3793′ | Height Order 46th
Most “old timers” call it “Couchie” (some spell it “Couchee”), the full name being a verbal rigamarole of a random scoot (tongue twister).
Most “old timers” call it “Couchie” (some spell it “Couchee”), the full name being a verbal rigamarole of a random scoot (tongue twister). If you have been there then you know, and if you have yet to visit you may be anxious to go. It’s a long, long . . . long walk with no rewarding view, and so poor Couchie gets a bad rap. It is surely a rival of Allen (Blake is a close second we think, and maybe Emmons too) for the most denigrated of the high peaks, which is sad because these 4 summits, the most remote, are also the most wild and, though they may be long walks, they are all fine examples of Adirondack forever wildness, something the very first 46ers, Bob and George Marshall, prized above all else.
The Marshalls’ first summit list numbered 42 peaks meeting their height, prominence and distance criteria (4000′ in height and at least ¾ of a mile distance on a ridge from the nearest qualifying summit or 300′ prominence). In the years following publication of Bob Marshall’s High Peaks of the Adirondacks, Bob and George were befriended by Russ Carson who suggested 4 other summits that seemed to qualify (Gray, Cliff and Blake the other three). Couchie was one of the 4 add-on summits which the Marshalls and Herb Clark climbed in 1925 to complete the original 46. The first ascent was theirs as was credit for the name, which is commonly understood to mean “dismal wilderness.”
Couchie just squeaked in 4000′ back in those days, but when more modern surveys examined the summit, it fell 180′, leaving it behind roughly 15 other summits having greater altitude. But the Marshalls climbed it and by tradition it is one of the 46. And it is good that it is, because it is a summit that still requires stamina and a healthy dose of woods-sense to reach.
Today Couchie is reached by a well-worn wilderness path. It is an arduous course to be sure, but hardly the challenge endured by earlier generations. The earliest generations approached Couchie from the Cold River side and in exploring that area they met an unusual but friendly character known as Noah John Rondeau, the Adirondack hermit of Cold River. Rondeau befriended the earlier climbers and he became the subject of many tales of early climbing adventure. Grace loved to tell of how she carried a birthday cake to the hermitage 14 miles without damaging one pedal of the roses. Rondeau became so friendly with the 46ers of Troy that he was made an honorary member, the first and only honorary member in the history of the 46ers.
Since we like the old tales, and Couchie lacks much in the way of a story of its own, we thought sharing the story of Noah John most appropriate. Romance abounds in the annuls of 46ing history and there are few memories of the old days more romantic and “Adirondack” than Noah John Rondeau, the Hermit of Cold River. A colorful “chap” as Grace would say and much beloved by Grace and her entourage from Grace Methodist Church. He was truly one of a kind in true “Adirondack” spirit!
The Hermit of Cold River
At a point approximately twenty miles southeast from Coreys, New York (near Tupper Lake) and thirteen miles north from Plumleys (at the head of Long Lake) on the little-used Lake Placid Northville Trail in the very heart of the Adirondack Mountains, one comes on a tripod of rough logs. This in itself is an odd enough signpost, but when one leaves the trail and walks about a city block from the tripod toward lovely Cold River, an odder sight greets one.
Here, high up in a bluff some thirty feet above what was once the big dam of Cold River, and just below the “flow,” lives a heavily bearded gentleman, Mr. Noah John Rondeau, better known as “The Hermit of Cold River.” For twenty-two years, Mr. Rondeau has lived here in this secluded spot far from the haunts of men. His only contact with the outside world has been twice a year when he goes to Coreys for supplies and his fishing and hunting licenses, or when occasional hunters or fishermen meet him somewhere along the river or in the woods. Legends of all sorts have grown up around him and he is claimed to be everything from a lover frustrated in love to a criminal escaping justice, but the legends are just stories!
Two years ago a group of mountain climbers who were in that little-hiked section to climb Couchsachraga, heard the crash of timber. Upon investigating they found—much to their amazement—The Hermit! “It is a small world” we know, and this trite statement was proven when two of the hiking party found that Mr. Rondeau had attended their father’s parish in Bloomingdale, N.Y. some thirty years before, in fact, had sat in the same pew with their mother and sister.
When the hikers returned to civilization several days later, the Hermit was their chief topic of conversation. Everyone who heard about him wondered why he was there, what he was doing, how he lived and the usual questions surrounding a person who lives a different life from themselves.
That same winter a snapshot of Mr. Hermit was submitted during the Photographic Contest of the Herald Tribune by someone and it duly won recognition and appeared in the Sunday Photogravure. The face was unmistakable and a letter was dispatched to the Tribune and thence to the entrant of the picture. It was “Noah John Rondeau!” Someone else knew him—had visited him and become acquainted—incidentally, a doctor from Binghamton.
