AUSABLE WATER WISE: What’s in a name?

Sign on state Route 73 over the East Branch of the AuSable River near St. Huberts (Photo provided — Stephen Longmire)

(Editor’s note: In the Lake Placid News, our style is to spell AuSable with a capital “S” and no space between the “u” and “S” unless it is part of the official spelling of a road, attraction or organization, such as the Ausable River Association. We’ve kept the column below intact without changing the spelling of the word.)


In 1609, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, navigating the lake that would be named after him, sailed by the mouth of a river and, noting its sandy delta, named it the river of sand. As English became the common language of our region, the spelling of this French name morphed but never quite settled into one accepted form.

People often ask, why do you spell Ausable that way? It’s a challenge to remember which way to spell this French word in English, given the variations that exist. The hamlet of Au Sable Forks hews true to the French in spelling, but not in pronunciation; the town of AuSable and the AuSable Acres development in the town of Jay make a step toward Anglicization but not quite; then there is the Ausable River as marked on maps and on New York state DOT signs. Who’s right? None of us pronounce it as a French speaker would — we say, oh SAY bul as opposed to o SAAB le. Hmmm…

In Michigan, the Ausable River is also famous for its fishing. It’s pronounced OOH sub ul. So that doesn’t really help us at all.

The Ausable River Association’s staff is mostly a bunch of scientists; because we work with federal and state agencies, we decided long ago that the best policy was to defer to an “official” directory of place names. Yep, there is a U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Its website describes it as a “Federal body created in 1890 and established in its present form by Public Law in 1947 to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government”, and it is run by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Good enough for us.

If you type Ausable or Au Sable into the geographic names information system for domestic place names in the State of New York on this website, the following list appears: Ausable River, East Branch Ausable River, West Branch Ausable River, Little Ausable River, Ausable Chasm, and Au Sable Forks. The town of AuSable is presented both as Ausable and Au Sable by the USGS.

At some point in our history, the French words that are speckled throughout our country as place names began to be pronounced and spelled differently. The changes settled, though not necessarily consistently from place to place. And, voil, here we are. Vive la diffrence.

Bottom line, the Ausable River watershed is a gem, however you spell it. The land it embraces was created by and relies on the waters that continue to define it: the East and West Branch Ausable Rivers, the Chubb River, Lake Placid, Mirror Lake, the Cascade Lakes, the Ausable Lakes, Fern Lake, Taylor Pond, and the Ausable River running from Au Sable Forks to Lake Champlain.

All these waterways face challenges: rising water temperatures, invasive species, erosion and sedimentation, pollutants. We can, however, protect and restore them.

You can do your part by supporting the science and stewardship of the Ausable River Association and the practical solutions we identify and pursue in partnership with our communities. Join us. If you’d like some tips on how to do right by the waterways in your community, Visit our website at ausableriver.org/caring.

(Kelley Tucker is the executive director of the Ausable River Association.)

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