The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park.
Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at firstname.lastname@example.org
When Asa Thomas-Train met his future wife, Courtney Grimes-Sutton, she was skinning a pig. Rather than wonder why an attractive young woman was doing a job usually reserved for big, brawny guys, Asa reacted with admiration. “She’s an incredibly capable, charismatic, and strong woman,” he said recently.
That summer of 2010, they were working at Essex Farm, a mecca for edgy young farmers honing their agricultural skills. Founded a decade ago by Mark and Kristin Kimball, the farm has had a prodigious influence, spawning new farmers and a warm farming community. Kristin recounted the farm’s unfolding in her memoir The Dirty Life. » Continue Reading.
It’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 spherical cluster of flowers. Each flower measures ¾-inch across and consists of 50 to 100 tightly packed florets. » Continue Reading.
Harry 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. » Continue Reading.
Stunted and gnarled, it grows in rugged environments: cliffs, mountaintops, canyon walls. Often very old, it inspires us with its tenacity in the face of harsh conditions.
The word krummholz means “crooked wood” in German. In the Northeast, when we speak of krummholz, we’re talking about the matted, dwarfed trees that circle the tops of some mountains, separating lower elevation full-size forests and true alpine areas. Balsam fir, black spruce, and heartleaf birch are the dominant species, standing no more than eight feet high. Sometimes they’re only knee high. Sometimes only ankle high. » Continue Reading.
In 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 more intense – a relationship on which the old maple syrup labels, that described color only, relied.
So why doesn’t all syrup taste the same? Sugars in maple sap undergo a series of changes during collection and processing that influence both color and flavor. “The most important determinant of what flavor develops in syrup are the reactions that occur when heat is applied as we process sap into syrup in the evaporator,” explained Abby van den Berg, a researcher at the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont. » Continue Reading.
Editor’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 was busy every day of the year for the past 30 years in battling for the environment.
The governor chose that date because it coincided with a memorial service to the late Mrs. LaRose at the Fort George Battleground Park on the Beach Road at Lake George. This was an appropriate site for the service because Winnie, more than anyone else, was responsible for turning this swampy piece of ground into a park for people to enjoy. But it was done not only for people. As Victor Glider, a good friend and now retired as director of Environmental Conservation Field Services, told the gathering, Winnie insisted on clearing away the brush so that the statue of the martyred Father Jogues would have a good view of the lake where he served his mission in the 17th century. » Continue Reading.
I 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 a Cooper’s hawk. » Continue Reading.
Imagine 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 the sights and sounds are conclusive: you have entered the Adirondack boreal.
The term “boreal” is used to describe cold, wet areas in northern latitudes. For the most part, people think of northern Canada and Eurasia, with vast spruce-fir forests, extensive wetland complexes, and frigid winter conditions. Though much of the Adirondack Park is within the temperate deciduous bioclimatic zone, we can also find low-elevation boreal pockets containing bog rosemary, pod-grass, tamarack and other boreal plants. » Continue Reading.
While 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 on some level I know that these are sentimental notions that I am ascribing to behavior that is biologically, not emotionally, driven. The phoebes I see one year aren’t the same phoebes that I observed the previous year. Or are they? » Continue Reading.
As 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. » Continue Reading.
With 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 include temperature, precipitation, snowpack formation and melting, and wind. » Continue Reading.
In 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.” » Continue Reading.
Nature Conservancy field technicians this winter are doing wildlife detective work in New York’s Southern Lake Champlain Valley. This in-between zone characterized by farms and forests and crisscrossed with roads may provide a vital “land bridge” for bobcats and other critters to travel to and from large forest blocks in the Adirondacks and Vermont.
Outdoor guide and writer Elizabeth Lee, of Westport, and University of Vermont graduate student Gus Goodwin are working with the Conservancy’s Alissa Rafferty, who is based in Keene Valley. They are collecting records of animal activity that would be impossible to witness in real time. Good old-fashioned tracking skills—finding animal prints left in the snow, measuring their size, assessing the critter’s gait, and piecing together other clues—help them determine if a print belongs to a bobcat or a coyote, a fisher or a fox, a moose or a deer. They also use trail cameras to supplement these records, helping to confirm animal identification, and snapping photos 24/7 no matter the snow conditions. » Continue Reading.
The 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 study trees, and learned how their growth patterns transcend traditional seasonal boundaries, I softened my stance. » Continue Reading.
On 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 little to the right (west) of the V and you’ll see a compact cluster of blue stars called the Pleiades. Although this beautiful little asterism is known as the Seven Sisters, some people see six stars with the naked eye, where others claim they can see eleven. With the magnification of 7×50 binoculars, a hundred or more of these gem-like blue stars are revealed in the cluster. The view is spectacular. » Continue Reading.
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