Normally, this isn’t a problem-you just cut a new road- but Beaver River was unique that it was surrounded on all sides by water or the New York Forest Preserve. Since it is illegal, technically “unconstitutional,” to cut trees on the Forest Preserve (they are “Forever Wild”), Beaver River (the town) was now hemmed in.
Somehow, Beaver River adapted and has survived the years. Primarily a seasonal vacation-home settlement, the “Happy Hermits of Beaver River” (as a old news article proclaimed them) appear to prefer their isolation. The only access is by boat, in particular the car ferry Noridgewock, or through an isolated wilderness trail leading from Twitchell Lake. It was this trail that I and my friend Joe took last Saturday, an exodus through the wonders of the nature world, both biological and legislated wilderness, to one of the most bizarre artifacts of the Adirondack Park.
Twitchell Lake is itself an obscure destination. To get there requires one to drive an hour and a half north of Utica on rural Route 28 and then for one to turn left at the abandoned brick building in Eagle Bay, then to travel some further miles to the turn-off for Twitchell Road. Twitchell Road continues for some miles, eventually becoming a dirt road that ends at a beautiful lake and a DEC trailhead.
We arrived at the trailhead in the pouring rain, just as the only other group to risk exploration of the lake on that day retreated via kayak to their cars. However, we looked on the bright side because, as true Adirondack hikers, we knew that rain meant no deer flies. In truth, the movies in neither Inlet nor Old Forge were appealing and we couldn’t handle any more rustic furniture shops, so the trail was the only real option for that day.
The upper trail sign read: “Trail to Beaver River 7.5 miles” and the one below: “Trail to Razorback Pond 2.5 miles.” A rather wide dirt trail extended into the dripping forest. I told Joe I was pleased to have no fern-overgrown foot track, since those are absolutely miserable in the rain, as it’s impossible to avoid getting your legs and boots soaked. About a half-mile later, our trail-a fern overgrown foot track-turned away from the broader trail to Razorback Pond. As we came to accept the fact that we were going to get wet, the trail climbed steeply out of the Twitchell Valley and my mind turned to the land around me.
For readers not overly familiar with the Adirondack Park’s inner workings, a bit of explanation is necessary here. On most maps, the Park appears to be one great green mass, like a giant balloon tied to NYC by the thin rope of the Hudson River. In truth, however, it is far more complex than that and the plain green belies a “crazy quilt” of regulation and ownership.
Unlike every other of New York’s 306 state parks (except the Catskill Park, which was created with the same legislation), the State does not own the entire Park. In fact, it does not even own the majority of the land within the Park’s boundaries; however, with each passing year, new acquisitions bring the Park closer to the 50/50 balance called for in the State Land Master Plan (SLMP). Those lands that the state does own are classified by the all-powerful SLMP into several types of districts.
The strictest classification is Wilderness. These 16 districts include the Pigeon Lake Wilderness, through which my sodden trail was cut. Within a wilderness area, not only is the cutting or salvage of timber permitted (and this is banned on all state lands in the Park), but so is the use of all motorization. In statutory wilderness there are no ATVs, snowmobiles, chainsaws, bicycles, float planes, unicycles, generators or other such totems of civilization, even for the DEC forest rangers. Last year up here in the Park, I assisted the local forest rangers in a search-and-rescue operation in the Blue Ridge Wilderness Area; we proceeded in canoes and on foot. Granted, the waterways were too tight for motorboats and the trails too narrow for ATVs, but the DEC still follows its own rules in this regard. Roughly half of the Forest Preserve is designated wilderness.
Each of the other classifications allow for greater and greater intensity of human use: “wild forests” allow for motorized transportation, “intensive use” areas are DEC-run campgrounds and ski areas, “canoe areas” are like wildernesses but allow for some motorized maintenance by the DEC, etc.
