We never got around to the fire and knives, nor did we hike the highly recommended Fifth Peak, Buck Mountain and Sleeping Mountain, all nearby. But we did stop at the Up Yonda Farm and the headquarters and bookshop of the nonprofit Adirondack Mountain Club, which has been fighting to promote and protect the area since 1922.
Because Lake George is the most built-up corner of Adirondack Park, Woodworth told me, the streets and waters around Lake George Village get crowded in summer, and the place continues to get its share of weekend visitors after Labor Day. But the weekdays are far slower, he said, and the farther north you go, "the fewer boats you see and the wilder the experience."
The Up Yonda Farm, a few miles north of Bolton Landing, is a former summer-home property and takes up as much land as the Sagamore's little island. It's run as a year-round nature center, with a museum room of stuffed animals and plant samples, a butterfly house, picnic area, woodsy trails and an ideological aversion to trash receptacles: "Carry it in, carry it out," a sign instructs visitors. The property was donated for environmental educational purposes by owners Alice and John Scott because, Alice wrote, of the "desecration of the land around us."
Maybe she just needed a night out at the Waikiki Supper Club.
Anyway, Up Yonda Farm has several nice walking paths, all a mile or less, and you can't help but learn a thing or two as you wander.
In sticking near Lake George, we sampled only the tiniest, southeastern sliver of the Adirondacks. But at every turn, we bumped against landmarks. Back in the middle 18th century when the French and English were skirmishing over who would take over North America, one of the most crucial prizes was Ft. Ticonderoga, which the French called "the key to a continent" but failed to hold.
About 20 years later on the same soil, upstart American troops led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold won their first major victory against the British by grabbing the same fort. (Soon after, the British bloodily took it back, but the larger war for independence was won elsewhere.)
By the late 19th century, the mightiest families of New York had begun building summer "Great Camps" here, giving birth to that rustic cabin-and-furniture fashion now known as Adirondack style.
Legislators, meanwhile, had already begun setting aside the 6 million acres that make up Adirondack Park, which includes about half-and-half public and private property. In all, the park covers more ground than Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon combined.
As author Paul Schneider writes in "The Adirondacks: A History of America's First Wilderness," it was here that "masses of (non-Native) Americans first learned to cherish the wilds as a place of solace and recreation."
Novelist James Fenimore Cooper set his "The Last of the Mohicans" at Lake George (though he called it Horicon). And before she started spending her summers in New Mexico in 1929, painter Georgia O'Keeffe and her photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz, were regulars on these shores. In 1927, O'Keeffe even stayed past Labor Day and produced a gorgeous watercolor of the darkening leaves surrounding the deep blue lake.
Since then, visits to the lake have become a summer tradition for tens of thousands of New Yorkers and their East Coast neighbors, and every return trip is a chance to wallow again in the sensations of childhood.
"I've been coming for 20 years," said Sue Jurkowski of Belchertown, Mass., who was playing shuffleboard at the Stepping Stones Resort. "Even my kids -- they're 21 and 23 -- they love it so much that they come back too."
LEARNING THE LAKE
For my three-member family with our 93 years of collective California residency, learning the lake was like finding a new planet, where Hackers and Nautiques (beloved boat brands) dwell in their own damp houses; where a single neighborhood can sustain half a dozen miniature golf courses; where, just a few miles from that neighborhood, you can steer your launch past a dozen private islands; where a Swedish Pimple is not a Scandinavian blemish but a popular ice-fishing lure.
Visitors may want a tour by water, and the options include the Lac du Saint Sacrement, the Minne-haha and the Mohican (three large vessels operated by the Lake George Steamboat Co. in Lake George); and the Morgan, operated by the Sagamore in Bolton Landing. State officials have tightened safety scrutiny of cruise boats and other vessels since the October 2005 capsizing of the 38-foot cruise ship Ethan Allen, which killed 20 senior citizens. (A county Grand Jury investigation found that the Ethan Allen, operated by Shoreline Cruises Inc. on the lake since 1979, had been overloaded, understaffed and made top-heavy by the addition of a canopy and windows.)
Still, there's plenty to see by land. If you bear north on the two-lane New York Highway 9N, which runs up the west side of Lake George, the roadside kitsch gradually falls away, leaving only forest and peek-a-boo views of the lake, the path gently rising, falling and bending.
If you continue to Ft. Ticonderoga at the northern tip of the lake, you pass the tempting tiny town of Hague and the log cabins and docks of semi-rustic resorts like the old Trout House, one of the few year-round lodgings on the lake.
And if you arrive at the fort at midday, just as a drummer in an 18th century uniform is rap-tap-tapping atop a battle-scarred old stone wall, you may briefly suspect you've fallen onto Ken Burns' cutting-room floor. But no, it's only a show, like the demonstrations of how muskets work and military cooks made chocolate for the troops.