Recently back from a canoe camping trip to the Adirondacks, I spent some time thinking about how different our trip was from the canoe trips described by George Washington Sears (he died in 1890) who wrote about his paddling adventures around the Adirondack lakes in the magazine Forest and Stream magazine, which was published from 1873 to 1930. Reports on three of his trips when he was in his early sixties were published as a book in 1962 and reprinted in 1993 as a more critical edition titled Canoeing the Adirondacks with Nessmuk: the collected letters of George Washington Sears. Sears, who wrote under a pen name, Nessmuk, the name of his Indian friend, which means wood drake, a type of duck, in the Algonquin language, preferred light weight camping. And, he paddled what by today’s standards would be considered an ultra light weight canoe, weighing less than 15 pounds, and only about 10 feet in length.
Sears also eschewed packing a large ‘duffle’ as he described it, criticizing tourists to the Adirondacks for overpacking and taking too much “stuff” into the woods.
But reading Nessmuk’s accounts of the Adirondacks while we were in the Adirondacks, I came to understand what has changed, and what has not. And those differences say something not only about the 6 million acres that make up the Adirondacks but about us, as tourists of the great forests, as canoeists and most importantly, as human beings.
The Adirondacks were not even made a state park until 1892 and by then had been heavily logged for timber as well as for leather tanning. But when Sears plied the waters there were not yet restrictions on cutting down a tree to make a lean-to. Our trip to Follensby Clear Pond, between the Saranac Lakes and the St. Regis chain of lakes, restricted our camping to a designated camp site and also included a strict rule of using only “downed or dead timber” for camp fires.
Nessmuk was a master woodsman, skilled in the art of bushcraft. He was able to create a shelter with the aide of his ax and able to provide food either from fishing or with the muzzle of his rifle. In his light weight canoe, though, he tended to rely on fishing, since hooks, line and a pole weighed precious little.
As I surveyed our own camp site with its three tents, kitchen and two canoes, I could not help but be wistful for a simpler time. We, like the tourists Sears criticized, traveled to the forests of the Adirondacks to enjoy a nature experience and to simply get away, in a way that traveling to a hotel or resort could not provide. Nonetheless, our ability to immerse ourselves on an island in the middle of Follensby Clear Pond surrounded by quite possibly virgin forest, hemlock and pine trees towering about 100 feet over us deep in the depths of the Adirondack State Park, was totally enabled by modern technology.
First of all, we drove there, covering almost 300 miles in about five and a half hours. Our tents were made of synthetic materials with aluminum poles that collapsed but were held together themselves with elastic threading. Our boats were plastic, one even made from ultra light weight Kevlar material. We cooked aided by a canister of compressed gas, burning iso-butane fuel and we stretched a blue plastic tarp over our cooking space to shield the wind and rain. True, we did make a camp fire twice a day and did our best to start the fire with one match or two after gathering tinder and kindling. But, at one point, frustrated with my inabilities at keeping the fire going, I doused the wood with hand sanitizer and watched the flames reawaken and dance merrily. And all three of us smiled when we realized that we had cell phone reception on our island campsite in the middle of the wilderness, even if the reception was spotty at times.
So was our trip a true nature experience? We did endure some of the privations that Nessmuk described, such as mosquitoes. But we reached for our store bought insect repellent. Sears created and publicized the recipe for his own insect repellent concoction, cooking a mixture consisting of castor oil, tar and pennyroyal and applied it liberally to the skin with instructions to his readers not to wash it off themselves until they were out of the woods. And, like Sears, we did carry our canoes and all our gear from one lake to the next, but in our case, wishing we had less to carry. But one area where our misery probably equaled his was canoeing in the rain, becoming thoroughly soaked, a scene he described frequently (we either were late in donning rain jackets, or, they did not provide complete rain protection).
In Sear’s day, tourists hired guides to row them in heavy wooden dorries, carry the boats from lake to lake over the trails and set up camp and prepare food. The tourists did crave a wilderness experience. If they didn’t, they could have remained back at the great camp lodge, with many of the conveniences a home provided in the late 1800s. Nonetheless, he criticized them for taking too much stuff with them. Sears himself traveled with a very light weight pack, weighing less than about 15 pounds he writes, although some question the accuracy of his estimate. His pack consisted of an extra shirt and pair of socks, a blanket for sleeping, a knife and hatchet, fishing tackle and pole, homemade insect repellent, and a few other items. He probably carried some food with him but also relied on fishing and hunting. He took no tent as he made his own shelter from trees, trunks and branches.
We did not over pack but could have packed lighter. But even if we packed lighter, we could still not have done without modern technology. Sears never wrote about water purification. And, while some will argue that the waters of the Adirondack lakes do not require sterilization, being children of modernity, we erred on the side of caution and used an ultra violet light Steri-pen device. Furthermore, we could not have found enough appropriately sized ‘downed or dead’ wood to make our own shelter even if we wanted to and fortunately, with the rain we experienced, we had solid rain proof shelters. We could have tried to cook only with a campfire, but would first have had to master the art of creating reliable camp fires.
The Adirondacks have changed since the time of George Washington Sears. Now a New York State Park, the land comes with rules and regulations. But we, as people, have fundamentally changed in our increasing dependence on more and more advanced technology. This is not an indictment of modern society. Man has always craved, even depended on, better and better methods for producing food, shelter, and simply surviving.
I do not think that one has to have experienced the measles to appreciate the measles vaccine, or, develop frostbite to appreciate warm winter socks and gloves. And having been cold and wet, I can tick that wilderness experience off of my list. Yet, on the whole, I would still argue that when we enter the wilderness but temper our backcountry privations with the tools of modernity, we risk losing something intangible and irreplaceable. Our experience begins to approach a virtual experience. The food is the same, the shelter is clearly a modern machination even if we sleep in a sleeping bag on the ground, and even our mode of transportation feels high tech, sitting in an ultra light weight canoe made of space age plastic.
Zeroing in on an authentic and satisfying nature experience that includes modern technologies is truly a balance. Our early hominin ancestors embraced new technologies at every opportunity even if it was only a better stone tool. The American Indians eventually embraced the rifle and the horse when they came into contact with these new tools. And we continue to upgrade from a pen and ink to a fountain pen to a ball point pen to a typewriter to a word processor to a desk top computer to a lap top to a smart phone. But isn’t part of the reason for diving back into nature to leave most of that, or at least some of those modern trappings, behind?
Maybe yes, maybe no. Each person has her or his own reason for leaving their warm bed and 120 volt electrical outlets and stepping under the forest canopy of tall trees, big sky and a seemingly never ending ceiling of twinkling stars. But even then, when we gaze toward the celestial heavens, we have to wonder, are we looking at a timeless star’s ancient light, or is that sparkling star just the orbiting international space station reflecting the light of the sun.
Howard E. Friedman