Bill Nye: The 1800s Adirondack Guide
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You’ve probably heard of Bill Nye: The Science Guy, but have you heard of Bill Nye, the Adirondack Guide?
Anyone familiar with the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks in New York State, has heard the name Nye. Standing at 3,895 feet, it is usually hiked by aspiring 46ers along with nearby Street Mountain. Nye, with a trailhead located near the Adirondak Loj outside of Lake Placid, is named for legendary Adirondack guide William B. Nye.
Bill Nye was born around 1815 and he was a “noted guide and hunter of North Elba.” In the 1874 work “The Adirondacks: Illustrated,” Nye is described as “one of those iron-moulded men just turned fifty nearly six feet in height, powerfully built, knowing no danger or fatigue, and well versed in woodcraft. Silent, morose even if you in any way gain his dislike by a display of supposed superiority. If he likes you he cannot do too much for you, always ready and willing, and around the camp fire his tongue once loosed, the stories of wild wood life told in his quiet quaint style is full of interest – and a sure cure for the blues.”
He is especially known in Adirondack lore for a story from 1868. As the story goes, he was guiding a Mr. and Mrs. Fielding and their niece along the Hudson River. The Fieldings were from “somewhere or other,” according to Nye’s account in “The Adirondacks” book. He described Mr. Fielding as “a little man, one of those quick motioned, impulsive sort, who make up their minds quick and is liable to change it in five minutes afterward.” Mrs. Fielding was described as “taller and heavier” than her husband and “when she made up her mind to do a thing she did it.” The niece, called Dolly, was about 17-years-old. She was “a splendid girl, handsome as a picture, and she knew it too, all very sociable and willing to talk with any one.”
Their trip was through Indian Pass and on to Mount Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York State at 5,344-feet, and back by way of Avalanche Pass. Due to a late start, Mrs. Fielding was told she would not make it through the pass that day but, Nye explains, she did with him guiding and by torchlight the last few miles. She carried her shoes the last mile. They camped at Lake Colden and summited Marcy then camped again at the lake.
The way back through Avalanche Pass to North Elba is surrounded by mountains and the trail along the lake went through an area where the only option was to either wade through the water or build a raft. Since building a raft would take too much time, the group decided the best option would be for Bill Nye to carry each member of the hiking party across the water where the cliff wall met the lake.
Mr. Fielding asked his wife, “Well, Matilda, what say you? Will you be carried over, or shall we make a raft?”
And she replied, “If Mr. Nye can do it, and thinks it safe, I will be carried over, to save time.” Their niece agreed and said it would be “a novelty.”
Bill Nye explained to the group that being carried over was perfectly safe and that he had carried over a 180-pound man once “and a nervous old fellow, at that.”
Matilda, however, was a bit anxious with the way she was supposed to climb on Bill Nye’s shoulders. Her husband asked her to “throw away her delicacy, and do as I told her,” Nye explained in his account of the story. “She finally sat down very carefully, so far down on my back that I could not carry her, I told her it wouldn’t do, and at last she got on and I waded in.”
“Hold your horse, aunt,” is what Dolly laughed from the dry shore. “Your reputation as a rider is at stake…novel, isn’t it?”
As Bill Nye entered the deepest part, where the water had gone up to his arms without anyone on his shoulders, Mrs. Fielding started sliding down.
“I had just barely got into the deep water, steadying myself with one hand against the rocks and holding on to her feet with the other, when, in spite of all I could do, she managed to work halfway down my back.”
From the shore, her husband exclaimed, “Hitch up, Matilda! Hitch up, Matilda! Why don’t you hitch up?” Bill Nye said he could hear Mr. Fielding “dancing around among the rocks and stones” and Dolly could have “died laughing.” It seemed the more Mr. Fielding yelled to “hitch up,” the more she was going down. But Bill Nye continued to wade across and somehow managed to bring her to the side safe and dry. She was able to get off his back by him reaching down and she “just walked off over my head.”
(Image credit: The Adirondacks - Illustrated)
Eventually, the whole party had made it across the water and back onto solid ground.
“The ladies never told of the adventure or made the slightest allusion to it in public as some would, in my presence at least, and for thus showing so much regard for the feelings of a bashful man and bachelor I shall be grateful to them to my dying day,” Bill Nye concluded in his account in “The Adirondacks: Illustrated.”
For modern-day hikers in that area, two spans of catwalks are anchored along the cliff walls of Avalanche Mountain to safely traverse the edge of Avalanche Lake, without the help of Mr. William B. Nye. The catwalks are appropriately known as the “Hitch-Up Matildas.”
You can read the entirety of this story, as told by Nye, along with a myriad of other Adirondack tales in the book cited here authored by S.R. Stoddard, who also wrote “Ticonderoga” and “Lake George: Illustrated.”
On a side note, Nye technically does not meet the Adirondack 46ers' qualifications of being at least 4,000 feet to be considered a High Peak. A survey in 1901 found the elevation to be 4,170 feet, and the club decided to continue to consider it a High Peak despite a 1953 survey finding it was 3,895 feet. With a story like Bill Nye’s, it is understandable that the mountain be kept among the 46 High Peaks.
Interested in hiking Nye – and maybe thinking a bit about William B. Nye along the way? There are great trail descriptions for these and other Adirondack hikes, here.