The Adirondacks

Author: John Burroughs

When I went to the Adirondacks, which was in the summer of 1863, I was in the first flush of my ornithological studies, and was curious, above else, to know what birds I should find in these solitudes,—what new ones, and what ones already known to me.

In visiting vast primitive, far-off woods one naturally expects to find something rare and precious, or something entirely new, but it commonly happens that one is disappointed. Thoreau made three excursions into the Maine woods, and, though he started the moose and the caribou, had nothing more novel to report by way of bird notes than the songs of the wood thrush and the pewee. This was about my own experience in the Adirondacks. The birds for the most part prefer the vicinity of settlements and clearings, and it was at such places that I saw the greatest number and variety.

At the clearing of an old hunter and pioneer by the name of Hewett, where we paused a couple of days on first entering the woods, I saw many old friends and made some new acquaintances. The snowbird was very abundant here, as it had been at various points along the route after leaving Lake George. As I went out to the spring in the morning to wash myself, a purple finch flew up before me, having already performed its ablutions. I had first observed this bird the winter before in the Highlands of the Hudson, where, during several clear but cold February mornings, a troop of them sang most charmingly in a tree in front of my house. The meeting with the bird here in its breeding haunts was a pleasant surprise. During the day I observed several pine finches,—a dark brown or brindlish bird, allied to the common yellowbird, which it much resembles in its manner and habits. They lingered familiarly about the house, sometimes alighting in a small tree within a few feet of it. In one of the stumpy fields I saw an old favorite in the grass finch or vesper swallow. It was sitting on a tall charred stub with food in its beak. But all along the borders of the woods and in the bushy parts of the fields there was a new song that I was puzzled in tracing to the author. It was most noticeable in the morning and at twilight, but was at all times singularly secret and elusive. I at last discovered that it was the white-throated sparrow, a common bird all through this region. Its song is very delicate and plaintive,—a thin, wavering, tremulous whistle, which disappoints one, however, as it ends when it seems only to have begun. If the bird could give us the finishing strain of which this seems only the prelude, it would stand first among feathered songsters.

By a little trout brook in a low part of the woods adjoining the clearing, I had a good time pursuing and identifying a number of warblers,—the speckled Canada, the black-throated blue, the yellow-rumped, and Audubon's warbler. The latter, which was leading its troop of young through a thick undergrowth on the banks of the creek where insects were plentiful, was new to me.

It being August, the birds were all moulting, and sang only fitfully and by brief snatches. I remember hearing but one robin during the whole trip. This was by the Boreas River in the deep forest. It was like the voice of an old friend speaking my name.

From Hewett's, after engaging his youngest son,—the "Bub" of the family,—a young man about twenty and a thorough woodsman, as our guide, we took to the woods in good earnest, our destination being the Stillwater of the Boreas,—a long, deep, dark reach in one of the remotest branches of the Hudson, about six miles distant. Here we paused a couple of days, putting up in a dilapidated lumbermen's shanty, and cooking our fish over an old stove which had been left there. The most noteworthy incident of our stay at this point was the taking by myself of half a dozen splendid trout out of the Stillwater, after the guide had exhausted his art and his patience with very insignificant results. The place had a very trouty look; but as the season was late and the river warm, I knew the fish lay in deep water from which they could not be attracted. In deep water accordingly, and near the head of the hole, I determined to look for them. Securing a chub, I cut it into pieces about an inch long, and with these for bait sank my hook into the head of the Stillwater, and just to one side of the main current. In less than twenty minutes I had landed six noble fellows, three of them over one foot long each. The guide and my incredulous companions, who were watching me from the opposite shore, seeing my luck, whipped out their tackle in great haste and began casting first at a respectable distance from me, then all about me, but without a single catch. My own efforts suddenly became fruitless also, but I had conquered the guide, and thenceforth he treated me with the tone and freedom of a comrade and equal.

