I contacted Gail on a whim to see if she would be interested in possibly talking with me about her life experiences as an Adirondack native and her fulfilling career at the ranger school in Wanakena.
Gail's was a bit taken back by the offer, but was happy to help out. Gail then threw a bit of a secondary loop in the lasso I tossed out; she recommended that I also talk with her husband of 45 years, Bob.
I loved the idea and looked forward to meeting Bob as well. I have known Gail for a few years now but have never officially met Bob. What I remembered of Bob was his third-place win at the ugly holiday sweater contest at the Pine Cone Grill this year, a well-deserved win I might add.
(Photo — Spencer Morrissey)
One afternoon I went on the scenic drive to "downtown" Wanakena to meet this fun couple at their home, just a stone's throw from the Oswegatchie River. I was soon settled in with a hot cup of coffee for a two-hour tour into the lives of the Simmons.
Bob from Wanakena and Gail from Star Lake, were once high school sweethearts, who ended up going different ways. However, they later found themselves back in each other's company, as fate would have it, when Gail's sister married Bob's brother.
"Then the families were sort of thrown together again," Gail said. Gail would then move to Cobleskill for college and eventually to Rochester to live with her sister and work; Bob followed her there. They reconnected over weekend visits, and not long after they were married.
Bob, now working for Harvester, took a transfer to Syracuse so that they could be closer to their home in the Adirondacks. They would make a vigil to Wanakena every weekend.
"This was in the '70s ... it would takes two-and-a-half to three hours to get back, on a good day," Bob said.
"Because our heart was up here (Wanakena) and we wanting to be closer," Gail added.
Bob thought about it one day, not enjoying city life.
"We are paying for all this, to do all this, and at home we have the same thing, but we aren't paying for it," Bob said. "You know, we have the river (Oswegatchie), we have the lake (Cranberry) and you don't have to travel."
"There's a town beach with a diving board," Gail added. "You had everything here that you had there ... but it's all free."
It would be not until 1974 that they would end up moving back to Wanakena and then purchasing a house together in 1975, the house they now live in. This lovely two-story home was once a thin shell of plank boards, an original dwelling from the early 1900s owned by the Rich Lumber Company. You wouldn't know it now, as I sat in a warm dining area looking at all the hard work that Gail and Bob had done to remodel.
The house sat empty from '84 until just a couple years ago they explained to me. I would later learn why.
Once Gail and Bob returned home to the Adirondacks with their two sons, they quickly became part of the community again. Bob would help run a drilling company until 1977 when he was offered a job working at the Ranger School in their physical plant. Soon after that Gail would get a position working in the kitchen at the school as well. Gail wasn't long for the kitchen though. Within six months she applied and moved up the hallway to the bookstore where she would stay until 1996. But, in 1989, she would also take on a second part-time job working for the Alumni Association. She "juggled" these two jobs until 1996 when she decided to just work for the Alumni Association. "I love it so much, I gave up the state job to just work for the Alumni Association," Gail said with a smile.
She continues to do this job today.
In the early '80s, they were put up in a house on campus with their two sons, now young teenagers. "It was wonderful for the boys to grow up there, with a forest for a backyard," Gail said. "They loved their hunting, fishing and boating."
Bob would end up retiring from the ranger school in 2008. They ended up moving to Massena to stay with Bob's mom, and during that time they focused on rebuilding and remodeling the vacant home they purchased back in the '70s.
After two years of hard work, blood, sweat and elbow grease, they are now in their warm cozy home, and Bob is back at the ranger school.
The amusing story started when Gail, as a joke, pointed out a job opening in the paper for a "green thumb" at the ranger school. A "green thumb" is a job specifically designed for retired individuals who still want to work. She didn't expect Bob to actually apply for the job, but he decided to anyhow as more of retaliation to the joke. After an interview with the college representative, "I was on the payroll," Bob said.
Now to back up the cart a bit, as we did at the dining room table, Bob started to reminisce about his young childhood in Wanakena. "My family moved to Wanakena in '47, '48," Bob said. "My parents bought the house that is now up in the Narrows. Our house used to be the train depot in Wanakena back in the early 1900s. Then In the '30s, it was jacked up in the middle of winter and moved by a team of horses," to where it is today. "Then when I was around a year old, my dad drowned in the river out in back of the house.
"His mom was young widow of 23, with three young children ... the roads with very desolate and just dirt back then," Gail said. Without hesitation Bob continued, "It wasn't long before Dubuar, the ranger school director at the time, learned of my mom's situation and offered her a job working in the kitchen at the Ranger School."
Bob would then explain that she didn't have a driver's license so to make sure she got to work each day.
"The ranger school would pick up my mother after they dropped off the mail, each morning and bring her to work," he said.
This is where the ranger school journey for Bob would begin.
"The ranger school has been a large part of my life and when I went to work for them in '77 I had already been rattling around the halls up there, since I was 3 or 4 years old."
Bob was a young child and often his mom couldn't find a baby sitter for him, so he would end up going to work with her. Often Mrs. Dubuar would end up being his babysitter, but other times her recalled, "I would roll up and take a nap on the shelves in the pantry."
We would spend the next 30-minutes or so talking about the history of Wanakena, the Rich Lumber Company and the J and L railroad that made Wanakena what it is today. Soon, fun facts about Cranberry Lake would come to pass, such as how its name originated from the fast fields of cranberry bogs and the yearly rising of a particular bog on the lake, where "The bottom of the lake will come to the surface and return to the bottom each year ... no one can really explain it," Bob said.
I then learned a bit more about Gail after we expressed our mutual interest in the fire towers and Verplank Colvin, the Adirondacks first surveyor. Gail used to help out with certain tasks during the initial phases of the "Colvin Crew," which is an organization that locates and documents those locations of original bolts placed by Colvin and his crew.
I could go on for quite some time about the Wanakena area and the ranger school, but I would like to close with a final thought. If ever in the holiday season you are passing through the Dubuar Forest that spans both sides of state Route 3 and you look up to the north and see Christmas lights on the horizon, that's some of Bob's handy work. Each December, Bob and friends uphold an important local tradition. Christmas lights will be raised and placed on the side of the firetower on Cathedral Rock for all to see. "It's been a shooting star, but next year, I think we will be doing something different," Bob said.
He was unsure what when I asked the obvious question. We will just have to wait and see. I guess this December you will just have to take a drive out to Wanakena, enjoy a nice meal at The Pine Cone, one of their favorite places, maybe go for a ski or snowshoe, wait till duskand see the answer for yourself.