Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dave Gibson: Return to the Moose River Plains

A summer day. The road to the Moose River Plains from Limekiln Lake is free of traffic this morning, the sun’s rays have not yet turned the evening dew to dust. As I drive down the shaded road I think about the work of local people from Inlet who dug and placed sand on these roads to give the heavy logging trucks enough traction on the steep sections.

Dick Payne, former Inlet Police Chief, left me memorable impressions of working the Plains in the “old days.” Since 1964 when the Gould Paper Company sold this land to the people of the State, the land is Forest Preserve. As the cicadas begin to whine from the trees, I try to remember another group who hiked in via the Red River valley to discover what was at risk from the Higley and Panther Mountain Dams on the South Branch of the Moose River.

The years were 1945 and 1946. At first, they were flown over the Plains by Scotty, the bush pilot from Inlet. Next, they carried heavy packs, snowshoes and cameras. They “discovered” a strange, beautiful land they had never seen before despite over thirty years of exploration in the Adirondacks. A land threatened with inundation by great dams and reservoirs. Not just the land, and the over-wintering deer, as well as the Plains itself and the great trees were at risk but those same roads where the people from Inlet, who knew this land intimately, worked for the trucks extracting resources from this valley. All were at risk from reservoirs that would provide cheap hydropower to the Black River valley to the west, that would drown even the tallest white pine and red spruce lining the Moose, and its tributary, the Indian, where 19th century trappers and, later, the guides and their sports from the cities hunted, fished and prepared hearty fare.

Their cameras and their story of all that would be drowned by these reservoirs won the day, but only by the hardest. It took ten years of advocacy, publicity, study, photography, lobbying, court action…and plain old stubbornness because their adversaries, the Black River Regulating District, had considerable legislative powers to dam rivers. The final vote came in 1955. The people of the State had to answer the question in the voting booths that fall: “There shall or shall not be constructed the Panther Dam on the South Branch of the Moose River.” “There shall not be,” said the voters, by a million votes. So, later, this land became part of the Adirondack Forest Preserve protected by an article in the NYS Constitution, where no lands can be flooded to regulate the flow of rivers without a constitutional amendment.

I came to view Beaver Lake and the Indian River, where Paul Schaefer and his associates photographed white pines and red spruce hundreds of feet tall, white-tailed deer feeding in wetlands, where they spoke for the life they saw threatened by the dam builders. The Indian River lies at elevation 1815 ft.. The high-water elevation of the proposed Higley Dam reservoir would have been 1892 ft. Panther Dam high flow line would have been lapping at everything below the Indian in elevation, at 1716 ft.

I record a few impressions on this sunny August day fifty years after the stunning impact that this land made on Paul Schaefer, Ed Richard, John Apperson, and Beaver Lake landowner Alan Wilcox eventually changed state policy on wild rivers in the Adirondacks forever.

The trail to Beaver Lake seems to be mine, save for a couple who stop to speak of loons on the lake and I to speak with them of the giant witness white pine beside us on the trail. Its three great trunks each reach a worthy 35 inches in diameter; when combined below there is 12 ft. of circumference on a tree that has witnessed the better part of two centuries. Paul Schaefer and associates photographed it constantly during their ten year struggle. The trail, grassy save where feet have laid it low, is sandy gravel, the easiest walking in the Adirondacks. Nowhere else have I been able to survey Adirondack tree tops without tripping over my shoe tops. Massive yellow birch and sugar maple with full canopies soar above.

Beaver Lake comes into view and then the small field where once stood Alan Wilcox’s camp. The camp had a stove in it that saved the life of a hypothermic Paul Schaefer that cold winter of 1946. The sun strikes a billion sparks on the water this warm day. Stillness lays on the far shore, listlessness on the near one. I am in a hurry to progress to the Indian River, but nature is not, and so I am made reluctant to part from the solitude here. A fishermen’s trail heads west, easy to follow save for the expected deadfall. Along the sun-flooded shore of the lake, giant spreading yellow birch and white pine filter the light. Far above those comforting soft boughs an osprey cries, even from the forest floor I saw its head turning, alert to a fish in the warm surface of this shallow lake with bays thick with pond weeds and lilies. On the forest side of the trail, great boulders are cleft, leaving steep precipices and overhangs of green granitic gneiss. As I near the lake outlet, a muddy shoreline is uncovered where, under the harsh summer sun, footprints of deer and moose are drying. These great animals seem to lead me west into the sun on faint animal trails, meandering up and down slope. Avoiding dense brush and blow down, I try to keep to a contour and keep the outlet in its grassy banks in sight. Then out of sight, I hear its soft murmuring now under deep shade.

Then a large stream is seen in the sunlit valley beyond. My heartbeat quickens and I’ve reached the Indian River. A beaver has worked a stagnant backwater. Beyond, about 5 giant pines, several bleached or dying, stand above the streambed. Large red spruce and balsam fir line the shore as well, along with yellow birch. The scene wasn’t so different than the one Paul Schaefer encountered more than fifty years earlier. I wander among the trees. The river takes a sharp turn at this stretch and splits around a heavily wooded island. Then comes an urge to get in the stream to cool amidst the small schools of fish, probably dace. After, I walk the cobbles in the narrowing streambed, gazing every which way. Somehow Paul Schaefer’s photographs that have captured me for years every time I look at them make this a familiar wilderness. Upstream lies the Stillwater where he took many influential photographs of what would have been flooded. But there is no chance of reaching that today. I am leaving this Forest Preserve land of the deer and, now, the moose and returning home. Retracing my steps, there are bicyclists enjoying Beaver Lake shoreline, children cooling in the stream and kayaks on cars and in the Moose River at the Beaver Lake trailhead. Ahead is ten miles of dusty road back to Inlet, but I am elated. I have stood on the shores of the Indian River after imagining the scene for so long. Paul Schaefer was right. This is still Wild Forest land, not a series of reservoirs. This is our Forest Preserve, open to all. As Schaefer wrote, we all own an undivided deed this land of solitude, peace and tranquility. It is up to us and those who come after us to defend that deed.

Photo: Limekiln Lake-Cedar River Road.


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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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