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Nessmuk's Adirondack Letters

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

Cruise of the Susan Nipper, 3

Forest and Stream, Dec. 29, 1881

THE 30th of last July was a bright day along the Fulton Chain, clear and cloudless. The shelter tent and blanket were made into a snug roll, the canoe lay hidden from the heat in the shade of a thicket, and everything was ready for a trip over to Raquette Lake, when two sharp-stemmed Long-Lakers darted from the outlet into the placid Seventh, and I recognized "Slim Jim" and Fred Rivett, with parties, bound to the eastern side. Seeing me on the shore they came to a halt, and Jim sang out, "Come on, Uncle Nessmuk, go through with us to Raquette."

"You'll outrow me. I'll get left."

"No, we'll keep company; come along," said Jim.

"Can you wait five minutes?" I asked.

"Yes, fifteen of them," answered Fred.

"These gentlemen would like to see your canoe work; come on," said Jim.

It struck me that the guides had got the idea. They had been at it all the season and knew just where to strike the landing that had eluded me the evening before. So I launched out and soon laid them alongside. The gentleman who headed the party was much interested and pleased with the canoe. He asked many questions and was a little skeptical about her weight, and the three youngsters who composed the balance of the party were enthusiastic. Their questions "little meaning, little relevancy bore," but the guides made some queries with meaning in them. For instance, Fred asked, as he leisurely picked up his oars, "Did the storm keep you awake last night?" And I, remembering that my little hatchet had gone on to the Raquette, answered stoutly, "Not a bit; never slept better in my life."

As the guides took up the easy, effective stroke that sends the Long-Lakers through the water so speedily, I crept under Fred's counter, took the draw of his wake, and made the inlet without parting company. Then I said, "Boys, your boats can and ought to beat any paddle on open water, but when you come to these crooked channels, outlets and inlets in the form of the letter 'S,' where you have to look over your shoulders right and left to see the course and pull first to starboard, then to port, why you see the paddle--the double blade--has rather got the bulge on you." We had stopped under a huge cedar for a modest nip, for which the leader of that party has my thanks, and, as Jim and Fred very quietly resumed their oars, a meaning glance passed between them. They said nothing; but I thought it as well to lay aside extra clothing, spit on my hands and settle down to work.

For the first half-mile the odds were rather in my favor. The water was deep, channel crooked and the chances for cutting off bends and "going as you look" rather made an easy thing of it. Then the course grew straighter and less distinct. The swift Long-Lakers drew rapidly away, and I saw them turn a bend forty rods ahead. I tried to cut off the bend and ran onto a sunken log. Backed off, took the channel and put on all the steam I had at command, but in vain. I was left. I paddled up the stream until I lost the blazed trees which marked the course, stopped, listened a moment, and then used my spare wind in a loud, long la-whoop. An answer came from the swampy forest far to the left, where I found the party landed up on a shaky sort of corduroy platform, which is the landing now. They were waiting for me, they said. And Fred remarked, "A double blade does take the skates on these crooked channels. Notice how he cut the corners and went the way he looked?" Boys, I hope that wasn't "sarkasm." I have faith to think you wouldn't make fun of grayhairs!

I like to see the guides organize for a "carry," and I watched Jim and Fred as they prepared for the trip over to Eighth Lake. First, the "party" was loaded up with fishing rods, guns, packbaskets, gum blankets and the usual impedimenta of the average tourist, and started over the carry looking like a crew of pack-peddlers. When they were out of sight, Jim remarked coolly, "We can take it easy; they ain't going to hurry." Then he and Fred tied in oars, seats, etc., snugly and neatly, made the neck-yokes fast at the balancing point, and then, inverting the lightest boat, Jim held the stern high in the air while Fred crept under and adjusted the neck-yoke nicely to his muscular shoulders, saying, "All right; let go," which Jim did; and the inevitable blue boat, with a pair of sturdy legs beneath, disappeared rapidly up the trail.

