STORIES OF OUR ADIRONDACKS
Shooting In The Adirondack, by Charles Dickens
Published in the periodical “All The Year Round” Sept 29, 1860
No introduction is necessary for this author. His writing of this article came right between the publication of his books The Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861). I had never known of Dickens visiting the Adirondacks until I came across a reference to this article while sifting through microfilm copies of Forest and Stream magazine from the 1870’s at the New York State Library. As best as I can tell this article has never been republished in its entirety since it first came out.
Apollos Smith was our guide on my first tramp among the Adirondack Mountains in New York. He is a famous fellow, Pollos, or Paul, as he is called. A tall athletic Yankee, with no superfluous flesh about him, raw-boned, with a good-natured twinkle in his blue eye, brimful of genuine Yankee humour; he has no bad habits, and is, withal, the best rifle-shot, paddler, and compounder of forest stews in the whole region. Let me tell his last exploit. In Yankee parlance, he was “courting a gal,” and in a strait to get married, so he resolved to build him an hotel, and settle. He knew a little lake, or rather pond, on the middle branch of the St. Regis River suited to his purpose. There was a log shanty on it, with two springs close by; it was in a part of the forest little hunted, and abounding in deer and trout, and it communicated directly with the great St. Regis Lake, and other ponds. The winter in those elevated regions is almost Arctic. In the month of January 1859, he plunged into the forest with two lumberman, took possession of the shanty, and began his clearing. The snow was five or six feet deep, and the cold intense. They felled the gigantic trees, pines, hemlocks, firs, and cedars, cut out beams, split shingles, and laid the foundations of a large house on the bank of the lake. The boards were sawn at a mill down the river. They cut out a road through the wilderness to the nearest point of a neglected military road, which traverses the St. Regis country from Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence. During this time, Smith, as he told me, went a courting every Sunday, a trifle of thirty miles, sometimes on snow-shoes. He also went to New York and selected his furniture, besides visiting Boston. The house, a large frame building, was completed and furnished, and Paul was married and settled, before June.
It was for this new establishment, and according to directions received from Smith, that our little party of three left Boston in August. By rail to Burlington, Vermont, eleven hours; across Lake Champlain to Port Kent, New York, and by stage to Keeseville, on the Au Sable River, before night. I could give but a meager description of our fifty-mile ride in an Adirondack wagon on the following day, for words feebly express what one feels in passing through the sublime mountain scenery.
I should like to describe an Adirondack village, made up of some half-dozen log houses of the rudest description, with sometimes and unpainted frame-house, with the sign “Post-office” on it. The only appearance of thrift is seen at the smithy; no hotel, no “meeting-house;” a school-house, falling to decay; “Cash Store,” in drunken letters over some doorway; a lazy deer-hound or two; some ragged, timid, tow-headed children playing in the road; a frouzy, gipsy-looking face peering through a window; a dense forest hemming in the whole. Sometimes we passed a pretty group of plastered cottages, with white window-curtains, and women in snowy caps, belonging to French Canadians. Anon, one of Gerrit Smith’s black settlements, the houses more dilapidated than the rest, with perhaps a laughing black boy, with a rim of old hat upon his woolly head, dancing in the doorway. We saw one village utterly deserted; a freshet swept always its mill several years ago, and the inhabitants abandoned it. It was called New Sweden. Then we met a long train of wagons, drawn by mules, coming from the iron villages, the chief of which is Au Sable Forks. The people in these wilds, excepting the miners and charcoal-burners, live chiefly by logging in the winter and spring, and by hunting and farming in the fall and summer. Every man and by carries a rifle. At Franklin Falls, on the River Saranac, we met a man who had been to drive his cow from pasture. I asked him if he always carried his rifle? He said that a few days before he had neglected to take it, as usual, and had met a fine buck, standing in the path, which seemed to dispute his right of way. Next day he took his gun, and there was the buck again. He fired, and missed him; but the deer, instead of bounding away, stood stamping and “whistling”- i.e. snorting-until he reloaded his rifle and shot him.
