Almanack Contributor Mary Thill

Mary Thill

Mary Thill lives in Saranac Lake and has worked alternately in journalism and Adirondack conservation for three decades.


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


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Saranac Lake Winter Carnival: Art. Play. Love.

The members of the Adirondack Artists Guild at 52 Main Street, Saranac Lake, and other artists who submitted work for a carnival-themed exhibit invite everybody to an opening reception 5–7 p.m. Friday February 12.

In the meantime Saranac Lake Winter Carnival rolls on all week, with music and sporting events, and the ice palace is open to visitors; you can see a schedule here.

But Friday is when things really get going. After the art show, head across the street to the Harrietstown Hall for the 7:30 p.m. Rotary Club Variety Show (you’re advised to buy tickets in advance; it’s a popular event), a truly entertaining display of small town talent and humor. It will be a feat if the carnival court tops last year’s dance routine. Then you can re-cross Main Street to catch Jatoba and Hot Day at the Zoo at the Waterhole (Almanack music contributor Shamim Allen will have details on the music at 3 p.m. Thursday).

Saturday the 13th is the big day, with a pancake breakfast, rugby in the snow, chili lunch at the town hall, a Paul Smith’s College woodsmanship exhibition, the library book sale, a high-school band concert, etc. The highlight, as always, is the parade, at 1 p.m. It will be televised on local cable Channel 2 if you can’t make it downtown.

Carnival ends on Sunday, Valentine’s Day, with x-c ski races, volleyball, softball, a baroque concert, a kiddie parade, bloody Marys. Every year photographer Mark Kurtz compiles hundreds of photographs he has taken during the week into a closing-night slide show at the ice palace, and a crowd gathers to see if their faces get on the screen. This year the slide show will be at 7:30 p.m., followed by closing fireworks over the palace at 8 p.m. If you’d like a preview, selected photographs are online, here.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Protect the Adirondacks!: Name, Imperative or Annoying?

We had no comment when the newly merged Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks announced that they’d henceforth be known as Protect the Adirondacks! (Editor’s note: the exclamation point is part of the name, not a reflection of how we feel about the name. Maybe we should have put a period after it, I really don’t know.)

We figured—like Panic at the Disco, the band formerly known as Panic! at the Disco—they’d soon come to regret the alarmist and inconvenient punctuation. Whoever edits Protect the Adirondacks!’s (!) publications and Web site would weary of the excitable midsentence stop/ambiguous sentence-ender and raise a gentle protest at a board meeting. The inconsiderate, unnecessary mark would be quietly dropped and the group would get on with the serious work of protecting the Adirondacks. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Ski Barbecue and Olympic Send-off Sunday

This Sunday Saranac Lakers and their neighbors will gather at Mount Pisgah to celebrate winter carnival, eat barbecue and wish their four local Olympians well. Also, the village-run alpine ski area will host a freestyle skiing and snowboard competition, its first ever.

The BBQ will be held 11:30-2:30 at the Mount Pisgah lodge. The families of Olympians will be special guests. At 1 p.m. photographer Mark Kurtz will take a group photo from a bucket truck, and the gathering will be videotaped and put on YouTube so that local Olympians Billy Demong (Nordic combined), Tim Burke (biathlon), Chris Mazdzer (luge) and Peter Frenette (ski jumping) can see their proud hometown cheering them on.

Everyone is invited. There’s a charge for the barbecue but the Olympic rally is free. People are welcome to bring signs and banners. The vets’ club will provide flags. Organizers are hoping to have more than 250 people in the photograph. There will be an opportunity to send recorded messages to the athletes as well. 

Events begin at 10 a.m. with the annual White Stag Race, one of the oldest continually run ski races in the East, begun in the mid 1940s. The big-air freestyle exhibition will be held throughout the day on the Terrain Park. 

Pisgah is one of the Adirondacks’ awesome little ski areas (here’s a list of the others, including the bigs), and there is a lot of excitement on the mountain this year, not just because of the Olympians. Friends of Mt. Pisgah, a grassroots group, is trying to raise $400,000 to replace the T-bar lift, the tubing area is better than ever, and the terrain park and night-lighting have undergone big improvements.

