On Russell M.L. Carson and Peaks and People of the Adirondacks

The following are excerpts from the essay, “On Russell M.L. Carson and Peaks and People of the Adirondacks,” published in Wander-Thrush: Lyric Essays of the Adirondacks (Ra Press, 2018) and written by David Crews.

More information on the project here: davidcrewspoetry.com


Why climb a mountain? Two hundred and fifty years ago the idea would have been considered absurd. Before the nineteenth century wilderness proved a place of danger. That tension drove humans into civilized communities and to venture into wilderness would soon surely prove for many reasons antithetical to human consciousness. But then, it happens. Domination or aggression, exploration and wonderment, flight in seclusion. Thoreau wrote about living deliberately.

Two detailed (and highly poetic) accounts of individuals who traveled into the remote wilderness of the Adirondacks include: T. Morris Longstreth’s The Adirondacks, originally published in 1917, and Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman, published in 1976. Longstreth tells of a half year jaunt he took with his friend Lynn and their horse “Luggins,” exploring on foot a huge park newly preserved by Theodore Roosevelt. LaBastille records the years spent in a small cabin she built herself—living in the woods a renewed life, manifested—with her beloved shepherd on Black Bear Lake after a quick breakup to her marriage.

Longstreth writes in his foreword, “There are but two kinds of travelers; those who enjoy the road, and those who think they will have enjoyment at the end of it. To the latter pass the time of day good-naturedly enough, but reserve the former for your company.” LaBastille shares early in her story, “A withdrawal to the peace of nature might remedy my despair. I reasoned that the companionship of wild animals and local outdoor people could cure my sorrow. Most of all I felt that the creation of a rustic cabin would be the solution to my homelessness.” One records a journey, the other an escape.

On a continuum it is interesting to consider these two stories as starting points: one individual viewed wilderness for the life it contained, the other saw it imbued with healing qualities. One concerned himself more perhaps with what he might see, the other how she might feel. The wilderness can move an individual outward into exterior spaces, it can manifest joy. And the sublimity in solitude can retreat a person intrinsically inward, it can nurture. (Both include possibility.)

The Land

Giant of the Valley was the first High Peak to have been summited, climbed by Charles Broadhead and a survey party on June 2, 1797. Giant was also the first Adirondack mountain I ascended. (This was mostly chance.)

In 2014, when I finished hiking “The 46ers,” I was one of 680 individuals who completed that year. My number (8385) was later recorded by the Adirondack Forty-Sixer organization, a number based on a final climb up Mount Marcy on the subtle morning of July 2. Since 1925, when Robert and George Marshall with guide and family friend Herbert Clark finished a seven-year expedition to climb the forty-six highest peaks in upstate New York, more than ten thousand others have continued that legacy. The word comes from the Latin legatia, meaning ambassador, envoy, deputy. It suggests a position of prominence. Like standing at and on top of a rock 5,344 feet above the level of the sea. I would rather like to think heritage, though that word comes from the Latin heres, meaning heir. It implies ancestry, but more connotes inheritance and ownership.

Of the forty-six High Peaks, four were originally named after men who owned the land: McIntyre, Colden, Armstrong, and Macomb (though Carson seems unclear with the true origin of Macomb). He explains, “The name Macomb marks the beginning of the historical period, for, while its date cannot be definitely fixed, it can be set as sometime between the date of General Alexander Macomb’s great victory over the British at Plattsburg on September 11, 1814, and the publication of Emmons’s Natural History of New York in 1842” (27).

Other stories—including one told by Old Mountain Phelps—suggest the name comes from a large multi-million acre land acquisition in 1792 called Macomb’s Purchase.

The land also includes Algonquin Peak, the second highest point in the state of New York at 5,114 feet above sea level, and was originally named after Archibald McIntyre, owner and operator of the local Iron Works that had been mining for iron ore until the site was abandoned in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1880, the mountain’s name was changed to Algonquin Peak by Verplanck Colvin, though the name of that mountain range today still remains a variation of the original—MacIntyre.

