famously strong legs had been gradually giving out, as he went from a limp to a cane to a walker. But until that last year, he remained keenly involved in life, talking politics, discussing environmental problems, and typing letters on his ancient Remington to legislators and members of Congress, to the governor and the president, urging them all to preserve wildlife and wild places. He met with visiting college classes, researchers, and assorted admirers. He was honored by environmental organizations both local and national (he belonged to more than sixty of them), and he served as an inspiration and “poster child” for the new Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks (a k a the Wild Center) in Tupper Lake.
He frequently visited his family homestead at Coreys, a twenty-minute drive from Saranac Lake, to refill the bird feeders and scatter food for neighboring turkeys, deer, foxes, and bears. He also enjoyed the company of a fellow resident of his retirement home (a younger woman in her eighties), a relationship that brought unexpected warmth and meaning to his last years.
It’s hard to imagine how different things were in the Adirondacks when Clarence entered the world at the beginning of the twentieth century. In many ways it was a frontier life on the edge of the wilderness.
Clarence lived his first three years in a cabin that his parents, Catherine and Ellsworth, had built on state land at the north end of Indian Carry on Upper Saranac Lake. After being evicted as squatters, the family eventually scraped up several hundred dollars to buy a house and some acreage in nearby Coreys, a settlement of several Adirondack guides and their families at the other end of Indian Carry, on the Stony Creek Ponds.
The road between Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake is now a wide, scenic highway buzzing with traffic during the tourist season. It was then a single dirt track, with one or two horse-drawn vehicles passing during the day. Clarence vividly remembered the first automobile that came through. It got stuck in the mud and had to be pulled out by a neighbor’s horses. “Those damn things will never amount to anything,” the neighbor had sagely observed.
The Petty family lived mostly off the land, raising chickens, growing vegetables, hunting deer, snowshoe hare and grouse, and fishing for lake trout and pike. They stocked their icehouse with blocks of ice cut out of the pond. Finally, at the urging of Catherine, Ellsworth and his two older boys, Clarence and Bill (the third son, Archie was much younger) piped running water into the house by digging and blasting a trench six feet deep and seven hundred feet long from a spring on the hillside behind them. The on-and-off project took seven years.
“Father didn’t favor it,” Clarence said. “He thought the water line would be just one more thing to go wrong and need fixing. But mother insisted.”
For income the family depended on Ellsworth’s earnings as a guide and caretaker and the work that Catherine did as the Coreys postmistress. The post office was set up in the front parlor of their house, and the floor still bears the marks of hobnail boots from when the loggers came out of the woods and picked up their mail on the way to Tupper Lake.
Clarence also had vivid memories of his annual visits to the dentist in Saranac Lake, always combined with a shopping trip. The twenty-mile journey began at dawn with a two-mile walk to the north end of Indian Carry, where the family set off in Ellsworth’s guideboat. Father would be at the oars in the bow, the boys on the middle seat, and mother in the stern. From Upper Saranac Lake they rowed to Middle Saranac (with a short connecting carry at Bartlett’s), down the winding Saranac River to Lower Saranac, and on to Ampersand Bay at the far end of the lake. There they’d leave the boat and walk another mile into the village. The trip took four to five hours one way, but Clarence always wished it would take longer, considering the ordeal that awaited him. The dentist used a slow-motion foot-treadle drill to dig out his cavities, and Clarence would wince, almost a hundred years later, at the thought of it.
For the first six grades the boys attended a one-room schoolhouse just up the road, but after that their commute to school became more challenging. On Sunday afternoon they would take off on a sixteen-mile trek to Saranac Lake village. By foot or on snowshoes, it took them about four hours to get there.
During the week they boarded with family friends, and after school on Friday they headed back to Coreys. Going and coming, they would tend their trap line, which provided welcome income when the boys sold the pelts in the village.
After school during the week, Clarence would also take on odd jobs, such as picking spinach at a nearby farm, while still finding time to play as a lineman on Saranac Lake High School’s first football team and star as a speed-skater on the school’s championship relay team.
