Almanack Contributor Guest Contributor

Guest Essayist

The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with a biding interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor John Warren at adkalmanack@gmail.com.


Monday, April 14, 2014

First Signs of Spring: Skunk Cabbage

skunk_cabbageIt’s spring. Red-winged blackbirds are calling, chipmunks are foraging and flocks of robins abound. Bending down to smell the first subtle scents of crocuses and daffodils, we give thanks that winter is over. Sometimes, we also take a whiff of skunk cabbage flowers, just for the olfactory shock value.

Skunk cabbage grows throughout the Northeast and Midwest, ranging from North Carolina well up into the northernmost reaches of Quebec. The flower emerges through the snow and ice of March in the understory of wooded swamps, along riverbanks, lakeshores, and in other habitats with rich wet soils. First growth is an exotic, crimson-hued, three to six inch tall cowl –called a spathe – that surrounds and protects a » Continue Reading.



Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lucy Carnegie’s Great Camp On Raquette Lake

Lucy CarnegieMy family began vacationing at Raquette Lake sometime in the mid-1970s, attracted by what is arguably the most beautiful lake in the Adirondacks. As the family grew, I began to look for a larger home and contacted a realtor who sent me a write up on North Point, considered one of the Great Camps and the former summer home of Lucy Carnegie.

I had seen the home while boating and, my curiosity piqued, looked it up in Harvey Kaiser’s book Great Camps of the Adirondacks (2003). I was interested to see who had designed this Swiss chalet style home, so unusual in design compared to the other camps in the area. Kaiser stated that, “The building » Continue Reading.



Thursday, April 3, 2014

Adirondack Raccoons: It’s All In The Hands

TOS_footHarry Houdini was a great break-out artist: handcuffed, straight-jacketed, chained and submerged in water, he’d always emerge. Raccoons are famous break-in artists. No chimney flue, garbage can, or campground cooler is safe from their prying hands.

Like Harry Houdini, it’s partly clever hand work that makes the raccoon so good…and so bad. Raccoons have remarkably sensitive hands, with five long, tapered fingers and long nails. They lack thumbs, so can’t grasp objects with one hand the way we can, but they use both forepaws together to lift and then acutely manipulate objects. Thanks to this tactile intelligence, raccoons are problem solvers that adapt easily to cities, suburbs, and other manmade habitats.



Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Science of Maple Syrup

syrupIn maple country, it seems like everyone has a favorite syrup grade. Mine is U.S. Grade A dark amber. But soon, I’ll have to figure out how my favorite grade of the past jibes with a new system that several Northeastern states plan to adopt in the next few years, and that other states – as well as Canada – are also considering.

It turns out that, at least in New York, Vermont, and Maine, my favorite amber will soon be called either Grade A Amber, Rich Taste or Grade A Dark, Robust Taste, depending on which end of the amber spectrum I prefer. Lighter syrups tend to have more delicate flavors, while darker ones are » Continue Reading.



Friday, March 28, 2014

An Informal Tribute to Lake George’s Winnie LaRose

Winnie LaroseEditor’s Note:  This tribute to Lake George’s Winnie LaRose was written by the late Robert F. Hall and republished in his 1992 collection of essays, Pages from Adirondack History. He included this piece in the collection because, he wrote, “Winifred S. LaRose, who died on December 6, 1979, was the very embodiment of the environmentalist – a person whose love of her own native place and whose determination that its beauty would not be spoiled led her to the forefront of the environmental movement, not only in Lake George, but throughout New York State.”

Governor Hugh Carey proclaimed August 21, 1980, as Winnie LaRose Day, but any day would have served because that lady » Continue Reading.



Thursday, March 20, 2014

Adirondack Birds of Prey: Accipiters

AccipiterI was enjoying a morning cup of coffee in the sunroom when I saw the hawk.

It was perched across the road, maybe 30 yards away, its chest puffed up against the cold. It appeared to be eyeing the activity at our birdfeeder.

As I was trying to decide if it was a female sharp-shinned hawk or a male Cooper’s hawk, the bird launched from its perch, and in an instant had threaded its way through a dense tangle of road-side branches while in hot pursuit of a blue jay.

It all happened so quickly that I wasn’t even sure if the jay had been captured, although I was able to identify it as » Continue Reading.



