Read an Excerpt
It was very odd. There were no signs of a struggle. There were no plants torn up, no disturbed mud. All four of the long, sharpened wooden stakes with forked tops that Bob Inslerman had pushed firmly into the lake bottom were still in place, exactly as he left them the day before. But the trap was nowhere to be found. In twenty-odd years of taking beaver, muskrat, mink, and otter on the Saint Regis Lakes, nothing quite like this had ever happened before.
Inslerman stood up and adjusted his yellow rain pants. He shrugged. He shook his head. He leaned back over the bow of his sixteen-foot Starcraft aluminum boat and poked around in the mud with a short gaff, and then reached around some more with his hands. The trap was of a type called a Conibear, with two sets of jaws that form a sort of tunnel when open, and close over the body of an animal that passes through them. It is typically set along a beaver path, or, as in this case, in the water at a break in the reeds used by the animals as a passageway. It is considered to be more humane than the foothold trap, as its prey inevitably dies quite quickly. There is no way for a beaver caught in a Conibear to drag the trap off without disturbing the stakes that hold it in place.
"It's just gone," Inslerman said finally. His gray-and-black beard was about ten inches above the tea brownwater. "Gone," he said again. Twenty feet away the beaver lodge, a medium-sized pile of mud and chewed sticks, sat stoically in the November shower.
Perhaps a duck hunter was out earlier that morning and took the trap, Inslerman thought out loud as he stood again and movedback toward the stern of the boat. Or maybe someone opposed to trappinga friend of the beaver, so to speakremoved it. But why would a trap thief take the time to replace the stakes so carefully? He gazed absently across the lake to the campus of Paul Smiths College, where he knew some of the students and faculty opposed killing wild animals for any purpose. It seemed unlikely, though, that a college student would come out this far on such a drizzly morning. And he knew for a fact that the people who own the summer place nearest to the lodge would not disturb the set, even if they were still around this late in the season, which they were not.
As a member of the lake property owners' association, Inslerman has a fairly good idea of the trapping views of most of his neighbors. "They're from Manhattan," he said pointing to the camp, "and they're very active in Audubon, and they like to go out birding a lot. So even though this is state land, I never used to trap for beaver here out of respect for them. I figured they would be opposed to it." Though over the years he occasionally met the camp's owners during the summer social season at the lake, for a long time Inslerman never even told them that he was a trapper. There are plenty of places to trap without being right in front of somebody's summer home.
Then the beavers ate the telephone line to the camp. Not just once, either. The third time it happened the woman of the house called the Department of Environmental Conservation and asked to be connected with her neighbor Bob Inslerman. When he is not on vacation trapping, Inslerman is a regional wildlife manager for the state of New York. His professional territory includes roughly half of the Adirondack Park, and an increasing part of his job over the past five years has been responding to complaints about overzealous beaver. It's more often birch trees that need rescuing than telecommunications equipment, he said.
An adult beaver can weigh sixty pounds, which is about the size of a full-grown Labrador retriever. Inslerman categorizes the animal as a "large mammal," along with the deer and bear rather than withthe muskrat and otter. At four feet long, it's a good deal bigger than the cuddly children's image of the busy little animal merrily singing as it works.
It does, however, work. In the 1950s Inslerman's predecessor at the DEC, a man named Greenleaf Chase, counted the beavers in a remote valley in the northern part of the park. On one river he found that a colony of several hundred had stepped a feeder stream all the way up the side of a mountain to its headwaters. On the other side of the ridge was a large stand of poplar and birch, which beaver like more than almost anything besides the smell of each other. But there was no stream there. So the busy rodents raised the water level of the top pond so high that the stream crested the ridge and flowed down the other sideinto a different watershed altogether. There they constructed a whole new series of dams and feasted on the grove.
One-quarter of a beaver is tail. Six inches wide and one inch thick, the most remarkable thing about it from a biological viewpoint is that it is covered with scales like those belonging to a fish. Meat from the back end of the beaver is said to even taste and smell like fish, at least when compared to the front, which is decidedly more mammalian.
Mammalian, that is, with a full line of accessories for water life. Valves close off a beaver's nose and ears when underwater, and thin goggle membranes come down over its eyes. Skin flaps behind the front teeth allow it to haul logs around the pond without swallowing water. Two oil glands between the back legs supply a daily dose of preening oil, which the animal combs into its fur with a special toenail.
