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Mountain Home Magazine

Hunting Nessmuk

Jun 01, 2021 11:30AM ● By Jimmy Guignard

I throw my leg over my bike, pedal out of the driveway, and turn right. Steering through the gate of the Wellsboro Cemetery, I circle left, passing the grave of George Washington Sears. His gravestone sits a few feet off the pavement and shows in bas-relief a balding man with an unruly beard, looking off to the left. Reddish stone frames the sculpture and sits upon a larger gray stone emblazoned with NESSMUK, his pen name. An American flag with a Grand Old Army of the Republic badge affixed stands guard. I nod as I ride by, hoping that he would approve of me, under my own steam, heading out for a three-hour solo ride through his old stomping grounds to shed the busyness of life.

I leave the cemetery, turn right on Nichols Street, pass Sears Street, pass the high school that calls its yearbook The Nessmuk, and drop down onto Route 6 heading west. Pedaling toward the Pine Creek Rail Trail, I think of all the things named after Sears: Lake Nessmuk, Nessmuk Helipad, Nessmuk Trail, Nessmuk Rod and Gun Club, Nessmuk’s Sporting Goods. His name is everywhere around here, but it often seems like people don’t know much about him. Why?

A mile or so later, I pick up the Pine Creek Rail Trail off Route 287 and pedal west, paralleling Marsh Creek and imagining (or trying to) what the area looked like when Sears rode a buggy or the train on one of his trips to or from the Pine Creek Gorge, what we call Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon.

When I first moved to Tioga County, I knew nothing of Sears. This struck me as weird, since I read lots of outdoor writing and spent lots of time outside. My Mansfield University colleague, Tom Murphy, introduced me to Sears through his writings about paddling Pine Creek in 1884. Sears’ writing revealed a man who loved to fish, hunt, and camp and who was acutely aware of the damage being wreaked on the forests in support of industrialization. Who was this guy? Why didn’t more people know about him? But work intruded and my learning about Sears slid to the back burner. A poor excuse in his eyes, I’d guess.

I hit the town of Asaph about five-and-a-half miles later and pass one of Sears’ favorite camping spots, where Asaph Run pours into Marsh Creek. I stop and look out over the thick undergrowth and my desire to stomp around in the spot wanes. It’d be easier to wade down the creek. In Woodcraft, published in 1884 and still in print, Sears describes a memorable trip to this place during which he educates some “youngsters” to the pleasures of “smoothing it” as opposed to “roughing it.” Roughing it occurs in town. It’s not that camping was easy—Sears worked his butt off setting up comfortable camps. Rather, he saw “smoothing it” as getting away from what he called the “age of worry and hurry” that accompanied the industrialism of his times. When smoothing it, life became simpler, stripped down to necessities and seasoned with a heavy dollop of loafing. He wanted working folk to leave physical and, perhaps more importantly, mental stress of their jobs and lives in cities and towns behind. I can relate. I ride my bike to burn off work stress and soak up the soothing effects of the northern hardwood forests.

I push on, pedaling up Asaph Run Road toward Left Asaph Road and the top of the mountain northwest of his camping spot and across the way from Mt. Nessmuk. Soon, it’s just me and the creek and the trees and the mountains as I climb into Tioga State Forest. I imagine what it was like for Sears to walk Asaph Run before the trees were felled and the houses built. I think about his two biggest contributions to outdoor recreation—encouraging everyone to go outside and exhorting them to go light. The more I think about this little man—he stood slightly over five feet and weighed between 102 and 115 pounds, depending on the source cited—the more I wonder what drove him to believe so deeply in the benefits of nature. It’s not like being outside is always easy—there can be storms, bugs, cold, and heat. Food runs low. Bodies give out over long portages or up steep hills.

But he kept getting out there, and so do I.

Getting to Know GWS

This year marks the 200th birthday anniversary of George Washington Sears. He was born in Massachusetts and learned to camp, fish, and hunt from a Narragansett Indian named Nessmuk, which means wood duck or wood drake and from whom Sears borrowed his nom de plume. In addition to learning woodcraft as a child, Sears worked in a factory, which gave him a lifelong animus toward industry and made him a lifelong fan of Charles Dickens. Two of his canoes made famous in his writing about the Adirondack cruises were named after Dickens’ characters: the Susan Nipper and the Sairy Gamp. Sears’ canoes are famous (he owned several over his lifetime). Being a small guy, he couldn’t hump huge canoes and kit (supplies) over long portages, so he commissioned Henry Rushton of Canton, New York, to build super light canoes, thereby enabling him to cruise lake chains in the Adirondacks. Susan Nipper weighed in at sixteen pounds and the Sairy Gamp weighed an impossible-sounding-for-the-time ten and a half pounds. Of course, this meant his kit had to be light as well. When Sears said go light, he meant light.

