Finding True North: A History of One Small Corner of the Adirondacks
"What's true north mean?" asked of the author by her grandson.
"Well it's the direction to the North Pole, but I think for Daddy Jay, it meant more than that. He knew whenever he was lost, if he could find true north, he could figure out where he was and he could find his way home. He wanted this dragonfly pointing true north in case we get lost or confused. So we'll always know where home is. For Daddy Jay, the dragonfly marked true home, and so it does for me, too."
SUNY Press's Excelsior Editions honors that dragonfly with its publication of Fran Yardley's Finding True North, a personal meditation on life, engagements with the Adirondacks, and a history of place.
The story begins in 1968, when recently-married Fran Yardley and her husband Jay Yardley move to Bartlett Carry, an abandoned camp between Upper Saranac Lake and Round Lake. Driven by Jay's vision for the future, they begin recovering the camp. But it is her story, a story set in the present, but driven by the past. She sums up early on: "I will not know for another forty years that from the day I arrived, I have been longing for roots" (75). Roots that run through the births of her children, and the cancer and subsequent death of her husband. Roots that run back in time, from the 1960s, back through the decades, 1950s, 1940s, 1930s....
The story begins in 1854, with the coming of Virgil and Caroline Bartlett to what will come to be Bartlett Carry. They'd been managing Miller's hotel in Saranac, but set off by boat to build a sportsmen's club of their own: across Lower Saranac Lake, up the Saranac River, across Round Lake, to the portage, across which travelers would reach Upper Saranac Lake and beyond. They set themselves up at the portage, and so the birth of V.C. Bartlett's Sportsmen's Home, later named the Saranac Club, later Bartlett Inn and Bungalows....
With those beginnings, we see the evolution and resurrection of one of the earliest sportsmen's camps in the Adirondacks, a past and present moving forward. For Fran and Jay, work and more work. They move from one cabin to the next, taking inventory, saving this, dispensing with that. There is Jay's demolition, with an early list of what's to go: 3 boathouses, 3 houses, a rec hall, a laundry room, 1/3 of the main lodge. The power house, they salvage and burn, flames reminiscent of the accidental 1891 burning of the Combination Cottage with its twenty rooms, veranda, and multiple fireplaces; and the original Main Cabin and five others up in flames in 1921. For Fran, the inventories, furniture, linens, cookware, and the search for silverware, later identified as 351 tea spoons, 404 dinner forks, 229 dinner knives, oyster forks, and so on. With the discovery of the safe in the Main Lodge, a safe holding documents and maps, including the Minutes of the Saranac Club, Fran, who had been hoping for the silverware, has the foundation for the camp's story: foundings, expansions, memberships, fires, rebuildings, and an eventual abandonment with its fall into disarray.
At last, the opening of the camp -- newly named Bartlett Carry Club -- and the building of a community, of 'regulars' with families, Fran and Jay's children now having playmates during the summer. Paddling. Hiking. Fishing. Swimming. But nature takes a back seat as the work continues. Fran thinks to Caroline doing what she's doing, without roads to help. The simple act of washing one's hair, in the wilderness, slowly building cabin after cabin, is nearly unimaginable. On the other hand, Caroline had a host of company and help. Fran is alone in the early years. As if that isn't enough, there are the new projects. Planting 6,000 Christmas trees. Logging. Sugaring. And always and forever locked into the day-to-day running of the camp.
As one might imagine after listening to Yardley's performances of "The Sears Roebuck Baby," "The Great Bear," "May I Have This Dance," and others, stories recorded live and preserved on several CDs, the word for Yardley's storytelling is 'gentle.' The ease with which she brings the past into the present, the subtlety with which she marks her various relationships, with her husband, with the long-past Caroline, with successive waves of summer guests, with the Minutes of the Saranac Club, this is what is most compelling. Her soft touch as she threads the stories. Her soft touch as Jay succumbs to cancer, a story threaded with the present -- her grandchildren and the long absent Daddy Jay.
Her soft touch as she readies herself to fasten to the porch railing, the dragonfly. The "tarnished four-inch-long brass door knocker... salvaged from the door of Jay's great-grandfather's cabin" that marks, once again, true home.
RicK Henry, past Editor of Blueline and Author of "Lucy's Eggs: Short Stories and a Novella"