I grew up appreciating Adirondack water primarily in the form of its lakes and ponds. Our family began vacationing at Blue Mountain Lake nearly sixty years ago and by now I feel as though I know every island and every inch of its depths and shoreline.
There are many other bodies of water that became at least somewhat familiar to me in my boyhood: Eagle and Utowana Lakes, Long Lake, Piseco Lake, parts of the Fulton chain, Minnow Pond, Stephens Pond, Cascade Pond, Rock Pond (one of the many), the Sargent Ponds, Lake Durant, Tirrell Pond, Indian Lake, Heart Lake. As an adult I have come to even more intimate terms with many more, primarily in the High Peaks and Saint Regis areas.
I will always love the majesty and drama of a pristine body of water set amidst forest and mountain, the cold, clear water always calling me to paddle. Yet even as boy I found myself responding to stronger urgings and fascinations that were motivated by waters of a different nature.
One of my favorite places to hike as a boy was along an unofficial trail from the parking lot at Hemlock Hall to Minnow Pond. The path paralleled and occasionally crossed Minnow Brook. A diminutive stream, it was perfect for rock-hopping and foot dipping. There was a particular stretch that coursed through a deep, straight crack that extended along a length of perhaps thirty feet of flat granite with a foot-high shelf to one side. Something about that spot worked on my youthful wonderings every time I was there. It had to do with the ancient feel of the rock. It had to do with the dark emerald shade of the moss that covered the area. It had to do with the dynamism of the water, the small but unyielding flow through the seam. You could dam it with twigs and rocks but it would inexorably build-up and overflow your engineering. Most of all it had to do with the mystery of the flowing course itself, an imagination of the ancient depths and ice-bound folds from whence I fancied the stream issued. I remember clearly that it always felt as though I was as far from civilization as it was possible to get in that place. Adirondack streams are always dark and mysterious like that; one always wonders from where they come.
After years and years of backcountry experience I have grown to love mountain streams more than any other wilderness feature. The view of Lower AuSable Lake from Indianhead is one of the great views in America and Blue Mountain Lake remains at the pinnacle of mountain lakes, its harmony and balance perfect in every regard. But I’d trade them both for the Opalescent after a good rain.
I need to digress with an Opalescent story. One of my favorite places in the Adirondacks is the flume that everyone loves, on the ascent towards the Lake Arnold Trail and the Feldspar. I have seen that flume in all four seasons: at periods of low water so pronounced from drought that the flow is no more than a stream, at spring runoff when the roar one hears descending the trail from above is audible for several minutes before one actually gets there, when to stand near the canonical edge from which one peers down into the maelstrom takes a real burst of courage, when the ground literally rumbles beneath one’s feet.
I happened to do a solo expedition in the High Peaks during the infamous flood season of May, 2011. Near the end of my odyssey I found myself descending to Lake Colden from Skylight on an afternoon at the very height of that epic spring flooding. A near-record snowpack was disintegrating and it had been raining hard for the better part of five days. My anticipation over the condition of the Opalescent was at a record level as well. In days I had seen no one save for a Ranger clearing blow down and an underprepared hiker who had started for Marcy and tuned back. The hardened winter spine upon which I tried to balance showed no sign of recent imprints save for my own. I have never felt the High Peaks to be so completely my own, which only heightened the experience.
The Feldspar was properly angry, but while the Opalescent was surely swollen and churning it was not as dramatic as I had imagined. The Opalescent regularly sees big spring runoff and it has engineered itself into a condition of massive capacity, so it was taking what was being given to it quite effectively. Still, I approached the flume expectant to see raging falls such as I had never seen there before.
But I did not. There were no falls. Those of you who know the flume know that the main drop is significant, maybe forty feet or so. It just wasn’t there. The volume and force of the water going through leveled it out so that the water’s angle of descent was nearly indiscernible from the overall downward slope of the river. The shelf and drop were simply buried under the tremendous flow. As I continued down the trail and looked back I could see the drop as a massively enlarged waterfall entirely filling the flume, but from above it just looked like the rest of the river. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I have many favorite river or stream spots in the Adirondacks. Some, like the Opalescent, Indian Falls or Gill Brook, are iconic. Some are less well known but justly given high repute, such as Herbert Brook on the side of Mount Marshall, a magical stream that I hear was badly damaged by Irene, or numerous sections of the Moose and Raquette Rivers. Then there are more private realms, sections of stream that relatively few people have seen, far from any trail. There are four of these in my private store – that is, specific locations not to be revealed to just anyone. One comes down from Skylight and Redfield and supplies an otherworldly tarn. One, steep and dark and more well-known among bushwhackers, cascades down the McIntyre Range, giving a pathway to the Wright slide climbs. One, in the Western Adirondacks, empties into a lake from some unknown source, its surface never other than liquid glass. The last one, unnamed, flowing somewhere North of Henderson Lake, runs down steep slabs of washed anorthosite into a small, marshy pond, flowing in utter and stark privacy, with no sign or sound of humanity to be experienced in all the times I have been there since stumbling upon it a very long bushwhack ago.
But even these special streams have been supplanted in my affections by our own Lost Brook. Primeval to the core, inhabiting a prodigiously steep gash, riven with emerald everywhere courtesy of a thick, centuries-old forest canopy that has never been disturbed, it is dramatic and ancient, vital and crystalline, filled with pools and falls and boulders of every size. It is simply perfect. We “own” perhaps two hundred feet of it, cutting through a corner of Lost Brook Tract, but those two hundred feet hold within them every manner of Adirondack magic. I could spend the rest of my life near it.
Hal Burton, the original chronicler of our land, wrote of it thusly in 1948:
Overhead, the branches met so that we walked in perpetual twilight. On the ground, forest giants were green with moss, and on each fallen tree, a dozen seedlings stood in a soldierly line. Down through a corner of the lot, a branch of Lost Brook gurgled. Fed by the slow drippings of a primeval forest, it was a rushing stream. That same day, the 14th of a searing drought, Lost Brook down by my town camp was barely flowing.
Lost Brook remains the same today. We use it as our refrigerator, as the water is always bracingly cold. A submerged dry bag keeps our perishables fresh for days. We use it as our water source, no filtering or treatment needed. There is no human presence upstream and it is too high for beavers. The taste of that water is the most wonderful thing I can think of and it feel like an elixir, whether going down or just passing over the skin.
Lost Brook Tract is a miracle to us. The views are incredible, the old-growth spruces too. But if I could have only one feature it would be Lost Brook itself. Flowing as it has for centuries, flawless in its dark, mossy primeval bed, it is the thing I can least live without.
Photo: Lost Brook