Return to Rondeau’s Hermitage
by Kenneth A. Wilson
It was late in the year 1902 when a world-weary young trapper-hunter-barber drifted into the wild interior of the central Adirondacks where the Cold River runs to meet the Raquette a mile or so from its Long Lake outflowing. It was up through the valley of the Cold River that Noah John Rondeau established his trapline and later made his home for most of the years between 1920 and 1950, living by wits and woodcraft, with a little help from some friends. And on two superb October days recently I experienced what Noah must have felt so many times in this beautiful, wide valley with its hardwoods, evergreens, its remoteness and peace. Here a man of sensitivity, not a little singed by civilized injustices, could find solitude in which to read his small library of choice books and write his own thoughts.
There is a fascination in the term “hermit.” Either one finds the idea appealing or repelling. Noah wore it as a title of distinction. But here was no common unfortunate: behind the keen woodsman’s eyes a bright mind functioned and harbored talents that were never to know their full potential. Yet in living the hermit’s life Noah realized a degree of true freedom many more “fortunate” mortals have come to envy and, in his way, contributed to human values. Noah proved it could still be done—living a good, simple, enriching life close to nature, naturally.
Those who know all of the Northville-Placid trail have passed through, or near, Rondeau’s hermitage. A portion of the trail winds through the Cold River Valley between Shattuck Clearing northeast of Long Lake and the truck trail coming in to Duck Hole from Ampersand. It is a solitary region of great wilderness potential.
A submerged log, protected from rot by the water, still draws a seething white line across the river. Stubs of big logs protrude, sawtoothed, rotted and broken away, from beneath piles or boulders on either bank. They called it Big Dam. Some fifty feet above, atop a small bluff, the remains of “Cold River City” (population one!) offer little hint of the fascinating man who spent his best years there.
This remnant of dam, and the meadow up stream with its meandering flow, give testimony to a temporary lake once held in check. The region was then privately owned, and Big Dam served the Santa Clara Lumber Company until about 1920. Their abandoned camps provided lumber yard and hardware store to a resourceful hermit. Remains of log buildings, rusty oil lanterns, bits of machinery, disintegrated boots, and a broken saw still can be found in clearings along the trail. It is a beautiful region to hike in, now that a new forest of hardwoods have replaced massive pines and spruces coveted by the lumbermen. Autumn spills her dyes over maples, beeches, birches; clusters of small spruce hold stubborn green; and the trail runs easy and dry. But I would like to have known it wild and virgin before axes and saws—and hurricane wind.
Of the two permanent buildings Rondeau fitted up from scrap lumber, poles, canvas, and tar-paper, the Town Hall served as living quarters, library, and home for the precious violin that sung to visiting hikers many an evening before an open fire. The Hall of Records—the Town Hall’s twin—was sold to the Adirondack Museum, along with some 75 smaller belongings, in 1957 arid 1958. It filled dual purposes as both toolshed and guesthouse. Gradually, year by year, the Town Hall returns its boards to the earth. Nearly roofless now, it settles gently westward, and descendants of Noah’s chipmunks chew seeds in bright sunlight on the slanting timbers. At the rear wall, inside, below the tinned-in chimney hole, an ugly black char running up the wall marks a portion of roof, mute evidence of a near catastrophe. The hermit was known for an easy attitude toward fires, to the dismay of friends, but seems to have escaped igniting the woods, his belongings, or himself.
An eroded bluff drops sharply some fifty feet to the original level of Big Dam, followed by a further descent to the river bank. Twelve steps lead most of the way down its west side, ten retained by short poles set horizontally in the bluffside and two naturally formed by tree roots. One can imagine the countless gallons of river water carried up by these steps to the hermitage.
Noah wasn’t altogether a good environmentalist (take heed campers!), for a rusting scatter of trash disintegrates below the bluff. Stovepipe, milk tins, coffee cans, chicken wire, bread baking tins, spice cans, burlap, and lard pails. I saw little plastic or aluminum, so in the passage of more than twenty years it all turns gradually to reddish dust, but gradually.
