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Nessmuk's Adirondack Letters

By George Washington Sears ("Nessmuk") (1821-1890), 1880-3

Rough Notes from the Woods, 6

Forest and Stream, Nov. 25, 1880

IT is the 2nd of September as, sitting in my shanty at the foot of Fourth Lake, I lazily scribble a few notes of a two months' paddle in these Northern waters. I have perhaps paddled too much. My unquenchable love for fresh water seas--large or small--has kept me from prospecting the forest as much as in all honesty I ought to have done.

But the Wooddrake was such a duck; it was so delightful to drift about the cool, clear lakes by day or night in her. The weather during the heated term was so perfect, and the woods from side to side, and from end to end, are so fearfully heavy to a footman that I came to spend most of my waking hours afloat. More times than I can tell I filled her with the coarse, soft brakes (ferns, botanically), piling them a little more at each end of the canoe than in the middle, then lying down in the easiest position I could get, and let myself drift--just where it pleased winds and waves to send me.

The easy, gentle rocking of the canoe was the best incentive to drowsiness I ever found, and by night or day was nearly certain to send me into dreamland. A score of times I have gone to sleep drifting on deep, wide water, to be awakened by the pressing and bumping of the little craft among the dead balsams and spruces that--Sathanas confound them--make half the shorelines of all the lakes in the North Woods a nuisance instead of a delight. Government does it. Authority decrees that because a certain ditch on which boats may be floated, taxed, locked, loaded and, let us hope, ultimately sent to the demnition bow-wows--requires more water, the most beautiful and useful water system in the world shall be laid under contribution for the needful liquid to float a bull-head scow. The bright green shores are to be converted into a dismal nightmare of "drowned lands." The outlet of First Lake has a most powerful and commanding dam which has lowered the first three lakes forty-one inches since July 12th. A dam is being built at the foot of Sixth, where there is a sixty foot fall or thereabouts.

A coffer dam is in progress between Seventh and Eighth, the Woodhulls, the Beaver, the Grass, the Oswegatchie. All the waters in the western and northern portions of the wilderness are "essentially damned." As to the short-sighted policy that has caused this, time will show. For the present I am tempted to quote from "As You Like It": "Touchston--'If thou be'st not damned, for this the devil will have no shepherds. I cannot see how else thou should'st escape.'"

I cannot dwell on this dreary feature that every intelligent tourist sees and execrates. If Verplanck Colvin's proposition of a grand aqueduct from the headwaters of the Hudson to New York City (supplying the Hudson Valley) should ever become an accomplished fact, it will change the entire character and status of the Wilderness in a manner that guides and landlords have yet to learn.

Never in the history of the Wilderness was such an influx of visitors seen as in the summer of 1880. One naturally asks, is this to continue? When "Murray's Fools" rushed to the North Woods in 1869, it was thought by many, even the guides, that the thing was overdone.

In 1870 guiding was poor business. It has picked up wonderfully since then, but to my friends, the guides of the North Woods, I want to give a few words of advice. I have made it a point to get my information from the men most able to give it, and these are the guides. My good fellows, don't run yourselves into the ground. You know, and I know, that when the guiding season is over, instead of $3 per day you are ready to "hire out" for the winter at a wage of $1 per day and board, and few of you can get that much.

More: when you skin a gentleman, he pays the swindle and makes a note of it.

For weeks I fished, paddled and hunted about the headwaters of the Moose. My soul was sated with trout and venison. I longed not for the fleshpots of Egypt, but for the vegetable gardens at home, green peas, so to speak; succotash, as it were; the early harvest apple; the sweet bough; the summer sweeting; the fresh tomato; the dozens of things unattainable in the woods. All this I said to myself as at midnight I sat at the outlet of Fourth Lake and hailed and interviewed guides and tourists who row over these waters at all times of day and night.

It was the fourth of September. In a week more my holiday was out. Why should I stay longer? I had camped on the outlet of Fourth Lake until there was nothing new there. The immense timber cut by Government to dam the lakes had furnished me chips and bark, within six rods of my shanty tent. Intelligent, cultured men had stopped at my camp daily to see the eighteen-pound canoe and the little pennymite who had paddled her over five hundred miles without a guide. I wanted one week on the Stillwater of the Moose River. Why, it was just the time to start. I built a fire that marked my last chance at Government chips and could be seen for miles, put my duffle in shape and at daylight struck out for Jones' Camp, eighteen miles below.

I stopped at "Buell's Camp" on the Third to bid the quiet old owner a last good-bye, and I had a last argument with Perrie on the relative merits of our favorite flies. But, having quarreled with him all over the Fulton Chain (because he held me in the rain while he fished his deuced spring holes and I was in his boat and couldn't get away), I will do him the justice to say that he can furnish the best cast of flies for the Moose River waters that I know of; and he can throw them at the end of sixty feet of line in a way that puts me quite in the background. I have no interest in the fly business, but I like a good cast for the particular waters I am fishing on.