Legacy, in a spiritual sense of the word, does suggest the giving or handing down of some great wisdom. To that end it feels most fitting to consider the land, the wilderness, and the experiences one has in it as a gift—always passing from one hiker to the next, always bringing people together. In fact, a legacy cannot end with any one individual. 8385 is a number on an ever-enlarging continuum expanding outward from the landscape. And there is beauty in that which is shared.

Gift has Old Norse roots with meanings like good luck. Though in later German, Dutch, Danish, and Swedish the word also connotes poison. To hike these mountains always be mindful of the gift. If it continues to move, if it is shared, it will bring luck. To possess it could mean destruction.

The Book

In the Preface of the 1973 Adirondack Mountain Club reprint of Russell M.L. Carson’s Peaks and People of the Adirondacks (originally published in 1927 by Doubleday) George Marshall writes, “One June day in 1923, my brother Bob and I were sitting at the side of a dusty road reading letters we had picked up at the old White Lake Corners Post Office in the southern Adirondacks. Much to our surprise and delight, one included a brief historical sketch of a high peak of the Adirondacks and announced an extraordinary competition. The letter was from Russell Mack Little Carson, the first Secretary of the Glens Falls Rotary Club. He had devised an original way to build membership and attendance at Rotary meetings. Each member attending one of forty-two weekly luncheons was credited with the height of one of the forty-two Adirondack peaks listed in Robert Marshall’s The High Peaks of the Adirondacks and whoever ‘climbed’ the greatest number of feet on these peaks won the competition. Russ Carson added to the interest of the members by writing a historical sketch of the peak of the week” (xi).

In a letter to George’s older brother Robert Marshall, on the twenty-ninth of November, 1923, Russell Carson writes of Bob’s pamphlet: “It was on my desk at the office when I returned from a trip over the range last fall and no book, large or small, ever quite thrilled me as did yours. It was Longstreth’s book that started me to climb Mt. Marcy and yours that obsessed me with the Adirondacks” (xii).

Robert and George Marshall, with Herbert Clark, climb Whiteface Mountain on August 1, 1918. It was the first of forty-six mountains in the region they would climb. There is a photograph of the three of them at Whiteface summit—in that cloudy sunny kind of Adirondack day—standing like gentlemen with hands at their sides, each in his respective outdoor dress: Clark in a v-neck wool sweater, Robert in a button-down lumberjack shirt, his little brother George in a long sleeve pullover, the boys with their newsy caps. Both brothers squint eyes in the sun. Robert was seventeen, his brother fourteen.

Russell M.L. Carson published Peaks and People of the Adirondacks in 1927, just two years after the Marshall brothers finished their epic journey. (He would be forty-three that year.) His book was an attempt to disclose the history of how each of the forty-six mountains received its name and to share the names and dates of those individuals who recorded first respective climbs. The year Carson’s book was published only three individuals had stood on all forty-six peaks.

My first experience with Carson’s text was at the Lake Placid library weeks before I myself finished hiking the 46ers. The book had marvelous history in it, a history with a new sense of the word fact. I never did like that word. It always felt too rigid, too aware of itself. Life is often messy, vague, ambiguous. Carson actually pieces together a broken history, presents only the information he finds, acknowledges gaps in the larger story, and offers permission for knowledge to remain fluid, evolving, like the landscape itself. He writes in the Foreword, “While every care has been taken, it is probable that there are errors in the facts gathered by a research that has had frequently to depend on human memory of old events. Readers of this volume will confer a real favour on the writer if they will call to his attention any errors which they detect, or facts which will be of value to this work if it is revised later” (lxxxv).

It pained me to have to part with the people, the anecdotes, the perspectives. What felt most fascinating was the book seemed to come in a way that connected a reader to the region’s cultural heritage, the book somehow felt native to the region and its history—the story rooted in landscape, the essence of landscape conveyed in the sharing of narratives.

That is surely a romantic sentiment, one in which my ego can so easily tie. As if I, too, am somehow part of a larger oral narrative connecting back to the native people who once inhabited the land that is now my home. Me, a white suburban kid from New Jersey. Descendant of a couple of parents from Staten Island. Not colonists, but European for sure. Which, in actuality, is not far from the truth of things. How often I have longed to shed the opportunities afforded me—to feel guilt the natural way—for things I’ve actually done. And so to make sense I acknowledge it, intellectualize, work backwards through life. It would seem an understanding of where we have come could only better inform our awareness of the present.