Sears travelled a lot over his lifetime. As a young man, he shipped out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on a whaling ship around the same time Herman Melville was writing Moby-Dick. He visited Brazil, Ontario, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Settled in Wellsboro, he married at thirty-five and sired three children. When he wasn’t in the woods, Sears was popular company and acquired the nickname “Bacchus” around town because, according to Scott Gitchell of the Tioga County Historical Society, he “liked to drink and was good natured.” Sears was self-taught and a good conversationalist. He wrote prose and poetry. In addition to Woodcraft, he published a book of poetry, Forest Runes, in 1887, available through print-on-demand. Woodcraft was written with the purpose of teaching people, who he called “outers,” how to enjoy the woods. It’s upbeat and humorous and full of sound advice. In Chapter X, for example, Sears exhorts hunters to identify a deer positively before shooting because “it is a heavy, wearisome job to pack a dead or wounded man ten or twelve miles out to a clearing, let alone that it spoils all the pleasure of the hunt, and is apt to raise hard feelings among his relations.” While his anger at industry, specifically tanneries, leaks through on occasion, his prose is largely educational and conversational, a chat around a fire. Preferably one he made, so that it’s made the way it should be (see Chapter IV).

While the humor makes its way into his poetry (see, for instance, “Wellsboro As A Temperance Town”), we see how Sears was a man who felt life deeply as anger and sorrow appear in his writing. A distant relative to Sears through marriage, Scott points out that Sears wrote his prose “for others, but he wrote his poems for himself.” It shows. The poems reveal a sensitive man who identified with common folk and abhorred unequal treatment. In “To John Bull—On His Christmas,” Sears criticizes the wealthy for not seeing the problems of the poor in town during the holidays. In “Mother and Child,” Sears grapples with a mother who, in an outpouring of anguish, drowns herself and her child. Where there is little suffering other than bug bites or exhausting portages in his prose, his poems reveal a man wrestling with emotions, trying to understand the town and the world he lives in. Roughing it indeed. Scott notes, “Nessmuk was proud of his prose, but he considered himself a poet first, and he would have probably written another book of poetry if he had lived longer.”

What Makes Him Tick?

I pedal up Left Asaph, listening to the creek and wondering: how am I supposed to understand Sears? He’s clearly complicated, but aren’t we all? Theater-critic turned Nessmuk-promoter Robert Lyon called him a “sociable outcast” and suggested that Sears may have been a misanthrope. Lyon researched Sears exhaustively and planned to write a biography of him until the flood of 1972 washed away his archives. His Who Was Nessmuk? is a short pamphlet that previews what the biography could have been and is a must-read. (Check the special collections at the Green Free Library in Wellsboro.)

Perhaps the closest thing we have to a biography of Sears is Gale Largey’s forthcoming documentary called Nessmuk: In Defense of Nature in the Pennsylvania Wilds, which will be shown at the Deane Center for the Performing Arts on Monday, June 14, at 7 p.m. and at the Arcadia Theatre on Saturday, June 19, at noon (before the Laurel Festival parade). When I met Gale, a retired sociology professor from Mansfield University, he and local filmmaker Mark Polonia had just finished the final edits, and Gale had dropped the DVD off at Kingdom, Inc., to have copies burned. I was fortunate to see a rough-cut premier of the documentary in September 2020, and I learned things about Sears that added to his stature in my eyes. One scene tells the story of Sears and another camper encountering a runaway slave in Michigan. Sears’ colleague wants nothing to do with the slave, but Sears helps the man continue his journey. As Gale explains, “I try to show the social forces at work around my subjects, how they are shaped by them.” And, in Sears’ case, shaping the response to the forces of the industrial revolution as it hit Tioga County.

While I’m sympathetic to where Robert Lyon is coming from, the more I read of and about Sears, the more his interpretation seems a little off to me. Sure, Sears spent many years alone in woods, both single and married. One estimate puts it at twelve years away from home over fifty years, or the equivalent of being gone about every fourth day. (My truck-driving Daddy was gone more than that.) Scott’s mother, Isabelle Jones, was close to Sears’s granddaughter, Mary A. Taylor. Scott said his mother told him “Aunt Mae” loved her grandfather, was proud of him, and often borrowed books from him. In general, he relates, the family speaks fondly of “George” and was proud of their connection with him. Scott adds that Sears was friends with prominent people, like Civil War General and Governor of Ohio Thomas L. Young and Pennsylvania State Treasurer Robert Kennedy Young. These types of relationships don’t point to misanthropic behavior. As Scott says, “you have a man and you have a myth.” He suggests that the most accurate picture of Sears probably lies somewhere among all the stories, though he’s sure “we’re never going to know the truth.”