Monday, March 17, 2014

The Boreal Baker’s Dozen:
Northern Birds in Adirondack Wetlands

A Gray Jay by Simon Pierre BarretteImagine that you are walking on a path through a forest in the Adirondacks and suddenly, you see an opening in the trees ahead. Moving closer, you gaze out on a vast opening covered in a mosaic of leafy shrubs and dotted with spiky conifers. You take a step further and feel the “squish” as your boot sinks into a wet, dense mat of bright green moss. From the top of a nearby snag, you hear the distinctive “quick-three-beers” song of an Olive-sided Flycatcher followed by the complex, jumbled, slightly metallic sound of a Lincoln’s Sparrow. Looking down again, you notice the pale, delicate flowers of a white-fringed orchid. All » Continue Reading.



Friday, March 7, 2014

Birding: The Mating Habits of Songbirds

PhoebeWhile winter can be stunningly beautiful, with its magical snowfalls and ethereal silences, I must admit that by late-February the long absence of so many songbirds has me feeling bereft. I miss the vireos; I miss the thrushes and most especially I miss the pair of phoebes who settle into the well-worn nest on the gable end of my house to raise their young.

It’s amazing how two tiny beings who weigh no more than a handful of twigs can evoke such strong emotions in me. I am joyful when the pair resurfaces in early spring; moved by their devotion to their shared progeny, and I take pleasure in the companionship they provide one another.

But » Continue Reading.



Sunday, March 2, 2014

Coyotes: Decoding Their Yips, Barks, and Howls

coyote_howlAs the sunset colors fade from purple to black an eerie sound breaks the forest calm. It is not the long, low, slow howling of wolves that can be heard further north, but the group yip-howl of coyotes: short howls that often rise and fall in pitch, punctuated with staccato yips, yaps, and barks.

When people hear coyote howls, they often mistakenly assume that they’re hearing a large pack of animals, all raising their voices at once. But this is an auditory illusion called the “beau geste” effect. Because of the variety of sounds produced by each coyote, and the way sound is distorted as it passes through the environment, two of these tricksters can sound » Continue Reading.



Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Adirondack Wetlands:
A New Citizen Science Monitoring Project

Black Spruce in an Adirondack wetland - photo by Samouel BeguinWith this winter shaping up to be a cold one, spring may still seem far away. But with time and a little patience, we will soon start to notice the lilac leaves bursting from buds, the return of brightly colored warblers, and the ringing chorus of spring peepers in the evening. Any time you detect events unfolding in the natural world, you are making phenological observations.

Phenology refers to the study of the timing of biological activities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these changes in the life cycles of plants and animals coincide with the seasons. Besides day length, factors that influence the timing of biological events » Continue Reading.



Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Northern Lights: Nature’s Light Show

auroraborealisIn October of last year friends Dan Russell and Charles Baldridge stood on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain and had what they later described as an awe-inspiring experience. For an hour and a half, the sky was lit up with columns of white light, some of them tinged with red and green. This was the Aurora Borealis making an unusual appearance.

Russell remembered having goose bumps for most of the event, while Baldridge remembered wanting to call everyone he knew. “It was really exciting.”



Thursday, February 6, 2014

Buds: Spanning the Seasons

twigsThe sign in the window, which read, “Clearance! Hats and Gloves 50% off,” puzzled me. Snowflakes swirled on gusty winds. The bitter cold stung my fingertips—I wondered if I should buy warmer gloves while I had the chance. Clearance? Temperatures hadn’t climbed above freezing for days; the warmth of spring was a distant dream.

Blow out your boots, or lose your wool hat in winter, and when you go looking for a replacement you are likely to find sandals and sun hats on display. I used to rail against such a setup, assigning it to an insatiable human propensity for speed, afraid that at some point we might just lap ourselves. But when I began to » Continue Reading.



Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Adirondack Night Sky: Taurus The Bull

2 cave art at LascauxOn a clear midwinter evening, look high above the southern horizon and you will see a V-shaped group of moderately bright stars. These stars form the center of the large constellation Taurus. Imagine, as did the Sumerians four thousand years ago, that this pattern outlines the horns of a charging bull. The bright red star Aldebaran prominently shines on his lower (southern) horn.