We arrived at Smith’s long after sundown, and had a hearty supper of venison and trout; made arrangements for starting on the morrow, and went to bed.
In the morning we found that Smith had, in Emerson’s phrase, “builded better than he knew.” Right opposite, across the lake, arose the noble St. Regis range, purple with the tints of morning and flecked with white mist. In front of the house stood a tall weird pine, which seemed to be whispering something to the lake as it leaned towards its rippled surface. On the left was a pretty rocky island to which we paddled for our morning bath. Some black ducks flew out of a little cove and saluted us; the loons hallooed and laughed at our approach; and the trout leaped from under our prow. Breakfast done, we dressed in our hunting gear of shirts and pantaloons of woolen-the only fabric for the woods-got ready our rifles and ammunition, and set out with one Paul and one Warren for the woods. Warren was a handy little black fellow, with all the amusing peculiarities of the African race developed to the highest degree; knowing that he would be not only very useful by and inexhaustible fund of merriment, I engaged that he should accompany us in the capacity of cook. I cannot describe him better than in the language of Smith, who said that he was “three niggers rolled into one.” We reached the borders of a pretty pond on the southern branch of the St. Regis, and immediately put out the dogs we had brought with us, but without driving any deer into the water. Meanwhile, we had got ready the boats Smith had sent over, and pushed out into the pond. After waiting until the baying of one of the dogs had died away into the distance, and the other had returned to the shore, we visited the shanty where we were to pass the night. This shanty was a flimsy affair, hastily constructed of boughs, and half covered with bark; but as the day was very promising, we took no pains to improve its condition. While the rest of the party were fishing, Paul and I, in one of the boats, took the inlet of the pond and followed up the river to its source. Then, leaving the boat we crossed a two-mile carrying-place to the upper waters of the north branch of the Saranac. Here we found a beautiful pond six miles in length, called Rainbow, with a long ridge of granite boulders, probably of glacial formation, running along its side.
In this place, I once passed a night with Paul, wrapped in our blankets, with the earth for a mattress and the stars for a canopy, after a weary and unsuccessful night hunt. It was upon this very ridge, at a point only a few rods in width, where it separates Rainbow Pond from another beautiful sheet of water called Clear Lake. I was awakened during the night by a sound, wailing and prolonged-now rising quick and sharp like the cry of a dog, again sinking into a moan-which I had not heard before, and which seemed to come from a neighbouring hill. I awoke Paul to ask what it was.
“Waal neow, them’s wolves. Sure as you’re alive them ‘ere’s in full chase after a deer, and they’ll never leave him till they run him down.”
“But,” said I, “suppose they should run along this ridge?” thinking we should stand about as good a chance of escape as a driver who should take the railroad track for a highway. But Smith had dropped asleep again immediately, so I concluded that the danger could not be great, and followed his example. After gazing my fill at this lovely sheet of water, and watching a deer in a distant meadow, we returned to our camp. On the way across a “mash” (Anglice’, meadow), I stepped upon a floating moss on the bank of a stream and immediately found myself waist-deep in black mud, from which I was extricated by the guide.
“Neow, that ‘ere puts me in mind it was just about here that I put Mr. Waddy in once. That ‘ere Mr. Waddy was the curousest man to go a huntin’ that ever you went anywheres. Why, he used to dress himself in these woods just as nice as if we was goin’ to a ball! Used to ile his hair and put on them little thin gloves, and a stand-up dickey and a breast-pin, and a swallow-tailed coat. If he had got a spot on his shirt-bosom he would go and change it. He had the awfullest sight of traps ever you see, and them had to be all carried. He couldn’t shoot at all unless everything sot just right. He was a good hand at the mark, but he had the ague so bad he never could hit a deer. I gave him more shots in these parts than I ever gave to any one man. He couldn’t hit nothin’. Waal, I’d got awful tired of him. So one morning, as I was paddling him along this stream, I saw a buck under them tamaracs.