Next to the oil glands lie the castor glands. They are about the size of tangerines and the few ounces of castor that comes out of them is umber in color and, as one writer put it, "thicker than Grand Marnier." A few daubs of the stuff are the best way to lure a beaver into the jaws of a trap, because a male beaver, especially, is likely to investigate the scent of a stranger. Trappers used to call castor "barkstone," and fine perfumeries still occasionally use it to add an element of wildness to their concoctions.
"When she called about the telephone wires I said to her, `Well, we could issue a nuisance trapping permit and you could hire someone to come and reduce the size of the colony,'" Inslerman continued, "`but I know you're uncomfortable with trapping. So let's think about other ways to control them.' And she said, `No, I don't care. I want them out. Who do I call?'" Inslerman chuckled.
"And I said to her, `Well, I happen to be a trapper.'"
In the distance, the base of Saint Regis Mountain appeared out of the mist for the first time of the morning. Inslerman started his ancient Evinrude WinSpeed outboard and guided the boat very slowly up a winding swampy slough not far from the beaver lodge. There was a line of muskrat traps up at the end that he wanted to check. As plentiful as beavers are these days in the park, there are even more muskrats. Muskrats, Inslerman explained, breed two or three times a season, with litters of four or five at a time.
Most of the Adirondack Park, he added, is prime muskrat habitat. There are more than four thousand lakes, ponds, swamps, and bogs tucked away in the park. There are thirty thousand miles of rivers, streams, and brooks. The headwaters of the Hudson are within the park, as are major tributaries to the Mohawk and Saint Lawrence Rivers, and Lake Champlain as well. Once a traveler is west of the High Peaks, which rise quite steeply from the eastern boundary of the park, the Adirondacks seem more a place of water than of mountains.
There are, however, plenty of peaks. Stretching from Lake Champlain in the east to Utica in the west, and from eleven miles south of the Canadian border in the north to just north of Schenectadyin the south, the Adirondack Park is larger than Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite national parks combined. A fifth of New York State is inside the "Blue Line," which makes the park larger than New Jersey or Massachusetts. At six million acres, it's about the size of New Hampshire. There are within its borders roughly two thousand peaks that by regional standards qualify as mountains. Of those, more than a hundred rise above three thousand feet, and more than forty are higher than four thousand feet. Two in the northeast quarter of the park, Marcy and Algonquin, have summits greater than five thousand feet.
These are not towering giants by western standards, or even by comparison to the White Mountains of nearby New Hampshire. The five overlapping ranges of the Adirondacks are compressed and confused to a degree that can make for some fairly formidable hiking nonetheless. In thirteen and a half miles, the trail over the Great Range from the village of Keene Valley to the summit of Mount Marcy entails a vertical ascent of some nine thousand feet.
In addition to beaver and muskrat, there are black bear, white-tailed deer, red fox, gray fox, coyote, bobcat, otter, fisher, mink, raccoons, weasels, and some forty other species of mammals in the park. Three hundred different kinds of birds spend all or part of the year in the park. There are brook trout, lake trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, landlocked Atlantic salmon, and at least seventy other fishes. There are turtles, salamanders, snakes, frogs, toads, skinks, and newts. Ninety percent of the animal species that inhabit the eastern half of the United States can be found living somewhere, at some season, in the Adirondacks.
More than wildlife, and more even than mountains and water, this Adirondack wilderness is one of trees. There are sugar maples in the park, and black maples, striped maples, red maples, silver maples, mountain maples, swamp maples, and box elders. There are black oaks, northern red oaks, chestnut oaks, bur oaks, swamp white oaks, white oaks, American beeches, and here and there some surviving American chestnuts. There are fourteen species of willow, as well as various sumacs, ashes, buckthorns, lindens, tupelos, cherries, elms, and hickories. The deciduous trees dominate, but there are also eastern hemlocks, Scotch pines, white pines, pitch pines, red pines, and jack pines in the park. There are red, black, white, and Norway spruces. There are tamaracks, the conifers that shed their needles every fall like leaves, and there are balsam firs.
A conservative estimate of the number of trees in the Adirondackswell, a true conservative wouldn't venture to guess how many trees there arebut there arc probably in the neighborhood of a billion. A single freak storm during the summer of 1995 knocked downan estimated ten million trees across an area the size of the state of Rhode Island. Damage was quite severe, especially in pockets of the Five Ponds Wilderness Area in the northwest sector of the park. Massive logs were piled twenty feet high in places there. Yet the impact of the loss of even those millions of trees was more political than biological. Commercial interests immediately agitated in Albany for permission to undertake "salvage" logging operations, while ecologists insisted that the long-term effects of the storm on the forest were likely to be negligible.
In most places the forest is relatively young; second or third growth after successive waves of farmers, loggers, charcoal makers had taken what they wanted. But not everywhere. There are groves of hardwoodsin the Pigeon Lake Wilderness Area, west of Raquette Lake, that were probably never cut. Some of the birches there belie the reputation of that family of trees for slender delicacy; mature yellow birches, for instance, with trunks that two adults standing with arms outstretched cannot reach around. Along the Powley Road, south of Piseco Lake, there are spruces six feet around at the base that are probably close to three hundred years old.
And at a place called the Pine Orchard, a few miles east of the Sacandaga River in the section of the park called the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest, are three-hundred-year-old giants that centuries ago would have warranted protection by the English Crown for the sole use of the mast makers of the Royal Navy; straight-grained white pines six feet in diameter and perhaps two hundred feet tall.
There are many such patches of original forest sprinkled around the park, places that by virtue of remoteness or lack of the species sought by loggers at a given time managed to escape the depredations of earlier generations. North of the Stillwater Reservoir in the northwest sector of the park is the 93,000-acre Five Ponds Wilderness Area, more than half of which constitutes the largest remnant of virgin forest in the eastern United States.
The most optimistic recent estimate, by the writer and mathematician Barbara McMartin in her fascinating and exhaustive analysis of the changes in the forest, is that there are half a million acres of true old-growth forest in the park. Of these, some 200,000 acres have probably never been logged. The rest, though technically not "virgin," were cut so long ago125 years or moreand so selectively that biologically speaking they have recovered completely. There are perhaps a million additional acres where only a well-trained forest ecologist can recognize the mark of past human intervention, not so much by the age of the existing trees but by the relative absence of the logger's favorite species, spruce.
The mark of humanity past and present is by no means absent from the Adirondacks, however. One of the most unusual aspects of the Adirondack Park, as parks go, is that people can actually own property and live within its borders. In fact, the state of New York owns only 43 percent of the land inside the Blue Line. These 2.6 million acres, the Adirondack Forest Preserve, are probably the best-protected wild lands in the country. Any change in their "forever wild" status requires that an amendment to the Constitution of the State of New York be approved by two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and then ratified by a referendum of the voting public.
The rest of the park, 3.4 million acres of it, is private property of one sort or another. There are rules and regulations regarding its use, but it is all to some degree either developed or vulnerable to development. According to the most recent census, 130,000 people live on private land within the park year-round, mostly in the many villages and hamlets, but occasionally in remote roadless areas. Another hundred thousand or so move there seasonally from more crowded sections of the Northeast. In all, ten million people are thought to visit or at least make a scenic drive through the park each year.
There are traffic jams on the Fulton Chain Lakes among the boats on their way down to Old Forge to see the Fourth of July fireworks. There can be a hundred hikers on the top of Mount Marcy on the right day in August, though this is largely due to the near universal desire to climb the highest peak in the state rather than the loneliest one.And around the shores of the Saint Regis Lakes, where Inslerman traps, are the "camps" of summer people, including the more than sixty buildings that make up Topridge, once the summer residence of Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Here and there, throughout the park, are the former and current woodland palaces of the superrich families that also built the great mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, Fifth Avenue, and elsewhere. Here, too, are the summer retreats of thousands of families of more modest tastes and means. Here are summer camps for children, and members-only clubs and rustic hotels for their parents. Here are subdivisions, condos, motels, theme parks, water slides, golf courses, tennis courts. Here are (and were) factories, hospitals, mines, logging operations, paper mills. Wal-Mart hopes to build a superstore inside the park.
More people arrive every year. According to the Adirondack Park Agency a thousand new houses are built inside the Blue Line every year; ten thousand every decade. Some who love wilderness say the implications for the future of the park are obvious and ominous. They agitate for stronger controls on development. The gloomiest among them moan that the place is already ruined, or fast getting there. But the visionaries see the Adirondack Park's mix of private and public lands as a model, however flawed, for other places where people and wilderness hope to coexist. To them the park could be a rough prototype for the sustainable development of the world.
On the other side are those who complain that all attempts to further limit the fragmentation of the park's open spaces are, at worst, the work of "ecofascists who want to take man out of the equation." They see a selfish greed of wealthy hikers, fishermen, rock climbers, and bird-watchers from downstate. The most bitter among them look at the preponderance of low-wage service jobs in the Adirondacks and blame the locked-up resources of the Forest Preserve, or the regulatory overburden of the state government. They look at the park and see not a model for anywhere else to emulate, but a magnification of everything that they feel is wrong with America.
It's a debate that in recent years has not always been carried out in a civilized tone. Eggs have sailed. Barns have burned. Lives have been anonymously threatened. There are humans in the Adirondacks, to be sure, often of the highly politicized sort.
This process of redefinition is nothing new. One of the few things that can be said with apolitical certainty about the lands of the Adirondack Park is that ever since the arrival of Europeans in the vicinity almost four hundred years ago, the meaning and value of "wilderness" has been in flux. Generations came to these hills and lakes to try out their ideas of material and spiritual progress. Occasionally these concepts grew out of an attempt to listen to the land. But most often, then as now, people arrived from elsewhere with their notions of what that wilderness should be, and what it meant, already in place.
In this respect, the history of the Adirondacks is not so different from that of the rest of the country. Somehow here, though, unlike so many other places in America, the wildness survived and even recovered lost ground. It persists.
This could be a result of the fact that it was in the Adirondacks, as much as anywhere, that Americans first learned to love wild places. Virtually every formulation of the wilderness idea in popular American culture has produced its Adirondack variety. The tradition of ecotourism here goes back at least as far as Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1858 camping trip to Follensby Pondthe famous "Philosophers' Camp." Adirondack history is the story of Americans out of doors.
Or it could be merely by historical accident that the Adirondacks largely escaped the filling-in that took place in the rest of the eastern United States; more fertile grounds for development lay elsewhere.
But whether by political design or economic serendipity, the essential truth remains that there is today in northern New York State a larger and healthier helping of wild open land than anywhere else east of the Mississippi River. "New York," as Thoreau observed in 1848, "has her wilderness within her own borders."
Located in the crowded northeast corner of the countrya mere half day's drive from New York City, Boston, or Montrealthe vast wild spaces of the Adirondacks are something more than an anomaly begging an explanation, though they are certainly that. To the unsuspecting inmate of this age of global warming and ozone depletion, the discovery of such riches here at the busy end of the twentieth century comes almost as a shock. It's like hearing for the first time that peregrine falcons are nesting on the stone pinnacles of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Add the knowledge that only a century ago most contemporary popular reports said the park was largely hunted out, trapped out, fished out, and logged-over, and the shock of finding such a large and relatively healthy serving of wild land in the Adirondacks transmutes almost to wonderment. This is not the direction we are used to hearing the environment take. It's as unexpected at the end of the twentieth century as finding a contented man in his middle age tending a trapline way up some deserted and wild creek as the last leaves of autumn lap along the shore. Trappers, one might have thought, belong to some other era's idea of wilderness.
"Look at that," Bob Inslerman said, pointing to a small pile of reeds floating under the overhang of low bushes and sphagnum moss at the water's edge. "A muskrat pulled those there to eat."
A foot or two down the bank a tiny trail headed up onto the boggy land. It was no more than a few inches wide, recognizable only to someone who is familiar with the morning habits of muskrat and mink. The eyes of most people who travel on Adirondack lakes are drawn inevitably to the profiles of the surrounding mountains, or to the spiky silhouettes of white pines and hemlocks against the skyline. The eyes of a trapper, on the other hand, constantly survey the exact line where the water meets the land. Inslerman can spot a freshly gnawed cattail root from forty or fifty feet away. "That trail looks good, doesn't it?
"Like most of us people," he said, "animals are often lazy. Instead of going around this little point of land here, they will cut over it, making that little trail."
