LONG LAKE, N.Y. -- Three months ago, the streets of this Adirondack hamlet were nearly deserted. In Hamilton County, where Long Lake -- population 750 -- is practically a metropolis, the unemployment rate was up to 18 percent, higher than any other county in the state. Business was so slow at the grocery store here that the owner had to take out a loan to cover expenses, and he said later that he had stayed open only as a public service.
9,000 plastic spoons
But in the last few days, the gloom that hung over Long Lake all winter has lifted. American flags are flying from telephone poles. Boats and docks have been moved from storage into the lake. The diner is drawing a breakfast crowd for the first time in months. And John Hosley, who owns Hoss' Country Corner, has just stocked his ice cream store across the street with 9,000 plastic spoons.
It happens every year, just about now. Long Lake welcomes back hundreds of summer homeowners and visitors on Memorial Day weekend, and in only a few days, the number of people in this sleepy town in the state's most sparsely populated county quadruples. It is all part of the migration that transforms this region, sometimes called the Appalachia of the North, into a rustic retreat for the well-heeled refugees of New York City and its suburbs.
There are, of course, summer towns across the country that go through a similar boom every Memorial Day weekend. In all of them, urban dwellers revel in their escape to the country, while the locals brace themselves for quite the opposite: three months of hard work and an end to peace and quiet.
Still, few changes are as stark as in this lakeside getaway, nestled in the vast Adirondack wilderness. For the year-round residents here, summer is the time to make the money that will support them the rest of the year. It is an irksome reminder to people who pride themselves on independence that their livelihood depends on the arrival of what they call the flatlanders.
"Wake up Saturday morning, and you see a metamorphosis," said Hosley, whose upscale general store offers everything from handmade wooden canoes to fresh dill pickles. "The intellectual world will have arrived," he added wryly.
The village of Long Lake is one of two hamlets in the town of Long Lake, population 930, in the heart of the Adirondack Park, an expanse of public and private land about the size of Massachusetts. It is about 250 miles northwest of New York City, and you can get here only by traveling at least 50 miles of two-lane highway, or chartering a seaplane.
Cool lakes and forests
The small downtown includes a lodge-like turn-of-the-century hotel (no telephones, no televisions, but two stuffed bears in the lobby and a big porch overlooking the water), a grocery, Hosley's store, four restaurants that close or cut back their hours come October, and two summer ice cream shops. The highway into town is lined with about a dozen motels and inns, as well as a state campground.
But the town is less known for amenities than for cool lakes and lush forests, and over the last year, it has been the focal point for one of the state's biggest environmental disputes. This is where Marylou Whitney hoped to develop luxury estates on the family's immense "camp" -- the term here for all summer homes, even mansions like Whitney's but instead was persuaded to sell the 15,000 acres to the park.
To many residents, that decision was a disappointment, denying them jobs and new customers, and it was yet another example of how "outsiders" -- whether environmentalists or summer vacationers -- controlled their fate.
This situation is not new. The village has attracted vacationers since the late 19th century. But in recent years, as logging, mining and other businesses have faded, the summer trade has carried its economy.
"You either make your money now, or you eat bark for the rest of the year," remarked Tom Bissell, a 70-year-old native and town supervisor.
Over the next few months, this town becomes a place of hotels without vacancies, crowded campgrounds and quaint turn-of-the century stone and shingle cottages. Seaplanes shuttle some people into the back country for fishing expeditions, and others take boats to old homes that are accessible only by water.
It is a second home to old money, like the heirs of William Whitney, the 19th-century industrialist, as well as a hideaway for celebrities like Sigourney Weaver, the actress.
A few miles outside town, at the state campground at Eaton Lake, Rick Martin was relieved to be back at work on Friday. In February and March, there was no work to be had, and he had run out of savings, started collecting unemployment checks of $300 a week and had little to do all day but watch television.