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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Nessmuk at Buttermilk Falls





A letter recently came to light from the archives of Field and Stream, by George Washington Sears, pen-name Nessmuk, to his New York editor, in 1889:


"I have never reported, either in my personal journals or missives to this fine periodical, that when paddling up the Raquette River during the spring of 1883, I met Morte de la Porte in his very person though we hardly exchanged a word of conversation. He at that time performed a favor for me, which in ways was perfidious in that it would have been damaging to my reputation were it ever to appear in print.

"The Raquette River, as I have described elsewhere, all but disappears into the earth at a place called Buttermilk Falls, a conflagration of a cataract if there is any such to be found in the Adirondacks. It was in the pool at the foot of this giant waterfall that I met the great man of the mountains, who stepped out into the sunlight on a sandbar and saw me looking puzzled up at the torrent of yellow water frothed with fallen trees hurtling down along with chucks of spring snow and ice.

"As you know my health has not been good, and the prospect of a heavy portage around the falls through uncertain terrain was not a task I anticipated with any ardor. My trusted vessel, the Sairy Gamp, was more loaded than a Winchester on the ramparts of the Alamo, and I am certain, to this day had I attempted to carry it all through the woods, I would have fallen victim to the fever, of which I had a terrible fear, since tuberculosis has been troubling me for some time. My goal was to explore the headwaters of this great river, which I did. How I got around Buttermilk Falls is heretofore unknown:

"I knew the great man was Morte, no one stands larger in my memory, and I have seen many, warriors and Indian braves. None held a candle to this creature, in size or form. His immense height hoarded a gaunt but kindly hunger packed in sinewed limbs, muscled as if Gods had proportioned him first from marble and then converted their handiwork into bronze and then lastly into flesh and bone.

"Nervously I addressed this mountain of a being and told him I wanted to achieve the top of the falls, so asked if he would accept the commission of assisting my portage. To this he wordlessly nodded. Then as I paddled towards the shore he stepped into the current and reaching out with a single arm took up the Sairy Gamp, with me and all my belongings within, tent, food, kit, journals, sketchbooks, axe, knives, rifle whisky, flour and what have you, and though I am a light man my senior, my whole boat plus me weighed a good bit more than our publisher in his considerable chair of mahogany. Mr. Morte held up the Sairy Gamp with me and all my worldly possessions more easily than a chip of birch seized from the water's surface.

"A cry of surprise burst from my lips. To say I was terrified is understatement of the kind that writers are loathe. The giant with his load cradled by one curled forearm strode toward the falls. My person, my books, firearm, tent, kit and supplies were certain to be destroyed by that torrent. I watched those limbs from above wade, and stride at the same time, boulder to boulder up the very falls themselves, while the cataract of water rushed around us.


"One cannot imagine the strength necessary to accomplish what took place. How he found footing I'll never know. How he resisted the thousands of pounds of force of that ferocious spring melt is beyond me. A log flew towards us like a projectile hurled by a cannon but Morte with his spare hand, flicked it aside mid course.


Within seconds we found ourselves at the queasy but comparative calm of the top of the falls, whereupon gently as a mother cougar setting down one of its kittens, Morte placed the Sairy Gamp, me inside, afloat upon those waters. Pushing the keel-stem with both thumbs, he set us skimming across the tremulous surface easily as a flake of slate flung by a happy schoolboy. We brought awash safely above where the headwater commenced its dive towards oblivion. When I spun to look, the giant had gone.

"Nearing my end of days, I have no objection to publishing this letter. Yes a confession at that time might have damaged my reputation as a man of the woods, as I would forever have been remembered as one unable to transport himself across a quarter mile of portage. Vanity must somehow kneel before the greater obligation of truth."


"I wish also in this missive to thank Mr. LaPorte himself whom I never met again, Every letter sent to him has since has returned 'Addressee unknown".  I remain sorry to this day that I've never been able to express a single syllable of thanks."  (Archives of Field and Stream, Nessmuk Letter, September 1889)


[This letter was never published, despite the revelatory nature of its content. A legacy advertiser within Field and Stream was Penn Central Railroad, which profited from traffic of tourists and fishermen, hunters and outdoorsmen, all fostered by Nessmuk's column. Morte as knowledgeable historians now know, was regarded as a terrorist by that rail corporation, a dangerous criminal who used every ounce of strength and cunning to incapacitate the iron horse, and with it man's reach into the Adirondack Mountains.]

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