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The finest square mile of your own

January 10, 2009
By JOE HACKETT, Enterprise Columnist

A few years ago, when my oldest daughter left for college in New York City, I knew she was in for culture shock. Born and raised with the small town life of the Adirondacks, she was entering a new life in the ultra-zone of the world's greatest metropolis.

She was moving from a region with a population density of five to nine people per square mile to an island with 66,173 people per square mile.

The Adirondack land mass could encompass over 3,142 Manhattan Islands, while the student population of New York University alone is nearly half of the population year-round Park residents.

Within a week of settling into the routine of city life, her complaints were not with the people; rather, she had issues with her surroundings. The major shock was environmental not cultural.

"There's no trees, Dad," she explained, "And my legs really hurt! Everywhere I walk, it's hard. It's either pavement, tile or cement. I never realized how soft walking on grass is.

"And," she continued, "There's no silence. It's always busy with people, sirens or something. Even in my room, there's always some sort of background noise. You just can't tune it out!

"There's no fresh air, no gentle breeze. It's always stale or smells like something, even down by the river. And when the wind blows, it's usually full of grit."

The Adirondack Park offers a wealth of natural resources spread across an abundance of public lands. If you enjoy the outdoors, entertainment is cheap due to the ease of access to wild lands. Unfortunately, many residents take such nearby treasures for granted.

There are few places left in the Eastern states with such limitless opportunities for enjoying seamless travel on established land or water trail systems spanning over 130 miles in distance.

Certainly, this is a major attraction for those who cherish the ability to step out the door to ski, snowshoe, hike or paddle unfettered for miles in almost any direction.

From my back yard in Ray Brook, I can travel an unbroken stretch of wild lands for over 30 miles south to Newcomb, or 60 miles beyond to Northville. I can hop the railroad bed and ski, snowshoe, sled, hike or bike over 90 miles, all the way to Old Forge.

Across state Route 86 from home, I can head north through the Mckenzie Wilderness to Bloomingdale and Franklin Falls or travel west for miles along the Jackrabbit Trail all the way to Paul Smiths or east to Keene.

Unfortunately, I don't take advantage of such adventure opportunities as often as I'd like. It's a common malady, an unlikely affliction that haunts many local residents. Like most others of my species, I tend to gravitate towards the familiar, the quick, the accessible ... even if it isn't always the easiest.

While I still enjoy visiting new lands, I don't take many far-flung adventures anymore. I'll skate the Cascades Lakes rather than Lake Champlain or ski Mckenzie instead of Lyon Mountain. I'll hunt Scarface rather than the Big Woods of Hamilton County or cast a fly along tiny Ray Brook while dreaming of the mighty Hudson.

I've grown almost too accustomed to the viewshed and the woods and waters that compose my big backyard. However, I'll never take them for granted; in fact, I appreciate them now more than ever.

While the lands surrounding Heart Lake in the High Peaks Wilderness Area have historically been labeled the "Adirondack's finest square mile," most locals would claim the same for lands in their own back yard.

Although the familiar haunts beyond my back door do not possess the grandeur, the soaring peaks nor the lofty attractions of Adirondac Loj, they host far fewer visitors while still providing a comparable expanse of untrammeled land.

I know that most local residents can similarly lay claim to their own special tracts. Everyone has a need for such territory, whether it's a hidden valley, a secret pond, a lonely meadow, a spiny ridge, a lost boulder or a secluded lookout. These are the undiscovered, out-of-the-way spots without a lot of people to clutter things up.

These are places where we can walk off alone, where we can think better. It's where we don't see signs of other humans, or if we can they are very small and far away and they don't much matter.

They are places of rejuvenation, where we can alternately be out of sight and in the right frame of mind. These places aren't known solely to local residents, nor do natives have a unique claim to them. We earn them, then guard them to share them with a lucky few.

Although my children are natives, I don't subscribe to the notion, occasionally flaunted by some, that native Adirondackers are imbibed with some sort of inalienable rights to the land.

I just don't buy into the theory that a birthright instills a person with a special appreciation or a unique consideration for using the land as they see fit. In fact, there is not a single native Adirondacker who made the choice to be born here. That choice was made for them. Their luck was simply a combination of good fortune, great parents and their wise decisions.

In reality, the only people with the true right to the term 'native Adirondacker' are now living in Akwasasne along the St. Lawrence River.

Call them what you like, flatlander, transplant or import, but there is no denying the fact that they made the decision to locate here. And they made a wise choice. They are the fortunate few who recognized a better place and decided to settle in it.

So, if they occasionally espouse such outrageous notions as "protecting the park" or the "local community," it's likely because they've seen the difference. They've lived elsewhere and experienced what it is like. And this knowledge is what often drives their fervor for living here.

Having enjoyed the pleasures of growing up in the region, I certainly can't fault anyone else from wanting to raise their kids in similar style. It's the only place I would ever want for my own children.

Although there are an estimated 12 million visitors pouring into the park each year, fewer than 137,000 of us are lucky enough, smart enough and just plain stubborn enough to live and play here, all year round. Although we pay for the privilege through mud season and blackflies, subzero nights and even colder days, we are a persistent lot.

We're happy to earn just enough to get by and we've learned how to find our own special places. But most of all, we've earned the right to call ourselves Adirondackers.



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