One afternoon, we visited a cave some two miles down the stream, which had recently been discovered. We squeezed and wriggled through a big crack or cleft in the side of the mountain for about one hundred feet, when we emerged into a large dome-shaped passage, the abode during certain seasons of the year of innumerable bats, and at all times of primeval darkness. There were various other crannies and pit-holes opening into it, some of which we explored. The voice of running water was everywhere heard, betraying the proximity of the little stream by whose ceaseless corroding the cave and its entrance had been worn. This streamlet flowed out of the mouth of the cave, and came from a lake on the top of the mountain; this accounted for its warmth to the hand, which surprised us all.

Birds of any kind were rare in these woods. A pigeon hawk came prowling by our camp, and the faint piping call of the nuthatches, leading their young through the high trees, was often heard.

On the third day our guide proposed to conduct us to a lake in the mountains where we could float for deer.

Our journey commenced in a steep and rugged ascent, which brought us, after an hour's heavy climbing, to an elevated region of pine forest, years before ravished by lumbermen, and presenting all manner of obstacles to our awkward and incumbered pedestrianism. The woods were largely pine, though yellow birch, beech, and maple were common. The satisfaction of having a gun, should any game show itself, was the chief compensation to those of us who were thus burdened. A partridge would occasionally whir up before us, or a red squirrel snicker and hasten to his den; else the woods appeared quite tenantless. The most noted object was a mammoth pine, apparently the last of a great race, which presided over a cluster of yellow birches, on the side of the mountain.

About noon, we came out upon a long, shallow sheet of water which the guide called Bloody-Moose Pond, from the tradition that a moose had been slaughtered there many years before. Looking out over the silent and lonely scene, his eye was the first to detect an object, apparently feeding upon lily-pads, which our willing fancies readily shaped into a deer. As we were eagerly waiting some movement to confirm this impression, it lifted up its head, and lo! a great blue heron. Seeing us approach, it spread its long wings and flew solemnly across to a dead tree on the other side of the lake, enhancing rather than relieving the loneliness and desolation that brooded over the scene. As we proceeded, it flew from tree to tree in advance of us, apparently loth to be disturbed in its ancient and solitary domain. In the margin of the pond we found the pitcher-plant growing, and here and there in the sand the closed gentian lifted up its blue head.

In traversing the shores of this wild, desolate lake, I was conscious of a slight thrill of expectation, as if some secret of Nature might here be revealed, or some rare and unheard-of game disturbed. There is ever a lurking suspicion that the beginning of things is in some way associated with water, and one may notice that in his private walks he is led by a curious attraction to fetch all the springs and ponds in his route, as if by them was the place for wonders and miracles to happen. Once, while in advance of my companions, I saw, from a high rock, a commotion in the water near the shore, but on reaching the point found only the marks of a musquash.

Pressing on through the forest, after many adventures with pine-knots, we reached, about the middle of the afternoon, our destination, Nate's Pond,—a pretty sheet of water, lying like a silver mirror in the lap of the mountain, about a mile long and half a mile wide, surrounded by dark forests of balsam, hemlock, and pine, and, like the one we had just passed, a very picture of unbroken solitude.

It is not in the woods alone to give one this impression of utter loneliness. In the woods are sounds and voices, and a dumb kind of companionship; one is little more than a walking tree himself; but come upon one of these mountain lakes, and the wildness stands revealed and meets you face to face. Water is thus facile and adaptive, that makes the wild more wild, while it enhances culture and art.