The 113th Saranac Lake Winter Carnival kicks off Friday night at the Harrietstown Hall with coronation, when the nuclear secret of who will reign as this year’s king and queen is unlocked. Events continue until Sunday February 14.

Photo: Why Saranac Lake skiers are so good. Courtesy of Mark Kurtz Photography


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

An Invasives Barrier for the Champlain Canal

Asian carp are all over the news and will soon be all over Lake Michigan unless the Chicago canal that links the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds is re-engineered. It’s looking unlikely, but if the Obama administration decides to turn this dilemma into a major public works project—keeping a particularly nasty invasive species from upending the remnants of native Great Lakes fish life—there’s a canal on Lake Champlain that could use a lift too. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, January 31, 2010

More on Adirondack Carries and Gauge Readings

Several questions arose after last month’s post regarding carries on private land and interpreting gauge readings. A number of concerns noted situations where paddlers were on a LAKE and then got out of their boats on privately owned shores or docks. From everything I have read or heard, the discussions regarding the public’s rights of passage are focused on RIVERS. If a river is navigable—and it’s not always clear how this is defined—and it flows through private lands, the issue is when and in what manner a paddler can carry around obstructions that are encountered. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Adirondacks Well Represented at Vancouver Olympics

Yesterday Andrew Weibrecht became the latest of a pack of Adirondackers named to the U.S. Olympic Team. It was really just a formality. Of course Andrew would make the alpine ski squad. He’s fearless, he’s dedicated and he’s got no brakes.

It’s still huge to see his name on the list. He’s a great guy and makes us proud. It’s hard to explain why people who have nothing to do with these kids’ success can feel that way, but in a small town you just do. Six athletes who have grown up in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake are going to the 2010 games in Vancouver, and so are three who moved here at a young age, as are some luge veterans who’ve lived in Lake Placid so long it’s home.

In a region of .00004 percent of the national population that is sending 4 percent of our Olympic team, the degrees of separation are considerably foreshortened. These inspiring young men and women are neighbors and friends. Or we know their moms or dads, or see them skiing at Avalanche Lake, or listen to them play mandolin in the bandshell. We may have taught them history, drank their homemade cider or been next door when one of them (whom we will call “War Horse”) broke his leg in some sort of homemade man-size slingshot.

We thought Andrew would be the last of the Adirondack contenders to be named, but 16-year-old Ashley Caldwell also made the Olympic cut yesterday; she will compete in aerials for the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team. She moved to Lake Placid three years ago to pursue her sport, and we’ll cheer just as loudly for her.

Even athletes who train or compete in Lake Placid gain a local following. My friend’s daughter will be rooting for the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team, several of whose members coached her at hockey camp last summer. The ladies also have fans at Lisa G’s.

Saranac Lake is sometimes obscured by Lake Placid’s 1932 and 1980 Olympian shadow, but it too has been known to send bobsledders, skaters, skiers and hockey players to world competition. This year four Saranac Lakers are heading to the winter Olympics: 21-year-old luger Chris Mazdzer, 17-year-old ski jumper Peter Frenette, 27-year-old Tim Burke of Paul Smiths (Biathlon) and 29-year-old Billy Demong of Vermontville (Nordic Combined). Tupper Lake also takes pride in Peter Frenette, who has many relatives there and who debuted on skis at age 2 at Big Tupper. We in Saranac Lake claim kinship with Billy and Tim because they attended and skied for Saranac Lake High School, plus they got early lessons here, at Dewey Mountain Recreation Area.

I love the fact that luger Mark Grimette is 39 and his silver-medal doubles partner Brian Martin is 36 and they still have wheels (wrong metaphor, but they are serious competitors). Vancouver will be their fourth Olympics.

My other favorite Olympic friendship story is that of Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid (Biathlon) and Tim and Billy (pictured). These three have skied together since they were little, and the love of their sport has taken them around the world. Haley Johnson of Lake Placid (Biathlon) joined that pack when she began traveling with Lowell and Tim in high school.

