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Nessmuk's Adirondack Letters

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

Cruise of the Susan Nipper, 4

Forest and Stream, April 13, 1882

WHOEVER makes a lone cruise in a light canoe through the Adirondacks will be nearly certain to take in Long Lake. He can hardly avoid it. He will do well to give to it as much time and attention as he can afford. No one tourist can even approximately go over what I may call the Long Lake region in a three months' cruise. There are more than fifty snug nooks and camping spots on the shores of the lake proper. There are twelve small lakes and ponds easily reached by easy carries from the main lake. The quiet, shady, peaceful, lonely retreats that may be picked up and occupied by the way-wise tourist are beyond computation. It is true there is a settlement, a hotel and a post office on the west shore of the lake. Also, a road. But an hour's paddling takes you quite away from civilization. You can choose your ground where to camp and be utterly alone for a month, or an entire season, if you choose.

Paddling across the lake from Kellog's, one half mile brings you to the inlet of Clear Pond. About the mouth is grand fishing for pickerel. A little more than a half mile below is the mouth of Big Brook, also an excellent fishing ground for pickerel, and you may take the much despised but toothsome bullhead, or catty, in plenty. You may go up either of these streams, with a few carries, to Little Tupper Lake, going through Mud Pond, Little Slim and Slim Ponds, with Stony Pond at last. And all the way you may select camping grounds that ought to more than satisfy any man who is seeking healthful rest and sylvan life.

I had formed an adverse opinion of Long Lake. I had thought it too civilized. Too many guides. Too much landlordism. Too much cost for the accommodations. Every day that I was on Long Lake, the hotel detailed employees to go around the village with guests, to quarter them in private houses. Why so few of them found quarters at the old and time-honored house of Sabattis was because the house of Sabattis was too prolific of young half-breeds. There were nine of them when I was there. One little blue-eyed fiend, as white as a Saxon, ran altogether to fight. He would pitch into his half-brother--a fine, pleasant, bright-eyed half-breed--with teeth, nails and fists, without a sign of provocation. I got tired of seeing it. I said to the strong, muscular, dusky, dark-eyed descendant of the house of Sabattis, "Cuff him up to a peak and knock the peak off." And he did it. Auntie Sabattis came around and I explained. She gathered a yearling plum sprout, and I hope the lacing that vicious little imp got then and there will last him awhile.

It was on a bright August morning that I paddled across the lake from Kellog's, with a notion of going to Little Tupper, via Clear Pond, etc. I had heard all the guides' stories about the introduction of pickerel to Long Lake. How Lysander Hall and a guide by the name of Shaw had been prosecuted for crusting deer, and in revenge, had brought pickerel from the "eastern side." If so--and I think it is--they "builded better than they knew." At that time the lake trout were almost a myth. Today I can take more pickerel and other toothsome fish than a camp of six hearty men can eat from day to day.

Now, my sporting friends, will you heed a little logic from the standpoint of fifty years' experience? You work eleven months in the twelve at desk or bench. All through the year you are looking to an outing; a chance to get away for one, two or three weeks' vacation. You know, and I know, and we all know, that you need it and deserve it. But why in the name of all sense and reason should you boast of "bags" and "baskets"? About how much, on an average, do you require as animal food? Say, in twenty-four hours? If you kill more, why and wherefore? The man who brags to me of "bags" and "baskets" just tempts me to "shoot him on the spot."

With my hand on my mouth, and my mouth in the dust, I admit that I shot thirty-six deer in a season. I deserved to be hung for it. Again, in Eaton County, Michigan, I killed seventeen deer. With these exceptions, I have never killed more than ten or twelve yearly. And yet my conscience squirms. Why should I ever have killed a deer that I did not need for immediate use? Why, in the name of heaven, was I looking for market prices and quotations? Well, I was young. I knew no better. Today, the mother doe or the spotted fawn can pass me on a runway as safely as my own mother.

Last summer, among the duffie that I took into the North Woods, was my favorite single-barreled, hair-triggered rifle. With it I have driven the nail five times in succession at the distance of one hundred feet. At one hundred yards the deer would be lucky that got away from me with a standing shot. Now, when the season opened, I could have had an open standing shot any morning when I chose to seek it.

I took in just twelve bullets.

