Many moons ago, not too far north of Old Forge, there was a tourist trap that — apparently believing that honesty was the best policy — gave itself the name of The Tourist Trap. It sold the usual fare of balsam-scented incense burners in the shape of a log cabin, birch-bark lamps and every piece of junk imaginable with a picture of a loon on it — all destined, in time, for some North Carolina yard sale.
As a child in search of a meaningful memento costing south of 75 cents, I invested in a “paperweight” that was a river pebble that had been covered with postage stamps and apathetically lacquered. This artifact stayed with me for a remarkably long period of time, serving not as a reminder of the Adirondacks, but as a reminder to stay out of tourist traps.
I’d been pretty successful until this past week when, at the request of friends visiting from Maryland, I ventured into Ausable Chasm, or, as it is otherwise known, The Land of the Three Dollar Bottle of Water. In spite of myself, I enjoyed it immensely, probably because I am a something of a Potsdam sandstone groupie. Some of the most handsome homes in the North Country are built out of this stone that comes in an assemblage of colors that only nature could get away with — fawn, maroon, gold, slate, chestnut — that make the quilt-like buildings look as if they were constructed out of a stew of Sherwin Williams paint strips.
To better understand how Potsdam sandstone was formed I went to its Wikipedia page, and didn’t understand a word that it said, but I gather that it’s made up almost entirely of quartz, colored by various iron oxides. The sediment was compacted by rising seas during the Pelaeozoic era, 400 million years ago last Tuesday.
The chasm was created by a linear fault that runs for about a mile and a half, which created an opening for the Ausable River to worm its way into the deep fissure and wash away the debris. It would almost be like cutting a big hunk of feta in two, rubbing the two pieces back and forth and washing away the crumbles with olive oil.
The resulting chasm is deep and narrow, ungraciously constricting the foaming river as it battles mightily to get out. I found myself wishing that I had encountered this wondrous gem deep in the backcountry after a five mile hike, seeing only a handful of other people in the process. But of course that horse left the barn well over a century ago, and throngs of tourists have been washing up on the river’s banks ever since.
You can hike the trails along the rim of the canyon for $17.50, and while in theory I remain morally opposed to paying to view the natural scenery that the good Lord hath bestowed, my righteous indignation — which used to roar like the constrained Ausable — has flagged with age, and today I save my venom for the people who downsized the half-gallon ice cream container.
For a few more bucks you can spring for the (love it) “Adventure Trail,” which weaves its way back and forth across the river on not-so-challenging cables and swaying foot bridges that, artistically, greatly resemble the Bridge of Death toward the end of Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail.
Instead of “answering me these questions three ere the other side he see,” participants are given hard-shell adventure hats and pointed to the bridges, which they sheepishly cross with the same sort of defiant embarrassment of one who has just opted for the Deluxe Paint Sealant and Polish at the carwash, knowing that it’s probably just watered down soap.
Still, if this is what it takes to engage kids in nature these days, who am I to quibble. And the trails are well-maintained, the history and geology of the chasm is well-told and the tourist trade over the decades has protected the site from loggers, resulting in some towering old specimens of hemlock and spruce.
I wonder though, when did we conclude that nature itself was not enough? Yeah, that’s a fantastic view and all, but what it really needs is a zip line. It’s an awesome canyon all right, but it would be awesomer with a bungee jump.
I can’t say whether there’s anything wrong with this or not. It just seems incongruous that we would take the soft, soul-nourishing sublimity of nature — and try to make it terrify us. And I do differentiate between manufactured fear and the thrill that comes with downhill skiing or mountain biking, which — as opposed to jumping off a cliff — take no small amount of skill.
But it’s a big world and there are a lot of different tastes out there. If there weren’t, there would be no such things as tourist traps.
Photos of Ausable Chasm.