By Amber Hausman
La Vida and Gary Valentine go way back. Nate first met Gary in the early 2000’s through a McMaster Road connection. Gary’s wife, Ruth, grew up less than a half a mile from the La Vida Base Camp property and her parents Lloyd and Lulu LeBrake were a friendly face to La Vida staff as they went on runs past their house. Nate introduced himself to the LeBrakes who then introduced him to Gary, and it was then that this longstanding friendship began.
Approximately five La Vida groups travel to the Raquette Falls camping area each summer. Through our connection with Gary, we have done countless hours of service work. Some of the recent projects include digging holes for new outhouses, building a retaining wall along the shore of the Raquette River, cleaning miles of drainage along the trails, hauling lumber for various building projects and many other things.
Gary’s impact far surpasses what his outpost caretaker job description states. He once hiked in a gallon of ice cream for one of the group’s because it was the leader’s birthday. What a guy!
This past summer was Gary’s last overseeing the interior outpost at Raquette Falls. La Vida staff and students will miss his smiling face and the abundant popcorn making supplies. As a way to honor Gary and thank him for all the ways he has cared for La Vida, some of our past staff have put together a few stories! Gary, this is for you!
Electa Sutton, Sherpa 2018-2019
Some people call him Gary, I call him Dad.
My second summer working with La Vida, I had the opportunity to camp with my group at Raquette Falls and work my second service project with Gary, digging pit privies. I had worked with Gary a previous summer on trail work with one of my patrols, and so this summer I amped Gary up – I knew they would love him. They had no idea what was coming, all they knew about was a lean-to and the end of a long portage. Halfway through the portage, Gary popped his head in under a canoe two girls were carrying.
“You’re the one Electa told us about!” they excitedly claimed.
“Is that what she’s going by nowadays? Geez, that doesn’t even sound like a real name” he retorted.
Confused, my participants kept going. When we all got into camp, they were asking,
“Wait, is Electa your real name?” Unbeknownst to me, Gary had already started to confuse them. Like he always says, anybody will believe a guy in uniform. He snickered and looked at me – it was all I could do to just shrug and give the typical Sherpa answer: “I don’t know!” Highly suspicious of me, my group continued to set up camp and one of our participants whipped out the travel guitar we had brought: it was time to serenade Gary. We sang him a few songs (some pretty original). When we told the group they would be doing a service project with him the next day, they couldn’t wait to hang out with “Mister Cool Gary Sir”.
Morning came and our group was excited, deeply motivated, and not fully understanding the mosquito bites they would face as they dug through the sand and dirt. They also didn’t fully understand how much they would love Gary – he wasn’t just an unsuspecting caretaker. Throughout the day he bonded with them, laughing and joking, whipping out a watermelon at lunch (that got everybody’s spirit’s up!), and keeping up the ruse that my name wasn’t really Electa. As it came into the night, everyone couldn’t stop talking about Gary and how welcoming he was, and as we all began to sing around the fire, there he appeared again, with popcorn! What a treat!
“Gary – will you share your life story with us? Will you join us in worship?” He was now a part of the group, they wanted him to be involved with everything. Gary turned to me,
“To be honest, I’m pretty beat”.
“Go to bed!” I said, “They’re content”
“Yeah,” he replied, “But I was working my way to convince them in my life story that you were my daughter”
That moment was a wave of honor and love that I never expected to find in the woods of New York. Gary stood there, a twinkle in his eye as he watched popcorn being popped over the fire and laughing with me about the joke he was planning to play. This was when I began to understand: to Gary, La Vida wasn’t just a familiar face passing through or some extra hands to do work. La Vida was family. Times with Gary and La Vida were full of joy and deep care expressed in service, song, and stifled laughter. It was an honor be “adopted” into the Valentine family – it wasn’t just a joke to pull the wool over another group’s eyes. To Gary, it was an invitation.
My second summer at La Vida was Gary’s last summer working at Raquette Falls. In my three trips to see him, with countless blueberries picked and popcorn kernels popped and strokes paddled, Gary not only extended hospitality, he extended the welcome of family. He made people feel at home for a night, even as far as they were outside of their comfort zones, even as tired as the sherpas were getting. A group of sherpas and I went up to visit Gary for his last weekend at the Falls, and even then, he invited us to a feast – a feast that showed his love for La Vida and for people escaped the normal bounds of hospitality and generosity. It expressed itself in a love tied together that families share. I guess all I have to say is, thanks Dad.