For recreation, the boys would visit their hermit friend, Noah John Rondeau, who lived way back on the Cold River. Whenever they could break away, Clarence and Bill would don their pack baskets and hike many hours to “Noey’s” encampment. They’d hang out there for days at a time, hunting, fishing, stargazing, listening to his stories. On the hermit’s hut was his hand-lettered sign: “Mayor of Cold River City. Population One.”
“One day I saw him out there with his bow and arrow crossing a stream,” Clarence told writer Chris Angus. “He saw a muskrat, and he shot it and skinned it right there, turned the skin inside out, and slipped it right on his head so it sat up there like a big cone.” The skin cured in place, and so it fit Noah’s head perfectly. “It was ripe,” Clarence said, recalling the smell years later.
But even these recreational forays had a productive purpose. Clarence and Bill never returned home empty-handed. Their pack baskets would usually be filled with Cold River brook trout that were of such size, seven or eight pounds, that a neighbor lady, with whom the boys shared their bounty, at first mistook the brookies for lake trout.
There was an unusual twist to this subsistence life so close to nature. To the south of Coreys were endless forests punctuated by an occasional logging camp and penetrated by a handful of intrepid (and expertly guided) sportsmen. Yet only a mile north of Coreys, on Upper Saranac Lake, were the summer estates of wealthy financiers, along with elegant hotels and two nearby golf courses, all made accessible by a train from New York City that stopped near Saranac Inn at the north end of the lake. The proximity of local residents eking out a living and well-heeled summer people needing all the help they could get brought benefits all around. It meant that Ellsworth Petty could find employment as a family guide and caretaker and that Clarence could supplement the household income by caddying at the Indian Carry Golf Course, splitting and stacking wood at the Wawbeek Hotel, and later running a launch at the Wawbeek, a summer job that enabled him to pay his way at the state College of Forestry at Syracuse.
It was at Catherine’s insistence that her sons not only finished high school, but also went on to college. When Clarence graduated from forestry school, he landed a job with Western Union, selecting trees that were suitable for telephone poles. But with the Great Depression under way, work-force cutbacks meant that he was reassigned to a company lab in downtown Manhattan, where he learned what it felt like, in his words, to be a “caged animal.” To escape his prison and regain some freedom, he decided to take to the air by enrolling in flying lessons on weekends—a decision that would shape the rest of his life.
As the Depression deepened, further cutbacks at Western Union left Clarence without a job, but not for long. He’d heard about a new federal program called the Civilian Conservation Corps intended to put young men to work in the woods fighting fires, building roads and trails, and generally improving the condition of the nation’s parks and forests. Clarence applied for a job as forestry instructor and ended up exactly where he wanted to be: back in the Adirondacks at a CCC camp a few miles from Coreys. He would soon become a camp supervisor, and he would also meet his wife-to-be, Ferne Hastings, a schoolteacher who lived on her family’s farm just north of the Adirondack Park.
Clarence joined the Navy as a flight instructor and later piloted transport planes in the South Pacific. Afterwards, his career led him back to the woods.
After participating in a federal mosquito-eradication project, which involved the aerial spraying of DDT (about which Clarence soon had misgivings), he hooked up with the New York State Conservation Department and returned to the Adirondacks. He fought forest fires from the air by dumping water on them and stocked lakes from the air by dropping fish into them. For many years, he was a district forest ranger.
One of his favorite gigs—“a paid vacation” was how he described it—was the three years he spent, starting in 1959, exploring the Adirondack Forest Preserve to assess the condition of two million acres of “forever wild” state lands. How wild were they, how were they being used (or abused), and just how well (or poorly) were they being protected? It was Clarence’s job to find the answers.
As liaison officer between the state legislature, which had mandated the study, and the Conservation Department, which managed the state lands, he would follow almost every woods road, stream, and trail in the entire Preserve, identifying those areas whose wild character merited extra protection in a newly proposed category called Wilderness. For political reasons, Clarence’s recommendations were shelved, but they would resurface in 1968, when he was happily “on loan” from the Conservation Department to Governor Rockefeller’s Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks.
