The Adirondacks

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Then, in 1869, came William Henry Harrison Murray. The twenty-nine-year-old pastor of Boston’s fashionable Park Street Congregational Church, Murray was also a sportsman who appreciated the good things of life. Since few of his well-to-do parishioners spent their summers in Boston, he was able to take a two months’ summer holiday himself; and he chose to spend his summers in the Adirondacks, boating, fishing, shooting, and camping with a favorite guide and accompanied by his wife, an outdoor type. In April of 1869 a Boston publisher, Fields, Osgood & Company, brought out a little book called Adventures in the Wilderness, or Camp-Life in the Adirondacks ; its author was William H.H. Murray. The Adirondacks have never been the same since.

Unquestionably the public was ready for a testament that would send them packing off to the north woods in large numbers, but unquestionably, also, Murray’s book affected people in extraordinary ways. By June there had begun a mass influx into the Adirondacks the like of which had never been seen or dreamed of before. The “Murray Rush” was under way. Everyone seemed to have read the book and found something in it that perfectly answered his urge to get away from it all to the peace and freedom, the sport, the adventure, and the health of the great woods.

What was Murray’s secret? It is difficult, in retrospect, to say how much of the phenomenal response to his book was an explosion merely waiting to be touched off by any bright spark, and how much should be credited to him as a writer. Reading his little volume a century later, however, one can see certain aspects of it that clearly must have been provocative. Surely few have written so ardently about fishing, for example, as Murray: his descriptions of encounters with gamesome trout have very nearly an erotic quality:

Back and forth, round and round that pool he flashed, a gleam of yellow light through the dark water, until at last, wearied and exhausted by his efforts, he rolled over upon his side and lay panting upon the surface. … I paused a moment to admire. A bluish-black trout he was, dotted with spots of bright vermilion. His fins, rosy as autumnal skies at sunset, were edged with a border of purest white. His tail was broad and thick; eyes prominent, mouth wide and armed with briery teeth. A trout in color and build rarely seen, gamy and stanch.

Having raised his readers’ pulse rate with this, Murray goes on in the next couple of paragraphs to tell how he hooked three trout simultaneously:

I struck so quick and strong that the leader twanged like a snapped bow-string, and the tip of the light rod flew down nearly to the reel. All three were hooked . Three trout, weighing in the aggregate seven pounds, held by a single hair on a nine-ounce rod, in a pool fringed with lily-pads, forty by thirty feet across!

This, of course, is followed by a mouth-watering account of a Falstaffian fish fry “under the clear sky already thickly dotted with stars.”

Sport like this, the reader might have assumed, was to be had only as the reward for arduous hiking through thorny underbrush in order to reach the happy pools and streams. Not at all. If there is one thing more striking about Murray’s Adirondacks than the sybaritic fishing and hunting, it is the fabulous ease with which all this was to be arrived at. He speaks with open disgust of “tramping” and goes on to observe:

Now, in the North Woods, owing to their marvellous watercommunication, you do all your sporting from your boat. … This takes from recreation every trace of toil. … I have sported a month at a time, without walking as many miles as there were weeks in the month.

Another attribute of Murray’s little best seller that lias self-evident appeal is the series of fairly down-to-earth recommendations on what clothing and supplies to take, how to get into the Adirondacks by the best route, which hotels to patronize when not camping, and which guides (he actually names twenty-seven) to hire for the best service. He includes a special section on appropriate dress for ladies and makes light of such Adirondack pests as black flies and mosquitoes.

Finally, Murray spread the word like a true believer about the curative virtues of the Adirondack air and way of life. He was certain that the “pungent and healing odors” of balsam and pine were perfectly capable of curing “consumption,” as tuberculosis was then known, and to prove it he recounted how a dying youth was taken into the woods, only to walk out five months later “bronzed as an Indian, and as hearty,” having gained sixty-five pounds of flesh “well packed on.”

The important fact, in any case, is that after 1869 the Adirondacks drew bigger and bigger crowds of vacationers every year, and at an accelerating pace. What followed was in many ways an object lesson in the problem of preserving a large forest area for purposes of human sustenance and recreation. The root of the problem, as always, was the people themselves—their number and their behavior. How could the glories of the Adirondack wilderness be kept available to the ever-growing many instead of falling into the hands of the ever-wealthier few; and how could both species of citizen be prevented from despoiling what nature had created?