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What Defines “Adirondack”?

The original version of this story 1st appeared in the June 17, 2021 on-line edition of the Adirondack Almanack

Casting for bass on the river
Middle Saranac Lake
(Photo courtesy of our now legendary camp guest “Mushroom Mike”)

     I had an interesting conversation with my brother a while back in camp. It began innocently enough, with an observation he made about the difficulties the Saranac Lake Elks Club was apparently having recruiting new members for their lodge.

  He said, “You could probably get grandfathered in for membership because of Dad.”

“RJ (my son) could never be a member here though, because he’s never lived here.”

    Though I know he meant nothing by it, the comment made me stop in my tracks.

     “RJ never lived here! He graduated from Paul Smith’s College! He proposed to his PSC graduated girlfriend at the VIC!

My son RJ & his fiancé Carrie
Bull Rush Bay
Middle Saranac Lake

He’s never lived here!!? For Christ Sakes Ray!  He lived here for more than three years!”

     My brother paused, then replied, “Hmmm…You may be right. I never thought about that.”

     The conversation ended there, for the moment, but it stuck in my mind. It was not the first time I have encountered this perspective on my frequent trips back to my Saranac Lake hometown.

     A few years ago, I signed up to attend a local writer’s club conference.

(Not my first rodeo!)

1980 Fiction Writer’s Workshop
1st appearance of my short story
“My Bedroom Mirror”

It was going to be held in Lake Placid at a downtown coffee shop, after business hours. I had never attended such an event with this particular group before, and very much looked forward to it. I had made reservations for an overnight stay in Saranac Lake, driving up that afternoon from my family’s residence in Watertown.

     The conference itself proved interesting and fun. A mixed group of local writers, sitting around a conference table, sharing experiences, each having the opportunity to read aloud some of their work.

     As the conference neared its conclusion, one of the conference leaders announced a local writing contest that was upcoming. It sounded interesting. I inquired as to the details.

     “Those writers submitting must be “Adirondack”.

     This gave me pause. So, I asked: “What constitutes Adirondack?”

    The woman replied firmly, without hesitation: “Current residency within the Blue Line.”

     Taken aback a bit, I protested.

“But I grew up here!”

My brother Ray & I with a stringer full of walleyes
On our dock in Northville NY
Circa 1969

I graduated from Saranac Lake High School!

1981 SLHS Canaras yearbook photo

“I spent two summers living and working out of the DEC Ranger Cabin at Lake Colden!” 

My son RJ & I on our 2011 trip to Lake Colden
Four days before Hurricane Irene
Our story later appeared in Adirondack Life Magazine

“My father lies buried here!

NYSDEC Forest Ranger Honor Guard
Standing for my father’s funeral
St. Bernard’s Church
Saranac Lake

“My son is a Suma Cum Laude Paul Smith’s College graduate!

My son’s graduation photo
He graduated online from Paul Smith’s College, due to COVID

“My brother and his family still live in Saranac Lake!

Sharing a Camp Chef venison feat with My brother’s family & friends
Defining “Adirondack”
Bull Rush Bay
Middle Saranac Lake

“I spend a good part of every summer here!”

Our Monroe family at our summer home
Site 63
Bull Rush Bay
Middle Saranac Lake

You mean to tell me- I don’t qualify!?

Cooking up another “Camp Chef” feast
Lemonade Bass & Wild Adirondack Black Duck

  “Simply because I moved away, I surrendered my membership?”

1981 Saranac Lake Redskins
(Canaras Yearbook Photo)

My hometown?

My poem “Yesteryear”

(Published in 1981 Canaras Yearbook)

“My upbringing?”

My identity?”

1980 Saranac Lake Redskins
Fall Football Pep Rally
(Yup! That’s me! 3rd from left)

You mean to tell me I’m not Adirondack!?

(Photo courtesy of legendary Monroe family camp guest
“Mushroom Mike”)

“When did that happen?

Alias: “Monk”

“And by what authority?!”

Fall duck Hunting Trip
Middle Saranac Lake
Martha Reben

     Her response was quite firm:

“Your brother qualifies. You do not. However, if you wish, we will grandfather you in. If you wish to submit a story, you may do so under your brother’s name and using his address.”

     At that point, I was just downright mad.

     “That Saranac Lake Free Library you hold your meetings at? My mother worked as a librarian there while I was growing up. Those conference rooms you meet in? One of my first paid jobs in high school was cleaning and vacuuming them after library hours. I used to shovel that library sidewalk in the morning before school. I’m not Adirondack but my younger brother is?! What gives you the right to define who is or is not “Adirondack”?”

     I did not wait for an answer.  I stormed out of the conference. And no, I never submitted a story to that contest.

     I am not the only one who has encountered this attitude on trips back home. Others have shared with me similar experiences. I could tell several more similar stories of my own.

     I share this perspective to bring to light an unfortunate attitude that exists in the region, not with everyone, but it’s fairly evident & prevalent among those with the good fortune to make their home within the Blue Line in today’s moment.

      “I live here now. Therefore, I am Adirondack. Everyone else is either a visitor or a tourist. They don’t qualify. They simply are not.”

     For those who have this outlook, I share these thoughts:

     Like so many others, I grew up in these mountains we all love. I’ve lived on both ends of the Northville Placid Trail, Northville twice.  I grew up in Saranac Lake, made my home there until after I graduated college and entered the Army.

My father proudly pinning on my rank
Commissioning ceremony
Cornell University
December 1895

Nearly all of my important “firsts” in life, I experienced in and around these mountains, forests, trails and lakes. I spent three summers working on a DEC trail crew. I daresay a good number of the ladders and stringer bridges, even high peaks privies, that today’s hikers use, I helped to build, on trails blazed by those who came long before all of us.

     Like so many folks out there, life and its circumstance took me from the mountains.

I may no longer reside within these mountains I love, but they still define me.

My soul never left.

Sitting with my “Zen Boat”
Site 63
Bull Rush Bay

     These mountains were here for 400 million years before humans arrived. Once we are gone, they will most likely be here 400 million more.  We as humans don’t determine what does or does not constitute “Adirondack”. These mountains touch each of us in very unique and deeply personal ways on our life journeys, individual and shared.

Assisting my son with a turned ankle during our shared trip into Lake Colden
August 2011

They are time’s constant.

We are but falling leaves from a tree on earth’s clock.

 We simply pass through them, fortunate to have experienced the magic they hold.

“Adirondack Scrimshaw”

     Current residency or life circumstance is irrelevant.

For those who’ve had their lives touched in a significant way by these mountains, that touch is indelible.  We as humans do not define what is or is not “Adirondack”.

 These Adirondack mountains hold that authority.

These mountains we love.

These Adirondacks.

A view of Ampersand Mountain
From the river
Middle Saranac

We do not define them.

A view of the Trap Dike
From the trail along Avalanche Lake
August 2011

They define us.


Until Our Trails Cross Again:  

“Then & Now”