I brought the entire twelve home again. I did not load the rifle once last summer. There was no occasion. At Mr. Lamberton's camp, at Ed Arnold's, at the Pratt camp, at Sam Dunakin's, and other places, I could get a piece of venison when I needed it. What earthly excuse had I for sending a bullet crashing through the bones and quivering flesh of a bright-eyed, graceful denizen of the woods? And so the old rifle rests by the ingle-lug, and I only take it out once a month to keep my shooting up in offhand practice, which is, after all, the only rifle practice worth talking about.

And just here and now I want to put in my oar on offhand shooting. Offhand shooting is not done by sticking a hickory wiping rod in your left pocket, extending the other end, and gripping rod and barrel together to steady the hand. It is not done by twisting your body out of all grace and comeliness to get a "hiprest." It is done by taking a firm, free stand on both feet, drawing the rifle to a graceful and natural position, with both elbows free of the body, getting the best bead you can, and cutting loose at the right instant. That is offhand shooting. As for all rests, they are well enough in sighting a gun, but once sure that your sights are plumb center, take no more resting shots. It may be good civil engineering, but is unworthy the notice of American riflemen. This is by way of digression.

At the mouth of Big Brook I tried the pickerel, with light tackle and an eight-ounce rod. With a two-oared skiff and strong tackle I would have lain just inside the lily-pads and cast outside into clear water. With a sixteen pound canoe and a light trout rig I thought it wiser to lie off about forty feet in clear water and cast toward the thick mass of lily-pads, hoping to stop any fellow I might hook before he could get into a bad tangle among the lily stems. It worked very well at the start. A lively, bright-sided little fellow of a pound and a half took the lure handsomely, almost at the first cast, and got the canoe to the fringe of lily leaves that covered the water like a carpet before I could get him in. I laid off again and soon had the mate to him. The sport was fine. I began to wake up. Paddling up a few rods, off the deepest part of the inlet, I began to cast with a bigger bait and deeper trolling.

And then and there I saw a huge pickerel driving straight at the lure and in the morning light showing distinctly as though lying on the beach. I might easily have jerked the hooks away and saved my rod; but I was in the humor for a racket, so let him snap his huge, sharky jaws over hooks, bait, and more than half the strong wire snell, which he did, and turned with a heavy swirl for his mysterious cavern among the lily roots. I gave him the butt (I think that is the correct term), and the brave old rod took the form of a loop for a few seconds, then the top joint broke down to a right angle, the canoe commenced a lively waltz into the lily-pads, and the next minute I was sitting in the canoe holding a line in my hand that ran to the bottom--straight up and down--the broken rod dragging overboard, and a wrathy angler trying to raise a big pickerel by the handline dodge. It didn't work well. Somehow he seemed to have collateral security on the heavy toad-lily roots at the bottom. First he would creep slowly away with a yard or two of line; then I would as slowly get it back inch by inch. I gathered loose line, got a long bight and passed it under a rib of the canoe, hauled taut and making all fast. Took in the old rod, filled a pipe, and made a "dead set" at patience.

Once, under similar conditions, I saved a twenty-two pound maskalonge in High Bank Lake, Michigan. I thought I might tire out this fellow, but he was not to be had. I spoke of light tackle. The rod was light, made by Heyling of Rochester. It was a beauty in '60; in '82 it may have been a little dull and dead. The line was the taper, waterproof, in common use at present. The wire snell and hooks had been tested at forty-four pounds. For two mortal hours I sat in that eggshell, trying all sorts of dodges to start my customer. Then my patience went by the board. I seized the line and got down on muscle. Something gave way. It was the line. What would he weigh? Perhaps twelve pounds; certainly more than eight. He weighed enough to wreck my tackle and rod.

I gathered and stowed the wreck of rod and line. I was not so very sorry. It was quite an experience and a partial excuse for backing down from a trip I was physically unfit for. I paddled across the placid lake to Kellog's and asked for mail. There was none. I was glad of it. No news is good news. I had a set of tin dishes that I think can hardly be beaten. They were made without handles, or wire in the rims, nesting together, and filling all requirements of boiling, frying, and baking. The old shanty tent, that had often sheltered me and a couple of friends through a rainy night, and only weighed four and one-quarter pounds, that could be put up in an emergency as quickly as I could cut a twelve foot pole this and these I gave away, reserving a single dish in which to make coffee.

Once, I would not have believed that I could pass "Owl's Head" without ascending it to the uttermost peak. Now, I said, the view of a mountain top from the bosom of a placid lake is much finer than a view of many lakes from the top of a cold, windy, cheerless mountain.