My life was one in which I often felt the deep allure of the natural world—the plants and animals around me, the woods, what now has evolved into an ever-intensifying obsession for birds. Hiking comes from a stark inclination to be outside, to be in some way cut off from the world. (Thoreau is a hero.) And in today’s day of social media and smarter phones and text messaging is it not ever more difficult to remain present. I hike without a phone for this very reason, and it often drives my mother to the precipice. For consciousness should make an individual more connected to place, more resolved with the land.

Carson takes us back two centuries in the settling of America. Before that, there were different people who lived here. Colony comes from the Latin colonus, meaning to cultivate or farm. Again, we return to ownership and control. That was the moment of disruption. To think somehow the land, and the people in it, were ours.

How to disconnect from this kind of ancestry. From a reductionist point-of-view, can being awake and living deliberately be enough?  If like Thoreau I ask only for the simplest of life’s offerings, if I live in such a way that allows each and every other plant, animal, and person to indeed live, if instead of luxuriating in it I promise to treat the land as though I were always a part of it—will I one day find absolution?

The People

Carson found early references to these mountains in Charles Fenno Hoffman’s Wild Scenes in the Forest and Prairie published in 1839: “The group of hills among which the Hudson rises stand wholly detached from any other range in North America. The highest peak of the Aguanuschion range, or the Black Mountains, as some call them, from the dark aspect which their somber cedars and frowning cliffs give them at a distance, was measured last summer and found to be nearly six thousand feet in height” (8).

Moving backwards further into his research Carson uncovered a New York Assembly Document dated February 20, 1838 written by Professor Ebenezer Emmons: “The cluster of mountains in the neighbourhood of the Upper Hudson and Ausable rivers, I propose to call the Adirondack Group, a name by which a well-known tribe of Indians who once hunted here may be commemorated” (9). By the nineteenth century European settlers successfully moved into a region, then named the land after the native peoples they eradicated.

The Marshall brothers, who hold the first known recorded ascent of Couchsachraga on June 23, 1924, named the forty-sixth peak after an old Indian expression which according to Verplanck Colvin recalled the vast dark wilderness beyond native settlements. Colvin was also responsible for changing Mount McIntye to Algonquin Peak and Mount Clinton to Iroquois Peak.

Santanoni Peak enters the historical and cultural discussion perhaps here. As Carson describes, “The first trails made by white men in the Adirondacks were blazed lines. ‘Blaze’ is said to have its derivation from the French blesser, meaning to wound or scar. As used in the Adirondacks it has more than a mountain-trail significance, for historically, it points a long trail back to the early French and Indian explorers who left their solitary blaze, as far as the high peaks are concerned, in the name Santanoni” (22-3).

In Emmons’s Natural History of New York, 1842, he claimed the mountain’s name was in fact “St. Anthony” corrupted into Santanoni. Carson continues, “The real origin of this name is obscure. Nothing can be said as to the date other than that its first known appearance in print is on a map of the headwaters of the Hudson, by William C. Redfield, accompanying his article that was published in the American Journal of Science and Arts in 1838. No one knows how much older the name is or by whom it was given” (23).

The Mountains

My first time on the summit of Mount Marcy was July 2, 2014. It was the forty-sixth mountain I climbed in two years to the day. In the first summer of hiking I ascended seven mountains in five hikes: Giant, Big Slide, Gothics-Armstrong-Upper Wolf Jaw, Algonquin, and Redfield (the last an over-night stay with Neighbor Tom). That winter as I sat and waited for the snows to break, the ice to thaw, for the melt to rush the mountain slides—I found myself reading and studying the region, its history, the people who cared for and lived in it. I discovered the nature writings of Verplanck Colvin, the poetic musings of John Burroughs, read about the findings of Emmons and Redfield, the adventures of Grace Hudowalski and the Marshall brothers.

It was the Marshall brothers who, in fact, set the three stipulations that determine a 46er. The mountain had to hold a summit above 4,000 feet, stand more than three quarters of a mile from the next closest peak, and leave at least three hundred feet elevation gain at the apex. Some mountains that still continue to attract debate include: MacNaughton, known as the “forty-seventh” 46er, which in early twentieth century maps was listed just under 4,000 feet; and Pyramid Peak, that hugs the back shoulder of Gothics about a half mile from its summit.

On Memorial Day Weekend, 2013, once that first winter had come to pass, I set off to climb mountains eight and nine with Jane and Neighbor Tom. The plan was to loop up Nippletop, walk the ridge down Dial, then out over Bear Den and the shoulder at Noonmark, roughly a fourteen-mile hike of about 4,000 feet total elevation gain. (Nippletop is the thirteenth highest point in the state of New York.)

A strange storm rolled in that exact weekend and we found ourselves leaving the Saint Hubert’s trailhead in 48-degree, driving rain. I convinced the group to leave our microspikes in the car, thinking there would be no need. But when we climbed the first six or so miles to Elk Pass and the juncture between Nippletop and Colvin the snow was falling in thick cotton-like balls with four inches already draping mountain evergreen. In a view above, white-out blizzard conditions whipped the summit ridge with harrowing intensity. After a heated discussion with Neighbor Tom (who wanted to push on) we turned back. The next day similar conditions and over a foot of snow at Hedgehog summit again turned us away. This time we missed Lower Wolf Jaw.

When one says “46er” does it refer to an individual who climbed all of the forty-six High Peaks or does it actually refer to one of the peaks itself? In reality, they are often one in the same. Without cell coverage or any realistic connection to the outside world an individual’s identity inevitably finds itself lost in the wildness of these mountains. The boot rhythms hit with heartbeat, the heart in tune with the mountain’s energy. All things here exist in element, or at least how the human mind perceives element. Aristotle claimed there were four: earth, air, fire, and water. Lao-Tzu describes that nothing on earth is as soft and yielding as water, though it is enough to break apart the hard and inflexible. The wilderness continually redefines itself in itself.

The Wilderness

Of the forty-six peaks, nineteen mountains are only accessible via herdpaths. These summits—what the DEC calls “trailless peaks”—contain herdpaths kept and maintained by the Forty-Sixer organization. These trails have no blazes and are often marked with cairns—carefully placed piles of stones that alert hikers to a shift or change in the trail. These herdpaths exist (Neighbor Tom once said while climbing up the slide of Macomb) because people like us actually hike them. Each boot step in dirt shapes the way. The mountain both offered and damaged at the same time.

Most trails up mountains follow one of two paths: either they climb a moderately pitched shoulder along a ridge toward the summit (as in the southern approach to Dix from Hough or the southwest climb up Gothics) or they stay low inside the gut of the mountain where depressions in bedrock have been carved by falling water and erosion (as in the hike to Street and Nye or the trail from Lake Colden to the juncture between Algonquin and Iroquois).

The High Peaks region can really be defined as a gigantic rock rainforest and the ecosystem though extreme offers a shocking diversity of things to see. On the northface approach up Street Mountain one will find a trail draped and adorned in moss (literally, every single rock and depression and tree covered in moss). At the summit of Santanoni or on the ridge toward Iroquois a hiker remains virtually hidden inside tight, thick Balsam fir that cannot grow more than maybe ten feet because of the continual intensity of wind and weather. Above the treeline in alpine zones on peaks like Skylight and Algonquin and Marcy the mountain grips tiny plants and trees—many that are endangered due to the brief growing season.

Even though this ecosystem exists because it works, with enough wind and rain intense storms can often loosen the substrate to the point that an avalanche of tree and moss and mud and rock begins crashing down the mountainside. When the storm finally clears, slides streak rockface like newly formed scars. Hurricane Irene, from 2011, is responsible for a number of new slides in the Adirondacks. Some spots that offer dramatic views of High Peak slides include: from Big Slide looking south toward the Great Range, view of Dix southeast from the Dial-Nippletop ridge, (and my favorite) from Wright hanging over Avalanche Lake with an open rock-filled panoramic view south toward Colden.