And so time went on! The man of mystery became a man sought after. His interesting life and colorful personality became the cause of much speculation. Hikers, recognizing him to be not only a unique character but a real woodsman, took it upon themselves to make him an honorary member of their organization, and “Noah John,” the Hermit of Cold River, graciously accepted for he knows and realizes that these Adirondack Mountain climbers are interested in keeping his homelands as nature intended— “forever wild,” and that they too love each hill and tree and bit of moss therein.
The Hermitage on Cold River consists of two eight by ten rough log cabins some eight feet high and roofed with assorted lengths of canvas. One is used as sleeping quarters as well as a winter living room. Canned supplies and a bookshelf line the walls. A glance at the latter reveals two much used Bibles, a Dictionary, H.G. Wells Outline of History, The Conspiracy of Pontiac by Francis Parkman, an elementary book on astronomy and a Farmer’s Almanac.
The other cabin is used to house guests—should any come. Winter supplies are also kept here along with the yearly buck. Both cabins contain stoves rustic and quaint enough for anyone. Two old oil drums, one in each cabin, have been banked in the dirt floors on their sides. Nearly all of the top part has been removed and a sheet of iron, probably salvaged from some abandoned lumber camp, has been placed over the removed side to make a smooth flat stove top. A pipe injected into the far end of the barrel carries the smoke outside. Needless to say, the “oil stoves” fed with wood are red hot and radiate much heat.
Two wigwams of twenty-five foot logs placed closely together comprise the rest of the buildings or “diggings” as he calls them. One is used for storing such things as fishing tackle, miscellaneous equipment and bows and arrows, for the Hermit often uses a bow with a seventy-five-pound pull when he hunts. The other wigwam is where he cooks, eats and sometimes sleeps in warm weather.
Mr. Rondeau believes in conserving strength as well as time. As he collects down timber for winter fuel and lops off branches, he notches the logs every thirty inches. In summer he prepares his food in the wigwams over an open fire and burns through the notches. The logs, severed by fire into the proper length for winter consumption, are stacked outside. Wise man!
Because of the distance which food must be carried, only staples are packed in, such as flour, sweetened canned milk (making up for sugar), coffee and dehydrated vegetables. In season fish and meat supplement his meager chief dishes. Potatoes and turnips are grown in tiny patches around the Hermitage grounds. These, together with the canned milk, are buried in the ground during the winter months to keep from freezing. While his diet is far from being well balanced, he seems to relish even the turnip tops and he whips together biscuits and pancakes as a bread substitute with the finesse of a pastry cook.
But all these things only go to enhance the man! His dress is even more picturesque than his home. His trousers are made of buckskin which he has tanned. He also wears a vest of buckskin complete with pockets. Even the smallest of pieces are fitted into this vest—not one is wasted—and the needlework would vie with grandmother’s pieced quilt. On state occasions The Hermit wears a long fringe of deerskin around his neck and waist which swishes when he walks. His most unique possession is a fishing bag which he slings over his shoulder. The bag is made of unseamed deer neck and, as he says, “I’d like to see any fish get out of that bag!”
The costume, the surroundings, scarcely account for the kindly face that greets one. In spite of Mr. Rondeau’s heavy, gray-streaked black beard, he is a handsome gentleman. Piercing brown eyes sparkle from a long-pointed face, and almost hidden lips twitch with a humorist’s smile. He is kindly of heart, gracious of manner, merry of disposition and well leavened with humor. His love of beauty and the little things that go to make up life is evidenced by a wee plot of wild daisies he has transplanted under the eaves of his cabin.
Cold river is usually wide and deep below the bluff on which the Hermit lives. Green grassy banks enclose the waters and a ride in the ancient well-reinforced canoe that scarcely looks able to hold anything but water, brings one up the river to an unsurpassed view of the mountain ranges.
The Seward group, fronted by dark Ouluska Pass and flanked by tall Seymour make a lovely picture on the west. The McIntyre Range faintly peeks up over the northeast horizon while Panther and a ridge of numerous bumps lead to almost inaccessible Couchsachraga; “Couchee” for short. “Dark and dismal wilderness,” the Indian interpretation for this latter mountain, seems hardly the word for it. Rather as one enjoys the beauty of this river (and it can only be seen and enjoyed in a canoe, for the trail northward does not touch the river at any point but leads through thickly wooded land) one almost expects to see someone come down the grassy slope and wave a cheery welcome to hear a glad yoo-hoo ring over the waters.
Just before sundown Mr. Rondeau paddles up the river to see the sun go down behind Seward, then in the dusk he paddles homeward. In winter, snowshoes take him up the river for this Angelus in God’s Out-Of-Doors. He has a real love for the woods and all that they stand for. Civilization with its “big business,” the struggle to survive; war, hatred, race prejudice and clashes, all of these have no place in The Hermit’s scheme of life. “Under certain conditions,” says Mr. Rondeau, “I would leave the woods, but whatever came to me in the past I got by fighting. As it is I can get enough exercise here without wearing myself out for ‘big business.'”
