Almanack Contributor Mary Thill

Mary Thill

Mary Thill is a freelance journalist based in Saranac Lake. She recently began working as a writer and editor at The Nature Conservancy's Adirondack Chapter.


Monday, December 15, 2014

New Report Considers Future Of Lake Trout

Spawning-Lake-troutSince the retreat of the glaciers, lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) have been the top native predator in Adirondack waters. These northern fish require true cold (less than 55°F) and move downward when surface waters warm in late spring and summer. Consequently, they are isolated to the largest and deepest Adirondack lakes – most of them deeper than 30 feet – where they stay in the dark chilly depths all summer and early fall. The species name namaycush is believed to be an Algonquin term for “dweller of the deep.”

This need for very cold, clean, high-oxygen water can bring to light otherwise invisible changes beneath the surface. Water quality in the Adirondack interior, where we don’t have much industry or farming, can be  abstract. You usually can’t see it, touch it or even taste it. But lake trout make the health of our coldest lakes real and tangible. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Hudson River Rafting: Pat Cunningham’s Rocky Ride

On March 30, 2012, Hamilton County Court gave Patrick Cunningham a second chance. It came with conditions and a warning.

Judge S. Peter Feldstein told the defendant: “My goal in this matter, as I said at the beginning, was to affect how you do business. Now, I understand, Mr. Cunningham, through your attorney, that you do not feel that you’ve committed any crimes and you’re perfectly within your rights and you’re innocent before this court, but I want to be sure you understand that if you engaged in the behavior alleged in the indictment, I have no doubt that you committed crimes.” » Continue Reading.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Scene from Kateri Tekakwitha’s Fonda Shrine

As I was leaving St. Peter’s Chapel Friday, a white van with New Jersey plates pulled up. Nine young, smiling nuns filed out. They were dressed in the white and blue-striped saris of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order. They opened an off-kilter screen door and entered the dusky chapel. I followed, conspicuously tall, pale and bareheaded at the end of the line. The sisters walked to the front of the church, knelt before a cross and sang “O What Could My Jesus Do More.” I listened for a minute then left them alone.

I had come to the National Shrine of Kateri Tekakwitha, south of the Adirondack Park in Fonda, expecting signs of anticipation. Pope Benedict XVI canonized the Mohawk-Algonquin woman this morning, the first Native American saint.

But until the nuns arrived I had the place to myself. The chapel occupies the second story of a red clapboard building housing a Native American exhibit on the first. I put $2 in the slot of a box and went to light a votive by a wooden statue of Kateri in buckskin and long loose braids. There were no matches, no holy church-candle smell; the votives were electric—push down on a plastic covering and a light clicks on. I knelt and realized that nothing from childhood religious instruction prepared me for what prayer to say before this most proximate yet entirely new kind of saint.
» Continue Reading.


Thursday, October 18, 2012

One Man’s Experience with Hudson River Rafting Company

Tomorrow there will be a hearing in Hamilton County Supreme Court (convening in Fulton County, in Johnstown) as the New York State Attorney General’s Office seeks a formal court order requiring Hudson River Rafting Company to cease operations until a list of safety concerns can be addressed.

As one of the company’s guides remains jailed on a charge of criminally negligent homicide in the death of a customer who drowned last month, Hudson River Rafting Company and its owner Patrick Cunningham also face a Hamilton County District Attorney motion to reinstate two 2010 charges of reckless endangerment. The DA argues that Cunningham violated the terms of a dismissal agreement by sending passengers down the wilderness whitewater of the upper Hudson River this summer in unguided boats.

Following are verbatim excerpts from one affidavit, an account by Richard Belson, from Pennsylvania, who says Hudson River Rafting Company launched him and a friend in an unguided inflatable kayak even though they had no paddling experience. To read the full affidavit, click here.
» Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Night of Art, Skiing and Music in Saranac Lake

Dewey Mountain is the subject and beneficiary of a show opening Friday at the Adirondack Artists Guild, in Saranac Lake. The exhibit is inspired by the 2,050-foot mountain southwest of the village. I’m eager to see what the artists come up with.