Which brings me back to people getting outside and going light. That’s undeniable. Early in Woodcraft, Sears shares his democratic view of the outdoors and his awareness that most could not afford the guided trips of the mid-nineteenth century. He writes:

“But there are hundreds of thousands of practical, useful men, many of them far from being rich; mechanics, artists, writers, merchants, clerks, business men—workers, so to speak—who sorely need and well deserve a season of rest and relaxation at least once a year. To these, and for these, I write.”

No doubt part of his attitude stems from his antipathy toward the industry he experienced as a child. Part of it stems from his economic status—he was not wealthy—and his small stature. As Scott says, “He followed the philosophy of going light out of physical necessity.” What grabs me about the passage is the way he reveals his plan for educating people on how to take trips on their own, without guides, and smoothing the rough edges off their hectic “civilized” lives. Everyone needs time to recharge in nature. That’s one reason I ride a bike.

These Days...

Rose Anna Moore, owner of Moore’s Outdoor Sports, could be called a modern-day Nessmuk. She grew up in Asaph just a few hundred feet from Sears’ favorite campsite, though she didn’t know of him at the time. She fished Marsh Creek (in her words, “that swampy mess”) and rode her bike to “Asaph Park,” now the Asaph Campground, and beyond. In June, Rose will be featured as one of the contestants in the History Channel’s Alone, a show where contestants choose ten items (ferro rods and bows seem popular) to take and are given a camera kit. Dropped in a remote area, they record their lives as they build shelters, harvest food, and cope with danger and isolation. Rose was dropped near Chilko Lake in British Columbia, a region populated with grizzly bears. Of the experience, she says, “I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t know how hard. You have to stay present. Everything is difficult. You might start the day with five things on your list and only get two of them done.”

When she returned, Rose says she felt a deep connection to Sears—she understood him in ways she hadn’t before. It wasn’t so much that Sears saw camping and being in nature as smoothing it physically—primitive camping and survival can be hard and Sears worked to make comfortable camps. It’s more about how the work of camping clears the mind of the complexities of town/city life. Rose thinks her experience near Chilko Lake was “humbling” and helped to put this “giant life in context.” She focused and narrowed her purpose. Smoothing it, for her, is not about taking it easy physically as much as it is about resetting your mind. Sears’ “writings are lovely,” Rose says, “and you want to go do it.”

Like Sears, Rose carries a strong desire to educate others, to get them hunting, fishing, camping, target shooting, and, most importantly, conserving. Her plans remind me of Sears’ willingness to shoot deer when he needs the food and his willingness to call shooting a deer “murder” when he doesn’t. It’s a strongly-worded lesson in conservation. Take what you need. Practice restraint. Think long term.

I wonder how Sears would have made out on Alone.

Near the top of Left Asaph, I hang a left on Old Supply Trail and head over the mountain northwest of Sears’ favorite camping spot. Topping out around 2,200 feet, the mountain doesn’t have a name, and trails run off it in every direction. I stop in a clearing below the highest point. To the south, scattered trees stand in thick underbrush, signs of a former logging operation. To the north, hardwoods interspersed with evergreens form a canopy over mountain laurel and snowmobile trails. I imagine what the mountain looked like back in Sears’ day and wonder whether he would understand that my carbon fiber bike is my Sairy Gamp.

I pull on my vest and pull up my arm warmers for the chilly 1,000-foot descent back to Asaph and remember the black bear I saw on this trail one day, the timber rattler I almost ran over on another. This unnamed mountain feels out there, even though I’m a thirty-minute ride from Asaph.

Then I realize I can’t hear anything. No birds, no squirrels, no wind rustling the leaves, nothing. The silence is almost deafening. The silence sands some of the edge off my hurried, worried life. I see parallels in the effort I made to get here with Sears’ work to make comfortable camps. We’ve got to give these moments a chance to happen. Put this life in context.

I push off down the trail, thankful, like Sears, for the “thousands of cool, green nooks beside crystal springs [and the tops of unnamed mountains], where the weary soul may hide for a time, away from debts, duns and deviltries, and a while commune with nature in her undress.”

Happy birthday, Nessmuk. I’ll keep hunting.