Jim raised his own boat and said, "Think you can hold her up?" I thought I could and did, though balancing on a point at the stern, and weighing over ninety pounds, she was a lift. And then Jim quietly seized my blanket roll and hung it on his broad shoulders without comment before shouldering his boat. It was a kindly thing to do and like his generous nature; but I was ashamed and raised a feeble remonstrance; he went away with a long, quick stride, paying no heed, and I thought of honest old Jack Falstaff, that Prince of Dead-beats--"Hal, an thou seest me down in the fight and bestride me, why so; 'tis an act of friendship." Was I a beat?

I organized my own canoe for the carry and tried to overtake the party, but the guides walk fast. I found them on the clean, sandy landing; and it was a relief to see the fresh green shores, wholesome waters and healthy trees of Eighth Lake, after an experience of Fifth, Sixth and Seventh. At the Eighth the leader of the party began to feel hurried. He wished to reach Bennett's Landing on Raquette in time for the little steamer to Blue Mountain, and guides always follow the wishes of employers so far as they can. I saw I was likely to get left; but, meaning to keep up as far as possible, I paddled out with the party and rather got down on the double blade. The guides went in for an ash breeze. The distance is less than one and one-half miles, and they led me to the landing just about one hundred rods. Yes, the Long-Lakers are fast--but cranky and uncomfortable to ride in.

As you strike the landing at the head of Eighth Lake, there is a path, leading along the shore to the right, which leads you to a cool spring. Here the guides, having seen the party off, stopped a few minutes for a lunch. Let me commend that spring, with its bright, cold water and restful surroundings, to any lone canoeist who may happen to strike the landing at the head of Eighth Lake. Again the boats and canoe were shouldered, Jim, as before, toting my blanket roll. Again the guides beat me over the carry, though they stopped for a rest and I did not--and when I arrived at Brown's Tract Inlet, guides and boats had disappeared. I was in no hurry. The carries were all made, and six and a half miles of paddling lay between me and Ed Bennett's. The day was fine. The wind just brisk enough to be lively, and I reached Bennett's about three-quarters of an hour behind the guides.

Going down the inlet, I was interested by the movements of the fish that lay basking near the surface among the lily pads, and darted off with a plash and swirl as the canoe neared them. A man with oars would hardly have seen this. But, paddling silently down stream, looking the way I went, I probably started more than a score of good-sized fish, without being able to decide on the species. I intended to return and try them, both with fly and bait, but failed to do so; though I certainly shall if I find myself there in the summer of '82. I thought they might be pickerel, but the guides assured me there were no pickerel in Raquette Lake.

I found Bennett's hotel crowded with tourists and sportsmen and was unable to get a room, or even a bed. But the bark-roofed guide camp, "For guides only," had a bright fire in front, with balsam browse for bedding, and was preferable to a close room. I took up my quarters there while on the Raquette and had no cause to regret it. As to the fare, whoever has stayed with Ed Bennett knows that his table would rank as first-class anywhere. And there is no pleasanter lake than Raquette in the North Woods. It is the largest; the water is clear, and the shores, while being well wooded, are mainly rocky. Large as the lake is, I should not know where to paddle to get more than a mile from the nearest land. The numberless bays, capes, indentations and islands make it difficult to describe on paper, and even the best maps fail to give just the correct idea of it.

I do not know a better place to investigate the now popular bass question. In the summer of '80 the small-mouth had got a pretty strong fin-hold and was evidently making his way. A few were being taken with spoon and bait. His increase for the next twelve months was to me marvelous. Starting from Bennett's landing with an hour's sun and paddling to the mouth of the Marion, I could get all the sport I wanted and more fish than I needed before dark. I used an eight-ounce rod and the scarlet ibis fly with silver body, as the best. But a brown hackle was also killing. And the gold-bodied ibis is about as good. The three, taken as a cast, and no others are needed.

