Last week I was doing a little research for a book project when a web search returned an interesting line from a Wikipedia entry on the Hudson River. It piqued my curiosity, going as it did against conventional wisdom. Wikipedia being Wikipedia I wasn’t about to take it as gospel, but it provoked me to start digging around just for fun. After all, if one learns anything in research and the sciences it is that conventional wisdom or historical tradition are no sure bets.
In this case, both conventional wisdom and historical tradition say that Lake Tear of the Clouds, nestled between Mounts Marcy and Skylight in the Adirondack High Peaks, is the source of the Hudson River. Thus has it been generally accepted ever since Verplanck Colvin determined it to be so, on his second visit to Lake Tear in August of 1873. For generations of hikers Lake Tear has been a special destination, an upward trek to the ultimate source of one of America’s greatest rivers. But is it?
I’ll be the first to admit that this question is little more than idle speculation on my part. Even if opinions differ on the Hudson’s source – and they do – there is no reason I can see to dethrone Lake Tear from its exalted status. Nevertheless, if we take the formally accepted definition of a river’s source, there is strong argument to be made that Lake Tear isn’t actually it.
It may be hard for the average person familiar with GPS and smart phones and Google Maps to believe that there could be any such uncertainty left for a major feature in the Adirondacks. But for an eye-opening example of how wrong that thinking is, doubters can take a shot at looking up Lake Tear’s elevation. I started with that, since it seemed an important datum in my quest. Hours later I threw in the towel.
Your average cartographer can tell you far better than I why this can possibly be so hard (Teresa DeSantis where are you?) but it is due to a combination of factors.
For one thing, it proves to be extremely difficult to dislodge historical measurements that have entered canon. Many sources, even DEC’s web site, reference Lake Tear’s elevation as 4,322 feet. This measurement was made by Colvin’s vaunted assistant Mills Blake in 1875, using a rod and level calculation from Marcy’s summit. Since then it has spread far and wide into Adirondack literature. It was an excellent measurement for the time, arduously won, but it is inaccurate, off by as much as eight yards.
For another thing, varied topography can be quite hard to measure accurately, partly because the way it looks can be deceiving. Stand on the summit of Skylight on a clear day. Look toward Redfield and you will see tiny Moss Pond, as lonely and withered a location as can be found in the Adirondacks. Look at its position as compared to Lake Tear and you’ll swear it’s higher in elevation. I certainly did the first time I saw it; when I got home I traced a map to see why it wasn’t listed as the Hudson’s highest source. Colvin himself wasn’t sure either. His first visit to Lake Tear in 1872, the famous “discovery” which is reprinted in the Adirondack Reader, was, despite Colvin’s flowery rhetoric, not definitive for him. It took a second visit in 1873, during which he deliberately measured Lake Tear’s height in comparison to Moss Pond, to convince him he had been right. Moss Pond, according to his measurements, was about 14 feet lower.
Modern measurements most typically available on-line put Lake Tear’s elevation at either 4,293 or 4,295 feet. Which is right? I have no idea, especially since yet other sources disagree. Query Lake Tear on the worldwide geographical site Geoview.info and it returns 4,324 feet, almost in line with Colvin.
Having become obsessed with getting the definitive answer I turned to what I assumed would be the definitive source: the USGS National Elevation Dataset (NED). After trying to figure out how to query it for the better part of an hour, I found a usable front-end tool, plugged in a precise latitude and longitude and got an answer. Then I moved to another point on the lake and got a different answer. I ended up with a variety of answers spanning several feet depending upon which part of Lake Tear’s surface I chose. Now it is true that the effects of gravity, hydrogen bonds and the Earth’s curvature would give minute variations in the surface elevation readings, but by fractions of an inch, not feet. So this was discomfiting. Going as close the lake’s center as I could got me an elevation of 4,319.084 feet. That must be about right… so says me.
Why the variation? A professional should answer that, but I do know that the dataset uses measurements that are not as accurate as one might think, nor as complete. Data then gets interpolated to fill in the gaps, which is a useful mathematical estimating technique but hardly precise.
Ultimately I decided that a range for Lake Tear of between 4,293 feet and 4,324 feet would have to do. That’s quite a range. Still it was pretty clear that the low end of the range was likely to be most accurate and the low end still puts Lake Tear higher than Moss Pond. So it was not dethroned yet.
However the real challenge to Lake Tear’s status is not caught up in the minutia of accurate elevations. The real challenge lies with the definition of “source” in the first place. For whatever reason – perhaps the enthusiasm of finding lofty places, exemplified in the Adirondacks by Colvin – the definition of the Hudson’s true source has been based upon its highest source. Lake Tear may be that (that’s still in question, which we’ll get to in a moment) but the accepted definition for the source of a river in geography is not the highest source. It’s the furthest source. For obvious reasons these two things often coincide, but not always. In the case of Lake Tear, the furthest source is not Lake Tear – it’s the headwaters of the Opalescent River, high on the shoulder of Little Marcy. These headwaters are more than a mile further by river course than Lake Tear.
If we take the standard definition for a river’s source, it seems we have to go with the Opalescent headwaters, not Lake Tear: they’re further. But are they also higher? The Wikipedia entry says yes. My review of topographical maps say no. But who knows where the headwaters first emerge as a streamlet? I’ve never bushwhacked there, nor have I uncovered any sort of recorded measurement that gives a precise location for the beginning of these headwaters. So as far as I know that answer is undetermined (I’m sure it has been determined by someone, I just haven’t been able to find it). Consequently, I’m itching to go there myself. After all, if this is truly the source of the Hudson, it’s worth a pilgrimage just as surely as is Lake Tear, albeit a nasty bushwhacking version of a pilgrimage.
A barely discernible streamlet situated in limb-scratching scrub far from any trail seems to me to make for a far less pleasing source for the Hudson than a little jewel named Lake Tear of the Clouds. So I suspect few will buy the idea that we should think any differently about it than we do now. I’m good with that. But I love the idea that something as celebrated as the source the Empire State’s greatest water course, the mighty Hudson River, can still be indeterminate in the twenty-first century. How marvelous that such a thing can still be hidden by the Adirondack Wilderness, there to call explorers and those who wonder.
Photo: heading toward Lake Tear of the Clouds from the Skylight trail