Nate Hausman, Director of Adirondack Expeditions 2002-Current
Although I can’t pinpoint exactly when this happened, there came a time when my yearly transitions to La Vida base camp life shifted. It was no longer leaving ‘home’ in Gloucester, MA to move up to La Vida. Rather, moving was simply a change of where home was for a few months. One of attributing factors was the development of deep friendships in the Adirondacks, and one of those that meant the most to me is to Gary Valentine. Gary has always been a helping hand and listening ear for me, but has now also become a central figure in many of my best memories up in the ADKs.
It’s become tradition that at the end of the summer, myself, Amber and Colden (and most recently, our daughter Evalyn joined us) will journey to the interior outpost at Raquette Falls where Gary has been stationed for so many summers. The time is certainly filled with A LOT of food, conversations on the porch and listening to records in the evenings. One of those trips that stands out was a couple summers ago and resulted in Colden being put in the proverbial doghouse. We were prepping dinner, bison burgers to be exact, and did not give much thought to the process. Gary set down a full platter of burgers near the grill and walked back in to the kitchen to grab some utensils. Not 60 seconds later did he return to the grill to begin sizzling our tasty burgers. “Nate, Amber, are the burgers in the kitchen? I thought for sure I brought them out here.” “Nope, not in here Gary, are you sure you brought them out there?” Enter lip licking black lab with guilty look on her face. Colden!!! Yep, platter licked clean. I guess we’re having hotdogs for dinner.
Gary will also be a long-time part of our family because of his role in one of our best wedding gifts ever, our cedar strip canoe. Many people know Gary as caretaker at Raquette Falls. Some also know him as a jack of all trades, one of those trades being canoe building. A number of our staff came together when Amber and I got engaged and enlisted the help of Gary to provide us with a beautiful hand built boat. Come to find out, this would be the first of two wooden structures Gary would build for us that our daughter, Evalyn, would find adequate for taking naps. Upon arriving in NY this past spring to open the base camp for the summer, Gary surprised us with yet another gift (seriously, Gary is one of the most generous people I know), a bassinet crafted from black walnut. Thank you Gary for providing our entire family with a good night’s sleep!
In the end, I have come to recognize that I could go on for hours and paragraphs with how much this man has blessed me over the years. Loaning us his tractor for the summer, developing a fire-building training and competition for our staff, endless supply of movie theater quality popcorn courtesy of our industrial popcorn maker, jalapeno stuffed hotdogs, and the list goes on and on. But, beyond all of those things lies what I have come to appreciate the most about Gary—good, quality, old-fashioned conversation. Although sad to know that Gary won’t be at Raquette Falls to greet our La Vida groups, I am selfishly excited that he will be working more regular hours now and available in new ways to support not only me and my family, but the La Vida program as a whole.
Jared Cave, Sherpa 2007-2008
Carrying canoes and equipment is hard work. When La Vida students arrive at the Raquette Falls carry, it is after some hours of canoeing and the first time they are carrying the canoes farther than a few hundred feet. Arriving at the Raquette Falls campsite always seems to elicit shouts of celebration from a hard day’s travel. It is a beautiful spot with the roaring of the waterfall in the background, tall trees with clearings for tents or gazing at stars on clear nights. Oh, and a lean-to for your group to stay in helps ease the work of setting up camp. This spot is worth the trip. Gary Valentine’s welcome when you arrive is like icing on the cake or butter on top of popcorn– he makes the experience complete.
Gary is kind and welcoming to all who show up to the falls. Whether you are a father daughter on a weekend trip or a rowdy group of campers singing camp songs well into the night, you will be greeted with warmth and enthusiasm. And best of all, Gary brings you popcorn. Worth the object lesson that popcorn used to not be made in a microwavable bag, this popcorn is food for your weary soul and body. Even though I have not been to this beautiful ADK campsite in over 10 years, I have heard that Gary still calls me the best he has ever seen at popping corn. The fact that I am remembered years later is an example of how Gary views and treats those who enter his corner of the ADK’s.