Father Gavan, an intelligent young Catholic priest, was an enthusiastic bass fisherman, and used a powerful rod with minnow or spoon. His favorite ground was the mouth of South Inlet and adjacent shores. He was nearly always successful. I liked the mouth of the Marion and the rocky shores below, with the islands in front of the hotel. There was not much to choose. His fish averaged about twice the size of mine, and I could take about two to his one. On the whole, I should say that the bait fisherman had the best of it. The guides' complaint, that the bass has destroyed all the lake trout, would have more point had there been any lake trout worth mention to destroy.

I took a lively interest in the tourists, or boarders, who had worked their way into the wilderness for health and not for sport. There were many of them on the waters of the Raquette and more on the Saranacs. News travels fast in the woods. Every day that I was on these waters I saw guides and tourists from almost every route you can mention. I heard that more than a dozen consumptives had already died on the Saranac waters. Others were dying, and many more had crept away, beaten and exhausted, to die at home among friends and relatives.

Paul Smith had said he would, by five hundred dollars, rather the article entitled "Camp Lou" had never been written. I saw for myself that parties who had sought the Adirondacks for health were sick, disgusted, and only anxious to get away anywhere that dryness, warmth, and rest were easily attainable. I was interviewed and questioned time and again as to the healthfulness of the mountainous regions about the headwaters of the Susquehanna; and truth compelled me to say that all my observation and experience led to the conclusion that the high lands about the headwaters of the Delaware and Susquehanna afforded more hope of healing to the sufferer from pulmonary disease than the damp, cold high lands of the Northern Wilderness. That some unexpected and surprising cures have happened in both regions is certainly true.

And it is equally true that the Northern Wilderness is unrivalled for boating and canoeing facilities and hardly to be excelled for scenery. All this is most attractive, and it is not to be wondered at that the average tourist much prefers a wild region, where, by making short carries, he can travel hundreds of miles by water.

But, as regards the single question of health, I can name half a dozen localities, easily reached in one day from New York, where I would rather take my chances as a consumptive patient than in the Adirondack region.

. . . .

At Raquette Lake I met Mr. Durant, in whose boat my knapsack had gone off. I accosted him; and before I could make any inquiries he smiled and said, "I guess I know what you are going to say. Your knapsack is over at my camp. You can get it in two minutes.' I found the camp a well-furnished summer residence, and the genial proprietor quite capable of keeping not only guides and boats, but a neat little steam yacht. Money is a good thing--when one knows how to use it. I found the knapsack all right, to the last fishhook, and was more than glad to get it. When I had it well packed with blanket, shelter tent, hatchet, tinware, etc., I felt at home again and went over to Leavitt's on Forked Lake, bound down the Raquette River, and--just where the notion might take me.

At Leavitt's I found some guides whom I knew the previous season and got some useful notes and points on routes, carries, etc. Also met the Justice of the Peace who issued the warrant for Charles Parker, the man who caused such a scandal in the Long Lake region last summer. I gave a summary of that unhappy affair in Forest and Stream last August, and it is pretty well understood now that it throws no stigma on the "guide class."

Forked Lake is one of the most beautiful sheets of water in the wilderness, and a healthy, delightful region for a summer camp, of which there are several on eligible points--well-furnished summer residences owned by men of taste, wealth and leisure, who have the good sense to take their families to the forest for three months or more, rather than to such resorts as Long Branch, Newport, etc. It is possibly quite as expensive; but, I should say, worth the cost.

It was a most delightful morning in August. I got an early breakfast and launched out for Long Lake, intending to stop awhile with Mitchell Sabattis and investigate the fish question, of which I had heard a good deal in connection with this fine sheet of water. It is said that two guides who had been prosecuted for crusting deer stocked the lake with pickerel out of revenge, and that the pickerel have exterminated the salmon trout. And now there are black bass in the lake, which, in turn, are demolishing the pickerel. Such is the tale as it was told to me.

