Bradford B. VanDiver, president of the ADK Laurentian Chapter four decades ago, had a deep impact on my life, which is not surprising because he was a lifetime teacher. But the truth is, I never met him — at least not in person. His passion for many pursuits was first revealed to me through the pages of one of several books he authored. What I discovered was a native New Yorker and eventual North Country transplant who was truly a Renaissance Man.
At a young age, innate curiosity across many fields of science drove my quest to know more about animals, plants, rocks, and “bugs” that were routinely encountered on all sorts of outdoor expeditions. When VanDiver’s book, Rocks and Routes of the North Country, New York (1976) was released in 1976, I immediately obtained an autographed copy, which still resides on my desk to this very day. He presented a wealth of knowledge supported by scientific terms, but written for the layman as a practical guide to discovery. The book accompanied me on hundreds of hours of exploration across the Adirondacks, and in part led me to write my own first book.
But VanDiver was much more than a professional rock hound — professional as in a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Washington. He also taught at universities in Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and for a year in Munich, Germany, during a sabbatical from Potsdam State, where he spent 24 years as professor of geology.
Lest you think Renaissance Man is an exaggeration, consider the following.
Besides a Ph.D. in geology, he earned a B.A. in chemical engineering from the University of Colorado, and later studied petroleum engineering and geology for two years at the University of Houston.
He could converse in Spanish and German, and could read French, Italian, and Portuguese.
As a noted hiker and mountain climber, he made countless summer and winter ascents in the Adirondacks, the U.S. and Canadian Rockies, the Cascades, the Alps, the Charagua Range in southeastern Bolivia, and even climbed a live volcano, Pacaya, in Guatemala. Geological research/climbing trips also took him to Austria, Chile, England, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Switzerland, and Uruguay.
He was also a serious and accomplished rock climber who, when pressed to choose particularly meaningful trips he had undertaken, said, “I think making the first ascent on the window of Longs Peak in Colorado, and several other first ascents, were my most memorable.”
He was a member of the Adirondack 46ers, the Adirondack Mountain Club, the AMC 111 (Appalachian Mountain Clubbers who have climbed the 111 Northeastern Peaks higher than 4,000 feet), the Carolina Mountain Club, and the Colorado Hiking Club.
Both recreationally and to reach remote research sites, he engaged in Alpine skiing, backpacking, biking, canoeing, cross-country skiing, jogging, swimming, and whitewater kayaking.
He was also a carpenter, cabinetmaker, and photographer.
His articles and research papers were presented regionally and nationally at annual conferences and in numerous newspapers and magazines. His books included several in the Roadside Geology series covering New York, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. A unique title, Imprints of Time: The Art of Geology, depicted beautiful objects and processes ranging from microscopic to massive in size.
Dr. VanDiver’s impact on the Adirondack region was significant. He was in on the ground floor regarding environmental concerns, hosting several meetings and conferences, and lecturing on the issue of garbage dumps during the very first Earth Day in 1970. In many places, Earth Day has since grown into Earth Week, but Potsdam was ahead of its time, hosting a week-long series of events titled Earth Week in 1970. Featured were a range of speakers addressing air, water, thermal, noise, and land pollution, along with other pertinent subjects. Over the years, VanDiver delivered lectures at many local, regional, and national conferences on geology, mountaineering, world geological sites, conservation issues, and environmental planning for the future.
He played the role of activist as well. In late 1970, when state and federal officials met with the public in Potsdam about the possibility of placing a nuclear “breeder reactor demonstration project” in Waddington, VanDiver raised questions about the wisdom of locating a nuclear facility within the Canadian earthquake zone, citing the example of Massena’s powerful earthquake that caused extensive damage in 1944.
In 1975, when Niagara Mohawk held public sessions on a Panther Mountain Dam proposal, VanDiver spoke out strongly against the further damming of any Adirondack Rivers for producing electricity, pointing out that hydropower represented only two percent of the total energy grid, a percentage that was still declining.
At the local level of community involvement, he presented slide shows and lectures to the Adirondack Mountain Club, the St. Lawrence County Historical Society, regional libraries, and other organizations. He also organized and hosted many outdoor events, including ski races at the college, with categories open to competitors of all ages, and guided schoolchildren on hiking and mountain-climbing trips.
His work on the Stone Valley trails in Colton with members of the ADK Laurentian Chapter resulted in signage at sites that were geologically or historically significant. Many of the original signs developed by VanDiver were replaced in 2005 with more permanent versions, maintaining his legacy up north.
When he retired, Dr. VanDiver moved to North Carolina, where he remained very active in geological pursuits, served as a hiking guide, and continued to write. Such was his level of participation that in 1988, the National Park Service added him and wife Beverly to their 1998 Yearbook for photography and research they performed in the Grandfather Mountain area of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Their work was used by NPS “to develop on-site interpretive programs and wayside exhibits for the park.”
Dr. VanDiver’s work was inspirational, not only in my own life of hiking and visiting geological sites, but to artists as well. Among the exhibits sponsored by the Albany Institute of History and Art in 2007 was, “Indian Ladder, A Lyric Journey.” Featured were John Yang’s photographs taken on the Indian Ladder Trail at John Boyd Thacher State Park, about ten miles west of Albany. When asked how he found his subject, Yang said he had read a guidebook by Bradford VanDiver, whose descriptions of waterfalls and high cliffs “caught his fancy.” The very same thing happened to me when I read a VanDiver book decades earlier: it caught my fancy and led to many treasured moments of discovery.
After a lifetime of exciting achievements, plus sharing knowledge of his work through several books and decades of teaching, Dr. VanDiver passed away in 2012 at the age of 85.
Photos: Bradford VanDiver (1976 book publicity photo); Bradford and Beverly VanDiver (1998, National Park Service)
A version of this article was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.