Forgotten Voices of the North Woods : Revisiting historic literature of the Adirondacks

Stanton Davis Kirkham  - an excerpt from his book" East and West: Comparative Studies of Nature in Eastern and Western States" published in 1911.

Stanton Davis Kirkham (1868 - 1944) was a naturalist, philosopher, ornithologist and author. Born in Nice, France, his primary residence was  Canandaigua, Ontario County, New York. He was the only child of Major Murray S. Davis  and Julia Edith Kirkham Davis, daughter of Gen. Ralph Wilson Kirkham, Union Army general. He attended public schools in California and later graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During his life he wrote numerous books on nature and philosophy.

His book, East and West contains two chapters about the Adirondacks, The Wilderness and Still-Paddling, in this article I am sharing a portion of the latter, as the descriptions of the boats used and the places visited in this chapter give a wonderful view of the Adirondack experience, as well as Kirkham's very expressive style of writing.


In the wilderness the highways are the ponds and lakes themselves. Here the canoe is man's best friend. He paddles to market; he paddles to church. To speak precisely, he rows, for the guide boat, which weighs little more than a canoe and can be both rowed or paddled, is used far more  than the canoe by the wilderness folk. A guide boat weighs from forty-five to fifty-five pounds and by one man alone is always rowed, except in narrow waterways or where there is occasion to move silently, when the paddle is used. If there are two in the boat, one rows and the other paddles, steering at the same time. In this manner rapid progress can be made, for the craft is so light it skims through the water in a way astonishing to one accustomed to a heavy boat. With a strong head wind, however, the boat is blown backward nearly as fast as it can be propelled forward. Let the wind be with you and you have only to open an umbrella to travel at a fair speed by this means alone.

By the Adirondack guides, this boat is used altogether and they easily carry it on their shoulders by means of a brace which is part of their outfit - almost part of themselves. Like the guides, the boat is a product of the wilderness, and it came into being because of the peculiar fitness for this sort of country - where every now and again you must pull your craft out of the water, put it on your head, and tramp over a carry with it to the next pond or lake. But it is a cranky boat- this hybrid- and needs to be handled as carefully as a canoe. 

As one gradually becomes domiciled in the wilderness, the native tendency to walk gives way to an acquired tendency to row and paddle, until this largely supplants the natural method of locomotion; just as in the South West one becomes so habituated to riding that he no longer feels at home on foot. Of the three, walking is the slower and more difficult process. It is surprising how the arms become toughened by this constant paddling and the energy flows into them rather than into the legs, so that in the course of time, five miles seems far on land, but no distance at all by water. This is the peculiar influence of the wilderness: one becomes amphibious, whereas in most mountain regions the tendency is quite the reverse and the energy all goes to climbing. 

The result of this constant association with water is not alone a modification of habit, but an increased sense of companionship with the lakes. With its inlet and outlet and contiguous swamps, a pond is an unexplored sea upon which to make many a voyage of discovery. There is, perhaps, nothing more companionable in Nature. It is alive and had moods, changing day by day and hour by hour: an eye in the wilderness, expressive when all else is uncommunicative, It is so different from different points of view, at different seasons and times of day, that you may be years exploring it and then not feel you have come to the end. A pond whose shores are unindented, all parts of which can be see at any one point, is like a commonplace personality not difficult to read, though even such one borrows divine moods from the sky. But a lake dotted with islands and with a diversified shore, with bays and straits, smiling beaches and grim cliffs descending to dark silent pools, is a very complex personality, full of surprises and delights. Perhaps we cannot fully explore such a lake in the course of a lifetime. It has not one, but many shores, remote from each other. More than once I have seen some faint outline in the distance, entirely new and unknown to me, destined for ever to remain a true terra incognita; for though I paddled all day, as I advanced it receded, and disappeared at length. These are the lands of Morning, seen only by early light, which gradually fade as the day wanes. We set out for them in the dawn- in the morning of life- but when by afternoon we arrive where they appeared to be, they have vanished.


We're pleased to bring you writings from an Adirondack Blogger, Dave Waite ([email protected]) Dave is an amateur nature and fine arts photographer who was trained in black & white photography in the early 1970's, worked professionally a bit and then set aside all artistic pursuits until about 2003.  Ne now enjoys creative aspects of photograph and writing to share with others.  Please visit Dave at:


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