The north side of Dewey hosts a cross-country-ski and snowshoe center by winter. The rest of the year it’s an in-town place to walk, hike and mountain bike. The Saranac River flows around the mountain as it enters the village. Like Pisgah and Baker, two other low peaks bounding the village, Dewey defines Saranac Lake’s topography as well as our love of mountain sports.

Everyone is welcome to a reception hosted by Dewey Mountain Friends at the gallery 5–7 p.m. Friday, February 3. Then please visit Dewey Mountain Recreation Center to ski and hear the Blind Owl Band play at the free Friday Night Ski Jam. Food for the jam is being donated by Blue Moon Cafe.

Each of the Artists Guild’s 14 contributors is donating an original work celebrating Dewey and winter sports. Their show, called “Artés Ski,” will be in the gallery February 3–27. Oils, watercolors, pastels, fiber art, jewelry, ceramic art and photographs will be available for bid in a running silent auction. Seventy-five percent of the proceeds will be donated to a Dewey Mountain Friends capital campaign to construct a new base lodge (disclosure: I’m a shamelessly enthusiastic member).

Dewey is one of my favorite places on earth. In just a few minutes’ walk I can sneak away from it all and be alone on the trail. But I also love how Dewey brings people together–in this latest event, our local artists have found a creative way to celebrate what Dewey means to them. But musicians, civic organizations, schools, local government, restaurants and other businesses—-all work together every year to make sure this little mountain is more than just part of the scenery. The breadth of generosity is inspiring and a hallmark of Saranac Lake.

So if you can, please stop by the gallery, at 52 Main Street, to explore a mountain as muse. The Adirondack Artists Guild is a cooperative retail gallery representing a diverse group of artists in the Tri-Lakes region. Gallery hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 12–3 p.m. Sunday. For more information see adirondackartistsguild.com or call (518) 891–2615.

Dewey Mountain Recreation Center is owned by the Town of Harrietstown and is located on State Route 3, one mile west of downtown Saranac Lake. Trails (16 km cross-country-ski and 5 km snowshoe) are open daily, and lower trails are groomed for skate-skiing and lighted for night skiing. For more information see deweyskicenter.com or call (518) 891-2697.

Photograph taken during a Friday Night Ski Jam by Burdette Parks, Adirondack Artists Guild.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Adirondacks Waited Decades for Mercury Limits

It was immensely satisfying to watch EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson announce today that power-plant mercury emissions will be reduced 90 percent.

We in the Adirondacks have waited more than two decades for this. You would think limiting a toxin such as mercury, which harms the nervous systems of children exposed in the womb, would not be subject to protracted debate. But coal- and oil-fired power plants resisted the regulation shamelessly for decades.
» Continue Reading.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Autumn is Warming at the Fastest Rate

WPTZ meteorologist Tom Messner reported a record high (65°F) in Montpelier Monday. The low (46°) in Saranac Lake yesterday was higher than the average high for November 14 (43°), according to Weather Underground. Last week, on November 9, Saranac Lake broke a record when the temperature reached 67°.

As much as the odd warm fall day seems to take us by surprise, temperature fluctuations are a normal part of the transition to winter. But it is strange to see fresh sprouts in the garden, which is ordinarily frozen by now.

Autumn is warming more rapidly than any other season locally, evidenced by records kept between 1975 and 2005. Paleoclimatologist Curt Stager, of Paul Smith’s College, last year analyzed data averaged from eight U.S. Historical Climatology Network stations throughout the Champlain Basin. He found that the most significant warming occurred in the fall, with an increase of 3.6°F in average temperature; year-round temperatures rose 2.1°F.

Adirondackers tend to fixate on ice-out, but Stager points out that ice-in is having a greater impact on lake cover duration. “For example, freeze-up at Mirror Lake [in Lake Placid] now comes 12 days later than it did in 1910, but spring ice-out arrives only two days earlier, and that smaller change is not statistically significant,” he concluded in Climate Change in the Champlain Basin: what natural resource managers can expect and do, a report sponsored by the Adirondack and Vermont chapters of the Nature Conservancy (and co-authored by me) in 2010. See page 10 of the report for more detail on temperature trends.