Building on his earlier research, Clarence refined and updated the studies. In its final report, released in January 1971, the commission proposed that one million acres of state land in the Adirondacks be classified as Wilderness, where no motorized use and few structures would be allowed. In 1972, the recommendations became law.
Clarence retired from state service at the age of sixty-five, following completion of the commission’s report, and he and Ferne headed for Alaska, a place whose natural glories lived up to Clarence’s expectations. When he returned, George Davis, the first staff member of the newly created Adirondack Park Agency (the key recommendation of Rockefeller’s commission), was waiting for him. George asked Clarence to renounce retirement for three more years and join the APA, where his main task would be to inventory dozens of Adirondack waterways. Based on his findings, the rivers would be recommended for special protection according to their classification as wild, scenic, or recreational under the state’s new Rivers System Act. The purpose of the law was to prevent future dams and otherwise preserve the natural character of the river corridors.
It was a job tailor-made for Clarence, another “paid vacation” that would get him back in the woods doing cutting-edge conservation work.
“We started at the headwaters and followed the rivers, about 1,500 miles of them, right to the boundaries of the Park,” recalled Gary Randorf, a naturalist who worked with Clarence. “Any place we went, no matter how far in the backcountry it was, he had been there before. There wasn’t any place he wasn’t familiar with.”
I first met Clarence when I joined the Adirondack Park Agency staff in 1972. What initially struck me was his age—he was at least twice as old as most of us. Yet he worked harder, and had more stamina, than almost everyone else. In the office, he’d be at his desk by 7 a.m. and stay until 6 p.m. In the field, he’d be out ten or twelve hours a day, following every Adirondack river by foot, canoe, and occasionally by air (when private landowners said “no trespassing”), recording mile by mile the flow, clarity, flora and fauna, and proximity of roads, bridges, and other signs of human impact. As the agency’s public-relations man, I would sometimes join Clarence for a day in the field with news reporters who wanted to cover this fascinating story.
One time I arranged for an Associated Press writer to accompany us, and after a day of paddling and traipsing along riverbanks, I asked what he thought of the adventure.
“It was the most humiliating experience of my life,” he told me. “I spent hours today bushwhacking along the river, trying to follow a man forty years older than I am who was carrying a sixty-five-pound canoe. All I carried was a pad and pencil, and I couldn’t keep up with him!”
In the early days, a gung-ho, pioneering spirit pervaded the APA office in Ray Brook. Then, with the completion of the zoning plans for the Park’s public and private lands, the staff settled into a more normal routine. But not Clarence. Adjacent to the APA building was the regional office of the Conservation Department where his brother, Bill, had been the director for many years. At 5 o’clock, when the APA offices cleared out, Clarence, still working on his river reports, would shake his head. “I knew this would happen,” he said. “It’s getting to be just like next door. The factory whistle blows and everyone goes home.”
But if any of these recollections make Clarence sound like a dour, driven, single-minded workaholic, they convey the wrong picture entirely. What people remember most was something else about him—his smile and chuckle, his soft-spokenness, and the respectful way he treated everyone. He tended to see humor in almost everything, especially human behavior, and he rarely had a harsh word to say about anyone. He was also a wonderful mentor to the young people on the APA staff.
Clarence finished his inventory and retired from state service for good in 1974. In 1975, 1,200 miles of Adirondack rivers were given special protection by the state legislature.
Over the next several years, Clarence made five more trips to Alaska, where he reveled in the wild beauty and natural abundance, and also encountered the same controversies over land use he was so familiar with down here. He later wrote that “Alaska and the Adirondacks are similar in facing the same ignorant growth-and-development people who cannot understand that each of these areas, due to geography and climate, are most valuable in the long term by remaining as wild and unexploited as they were before the white man came.”
He was also free now to speak out for wildlife and wilderness. People who advocate stronger environmental regulations are often denounced as “rich outsiders” and “elitists” trying to dictate to Adirondack residents what they can and can’t do with their land. But it was impossible to attach such labels to Clarence, who was virtually unassailable as a spokesman for preservation. Agree with him or not, he was widely respected for knowing more about the Adirondacks than anyone else. That meant he could speak out for the need to expand the Forest Preserve, ban floatplanes from wilderness lakes, restrict jet skis, ATVs and snowmobiles, or curb land development that would diminish the natural character of the region, and few would dare accuse him of not being a “real Adirondacker.”
