In 1939, my father, Malcolm Specht, applied for a permit to construct a platform tent “on northerly shore of Pope Bay, Lower Saranac Lake, on projecting shelf of rock, approximately 200 yds. from Platform #214.” My father’s site is still easily recognized today as that steep rocky outcropping on Pope Bay at the top of which sits a large, somewhat egg-shaped, and precariously balanced glacial erratic. Shortly after submitting the application, Dad received authorization to build at the site, subsequently identified as Permit No. 733.
With the help of his brother, Robert, and several others, including Joe Harley, my Dad built his initial tent at the site. The platform was erected directly behind the erratic mentioned above. The back of the structure was on solid ground but the front was elevated, perhaps as much as 8 feet off the ground by log “columns”, I suspect that the logs may have been harvested from the woods nearby. The rest of the structure was of sawn boards obtained from local lumberyards. The platform itself was quite long, with the covered tent to the rear and a large open deck in the front, overlooking the bay and, in the distance, providing a clear view of Ampersand Mountain.
My family’s first platform on the site initially was used for both sleeping and as the camp’s mess tent where other camp activities occurred. Having several children, additional space soon seemed necessary and so my parents constructed a second platform. Looking at the site from the water, that second structure was to the right of and slightly behind the original platform.
The second platform served as a sleeping tent for the children. It had hand-built cots, one on each side of the entry door and a double-decker bunk bed across the back. The cot frames were made from narrow tree trunks (probably Northern White Cedar) about three inches in diameter – I remember that, even after a number of years of use, some of the bed frame rails still were bark-covered. Each cot was finished with a piece of canvas, grommetted holes around the edges, and laced to the frame to serve as a mattress. We used sleeping bags rather than traditional bedding. The construction of this second platform enabled the original structure to become dedicated principally as the site’s “mess” where meals were prepared and eaten and where rainy day activities were arranged (although in my memory of those days, rainy days were rare in the Adirondacks).
Sometime around 1950 my parents built a third platform. It was to the right and down the hill from the original structure. A half-wall separated the platform into two sleeping areas, the front area overlooking the water, and the back facing into the woods. The front sleeping area held two cots and the rear a bunk bed. Although I believe that I may have spent my earliest years sleeping in the camp’s original building, once built, the rear section of this third platform tent became my sleeping area.
The platforms had solid sides, about 36 inches high and, above that, screening that continued to the top of the side “walls”. I would describe the appearance of the “solid” parts of the construction as though they were part of an unfinished building - the tops were much like open roof rafters without any actual roofing materials – open until large canvas sheets were stretched over those framing members.
All three of the structures were similar in appearance and construction. In the early days, the sawn board wooden floors and sides were left unfinished however over time severe winters took a toll on the structure. After repairs, all of the wood was then treated with a preservative (I think creosote) giving the structures a dark brown color. A sienna-colored canvas tarp was stretched over the top framing of each platform, fastened to that framing by an arrangement of grommets and screws. With some effort, the canvas was attached or removed at the start or end of each season. Each of the tents had a screen door entryway and each of the screen doors had a canvas cover that was used to protect against a driving rain or to more fully shutter the building. Each of the tents had glass windows on either side of the doorway thus providing natural light into the tent. In those days, there was no need for door locks as visitors to the lake respected the privacy and belongings of their fellow-campers.
Each June, my father would travel to our campsite to clean up any winter damage, fallen branches, etc. and to install the doors, windows, and canvas on each of the platforms. This activity readied the camp for family use during the ensuing summer. Dad told that sometimes during his spring cleanup he would have to remove tarpaper that had been nailed to the walls and roof of the structure – apparently the campsites were sometimes used during the offseason by hunters who would use them, building temporary shelters and taking advantage of the platform location and its elevation above the cold and perhaps snow-covered ground.
After arriving in Saranac Lake, following a long drive from New Jersey, up Route 9 then through the Keene Valley (before the NY Thruway and Northway), the family made our final leg of the journey to camp, leaving from Harry Duso’s Crescent Bay Camps in a rented open fishing boat and engine (always an Evinrude). Later, Dad bought an Evinrude outboard motor from Harry but always continued to rent one of his boats.