I doubt it. I do not believe that any fresh water fish can exterminate the agile, sharp-nosed pickerel. Though it is fair to add the testimony of Mr. E. Rose, who has a fine summer resort on Silver Lake, Susquehanna County, Pa., and is a life-long sportsman. Pickerel were certainly plenty in that lake twelve years ago. The lake was stocked with small-mouthed bass, and now he assures me the pickerel are gone. The bass have cleaned them out. Maybe. I dunno; I dunno. I cannot believe that the small-mouth whips the pickerel in fight. But he may starve him out.

From Leavitt's to the outlet of Forked Lake are four miles of as pretty water and scenery as a tourist could ask. If you are a canoeist don't swing over to port for the sake of an open channel. Keep near the right shore, and when you open the course to the outlet you may have a mile or so of heavy paddling among the lily-pads, but you will cut off considerable distance, and the double-blade works in lily-pads, while oars tangle up. You will be interested, too, in seeing at every open space fair sized fish drop away from the canoe, leaving a funnel-shaped swirl on the surface, and you will be puzzled, as I was, to name the fish. I am sorry I did not put the rod together and try them with the fly; but I promised myself to do that when I came back.

When you reach the landing at the outlet take the double-blade apart, turn the stems to the ends of the canoe, tie them fast, organize your duffle for the carry, and then spend an hour following along the bank and taking in the rapids, with the scenery on either side. If you have an eye for nature, the time will not be lost. The carry is one and a half miles, and a man who lives there will drag your canoe across for a dollar and a half. As you can carry it in thirty minutes more safely, you had better trust your own shoulders.

As you reach the foot of the carry you launch again for an east trip of one and a half miles; another and a shorter carry, then a half-mile by water, then a carry of one hundred rods, and you strike the head of Long Lake. It is four miles to the landing at Kellog's and a little less to Mitchell Sabattis' landing. To make the latter you turn to the right on sighting the bridge at Kellog's and steer to the right end of the sandy beach before you. Take the steep path that leads up from the landing, and Auntie Sabattis will take care of you. She has been doing that sort of thing for a good many years. What the famous Indian guide, Mitchell Sabattis, is in the woods, his wife can supplement him as camp-keeper.

I found no tourists at the Sabattis house, but it was not lonely. Two married daughters, a son and his wife, with eight grandchildren pretty nearly of one size, made it quite lively for Grandma Sabattis. She managed the household well and kept the unruly youngsters in order to a degree that won my admiration. I was glad to meet the son, Ike Sabattis, whose acquaintance I had made in the summer of '80, and was sorry that Mitchell was away guiding.

I should have been pleased to meet Ike's suggestion that we go down Long Lake floating; but, alas, we were both on the sick list. Ike was suffering from a severe attack of cholera morbis, and I had been growing weaker every day since leaving the Forge House. I coughed almost incessantly and had sweating spells every night. I lost appetite. My knees jackknifed going over the shortest carries, and I began to realize that I might get laid by the heels in the middle of the wilderness, hundreds of miles away from home. I have little feeling for myself or any other man, as a sick patient. But no man can transcend possibilities, and, as it happens, sickness does come to us all, soon or late.

The muscular young guide, Ike Sabattis, was on his back. Two other young guides, Hall and Staunton, were far gone with consumption, the latter in a dying condition at the Long Lake settlement. All the same, I was ashamed of the physical weakness that steadily headed me off from day to day and did my best to beat it, but in vain. I kept my feet, however; fished, excursed in the woods, paddled down to Kellog's every day and picked up all the information possible.

Not a day passed that I did not hear of a death in the Saranac region from consumption. Landlords and guides looked serious at these reports, but did not dispute them. They said, "These people were past help when they came in. They should have stayed at home." Perhaps; but it does not go to prove that a residence in the North Woods is a cure for lung diseases.