The stars of the horns are called the Hyades. In Greek mythology, they were the daughters of Atlas and Aethra. Their appearance was associated with the rainy season.  At a mere 150 light years away, The Hyades are actually an open cluster of related stars. Look above and a » Continue Reading.



Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Opossum: Live Weird, Die Young

opossumOn our back porch, in a pocket of light from the window, was what looked to be an oversized rat wearing white face powder. As it gobbled down cat food, it flashed a demented crocodile grin. My mother shrieked.

This was my first encounter with an opossum.

This species, still described as “neotropical” by some sources, has been moving north since at least the 1950’s. In many parts of the northeast, opossums (frequently shortened to “possums”) are as familiar as squirrels. Yet this is no mere rodent.



Thursday, January 16, 2014

Does This Fur Make Me Look Fat? Woodchucks In Winter

woodchuckFat gets a bad rap in the medical world, for good reason. Excessive body fat is linked to a litany of health risks, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.  Yet in the realm of nature, fat is a lifesaver. If certain mammals that hibernate did not get fat, they would be dead by spring.

The woodchuck is something of a fat specialist. As many an irate gardener can attest, the woodchuck’s diet consists of perishable greens. Because these can’t be stored, the animal stockpiles all the food energy it needs to survive winter in a thick layer of body fat.



Friday, January 10, 2014

Adirondack Weather: Rain, Sleet or Snow?

sleetsnowiceMany years ago, I lived in San José, California where the weather forecast went something like this: Sunny for three weeks, one day of rain, followed by many more weeks of sun. There was a sameness to the weather that bordered on the banal and never made me wonder what was going on.

Not so here in the Northeast. The mercurial nature of our weather keeps us wondering from day to day – often hour to hour – when it’s going to change. The uncertainty is never more present than in the winter, when at times we’re blessed with that trifecta of miserable driving conditions: snow, sleet, and freezing rain.

Why is it that a day » Continue Reading.



Thursday, January 9, 2014

Psychrophiles: Some Organisms Like It Cold

psychrophilesWe humans tend to cringe at winter temperatures. We put on extra layers, crank up the thermostat, and wait impatiently for the tell-tale drip of spring thaw. However, there are plenty of tiny organisms all around us that aren’t just biding their time; they’re thriving in the bitter cold. If you could listen to as well as watch them under a microscope, you wouldn’t hear a single complaint about the temperature.

Psychrophiles, literally “cold lovers,” are organisms adapted to live at extremely cold temperatures. These are single-celled life forms, most often bacteria, but also blue green algae, yeasts, and fungi that can grow at temperatures as low as -13 degrees.



Monday, December 16, 2013

Porcupine Courtship: A Raucous Affair

porkyIn November, as the last colors of autumn are fading, the stark outlines of tree branches are revealed. During this time you might be lucky enough to see an occasional dark mass, looking from a distance like a burl.

Recently, on a hike through a dense forest, I spied one such anomaly high up in a white ash tree. Walking closer, I saw that this shape was a porcupine. It seemed asleep. After circling the area looking for quills and other markings, I shuffled noisily away. When I turned back, the porcupine was heading further up the tree. The branch it clung to bent precariously as the wind picked up, but the tenacious climber hung on.



Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How Warm-Blooded Animals Stay Warm

geese on iceMy favorite season tends to be whatever comes next, which means, for now, deep winter. With our storm windows installed and four tons of wood pellets put up, I’m feeling smug as the ant in Aesop’s fable. But what about the furred and feathered creatures out there in the cold?

When I imagine a Canada goose on an icy pond, or a white tail knee deep in the white stuff, it makes me shiver and wonder: How do warm-blooded animals stay warm?



Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Burdocks and Cockleburs: Have Hooks, Will Travel

bursHang off, thou cat, thou burr! vile thing, let loose, Or I will shake thee from me like a serpent!

-William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The aroma of wood smoke lingers as you take your evening stroll. The sun has slipped behind the hills as the moon takes its watch at the other end of the valley. It’s the moment of twilight when solid figures are no longer discernible from shadows, and so you fail to notice the tiny hitchhiker lurking beside the path.

Upon your return, you reach down to untie your shoes and feel a painful pinch. After a blood-curdling “YOWCH!” you reach the light switch. Once your eyes adjust, you » Continue Reading.



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