Not everyone was cowed by his credentials, however. A New York Times obituary on Clarence quoted Carol W. LaGrasse, president of the Property Rights Foundation of America. The quote was from a 2005 news story about a proposal for more snowmobile trails on forever-wild state lands in the Adirondacks—a move that Clarence staunchly opposed. “The environmentalists treat him like the great father, a dignitary par excellence,” she said. “But to my mind, he’s just a repressive, arrogant individual who, along with others, has caused a great deal of hardship for lots of people who live in the Adirondacks.” The story noted that LaGrasse and others “equate wilderness expansion with loss of personal freedom and potential income.”
On the hundredth anniversary of the Adirondack Park, with disputes still simmering over development and preservation, CBS Sunday Morning used Clarence to represent the protectionists’ point of view in the endless debate over property rights and environmental regulation. He first appeared rowing his family guideboat on the Stony Creek Ponds and commenting as follows as he worked the oars:
“If they think it’s better outside where you got a lot of development, they can go there. I’d hate to see the Adirondack Park chopped up into second homes and so on, rather than left like this where you have an area that can be enjoyed by everybody, not just the few that own it. I’m not opposed to private ownership by any means. I certainly own my part up here, but I feel so strong about it I’d be willing to donate my land to the state, free of charge, if others would do the same.”
Well before his death, he made provision to donate the property to the Adirondack Nature Conservancy.
In that same TV segment, Clarence was filmed sitting on his front steps at Coreys, commenting further on the conflict over the best future for the Adirondacks.
“There are two very definite differences of philosophy. One philosophy says, ‘I own the land, I pay taxes on it, so I can do whatever I like with it.’ The other philosophy says, ‘I’m only a temporary custodian of the land, but there are thousands of others who are going to own it in the future, and I have an obligation to those people who come after me.’ That’s the difference between the two sides in the controversy in the Adirondacks today.”
Basic to all the major problems plaguing our planet, Clarence believed, is the runaway growth in human population, which had nearly quadrupled during his lifetime. “It should be no secret,” he wrote, “that as long as the human population continues to increase instead of decrease, every attempt to improve the quality of life will end in failure. There are already indications that the inexorable forces of nature have begun to do for us what they have done to every other life form on the planet that has become too numerous.”
But he also saw glimmers of hope, at least for the sparsely populated Adirondacks. A great comfort of his later years were the acquisitions engineered by the Adirondack Nature Conservancy and other land-saving organizations, with a big assist from three-term-governor George Pataki, who achieved his stated goal of preserving one million acres of forested land in the state, much of it in the Adirondacks. Perhaps the best gift Clarence could have received for one of his last birthdays was the conservancy’s purchase of Follensby Pond, the largest private lake in the Adirondacks and the centerpiece of a 14,500-acre estate, just a few miles up the Raquette River, as the eagle flies, from Coreys. Clarence had been fretting over the fate of
Follensby for twenty years; now he could rest assured that it would be there, wild and beautiful, for future generations.
Though theoretically retired, Clarence continued, with his wife Ferne, to grow much of their food at the house he’d built decades earlier near Canton in the St. Lawrence Valley. He would speak out for wilderness and wildlife preservation at every opportunity. He was a force on his county’s environmental council, and he would serve on the boards of the Adirondack Council, Adirondack Nature Conservancy, and Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks. And he continued to operate his flying school in Potsdam until, at the age of ninety-four, he decided that was enough. Probably the oldest flight instructor in the United States, he’d been at it for well over sixty years.
Shortly after Ferne died in 1994, Clarence moved back to his boyhood home in Coreys, where he remained until the last three years of his extraordinary life.
Some years ago, I stopped by Clarence’s home in Canton to find him and Ferne at their kitchen table busily writing letters, an almost daily ritual for both of them, and one that Clarence would continue until he was 103.
“You gotta have input,” he would say.
There’s no question that Clarence Petty had more than his share.