2001 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors
Martha and Fred
Visiting Weller Pond—where seventy years ago an unlikely friendship was forged—to discover the healing power of the woods.
by Christine Jerome
We’re heading for Weller Pond. When we spot an outboard chugging west, we begin worrying. “Weller was jammed last weekend,” a friend has warned us, and we know that Saturday morning is usually too late to claim a choice spot. Another concern is the weather. It may only be May 6, but two sunny, windless days in a row will liberate the blackflies. Today’s cool rain, the same weather I dislike in October, seems a gift.
As if on cue the usual avian suspects appear. An osprey detaches itself from Halfway Island and flaps languidly away. Along Middle Saranac’s north shore, a flock of mergansers slips behind the rocks, and in Hungry Bay it’s so quiet we can hear the whuh-whuh-whuh made by a loon’s wings as the bird rockets overhead. We rejoice to see the lean-to on Rice Point unoccupied, and soon we’re stroking through the marshy slough. After only an hour of paddling, Weller Pond lies before us, empty and silent.
Campsite 85, on a breezy point on the north shore, is backed by swamp and anchored by a grove of ancient hemlocks and white pines. From the high ground they occupy the site slopes to the water, where there’s a fine view of Stony Creek Mountain and, farther back, the Seward Range. To the west, Tot (or Tock) Island and a smaller atoll shield the point. Two weathered plaques nailed to a tree commemorate the spot.
Here in 1931 a tubercular young woman and a crusty Saranac Lake man began a friendship that endured the rest of their lives. The story is well known: how Fred Rice, a boatbuilder and guide with his own ideas about TB treatment, advertised for a patient to summer in the woods and discover how beneficial camp life could be. The only respondent was Martha Rebentisch, a New York City woman whose illness had forced her to drop out of high school and move north. Martha had one working lung and had been bedridden for three years. Utterly bored by her cloistered existence and certain that another operation would kill her, she felt she had little to lose by trying something different. For his part, Fred had been angling for a male client, but with no other prospects, he decided to take her on. One day in late May he tucked a mattress into his boat Gull, installed Martha on it, and motored the ten miles from Lower Saranac to his camp on Weller Pond. He was fifty-five, Martha twenty-five.
It wasn’t long before Fred’s gentle prodding led Martha to stop viewing herself as an invalid. Originally nervous even about sleeping in a tent, she was soon ensconced in the open air by the shore. Over the next few months she grew tanned and strong and independent, learning to paddle a canoe, shoot a rifle and live happily in solitude. Perhaps Fred’s greatest gift was teaching her to see: as the seasons passed he shared fifty years of experience in the north woods. Rain or shine he took her out on excursions to find arbutus and pogonias, to fish for perch and to watch deer feeding in the shallows and listen to the nighttime dialogue of bobcats and owls and bittern. Martha became an astute observer of the “wood folk,” as she called them, and discovered a gift for relating to wildlife. Their camp was home to tame and half-tame creatures, from her pet Pekin duck Mr. Dooley to fledgling robins and flying squirrels and coons, and even a resident yellowjacket.
Having turned her back on the sanatorium, Martha’s life took on a seasonal rhythm. Winters she lived with Fred, his wife, Kate, and grandson, John Benson. Butlil in town was a trial for her, and she lived for spring and her return to the woods. (“Martha is starting the usual trouble of wanting to go into camp at least two weq before we should,” Fred once wrote John.) When he could find work, Fred stayed in town, bringing supplies, mail and visitors on the weekends.
Money was always a problem. Although her father furnished a modest allowance, Martha’s physical limitations and lack of education precluded most kinds of employment. After a failed attempt at hairdressing, she had attended journalism classes at a local arts guild and decided to wriite about what mattered most to her, the joy of life in the woods.
She composed in longhand, and Fred learned to hunt and peck well enough to type her manuscripts. Twenty years of collecting material and eight years of writing went into The Healing Woods, published in 1952 (for which her editor shortened her name to Reben). The Way of the Wilderness followed in 1955, A Sharing of Joy in 1963. Although they were modestly successful, all are now out of print.
