During the summer of 1858, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose influential book “Nature” was published 22 years earlier, encountered “absolute nature” for the first time in the Adirondacks.
With nine fellow New England intellectuals, Emerson was awestruck by New York’s northern wilderness. But the group’s “rough and illiterate” guides provided another source of fascination for the philosopher poet from Concord, Mass.
“[Emerson] was minutely interested in seeing how the old guides reversed the tendencies of civilization: how when they went to sleep on the ground they put on their coats, but took them off when they got up; wore their hats in camp, but went on the lake bareheaded,” wrote William James Stillman, the organizer of what became known as the Philosophers’ Camp, in an 1893 essay.
One hundred and fifty years after that gathering at Follensby Pond, guides are still plentiful in the Adirondack Park. But they are bound to be more sophisticated than the philosophers’ aides — and more literate.
“It’s changed a lot,” said Charles “Sonny” Somelofski, president of the New York State Outdoor Guide Association, a trade organization based in Lake Placid that represents over 300 guides.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has 1,350 licensed guides in the Adirondacks. They account for 25 percent of the 5,480 guides registered statewide.
“The Adirondacks is definitely the most concentrated [area] where they are,” DEC spokeswoman Lori O’Connell said of registered guides.
time of change
Somelofski said the biggest change to the Adirondacks’ guide industry came in 1987, when the DEC overhauled its licensing requirements. Guides are now required to provide a physician’s statement, plus certifications for first aid, CPR and water safety. They also need to take a standardized test.
Prior to that change 21 years ago, guides seeking a license mainly needed to answer three questions: Can you read a map? Can you swim and handle a boat? And have you ever committed a conservation crime?
Although the Philosophers’ Camp is credited as being the first great gathering in the Adirondacks, the region’s tourism industry did not take off until 11 years later. In 1869, the Boston minister William Murray published “Adventures in the Wilderness or Camp-Life in the Adirondacks.”
“Adventures” became the Adirondacks’ first definitive guide book, describing various sections of New York’s northern wilderness. It also listed lodgings and gave advice on selecting guides.
In the section on guides, Murray wrote: “This is the most important of all considerations to one about to visit the wilderness. An ignorant, lazy, low-bred guide is a nuisance in camp and useless everywhere else. A skillful, active, well-mannered guide, on the other hand, is a joy and consolation, a source of constant pleasure to the whole party.”
Although Murray devoted entire sections to black flies and mosquitoes, the Adirondacks’ notorious nuisances caught many travelers by surprise. These people became known as “Murray’s fools,” said Jerry Pepper, the librarian for the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake.
Ironically, while at Follensby Pond, Emerson wrote in his journal on Aug. 2, 1858: “The midges, black flies, and mosquitoes are looked upon as the protectors of this superb solitude from the tourists.”
However, tourists eventually penetrated the swarms and reached Follensby, which by the 1890s saw its pristine forests destroyed by fires and axes. The state in 1892 created the strictly regulated Adirondack Park to address such conservation threats.
Today, Follensby’s forests are lush again but off-limits to tourists. However, Follensby’s owner in Vermont is in negotiations for the property with the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
The number of guides statewide has remained flat, at around 5,000, for the past 15 years, even though more land in the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park has shifted from private to public hands.
With gasoline over $4 per gallon, Saranac Lake guide Sonny Young said he has fewer clients from Ohio, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. But business is up among in-state travelers. His Adirondack Foothills Guide Service offers guided tours for hiking, camping, canoeing, hunting and fishing.
Michael Washburn is a former state-licensed guide who now heads the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks. He said rising gas prices will likely drive more tourists to the Adirondacks, as opposed to far-away destinations.
While that influx of tourists could provide a boost to the region’s guide industry, it also poses threats to the environment and its character.
“There is a tremendous amount of pressure on resources of the park . . . If the pressure is going up on the resources, you want to do everything you can to protect more resources,” Washburn said.