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Adirondack Characters and Campfire Yarns: Early Settlers and their Traditions by William J. O‘Hern (2005) (read in 2019)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

The author many times writes that there are so many tales lost to the mists of time and that one volume doesn’t suffice to include many of the tales that are known. I think he is overly enamored by the variety he thinks that he is offering. Many of the stories are very similar and they involve a painstaking protocol of how many animals were killed with how many shots. The stories rarely offer a surprise ending or even much interesting detail. They are just the description of a single everyday incident in an otherwise boring life.

For example:

“George was a good shot. In fact he was a sharpshooter with either a rifle or a shotgun. Mr. Ralph would tip George $5 for every partridge he shot. Once, George shot a kingfisher with a 30-30 Winchester across the bay near the outlet of Black Creek Lake. The bird was sitting on a large rock. The gun that George used the most was a 30-30 Winchester Carbine.”

This is a very typical passage: drily written, matter-of-fact, and not particularly fascinating.

These men were not stewards of the land. They were unwashed and uneducated hunters who took as much as they possibly could. They laid bold claim to having been the man (because they were all men) to kill the last panther or the last bear. Only much later in the book would there be stories of some who seemed to want to take care of the Adirondacks.

One of the most heralded mountain men was French Louie, a Canuck who’d wandered down to the region. He seemed nearly the most savage and unpredictable and just downright stupid-mean. The author claimed again and again that people loved him, but I don’t see how.

The author cites how much Louie loved his dogs and how fiercely he would defend them. But the dogs aren’t native. They’re just barking killing machines that he uses to cull as much meat and pelts from the woods as possible. When the wolves killed one of his dogs, Louie slaughtered the whole pack in revenge—a lesson that could not hope to be learned by a pack with no surviving members. The only purpose was mindless slaughter and petty revenge.

“Elijah Conklin’s written recollections record that Louie “. . was the one who killed the last of the timber wolves in the Adirondacks. He killed five on Samson Lake. They killed his dog and he put arsenic in a doe’s carcass and killed all five.””

The author very clearly loves everything about the Adirondacks at any time since whites started writing about them. He is over the moon about every detail he can find and wants to preserve every possible word written about any era of trapping, hunting or being in the wild in the Adirondacks.

But the author also venerates the trapper and hunter’s right to kill the animals for money. Without fail, he characterizes animals as devious and mean in their hopeless attempts to save their lives from their technologically advanced and pitiless enemy, the Adirondack woodsman. A trap is, by design, a cruel way to kill an animal. It chews its own foot off or dies of exhaustion, starvation or dehydration.

Beyond that, the author also lauds these heroes for avoiding the state authorities who are trying to contain their plunder and who try to make them stick with hunting and trapping methods that are legal and are not on private property. They didn’t care and they were heroes for the devious methods with which they eluded the authorities. The park ranger is made out to be a pain in the ass and the criminal eluding him is venerated.

Amongst themselves, there was a pact to keep each other alive—honor among thieves, of a sort—with a sort-of campsite-rule where you were allowed to use cabins that were not yours, but left them as good as or better than your found them.

Besides the animosity between the woodsmen and the rangers, there was the tension between the woodsmen and their customers: “sports” or city-slickers who couldn’t find their asses with both hands and a torch.

“[…] some of these city dudes that come up here deer hunting and take turns having their pictures taken with a bunch of deer and maybe a bear or two hanging up behind them, never shot a gun in their lives and wouldn’t know a turns skunk from a ten-point buck. They couldn’t hit the inside of a barn if you closed the door on them.”

Most of the stories are written by other authors—some of them write much better than O’Hern, but none of them write extremely well. The best passages came from the few women included in the volume, to be honest.

I did learn more than I already knew about logging terms and traplines. That was certainly interesting. Most of the stories take place in places that I’ve visited—some of them even lived (like Clinton). That certainly made it a more fun read than for someone who has no connection whatsoever to the places. The afterword was nice—a plea for moderns to keep the Adirondacks alive as they are and as they were.

Citations

“All the men lived during a time when gathering scores of amusing anecdotes and information was painstaking. Many of their subjects were old or had died. The personal histories of natives they sought were already being obscured by the gathering mists of legend and hearsay.”
Page 2
“The association of native and outsider is therefore less close and familiar today than in the last century. No composite creation of native’s deeds and outsider’s nostalgia personifies the region as did the old-time guide. But lore of the woods is still being made by hunters, fishermen, campers, trampers, summer residents, mountain climbers, skiers, boaters and other groups. Outsiders have an increasing share in it as their number and their need grow. ‘Out of the woods we came, and to the woods we must return, at frequent intervals,’ an Adirondack tourist of 80 years ago spoke for all generations, ‘if we would redeem ourselves from the vanities of civilization.’ Any return for reasons of the heart is the stuff of folklore.”
Page 31
“George was a good shot. In fact he was a sharpshooter with either a rifle or a shotgun. Mr. Ralph would tip George $5 for every partridge he shot. Once, George shot a kingfisher with a 30-30 Winchester across the bay near the outlet of Black Creek Lake. The bird was sitting on a large rock. The gun that George used the most was a 30-30 Winchester Carbine.”
Page 48

This is a very typical passage: drily written, matter-of-fact, and not particularly fascinating.

