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Adirondack Scrimshaw

Exploring Adirondack Artistry Using Nature’s Canvas

“Wild Goose Chase on Artist’s Conk”
Artist: Beth Bridges
circa 1978

It’s funny the little things that quietly provide inspiration, those seemingly small childhood details that stay with us through life. I always admired the engraved “artist’s conk” scene pictured above. It adorned the fireplace mantle in our Stevenson Lane home through most of my formative Saranac Lake years.

According to my mom, it was done by an artist named Beth Bridges. Mom can’t recall exactly where the artist was from, she believes it may have been Tupper Lake. Mom spotted the piece one day sometime in the late ’70’s. She fell in love with it immediately and put it on layaway for what was then for her an extravagant art purchase of $75.00. At the time, the artist told her that it was the biggest artist’s conk she had ever sketched on.

I’d seen fungi like that growing on dead trees in the woods many times through the years. It had never occurred to me to myself attempt drawing on one.

Flash far forward to one of our recent family Bull Rush Bay camping trips. Add a return appearance by my debut online guided camping trip invite. (That’s a whole ‘nother story, folks can read all about it in “One Night Adirondack”). In camp for a second summer, all the way from Massachusetts, none other than our illustrious all things fungi expert “Mushroom Mike”.

Mike has forgotten more about spores, fungi and mushrooms than most folks will ever in their whole outdoor life know. His job on his initial guided October Bull Rush Bay camping trip was to forage wild mushrooms for one of my camp chef’s Adirondack fin & feather black duck/bass dinners.

Mike obliged, foraging up some fall “honeys” to accent our feast.

Mushroom Mike passed that initial camp mushroom expert test.

Everyone ate the mushrooms he foraged for our feast. Nobody, not even my brother Ray’s friend Joel’s Italian water dog, got sick or died from ingesting them.

But Mushroom Mike’s assigned mission on his return trip into camp was quite different. My brother Ray & I had spotted a great big fungus on a tree, a few bends above the locks, on one of our trips down the river. It was shiny and huge. It was in a spot we could access on a bushwack trail from camp. It reminded me of the fungus my mom’s artwork piece was sketched on. I wanted to learn more about it, so Mushroom Mike and I geared up and bushwacked our way down along the riverbank on a mushroom hunting expedition.

On our way downstream we spotted an abundance of different lichens, spores, mushrooms and fungi.

We saw mushrooms, spores and fungi of all sizes shapes and colors. Some were edible, some were poisonous, some glowed in the dark. I snapped photos while Mushroom Mike shared his knowledge of each as we walked.

As Mushroom Mike & I slowly worked our way downstream towards the huge mushroom that I wanted to show him, we spotted one very cool mushroom/fungus with which I was actually familiar.

“Ghost Pipe”

We finally reached the huge riverbank tree fungus that was the focus of our quest. Mushroom Mike immediately identified it:

“That’s Ganoderma applanatum, better known as artist’s conk, artist’s fungus, or bear bread. They are referred to as artist’s conk because the underside is soft when they are first harvested. Artists sometimes sketch nature scenes on them. Then once they dry the sketch permanently hardens. That one there is certainly a nice example, and a big one!”

I briefly contemplated harvesting that artist’s conk and explore my artistic side, but I decided against it. I was averse to taking such a beautiful piece of nature from where other folks could enjoy seeing it from their boats and canoes as they traversed the river. So, I contented myself with some photos.

“Riverside Bear’s Bread”
I left this one there, but as it turned out, that did not matter. Several days later it was gone. Someone else had taken it.

Besides, I had absolutely no interest in explaining myself to some hungry bear whose bread I’d just stolen.

Leaving the bear’s bread intact, Mushroom Mike and I continued our mushroom hunting expedition. We eventually worked our way down to the locks. Mushroom Mike had never seen those locks in operation. So, I chatted with the lock tender, who remembered me as one of his older brother Steve’s (featured in my blog story “Enterprising Lads“) best friends from our shared SL youth, while Mushroom Mike snapped a series of photos.

As we bushwack trailed our way back upstream towards our Bull Rush Bay camp, Mushroom Mike and I took note of the summer’s bountiful abundance of artist’s conks.

We were a good way back in the bush off any known beaten path. There wasn’t any fresh bear sign around. So, really wanting to try my hand as an Adirondack backwoods outlaw artist, Mushroom Mike and I decided to take our chances and selectively harvest some, including several nice big ones.

Once back in camp, after a little precursor tutorial from Mushroom Mike, I set about exploring my Adirondack Artist’s side.

The white underside of the fresh harvested artist’s conks were quite soft. Mushroom Mike cautioned me that once any marks were made in them, they were there permanently. So, I had to be careful not to mar them with fingerprints while I was sketching.

I decided to use the blade of my pocketknife as my sketch tool. I practiced on one that broke while in transit. My pocketknife’s sharp thin blade seemed to work pretty well.

I first tried my hand at a couple of simple sketches. Once I felt like I had the hang of it, I decided to try my hand at sketching my familiar friend, the Bull Rush Bay lean-to. Not the new one that’s there now, but my old cedar log friend. The lean-to I grew up with. The one they took down and replaced. I hear they sometime later refurbished and re-erected it down on Eagle Island. someday I’ll have to stop by and pay my old friend a visit.

Adirondack Scrimshaw
Middle Saranac Lake’s Bull Rush Bay Lean-to
“Those Cedar Logs”

Pleased with the result of that effort, I then attempted sketching a landscape, the vista view looking down towards Middle Saranac Lake’s shoreline from the Bull Rush Bay Campsite.

Once I had run through my supply of artist’s conks and finished my sketches, I laid them all out on the picnic table to dry.

While Mushroom Mike was quietly admiring my work, my brother Ray arrived back in camp on his pontoon boat. He stopped and perused my artist’s conk scrimshaw efforts as he toted a re-supply of ice and water to the lean-to, remarking as he did,

“Oh! Those are really nice! Who did those? I know it couldn’t have been my brother, because he’s not artistic.”

My brother Ray should not be surprised if he some night suddenly finds himself on the receiving end of an Adirondack Outlaw scrimshaw artist assisted swim in the lake.

I may freehand sketch that Adirondack scrimshaw scene out next time I’m in camp.

On a great big freshly harvested artist’s conk.


Until Our Trails Cross Again:


Adirondack Scrimshaw Artist