Kris Cheney Seymour runs the Dewey Mountain Youth Ski League in Saranac Lake and is a top-notch skier and coach. He grew up in Saranac Lake and has long known Billy, Tim, Lowell and Haley as a coach and friend. He is one of many coaches, mentors and sports-support staff around here who have a greater claim on community pride. When people joke that Dewey should be called “the Other Olympic Mountain” for its early role in so many good skiers’ lives, Kris says there’s something to it. Once, after a particularly steep hill on the World Cup circuit in Europe, Tim e-mailed Kris and commented that Dewey prepared him well.

We might take it for granted that so many kids here skate, ski and slide. But as Kris often points out, these sports can change lives. Not only are they fun, apparently they can take you places. Even if they don’t take you to the Olympics, plenty of locals have gone to college on their sport and competed against some of the best athletes in the world.

So, go Andrew! Go Billy, Lowell, Tim, Haley, Peter, Chris, Ashley, Mark, Brian, Bengt Walden (luge), John Napier (bobsled) and Erin Hamlin (luge)! And you too, speed skater Trevor Marsicano of Ballston Spa and Plattsburgh native Anders Johnson, who trained at Lake Placid’s speedskating and ski jumping facilities! And go U.S. women’s hockey team! Have a great time in Vancouver.

Photograph of (l to r) Lowell Bailey, Billy Demong and Tim Burke as young skiers, courtesy of the Demong family


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

State Land Moratorium and Pending Adirondack Sales

Governor David Paterson’s budget would zero-out money for land acquisition and impose an apparent two-year moratorium on state land purchases. Other components of the Environmental Protection Fund would also be reduced (33 percent across the board), but land conservation is the only category proposed for elimination.

This would leave the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy extended on many millions of dollars worth of land that the state has agreed to buy for the Forest Preserve. The tracts involved are 65,000 acres of former Finch Pruyn land spread across 27 towns, and 14,600 acres surrounding Follensby Pond, mostly in the town of Harrietstown. State payment on an easement on 92,000 acres of former Finch land is also pending. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Prisons, VICs Top Proposed Adirondack Budget Cuts

Among the recommended cuts in Governor David Paterson’s budget are two local prisons: Moriah Shock Facility in Essex County and minimum-security Lyon Mountain in Clinton County. Also on the block are the Adirondack Park Agency’s Visitor Interpretive Centers in Paul Smiths and Newcomb.

The cuts, if accepted by the legislature, would be less black and white for the VICs than for the prisons. The VICs, though currently reliant on state funding, also have in place a nonprofit support board in the form of the Adirondack Park Institute, which has been working to develop something of a private, Wild Center model to support the educational facilities independently of the state. Paterson’s budget estimates severing the VICs would save the state $129,000 in 2010-11 and $583,000 annually thereafter.

Local officials can be expected to put up a fight for the prisons, but they were not successful in sparing Camp Gabriels, in Franklin County, which was shut down earlier this year. Lyon Mountain, which would close in January 2011, and Moriah Shock, which would close in April 2011, are two of four prisons suggested for closure (Ogdensburg medium security in St. Lawrence County and Butler minimum security in Wayne County are the other two). The budget proposal states, “The prison population is projected to decline by 1,100 inmates in the current fiscal year and by another 1,000 inmates in the 2010-11 fiscal year – reaching a total of 57,600 inmates. . . . Once the closures are completed, the workforce will have been reduced by 637 staff, including 17 managerial staff. (2010-11 Savings: $7 million; 2011- 12 Savings: $52 million).”

Here is a link to the Executive Budget briefing book.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cool Map: Proposed State Land Classifications

Much has been written about the Adirondack Park Agency in the past two weeks, none of it by the Almanack. But we’ll add this: the agency’s cartographers continue to make handy maps. The latest is an interactive online map of new state land classification proposals. (Click here to see and use.)

There are 91 points on the map, each one describing a proposed category for new state lands (from most restrictive to least: wilderness, primitive, wild forest, intensive use, state administrative—definitions here, current acreages here.) Collectively the parcels amount to 31,000 acres.

