An Adirondack Guide: Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps

April 23, 2021

I did some research for a this famous mountain guide for a local 2022 calendar.

Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps (1817-1905). World renowned mountain guide and longtime resident of Keene Valley. He cut the Bartlett Mountain Trail and the trail to Mount Marcy from Lower Ausable Lake. He had a special affinity for Mount Marcy, which he claimed to have summited more than one hundred times. Phelps Mountain and Phelps Brook were named for him.

Born in Vermont, he was the son of a surveyor and worked at the Adirondack Iron Works in Tahawus in his youth before becoming a professional guide. He was celebrated for his keen observation of wildlife and plants. Like most other guides of the time, he fished, hunted, and trapped. He also collected wildflowers and harvested materials he used to craft durable pack baskets. Alfred Donaldson observed that “One does not think of Old Phelps so much as a lover of nature…as a part of nature itself.”

Unsurprising for a man who spent much time alone in the woods, Phelps was considered unique and even eccentric in his perspective. He was as deeply religious as any man of his century, but his sporadic church attendance never overshadowed the God he met in meadow flower and mountaintop. A storehouse of information about natural lore, combined with a trove of knowledge of scenic hideaways, were his attractions as a guide. While other entrepreneurs mined the early tourist trade for the sport of hunting and fishing, and today’s pilgrims are drawn to test their grit against the mountain, Phelps was in the wilderness to hear the voices of God. As such, he attracted disciples more than clients, bursting into national acclaim through Charles Dudley Warner’s tribute in The Atlantic. “Old Mountain” Phelps became the consummate denizen of the wild, with the disheveled appearance and primitive education requisite in the philosopher sprung from nature.

His dislike of bathing was well attested, but far from being an anchorite, he was in fact a village dweller with a large family. His intellect was cultivated as much by voracious reading as by forest spirits, and the quality of his published field studies led dedicated scholars to lament his loss to the natural sciences. The popular portrayal was true, however, in the sense that Phelps was not a goal-oriented man. Others might scramble for a decent living or strive to conquer mountain upon mountain, but Phelps was in the world to enjoy it. His appreciation shone through his poetry:

Of great boulder rocks and their sweet crystal fountains,
Fresh from their Creator they have all come to me.
And I must soon leave to unborn generations,
Those scenes that so long have been dear to my sight,
Who will hereafter view them with varied emotions,
And volumes about them great Authors will write.
Oh! The old feldspar mountains, with their sweet crystal fountains,
The evergreen mountains we all love so well!

We all love the Adirondacks, but we all differ in our capacity to understand how remarkable our place in the world truly is. Old Mountain Phelps was a guide into this ever uncharted terrain.

Back in the Saddle

April 16, 2021

I was vaccine-sick last week, so no post for the first time in perhaps years. I’m feeling better this week, and so thankful to be part of the waking up world of spring.

A Great Bear

March 26, 2021

For a class this week, I’m translating a story about Yellow Yellow, a Black Bear who was famous in the Adirondacks for breaking into bear cannisters. For some reason, she was tagged twice and got her name from the two tags. While most bears drop the cannisters over a cliff, hoping to break the cannister, Yellow Yellow actually figured out how to open the lid. She foiled a few generations of cannisters, driving hungry backpackers crazy, before she was killed in season by a hunter.

Sharing Community Stories

February 26, 2021

Over the past few years, a community in the Adirondacks has been coming together to record local history through stories. Under the brilliant organization of Jeri Huntley, with the support of the Keene Valley Library, My Adirondack Story is a website where the meaningful stories of ordinary people who live in the Adirondacks are told in their own voices. The stories are about five minutes long, and together they give a mosaic of life here. For people who come to the Adirondacks for a few days of recreation during the summer, it can provide a fuller picture of place.

Now there is a resource guide for others to create a project like My Adirondack Story in their communities. Our Story Bridge is a great way to connect and preserve history. There is also a teacher’s guide for helping schools create a similar project. The guide is designed for middle and high schools, but many colleges in New York State are already using these materials.

Yours truly shares an Adirondack story for the project here.

Solstice Again

December 18, 2020

I spent most of yesterday working on the Solstice video, and then it didn’t survive publication. Here it is again.

I’m taking the rest of the year off. See you at the New Year.

Solstice 2020

December 18, 2020

Happy Solstice!

Enjoy the video. I’m taking the rest of the year off. Check back at the New Year. Hearth

Reflections at Fall Equinox

September 25, 2020

Tis true without lying, certain & most true. That wch is below is like that wch is above & that wch is above is like yt wch is below to do ye miracles of one only thing. And as all things have been & arose from one by ye mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation. The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth its nourse. The father of all perfection in ye whole world is here. Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth. Seperate thou ye earth from ye fire, ye subtile from the gross sweetly wth great indoustry. It ascends from ye earth to ye heaven & again it desends to ye earth and receives ye force of things superior & inferior. By this means you shall have ye glory of ye whole world & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
~ from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes, translated by Isaac Newton

Scramble to Nowhere, Special

June 19, 2020

I meant to get this written yesterday, but repairmen scheduled to come Friday showed up Thursday instead. Can’t complain. As things stand during the pandemic, you’re lucky to get someone to come to your house at all.