Graphs by Curt Stager, from Climate Change in the Champlain Basin. Caption: Temperatures averaged from eight USHCN weather stations in the Champlain Basin 1976–2005. The only statistically significant linear warming trends were in the annual, summer and autumn records.

You can also follow Curt on his FastCompany blog


Friday, September 2, 2011

Hobofest: Fun Despite Its Name

If you are hobophobic or festival-averse Hobofest may not sound like the way to spend your Labor Day Sunday. But it’s actually pretty much free of hobos and absolutely free of the fakery that accompanies a lot of events cursed with the suffix fest.

What Hobofest does have is a lot of really good musicians playing for free in a low-key setting on the lawn between 7444 gallery and the train depot, in Saranac Lake. Bands include Brooklyn-based Frankenpine, among a well-chosen roster of local talent. This year Monsterbuck, an understated, intense quartet from Upper Jay, tops the night, taking the stage around 9 p.m.

There are also trains and grill food. The event starts at 11:45 a.m. and goes late.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bill McKibben, Christoper Shaw Arrested in Climate Protest

Writers Bill McKibben and Christopher Shaw were arrested Saturday in front of the White House as they took part in a demonstration trying to persuade the Obama administration to deny construction of a 1,700-mile pipeline that would carry Canadian tar-sands oil to American refineries.

McKibben, Shaw and approximately 65 others were being held in a DC jail over the weekend pending a court appearance Monday. Both McKibben and Shaw are former Adirondack residents who maintain strong ties to the region. Shaw is a contributor to Adirondack Almanack; McKibben is a climate change activist who co-organized the tar sands pipeline demonstration; both teach and lead an environmental journalism program at Middlebury College, in Vermont.



In addition to the risk of oil spills along the Keystone XL pipeline’s proposed path from Alberta to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, Canadian tar sands could be North America’s largest “carbon bomb,” McKibben says. “If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you’d run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature,” he wrote last month in an op-ed on TomDispatch.com.

The Department of State will decide by the end of the year whether to issue a permit for a pipeline to cross the U.S.-Canada border, so McKibben says the decision lies solely with the Obama administration and will be a test of the president’s commitment to the environment.

Protest organizer tarsandaction.org issued a press release Sunday stating that 2,000 people are expected to participate in the sit-in before it ends, September 3.

Photograph courtesy of Tar Sands Action. Christopher Shaw is third from the right.


Friday, July 1, 2011

DEC Claims ADK Supports Frack Plan

In a letter today complaining to The New York Times about its coverage of a new Department of Environmental Conservation study on fracking, commissioner Joe Martens lists the Adirondack Mountain Club as one of three environmental groups who support its move toward partially ending the freeze on the controversial gas-drilling technique.

Except that’s not the case. In fact, the Mountain Club (ADK) supports only the DEC’s decision not to allow high-volume hydraulic fracturing on state-owned forests, parks and wildlife reserves.

“This is great news and a major victory for the 28,000 members of the Adirondack Mountain Club who use these lands for outdoor recreation,” ADK director Neil Woodworth said in a statement released Thursday.

“Like our many environmental allies, we share a deep concern about the potential environmental impacts of fracking on drinking water, rivers, streams and other natural resources,” ADK’s statement continued. ADK plans to read and analyze the DEC’s study before making further comment. The report is scheduled to be released at 5 p.m. today. (Happy Fourth of July weekend, reporters.)

Hydraulic fracturing would affect mainly the Southern Tier of New York State, which is underlain by a massive shale formation containing natural gas pockets. The Adirondack Park is not expected to be affected.

Here is a link to the New York Times story


Friday, June 24, 2011

Yellow-Yellow: Still Keeping Campers Sharp

Yellow-Yellow, a shy black bear with a yellow tag on each ear, became famous in 2009 as the one bear in North America who could open a food canister specifically designed to baffle her kind. She’s still at large, still popping the occasional can, but a truce seems to have settled over the Adirondack High Peaks.

