Cleaning coffee cups with hot water and a swipe of his thumb, Michael Frenette looks out at the same pine trees and pristine lake wildlife ecologist and author Anne LaBastille admired from her log cabin.
The famed naturalist’s abode, built in the mid-1960s, sits a few steps away from Frenette’s hastily built shack. A structural preservationist, he has been living on LaBastille’s property on-and-off since November, while carefully dismantling her home, with help from John R. Wrolsen of Saugerties.
“It’s quiet. There’s nobody here. We’ve seen two people all winter,” Frenette said, fishing around for a bottle of Irish cream on a shelf in his makeshift kitchen.
LaBastille died in 2011, at age 77. Her remote cabin was donated to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake.
The first of three cabins the outdoorswoman built and lived in, the structure’s original, 12-by-12 foot core and its outhouse will be reconstructed inside the museum as part of “The Adirondack Experience” exhibition, slated to open in 2017.
Born in Montclair, New Jersey, LaBastille took refuge in the wilderness after splitting up with her husband in the mid-1960s. A nature lover from a young age, she earned a bachelor’s degree in conservation and higher degrees in wildlife management and wildlife ecology. She wrote 16 books, multiple magazine articles and scientific papers, including some of the first to note the destructive effects of acid rain. She helped establish wildlife refuges in Guatemala and Panama and served as a member of the Adirondack Park Agency board, which regulates land use in the 6-million-acre park. For years, she gave wilderness workshops and lectures.
LaBastille’s accounts of her life in the wilderness were recorded in her “Woodswoman” book series.
“She was there during some harsh times during the winter. She was there by herself and during this time, and in the second half of the 1960s, this really wasn’t something that women did, and she wrote about it and talked about it and became kind of an inspiration to a lot of women who ended up going into careers that had them working with natural resources, entering the conservation movement and doing things that maybe people didn’t think were appropriate — not ladylike — but now we kind of take for granted,” explained Laura Rice, chief curator for the Adirondack Museum.
LaBastille wrote about building her first cabin in her book “Woodswoman,” published in 1976.
In an early chapter, she described buying 22 acres of land on a remote Adirondack lake in the Old Forge-Big Moose Region. She dubbed the water body “Black Bear Lake,” not wanting readers to know her true location.
About an hour’s drive from the Adirondack Museum, the roads that led to the lake are winding and bumpy. Wednesday, they were snowbank-flanked, with more deer on them than cars. The route cut through forests and around small lakes ringed by wooded hills. The road to Black Bear Lake degenerated from rough pavement, to dirt, to rutted, hard-packed snow, dead-ending at a boat launch. From there, the only way to get to LaBastille’s property is on foot or by boat. Over water, it’s a little over a mile. The rough shoreline path is said to take about an hour-and-a-half on foot.
Wednesday, the lake was frozen solid, Frenette’s wide, groomed trail the only thing disturbing several inches of snow that blanketed the ice.
The Tupper Lake resident has been traveling from cabin to boat launch by snowmobile since January, when the ice got thick enough to hold his sled and the loads of building materials and trash he’s hauled from the cabin site. Before the ice was safe, he and Wrolsen hiked in. When it was warmer, they boated.
Known for his ongoing work to stabilize and restore Great Camp Santanoni in Newcomb, Frenette is used to living in remote locations under rough conditions. He’s content to perk his espresso on a propane-powered hotplate, use a bucket as a bathroom and sleep on a plywood bunk, his two dogs curled up close by.
The knee-deep snow that still blankets LaBastille’s property doesn’t phase him. He said he’s OK working outside as long as it’s at least 12 degrees, although he’d prefer 20.
Wednesday morning, the temperature was a little over 20 degrees, the wind light, the sun dazzling on the snow. Cabins, huddled here and there along the shore, all looking deserted.
When LaBastille built her cabin it was spring.
She purchased 45 thick spruce logs from a local saw mill for $600 and had them dumped into the lake at the boat launch. She then hitched the logs to her motorboat, and with a 10-horsepower engine, slowly towed them to her property.
Two local carpenters assisted in the cabin’s construction, rigging up a homemade, manually operated hoist to haul the logs out of the water and swing them up to the cabin site.
Wednesday, the main room of the cabin held scaffolding that supported a modified engine hoist Frenette calls “Max.” He and Wrolsen use the contraption to lift logs from the structure and swing them down to two attached sleds, which carry them back across the water they floated through a half-century ago.
Construction of the 12-by-12-foot structure took LaBastille and her helpers a month. Deconstruction is taking a lot longer. Additions made to it over the years need to be taken down, and each piece of the cabin that will make the trip to the museum must be numbered, so it can be put back in exactly the same place when it’s reassembled.
As of Wednesday, the two men had put in about 400 hours of work, Frenette estimated.
“We’ve been working on it since we came in November, but we really didn’t get much done because it’s been so cold,” he said. “We’ve just basically been prepping. We really started working a week-and-a-half ago. It’s coming down fast.”
Bare rafters stood out against the bright blue sky Wednesday, indicating where a steep metal roof once kept out the snow. Below, the cabin’s sturdy spruce walls stood strong. Nails where LaBastille once hung her coat, hat and boots still protruded from the rough logs.
“It comes from the lean-to tradition, because in the lean-to there’s no cupboards,” explained Doreen Alessi-Holmes, conservator and collections manager for the Adirondack Museum.
Footholds made from 10-inch branch sections were attached to one wall, leading to the spot where LaBastille’s sleeping loft once was.
Frenette and Wrolsen worked Wednesday to remove the first log from the top of the structure.
“There’s big spikes that go through there, and we cut those, and then we were prying on it and wedging it with wooden wedges and it wouldn’t move, and it turns out it was just frozen. There was so much water frozen into the joint,” Frenette recounted.
Once the log was dislodged, hoisting it and lowering it gently onto the two connected vintage wooden sleds was a slow process. When it was securely strapped on, Frenette pulled it by snowmobile across the lake.
LaBastille’s woodstove still sat in one corner of the cabin Wednesday, but all other furnishings and possessions have been removed. Many of them will be on display at the museum, including a portion of her extensive book collection, her boots, one of her hats, her typewriter and a little red dresser.
Wrolsen estimated that the cabin site will be free of construction materials by the end of May. Once cleared, the land will be donated to New York state.