In the vicinity of Ausable Forks, Noah John Rondeau was born on July 6, 1883 of indigent French parents. From the beginning he started with the handicap of speaking French in his homelife and English in the little country school. Because he was one of a large family he was forced to leave school long before grade days were over.
When he was fifteen years old Noah John left home to make a place for himself in the world. Something stirred within, causing him to long for the better things in life. Because of early inhibitions, it was with much trepidation that he gradually found his way into the little Methodist church in town where he went, and from this contact there slowly grew within him such a desire for education that all else seemed secondary. Firmly he resolved to train for the Methodist ministry and in this he was very conscientious. However, the work he was forced to engage in and the taunts and jeers of those with whom he labored did not make his task easy.
From common laborer he become efficient in barbering, carpentry, and masonry but to him these trades were merely steppingstones to something better. After he had been out of school for eleven years he went back, but the laborious task of study, together with the necessity of earning a living was too much for him. Gradually he came to feel that his greatest ambition was not to be realized and resolutely he put it aside.
Mr. Rondeau found his way from Ausable, Lake Placid, Bloomingdale to Axton. Here he acted as second guide in the fall and trapper in the winter. During the summer he painted in Lake Placid. The people by whom he was employed found him trustworthy and dependable and eventually three camps at Coreys were placed in his charge and he took great pride in their care. With his savings he acquired a small house and for the first time since he was born, life seemed pleasant and stable. However, with slumps in business, camp life fell off, work became slack and through some misfortune the small home that Mr. Rondeau had made for himself was destroyed by fire. The loss, which amounted to several thousand dollars, represented his entire savings. There being nothing to keep him at Coreys, he went into the woods he so loved, remaining there entirely. Since then, twenty-two years have passed!
Until last Fall, The Hermit, as he came to be known, was not affiliated with any organization or society. Then the group who accidentally came across him on their first trip up “Couchee,” knowing him to be an outstanding woodsman and a lover of mountains, made him an honorary member of the 46-er Club of Troy, N.Y., a society, all of whose members hope to climb the forty-six mountain peaks in the Adirondacks having an elevation of 4,000 feet or over. Mr. Rondeau accepted the membership because he too was akin in his love for the out-of-doors and he also knew several of the 46-ers and liked them. As a result of this a glorious friendship has grown.
Recently another mountain club sought him out. On Sunday, July 3, The Hermitage high above Cold River took on a gala appearance. At the entrance to the “Metropolis,” a “Gate to the City” was hung. Beneath a sign issued by the Traffic Department warned tourists that automobiles were “not allowed in this City until after the Fourth of July.”
A bit further up the trail was the front half of an old rowboat with an oar in the hold and above the following rates were posted:
Across any waters on the Planet. 50 ¢
On Mars 25 ¢
Exception, In Germany, 2 Ferrys 1 mark
Japan to China not accepted.
Directly in back of the “Ferry Boat,” two large banners floated in the breeze between a cabin and wigwam. One announced, “Adirondack Mountain Club Welcome!” The other, “46-ers Welcome!” And on the door of “Town Hall,” the main cabin, a “Wanted Sign” was hung, facetiously written about the climbers who had “thrashed him with a Mountain Club and taken everything they could hide in their camera.” It was signed by “I. Ben Klubbed.”
This day of July 3, Mr. Rondeau was received into honorary membership by the Adirondack Mountain Club. It was a festive day for him for not only did he graciously receive his visitors and feed them with delicious speckled trout fresh-caught that morning from Cold River, but he also celebrated his fifty-fifth birthday. Gifts and a cake with candles appropriately marked the anniversary.
Mr. Rondeau’s eyes glowed and twinkled not unlike the candles on his cake as he stared at them, reluctant to wish and blow them out because, as he said, “I want to watch them burn!”
The Hermitage was polished and scrubbed spotlessly and the smell of fresh cut grass permeated the air. Even the mosquitoes and little black flies that generally annoy one so at this time of year were lacking!
After the presentation of the ADK membership card, Mr. Rondeau, in speaking of his two mountain club memberships said, “I could climb the highest mountain or go down to the lowest valley but nothing could please me more than these mountain lovers who have made me one of them. I never intended to join any fraternal organization, but these people have taken me in and now they will have to put up with me!”
And, we who know you will gladly “put up” with you, Mr. Hermit of Cold River!
Deep in the heart of our Adirondack wilderness lives one whose life reflects the quiet of vast woods, the beauty of wild flowers, the strength of tall trees, the glow of sunset, the peace of dusk!
You, in your city home, surrounded by necessary luxuries, should you feel like a fifteen-mile hike to the Metropolis of Cold River, its Mayor, Mr. Noah John Rondeau, will greet you cordially and graciously and you too will feel the depth of his personality.
Grace L. Hudowalski
High Spots Yearbook 1939
Video of Grace Telling the Story of the Hermit: