Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Blue Heron

The Blue Heron is the name of an old boardinghouse where I spent my summer vacation in the Adirondack Mountains of upper New York. "Vacation" is an odd term for a trip in which I installed baseboard heaters, replaced toilets, dug drainage ditches, inspected foundations, adjusted doors and repaired screens - but a vacation it definitely was. I spent hands-on time observing and appreciating the local craftsmanship of the Adirondacks.

The Blue Heron was never anything fancy. In the 1890's a man named Baker, a Civil War soldier who had been shot in the knee, built a boardinghouse for summer tourists on the shores of Silver Lake. As a crippled veteran, Mr. Baker received a pension of $12.50 a month, which made him a relatively wealthy man in this hardscrabble region. Eventually Baker's boardinghouse became known as the Blue Heron, part of a summer camp called Hawkeye Trails. Like many summer camps, Hawkeye folded in the 1970's. In 1978 my friends John and Duncan, both former Hawkeye campers, bought the Blue Heron, which was in a state of neglect. Not wanting to change the character of the house, they've maintained it pretty much as it was when they bought it: a much-loved, much-abused old house filled with the happy ghosts of generations of campers who used to scramble all over it.
I am one of those former campers. In 1994 John invited me to visit the Blue Heron, which I hadn't seen since 1968. Inviting a building contractor to visit your vacation home is sort of like inviting a tax auditor to your weekly poker party. I told him that the foundation was falling apart, the posts were rotting, the roof needed replacement, the wiring was a fire hazard, and the whole place was in danger of collapse. And oh, by the way, the septic system is leaking into the basement.

Oddly enough, I was invited back. Since 1994 I've returned to the Blue Heron many times to help with the maintenance, to make small improvements, to meet old friends.

It's a three-story house with a basement, built using the two items the Adirondacks have in abundance: stone and wood. The foundation and basement walls are stone, and there is a stone fireplace. The rest is wood, cut and milled locally. The subflooring is so rough and uneven that it must have been milled on site - after 120 years, the bark is still attached - and it gives a roll to the finish flooring like the surface of Silver Lake. The construction style is functional and practical. The only embellishment I can find in the whole building is in the siding that separates the second and third floor on the north side, visible in the upper right of this photo:Other than that one touch of fancy, the house is solid and workmanlike, if somewhat decayed from 120 freezes and thaws.
The south, east, and west sides of the house can't be seen in their original form because wrap-around porches were added for the summer campers.

People ask me why I enjoy spending a vacation doing the same thing that I am supposed to be getting away from: work. Construction work. The construction of the Blue Heron is fascinating to me because it is so different from anything I encounter in California. In fact, if Mr. Baker had built the Blue Heron with the same design and materials in California instead of upstate New York, there would be nothing remaining today except a smelly pile of fungus and termite droppings. Not to mention the fact that earthquakes would have shaken it to bits. But here it stands. Different region, different outcome.
Poking around is both a pleasure and an education. Ernest Hemingway said that you don't know a country until you've tried to make a living in it. Here's Cottonwood's Corollary: You don't know a land until you try building on it. Construction is the most local of industries. What trees can you use? What insects live here? What is the life cycle of the local fungus? You need to understand the weather patterns and the geological understructure and even the chemistry of the air and soil. How deep is the frost? What is the angle of the sun at the solstice? What happens to the clay when it's wet? Talking to the local tradesmen, learning their work habits, figuring out what supplies are available and where to find them, adapting to local conditions and techniques all give me insight into the ecology and economy of the area. I get a view into the ideals and ethics - the very soul - of the region. For me, in small doses, it makes a perfect vacation.

There is one man to whom I return again and again to touch the soul of the Adirondacks. I'll introduce him, next entry.


  1. wonderful! Thanks for another view of this place I love.

  2. I attended Hawkeye Trail Camp in the late 60s, as did my two sisters, many happy memories of the Blue Heron and cabins surrounding. I found this blog because I was searching for anyone else who might remember "Hartzie Bread", the best whole wheat bread ever.

  3. Hartzie Bread was always a special treat. It was a sweet bread, as I recall.