The Adirondacks

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On the big northward-hunching shoulder of New York state lies an area discrete and apart. About the size of Holland or Belgium, it exercises—by law, by custom, and by character —a measure of the independence enjoyed by such sovereign nations. Like Holland and Belgium, too, it is interlaced with waterways; but unlike them it is not a low country. It is the Adirondack wilderness. It is under constant threat from without—a threat oftener benevolent than malevoient, but possibly disastrous in either case.

In the spring of 1969, as for generations past, invasion forces began to mass on its borders. All around its vast perimeter, from Whitehall, Saratoga, Gloversville, Watertown, Potsdam, Malone, Plattsburgh, and the lake ports of Vermont, the invaders looked in hungrily on the promised land. And from Memorial Day on, in wave after wave, they poured across the Blue Line (the boundary of the Adirondack Park) to seize strong points on the heights, streams, and lakes of one of the last big wilderness areas in the eastern United States.

Their field equipment was the trailer hitch, the outboard, the water ski, and the sleeping bag. For weapons they carried the scout axe, the canoe paddle, and the fishhook—guns being relatively useless until the fall hunt- ing season. Chemical warfare equipment they had in abundance, for the only game still totally unprotected: the mosquito, the black fly, and the nosee-um.

The Adirondack region, the roughly triangular target of the annual onslaught, is bounded by the Mohawk Valley on the south, the St. Lawrence Valley on the northwest, and the valley of Lake Champlain and Lake George on the east. Once heavily forested throughout the twelve New York counties which it includes in whole or in part, its wilderness now lies chiefly in the heartland circumscribed by the Blue Line—about eighty miles from east to west, one hundred from north to south. It is largely mountainous: ninety summits rise above 3,500 feet. Mount Marcy, the highest, reaches 5,344; Whiteface Mountain, the second best-known, is sixth in height at 4,872, but has the attraction of greater beauty and, today at least, accessibility. Among its hundreds of lakes and ponds the largest and most famous are Lake George, the Tuppers, the Saranacs, Placid, Raquette, Blue Mountain, Long, and the Fulton chain. These are intricately connected and are drained by five rivers: the Hudson to the Atlantic, the Black to Lake Ontario, the Raquette to the St. Lawrence, and the Saranac and the Ausable to Lake Champlain.

This year’s Adirondack storm troops were, in a sense, celebrating a centennial, for it was just a hundred years ago that the truly massive assault on the wilderness began. Samuel de Champlain was probably the first European to glimpse the Adirondack peaks—in 1609—but that was only at a distance. Between then and the eighteenth century the great wilderness remained as aloof and virtually as untenanted as in aboriginal times—for there is reason to think that the Indians, though they knew it as good hunting ground, had little taste for living in its rugged depths. Indeed, the name Adirondack itself, which was not generally adopted until the nineteenth century, is supposed to derive from a Mohawk word of pejorative connotation once applied to an Algonquian people who presumably inhabited the forest north of the Mohawk Valley. At any rate, white settlers came slowly to the area, and relatively few lived there while the French and Indian War, the Revolution, and the War of 1812 roared around its boundaries.

Meanwhile, land speculators, lured by rumors of enormous riches in the hidden interior—of timber, minerals, and water power—got possession of huge chunks of the Adirondacks, often without ever seeing what they were buying. First from the Crown, and then from the state of New York, land patents were obtained which in the Old World would have represented dukedoms or principalities. The two most extensive, Totten and Crossfield’s Purchase (1772) and Macomb’s Purchase (1792), were larger, respectively, than Rhode Island and Connecticut.

Yet despite traffic in real estate and stabs at industrial development, ignorance of the Adirondack region remained profound. Neither of its two summits of over 5,000 feet appears on Governor Tryon’s official map of 1771; in fact no mountains or lakes are marked at all. In 1837 a reputable gazetteer was assuring its readers that the Adirondacks did not exceed 1,200 feet in elevation, making the Catskill Mountains lofty by comparison.

Nevertheless, by that time the well-informed few knew better, and their numbers were growing steadily. It was in 1836 that Ebenezer Emmons, newly appointed state geologist, began his extensive surveys. He climbed the highest mountain, measured it, and named it after Governor William L. Marcy; he also proposed calling the high central peaks the Adirondack range. Later extended to the whole wilderness, this name swiftly gained currency, as proved by its bestowal that same year on a large ocean packet ship launched in New York City.