It was on the sand beach in front of Kellog's that I met a young invalid of the feminine persuasion who interested me more deeply than any human being had ever done on so short an acquaintance.

It was a perfect morning. The lake was like a mirror. I had paddled down without particular aim or object, and was drawing the canoe up the beach when I noticed a little girl walking with cat-like tread up and down the shore and humming an opera catch softly to herself.

Suddenly she stepped up to the canoe, raised it by the stem, turned it to port and starboard, read the name, and said sharply, "Humph! 'Susan Nipper.' Dickens. 'Master Dombey is a permanency; Miss Edith is temporary.' Why don't you name her Miss Edith? She looks sufficiently temporary."

She was about the first one who had recognized the name, and I looked her over with more interest. Why, she was a woman! Hair and eyes like an Indian princess--weight and size like a girl of ten years. A thin, attenuated form, a bright glow in either cheek, and a sharp, intellectual expression, with the worn, womanly outlines, told the story. She pushed the canoe afloat, drew it back and forth, hauled it up on the beach, and said in a low, sad voice, "Oh, I should so like a ride in it--would you dare let me?"

"Dare? My dear young lady, can you trust yourself?"

"I am used to boats and water; we have a guide and a good boat," she answered, "but I would like to ride in this."

So I took the old handkerchief with its stuffing of hemlock browse and ferns that serves me for a seat, placed it well forward, made the shelter-tent and blanket into a comfortable lean-back in the bow, and seated her as I would an infant. Got in carefully myself, with the old grass coat between the keelson and the terminus of my spinal column, and paddled cautiously up and down the shore in three feet of water to test her seagoing qualities. She was steady and immovable as a sandbag.

Then she said: "You see I am safe? Now cross the lake and land me in the woods."

I did. When we were more than half way across there came a loud "halloo" from the landing. She opened her large black eyes, waved her sailor hat and settled back, saying: "It's my father. He will understand."

I landed her on the beach just where the firs and spruce were thickest, spread tent and blanket on a dry sunny spot and left her to herself. For an hour she reclined on the improvised couch or gathered the trifling ferns and lichens of which young ladies are so fond, and then she said, quite as though I had been her guide: "Now take me back to my father. I am tired--so tired." So I landed her on the clean, white beach where pater familias was impatiently poking the sand with his gold-headed cane, and resigned my position as amateur guide. She held out her thin little hand at parting, saying: "I trust you will understand me? I am a dying girl. They let me do as I please now. I have left conventional fetters and forms behind, with a good deal more that I valued once--but no matter. Good-bye." Was there a little romance connected with her case, I wonder?

As the old gentleman seemed nervous, I thought it a good time to leave, and went up to the village to call on Ike Sabattis. Found him much better and disposed to go down the lake floating. Thought he could "put me on to a deer." But the man who is liable to a hard coughing spell at a minute's notice is more likely to scare three deer than to get a shot at one, so I declined, and paddled around the point to the grove near Sabattis' landing, where I spent hours sitting on a log--a style of amusement in which I was fast becoming an adept--bidding fair to rival "Old Phelps." Indeed, it was getting to be my "best hold."

And here while listlessly watching the calm, clear water, I witnessed one of the little incidents that the lone tourist who knows the value of silence may often pick up. It was only a couple of little fish; a bull-head four or five inches long and a bass much smaller. The former was working his way laboriously along the beach, his nose at the surface and his rudder gone, while the bass was spitefully nipping him at the counter. It was evidently a hopeless case for the bull-head; and such a piece of uncalled for cussedness on the part of the bass that, unthinkingly, I seized a stick of flood-trash and made a vicious clip at him. As often happens in this world, the innocent suffered while the guilty rascal "lit out" for deep water. May he grow to a four-pounder, to be worried and tormented along that same beach, with a sharp hook in his gills.