From my camp on Fourth Lake to foot of Fulton Chain, seven miles, one hundred rods carry, and twelve miles to Jones' Camp--a little over nineteen miles. But facilus decensus averno. Not that Jones' camp is averno at all; but the descent from the Forge House is delightful and facilis. Coming down I stopped at the old deserted house marked on Colton's map as the "Arnold House." For years this was the headquarters of guides, hunters, trappers, surveyors, tourists and speculators. How many of the present generation who pass by the doors of this old building have the least idea of the tragical events connected with the old house and the large, sandy, weed-grown clearing about it?

The buck-boards that almost brush its sides as they pass it stop there no longer. The Forge House, two and a half miles above, is the present starting point for the Fulton Chain and the Moose waters. But there is not a house in the State with such a record as the old "Arnold place". Here it was that Joseph Hansoph, after losing a princely fortune in the vain attempt to make a fortune out of the plentiful iron ore hereabout, shot himself in despair. And here it was that "Old Foster," after his quarrel with the "Injun," "skinned out for the Point," as the guides put it.

"The Point" is on First Lake, nearly two miles from the outlet, and it is four miles from the Arnold place to the outlet by water, with a carry of eighty rods, while by trail it is two and a half miles. The quarrel had been bitter. Knives were drawn and blood shed, but hunters and guides were there in force and the men were kept apart.

"You never see Christmas," said the Indian, fiercely. "You never see to-morrow," said Foster, as he took his rifle and disappeared in the forest.

When the Indian left the Arnold place with his canoe, two friendly whites went with him. They did not really suspect danger; but, as they were passing Indian Point, single file, three canoes, the Indian in the middle, Old Foster rose up with rifle at his shoulder. The Indian gave a yell, dropped his paddle, and only said, "Me dead man." Even as he said it Foster's bullet whistled through his lungs, and he tumbled into the water dead.

Every man who goes up the Fulton Lakes knows "Indian Point" and "Indian Rock." I have passed them more than a score of times this summer and never without a thought of the tragedy that occurred at this spot. Because it happened that Foster, after a tedious tournament in the courts on a trial for murder, got clear on a plea of self-defense and came to Tioga County, Pennsylvania, to finish his days, being justly afraid of the Indians who had sworn his death.

Lastly, there is the room where the elder Arnold, father of "Ed" and "Ote" Arnold, "Brown's Tract guides" of the present, shot and killed the guide, Short, in a foolish quarrel about a dog chain. It was a brutal deed, and no man here has one word of excuse or extenuation for it. The family say that after the shooting Arnold went into the bush, directing a daughter to hang a white cloth out of an upper window if his victim died before sundown. Short died about 3 p.m., the cloth was duly hung out and Arnold went over to Nick's Lake, weighted himself heavily with stones, and waded out of his depth, coolly drowning himself. There was a coffin buried at Boonville, anyhow, and a funeral attended by the Arnold family as mourners. But the prevailing opinion is, here, that the funeral was a sham and that Arnold, who knew the woods to perfection, calmly walked over to Canada, that being quite as easy and more agreeable than to drown himself.

Quite a tragical spot is the "Old Arnold Place." I spent a couple of hours wandering about the sterile clearing, counting and inspecting the rooms, noting the broken furniture and discarded tin or iron ware and the moldy boxes, barrels, etc., that remain as they were left in the large and commodious cellar. The ruins of a dozen castles on the Rhine would have less interest for me.

There was a rusty scythe hanging in what was once the drawing room, and in an upper room was a bunk, well filled with soft dry grass. An old tin pail, half full of ashes, had recently been used for making a smudge, and the bunk had been used within two or three days by some sleeper who had come to the clearing to watch for the deer which feed at early morning or late evening in the lonely fields.

Below the house is the landing--not on the main river, but on a small pond with an outlet to the Moose, easily rowed or paddled--and this landing is almost classic. For a time beyond even the oldest Indian tradition, this has been a favorite landing for the red men; but the birch is seen here no more, and even the narrow blue boat of the guide goes up the channel but seldom.

Halfway from the Forge House to Jones' is "Little Rapids," and twenty-five rods above the rapids there is, on the left bank, a clear, dry, spruce-covered point. Just here there is a good runway, and as I swung around in sight of the point there he stood! a plump little yearling buck, already beginning to show the short blue, and within forty yards of me. He let me drift down within five rods of him and then, raising his flag, whistling and snorting his loudest, went off with a succession of high, defiant bounds. My rifle was back at the Forge House and the revolver, which would have done for him, was tucked away in my knapsack. Ah, well! Let him live. I have had my share of venison, bear meat and trout even if I never taste either again. Only one does not like to miss such a chance.

By the time he was out of hearing the rapids claimed my attention, and, shooting swiftly down the narrow channel, I glided into the deep, smooth water below for as pleasant a six-mile paddle as one could wish. The weather was perfect, the banks thickly studded with trees, mainly spruce and balsam, and I caught frequent glimpses of beaver meadows, with the light, graceful foliage of the tamaracks showing beautifully as a background to the dark, sombre evergreens of the river banks. The six miles was passed too quickly, and I ran the canoe into the tiny landing that En Jones had prepared for her, let him take her to the boat house, and laid away the paddle, feeling that my canoeing was over for the season. I have not stepped into her since.