“’Now, Mr. Smith,’ says he, ‘if you’ll be kind enough to let me step ashore, I think I could hit that one; this boat shakes so I can’t shoot.’
“’I guess that air’s the trouble, Mr. Waddy,’ says I; and I shoved in again some if this floating stuff. ‘Look out where you’re a goin’ to,’ says I. But he was lookin’ hard at the deer, and as soon as he stepped out o’ the boat, he went down, and that was the last I see of him for as much as a minute. More ‘n half an acre of the stuff shook and swashed round, and this ‘ere black mud bubbled up, and I thought I‘d lost Mr. Waddy. Pretty soon I see his head and pulled him into the boat.
“’Oh, Mr. Smith, this is an awful piece of business! This is positively frightful! Take me home,’ says he.
“Waal. That air Mr. Waddy, he was the curousest critter to hunt ever you see. He had a great long knife shaped like a sword, with a red leather scabbard all covered over with caring and silver, and he used to lug that round with him. He coundn’t never kill nothin’, and he never drawed it once as I remember. I paddled him one day close to a little fahn, and he fired and wounded him so that he set right down on his hind-quarters.
“’Neow,’ says I, ‘Mr. Waddy, here‘s a chance for you to blood that ‘ere handsome knife o’ yourn. Get out and catch him by the ears and cut his throat.’
“Waal, he went at that fahn just as though he was afeered on him, and every time he’d offer to lay hold on him that fahn ‘d dodge away his head, and then Mr. Waddy he’d go at him agin. By-and-by, he’d got hold, and he drawed that big knife, and was just a puttin’ it to his throat, when the little critter opened his mouth and baaed right out at him.
“’Oh! Mr. Smith,’ says he, letting go, with a kind o’ plaintive voice, as though he was sick to his stomach, ‘did you hear that melancholy noise? Oh, what a doleful sound! I can’t do it, Mr. Smith.’
“Waal,” says I, “Mr. Waddy, I guess you and me‘d better go home, your feelin’s is too tender to go a hunting.
It was late in the afternoon before we arrived at the shanty again. There were heavy clouds in the sky, and there was an ominous moaning in the forest. Supper over, we set about repairing our roof with the bark of a large hemlock, until we were driven in by the rain. Soon the terrific thunder and lightning obliged us to abandon our cherished plan of night hunting, and after a pipe and a few yarns from Paul, we turned in. Towards morning I awoke, to find myself lying in a puddle of water, and feeling, withal, very miserable. I expressed aloud my not flattering opinion touching the shanty, as I stepped out to the fire; by the side of which Warren was stretched on a log, in the midst of the drenching rain.
“Go way, ole shanty,” said he, laughing, “you ain’t nowhere. Here’s comfort! It melts just as fast as it falls, and runs right off. I b’lieve dis yere roast’s a getting done too much on one side.” Said he, turning himself over.
So I found the boat, and paddled out into the lake to warm myself with exercise. As soon as day broke we called a council and agreed to return and go to St. Regis lake, which was at that time unoccupied, but which, as it was now the middle of the season, might be seized upon by someone before us if we delayed.
Hurrah for St. Regis! It was a beautiful morning after the two days’ rain when we rowed up that broad river, size miles, through Spitfire Pond, and into that superb lake, always overshadowed by those noble mountains. St. Regis Lake is one of the grandest of the region, and comparatively little visited. Sixteen miles of unbroken forest make its margin, numerous islands stud its surface, and high mountains frown upon it from every side. What a week we passed there! We leaped and halloed like madmen. Hurrah! No more artificial restraints, not even a fence! Our log-shanty, on an island in the middle of the lake, was a model one, perfectly new. Its owner, or rather its builder, was a friend and patron of Smith, and kindly offered it to us. By day our hounds bayed in the forest, while we watched on some shady point for the deer to come into the lake, with a smudge nearby to keep off “dem ere disreputable midges,” as Warren called them. These midges were our chief, I had almost said our only, annoyance. There are a minute fly that appears in swarms, filling the air, and finding its way through and beneath clothing to every part of the skin, causing in some persons more irritation than the mosquito. They were particularly fond of the black boy, so that in any doubtful case we would refer to him to know if there were any midges about. At night some mysterious agency seemed to impel us, as we glided, without a sound from the paddle, through the level black, starting at the white statues which our fancy made of upturned roots of fallen pines. Marble-like they burst out of the black air as our light struck upon them. Then then challenging “whistle” and stamp of the deer, the silent rapid movement towards the shore, the startling splash of the otter, disturbed in his slumber; then the two balls of fire in a ghastly outline of deer, and the crack of the rifle, which, made our hearts leap into our throats; then a silence, stunning as the report, and a darkness, dazzling as the flash.
