Hunting for health

Dr. E.L. Trudeau (Photo from the Historic Saranac Lake collection)

In the past months, scientists have speculated that the coronavirus may have jumped for bats to humans, and the virus has spread quickly around the globe. The world suddenly seems much smaller. The situation reminds us of our connectedness to the animal world and to each other. Such an awareness of nature is deeply rooted in the Adirondack traditions of hunting and fishing.

The practice of hunting in the Adirondacks stretches back thousands of years. For countless generations, Native American peoples lived in balance with the natural environment, taking only resources needed for survival and making use of medicinal plants.

From the mid-1800s, growing numbers of tourists came to the Adirondacks to experience the wilderness. They relied on Adirondack guides’ deep knowledge of the woods and waters to explore the wilderness in comfort and safety.

With the arrival of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau in the 1870s, the rather paradoxical pursuits of hunting and health care became intertwined in our history. Edward had learned a love of hunting from his father, who was also a medical doctor. Edward first came to the Adirondacks as a young “sport” from the city, to hunt and fish at Paul Smith’s Hotel.

Trudeau returned to Paul Smith’s a few years later, seriously ill with tuberculosis. He hoped that rest in the fresh air of the Adirondacks would improve his health. The guides at Paul Smith’s cushioned a boat with boughs of balsam and took the invalid doctor out shooting. Hunting in the wilderness, Trudeau wrote, “my sprits were high and I forgot all the misery and sickness I had gone through.”

Guides at Paul Smith’s Hotel (Photo from Paul Smith’s College, Joan Weill Adirondack Library archives)

Believing the fresh air and natural beauty of the Adirondacks would benefit other invalids, Trudeau eventually established his sanatorium in Saranac Lake. He built it on land that had been his favorite rabbit hunting grounds, purchased for him by local guides who were his cherished friends.

Trudeau’s passion for hunting brought him to the Adirondacks. It also laid the foundations for his scientific research using animal subjects. In 1886, he devised an experiment using live rabbits to study the effects of environment on TB. The breakthrough Rabbit Island experiment demonstrated the benefits of the fresh air treatment. Trudeau continued his work in science, and in 1894 he established the Saranac Laboratory in the village to study tuberculosis. There, scientists performed many studies using mice, rabbits and guinea pigs.

Dr. E.L. Trudeau passed his twin loves of hunting and medicine on to his son Francis and his grandson Frank. Francis served as president of the Saranac Lake Fish and Game Club. In 1916, he established the Trudeau Big Buck Contest to honor his father, who had died the year before. Each year, the trophy buck that earned the Trudeau Cup was proudly hung on display in the middle of the village. The successful hunter’s name was etched on a silver Honor Roll and displayed in the Post Office Pharmacy building on Main Street. In the 1970s, deer were hung at the Waterhole.

Today, some local people hunt to help feed their families during these difficult economic times. Hunting and fishing continue as customs that build resilience and community ties. These are traditions that instill appreciation for the human connection to the natural world. It is wisdom that served Dr. Trudeau well, and it continues to guide us today.

A young Garry Trudeau goes fishing with his father Dr. Frank Trudeau. (Photo courtesy of Jeanie Trudeau Fenn)

Amy Catania is executive director of Historic Saranac Lake.

Two participants proudly display their catch at the Colby Classic Fishing Derby this past winter. The Cure Porch on Wheels was there to record ice fishing history. (Provided photo — Historic Saranac Lake)


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