In Adirondacks, mail arrives by land and water

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SARANAC LAKE, N.Y. -- The Grand Canyon may receive letters and packages by pack mule, parts of Alaska by propeller plane. But here in the lake-speckled Adirondack Mountains, a fortunate few have their mail delivered right to their docks.

And in this upscale community, where people call a lakefront mansion a "camp" the way Newport swells use the understated "cottage," one man gets to deliver it. He is Dion Neese, 45, who seems more comfortable in front of the tiller of an outboard motor than behind the wheel of a car.

Neese is not a postal employee. (He prefers to be called a sole proprietor or businessman.) But he does have a contract with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver mail on Upper Saranac Lake for three months each summer.

On a recent morning, with summer in midstride and the sun flirting behind tall, puffy clouds, Neese settled himself in the back of his scuffed aluminum boat and pointed the bow into the lake's choppy waters.

No nipping dogs, no uphill slogs, no stinging sleet. Just jaw-dropping scenery: pine-covered islands, an expanse of water dappled with milky sheets of light, tasteful lodges that blend into the forested lakefront with an Adirondack palette of greens and browns.

'I never complain'

"I never complain about this job," Neese said over the rumble of the engine, the wind tossing around wisps of hair that would not stay in his ponytail. "It's gorgeous."

But there is the rain, which he conquers by placing the mail inside a plastic snow sled, covering that with a larger sled, and finally tying a bungee cord around the whole contraption. And lightning. "I find the nearest boathouse and take cover, whether it is on my route or not," he said. "That's the only time I've ever been afraid."

Saranac Lake is actually three lakes, a lower, middle and upper. For all its isolation in the heart of the Adirondacks, neither very convenient to New York or Boston, the lake -- particularly Upper Saranac -- is ringed with money, much of it old.

Neese said several people on his route had surnames that frequently appeared in the financial news pages. His contract prohibits him from revealing any of his customers.

The old Rockefeller "great camp" on Upper Saranac Lake is now the Point, one of the most expensive hotels in the country, with rooms from $1,250 to $2,400 a night. It is also one of the most exclusive: Staff members will not even reveal the hotel's location until a guest pays for the room, in full.

Many summer camps are really compounds handed down from generation to generation, with a grandly rustic main house peeking out from the pines, an elaborate boathouse on the shore and a few guest cabins in between.

But even the high and mighty, it seems, have an appetite for the quaint and quotidian. "Have you ever seen On Golden Pond?" asked Ken Goldman, one of Neese's customers, as he stood on his dock, a cellphone poking out from the pocket of his North Face jacket.

An affable commodities trader from Boulder, Colo., with strawberry blond hair covering his pale legs, Goldman was referring to the 1981 Academy Award-winning movie that starred Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Fonda's daughter, Jane, as a family who received their summer mail by boat. "It's great," he said of the service.

Something of a luxury

The Postal Service's manager of post office operations for the Adirondack region, Cynthia C. Thurston, acknowledged that waterborne mail was something of a luxury, given that most of the 70 or so houses on Neese's route are also accessible by road.

Customers can choose to get their mail by land or water, according to the postmaster in Saranac Lake, Frederick A. Everhart. Year-round residents on the lake tend to pick the truck route, which is handled by another mail carrier, while most seasonal residents opt for the mail boat.

No one seems to know exactly how many years the Saranac Lake mail route has been in operation. But one customer of Neese's, Sheldon Boyd, a retired schoolteacher from Long Island who built his house 50 years ago this summer, says it dates back at least to then.

The cost-conscious federal government can be tradition-conscious, too. "It's not something that we're going to do more of, but it's nice to maintain what we have," Thurston said. Saranac Lake is one of several towns and villages in the 6 million-acre state Adirondack Park that have mail boats during the summer, postal officials say.

For Neese, the job provides a way to supplement the salary from his regular job as an aide in a group home for mentally retarded adults, where he works the 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. shift four days a week. He then reports to the post office, just down the hill from the home, and begins sorting through mail and packages before heading out onto the lake.

Running about 25 miles around the jagged shoreline, the main route takes him about three hours. From June 15 to Sept. 15, when the route is active, Neese said, he gets by on five hours of sleep a day during the week.

Aside from the dose of nature, Neese said he enjoyed the warm reception given to a mailman who arrives by boat -- especially on Eagle Island, where the Girl Scouts have a summer camp.

"I feel like Santa Claus when the girls are here because they love to get those packages and letters," he said as he loaded a bulging bag into the camp's mailbox, across which "MAIL" was spelled out with small birch branches.

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