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Born in the woods ...

At 103 years of age, Clarence Petty continues to personify the Adirondacks and remains one of the greatest champions of its wilderness

December 6, 2008
By MIKE LYNCH, Enterprise Outdoors Writer

SARANAC LAKE - Sitting in his room, alongside a Remington typewriter, with a photo of the High Peaks above him and leather hiking boots on his feet, 103-year-old Clarence Petty talked about first seeing legendary hermit Noah Rondeau walking along Coreys Road in 1913.

"He was pushing a baby carriage full of steel traps and cartridges for his gun," Petty said with a smile. "He was on his way up to the Cold River."

An Adirondack native, Petty is a historic figure in the conservation movement of the Adirondack Park. He has worked on both sides of the movement, for various forms of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and as an advocate who speaks his mind at public meetings. He now lives in an apartment at Saranac Village at Will Rogers.

Article Photos

Clarence Petty spent his childhood fishing and trapping in the woods near Coreys. Here, he catches his first fox at age 7.
(Photo courtesy of Clarence Petty)

When he met Rondeau, Petty was a child living on Stony Creek Pond in Coreys between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake. His home had no electricity. In the summers, meat and butter were kept cool in an ice house.

The Pettys moved twice when Clarence was growing up. For the first three years of Clarence's life, his family lived in a small cabin built by his father on Forest Preserve land on Upper Saranac Lake. But in 1908, the Pettys relocated when the Forest Fish and Game Commission started to crack down on squatters living on state lands.

First, the Pettys moved to a place near Bartlett's Carry, and then in 1911, they moved to a house on First Pond, part of Stony Creek Ponds, in Coreys. Here, Petty's mother Catherine ran the post office and his father Ellsworth worked as a hunting and fishing guide, an occupation that his two eldest sons shared.

"Because we lived in the woods, my older brother and I, they thought we knew where every deer and every trout were," Petty said. "They used to hire us to drive deer long before we were 11 years old."

Although it was a sparsely populated area, Coreys had a variety of characters, including wealthy New York City residents, lumberjacks, guides and hermits.

When Rondeau came strolling down the dirt road in 1913, the hermit stopped at the post office to inform Catherine Petty of his new "residence" on Cold River. Living on his own since he was a teenager, Rondeau had become frustrated with being a barber in Lake Placid.

"You know, I asked him why he didn't stay with it, and he says, 'That was something that was never rewarding,'" Petty said. "Well, I don't know what he expected."

Over the years, Petty would see Rondeau occasionally. Although the two differed in many ways, they both appreciated wilderness. Sometimes, the hermit would visit the post office or even come over for a family dinner; other times, Petty and his brother Bill stayed in Rondeau's cabin located 13 miles away on a remote stretch of the Cold River.

Often, Bill and Clarence would visit in the spring to take advantage of the great brook trout fishing in remote pools along the river.

"We'd cast out and, as long as you didn't disturb the area and startle them, boy, you'd catch a six- or seven-pound brook trout," Petty said.

"I remember, we brought some back and gave a couple to one of our neighbors, and they thought it was a peculiar looking fish ... they'd never seen anything quite that size."

Falling through the ice at

OK Slip Pond

A graduate of Saranac Lake High School in 1925, Petty went on to receive a forestry degree at what is now Syracuse School of Environmental Science and Forestry.

He later worked as a forest ranger, became the first aerial firefighter in the Adirondacks and collected information that is still utilized today by the Adirondack Park Agency. One of his jobs was to study rivers in the Park to determine how they should be categorized under the federal Wild, Recreation and Scenic Rivers Act.

In 1970, while working for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's Study Commission on the Adirondacks, Clarence had a life-threatening experience that not only showed his fortitude but also his knowledge of how to escape dangerous situations in the backcountry.

Petty's job was to lead wildlife ecologist George Davis into the backcountry for studies. In this particular case, Petty said he was traveling alone on a six-mile snowshoe hike to OK Slip Pond in the dead of winter. Petty's job was to see how much development had taken place on the pond's shores and how much logging had occurred on the nearby private lands, according to "The Extraordinary Adirondack Journey of Clarence Petty," a biography written by Christopher Angus.

When Petty arrived and walked out on the pond, he fell through the ice at a weak spot near a log, plunging into water above his waist. Davis recalled in the Petty biography that the temperature was 34 below zero that morning.

"Boy, it was cold," Petty said. "My hands were freezing, so I couldn't get my boots off. So I had to just leave them on with all the water in them."

Petty said he then managed to jog back to his car and get to his hotel room, where he later met up with Davis. He was able to survive because he was wearing all wool, which retains body heat, and because he had experience falling through the ice.

"I was accustomed to falling through the ice in the winter," Petty said. "Years ago, I used to trap and go across a pond somewhere, and the ice would break and I'd fall, in snowshoes and everything. It was no fun doing it, but I got so that I found out that, in order to keep from drowning, you had to roll out. You had to roll over and over. If you didn't, you kept breaking the ice. I learned that from my father... you learn those things the hard way. Fortunately, I never got pulled under."

A native environmentalist

In the Adirondack Park, there is a constant tension between people who believe that state regulations are too restrictive and prohibit development and economic growth, and environmentalists, who fight for stricter protection of forests and wildlife.

Petty is adamantly behind the forces that fight to protect the natural resources of the Park, even at the expense of some modern conveniences. That desire to protect wilderness grew within him during the earliest days of his life, from the time he lived in that cabin on Upper Saranac Lake to his days growing up in Coreys, he said.

"Some people are willing to put up with the inconvenience of living in the backcountry and others are not," Petty said. "That's the big difference. I always felt, from the very time that I lived back in the woods, that that was the best time of my life."

Today, he continues to follow environmental issues that affect the Park. He contributes regularly to Adirondack Explorer, an environmental magazine based in Saranac Lake, by answering questions about the Park from readers called, "Questions for Clarence."

He supports land acquisitions in the Park by the state and conservation organizations, singling out the recent purchase of Follensby Pond by the Nature Conservancy as a prime example.

A pilot for decades who even owned his own floatplane, Petty said he supports the recent decision by the APA to ban floatplanes from Lows Lake because it's in a Wilderness Area. The decision has brought opposition because it will negatively affect two floatplane businesses.

"The department doesn't want to interfere with their business, but that's wrong," Petty said. "The people of New York state as a whole are more important than just two floatplane operators. I think it's something that all of the people should decide, not just one or two. The majority of the people believe that these areas should be free of these things."

No matter how long he lives, he will continue to be a conservationist and a lover of wilderness. He confessed that life has been difficult in recent years. His body sometimes fails him. But his passion for wilderness is still strong. When questioned if he ever wavered in his environmentalist mindset, he quickly responded, "No, I'm steady," raising his right fist above his head as he spoke.

"I was born in the woods," Petty said. "I liked the woods to start with. It's stayed with me. I haven't lost that feeling."



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