Noah John Rondeau was not the original Adirondack hermit. The Great North Woods have harbored many individuals who could stake claim to the title, from French Louie in the West Canada Lakes to the mysterious, Follensby near the Saranacs. It seems that nearly every section of the Adirondacks has hosted at least one capable woodsman who preferred the forest to the town. Yet, Noah John Rondeau was certainly the most visible of the breed and he remains the most famous.
A self proclaimed mayor of Cold River City, (population of one), Rondeau established his wilderness residence on a high bank overlooking the Cold River, upstream of the junction with Ouluska Pass Brook. His hermitage was established on the location of an old, abandoned Santa Clara Lumber Company logging camp.
Although Rondeau had worked as a barber, caretaker and lumber camp laborer, by 1926 he was ready to become a permanent resident of the sprawling metropolis of Cold River City. On a high bank overlooking the Cold River valley, Noah established his cabin and a number of outbuildings, which he named the Town Hall, the Hall of Records and the Beauty Parlor. He also constructed a variety of "Wigwams." These wigwam structures, which resembled teepees in shape, were constructed for the collection of firewood.
During his ordinary everyday travels, whether hunting, trapping or fishing, Rondeau would return to camp dragging a long, slender sapling. The tree would be notched every 18 inches or so and stacked in a teepee fashion to dry. He gave these structures proper names, calling one the Pyramid of Giza.
In the deep snows and cold of winter, he could open the window, pull a sapling in to a notch and break it off. The system worked well, he never had to step outside to cut firewood during the winter. It was just one of the many secrets of comfortable, forest living that the old hermit acquired. There were many others!
The Hall of Records cabin, which is preserved and on display at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, appears to be too small for a man to stand. Even though Rondeau stood only 5-foot 2-inches in stature, the cabin door opening measures barely five feet. Yet the floor of the cabin was set a full two feet into the ground. It was dug below the level of frost, so that the dirt floor would always stay warm.
Rondeau was an unusual hermit in the respect that he firmly enjoyed company, yet he enjoyed the woods more. His hermitage was discovered in the late 1920's and early 1930's by an burgeoning breed of enthusiastic hikers. About that time, the Northville-Placid Trail, a 132-mile hiking route was being established. The trail provided a new venue for backcountry enthusiasts and the traffic brought a steady source of staples for Noah.
Around the same time, members of the newly minted, Adirondack '46'ers Club began frequenting Rondeau's hermitage. Travelers would often provide him with canned goods, flour, sugar and other supplies. To some, he became known as the "Tin Can Hermit" and the rusted, remains of these supplies can still be found over the bank of his Hermitage.
Rondeau often kept his canned goods in the river, where their labels would eventually wash off. As a result, he often enjoyed 'mystery meals,' since he had no idea what the can held until it was opened.
Possibly the most intriguing aspect of his existence were his journals. For many years, he maintained nearly a daily log of his trials and travels, which has served to document his lonesome and not so lonesome life. The writing offer insights into his personality, natural education and ongoing battles with the conservation department and "eternal Big Government." The journals provided a source of comic relief and served as a way for him to blow off steam.
Rondeau wrote about a long walk to the Coreys Post Office to mail his buck tag report to the Conservation Department on Nov. 25, 1945. "Just finished a 24 mile walk to mail tag to American, weak minded Blood and dishonest American Flesh (the Conservation Commission)," he wrote.
On Jan. 2, 1947 he wrote, "A chick-a-dee bird tried my weasel trap and it worked. I read Thoreau." On Jan. 3, his entry reads, "The chick-a-dee bird that got killed in the weasel trap yesterday is still dead."
In another entry, Rondeau comments on having spent over 365 consecutive days in the woods. Remarking on having lived a full year as a hermit, he writes, "I find that I am very good company."
In his journals, Rondeau writes about visitors to Cold River City such as Richard "Red" Smith of Lake Placid, Wayne and Peggy Byrne and Dr. and Mrs. Dittmar of Plattsburgh, or of visiting with Harry Johnson in Lewis, John St. Dennis in Elizabethtown or Ted Hillman in Saranac Lake.
However, a good portion of his journals were written in code. These unique hieroglyphics, described as the "footprints of an inebriated hen" contain mysterious symbols that were believed to protect the old woodsman's deepest secrets. None of his many friends ever knew the meaning of these scratchings.
During the entire year of 1942 and 1946, Rondeau wrote nearly all of his journal entries entirely in code. For nearly 50 years, Rondeau's writings remained an enigma until David Greene cracked it. Greene, son of Evelyn Greene of North Creek, is also the grandson of Paul and Ma Schaefer, who are recognized as Adirondack legends in their own right. The story of how David Greene cracked Rondeau's code, as well as a translation of the two missing journal years can be found in a recently published book, entitled, Noah John Rondeau's Adirondack Wilderness Days: A Year with the Hermit of Cold River Flow. Author Jay O'Hern, who spent many years researching the life and times of Noah Rondeau, had previously published Life with Noah.
Years back, O'Hern befriended Richard "Red" Smith of Lake Placid, who shared stories of his adventures with the old hermit. Smith, a frequent guest of Rondeau's, had provided a home for the old hermit at Whispering Pines before he died in 1967. Smith was a well known, local woodsman and scoutmaster who passed away in 1993.
With Smith's passing, a major portion of the old hermit's legacy was lost. Such is the case with many of Rondeau's old friends, the Byrnes, Dittmars, Schaefers and others. While preserved newsreels and radio programs may offer further insights into Rondeau's life and times, they offer little in the way of the personality conveyed to friends. Even though the code has been broken, without first hand knowledge, the true personality of the old hermit will forever be encoded.
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org