At last we set out for Tupper’s Lake, fifty miles distant. We took, besides rifle-guns and ammunition, our blankets, hatchet, and compass, salt pork and hard bread, tea, sugar, stewpan, and teapot. We had also two guides and two boats. The latter, long graceful lapstreaks, roomy and stiff, yet so light that a man with a neck yoke can carry one, half a mile. (The canoe, since the departure of the Indians, is little used; though light to carry, it is too crank for comfort on a long row.) We took Warren as cook. His droll conceits and rollicking good humour, his grotesque attitudes and grimaces, and his great muscular strength and agility, made him a valuable addition to the party. His Negro partiality for long words was always amusing. Camping at a little pond called Bon-bon one night, we applied ourselves in Warren’s absence to make some tea which should be better than the miserable decoction known as black tea, or camp tea, made by the guides. We had, of course, but one kind of tea, but we filled the teapot with leaves, and then poured on boiling water, and allowed it to simmer. When Warren returned, we asked him to try it. “Golly,” said he, “dat ere’s intosticating-dis nigger’s inebriated.” Often afterwards he referred to that tea. “Now, gen’lemen, dere’s three kinds of tea at dis Metropolitan Hotel. In de first place, dere’s Bon-bon tea; den dere’s black tea; and den dere’s camp tea. Now, doctors, what kind of tea do you diagnosticate upon to-day?” On the say down Racquette, he spied some ruffed grouse, and one of us lent him a fowling-piece to shoot them. They were in a tree, and more singular still, allowed him to kill them one after another without offering to fly. “Warren,” said I, “you’ll never make a sportsman; you pointed your gun at each partridge full a minute before you could make up your mind to fire.” “I knowed we was out of grub,” said he, grinning, “and so I took aim at dem fellers wid de eye of despair. I wanted to make anoder of dem inexceptional stews.”
We traversed the St. Regis Ponds, a succession of beautiful woodland lakes, and passed over seven carrys to Little Clear Pond. Then we poled down the river Sticks, as it is facetiously named by the hunters, on account of the number of snags in it, to Upper Saranac Lake. This is nearly fifteen miles in length, and presents a mountain, lake, and forest scenery of the grandest description. As we entered it at nightfall, we were all reminded of Landseer’s picture of The Sanctuary. On our left rose the whole range of the Adirondacks, Baldface and Mount Seward close at hand, and far in the south the cone of Marcy. That night we slept at a loghouse, on the Indian carrying-place. Next day we crossed the carry at daybreak, took the Stony Creek Ponds, and entered the Racquette, twenty miles above Tupper’s Lake. Near Tupper’s Lake we passed the clearing of an old hunter named Symonds, who lived forty years a hermit in these wilds, and died here all alone. He retired from place to place before the approach of men, traversed the woods without a compass or blaze (a mark made by the hunters upon trees to indicate the way), and procured the few articles of necessity which the forest could not afford, in exchange for skins.
Tupper’s Lake is the most romantic and picturesque spot in the Adirondacks. But, all the Adirondack forests, lakes, and mountains are for me invested with the same charm which, as a boy, I used to feel in the woods where I passed my school vacations.
Strange and awful fears begin to press. The bosom with a stern solemnity. In the presence of those whispering pines and frowning mountains.