I was getting weak--demoralized, may be. I paddled up Long Lake, took the carries slowly and wearily, and brought up at Leavitt's late in the afternoon of a model August day. Even as I went over the carries, Charles Parker, with his wife and boat, was lurking near the trail; and his Nemesis, in the person of Warren Cole, was also on his very heels. When Parker launched his boat at the second carry, Cole was there and ordered a halt. Parker dodged behind his wife and tried to get off. Cole shot him. The public know the rest.

Going up the carries, I was passed by two guides with their boats and parties. One of them carried a boat that struck me as being the best guide boat of the Long Lake model I had seen in the North Woods. It would carry three persons with baggage, was finished in oil and varnish, and weighed forty-eight pounds. Had it been put together with white cedar strips instead of pine, and oval, red elm ribs one and a half inches apart, instead of clumsy spruce knees six or seven inches apart, it would have been nearly perfection as a guide boat.

There was a crowd at Leavitt's, on Forked Lake, and, crossing Raquette Lake to Ed Bennett's, I found the hotel full to overflowing, the overflow finding sleeping quarters in open bark camps. It suited me. The table was excellent, as I have always found it. And an open camp with a fire in front is breezier, freer, healthier than any indoor arrangement for sleeping.

I pre-empted a corner of the "guides' camp," mended the old rod, and spent days paddling around the rocky shores of mainland and island, fly-fishing for bass. They nearly always rose to a red ibis or brown hackle, though here, in Pennsylvania, we can hardly coax the small mouth to notice a fly. With us, he runs entirely to crayfish and dobsons. I shall come to understand his various ways in various waters--about as soon as I solve the grouse problem.

It was on a bright morning in August that I let go, and started for Third Lake, leaving my dunnage, save a light knapsack, to be taken charge of by "Slim Jim," who had gone across to the Saranacs. The morning, the lake, the scenery, all would justify a younger man in a little enthusiastic description; and it was not altogether lost on me. Bass were jumping all along the rocky shores, a brace of hounds--although it was out of season--were sending the deer along the high ridge to the southward at a killing pace, and I met two guide boats with parties who had been out all night, floating. Each party had a deer, and I was pleased to see that they were both bucks. I reached Brown's Tract Inlet before the west wind commences to blow--as it does about every fair day--and, going up that very crooked stream, again saw the disappearing fish among the lily-pads, the same that had puzzled me before. But I was too weak and listless to try them without bait or fly.

Half way up the inlet I came near getting cut down by a seventeen-foot Long-Laker. She was coming down at a rapid rate, and just as I was rounding one of the numerous short bends, her sharp iron prow came in sight at steamboat speed, pointed directly at my midships. The old whaling instincts came to the surface at once. I yelled "starn-all," dropped the paddle, seized the cutwater of the threatening boat, and held her off with all my strength. The guide behaved finely. At the first sound of my voice he dipped his oars deep and backed for all the ash was worth. But she was a large boat, coming down stream under strong headway, with three men and baggage, and not to be stopped instantly. But her headway was deadened. She came on until her stem pressed heavily on the side of the frail canoe, bending it inward. I was pressed and crowded as a hare among marsh grass and bushy tangles of muddy vegetation; then she stopped, receded; the guide dipped his oars and dashed away. I was faint, but the canoe was safe. No word was spoken. But that guide has impressed me as a cool, capable fellow. Getting your canoe crushed in a lonely forest is quite as bad as being "put a-foot" on the Western plains, through losing your broncho.

Though my entire load--canoe and knapsack--was less than twenty-six pounds, the carry from the inlet to Eighth Lake was trying, in my weak state.

Alva Dunning had loaned me the key of his camp on the Eighth, and I rested there a couple of hours, taking a lunch from his stores, and leaving the key hidden at the root of a stump as agreed on. The Eighth was a beauty on that bright, warm day. There was not a human being save myself about the lake. The water, lying as nature made it, was ruffled into breezy waves, capped with white. But for the quavering cry of a solitary loon and the gentle lapping of the water on the island shore, there was no sound, and the next relay would take me to Seventh and Sixth, with backwater and dead timber lines, decaying vegetation, nauseous smells, and all the curses that come of destroying forest lakes and streams for man's selfish greed. (N.B. Does it ever occur to the average guide that he has a better moral right to explode a can of dynamite under one of these dams than a selfish monopolist has to poison the air that men, women and helpless children are forced to breathe and drink?) To say nothing of the destruction of fish, the converting of a beautiful sheet of water into a scene of desolation that will last long after the porcine instigator has rotted in his grave, and his ill-gotten gains are scattered by his pampered worthless offspring. "The evil that men do lives after them." As it ought.