Reben’s work is notable for a clear prose style and a lyrical appreciation of the natural world. Her descriptions of seasonal change are as powerful as any I’ve read. “Already it was September,” she wrote in The Way of the Wilderness, “and all day long the pine needles dropped onto the roof of the tent with a sound like rain. Soon they covered the campground like a newly laid straw-colored carpet. . . . The whitish grass turned from green to gold, and the low-growing bushes bordering the slough had a tough, dry look. The driftwood along the shores, which had been bleaching in the sun all summer, took on the luster of pewter.”
Also evident is the droll sense of humor she brought to the antics of animals. Back before “anthropomorphism became a dirty word among naturalists, Martha likened her companions to humans and delighted in their idiosyncrasies. Take Mr. Dooley: “He was insufferably pompous, and he had the most insatiable appetite, for his size, of any bird or beast around camp…. When he bedded down at night, he sang to himself, and he always ended by saying something that sounded like, ‘Ah, well.’ It had a somewhat resigned sound, not unhappy, just philosophical.” Often as not the wood folk she entertained became pests, much to Fred’s annoyance. Yet constant interaction with wildlife softened him, and eventually led him to give up hunting.
Martha reserved her best wit for her guide—”Gramps” in real life, but in her books always “Mr. Rice.” Mr. Rice, she explained, was “a voluble man who was impatient with wordiness in others.” And, describing a mishap, “because he was a man who cried aloud at the sting of a mosquito, it was hard to judge how badly he was hurt.” He was a teacher too, although not always successful: “He was forever trying to explain to me such things as hydraulic pressure, the reflection of light and the inertia of bullets, but with a notable lack of success. When he would stop and demand, ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’ I found that it would save wear and tear on both of us if I nodded and looked comprehending…”
Although Fred’s parents had removed him from school after the fourth grade, he had a fine mind and theories about everything, many of which he expressed in essays, sometimes published in the Saranac Lake paper but more often set aside at home: “Coons Wash Their Food? They Do Not!,” “Parents and Children,” “Ice,” “Psychology of Dog Owners” and so on. A carpenter as well as an accomplished builder of guideboats, he was forever sharpening his tools: “Easier to cut things off than to file them off,” he’d say. He had a laconic manner but was not above donning his old-woodsman persona when a suitable audience materialized. Martha described him hailing two boatloads of young women: “‘Mornin’! We jest scared up a pattridge to the east of thet big stun in the bay. There ain’t many of ’em left now…. Funny dern punkins, pattridges.’ He placed his paddle across his knees and I could almost see a battered felt hat descend upon his head and his hip pocket begin to bulge with a worn deck of cards. ‘Times, they’ll set on a limb an’ let you walk right by ’em without stirrin’ a harr, then agin they’ll whir up under yer feet till you most think yer sent for.'”
Martha freely credited Fred with saving her life, and her affection for him is everywhere evident. “Two persons alone in the wilderness, as we were, sharing the same sights and sounds were bound to become good friends,” she explained. This unusual friendship evolved over the years but never flagged. Martha fell in love with a fellow TB sufferer named Bill, and when he died it was Fred who broke the news and offered gruff consolation. “It may be cold comfort to you to think of this,” he told her, “but the only way to avoid having to grieve for someone else is to die first.” Sadly, in Martha’s case he was not that fortunate.
OUR CAMPSITE WAS NOT THE FIRST they occupied, nor was it their last. As we unpack I see why this sloping terrain eventually became too demanding over the course of a summer. John and I, at sixty-seven and fifty-seven respectively, are being nudged toward similar concessions to physical realities. Setting up camp is harder than it was ten years ago, even though we no longer approach it like a timed event. As often happens now, once we’ve unloaded the boat, set up kitchen and tent, and erected a tarp, we opt for a senior moment and head for our Therma-rests.
At lunchtime I discover two dimes under the picnic table, one Canadian, one American, and decide that Fred and Martha approve of our presence. We in turn approve of their spot, which despite heavy use retains a good deal of charm.