The end of the pond which we approached was quite shoal, the stones rising above the surface as in a summer brook, and everywhere showing marks of the noble game we were in quest of,—footprints, dung, and cropped and uprooted lily pads. After resting for a half hour, and replenishing our game-pouches at the expense of the most respectable frogs of the locality, we filed on through the soft, resinous pine-woods, intending to camp near the other end of the lake, where, the guide assured us, we should find a hunter's cabin ready built. A half-hour's march brought us to the locality, and a most delightful one it was,—so hospitable and inviting that all the kindly and beneficent influences of the woods must have abided there. In a slight depression in the woods, about one hundred yards from the lake, though hidden from it for a hunter's reasons, surrounded by a heavy growth of birch, hemlock, and pine, with a lining of balsam and fir, the rude cabin welcomed us. It was of the approved style, three sides inclosed, with a roof of bark and a bed of boughs, and a rock in front that afforded a permanent backlog to all fires. A faint voice of running water was head near by, and, following the sound, a delicious spring rivulet was disclosed, hidden by the moss and débris as by a new fall of snow, but here and there rising in little well-like openings, as if for our special convenience. On smooth places on the log I noticed female names inscribed in a female hand; and the guide told us of an English lady, an artist, who had traversed this region with a single guide, making sketches.

Our packs unslung and the kettle over, our first move was to ascertain in what state of preservation a certain dug-out might be, which the guide averred, he had left moored in the vicinity the summer before,—for upon this hypothetical dug-out our hopes of venison rested. After a little searching, it was found under the top of a fallen hemlock, but in a sorry condition. A large piece had been split out of one end, and a fearful chink was visible nearly to the water line. Freed from the treetop, however, and calked with a little moss, it floated with two aboard, which was quite enough for our purpose. A jack and an oar were necessary to complete the arrangement, and before the sun had set our professor of wood-craft had both in readiness. From a young yellow birch an oar took shape with marvelous rapidity,—trimmed and smoothed with a neatness almost fastidious,—no makeshift, but an instrument fitted for the delicate work it was to perform.

A jack was make with equal skill and speed. A stout staff about three feet long was placed upright in the bow of the boat, and held to its place by a horizontal bar, through a hole in which it turned easily: a half wheel eight or ten inches in diameter, cut from a large chip, was placed at the top, around which was bent a new section of birch bark, thus forming a rude semicircular reflector. Three candles placed within the circle completed the jack. With moss and boughs seats were arranged,—one in the bow for the marksman, and one in the stern for the oarsman. A meal of frogs and squirrels was a good preparation, and, when darkness came, all were keenly alive to the opportunity it brought. Though by no means an expert in the use of the gun,—adding the superlative degree of enthusiasm to only the positive degree of skill,—yet it seemed tacitly agreed that I should act as marksman and kill the deer, if such was to be our luck.

After it was thoroughly dark, we went down to make a short trial trip. Everything working to satisfaction, about ten o'clock we pushed out in earnest. For the twentieth time I felt in the pocket that contained the matches, ran over the part I was to perform, and pressed my gun firmly, to be sure there was no mistake. My position was that of kneeling directly under the jack, which I was to light at the word. The night was clear, moonless, and still. Nearing the middle of the lake, a breeze from the west was barely perceptible, and noiselessly we glided before it. The guide handled his oar with great dexterity; without lifting it from the water or breaking the surface, he imparted the steady, uniform motion desired. How silent it was! The ear seemed the only sense, and to hold dominion over lake and forest. Occasionally a lily-pad would brush along the bottom, and stooping low I could hear a faint murmuring of the water under the bow: else all was still. Then almost as by magic, we were encompassed by a huge black ring. The surface of the lake, when we had reached the center, was slightly luminous from the starlight, and the dark, even forest-line that surrounded us, doubled by reflection in the water, presented a broad, unbroken belt of utter blackness. The effect was quite startling, like some huge conjurer's trick. It seemed as if we had crossed the boundary-line between the real and the imaginary, and this was indeed the land of shadows and of spectres. What magic oar was that the guide wielded that it could transport me to such a realm! Indeed, had I not committed some fatal mistake, and left that trusty servant behind, and had not some wizard of the night stepped into his place? A slight splashing in-shore broke the spell and caused me to turn nervously to the oarsman: "Musquash," said he, and kept strait on.

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