“Elijah Conklin’s written recollections record that Louie “. . was the one who killed the last of the timber wolves in the Adirondacks. He killed five on Samson Lake. They killed his dog and he put arsenic in a doe’s carcass and killed all five.”

“When Louie went hunting he took his dog, Old Cape, with him. Old Cape was trained to sit in a guide boat and at his master’s command jump out of the boat, swim to shore, race up a mountainside, and drive the deer clown to the lake where Louie could shoot them.”

Page 57

The author cites how much he loved his dogs and how fiercely he would defend them. But the dogs aren’t native. They’re just barking killing machines that he uses to cull as much meat and pelts from the woods as possible. When the wolves killed one of his dogs, he slaughtered the whole pack in revenge—a lesson that could not hope to be learned by a pack with no surviving members. The only purpose was mindless slaughter and petty revenge.

“Dunning killed the last moose in the Adirondacks 32 years ago. He killed the last panther eight years ago. He may put a bullet through the last wolf, only a few of which are left. Black bear are still quite common, but these and deer are all that remain of the big animals that roamed through the Adirondacks in Dunning’s younger days. The number of beasts which his gun has brought down, not counting smaller game like foxes, mink, otter and birds, will reach far into the thousands. He killed 102 panthers in eight years. The biggest catch of fish was made by him in 1833, when he pulled 96 pounds of salmon trout out of Piseco Lake in two hours. The largest salmon trout on record caught by Alvah’s hook and it weighed 27½ lbs.”
Page 68
“Bockes asked Alvah how much he wanted for the skins. He said, `Ten dollars each.‘ Mr. Bockes said he would take the lot and took out his check book and drew a check for $100 and handed it to Alvah. He said, ‘What’s that Mr. Bockes?’ Why,‘ he said, ‘it’s a check for $100.‘ Alvah said, ‘No sir, no sir, don’t want it, won’t take it. I sell my fur for cash.‘ But; I said, ‘Alvah , this gentleman is the cashier of the First National Bank of Saratoga.’ `Don’t care, don’t care, if he’s the governor of the state. I will not take it.‘ So we had to go back and we told Mr. Durant about it and we all had a good laugh. He let Mr. Bockes have the money and that evening we went over and got the otter skins. That shows what type of a man Alvah was. He was a child of the wilderness.”
Page 82

Or maybe he just didn’t want to accept any old piece of paper that someone said was worth $100.

“Burt Conklin belonged to the tribe of real woodsmen, his viewpoint from the woods looking out. He refused to be a guide, and seldom worked for logger wages. He disliked the trapping that caught wild pelts before the fur was prime and that kept over into the spring when fades, rubs, and sheds were caught. As he passed his prime and saw the effects of Conservation law, he nodded his approval.”
Page 109

“If the trap chain became entangled and prevented the sweep from working, or if the fisher could reach the tree, it would climb and pull the sweep up Until the pole cleared the crotched stake. When that happened, the fisher stood on the ground, and the vicious frenzied demon became a whirlwind of devastating behavior. Everything . . . but everything! . . . within reach of its razor-sharp claws and teeth would be shredded — the cubby house leveled as though it had never been built, the well sweep chewed off, and whatever the trap chain was fastened to would be splintered. The resulting damage from an angered or fear-filled fisher is incredible. Eventually it will either escape by leaving part of its foot in the trap, or else become exhausted and die from the strain of the struggle.

“If a fisher escaped it was difficult to locate it, particularly if new snow covered its tracks. To find the trail, the loose snow was scraped away where the fisher might have been detained by small brush, fallen tree tops or anything else that might impede its progress. Wherever the fiendish animal had been there was certain to be plenty of wood splinters or bits of chewed brush beneath the snow. (Emphasis added.)”

Page 114

Note how the author calls an animal fighting for its life fiendish

“He stepped on [the paddle], unfastened the other snowshoe and placed that foot on the paddle without breaking any of the markings of the snowshoe trail.