The smallest are fractions of an acre, some of them little pieces of land that never got classified because the state wasn’t aware of them until improvements to tax maps. Some parcels are for DOT garages or adjacent to prisons. Others are recent state Forest Preserve acquisitions. The largest is 17,000 acres of former Domtar land surrounding Lyon Mountain, in Clinton County, which the APA is proposing to classify as Wild Forest, where motorized recreation is permitted on designated roads and trails.

Five public hearings are scheduled on the classifications in the next two weeks. The APA is also proposing to reclassify four parcels (468 acres) of existing state land. The APA makes these recommendations in concert with the Department of Environmental Conservation; they must ultimately be approved by the APA board and the governor. Here’s the public notice for more information.

Hearing schedule:
January 25, 2010
Fire Hall
5635 Route 28N
Newcomb, NY
7:00 pm

January 27, 2010
Park Avenue Building
183 Park Ave
Old Forge, NY
7:00 pm

January 28, 2010
Town Hall, 3662 Route 3
Saranac, NY
7:00 pm

February 2, 2010
St. Lawrence County Human Services Center
80 SH 310
Canton, NY
7:00 pm

February 5, 2010
NYDEC, 625 Broadway
Albany, NY
1:00 pm


Monday, January 18, 2010

Famous Jerks of the Adirondacks

General James AbercrombyToday we were going to list the Ten Most Influential Adirondackers, based on input from you, the Almanack readers. We’ve decided to keep nominations open for one more week (please make your recommendations here). In the meantime, one of you suggested, “How about the Adirondacks’ ten biggest asshats? . . . [T]hat’s one discussion I’d like to read.”

So, scroll through for a list of ten all-star Adirondack jerks and a-hats, in no particular order. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Permaculture Workshop: Sustainable Backyard Farming

On Saturday January 9 the Wild Center in Tupper Lake will host a talk and workshop on permaculture, aka, how people can produce food while enhancing the natural environment on the land around them.

At 11:30 Keith Morris, a Vermont-based instructor on the faculties of Sterling College and Yestermorrow Design/Build school, will discuss the concept of permaculture and ways people can design homes and communities that are productive, ecologically restorative and less fuel-reliant.

At 1 p.m. Morris will lead a workshop on how yards and other human-centered spaces can produce food and support pollinators (and look beautiful). He will discuss challenges, such as small spaces and contaminated soils, as well as animals and plants suitable for the Adirondack region, including nuts, fruits, berries and vines.

“One of the key issues for us in the Adirondacks is our soil,” says Gail Brill, a Saranac lake resident who received permaculture certification last summer through a course Morris taught at Paul Smith’s College. “If we are going to have to feed ourselves in the near future and become a nation of farmers (thank you Sharon Astyk) in order to survive, we need healthy soil to do it. Our sandy soil makes growing difficult, so one of the key issues for us is making compost as a soil amendment. This is something every household can do and we need to do it on a grand scale. (On March 20th, the Wild Center will be having a Home Composting Workshop.)

“We need to extend our growing season with high tunnels and cold frames,” Brill says. “We need to understand what edible wild plants are readily available and plant perennial Zone 3 vegetables like Chinese artichoke and creeping onion and much more. There is much to be done.”

The event is part of the Wild Center’s 2010 Winter Wildays series and is free to members or with paid admission.

Photo: A backyard apple tree in Saranac Lake.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Holiday Lights: Wanakena’s Star of Wonder

A star rises above the black spruce flats of the northwestern Adirondacks during the darkest time of year. It’s one of the simplest yet most startling holiday displays in the Adirondack Park for the utter lack of any other light.

Wanakena residents Ron Caton and Ken Maxwell first strung Christmas lights on a fire tower belonging to the SUNY-ESF Ranger School there eight years ago as a joke. “We weren’t sure how it would go over,” Ron says. He remembers Army helicopters from Fort Drum circling the first night the tower was lit and wondering if he was going to get in trouble. But the beacon over Route 3 was a hit, and he and Maxwell have decorated the 43-foot-tall structure every year since. The lights go on in early December and are turned off New Year’s Day. » Continue Reading.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Robert Louis Stevenson’s "A Christmas Sermon"

In Saranac Lake in December 1887, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to a friend about the difficulties of reading a thermometer at below-zero, describing “the mercury, which curls up into the bulb like a hibernating bear.” The Scotsman spent that winter in the care of Dr. E. L. Trudeau, convalescing from a lung ailment. He complained endlessly of the weather. He called it “tragic,” “glum,” “exceedingly sharp,” “grey and harsh,” “doleful,” “bleak” and “blackguardly.” Yet, he conceded, “The climate has done me good.”

