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Logging at Boreas Ponds

Boreas Ponds, featured in Adirondack Life’s 2016 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors, played a key role in Adirondack logging from the 1890s to the 1940s. The 20,700-acre parcel was owned by Finch, Pruyn & Company until the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy acquired it nine years ago. The land is now part of the Forest Preserve, with recreational use to be determined as the Department of Environmental Conservation works on campsites, boat-access points, trails and an overall plan.

Paper company Finch, Pruyn, based in Glens Falls, New York, valued the High Peaks tract for its exceptional quantity of softwoods for lumber and pulp; the ponds and streams were important in providing water for the annual river drives from the mountains to mills on the Hudson. Sending logs downstream began as soon as the ice went out, with numerous dams creating impoundments that allowed systematic control of the flow. Men were stationed at the dams, alerted by a primitive telephone network, to open the flood gates. The journey from Boreas Ponds to Glens Falls in March and April took two to three weeks, though for more than a month after the last log passed into the Hudson, crews walked its banks to salvage timber that was deposited on shore.

River drivers in sturdy rowboats hit the swift waters with the thousands of logs, carrying long pike poles to unlock jams, often walking atop a jumble of moving wood. (As the video clip shows, logs had been debarked, making them very slippery and adding to this inherently dangerous job.) These lumberjacks lived rough during a drive, often sleeping at river’s edge under long pieces of wool felt recycled from the mill’s paper-making machinery. Every few miles a cook was stationed to provide hot meals, sometimes five a day. According to Richard Nason, who is writing a history of Finch logging, there were 17 camps along the Hudson and its tributaries such as the Boreas, Cedar and Indian. Men consumed about 8,000-9,000 calories per day, fueled primarily by “bean-hole beans” that were cooked in huge iron pots.

The river drive was the culmination of a woodsman’s year until just after World War II. The cycle started in May, when men went into lumber camp to cut and peel logs for paper pulp. At Boreas the work force, especially in the 1940s, was diverse, with Russians, Finns and French-Canadians joining the Americans, and the Finnish crews at Boreas built saunas near their camps.

The goal was to have all the logs felled, peeled and cut into four-foot bolts by Christmas so the crews could go home for the holiday. Some loggers could cut and pile 10 cords of wood a day for six days a week—using cross-cut and bow saws for the felling and iron spuds for the bark removal.

Horsepower was critical, and draft teams made two trips a day hauling huge sleds piled with logs. In the Boreas tract, with big hills and wetlands, the work was arduous, beginning at 3:00 a.m. and lasting until sundown. Woods roads were sprinkled with water to make a hard ice surface, a job done by “road monkeys” piloting enormous tanks on runners. For steep inclines, sleds were cabled to giant brakes that kept the load from overrunning the horses. Logs were unloaded onto frozen ponds, and when the ice thawed the chain reaction of sending wood from tributary to river began. The loggers were paid just once, at the end of the May–March cycle.

The last log drive on the Hudson occurred in spring 1950. At the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake, the permanent exhibit Work in the Woods shows all the steps in old-time logging plus tools, a log sled, sprinkler wagon along with narrated dioramas.

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