Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Jim Goodwin - Legendary Adirondack Guide

Jim Goodwin, whose life and exploits enriched the lives of generations of young people in the Adirondack Mountains of upper New York State, died on April 11 at the age of 101.  You can read detailed accounts of Jim's life and influence here, here, here, and here.  My purpose here is to provide a picture of the man through my brief experiences with him in the woods, his natural habitat. 

Jim Goodwin on Mt. Hopkins
As a young person visiting the Adirondacks for several weeks each year from my late teens on, I heard about Jim Goodwin's deep influence on young people and adults through stories they told about him.  He had climbed Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in New York State over 100 times.  He led young people on hikes sponsored by the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society. He initiated them into the wonders of woodcraft through his High Peaks Camp held annually in mid-June as well as the many canoe trips he lead on Adirondack lakes and streams.  As an over-weight and pretty lazy guy, I tended to denigrate his importance, much to my own impoverishment.  Both our sons climbed with him on trails and long bushwhacks through the Adirondack forests and up remote peaks with no trails on them.  They loved him and being with him.  Our younger son, Alex, completed his ascents of the 46 Adirondack peaks over 4000 feat in height on a climb up the trap dike on Mt. Colden when he was twelve years old.  Goodwin had made the first winter ascent of this non-traditional approach fifty or so years before.  We hiked up the regular trail with friends to meet Alex as he achieved one of the earliest goals in his young life with Jim Goodwin leading the way.  Our older son, Rick, hiked with Jim also and spoke with deep respect and affection about these experiences.

In the early 1980's Irene and I lived in Keene Valley, Jim's home and base of operations, for several years. I was in my early forties and Jim over seventy. One day Jim asked me if I'd like to "help" him with some trail work on Gothics Mountain, one of the most beautiful and impressive peaks in the Adirondacks.  Despite the fact I was afraid I couldn't keep up with his pace, I said I'd very much like to come along.  The next morning we met at the clubhouse porch of the Ausable Club, where Jim, although not a member, was a well-loved institution.  At the trail head he slipped an Adirondack pack basket on, I put on my day pack, and we headed into the woods.  Jim was a short man, perhaps five foot five feet tall, wiry and trim.  He trudged off into the woods and up the trail, walking with his hands in his pockets, never hurrying.  Along the way we talked of many things.  Now, thirty years later, the details are weak, but the overall impression is strong and vivid.

Jim Goodwin was, essentially, a teacher. His subject matter was the the outdoors, the environment, and the Adirondacks, but even more, Jim was a teacher about life itself. Time spent with Jim meant learning about life merely from his example and his stories. He was one of the greatest teachers I've ever met.  He climbed up the trail, hands in his pockets, at a rate I easily maintained with him.  We chatted all the way up a trail that only a couple of years before would have been unassailable due to my conditioning and weight.  In better shape than ever before in my life, but still overweight, I was comfortable with him and his climbing style.  He told me I should never walk faster than a rate that would allow me to talk as I walked.  He followed his own precept.  We talked about his career as a history teacher at Kingswood School in Hartford, CT, his youth in the Adirondacks, the trails he had cut, winters he had spent in the mountains when huge trees were cut and sledged out by the loggers, and much more.  But our time was not about the details. For me, it was about the quiet strength, deep humility, shy pride in his accomplishments, and willingness to share his world with another man on a lovely autumn day in the woods filled with yellow, red, and brown leaves heading toward winter.  We repaired one of the bridges along the trail. Jim cut some boughs out of the way.  When we reached the summit, we sat on a rock and looked out over a view only people who hike the Adirondacks can see while we ate our lunch.  For me, it was one of the most glorious days of my life. I expect that for Jim it was another day in the woods providing him with still another opportunity to share his love of place, wilderness, and the world. No church has ever provided a better setting.

In later years, Jim was always interested and cordial in remembering our walk or asking about Alex and Rick. He aged, but in later years could still be seen walking slowly down the streets of Keene Valley with the aid of a cane. He walked slowly, but steadily to the post office to get his mail each day, carrying the traditional leather bag people use for this purpose.  We saw him on that route last summer.  We will miss Jim Goodwin. His life represented the very best the twentieth century had to offer.  The thousands of people from a range of climbing worlds he inhabited will be eternally grateful for having had an opportunity to walk, hike, or climb with him.  His shy diffidence provided a model of gentlemanly behavior any of us could well seek to emulate.