The Ethic

Not counting Old Mountain Phelps and Mills Blake or individuals like Bob Marshall and Grace Hudowalski, who stand as outliers to many categorizations, four other mountains were named after local citizens: Esther, Nye, Allen, and Porter (Nye, a guide, and the latter two doctors from Keene Valley area).

Carson writes, “Esther Mountain, which is northerly of Whiteface, is the farthest north of the major Adirondack peaks. Its northern slope descends on the road between Wilmington and Franklin Falls. In 1839, a family by the name of McComb lived on this road at the foot of the mountain. Esther McComb, a fifteen-year-old daughter, had an ambition to climb Whiteface, but her parents were unwilling. Disregarding their wishes, one day Esther started out alone to make the climb. She reached the top of the mountain now bearing her name, but became lost before getting to Whiteface. A searching party was out all night and found her the next morning. Her mother jokingly called the mountain Esther because of the occurrence, but the name was taken up and has remained” (96-7).

It is difficult to really know how to treat these mountains. Over a two-day period on Labor Day weekend, 2016, some fifteen hundred people hiked Cascade trail from Route 73. The following summer DEC officials rerouted the trail to decrease accessibility. In December, later that year, a young couple needed to be airlifted after getting stuck for two harrowing nights in snow and wind and cold after falling nearly a hundred feet off the summit of Algonquin. And rescue efforts in recent years have increased.  The Adirondack Backcountry Hikers page on Facebook (formerly the Aspiring 46ers page) holds over 17,000 members, nearly twice the number of persons who have hiked all the 46ers in total since the Marshall brothers finished in 1925.

And so, the Adirondack Mountain Club offers summer internships for summit stewards, a handful of individuals who climb each day to the tops of the more popular and accessible peaks to offer information to hikers about the delicate—and highly endangered—alpine ecosystem. It is a classic tragedy of the commons: to use and enjoy nature puts great strain on the health of the land and the finite resources contained in it.

When Colvin completed his survey work in the 1870s he actually burned a few of the summits in order to get clear calculations. Cascade is one of these examples of a bald summit just under 4,100 feet in which the ecosystem never regenerated. But overuse of trails and wilderness in the High Peaks region have also contributed to what conservationists see as a legacy effect, where trail erosion and invasive species again return the conversation as to how human beings have affected the environment.

This is certainly a modern tension between humans and the environment (thinking of Aldo Leopold and his thoughts of a developing “land ethic”).  From the very early moments of childhood people are born into a life of consumption. The political, social, and economic systems in place that surround them exist in such a way that it proves virtually impossible for individuals not to consume. And this driving force of human living directly harms on a daily basis the very essence of environment. An ecosystem is defined by balance, and when that balance is challenged, it evolves. But humans, now in a period of our natural history called the Anthropocene, continue to affect the environment so rapidly and in such drastic ways that the environment simply cannot heal itself.

We now live in a time that can conceive points of no return. Climatologists suggest we have maybe forty years to minimize the ill-effects on the atmosphere. We create more trash now than at any point in history. And there are cities around the globe where lights are never turned off. One feels guilt just being connected into the system. And yet, how can the system be changed by any one person’s actions?

Notes and Further Reading

The Adirondacks (p.xx) by T. Morris Longstreth, originally published in 1917 by The Century Co. (reprinted by Black Dome Press, 2005).

Woodswoman (p.7) by Anne LaBastille, originally published in 1978 by E.P. Dutton (reprinted by Penguin Books, 1991).

Russell M.L. Carson’s Peaks and People of the Adirondacks, originally published in 1927 by Doubleday (reprinted by the Adirondack Mountain Club, 1973).

More on the life of Grace Hudowalski in the documentary The Mountains Will Wait For You: A Tribute to Grace Hudowalski directed by Fredrick T. Schwoebel (Summit Pictures LLC, 2013).

Also, please read Annie Dillard’s, “Expedition to the Pole,” from Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper Perennial, 1982).

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