'Forever Wild'

The Adirondack region of upstate New York encompasses 6 million acres of rivers, lakes and mountain peaks, yet in some ways it remains a well-kept travel secret.

Breathing easier in the Adirondacks

Cover Story

September 08, 2002|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Special to the Sun

I exit the New York Thruway and am pushing hard in the direction of Lake Placid when I stop to eat in the tiny township of Keene, not expecting any miracles.

I stumble upon the Cliffhanger Cafe, one of the few health food restaurants in the Adirondack Mountains. As I'm busy devouring my faux Reuben sandwich, I notice a message scrawled in bold script on a chalkboard near the cash register:

Take a deep breath. Relax. You are in the Adirondacks.

Did some angelic hand write those words? Or have I been touched by a vegetarian? I leave the Cliffhanger a changed tourist.

I return to my car, slip on shorts and hiking boots and drive to a trailhead I remember passing about a mile down the road. Within five minutes, I am winding my way through thick woods. Within 45 minutes, I'm sitting on a rocky overlook. I spot a brilliant-red maple tree amid a sea of leafy green: a warning sign that the seasons are about to turn.

The late painter Rockwell Kent owned a home not far from here. "Farther, higher, steeper, bare-ridged mountain walls to heaven," is how he described these surroundings.

I take a deep breath. I relax. I am in the Adirondacks.

A vast preserve

The 6-million-acre quadrant of upstate New York formally known as the Adirondack Forest Preserve encompasses 2,700 lakes and ponds, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, and 43 mountains at least 4,000 feet high. This is one of America's original getaway places.

Over the centuries how many summer romances bloomed on these lakes and under these stars? How many family photos were snapped, how many gallons of suntan oil slathered on pink shoulders?

Answer: Enough to give rise to a vacation-dependent subculture whose signature trappings are slat-back Adirondack chairs, low-riding Adirondack guide boats, tightly woven Adirondack baskets, and birch-bark-and-twig Adirondack birdhouses, end tables, mirrors, clocks, lamps, doll beds, restroom signs -- just about everything but birch-bark-and-twig Elvis wall hangings.

In 1894 New York legislators had the foresight to amend the state constitution, declaring that vast, designated stretches of the Adirondacks be kept "forever wild." That didn't mean primitive. Gilded Age gentlemen of means sought relief from the East Coast's belching cities by erecting grandiose "summer camps" in the high, cool Adirondacks.

These part-time pleasure palaces were endowed with every conceivable urbane accouterment: monogrammed china and electrical generators, tennis courts and doting servants. On the rare occasions financier J. P. Morgan actually occupied his backwoods digs, he kept his private rail car under steam 24 hours a day.

Jeff Flagg is director of interpretive services at Great Camp Sagamore, the former playpen of Alfred Vanderbilt. Flagg believes the summer camps led to the opening of wild places to mass recreation. He is also amazed that today the Adirondacks qualify as a best-kept travel secret, noting these collective hills and valleys cover more ground than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Olympic national parks put together.

"West of the Appalachians," says Flagg, "no one knows anything about the Adirondacks unless they're from the East. And most people in the East don't know anything. Do they know it's bigger than Vermont? I doubt it. Do they know it has 80 percent of the wilderness east of the Mississippi River? I doubt it."

You can get a crash course in local history at the Adirondack Museum, centerpiece of the village of Blue Mountain Lake.

Twenty outbuildings celebrate canoe-making, logging, mining, hunting and blacksmithing. A reconstructed log hotel stands near a small "mosaic-twig" summer cottage. There's an antique two-seat privy on site. One exhibit is devoted to indigenous hermits and features the transplanted cabin of Noah John Rondeau, who became a folk hero by virtue of hunkering down along Cold River for almost 50 years.

Rondeau quit the woods in 1959. Museum visitors can push a button and hear taped excerpts from a radio interview in which he reflected upon his marathon stay among "the flowery and the fauny."

Pleasures of pampering

Eager to gain a first-hand appreciation for the Adirondacks, I wanted to stay in lodges that evoked the old, opulent summer camps, or preferably once were summer camps.

Lake Placid Lodge, which clings tight to the shoreline of its namesake, was built in 1882 as a relatively modest private residence, but later went commercial. It includes a mix of rooms and cabins, all done up in Early Ralph Lauren rustic-chic decor. Lake Placid Lodge has its own line of clothing, a 4,000-bottle wine cellar and a tradition of observing afternoon tea.

The ambience is honeymoon-perfect. I count nine throw pillows on the four-poster bed in my room.

A birch-and-twig tissue dispenser, birch-and-twig ice bucket, and birch-and-twig waste basket are at my disposal. I worry that I am being pushed to my twiggy limit, that I might go over the edge and start gnawing on that ice bucket like an anxious beaver.

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