On the way to Little Crow

This week I hiked two lesser mountains called The Crows (Big and Little) and an extended ridge line called the Nun-Da-Ga-O Ridge, all on the same day. Nun-Da-Ga-O sounds like it could be an Iroquois word, or Anglicization thereof, but it’s just a name a local hiker made up.

I’ve hiked pieces of this trail, a few miles outside of Keene, New York, many times, but Wednesday I decided to start on Hurricane Road, summit Little Crow, traverse the coll to Big Crow, and descend a quarter mile to the Ridge Trail, which undulates up and down for several miles in numerous rock scrambles before descending at Weston Mountain to Lost Pond. From there, it’s flat easy trail to Crow Clearing, a parking lot where most people hike to Big Crow or Lost Pond, or hike the Nun-Da-Ga-O loop, bypassing the Crows.

Little Crow isn’t hiked much. There’s no parking lot, the signage is obscure, and Big Crow is a bigger mountain with an easier ascent. I chose a clockwise loop to get Little Crow out of the way early, since it can be difficult for the vertically challenged (a.k.a., short). I carried a heavy day pack , since I knew there would be no water until I got to the Pond, and the Ridge trail is unmarked, so I needed extra gear and clothing in case I lost the trail and spent the whole day wandering around up there.

I find climbing a treacherous trail with a heavy pack disconcerting. Some people find it harder going down, but I think it’s much easier to jump down than scramble up. I only needed to take off the pack to get over one ledge, as it turns out. I’ve climbed Little Crow many times, but this was the first time the trail was dry. I realized that what I interpreted as a difficult hike was mainly my reluctance to get my knees muddy and my bottom wet. Still, I cursed the giants who cut this trail.

Summit of Little Crow

I enjoy Little Crow more for the grass, Red Pine, and lichen near the summit than the views. In the twenty years since I moved to the Adirondacks, many of the views I once enjoyed have partially filled in, as the forests continue to recover from the poor forestry and deliberate fire setting of the nineteenth century. At the summit the scent of balsam pine was pungent. The thing that struck me most when I moved to the Adirondacks from Tucson was the many fragrances, not just of balsam but of sweet fern and wet leaves. The desert only smells like dust, except after a rain, and it doesn’t rain often. In the Adirondacks, it rains a lot. I’ve been up on this range in the rain, in the fog, in many feet of snow, in approaching thunder, and on days when the black flies swarmed so heavy that you had to thread your sandwich under your head net. Usually, though, I pick a better day to be up here. On this day, the deep deep blue of the sky conveyed a limitless calm.

There’s long stretches of scrubby Red Oak on The Crows, not seen much in this area. On the descent into the coll, a Hermit Thrush sang buoyantly. Thrushes kept me company throughout the day.

There was one small section of rock on the descent that looked impossibly steep. I could easily have gone around it, but I calculated that the fall would be minor and there was a tree to grab if I slipped, so I went for it.

Success! It’s always gratifying to find a reasonable place to test the tread on your boots. I would need that security traversing the bare rock up to Big Crow.

Final lip on Big Crow

The views on Big Crow are impressive. You can see the Dix Range and the Great Range of the High Peaks. You can also see the weather coming in for quite a ways on this isolated and exposed peak. I was up here once with a very spiritual woman who was praying and praying and praying as the thunder clouds rolled in. Can she hear that or is she deaf, I wondered, cognizant of the quarter hour scramble, at least, to get down into the canopy. When she finally opened her eyes, she said that of course she heard the thunderstorm coming, but she wasn’t finished with her prayer. That’s one tarry at the summit I’ll never forget.

Clouds gathering on the view from the Tongue Range

The wider loop I chose was about nine miles and some change, but mileage and net elevation gain doesn’t tell the story of an Adirondack hike. I hiked the same distance, on the Tongue Range over Lake George, two days earlier. That hike took four hours, including stops. This one took seven-and-a-half hours. Nun-Da-Ga-O is a continual up-and-down into depressions of hemlock, beech, and Yellow Birch, then along shallow brush and balsam, with exciting stretches of bare rock and exhilarating climbs. Though this is not an official trail, someone has been maintaining it, sawing through the downed Paper Birch trees that are yielding to maturing forest.

My companion at Deer Leap on the Tongue Range

At one point I left the main trail and hobbled up a spur path to a wide cliff ledge for a rest. I’m a steady plodder, not a race-and-rester, on the trail. Even at a summit, I only stop long enough to rehydrate, snap a few pictures, and refresh bug spray. Partly it’s because I’m out for the journey, not the destination. I’m not much of a peak bagger. Also, I usually gauge my abilities against the trail accurately, and I don’t need to rest. There are people, almost invariably young men, who try to race to the summit and brag about their “time,” and I don’t know how to express the derision I feel for this approach to wilderness. Nun-Da-Ga-O is not a scary-steep enterprise, but there is a long way to fall in places if you trip while you’re rushing to “beat your time.”