The 18-to-20-year-old bear came out of hibernation this spring and continues to roam near South Meadow, Klondike Notch and thereabouts, reports Ben Tabor, a Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) wildlife biologist. Tabor will discuss black bears in a free lecture at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks Information Center in Lake Placid. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Long Lake Graduates a Class of One

This is the Long Lake Central School class of 2011, Stephen Pitcher. According to a school newsletter Stephen is an honors student who plans to attend Onondaga Community College to study electrical engineering. He was a member of the student council, played varsity basketball for the Long Lake/Indian Lake Orange, and helped build an electric race car, which his school team drove to second place at Watkins Glen. The school will not hold a graduation ceremony this year, at the Pitcher family’s request.

People in this Hamilton County town of 800 are exploring the feasibility of a magnet school, mainly to draw new students to their district. The school board has begun to research three specialties: the environment, the arts and “safe haven” schools, which provide alternatives for students in chronically violent city schools.

Many Adirondack schools struggle with low enrollment, and they share proms, sports teams and other resources with neighboring districts. Raquette Lake Central School closed in 2005, busing its last three students to Indian Lake. Hamilton County will celebrate only 52 graduates this week, according to the Hamilton County Express.

Some isolated districts are trying unorthodox things to keep their schools from closing. The New York Times last week profiled Newcomb Central School’s recruitment of students from 19 countries over the past four years. Schools are often an Adirondack town’s largest employer and social core as logging and other traditional economies decline or transition.

Long Lake Central School’s superintendent did not respond to telephone calls from the Almanack.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Keene Property Values Slide with Land

For more than a month, millions of tons of earth and millions of dollars in property value have been inching down a Keene Valley mountainside. As 82 acres of trees and homes continue to break loose, a state geologist says other Adirondack slopes could fail.

The slow-moving landslide on the side of Little Porter Mountain is unnerving residents in the town of Keene, which includes the hamlets of Keene and Keene Valley. The year-round population of 1,000 is nearly doubled in summer by wealthy seasonal residents, many who live upslope for the lofty views of the High Peaks.

Four half-million-dollar houses at the top of the slide have been affected—pried wholly from their foundations or partially destabilized—and at least one vacation home appears to be in its path below. The value of the land in motion is expected to be reduced from about $3 million to zero, while sales of similar properties are thrown into limbo. Supervisor Bill Ferebee said the town has begun to seek emergency state reimbursement to help make up anticipated losses in property tax.

Andrew Kozlowski, associate state geologist with the New York State Museum, says the slide is the largest in state history. It’s nothing like the quick tumble of trees and thin humus familiar on high Adirondack terrain. This one started as a subtle shift below 2,000 feet on a 25–35 degree slope. It was triggered by the melting of deep snowpack compounded by more than a foot of rain in April and May. The slide does not seem to pose a risk to human life, but it is reactivated when new rains slip into soil cracks that are growing wider every day. Because it’s logistically difficult to drill borings in shifting soils to measure their depth, Kozlowski can’t estimate when the mass will stop moving; he says it could be months or years.

A dirt road runs parallel to the top of the landslide. Keene residents are questioning whether mountainside building is responsible for altering drainage patterns. “Does the development help? Probably not. Was it the actual cause? Probably not,” Kozlowski said.

There were pre-existing conditions, he explained. He detected on the site signs of a landslide hundreds or thousands of years ago. At the end of the last ice age, Keene Valley was submerged by a glacial lake, and deep sand on the hillsides is evidence of 12,000-year-old beaches.

LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) imagery collected by aerial survey can provide high-resolution digital images and help identify shifty soils, he said. Eight New York counties have collected LiDAR data but none in northern New York, which has the state’s steepest topography. Keene Supervisor Ferebee said aerial images could be useful to all towns in Essex County, and he is exploring how the county might cover the $150,000 cost.

Residents are also concerned about the future of homes on other Keene mountainsides. “There is danger of this happening elsewhere,” Kozlowski told a group of two dozen citizens who gathered at the community’s K–12 school earlier this month. “Will it happen on this scale? We don’t know.”

Real Estate and Rain

Annual rainfall in the Lake Champlain watershed is three inches greater on average than it was during the mid 20th century, when the first houses were built on the side of Little Porter Mountain, according to United States Historical Climatology Network data. A range of climate models predict the Champlain Basin could receive 4 to 6 inches more precipitation a year by the end of this century, with heavy storms becoming more frequent, according to a 2010 report by The Nature Conservancy’s Adirondack and Vermont chapters.

