- Historic Sites
Out Of The Woods
Amid a hundred mountains and a thousand lakes, a fascinating institution tells the story of America’s engagement with its Eastern wilderness
April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
For now, the central Adirondacks have escaped the over-development of Lake George, and much of the region seems, if not pristine, at least unspoiled. My carload of backpackers climbed Castle Rock, following a trail that seemed ten times longer than the three-quarters of a mile advertised on our map but that led—after a final near-vertical stretch over twisted roots and pine needles—to a soul-satisfying overlook high above Blue Mountain Lake. One day we drove to Long Lake, an attractive village with a timeworn nineteenth-century hotel, a bark-embellished general store, a sloping sandy beach, and a seaplane service should you and your party want transportation to campsites unreachable by car.
Another day we headed west to Raquette Lake. Rain kept us from taking the mail boat for a cruise around the shoreline (tickets are eight dollars for adults, four dollars for children), but we visited Sagamore Lodge, the camp constructed in 1897 by W. W. Durant, son of the Durant who built the transcontinental railroad. Here and at two earlier camps, the younger Durant artfully combined the Swiss chalet with local log construction techniques, adorning his creations with bark and branch in the spirit of his surroundings. Sagamore Lodge survives today as a conference center, and it is open to the public for weeklong stays or hour-long tours. The interior of the main house is so massively built that it may not appeal to everyone, but the tour of the grounds is well worth taking for its glimpse into the almost feudal society that flourished here during the Gilded Age. After Durant had gone spectacularly broke creating his wooded retreat, Alfred G. Vanderbilt bought the place and kept anywhere from forty to two hundred locals employed year-round running a house he might inhabit for a month in the summer and a week at Christmas.
Throughout the Adirondacks, summer camps needed winter caretakers, and in the off-season the caretakers sometimes built rustic chairs or dressers to complement the hunting trophies adorning the fireplaces. The Adirondack Museum has a collection of handsome bark furniture made by Ernest Stowe, a craftsman who brought great skill and wit to his work. Stowe earned enough money from his specialized talent that in 1911 he left Adirondack winters for Florida. He never came back.
The rustic style originated not here but in China, I learned at the museum. Rustic shelters were going up in New York City’s Central Park before the fashion made its way to the north woods. But Adirondack craftsmen may have brought the style to its highest form. Alas, there’s no evidence that the simple, slatted piece of furniture universally called the Adirondack chair originated here either. Nevertheless I happily sat in one on the beach at Potter’s, watching the kids teach themselves to paddle a canoe. Two families of ducks stopped by, a fish splashed, the sun set, and the scent of pine filled the air, just as Murray promised.
The Adirondack Park is larger than Massachusetts. You can spend your visit driving from one end of it to the other, stopping at every lake and hamlet. Or you can, as Murray suggested, pick your spot.
Pick a spot near the museum.