Jones' camp is pretty nearly a forest solitude. A high hill to the south, across the river; another to the north and east, and deep, heavy woods on all sides. It is emphatically a place of rest. The low, constant murmur of the rapids, a hundred yards below, is audible at all hours of the day and night. To me it is somnolent music. Often, when Jones and his son were off fishing, I dropped asleep over pen and paper, lulled by the low, unvarying monotone of rushing waters, and at night it was better than an opiate.

Here I rested, fished a little, wrote less, and loafed away my last week in the woods. It is worthy of mention that we had brook trout on the table every day of my stay. I got to care very little for them. In common with the majority who come here, I much prefer the lake salmon. We made the evenings shorter by exchanging notes. I have been something of a wanderer by sea and land, while Jones is a Forty-Niner, has been a tamer and catcher of wild horses, and was in the thickest of the fight at the Panama riots, when Walker's actions got two steamerloads of passengers into the hottest kind of water and cost nearly or quite a thousand lives.

He is well posted, too, on the North Woods and matters pertaining thereto, and he gave me some interesting and instructive points not laid down in the books. Owning a camp, with boats to let and being on the guide list himself, he could give stories and incidents concerning the guiding business quite amusing and perhaps slightly suggestive to the prospective tourist. For instance, take the following, for the truth of which I can vouch.

Dick Cragoe is a Brown's Tract guide and a good one. Last season he had a party consisting of a gentleman and his wife who came to the woods for rest, recreation and amusement, and as usual the gentleman brought a breech-loader, with which he was anxious to kill a deer. But his vacation neared a close and he had been unable to get a shot. The lady, who was his constant companion in boating and fishing excursions, also desired to see how it was done, for once, and thus the gentleman said to his guide:--"Dick, I can't go out without shooting a deer. Get me a shot to-morrow and I'll give you five dollars."

Dick got the dogs out early, while he lay off on the lake with his boat and party to cut the deer off. The hunt was a pretty fair success all around--even for the deer. The dogs succeeded in driving the deer (a doe, as usual) to water. Dick succeeded by rapid rowing in cutting her off and getting a "tail-holt," which, by the way, is a favorite "holt" with the average guide, and the gentleman emptied his six-shot repeater at her head as Dick held on to the tail--and actually missed with every shot.

Then the woman was aroused. "Cragoe," said she, "it's a shame. Let her go and I'll give you more than my husband gave for his shots."

Dick knew his little biz, and he knew her word was good as gold. He loosened his grip on the tail and the doe scuttled through the lily pads, climbed the bank and was soon safe in her forest home. The gentleman paid his five dollars like a man, and next day the party went out. On leaving, the lady handed Dick a package, saying, "Don't open it until we are away." The package cotained a fine silk handkerchief with the name of Dick's wife neatly worked in one corner and also a ten dollar greenback.

Dick's account of the hunt borders on the humorous. "It was," he says, "one of the most satisfactory hunts I was ever into. The man got six shots at a deer, fifteen feet off, at less than a dollar a shot. Anybody would give that much. The lady was satisfied and well pleased, while the doe ought to be. It stood me in nigh on to twenty dollars, and I don't feel as I ought to be dissatisfied if the deer did get away from us."

Dick would feel insulted if anybody should hint at cheekiness or extortion.

Another case of deer hunting came within my own knowledge in August last. "Slim Jim," a muscular guide of the Forge House clan, had a party of one, a Mr. George B......, of Philadelphia, who was rather profitable, Jim's bill footing up to about $65. Jim was faithful, took good care of his man, and did not overcharge him. Therefore, when Mr. B...... expressed an earnest desire to shoot one deer before going out, it was Jim's bounden duty to get him the chance. As floating was a failure they went over to the North Branch Lakes, with Jim's old speckled hound for a right bower, to try driving, and there met another party with Si Helmer for guide.

Helmer's party had killed deer before and were anxious for venison rather than the fun of shooting it. Therefore, when Jim explained that his man was very desirous of shooting a deer and asked Si to assist, it was agreed that Mr. B...... should have a shot if possible. It turned out quite possible. The doe--a doe again--came to water a long way from the boats and made for the opposite shore. By dint of his best rowing Helmer succeeded in cutting her off at the last instant and turning her out into the lake, where he got the tailhold and waited for Mr. B...... to shoot. One would suppose that the merest tyro who ever fired a gun might be able to shoot a deer in the head while it was held fast by the tail, but the shooting of the tourist is often fearfully and wonderfully done. Mr. B...... put a heavy charge into the doe's hind quarters within a foot of Si Helmer's hand; pretty well destroying a hind quarter of venison and drawing some very energetic remarks from Si.

Slim Jim was stopping at Buell's camp, and on the return of the party Mr. B...... remarked, with a satisfied air, "Well, you can score one for me." I should say so. Small wonder that the guides have, as a rule, little faith in the shooting of their parties, at least until they have been tested by actual trial.

If these rough notes find favor, I will at another time give some hints for parties who wish to go, in light boats or canoes, through the wilderness without guides.

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