By Dave Gibson
SUNY Potsdam Wilderness 50th Leadership Expedition Team at the Beaver House. Photo Photo © Dan Plumley
The State University of New York at Potsdam was among the first of our state's colleges to embrace the 50th Anniversary of the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. On a snowy February day administrators and faculty from that college, as well as from nearby Clarkson University and St. Lawrence University gathered to hear from the NYS Wilderness 50th Steering Committee, and to brainstorm with us their ideas for inclusive participation in Wilderness celebration, reflection and community action, on and off campus.
A calendar of Wilderness speakers, events, student trips and presentations was assembled over the ensuing weeks. One of the student trips would be a two week Wilderness Leadership, off-trail trip in August through the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area led by SUNY Potsdam's Wilderness Education Program Instructor Adam Wheeler. Adam contacted Adirondack Wild in the spring to ask us to meet the Expedition's students and give them an orientation to the history of "where wilderness preservation began."
On August 15, we met the expedition's students and leaders at the wilderness cabin Paul Schaefer named "Beaver House" in recognition, Paul wrote, that its ancient beams came from a 17th century Dutch house in Albany where beaver fur was made. The cabin Paul built is on part of a large tract within the original Totten and Crossfield Purchase of the late 18th century. To the west of the cabin is the older and old-growth forest of the NYS Forest Preserve, and the very center of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area, a mostly trail-less wilderness stretching 15 miles across to Indian Lake. This is where Adam and his student team would be exploring for two weeks.
Dan Plumley addressing SUNY Potsdam Wilderness Leadership Team at Beaver House. Photo © Dave Gibson
Dan and I addressed Adam's team at the Beaver House, and introduced the idea of sense of place here at the edge of that emerging wilderness where Paul Schaefer's family settled in 1923 among local people who had lived on this hill since the mid to late 19th century. By 1923 the land was rapidly changing from field agriculture to forest. The wilderness experiences, including the wildlife, hunting, fishing, self-reliance, camaraderie and solitude, both, that Paul experienced here as a young man helped to shape his wilderness philosophy, advocacy and strategic direction later on. In those early years, Paul and his family were dependent upon local people for milk, eggs, meat and friendship. But the Schaefers and the local people were both reliant upon nature's gifts as parts of an interdependent universe - man as part of nature, life and death, enmeshed within the great cycle.
Paul had learned much by the time he introduced this country to Howard and Alice Zahniser in the mid-1940s and helped find the cabin they bought above Paul's, also at the edge of the forest. On vacations from his life as executive secretary of the The Wilderness Society, from Article XIV, New York's "forever wild" Constitution, Howard conceived of a National Wilderness System that eventually became law 18 years later in 1964. For all of those years, Paul Schaefer transitioned from Howard's Adirondack teacher to his regional ally and friend in the emergence of a national, grassroots Wilderness movement that against great odds assembled the consensus and the votes for a law of such consequence. The Adirondacks are, as Howard wrote more than fifty years ago, where wilderness preservation began in the U.S., and where the rest of the world has also learned how to establish Wilderness areas in their laws and to embed them within their own myths, customs and traditions.
Dave Gibson with SUNY Potsdam Wilderness Leadership group. Photo © Dan Plumley
Dan and I also spent time talking with the students about how our life journeys and careers were shaped. I journeyed here from New England without knowing anything about the Adirondacks and, after a variety of internships and part-time jobs, was fortunate to become executive director with the not-for-profit Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks where Paul Schaefer was a Board Vice President. Dan grew up just south of the Adirondacks, and sailed, hiked and camped in the region as a young man before being inspired by Paul's Adirondack lecture to General Electric professionals in Schenectady. Dan went on to shape Adirondack decision-making with a number of organizations including the Adirondack Council. Also, Dan remains an influential member of a team of natural resource professionals who have introduced the Adirondack Park's system of land use planning to colleagues as far away as Buryatia, Russia, Mongolia, China and other places eager to learn from our experience about how to sustain protection and stewardship of cultural and natural landscapes.
SUNY Potsdam Wilderness Expedition at Zahniser’s cabin, Mateskared. Photo © Dave Gibson
We conveyed how positive encounters with an influential mentor like Paul Schaefer can profoundly shape post-graduate youthful philosophy, self-confidence and career choice. The Potsdam students had just studied about Zahniser and his times and the Wilderness Act. They were majoring in a wide range of disciplines, or just discovering where they might concentrate their studies. All seemed eager and ready for an intense form of self-discovery within the group, this rigorous adventure ahead, and two weeks off-trail and self-sufficient, part of a more than human, interdependent wilderness community. We walked up to the Zahniser cabin and talked more there. The team had established its own system of daily leadership and decision-making. We lingered together in this special, historic place where friendships and landscape had inspired a national law protecting, now, over 109 million acres across the country as Wilderness. By mid-afternoon we had said our goodbyes, and the expedition members shouldered their packs and headed off down the trail.
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