(The continuation of Nessmuk's narrative, detailing the further incidents of his story at Mitchell Sabattis', forms a stirring story of Adirondack life. It is given below. Editor, Forest and Stream)

A Night Race Against Death

After dark, as I was smoking by Auntie Sabattis' gate, two brisk-stepping young guides came hurriedly by through the yard and made for the landing below the hill. They carried a sharp-stemmed Long-Laker and a lantern. They were bound on a night trip to Raquette Lake and return, to be back before sunrise; for young Staunton, the sick guide, lay dying, and his one wish was to see and know a favorite brother before crossing the Dark Carry. And the doctor had said that, if the brothers were to know each other again on earth, the meeting must take place before another sunrise.

It was rather a manly, plucky thing to make a night cruise of between thirty and forty miles, mostly in a fog, and with four carries, two stretches of rocky, tortuous current and two lakes, all to be "doubled" in the darkness. The lantern would only be available on the carries. On water the course is better seen without it. I followed the guides to the landing and watched them with interest as, bending to oar and paddle, they disappeared swiftly into the darkness.

Then I went up to the house, consumed the time cutting up plug and smoking it, tried to feel at ease; but the dying guide and absent brother somehow got in on my nerves. I mentioned that I would like to know just how the sick man was getting on; if he was likely to pull through the night.

"You'll know," said Auntie Sabattis; "when anyone dies here, the bell is tolled as soon as anyone can get to it, night or day."

I went to my room. The night was very warm, and I was unwell and weak. I am not nervous. I have no sympathy or pity for nerves--my own or others'. But how the dread of that bell did worry me. I pictured to myself the guides racing over the course in the foggy summer night, going quickly over the slippery carries, one carrying the boat, the other lighting the path with glimmering lantern; rowing swiftly across long stretches of water by the shimmer and glitter of starlight; reaching the camp on an island in Raquette Lake, only to find George Staunton gone off, floating with his "party."

I thought of the "ride from Ghent to Aix," but that race was on horseback. The strain of muscle came heaviest on Roland." Here, the Roland was a cranky, narrow Long-Laker, and the muscle was of men. Would they win? I walked the room, smoked and listened. A stroke of that bell would have made me stagger like a drunken man. But it came not.

At midnight I turned in for a few hours of drowsy, feverish unrest, and at 3 a.m. I dressed and walked down to the landing, where I made a fire against the rock used as a washing station by the House of Sabattis, lighted a pipe and resumed my favorite exercise of sitting on a log. The fog still hung over the lake, thick and dark.

Then came faint, dull streaks of light, gray and brown, from the east. It grew lighter; gray and brown turned to dull yellow. "Owl's Head" began to be visible. The fog grew denser, brighter, and began to rise in well-defined lines from off the water, like the lifting of a blanket; and from under the blanket darted a sharp-stemmed regulation Long-Laker, the same oars and paddle playing with unabated vim, but with three men instead of two.

She came to the landing with a swift, silent rush, and, before she was fairly still, an athletic young man sprang to the beach and took his way through the grove toward the settlement at a seven-knot gait. I had no need to ask if it were George Staunton. It was less than a half-mile from the landing to where his brother lay dying.

Now, suppose, just as he came in sight of the house where his brother lay that the bell should give his nerves a trial with its first, fearful, death-announcing clang! Would he stagger some? Would he sort o' swerve off to port and sit down on a log, faint, and white and sick? It might be. It was painful. I took out my watch as he disappeared in the grove. I said, "He will be there in five minutes." The minutes passed. One guide said, "How long?" "Six minutes," I answered. "Six minutes is enough to get there," he said. I still held the watch. Ten minutes passed. "He is there," I said; "has been there five minutes." Then the guides tied in oars, paddle and seats, took up lantern and boat and started for the little hamlet, called on the maps "Long Lake P.O."

I never did and never shall like the Long-Lakers. They are swift but frail, weak, cranky and tiresome to ride in. Nevertheless, as the fagged guides brushed past me I instinctively raised my old felt hat to the craft that had run an all-night race against death--and won.

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