The boat landing for my father’s site No. 733 consisted of a short dock that was on the left side of the site. Arriving at the site with gear or groceries meant trekking up the hill to the tent platforms, located at the top of the rise. It was quite a climb. I suspect that my parents chose that particular site due to its commanding view of the bay and distant mountains – it certainly was neither the most convenient nor the most logical site upon which to build. Knowing my father, I also suspect that the challenge of building there may have also been part of its attraction.
In an effort to avoid the difficulty of hauling heavy items up the hill, Dad built a large storage box behind the mess tent. The box was the same color as the platform with a hasp and padlock to make it secure through the off-season. At the end of the camping season, we packed much of our equipment into that storage locker to be overwintered there, conveniently ready at the start of the next season. We stacked the stovetop, pots and pans, folding chairs, thermos jugs, and other “hard” items in that box – even a collection of crayons and a deck or two of cards. Upon arrival in the spring of the first year after its construction we found that all of the corners of the box were damaged badly, chewed during the winter by porcupines that apparently could not resist the taste of freshly sawn boards and the prospect of hidden foodstuffs. Other than shredded toilet paper and a few torn towels, no significant damage had been done to the contents of the locker. Dad made necessary repairs and subsequently nailed wire screening on all of the corners to avoid any future invasions.
As an additional time- and effort-saving measure, my father had found a small cave nearby, really just a space between two large rock slabs, in which he stored screen doors, windows and other removable parts of the platform tents during the off-season. Many years later, although the platforms themselves were gone, I explored the cave and found the remains of several of the items that had been stored there.
A metal-lined box, sunken into the hillside behind the main mess tent, was used as a cooler. It had an opening at ground level and a removable top, lined and insulated. We purchased blocks of ice from Duso’s whenever needed to keep foodstuffs fresh and somewhat cold while we were in camp. It is my understanding that the blocks of ice had been cut from the lake by Duso’s crew during the preceding winter and stored at Duso’s Crescent Bay Camps in an ice house there, packed in sawdust.
My mother did the cooking on a propane-fired stove that had three burners, each having a porcelain handle. We had no traditional oven at camp but, for some recipes that required baking, Mother sometimes used a covered clay pot that I think was called a “dutch oven”. We ate our meals at a sawbuck table that stood in the center of the mess tent. We got our propane tank filled at Saranac Hardware. That store was then located in town on Main Street, in the building that now houses the Adirondack Artists Guild. The hardware store kept the propane tanks over the winter. I believe that the tanks may have been loaned to the campers for seasonal use rather than being owned outright by the platform owners themselves.
While at camp, we obtained our drinking water from a small spring on the south side of Pope Bay. Although I had spent much time on the lake, I was not a swimmer and in fact was very fearful of the water. My parents, wisely, required that I always wear a life preserver whenever near the water or in the boat – today, the regular use of PFDs is common, even among adults, but, back then, it embarrassed me to wear that uncomfortable orange kapok floater. Despite my fears and young age, I was given the responsibility to row the boat across the bay to fill thermoses at the spring – of course, always wearing my life preserver. That was quite a responsibility for such a youngster, and yet that chore gave me a great sense of independence and ultimately gave me additional incentive to learn to swim. (I was not allowed to use the boat’s engine until I was a bit older.)
We used Coleman (white gas) lamps to illuminate the tent for the evening meals and activities. The Coleman, hanging from one of the rafters, would hiss quietly as it spread its light even to the corners of the tent. We also had several kerosene lanterns that were used to illuminate the way to the sleeping tents at nightfall. When bedtime finally came, the flame slowly dimmed as the lamp was extinguished for the night, its last flicker of light giving way to the deepest darkness and most profound silence of nightfall in the woods.
Behind our camp, back in the woods, my father built a rough outhouse. We used that rather open structure for “nature calls” despite it not giving much privacy or protection from weather or mosquitoes. It was an unpleasant but necessary chore to periodically remove the bucket from the outhouse, carried further into the woods, shovel in hand, its contents emptied and buried far from campsite and lakeside.
