Pondering disease and rejuvenation on St. Regis lakes
By Mike Lynch
It was last July, and I was looking for an interesting but easily accessible paddling route in the northern Adirondacks—a place where I could get away from the summer crowds.
So I picked a loop that I had previously paddled on the St. Regis lakes in Paul Smiths. The trip starts on Keese Mills Road at the trailhead for St. Regis Mountain. From the lot, there is a carry to the North Bay of Upper St. Regis Lake. You can then paddle to Spitfire Lake, Lower St. Regis Lake, and then take a channel back to your vehicle.
The shores of Upper St. Regis and Spitfire are more developed than those surrounded by state land or in the neighboring St. Regis Canoe Area, but this trip offers a nice mix of scenery, history and great-camp architecture. I was particularly interested in checking out Rabbit Island on Spitfire, where Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau had conducted a tuberculosis experiment in the 19th century.
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When I arrived at the trailhead, there were a few hikers in the parking lot but no paddlers. With the canoe on my shoulders and dry bag on my back, I headed down the dirt road in the same direction of the hiking trail, which veered into the woods at the right.
I soon found the portage. The woodsy trail was easy to follow, and there was no one else at the put-in. The bay was quiet and undeveloped.
As I left the bay, I found myself paddling past great camps, where there were groups of people enjoying their summer homes. The first structures to come into sight were from Camp Topridge, which is situated on northwestern Upper St. Regis Lake on a ridge near Spectacle Ponds. Marjorie Merriweather Post, founder of General Foods, owned the camp about a century ago. You can’t see the main house from the water, but there are several down by the water, including an impressive boathouse.
As I continued past Topridge, I passed Spring Bay on the right. I took note of this location because I had cross-country skied to the bay from St. Regis Carry Road a few years ago. That winter day, I brought snowshoes along and hiked the boat-access hiking trail to the St. Regis Mountain summit and fire tower.
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Continuing down the lake on this summer day, I passed several more great camps, and soon found myself heading north through a channel to Spitfire Lake. At the end of the channel, I saw Rabbit Island, a privately owned piece of land where Trudeau had conducted an important experiment.
I first became aware of the island’s history more than a decade ago on a paddling trip, when I was training to be a guide under Brian McDonnell. He was leading a group through the lakes and gave his clients a short talk about the island’s role in tuberculosis treatment.
Trudeau came to the Adirondacks with tuberculosis in 1873, expecting to die. Instead, he survived and moved his family to Saranac Lake three years later, starting the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium in 1884 and also the first lab dedicated solely to the study of tuberculosis.
During his summers in the Adirondacks, Trudeau spent a lot of time in Paul Smiths, at the hotel and various camps. For a while, he owned a camp on Spitfire Lake near Rabbit Island, a name it got years after the experiment. Prior to that, it was known as Chicken Island.
The 1886 experiment that included Rabbit Island featured 15 rabbits, broken into three groups of five. Of those, 10 were left on the mainland.
Five of those rabbits were inoculated with tuberculosis and placed in a box in a dingy cellar. The second five were placed in a box at the bottom of a hole in a field. The third five were inoculated with tuberculosis and put on Rabbit Island, allowed to roam free.
As a result of the experiment, four rabbits in the dingy cellar died within three months. All five in the second lot survived, though they were emaciated and in rough shape. On Rabbit Island, four of the five survived and were in great health.
The study proved that exercise, fresh air, sunlight and a healthy diet contributed to the animals surviving tuberculosis, said Amy Catania, executive director of Historic Saranac Lake.
“It wasn’t proclaiming anything other than a very healthy environment can help you fight disease,” Catania said.
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Photo by Mike Lynch
Today, Rabbit Island is privately owned and off-limits to the public. It’s covered with small pines, and there is a plaque on the island but no other structures. It’s not an island that would draw your attention as you paddled past it, but its role in the history of tuberculosis and the area is unquestioned. The study gave credibility to Trudeau’s work, especially among doctors.
“(The study) was something the medical profession was reading about and it helped … people start thinking about Trudeau Sanatorium in New York as being a possible solution,” Catania said. “A lot of doctors started thinking about referring patients to Saranac Lake.”
Brian Weinrick, a microbiologist at Trudeau Institute with an interest in history, said the study still “holds up to this day as being pretty strong evidence for the role of environment in the disease.”
I sat in my boat for a while, checking out the island, thinking about its history and what it was like at that time. A few kayakers went by, and some boats, but it was mostly quiet. The lake was calm. The idea that fresh air, a healthy diet and a healthy environment could help one fight a disease resonated with me. Here I was in the middle of a pandemic, enjoying a lake that I had mostly to myself. I felt appreciative of being able to call the Adirondacks my home.
When I left Rabbit Island, I headed northeast toward Lower St. Regis Lake, where Paul Smith’s College now sits on the property formerly used as a hotel by Paul Smith. To get to Lower St. Regis Lake, you paddle through a river section that goes through a boggy area that has a deep-woods feel. I saw tamaracks and leatherleaf and purple loosestrife.
In the 19th century, hotel guests would travel with guides via guideboat from Lower St. Regis Lake through Spitfire and Upper St. Regis Lake, where they could connect with the current Seven Carries Route that takes you to Little Clear Pond. Back then, they continued all the way to Upper Saranac Lake and the Saranac Inn.
On this lake, strong winds broadsided my boat, so I continued straight toward Pete’s Rock, a peninsula where the college has a lean-to. After turning the corner, I headed west and the wind disappeared and the water became calm again. The sun was now low on the horizon and directly ahead of me. I paddled into it, blinded by the glare. My trip would soon be over, but I felt grateful to be in the Adirondacks, battling the elements at times, but feeling like I had the place mostly to myself.
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This article first appeared in the May/June issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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