By Tracy Ormsbee
Bob Liseno is quietly doing his part to keep an important Adirondack tradition alive.
A few times a week he joins a classroom of 16- to 18-year-olds participating in the Franklin/Essex/Hamilton County Boards of Cooperative Educational Services program’s natural science class, which teaches Adirondack staples such as surveying, soil and tree identification, aquatic ecosystems, land use and forestry. And when Liseno comes to class, they are crafting a tongue-and-groove log lean-to.
It’s 31 degrees on this January day at the back side of the Adirondack Education Center in Saranac Lake, with a dusting of snow and some ice on the ground. Three high school juniors, Tyler Yell, Cooper Grady and Logan Branch, are protected against the cold—not to mention chain saws and hammer mishaps—dressed in hard hats, work gloves, chaps and boots. They use a car brush and scraper to get the snow and ice off the logs before they start their work. It’s Saranac Lake, after all.
Soft-spoken and rugged, Liseno has the students’ full attention. They watch him closely and listen for his instruction. He quizzes them as they work:
“We’ve got a fat log there and a skinny one there. Which should we put where?”
In order to keep the right and left sides of the lean-to even, they put the larger log on the side that was 2 inches shorter. Otherwise you end up with a lopsided lean-to, Liseno says.
Does that ever happen?
“Not on my watch,” he says.
“Who wants to run the chain saw? Who wants to do the honors?” he asks, and then says, “Watch your fingers.”
All the while, the students are learning construction—how to operate saws and grinders, and how to read a tape measure. “Handy skills if you’re going to be in the building trade up here,” Liseno says.
One of the students is selected as foreman to organize the crew and set them up with tools. The logs come from near Whiteface, and once they arrive, they are stripped of bark and each is carved to fit over the log below. They will put a floor in, then take it all apart to label, sand and stain the pieces.
The Department of Environmental Conservation will move the finished lean-to to Site 85 on Middle Saranac Lake when the weather is warmer. Because the location is close by, the students can help select the site and see this lean-to through to completion.
This is the fourth the class has built. One went to Rocky Falls on the trail from Adirondack Loj to Wallface, another replaced a lean-to at Marcy Dam with one near Phelps Brook. The third is sitting on an airstrip at Tahawaus waiting to be placed at Casey Brook near Elk Lake in the spring.
Liseno approached BOCES three years ago representing Lean2Rescue to see if they could get help with construction so volunteers could spend more time in the woods and less in a garage building new lean-tos. Liseno stopped in to see if he could get an appointment with the instructor of the natural science class, Christian Wissler.
“He was excited. He said, ‘Yes, I want to build a lean-to!’ We ordered a load of logs that February and that was the first we ever built. I couldn’t believe he said yes, but he said yes with enthusiasm.”
It fit in well with the curriculum, teaching teamwork, perseverance and problem solving, Wissler says. And, ultimately, the students are leaving a legacy.
Wissler says when he runs into former students, they often ask how Liseno is doing.
When he first started with the students, Liseno said he thought he would show them what to do and then leave them to build the lean-to. But once he started, he stayed with it.
“I went over and started working with them and I really enjoyed it,” he says.
Students have a wide range of skills. Some have never read a tape measure while others have worked in logging and running heavy machinery with their families.
“Trying to give something to everyone sometimes is a challenge,” Liseno says.
When it’s time to scribe the logs so they can be fit together tightly, Liseno turns to the students to handle the compass-like tool. Scribing marks where wood will be removed so the log will sit snugly on the log below it. It takes a few tries, sometimes three—sometimes 10 or 15, Liseno says.
“Lift it up until it’s level,” he says to the students. “Let’s check our work.”
“That’s pretty darn good. Let’s do the same thing on the other side now.”
A native of Clyde, between Rochester and Syracuse, Liseno is a retired engineer who worked on Navy nuclear power programs and then as an engineer and plant manager at the Fitzpatrick Nuclear Power Plant in Oswego. Over the years, he visited Saranac Lake on weekends, but moved to the Adirondacks permanently 18 years ago looking for a slightly less stressful life working in carpentry and hiking mountains. The two interests came together in his volunteer work with the Lean2Rescue group.
In addition to Lean2Rescue, Liseno has done trail work for the Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast. He and wife Eileen volunteer for various roles with the Olympic Regional Development Authority, including race officiating, and the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. “It’s nice to be associated and help out,” he says. “You don’t feel like a resident until you get involved.”
Liseno says he’s been impressed with the students, who are smart and motivated. When he’s with them, he’s excited about the work.
“I’m getting much more out of it than they are.”