The "little point" jutted into the water all of about three feet, meaning a muskrat shortened the morning commute by six feet every time he walked over it. Inslerman took up his position on a board resting on the gunnels at the front of the boat. His boots dangled in the water on either side of the bow as he paddled around to the other side of the little tongue of land. Where the trail came back to the water, sure enough, a good-sized muskrat had stepped on the pan of one of Inslerman's leghold traps. When it felt the jaws close on its hind leg, instinct told the animal to head for deep water. There it quickly drowned.
Once in the boat, it didn't look much like a thing a person would want to wear: It looked like a drowned rat, albeit one with webbed feet and a thick soft brown pelt. Inslerman pressed as much water out of the fur as he could and put the animal in a wooden crate before leaning back over the bow to reset the trap.
He squeezed the long spring flat with one hand and pried open the trap's jaws with the other. Then he flipped a short lever called "the dog" over one of the jaws and set it lightly into a slot on the pan, setting the trap. It's worth being careful at this point, but an accident is only likely to result in a handful of bruised fingers. At five inches long, the foothold traps Inslerman uses for muskrat and mink seem much smaller than those in the imagined bygone days of Jim Bridger and the other mythic trappers of the Far West. They look almost like toys. Nevertheless, the technology and strategyof trapping are essentially unchanged after almost two hundred years. And the object of the game, the collection of furs for sale on the international market, is several hundred years older still.
A few minor adjustments to make sure the jaws lay flat, and that the pan didn't rest too high, and the trap was ready to place back at the outlet to the little trail. A trap should sit about an inch below the surface of the water; if set too shallow it is more likely to catch an animal by the front leg. A muskrat's front leg is quite thin, making it more likely to "ring off" if the chain somehow gets fouled and the animal remains in shallow enough water to thrash around.
A ring-off leaves a trapper with one foot and the muskrat with three. That this is neither uncommon nor deadly became apparent later in the afternoon, when two traps produced three-legged muskrats. One of them was quite large and fat and had lost its leg in a trap so long ago that the fur had completely grown back over the wound. The other was somewhat more recent, with a bit of rotting bone still visible.
Inslerman can remember the locations of seventy-five or a hundred different sets without the aid of markers, though an early snow makes his job much more difficult and occasionally he'll tie a little bit of surveyor's ribbon near a new set so he doesn't forget it as he paddles by. Often he can spot the cutout "V" on the pan of an undisturbed trap from his seat at the bow of the boat, and he just paddles on to the next spot. Other times there is clearly a dead animal in the trap. Usually, though, the best sign that a set has been successful is that the trap is not visible and there is no sign of a struggle. Then he rests his belly on the bow of the boat and leans over to find the trap.
At one such set he stopped prodding around the lake bottom with his gaff long enough to exclaim, "Whew, I just got a strong whiff of mink," and then he pulled up a foot-long specimen. The smell was sharp and musky and particularly strong near the mink's hind end.Unlike the nine pudgy muskrats taken that day, the feel of a mink's body in the hand is that of a carnivore, sleek and bony. It was the first of two minks taken that day.
There would be no beaver, though. Late in the afternoon, in a particularly deserted stretch of his trapline, out of sight of any of the camps along the shore, Inslerman checked two more Conibears he'd set not far from an active lodge. All along the banks nearby were trails where beaver had scuffled up into the forest in search of their preferred foods.
Both of the traps were mysteriously sprung. Not gone this time, just sprung. Usually if a beaver springs a Conibear, say with a stick he's carrying, he is obliged to leave the stick in the trap. There were no sticks in either trap. And no beaver either. It was odd.
The water was glass flat. Inslerman stood in the bow for a moment, thinking. It began to rain for the thirtieth time that day. There was no one in all this wild land, it seemed, other than a pair of lonely trappers in an old tin boat.
"I love it right here," he said at last, "you would think you were somewhere in the middle of Canada, or Alaska."
After resetting the traps, with a twig he took a dollop of thick orange jelly from a plastic vial and marked a few of the Conibear stakes with it. The odor of barkstone was distinctly sweeter than that of the mink. Sweeter, and wilder.
The GAME OF THEIR LIVES
By Geoffrey Douglas
Henry Holt and Company
Copyright © 1996 Geoffrey Douglas.All rights reserved.