In 1854 an Adirondack Mountains guide named Tucker wrote to a patron, "It's an interestin' study to look into things as they were so long back and see what wild animals, birds, fishes, and such things then existed; to know what of them have been pushed entirely out of the world and what of 'em have been left, and to understand what changes white men and tame life all around 'em have worked on 'em." The Adirondacks are still an interestin' background against which to assess the changes that accompany the arrival of the "tame life," and now, as Lake Placid readies itself for the 1980 Winter Olympics, the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y. has opened an enlightening exhibit that touches on elements of that change. Called Woods and Waters, the permanent exhibit depicts outdoor recreation in the region from 1830 to 1932.
Established 23 years ago under a charter from the Regents of the State of New York, the museum is not one of those musty, old-fashioned collections of odds and ends. Here everything is carefully chosen and artfully displayed and explained by handsome graphics and push-button Hearphones. At the beginning of a "trail" through Woods and Waters, which takes about 45 minutes to view, a full-scale model of a mountain camp transports the museumgoer to the 19th-century woods. It is dark. A brook murmurs nearby, the night sounds of frogs and birds fill the air. Invisible bodies bulge the sleeping bags inside an improvised, bark-covered lean-to. Provisions are sheltered under an overturned guide boat, fly rods and nets are propped up nearby, the embers of the cook fire still glow, and enameled cups and plates are stacked to one side. Because nothing in the appealing scene is unfamiliar—or even anachronistic—its effect is to make the visitor want to head immediately for the real woods.
The Adirondacks, like most wild areas, does not reveal itself from the roads. To be truly enjoyed, it has to be traveled on foot or in a boat, by way of chains of lakes, carries and rivers. Long before today's avid backpackers arrived on the scene, visitors to these mountains carried their necessities in ash-splint Abenaki or Mohawk pack baskets, examples of which are displayed at the exhibit. The backpacker's creed was uttered a century ago by Adirondack sportsman George Washington Sears (better known as Nessmuk): "Go light, the lighter the better, so that you have the simplest material for health, comfort, and enjoyment." Nessmuk's tiny cedar canoe, weighing only 10½ pounds, can be found in the museum's exhibit of water craft.
Woods and Waters also contains numerous examples of early camping, fishing, mountain-climbing, hunting and winter-sports equipment. This gear differs less than might be expected from present-day products, though there are some obvious changes. The old fly rods often had rattan-wrapped grips; the Milan reels were beautifully made of brass and nickel. Trout flies were gaudy and heavily tied. In tents and sleeping bags, inconspicuous colors were the rule, a far cry from the vivid oranges and reds that brighten today's campsites.
A century ago, the exhibit indicates, many outdoorsmen feared that the Adirondacks would soon be ruined by overuse. "The woods are thronged," wrote surveyor Verplanck Colvin in 1887. "The genius of change has possession of the land." Indeed, the lynx and timber wolf have been extirpated, and the beaver were nearly trapped out at one time; but until fairly recently Colvin's worries about throngs in the forest were ill-founded.
Oddly enough, what struck me as the quaintest feature of Woods and Waters is the final exhibit, a diorama that shows a typical, present-day camping scene: here sits the modern camper-van, its rear doors open to reveal a jumble of equipment—frame packs, gas lantern, Coleman stove and cooler. With its implication of road-boundedness, of engine sounds and slamming doors, it couldn't be further from the spirit of that opening scene. Fortunately, all these modern gadgets are not necessary for camping in the wilderness. That point is made by no less an authority than the famed Adirondack hermit Noah John Rondeau. Rondeau died in 1967, but his voice, in a taped interview, can be heard from a hidden speaker. While gazing at a reconstruction of Rondeau's Cold River hut and a wooden statue of him, the visitor can listen to him advise that future generations, no matter how accustomed they become to conveniences, would have no trouble adapting to wilderness living, because it is based as much on necessity as on choice. "If they were crowded back to it," says Rondeau, "they could adjust. Because, you see, it's natural."
That confidence in nature permeates much of the Woods and Waters exhibit. If you would like to share it, you will find the museum in the heart of the Adirondacks on Route 28 and it can be reached from the New York Thruway (Exit 31 at Utica) or from the Warrensburg exit of the Adirondack Northway (I-87). It is open from mid-June to mid-October, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and costs $3.75 for adults, $1.75 for children 7-15.