What effect does the presence of the Pigeon Lake Wilderness have upon Beaver River and my own journey? For one, our little town finds itself surrounded not only by Forever Wild State land, but by the most isolating, heavily protected public lands in the world. For me and Joe, it meant that in the back woods there were no bridges, steps, graded trails or conveniently placed benches. At one point, it was necessary for me to wade up to my mid-thigh through a stream, carrying my pants and shoes around my neck as I picked out invisible stepping-stones under the golden-brown water. As if we weren’t wet enough.
The land around Beaver River is not, however, “true” wilderness, by which I mean lands untouched ‘by the hand of man.’ The vast majority of the Adirondack Park (some 95+%) were logged during the past 150 years, some places several times and relatively recently. The core of the Forest Preserve came from lands that had been completely cut over and then abandoned by timber companies in the late 1800s- eventually reverting to state possessions when the owners defaulted on their taxes. The forest preserve is littered with the sites of mansions of the wealthy, mines, ghost towns, fire towers, mills, children’s summer camps and hunting camps; it is certainly not without the ‘hand of man.’
Beaver River itself sits next to a huge lake that is completely the creation of human hands. The Pigeon Lake wilderness contains one former children’s camp that I know of (on Cascade Lake) and I’m sure many other structures. A road to nowhere, the ‘Six Mile Road’ cuts through it and ends at the flooded shoreline. In a wider sense, there is no place on Earth, through climate change, extinctions, acid rain, etc, that is not affected by the hand of some man or another. There are no wolves, elk or cougar in Pigeon Lake, but they certainly were there before the hands of white men came in.
Yet, for some reason, the State and advocates of statutory ‘wilderness,’ in the Adirondacks and beyond, continues this charade. They go so far as to destroy “non-conforming structures,” AKA anything that belies the true nature of this supposedly untouched lands. In doing so, not only have they created Beaver River, but also the philosophic ideal of wilderness itself.
By isolating 16 parcels of a remote forest as being forever closed to motorboats and chainsaws, they have simultaneously given carte blanche for the rest of the world to be open to them. By saying that “here is nature and it is precious, bow before it,” they are turning a blind eye to everywhere else as tainted and unnatural.
But in fact, nature does not end at the edge of the wilderness. The trees that grow in the Wilderness of Pigeon Lake are indistinguishable from those in the Hamlet of Beaver River, or the City of Utica for that matter. Aren’t the homes of Beaver River built of wood and stone and metal, all natural sources? Isn’t the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe nature? When nature is though of something wild and separate from our experience, we deny part of our own existence and the nature of our own homes.
The paradox of Beaver River, trapped on one side by man’s desire to capture and harness wild nature for progress and industry and on the other by the spiritual desire to protect those havens of wild nature forever from the hand of man, is apparent immediately as you push out of Pigeon Lake and onto the dirt road next to “Al’s Hut” (as Al’s sign reads) and look out over the artificial lake. It is a short walk through densely packed vacation houses to the heart of the hamlet.
The remaining 50% of the Adirondack Park is privately owned; it is, however, uniquely zoned according to building density by the Adirondack Park Agency. Just as public lands are “wilderness,” “wild forest” or whatever, private lands are zoned into categories ranging from “hamlet,” which has an unlimited building density, to “resource management,” which allows one building per 32 acres.
Beaver River is one of over 100 hamlets in the Park, which is obvious from the high density of structures in a tiny box of land around a small lagoon. The centerpiece of what is more-or-less an individually-owned resort is the Norridgewock III, the “complete resort.” While the building is, according to the waitress, actually the fourth Norridgewock hotel, we were more concerned with dry feet and hot meals than truth in advertising. I can unhesitatingly recommend the Norridgewock kitchen, with the caveat that all food tastes better after hiking. I had the “tree hugger” (veggie burger) and found the “special sauce” to be delicious and perfect for disguising the inevitable blandness of the faux-flesh; wouldn’t it be funny if it had meat in it?
And so, with stomachs full of hot food and cold beer, our feet somewhat drier and our shoulders rested we made the return trip. In fifteen miles and about seven hours we had traveled through the heart of the wild and into the Adirondack equivalent of ecologically forsaken land. It was a bizarre, damp and enjoyable afternoon.