The Little Porter slide has suddenly become an unforeseen example of something other Adirondack mountain communities must consider in a potentially wetter future.

“Throughout the Adirondacks there is going to be a lot more concern about this now,” said Martha Lee Owen, who owns vacant land on the failed slope. She is a real-estate broker whose father, Adrian Edmonds, lived at the base of Little Porter and pioneered homebuilding on Keene’s mountainsides. “He’d be just heartbroken,” she said. “It’s just terrible that it’s affected so many homeowners.”

Owen said it never occurred to her to recommend that potential buyers hire a geologist to evaluate slope stability, but she will recommend it now. She would also like to see LiDAR data collected for Essex County. “Of course it’s a huge concern to me in terms of selling properties, not just my own but selling any properties,” she said. “So far buyers aren’t asking a lot of questions, although everyone is just sort of shocked by this. You have to get used to it before you take it all in.”

Jane Bickford, a Saranac Lake resident who has a summer home beneath and — she hopes — outside the projected path of the slide, said the mountain-climbing mecca of Keene Valley is more than an investment to people who own property there. “The piece that’s important is, Can we keep living there?” she said. “The financials are pretty terrible but Keene Valley represents to people a touchstone. It’s where my kids grew up and where they are bringing their own kids up. This is where children’s values are developed. To the people who go to Keene Valley it’s not just a house. It’s a place where families get together and where bonding happens.”

Photograph courtesy of Curt Stager.

Link to video of the landslide site.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Mary Thill: Hudson River Rafting Travails

Hudson River Rafting Company owner Pat Cunningham pleaded not guilty in Hamilton County Court Thursday to two counts of reckless endangerment. He is scheduled to go to trial in August. Adirondack Life just posted details of the case in “Risky Business,” a story Mary reported for its May/June issue. The Almanack asked Mary Thill to bring our readers up to speed on the latest developments – ed.

The charges are connected to two trips on the Upper Hudson River last summer. But for more than a decade, guides who’ve worked for Cunningham have said that the Hudson River Rafting Company sometimes 1.) overbooks rafts 2.) sends customers in rafts piloted by unlicensed guides-in-training and 3.) launches inexperienced customers in their own boats without guides. The company’s reputation among the guiding community and in rafting towns like North Creek and Indian Lake has not been good for a while. For reasons that are explored in the article, that reputation has been held as local knowledge, until recently. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Remembering Ketch: Educator and Conservationist

Dr. Edwin H. Ketchledge died peacefully yesterday. He was 85.

“Ketch,” to all who knew him, was a botanist, teacher and founder of the Summit Steward program, a 20-year collaborative effort to educate hikers and protect vulnerable alpine plants that cling to the Adirondacks’ highest summits.

He was veteran of the 10th Mountain Division’s Italy campaign. Surviving that experience inspired Ketch to live a meaningful life. He dedicated himself to Adirondack conservation, botany and teaching.

Dr. Ketchledge was a distinguished teaching professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

He authored one of the essential Adirondack field guides, Forests & Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region, first published by Adirondack Mountain Club in 1967. He understood the Adirondack landscape in both paleo and poetic terms.

“The forests we see around us now are unique; they have no analogs in the past. Interglacial conditions have been here for only 40 tree generations of time,” he wrote. “The outwardly stable forests we see in our human lifetime are more correctly understood as dynamic populations of competing species, adjusting as necessary over centuries of time to variations in the proverbial balance of nature: that so-called ‘balance’ is more truthfully an episodic teeter-totter!”

He worked in the High Peaks for more than 40 years, surveying, mapping and restoring alpine meadows. His belief that people would take responsibility for protecting the meadows if they were informed about them has been validated by the success of the Summit Steward program, which teaches hikers on-site about the mountaintop ecosystem.

Arrangements are incomplete with the Garner Funeral Home in Potsdam. Gifts in his memory may be made to the Summit Steward program, in care of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, and to SUNY-ESF.

Photograph of Ketch on Whiteface Mountain, courtesy of Kathy Regan


Page 1 of 1012345...10...Last »