Let me pass quickly over the desolate Seventh and Sixth. They were of course worse than when I cruised up the "Chain." The air at the foot of Sixth was sickening. One year before the Sixth would have been a pleasant location for an all-summer camp. At the foot of Sixth the gate was up, and a broad sheet of white, foamy water was rushing like an arrow toward the Fifth. Of course this affected the five lower lakes.

I found the camp at the foot of Fifth lowered by the rush of water, for which I was sorry, for there was heavy thunder in an ominous looking cloud in the southwest. But the distance is short between Fifth and the "Stormy Fourth," as Colvin calls it. And the outlet was rushing like a mill-tail. I jumped the canoe, and the only use I had for the paddle was in holding back and dodging dangerous obstructions.

In less than five minutes I was on Fourth Lake; and as I saw the black, whirling cloud and listened to the heavy, stunning peals, I thought it as well to put on a little extra muscle for the Pratt camp, half a mile below. As I rounded the point on which the camp is located, I saw Tom Jones and another gentlemen--stranger to me--with Dick Cragoe, their guide, sitting on the porch watching the coming storm. Dick, in accordance with North Woods etiquette, came down to "land" me, and it struck him as a good idea to also house his own boat. And hardly had we made all snug when the tornado swooped down on the lake. It was sublime.

I have been in a white squall in the tropics, in a pampero off the Argentine coast, and have seen the terrific electric storms of the West. But I never saw so heavy a sea kicked up on an inland lake at such short notice. In two minutes the water was dashing up the sloping landing to the door of the boat-house; sharp, steep, white-crested waves were chasing each other like racehorses; the gale tore their spumy tops off and sent them whirling to leeward in a white mist of blinding spray; tall trees a century old were seized by the hair of the head and dashed to earth, while the zig-zagging of lightning and the heavy bellowing of thunder were just the adjuncts to make the scene perfect. When the storm was at its fiercest Dick Cragoe had his hands full to free, with mop and broom, the sitting room from water that drove in under the door.

In twenty minutes the storm had howled and whirled itself away to the northeast, the sun came out warm and mellow, the air was a delight, and the lake subsided to a placid, sleepy roll as quickly as it had risen.

It was a model evening for a cruise, and the Pratt camp organized for a thirteen mile row down to the Forge House (foot of First Lake). I paddled out for Third Lake and was soon passed by the strong pull of Dick with his party. Fred Hess, another guide, came out from the Fifth, where in a thicket he had been dodging the storm. Two other guides, "Slim Jim" and Fred Rivett, over-hauled me soon after. They too had been dodging under their boats in the wood between Fifth and Fourth Lakes. It was nearly dark when I halted at Ed Arnold's. His hostelry was crowded to its utmost, and his grounds were jubilant with lively parties and well-paid guides. It was pitch dark when I arrived at Perrie's on Third Lake. The camp was overrun with boarders, parties, and guides. There was not spare sleeping room for a cat. He assured me that he had been sleeping for a week on tables, chairs, trunks, any place where he could get a few hours' nightly rest. A. C. Buell, who owns the Third Lake House, had a newly made fragrant bark camp, and was alone. He invited me to stay with him during my sojourn on the lake, and divide any sport or work that might turn up. As I like cooking and he detests it, we managed to make the arrangement very satisfactory.

For a few days I fished, frogged, cooked, picked berries, climbed hill, paddled and doctored. All in vain. I grew weaker day by day. I was getting to the point where the grasshopper becomes a burden. I had sought the wilderness for health. I had lost instead of gaining. I had found many others with a similar record, and also many who claimed to have been decidedly benefited.

I had planned a cruise of 1000 miles. The log showed 206, besides many short trips not noted. I was listless, easily tired, and slow to rest. I lacked strength and spirit for a respectable cruise. It was time to go home; and so on a bright August morning I paddled down to the Forge House, hung the canoe up in Barrett's boathouse, and the cruise of the Nipper was ended, for one season at least.

Perhaps at some time in the near future, I will have a word to say regarding the cost, healthfulness, and pleasure of a trip to the North Woods, as compared to [one] among the mountains of the Upper Susquehanna.

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