In front of and on the lake side of the large erratic rock at the site my parents had built a stone fireplace. Several benches, constructed using hewn logs, were at the fireside. We would often have evening campfires there and would roast marshmallows over the open fire. One year as the stones began to warm from the first fire of the season we were surprised to see small snakes, apparently only recently hatched, making an escape from between the stones of the fireplace. More pleasantly, on rare occasions we would enjoy the Northern Lights while sitting around the campfire. The adults would tell family stories to the children while we all relaxed around the fire - there was also a fair share of ghost stories told, raising goose bumps on everyone’s arms and making the night seem that much darker, the woods that much deeper, and every sound that much more startling.
Sometimes the family would visit friends at another of the platform tent sites. Often those trips, necessarily taken by boat, were in the evening; we would visit around a campfire, renew acquaintances and share camping tales. On other evenings, we might take the boat out for a nighttime fishing adventure. Whenever we were to return to camp after darkness fell, Dad would put a lit kerosene lantern on the end of our dock as a beacon and guide for our return. Navigating a boat to shore at night was a challenge as the actual shoreline always seemed to recede into deeper darkness, even as we cautiously motored more closely to a landing.
There was quite a variety of wildlife in the area. We would see an occasional raccoon, porcupine, or loon. Red squirrels, chipmunks, gulls and other birds were more common. Once, in early morning as mists rose from the lake, I saw several otters gamboling along the shoreline. Although we spent many summers at the camp, I never saw any deer or bear in the area until much later, long after the platform tent era.
Dad and I would go fishing - he frequently caught smallmouth bass or northern pike… I was not so lucky. On other days, the family might take the boat and go to an area of the Lower Lake that we called “Perch Bay”, that wide area at the mouth of the river and across from Loon Bay. We would use drop lines there and catch yellow perch (with this kind of fishing I would sometimes have more success). Depending on the size of our catch, we then would have fresh perch for lunch or for breakfast the next morning.
My parents, raising a rather traditionally strong Christian family, ensured that the entire entourage made it to church each Sunday. Regardless of weather, stormy seas, or other hazards real and imagined, we would all pile into the boat, girls in their dresses and hats, boys in their best, to make the trip into town for mass. I think that my parents believed even if we had all drown in an effort to get to church on Sunday, the fact that we had made the effort at all would most certainly count in our favor should we arrive, unexpectedly but well-dressed, at the pearly gates.
Periodically we would make the long boat ride to Middle Saranac Lake. On the way, the river was always an interesting place where we would often see ducks and heron. To a young boy, the locks on the river were a wonder – I was always most impressed when my father operated the lock by himself, swinging from one gate to the next as the boat rose or fell going up or down river. There were places on the river with great rafts of yellow or white water lilies, and where pickerelweed and other flora grew in profusion. As I got a bit older, Dad sometimes allowed me to steer the boat through the river, reminding me “red right returning” (but, Dad, which way is “returning”?).
Once we broke free of the narrow channeled river and motored into the Middle Lake, we would head to the sandy beach area to bask in the sun, picnic and bathe. As a non-swimmer, the gradual and calm beach area was always a real treat for me and I would play, unencumbered by a life preserver, in the shallow water.
My father was an officer in the US Army Reserves. As the war in Europe (WWII) continued to escalate, Dad was called to active service in late 1940. Through the war years the family moved often, from one duty station to another until late 1944 when my father was assigned to duty in Europe. As a result, the family was unable to make use of our Saranac Lake camp during the 1941-1945 seasons. Although family memory fails on this point, it is likely that my parents may have offered to friends the opportunity to use the camp in our absence. After the war was over and Dad returned home, we began to use the camp again beginning in the summer of 1946. Being a “baby boomer”, 1946 was my first year at camp.
It is my understanding that my father and several of his college chums visited the Adirondacks in the summer shortly after their graduation in the late 1920s. They made that classic canoe voyage from Old Forge to Saranac Lake Village. 1 It was during that expedition that the men found Lower Saranac to be the most attractive of all of the lakes through which they had paddled. Several decided to make return trips to Saranac and a few determined to build platform tents on the Lake.