He wrote most of The Master of Ballantrae here (if you have not read it, spare yourself and rent the Errol Flynn version instead; it omits the Adirondack parts but ends more happily and speedily). And he composed several thoughtful essays, among them “A Christmas Sermon,” published in Scribner’s magazine in December 1888.

The “sermon” asks moralists and the judgmental to focus less on their neighbors’ conduct and more on their own: “If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are wrong. I do not say ‘give them up,’ for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better and simpler people.”


A man’s main task is, “To be honest, to be kind—to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence,” he wrote.

“But Christmas is not only the mile-mark of another year, moving us to thoughts of self-examination: it is a season, from all its associations, whether domestic or religious, suggesting thoughts of joy.”

Stevenson was a charismatic figure and a thinker who wrote more than pirate adventures. His letters, especially the (apparently) carelessly written ones, still make good reading. His Adirondack letters are online at Google Books, and “A Christmas Sermon” is online at gutenberg.org.

There are two places in Saranac Lake where visitors can learn about Stevenson: the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage and Museum, and the Robert Louis Stevenson Tea Room; the latter is also a good place to eat.

Photograph of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1880


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Trapper’s Rebuttal: Leg-Hold Traps Part II

In response to last week’s post on leg-hold traps, the wife of the trapper who inadvertently snared a bald eagle earlier this month sent the following comment today, run here in full:

“I’ve made coonskin hats our of hides we tanned ourselves. So now for the rebuttal from the trapper (my husband) who caught the eagle (and in fact played a big part in the rescue). Ranger Eakin cut a pole and with the help of Deputy Wilt lifted the trap drag off the branch so that the eagle could fall to the ground where my husband and I were waiting with the net that we threw over the bird to keep him from flying off again. The bird was so cooperative as to flip over onto his belly on the blanket Eakin provided so that we keep him off the snow, and cover him with the blanket we provided. Having caught his own finger in the same trap we know that it doesn’t break bones or do any damage in and of itself.

“It didn’t even really hurt so the traps are as gentle as is possible. In over 30 yrs. of trapping the only animal he’s ever seen chew off it’s leg was a muskrat that the trap failed to drown. And having caught many rats missing legs – they recover and live just fine without it. He’s never had anything other than a squirrel or rabbit that was caught in the trap become a meal for a predator – and that’s natural. Nobody should be commenting on the trap set because nobody ever looked at it. The carcass was buried, although the coyote that was also caught the same time exposed part of it.

“There are two types of traps, leg grippers and body grippers (conibers). Instead of complaining that leg grippers should be outlawed (leaving only body grippers available for use) you should realize that an animal caught in a body gripper is dead when the trapper arrives – a much worse situation for the dog, cat, eagle who sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong. Caught a dog and a cat this year in different leg grippers. They were released without injury to grateful and understanding owners. Dog was off leash, owner accepted responsibility. Cat belonged to a former trapper. Most domestics don’t run off and fight the trap (which causes some pain) rather they lay there and wait for assistance. Ever stepped on your dog’s toe? Probably more painful than the snap of the trap jaws.

“Oh, and the eagle was released two days after being rescued. And the rehabilitator told the ECO on scene that this was the first eagle in a trap she’d seen in 15 yrs as a rehabilitator. So let’s direct that righteous indignation toward all those abused and neglected domestic animals in our communities rather than making such a big deal out of a once in a lifetime mishap that had a happy outcome – no permanent injury and a happy reunion with his mate, who happened to have been waiting nearby while he was in the tree. And an awesome memory to have had my hand a mere few inches from his majestic head.

“A truly magnificent bird with no fear, nor anger toward the humans I’m sure he knew were trying to help. Just an amazing calm and patience in those all-seeing eyes that commanded respect. And to think I’ve heard mention that our national bird was almost the turkey?”



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