An afternoon circumnavigation of the pond reminds us why Weller is so popular. A mile long, a quarter-mile wide, it’s satisfyingly endowed with coves and dotted with six islets. Kingfishers swoop, chattering from branch to branch as we pass, and the limbs of white cedars arch gracefully over the water. Weller seems timeless, perhaps because its shores are so solidly lined with softwoods that you feel embraced by green. Only from midpond, where the hardwood flanks of Boot Bay Mountain become visible, are you reminded that it’s spring or summer or fall.
The sun emerges and we decide to save Little Weller for tomorrow. Back in camp we discover an inviting nook among the exposed roots on the western shore and settle in to lounge. A robin and a pileated woodpecker are working the point, while above us an osprey and then a raven flap westward. They might be descendants of birds Fred and Martha knew.
A lot has changed in the sixty-odd years since Fred and Martha lived here. After platform tents were banned in the 1970s, more people could camp and enjoy the pond. Even in high summer, Fred and Martha were startled to see other campers, but today Weller is a busy place, with all sites occupied on summer weekends. Back then the slough was choked with vegetation that discouraged motorized access, but now the channel is wider, and considerable traffic flows in and out. Even the skies are busier. As we sprawl contentedly, two chunky Air National Guard A-10 Thunderbolts scream overhead. Like the contrails that crisscross the heavens, in the 1930s such sights lay in the future.
As campers, Fred and Martha lived in a more innocent world. They drank the pond water and washed clothes offshore. They buried food in a primitive cooler and corrupted the wildlife with handouts. Back then bald eagles on Boot Bay Mountain, and wildlife of all kinds was more plentiful. Still, some things are better now. Old logging scars have healed, eagles are making a comeback, forest fires are less common, game laws are more respect, and the thieves that twice plundered Fred and Martha’s camp disappeared along with platform-tent culture.
Whiffs of balsam sharpen our appetites. In Fred and Martha’s time the camp didn’t boast the privy, the picnic or the splendid fire ring with adjustable grill we enjoy. As we make dinner we watch the breeze ruffle the pond and count twelve different surface patterns between us and the cove to the east. The sinking sun gilds the edges of puffy cumulus clouds and highlights individual branches along shore. This campsite is so clean I’m barefoot, and my feet are sticky with pine pitch. Owl talk sends us to bed, for the deepest, most restful sleep I’ve ever had in the woods. This place does feel special.
WITH HELP FROM HER FATHER, Martha bought a house on the highway west of Saranac Lake, and Fred and Kate moved in with her. In 1941 Kate died, and the following summer found Fred and Martha in a new, flatter campsite on Rice Point, at the far end of the slough to Middle Saranac (in their time known as Round Lake). There they led an and vastly more social life, with Fred as full-time caretaker.
As Fred reached his late seventies and his physical powers diminished, their roles reversed. Now it was Marthaa who looked after Fred. When he could no longer chop wood, they converted to kerosene for heat and a gas stove for cooking. When his sense of balance deserted him, he gave up canoeing. As the trip to Middle Saranac became too much for him, they moved to a platform tent on Lower Saranac and replaced the 219-pound Gull with a less cranky aluminum outboard that Martha could handle.
A financial windfall occurred in 1956, when C. V. Whitney optioned The Healing Woods for his independent film company. The project also proved a windfall for Mary Lou Schroeder, the young actress slated to play Martha, as Whitney fell in love with her. Martha was to consult on the production, and for two summers she and Fred lived in a remote Whitney Park cabin. When their host’s acrimonious divorce became public, the film was abandoned and they were not invited back.
In a concession to Fred’s physical limitations, Martha decided they needed to live closer to town, so in 1958 she bought a cabin on the Saranac River near Bloomingdale. The place had a good view of Whiteface but ran to scrubby alder, with none of the lofty white pines of Rice Point. Its virtue was that she could phone to have groceries delivered, since they had no car of their own. She had a pond dug in the yard, where her flock of tame mallards, she hoped, would be protected. Visitors were scandalized to find the windows and doors left open to accommodate a pair of chipping sparrows. “I thought it enchanting,” Martha explained, “to live in a little house in which the animals felt free to come and go as they pleased.”
