The legendary guides that opened the rugged Adirondack Mountain region to sportsmen during the 1800’s and early 1900’s were famous for their skills as woodsmen, hunters, anglers, and sometimes, even as philosophers.
Names like; Adirondack Murray, Alvah Dunning, Mitchell Sabattis, Old Mountain Phelps and others became well known to those seeking a true wilderness experience deep in the Adirondack woods.
This old postcard shows a typical camp set-up. The main feature was the rustic lean-to which was kept somewhat warm in colder weather by the fire burning near its open side. The anglers shown here have hung their days catch of trout. The three packbaskets carried by the men are prominently featured in the scene. These packs were most likely made of hand pounded ash splints.
The guides carried most of the supplies needed by their clients. The packbasket became one of the most essential pieces of the guide’s arsenal of supplies and tools. The photo below shows Mitchell Sabattis ( between trees) with two other guides, Farrend Austin and Johnny Keller. Their clients, often referred to as “sports”, are shown in the foreground. Their packbaskets again appear in the scene.
These hunting clients were most likely in the woods for several days and were fed, led and protected by the guides who did the cooking and all other tasks that ensured that the group of “sports” had a comfortable trip and successful hunt. Some guides were more sought after than others; the ability to provide successful hunts or fishing trips and to make the whole experience a comfortable and memorable affair varied and some became more in demand than others.
To the more “citified” sports, the guides often appeared to be crude and disheveled. Again, some more than others. Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps (shown at the right), for example, is said to have believed that “Soap is a thing that I hain’t no kinder use for.” Others were his opposite and were considered more “civilized” by the sports.
Guides were considered to be fearless, resourceful and the ultimate woodsmen. Their principal duties consisted of making camp, cooking, seeing to the comfort and ease of their clients and guiding them to the best fishing and hunting areas so the clients went home with either trophies or stories that spoke of their good time and eventful wilderness adventure.
The packbasket, as seen in the three photos here, was a prominent part of the tools and gear the guides needed to carry out their duties. This extraordinary group of men were most at home in the wilds of the Adirondacks and most clearly enjoyed sharing their passions with visitors to the area.
Adirondack Murray wrote “Adventures in the Wilderness of Camp Life in the Adirondacks” in 1869. In it, he summed up the philosophy and life of himself and the other Adirondack Guides: “This wilderness is their home. Here they were born, here they have lived and here it is that they expect to die. Their graves will be made under the pines where in childhood they played, and the sounds of wind and wave which lulled them to sleep when boys will swell the selfsame cadences in requiem over their graves. When they have passed away, tradition will prolong their virtues and their fame.”
The packbasket helped them, in a small way, to live the life they chose and to succeed in their wilderness tramps and adventures.