Kristin “KB” Birdsall, Sherpa 2011-2013
It’s hard to imagine the Raquette River without Gary Valentine as part of the experience. La Vida groups always looked forward to visiting him. Grinning ear to ear, Gary would be waiting to greet us with jokes and pranks at the ready. He would love to spoil groups by offering popcorn around the fire, and (if you were lucky) a dry, screened in porch to relax and enjoy your meals – something that seems insignificant until you’ve spent a week outdoors. Though both great treats, the popcorn and the porch weren’t what left an impact on those he came across.
Gary would greet each traveler with an open heart, a desire to bring a smile to their face, and a willingness to share life lessons learned on the river. His story always left a strong, resonating impression on each group that passed. A courageous tale of working a job he didn’t love to successfully build his out his dream home in Western New York. Unexpectedly, he learned about the caretaker position at Raquette Falls, decided to quit his job, and sell his once dream home to pursue a different life. One focused on what is truly important to him: the outdoors, his family and unconditionally loving those around him. This is evident in every interaction you have with him. Gary, with his equally as loving wife Ruth, are living examples that life doesn’t need to be extravagant or fast paced in order for it to be filled to the brim with love.
Walker Tuttle, Sherpa 2018-2019
Gary has an amazing heart to serve in any capacity he can. I remember coming over the Raquette falls with a broken canoe on my back and having no worries at all. I knew Gary would be there and pull out some handy-man tricks and fix the seat while smiling the whole time. As my groups would approach the end of the falls, they had no idea who Gary was, but by the end of the night, every student reveled in the joy Gary brought with every joke, teasing moment and of course, the popcorn.
“Brother from another mother” is a phrase Gary and I say, and it speaks very true in many respects. I love the moments I have been able to spend with him. My first time at the Raquette falls was on my birthday and guess what Gary decided to do? He carried in some ice cream and cooked brownies in his tiny little oven. Somehow he had found out my favorite dessert and made it for me and my group– I shed a tear. Gary will be deeply missed at the falls and by all La Vida trips that have experienced his gift of hospitality and generosity. He is truly the man of the falls.
Dani Rudinsky, Sherpa 2017-2018
Any incoming La Vida staff member meets the rest of their staff in the winter training, any remaining employees at the pre-summer training, and the most important person of their summer shortly-thereafter, if they’re lucky. The day I met the man, the myth, the legend himself Gary Valentine, I remember not expecting, yet not being surprised, by his red face and average stature. I guess I had pictured only a giant of a man being large enough to hold all the preconceived ideas and collected campfire stories I had of him. Someone Rich Obenschain-sized and equal in mythical status. Technically real and yet, sometimes, even when they’re right in front of you, you still wonder. Maybe they were cousins for all I knew! Either way, it didn’t take long for either of these men to become important figures in my life.
Gary Valentine is a man behind a front. And as someone with a loud mouth and smart-aleck attitude herself, I saw through his sham immediately and loved him for it.
“Those gluten-free people, we shouldn’t even let them be in the woods anyway!” he claimed one afternoon after finding out that I didn’t include gluten in my diet.
“Well who’s gonna make me?!” I shot back at him, puffing my chest, quite obviously picking a fight that I knew he was up for.
Our shenanigans and bickering would go on and on until we were practically yelling at each other to prove a ridiculous point, or until we both dropped it completely and busted up laughing. His gruff exterior did nothing to cover the fact that he still spoiled every La Vida group and sherpa-pairing that came through his outpost. He cared and he couldn’t hide it. But he could deny it and always did to keep up his front. Together, we would listen to records, discuss canoe-building techniques, plan my next visit, and hang out while drinking beer like old friends (not during my La Vida employment). Gary treated every person like a human with dignity unless they were being an idiot, of course, in which case he promptly told them so. Yet he always loved the La Vida staff and participants more than they could’ve deserved. The impact he made on their experiences, on individuals like me, and on the program as a whole will not be forgotten, and the Adirondacks will never be the same without him holding down the outpost. I’m grateful for all that he did at that place and look forward to the next time I get to catch up with my old friend.