“By changing in this fashion, both men succeeded in getting several feet away from their snowshoe tracks without leaving any marks. They followed the deer runway in their hunting packs for three or four hundred feet beyond the snowshoe trail. At that spot they put on their rawhide snowshoes and circled until they returned to the main line without coming near where their tracks could be seen. That night the game protectors arrived at the camp the two men had left in the morning. The next day they traced every snowshoe track leading away from the cabin, but all circled back to the spot where they had departed.

“The state men were stymied and returned, disgruntled, to the lodge at Honnedaga Lake. Burt and Jack lingered at a friend’s hunting camp to await developments, but nothing happened. They heard that the protectors had remarked, “Those trappers must have wings. We’ll never try to chase them again.””

Page 117

Beyond that, the author also lauds these heroes for avoiding the state authorities who are trying to contain their plunder and who try to make them stick with hunting and trapping methods that are legal and are not on private property. They didn’t care and they were heroes for the devious methods with which they eluded the authorities. The park ranger is made out to be a pain in the ass and the criminal eluding him is venerated.

“[…] They had failed to bring a blanket as they were confident of finding a cabin by the lake, in which there would be bedding and food as was the custom in all trapper’s cabins. Burt always left his own camps with an adequate pile of dry wood, blankets, and food, so he would have something for himself on a return trip or unplanned visit, as well as for some other trapper who might be caught in the woods without adequate provisions. Such was the unwritten code of the wilderness: the wayfarer was welcome to enter a cabin and make use of its conveniences, but he was expected to take proper care of the equipment, replenish the wood supply, leave the but clean when he departed, and “pass the good deed on” to someone else in need whenever the chance arose.”
Page 119

“When a man that size approaches under the pretense that he would like to see your rod [OMG phrasing] because he desires to purchase one, as you fish a posted section of a river that has signs reminding club members only fly fishing is allowed, there is no waiting to see what will happen.

“I knew there would be no amusing laughter. I made good time, actually excellent time, hightailing out of there. But the fellow kept up with me. I assumed he must have been a runner or just in darned good shape. After a time he could go no farther. He sat down on a rock in river’s deep ravine to catch his breath. Seeing an opportunity to ease the burr in my lungs, I also stopped.

““Well there,” I hollered, “We sure had quite a run.”

““Yes indeed,” he shouted back between heaves of his chest. “And let tell you something,” he added. “We are going to have another as soon I gel breath.””

Page 164

“A large part of the plateau is now owned by the state and by two or three paper companies. Many sections are now being reforested with spruce and pine, set out by farmers, the state and paper concerns.

“There were many hardwoods here, mostly birch and maple. The large virgin growth birch trees were shipped to Poland and manufactured into veneer. The waste material from the hardwood flooring operation, was made into charcoal and wood alcohol. No part of the tree went to waste.

“The birches were beautiful white, silver and yellow. The maples were wonderful growths of curly and birds eye, shipped to Germany for use in making expensive musical instruments like violins. (Emphasis added.)”

Page 180

The emphasized portion is likely a story they all told each other to convince themselves how important their resources were to the world. It’s something you’ll often hear in stories from upstate—or from poorer communities, in general. They inflate their sense of self-worth by imagining that their products are used only for the finest, fanciest things—that they are part of something special. Nobody wants to think that they are slaughtering their local forests so that the Germans can turn them into heating pellets.

“Mother Johnson died January 27, 1875, after a short illness, and, at the desire of her husband, was buried on a little knoll back of the house, where her husband was also buried when done with earthly things.”
Page 183

I just like this sentence because it demonstrates the importance of commas. At first, I read it without them and though that both the short illness and the desire of her husband were what killed her.

“[…] some of these city dudes that come up here deer hunting and take turns having their pictures taken with a bunch of deer and maybe a bear or two hanging up behind them, never shot a gun in their lives and wouldn’t know a turns skunk from a ten-point buck. They couldn’t hit the inside of a barn if you closed the door on them.”
Page 220 by Burt
“You who today love the wilds of the Adirondack Mountains, take the time as you backpack along a winding trail, fish a stream, or sit in the warmth of an open fire, graced by the mournful oo-A H-ho yodel of a common loon, to think of the future of the mountains. Ahead of slipping into car comfortable sleeping systems set on self-inflating pads inside a ripstop loon tent set up under whatever weather conditions Mother Nature happens to bring forth, we should consider how each of us can help provide equivalent experiences for future multitudes who will long for adventures such Blankman, Harvey Dunham, Mortimer Norton, and the men and they wrote about had. People must strike a balance between abundant fives, the natural world and leaving a heritage for future generations. 1 can Xi my pen down knowing that Adirondack Characters and Campfire Yarns has played a small part in raising awareness of our priceless Adirondack Mountain heritage.”
Page 233 (Afterword)