Joe Harley may have been the first of “the gang” to build a camp on the Lower Lake. Other camps, including my father’s, came soon after. Joe was instrumental in attracting many of his colleagues and associates to the Saranac Lake area. In fact, Joe Harley was the required witness on my father’s “Application for Permit”. The Harleys became family friends and camp “neighbors”, we often visiting Joe’s Bluff Island camp. With fondness we called Joe by the name “Yo-gee-botchy” (spelled here phonetically - apparently it is Hungarian for “Uncle Joe”) and called Joe’s wife Mary-nay-nee (Aunt Mary).
One of Harley’s outstanding photos shows Joe, my uncle, Robert, and my parents, Malcolm and Marjorie, sitting on top of the Bluff and studying a map of the lake. Joe included this photo in a “Christmas Greeting” to my parents in 1936. I suspect that the picture was taken during my parents’ exploratory visit to the Lake as they chose a site for their own platform tent camp. My Uncle Bob, although not listed in any of the correspondences or records that I have regarding the camp, was an integral member of my extended family. He assisted in the building and participated in the enjoyment of the platform campsite No. 733 during its early years.
Apparently, my father had come to know Harry Duso quite well, even before building the camp No. 733. A draft of a correspondence from my father to Harry, written early in 1939, reads in part,
“On June 16 I am coming to Saranac to erect a platform on Pope Bay. The position for which I have the permit is a shelving rock about opposite the spring and about 200 yards further into the bay than the existing camp (the one with the flagpole and lots of fancy rustic work).
“Will you kindly purchase for me the following building materials and deliver them to the above-mentioned site on June 16. [An extensive list of materials was included with the correspondence]
“Joe Harley is coming with me with some others to aid in the construction…
“I will be prepared to pay you in full for the lumber and services when I see you…”
It is difficult to imagine that such a casual arrangement could be made today. It reflects a more trusting time, when even a passing acquaintance and a handshake were sufficient – no written contracts, no “performance guarantees”, and no “pay me up front”.
My father ordered the custom-made canvas for his tents from Ernest Chandler, “Manufacturer of Sails, Awnings & Tents – Trunk, Wagon and Auto Covers” located on Wooster Street, New York City. The invoice dated 1939 from Chandler, billing for the custom cut & sewn canvas, lists the cost: $34.68 which included 4 separate pieces (top, back, front & door covering), 1 gross of #2 brass spur grommets [at 35cents per gross] and a NY City sales tax of 2%.
I understand that the State of NY contacted many platform permit holders sometime during the late 1950’s, requesting that platforms be modified to meet a newly established common standard size. Since much of the Adirondack Park was and is a public facility, owned by all of the people of the State, this move by the State apparently signaled the end of the quasi-private permit sites. The concept was a good one in that it would have allowed any person to obtain necessary canvas, based on the established “standard”, and thus, on a first-come/first-served basis, allow more open and public use of any available and vacant platform site. My father and many other permit-holders chose not to make the additional investment necessary to standardize their platforms – indeed, each of my father’s platform tents were unique and of different dimensions.
My parents stopped using permit site No. 733 sometime in the late 1950s. In 1962, the first year that I was able to drive an automobile by myself, a friend and I made a camping trip to Saranac. We visited the site upon which my parents’ camp had been located and found that all of the structures had been dismantled or, more accurately described, had been collapsed and wrecked. Piles of broken and rotting wood from the platforms lay around the ground, ultimately leaving the site to return to nature and leaving time to remove evidence of its earlier use. All that remained was the stone fireplace – it may be there still as a monument and silent reminder of the good times that my family enjoyed during those summers at our platform tent camp on Lower Saranac Lake.
Dark tannin’d water, rocks and ancient stone gray with age, moss, lichen, deep woods - sunlight filtering through branches - smell of earth, scent of pine, white birch, mountains blanketed in green, their shoulders dappled by drifting echoes of clouds, all painted against a crystal clear blue sky – this was Saranac Lake.
1. Now the route of the Adirondack Canoe Classic