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Willem Lange: Our Final Farewell to a Fellow Hiker

Keene, N.Y.

The Norton Cemetery lies on a west-facing slope on the east side of the valley of the East Branch of the Ausable River. Like most old cemeteries, it sits on sandy land. The old-timers were no fools; sandy digging was far preferable to excavating “two rocks to every dirt.” Just a few hundred yards above this hill was once the town dump — same reason — now a transfer station. The sand is most likely the bed of the post-glacial Ausable, which was much bigger and powerful than its current descendant, and filled the valley from mountain to mountain.

There are perhaps three dozen of us who’ve come to celebrate the life and bury the ashes of Mary Schaefer, an old friend, in her family’s plot. License plates (ADK 46R) and stickers identify many of the folks here as members of the 46ers — hikers who have climbed all 46 of the traditional Adirondack peaks over 4,000 feet. There are over 7,000 46ers now who have registered with the club. Mary was number 105; she finished her 46 the same day as her mother and little sister, with another sister and a younger brother 10 days behind.

Mary was 77 when she died, so it’s not surprising how many of us around her site are leaning on canes, crutches and walkers. Hikers’ knees remind them, in their old age, of past abuses they’ve suffered in the pursuit of high places. I see people looking up frequently at the view from Mary’s family’s plot. It’s of the glacier-rounded massif formed by Cascade and Porter mountains.

A light breeze flows down the valley from the south, warming itself on the river flats as it goes. Three turkey vultures ride the air current where it bumps against a ledge crowned by a summer cottage and then slides up and over. All very peaceful.

My own plot — and Mother’s, too, if she wants to be here — is over on the far side of a low ridge that runs down the middle of the cemetery. My view is a sidewise one of the Great Range, a classic ridge that runs over 10 lovely and successively higher mountains and culminates in Mount Marcy, the highest point in the state. I’m glad I climbed them early, because I’d never make it up there now with enough left in the tank to get back.

Paul Schaefer, Mary’s father, was an ardent and indefatigable conservationist who spent years of his life and much of his income to defeat the plans of utility companies for power-generating dams within the Adirondack Forest Preserve. His reputation still walks on water among many lovers of the Adirondack Park, 6 million acres in which special regulations apply to not only the 2.1 million acres of state-owned land, but to private land, as well. The kids in the family grew up with a huge plaster-of-Paris model of the mountains in “the Adirondack Room” of their house, and a constant stream of visitors involved in their preservation. It’s because of their efforts, as well as of those of the original architects of the park, that we can now hike for days through forests that haven’t seen a logger’s ax or chainsaw for over 100 years.

In the early 1950s, “Ma” Schaefer — everybody still calls her that, almost 30 years after her death — organized her kids into a hiking group and set out from their home near Schenectady to climb the 46 4,000-footers. They didn’t have any equipment or money to speak of, so they bought war-surplus sleeping bags and made ponchos out of plastic tablecloths that doubled as tents when they couldn’t find a lean-to. They used whatever clothes they already owned and whatever packs and pack baskets they had around. It helped that Paul, who wasn’t a part of what they called “The Schaefer Expeditions,” had had a long interest in the outdoors; and his old-fashioned equipment was available. On Sundays — after Mass, at Ma’s insistence — he dropped them off at whatever trailhead she’d chosen, and on Saturdays met them again with fresh fruit and vegetables.

In the mid-’50s, jogging down the trail from Mount Marcy to Marcy Dam, I ran into them at a campsite called Indian Falls. I was in my Austrian phase at the time — Lederhosen, vest, Alpine hat with pins and a Gamsbart, Vibram-soled boots — and I yodeled! They describe the meeting in their book about the family’s adventures: He “reminded us of a Hummel figure.” We hit it off right away, and agreed to go climbing together the next day, on a pair of trailless peaks nearby.

This was less that five years after the Great Thanksgiving Blowdown of 1950, and huge swaths of the Adirondack spruce forest were still horizontal. It was a long, long day; at times we didn’t touch the ground for a hundred yards or so. After we reached the first summit, we ran out of water, and the youngest girl was in a lot of distress, which two large cucumbers didn’t do much to allay. I spotted a slight depression below us, and guessed that if we followed it down, we’d find a spring. We did. Icy cold. No Sahara wanderer ever enjoyed an oasis more than we did that one.

We climbed together now and then over the years, but then we all grew up and moved away. Ma ran an outdoor equipment store here in Keene for many years; we visited whenever we could.

Mary, the only one of the kids who stayed with the church, specialized in fine arts and liturgical studies, eventually becoming a professor at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She remained her father’s daughter, advocating for wilderness preservation; she remained her mother’s daughter, too, and a bit of a thorn in the side of the traditional hierarchy by constantly insisting on a larger role for women in the Roman Catholic Church. Shortly before she died at the end of March, she finished her magnum opus, a history of women in the early church. As we say goodbye to her this morning, I have a feeling we may be hearing more from Mary yet.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.