Conference participants get taste of the Adirondacks

The season’s first true blast of cold autumn air visited the region earlier in the week, delivering the first significant frost of the season.

Although the frosty conditions were quickly swept away by a clear bluebird day, remnants of the effects of such evenings are growing more evident to those who continue to tramp the trails.

The first heavy frost of the fall always triggers thoughts of camp, and the need to buck up a few more ranks of wood for the stove. It also spawns an uneasy eagerness to get back to the ponds, which grows longer and stronger with each passing day.

Over the past weekend, I enjoyed the opportunity to become acquainted and reacquainted with many old friends as a host of outdoor writers from across the country flocked to Lake Placid to participate in a combined conference of the New York State Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

The conference, which spanned four days, provided the visiting writers a unique opportunity to mix and mingle with a large group of like-minded folks. As one gentleman mentioned, “I’ve never witnessed such a sporty town. There are people all over the place biking, hiking, paddling and running. There were even some guys fishing on the lake just outside my window this morning. Is it always like this?”

“No,” I chuckled. “This is really the off-season. The crowds won’t be around until the foliage peaks in a few weeks.”

He was stunned with the response and claimed, “We’ve been around to some really special places for these conferences, but I can honestly say, we’ve never had a cooler location to visit, or a wider range of activities to pursue.”

The gentleman’s sentiments were just the tip of the iceberg. I expect we’ll be hearing and reading a lot more about Lake Placid and the surrounding area over the next few months as the assembled writers and producers, editors and photographers disperse to their homes across the country.

Although the good news will go far, I do hope it doesn’t result in a situation similar to the hordes of neophytes that flocked to the region after the Rev. Wm. H.H. Murray published the first guidebook about his adventures in the Adirondacks in the late 1800s.

By the books

I have been researching a variety of turn-of-the-century (1890s to 1900) camping manuals in recent weeks. The content of many of the books was inspired by the eminent demise of the Native American culture that was occurring at that time.

It was also aided by a burgeoning urban culture, which many believed to be responsible for all sorts of illness, including the spread of tuberculosis. At the same time, there was also a revival of the need for spiritual nature, and many nature camps were developed with a Christian purpose.

In “The Purpose of Camping,” published in the early 1900s, H. M. Burr expounded on the need for boys to participate in outdoor recreation, explaining, “It is great fun to live in the glorious open air, fragrant with the smell of the woods and flowers; it is fun to swim and fish and hike it over the hills; it is fun to sit about the open fire and spin yarns, or watch in silence the glowing embers; but the greatest fun of all is to win the love and confidence of some boy who has been a trouble to himself and everybody else, and help him to become a man.”

He continued with a plea to make camping an elixir for all sorts of society’s problems.

“The summer time is a period of moral deterioration with most boys,” he wrote. “Free from restraint of school and many times of home, boys wander during the vacation time into paths of wrongdoing largely because of a lack of directed play life and a natural outlet for the expenditure of their surplus energy. The vacation problem therefore becomes a serious one for both the boy and his parent. Camping offers a solution.

“A boy in the process of growing needs the outdoors. He needs room and range. He needs the tonic of the hills, the woods and streams. He needs to walk under the great sky and commune with the stars. He needs to place himself where nature can speak to him. He ought to get close to the soil. He ought to be toughened by sun and wind, rain and cold. Nothing can take the place, for the boy, of stout physique, robust health, good blood, firm muscles, sound nerves, for these are the conditions of character and efficiency. The early teens are the most important years for the boy physically. Through the ages of 13 and 15 the more he can be in the open, free from social engagements and from continuous labor or study, the better. He should fish, swim, row and sail, roam the woods and the waters, get plenty of vigorous action, have interesting, healthful things to think about.”

While Burr expounded on the need for boys to camp, many others centered their efforts on society at large and echoed similar sentiments, which were similarly on track with the current concerns over climate change and the growing detachment of children and nature.

“Too much house,” explained Jacob Riis, a turn-of-the-century journalist and photographer who promoted the wondrous benefits of the natural surroundings. “Civilization has been making of the world a hot house. Man’s instinct of self-preservation rebels; hence the appeal for the return to the simple life that is growing loud.

“Boys need to get away from the school room and books, and may I say the martyrdom of examinations, high marks, promotions and exhibitions!

“Medical examinations of school children reveal some startling facts. Why should boys suffer from nerves? Are we sacrificing bodily vigor for abnormal intellectual growth? Have we been fighting against instead of cooperating with nature? The tide is turning, however, and the people are living more and more in the open.”

In the above passage, I heard the voice of Richard Louv, current day author of the bestseller, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving your children from nature deficit disorder.” Although Louv’s tome was published over a century after Riss scribed those words, cycles of natural disconnection continue to spin.

At the turn of the century, the burgeoning technologies of steam power, electricity, telephones and steel were rapidly changing and modernizing the world and there were many apostles of the outdoor life who railed against such advances.

Among their ranks were Henry D. Thoreau, John Burroughs, William Hamilton Gibson, Ernest Thompson-Seton, Frank Beard, Horace Kephart, Charles Stedman Hanks, Stewart Edward White, “Nessmuck,” W. C. Gray and others who sought through their writings and lectures to influence and turn back the clock on the ever advancing technologies of the day for fear they would result in the demise of natural recreation.

In 1917, Horace Kephart published “Camping and Woodcraft,” and dedicated it to “The Shade of Nessmuk in the Happy Hunting Ground.”

“To many a city man there comes a time when the great town wearies him,” Kephart wrote. “He hates its sights and smells and clangor. Every duty is a task and every caller a bore. There come visions of green fields and far-rolling hills, of tall forests and cool, swift-flowing streams.

“He yearns for the thrill of the chase, for the keen-eyed silent stalking; or, rod in hand, he would seek that mysterious pool where the father of all trout lurks for his lure.

“To be free, unbeholden, irresponsible for the nonsense! Free to go or come at one’s own sweet will, to tarry where he lists, to do this, or do that, or nothing, as the humor veers, and as for the hours, it shall be what o’clock I say it is!”

If only it were so easy.