DURING OUR BREAKFAST the partly cloudy skies gray off, with first the Sewards, then Stony Creek Mountain, fading from view. A gentle wind foils the occasional mosquito. We launch our canoe and within five minutes a moderate rain is falling. Five minutes later it’s stopped and the clouds are racing off to the east, the sun ablaze in a clear sky. We move through a Winslow Homer landscape, with tamaracks budding but the understory a leafless, wintry gray-brown. In the marsh between Weller and Little Weller there’s no sign of the exotic pitcher plants that will unfurl in June, but the demure white bells of leatherleaf hang on. A beaver waits until we’re almost upon him before plunging to safety.
This lovely wild pond is unchanged since Fred and Martha’s time. On the northwest shore, near the only solid land, the biggest blue heron I’ve ever seen lofts itself skyward with impossibly slow wingbeats to settle in the next cove. By now the sun is beating down and we’re engulfed by that eerie two-tone chorus of peepers and gray tree frogs, high shrilling, low trilling.
Back at camp we sunbathe until the wind picks up, whereupon we repair to our terraced grove to watch kayakers and fishermen come and go through the afternoon as waves chuck-chuck against a cedar stump. Graying skies produce sprinkles, then rain as we seek flatitude in the tent. By midafternoon the sky to the north is clearing, the wind dropping. This day is a graduate-level seminar called Varieties of Adirondack Weather, we decide: the same conditions haven’t prevailed for more than an hour. At suppertime, when the sky overhead is clear yet light sprinkles persist, a rainbow arcs all the way to Ampersand Mountain.
IN FEBRUARY 1959 Fred wrote his grandson, “We are very hard up. After two or three more months I don’t know what we will do.” He asked if John could spare five dollars a month, adding, “I am not telling Martha about this letter.” In fall 1961 Martha was devastated when some of her ducks were shot by hunters. The following year the shack remained unoccupied as her health deteriorated. By then, Fred’s memory was failing, distressing them both. (His staunch will, however, remained intact. A local surgeon recalls that after his prostatectomy, Fred tired of hospital care. He cut his catheter tube with his jackknife and made a break for it, heading for home in his slippers and johnny gown.)
In 1963 Fred and Martha camped for the last time, on Lower Saranac’s Pope Bay. That fall the walk to town had become too exhausting and they were living in Saranac Lake, Fred in a boardinghouse, Martha in a nearby apartment. By the time A Sharing of Joy was published in late 1963, Martha was back in the hospital. She died on January 7, 1964, of the effects of her tuberculosis, at age fifty-seven.
“There is some typeing that I want to do which will take me a month or two … and then I don’t care what—now that Martha is gone,” Fred wrote John four months later. “I always thought that a man never cries more than a minute or so and then very seldom. But when they told me that she was gone I cried—and cried for weeks! I don’t very often now. Three different times I have been sitting at the table and asked Martha some thing and when she didn’t answer I looked around to see why she didn’t—and rem[em]bered that she was never going to answer me again! That was terrible…. I wish that I had died and been buried with her!”
On June 11 conservation officer Richard Emperor scattered her ashes just offshore from her Weller Pond campsites. Her small estate was left in trust to care for Fred, who died April 12, 1966, at ninety, at the county home in Malone. His ashes, too, were scattered on Weller Pond.
RETURNING TO THE TENT in the night, I’m stopped in my tracks by the sight of the giant trees that dominate the campsite. Their enormous forms stand gravely in the half-light, patient witnesses to the life of Weller Pond. They were here when Martha found her calling, when she lost her lover and when her ashes sank into these waters thirty-six years ago. In The Way of the Wilderness she wrote: “It was not the singular events around camp, I suddenly realized, not the moments of splendor nor of wonder, that gave me the greatest satisfaction, so much as the unremarkable constant flow of my daily life and the lives of the creatures around me. I had a sudden yearning for immortality for myself and my companions, for it seemed to me that nothing so good as our lives together should ever come to an end.”