On Nun-Da-Ga-O

The main reason I spend less time drinking in the view is probably because I live here. Not that I’m inured to the beauty–how can you be? But I’m not indulging in a few days or a few weeks away from it all. My life is here. I have chores before I leave in the morning and my own dinner to cook when I return, possibly with a few have-to’s yet in the day. The next day will probably involve errands or work, even if it’s only writing a blog post, so I’ll need to get to bed early. When you live here, you fit your hiking into your life. I often wonder what it would be like to be on vacation in the Adirondacks; I started a new job the day after I arrived here. Not that I’m complaining. I know I’m incredibly lucky. I also know that when you move to an idyllic spot, you take your life with you.

Ladyslipper are in bloom.

Stepping onto that ledge off the unofficial trail, I stepped between worlds. I reapplied bug repellent, poured some electrolyte replacement powder into my water, snapped some pictures, then just sat. I studied the peaks in the distance and named them. I listened to a Winter Wren singing exuberantly on and on and on. I entered a feeling of aloneness that’s difficult to describe because I don’t understand it myself. I know how to avoid crowds in the Adirondacks and I’m often alone on the trails, sometimes for a full day. I don’t think twice about it. I wasn’t totally alone on this hike. I believe I saw a total of seven people. I don’t like meeting people now that we have COVID-19, but prior to the pandemic I smiled and greeted a fellow traveler as a kindred spirit. With the exception of those beating their time, I like other hikers.

But in that place I felt isolated and alone, in a way that connected me to the rocks and the leafy forest below me, to the blue sky and the Winter Wren singing his complex joyful song. I haven’t felt that far away from other people and their bullshit for a long time. It was like a big bag of other people’s stuff dropped off my shoulders, over the cliff. I felt no pressure, no reason even, to move. I had miles yet to walk, but I knew the trail had no unfair demands to make of me. I don’t even remember if I prayed; the space itself was like a prayer, the heart singing gratitude without reflection.

Hiking is not really about geographical space. It’s about a meeting of trees, rocks, animals, and human. Also sky and wind. It’s different every time, and the difference itself is a gift. I’ve hiked Nun-Da-Ga-O as a bug-bitten endurance event. I’ve been disoriented up there, wandering around and around trying to find the cairn. I’m not trying to convince anyone to hike The Crows or Lost Pond or the ridge between, necessarily. It’s not about where you go, it’s where you are when you get there.

My ledge on Nun-Da-Ga-O

I hit the trail again when I felt myself becoming sleepy. The day was far from over, and there were challenges still ahead. An even bigger cliff loomed ahead of me further on, and I hoped the path would lead up there. It did! There was a rocky scramble to view of Lost Pond below. Above, a pair of Golden Eagles circled.

Golden Eagles are rare in the Adirondacks. They like the high cliffs and open spaces that are more common out West. I’ve been on hikes where others pointed to Golden Eagles in the distance, too far for me to distinguish from any other large bird, but this was the first time a pair circled close enough for me to identify. This time, I remembered to pray.

By the time I got to the last view, Weston Mountain, I was ready to go home, and I even wondered if I was walking in circles, as every rocky outcrop was beginning to look the same. I actually got out my topographical map, a thing I mostly seem to carry around for luck. The Pond was directly below me, so I was on the right path. I was sure of it as I descended Weston, which was the unrelentingly steep sonofabitch I remembered. Yes, I can pray to a mountain and call it a sonofabitch on the same hike. Those who have done a grueling all-day traverse can understand.

Lost Pond

I did not stop at Lost Pond, as planned, because a trio of juvenile ravens had already claimed the space. Raven fledglings scream incredibly loud, and you would think something bizarre and terrible was going on if you didn’t know better. They like to hear their own voices. Some people mistake these cries, which can go on for hours, for a person screaming. Fortunately I knew what was going on, so I didn’t panic, but I took the jarring noise as a sign that it was time to make my way home. I still had three miles to go, on the flat. The beautiful, haunting notes of the Wood Thrush punctuated the late afternoon, as I headed for the car.

On the way to Crow Clearing

Late Spring

May 29, 2020

Leaves finally came out this week, in literally two days.

Round Pond
American Toad (?)
Trillium
Garter Snake

Water, water everywhere

May 22, 2020

This is Deer Brook Falls, a hike I’ve wanted to go on for weeks, and the trail was finally clear and passable. Photo doesn’t do it justice.

I notice that productivity at New Moon seems slow for me. It’s a time when blockages are cleared, hence it feels like things are stationary. This week I had a major water leak in my kitchen, which has been a distraction. Good thing I’m taking a break from writing.

I think it’s a good thing, working with New Moon energy, to be persistent. This can be a rewarding energy if you have the patience.

A new moon teaches gradualness
and deliberation and how one gives birth
to oneself slowly. Patience with small details
makes perfect a large work, like the universe.

~Rumi