Phil-osophically Speaking – October 15, 2010

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The Magnificence Of the Village of Lake George

With my suitcases packed, gas tank full and cell phones charged, I looked at my checklist and made a call to my good friend, Dominick Longobardi, a frequent visitor to Lake George, and a gourmand whose exquisite palate is an impeccable guide to restaurants whose fare comprises the most delectable victuals. Now one more look at the map and we’re off.

We made it in a nifty 3 hours and 45 minutes to the Village of Lake George. Fishing, hunting, logging and now tourism have been a staple of Lake George whose natural beauty has, over the years, attracted millions. Our plan was to take in the sights, do a little shopping (Sonia is a decorated soldier in the “Shop to you drop Brigade”) and learn about the area’s rich history.

The eminence of the Adirondacks, 160 miles wide and a mile high, overshadows the vast, tree-laden landscape. About 250,000 years ago these ancient mountains were frozen over by the ice age and the retreat of the last glaciers, some 10,000 years ago, is the reason for the beautiful clear water that forms its lakes and ponds.  

There is no gainsaying the rapturous countryside, from its sun-glinting waters to the deciduous leaves now painted with the colors of autumn, brightening the day and the world. The centerpiece is Lake George itself whose waters sinuously caress the rising slopes that languorously frame its 32 miles. The lake is shadowed by nine forested mountains, 2,000 feet tall, hovering above with majestic silence. Punctuating the lake are nearly 200 rocky islands populated with a tangle of pine, fir, sweet gale and juniper.  On some mornings, if you rise early enough, you can watch the rising sun slowly burn away the morning mist unveiling flames of orange and red over the steep, pine-studded hillsides that only minutes before were shrouded by tendrils of white, dissipating fog.

There are many vantage points and promontories to view the magnificence of Lake George but none so spectacular as the terrace of the Sagamore Hotel. Its vista quintessentially captures the breathless grandeur of the place. The hotel was first built in the 1880s, burned down twice, rebuilt again for no other reason than such prime real estate would be a magnet for tourists all over the world. Indeed, breakfasting on the terrace that sunny morning was like sipping ambrosia with the gods of Olympus.

In the midst of this narcotic-like bliss, it required a leap of imagination to remember that such lustrous acreage was once a savage and bloody battleground during the French and Indian War that transformed the cathedral-like forests of New England into killing fields. The first truly World War is also the forgotten war. Even the name is misleading since this was not a war between the French and the Indians, but the French and the British. The former was allied with Indian tribes and the latter with Colonial Americans.

With a ribbon of English colonies along the Eastern seaboard, France’s North American Empire hinged on controlling the Northeast continent’s major waterways that were critical to trade routes into the interior but also served as a means to resist colonial westward expansion. By controlling these waterways the French could sail the 300 miles from their stronghold in Montreal to Lake Champlain to Fort Carillion (later Fort Ticonderoga) to Lake George and the Hudson.

Little in this war, however, followed European protocol as war in the wilderness bristled with an untamed and unprecedented ferocity; a butchery that spared neither woman nor child and whose descriptions are almost too much for civilized sensibilities to bear. Scalping, being burned alive, cannibalism and the whole red tide of human depravity saturated deep-wooded warfare. The dark and deadly forests of New England were captured by a Puritan poet: “Far off from heavens light/Amidst the shadows of grim death/And of eternal night.”

In those harrowing shadows of the wilderness to kill was not enough; rituals of cruelty were devised to strike terror in the heart and make death as agonizing as possible. The Boston News Letter once reported soldiers finding a squaw scalped and frozen on the icy lake. Nearby the attackers had sadistically strung her husband from a tree, scalped but still alive. Before him they hung a small mirror so he could watch himself die. In the primeval wilds, a war crime was merely another form of waging war.

If we needed any further reminders of the war’s savagery we found it at Fort William Henry, named after the nephews of King George II of England, and located adjacent to our hotel. This fort has been the subject of books and movies, the last being a cinematic production of James Fennimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, starring Daniel Day Lewis. After surrendering to French and Indian forces the occupants of the fort were marched out and many helplessly slaughtered by warriors thirsting for revenge. In response to these and other atrocities hard and rough men were sent out into these woodland thickets to be as merciless as the enemy. These backwoodsmen, led by Robert Rogers, were known as Rogers Rangers and the guerrilla warfare tactics they deployed in the midst of unimaginable challenges is the stuff of legend.

With the possible exception of Daniel Boone, his contemporary, Rogers knew more about Indian tribes and warfare than any other white man. Like Boone, the forest was his natural milieu, and he sleuthed its clues as if he were a forensic detective: Moss, he noted, grows more abundantly on the northern side of trees; treetops generally inclined sunward, therefore to the south; branches grew thicker and larger on a tree’s southern exposure, while the bark appeared darker and thicker on the shaded side. With this and other esoteric tidbits, Rogers developed an inner GPS successfully leading his band deep into enemy territory, covering incredible distances on impossible missions and traversing the terrain in whaleboats and snowshoes, with freezing temperatures plummeting to 30 below, frostbite, torrential rain, wind-lashed storms, scurvy, smallpox and starvation all the while fighting an implacable foe.

So why is Robert Rogers virtually unknown in the pantheon of American frontier heroes? First, because the French and Indian War is little appreciated and, more importantly, like many colonials during the Revolution, Rogers remained loyal to the King (as did the Governor of New Jersey William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin) fighting on the side of the British and the Loyalists. It was Rogers, at Dove Tavern, who sniffed out Nathan Hale, the 21-year-old schoolteacher for espionage for which he was promptly hung at what is now Third Avenue and 66th Street in Manhattan. With the noose around his neck Hale quoted lines from Joseph Addison’s play Cato, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country,” immortalizing him and his cause.

None of this endeared Rogers to the Patriots and he became a pariah after the Revolution. Nonetheless, Roger’s Rangers would later be the prototype for the Green Berets, the Navy Seals and U.S. Special Forces and no doubt helped foster the esprit de corps that enabled Wolfe’s British forces, just west of Quebec, to defeat Montcalm’s French forces on the Plains of Abraham. That defeat, in which both commanders were killed, was one of the most climatic events in history. Though the war went on, the battle virtually ended the French Empire in North America. France’s defeat would determine the culture we embrace, the political institutions that govern us, the freedoms we cherish and the language we speak. This is all good and well. French may be the language of love but it has never been the language of liberty. We would have been a much different country if the French and Indian War had been lost and, I believe, a much poorer one at that.

Lake George and its surrounding environs tell much about the beauty of America, knowing a little bit of its history can help us understand that fact in more ways than one.

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