Early conservation laws limiting hunting and trapping to seasons and establishing bag limits were slow to be accepted among old time woodsmen. Their instincts were to hunt for need, when and where they pleased, and such intrusions on what they considered basic freedoms were met with grumblings at the least and more often outright disregard of the laws. Poaching took on the aspect of a game of wits. Some of the most amusing event in Noey’s life turn round his feuds with men of the Conservation Department. A few concluding in fines and one in a twenty-two day sampling of Malone’s jail (awaiting Grand Jury action, which ended in acquittal). However, by the end of World War II an aging hermit suddenly became an asset to the Department when then director of conservation education Clayt Seagears wrote an article on hermit Rondeau for the newly established magazine The Conservationist. And here was just what the Department needed for their segment of the 1947 New York City Sportsmen’s Show—an articulate, witty, authentic (captive) Adirondack hermit complete with buckskin clothes, whiskers, and a pot of “slam bang”—the everlasting stew.
Thus began a successful series of show and lecture appearances, national radio and television guesting. The hermit was becoming famous and, untrue to traditional hermitdom, Noah enjoyed it to the fullest. But the years of fickle fame slowly diminished. Enrichened with new memories and friendships, Noah’s life returned to more of the simplicity he had originally sought when younger.
The tough suppleness of youth was fading. He probably still tended the iron pots of beloved flowers hung throughout Cold River City and added to his wild-flower plots. Perhaps the summers found vegetables maturing in his garden that I found now marked by a line of young spruce trees. The only evidence of flowers I saw, being after first frosts, stood as tall autumn-browned stalks of persistent day lillies, encircling a spruce beside the Town Hall. A few years ago, so I hear, his shasta daisies still bloomed into fall.
November 25, 1950: “…The low pressure system rapidly increased in intensity and magnitude. Its winds increased to gale force and were accompanied by heavy precipitation… For the State as a whole, this was the most damaging storm of record.” So history wrote about the most devastating wind storm to hit the Adirondacks in recorded times. The final toll was 423,735 acres of woods damaged. The land hurricane had come from the east, sweeping eastern slopes, toppling trees not rooted to resist easterly blasts. It would be more than three years before some trails could be reopened.
The mayor of Cold River City had returned home on November 11th. On the 25th Noey noted in his journal “Cloudy and fierce wind” and took time to recanvas the Town Hall roof “where wind raise hell” before leaving at 4 p.m. for the long walk out. The hermitage had been spared, but not the region. 10,000 Cold River acres had been virtually flattened to the west and south. Noah was on the edge of it, and by taking the Mountain Pond trail northeast toward Duck Hole, missed seeing the shambles of woods until reaching the Ampersand Lake region.
A fantastic clean up operation began with all haste. So many trees were propped high above ground level that rotting would be slow and dry. Devastating fires would surely ensue. With rapid action, only one serious fire did result—in the Cold River country. Late in the afternoon of July 18, 1953 lightening from a thunderstorm ignited down timber along the river a few miles northeast of Shattuck Clearing, downstream from the hermitage. Men and machines worked frantically the following three days, with additional help on alert throughout the state and in New England, and by Tuesday the 21st, with help from rain, the fire could be reported under control. Only 240 acres had burned. Because of continuing fire hazard the woods remained closed another two years; the hermit would never again live there, for age had made the trail too long. Noey was nearing 70.
Noah John prepared and tended an Ash Ground on the bluff. Not even his ashes ever returned to Cold River. His bones rest in a common cemetery plot at North Elba. The end came on August 24, 1967 in a room of the Lake Placid Memorial Hospital.
The Adirondack Museum has its artifacts, magazine articles have been published, pictures and recordings exist, a comprehensive biography written by Maitland DeSormo, to whom I am indebted for many details in this story, but of it all I somehow feel the mouldering remains on the bluff above the Cold River are the most fitting monuments to this unique personality. There the earth slowly accepts the works of a man, graciously, amid vigorous life, under new spruce and balsam and maple and birch, as also the earth takes back the man. The forest regenerates after lumbermen, wind, and fire. The wilderness, protected, is still wild, forever wild, and a dream of true freedom lingers undiminished there.