Boreal Life Trail

The highlight of the Boreal Life Trail is a 1,700-foot boardwalk that provides access to a boggy world of mosses, wildflowers and northern birds. Photo and drawings by Mike Storey.

VIC trail traverses boreal bog

By Edward Kanze

Every grizzled Adirondack old-timer in wool plaid and every nouveau-mountaineer in Gore-Tex who visits the new Boreal Life Trail at the Paul Smiths Visitor Interpretive Center is sure to come away with one clear impression: There’s nothing boring about the boreal life along this 1.1-mile walk.

Why “boreal”? You hear the word often within the Blue Line, especially in the Adirondack Park’s northern reaches. Down Newcomb way, there’s even a Boreas River, which flows into the Hudson, and a Boreas Mountain. “Boreal” means, simply, “northern.” The word derives from Boreas, the name given by ancient Greeks to the god of the north wind. Biologists use it to describe the zone that lies between the temperate forests of the middle latitudes and the tundra of the permanently frozen Arctic. Most of the boreal zone lies within Canada, Scandinavia, Finland and Russia. It’s a world of long, harsh winters and warm but fleeting summers, of vast green forests, cold lakes, clear brooks and soggy peatlands. Frosts come throughout the year, and soils tend to be poor.

In the northern Adirondacks, the basswoods and red oaks that flourish in the milder climates of Keene Valley, Warrensburg, Northville and Old Forge disappear. In their place rises a classic boreal forest, one characterized by cold-hardy trees such as balsam fir, red spruce, tamarack and quaking aspen. The Adirondack boreal forest sustains plants and animals rare or absent elsewhere in the Park. Among the birds breeding and feeding there are the gray jay (or Canada jay, a northerly cousin of the familiar blue jay), the spruce grouse, the black-backed woodpecker, the three-toed woodpecker and the aptly named boreal chickadee. Most notable among mammals is the moose, which might otherwise be called the boreal deer.

Boreal chickadee

Now that we’re up to speed on boreal, let’s head up the road to the Paul Smiths VIC. (Pronounce it “vick” if you want to sound like a local.) When the facility appeared on the drawing board back in 1986, Mike Storey was given the job of designing its trail system. Storey, an accomplished naturalist employed by the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) since 1977, was then in midcareer, and he thought that designing trails was a dream job. (Last year, he retired to write a book and launch a consulting business.)

“I spent a lot of time in the woods,” he said, “and I studied aerial photos. The trails had to radiate out from the building, of course, and equally important, I wanted to introduce walkers to the property’s highlights. The first trail I planned was the Boreal Life Trail.” Storey chuckled. “It proved to be the one that took the longest to build.”

I walked the Boreal Life Trail on the day of its grand opening last September. The morning was clear and cool. An enthusiastic crowd of nature lovers and VIC staff had gathered, and Dick Lefevbre, chairman of the APA, and George Miller, president of Paul Smith’s College, were on hand to provide an informal ceremonial kickoff. It was the APA that supervised the making of the trail, and it was the college, largely through the efforts of Professor Hans Michielen and his students, who supplied much of the elbow grease. Funding came from various directions, including a 1999 grant from the New York State Recreation Trails Program.

Pitcher plant

After the formalities, the crowd charged off. We am-bled slowly behind it. An Australian friend, Beris Caine, and my wife, Debbie, were with me. Together we padded down the trail. The woods were “dark and deep,” as Robert Frost once put it, and balsam scent flooded our nostrils. Pine needles and wood chips created underfoot a thick pile carpet. Birds were scarce, owing to the season, but we could see the potential. In May, migrants rain from the sky and drench the boreal forest in song.

Mike said that the upland portion of the trail, on which we began, was originally cleared by state prisoners from nearby Camp Gabriels in 1987. It doesn’t take long, especially on a day when the woods are quiet, before you break out of the trees and emerge at the trail’s main attraction: a 1,700-foot boardwalk that traverses a spongy, boglike world of sphagnum—also called peat moss—and other plants that grow in sphagnum. Before you step onto the boardwalk, you have a chance to scan Barnum Pond for ducks, loons, muskrats and beavers. (In winter, you may see fox tracks dotting a line across the ice.) This is also a good place to read the printed guide you picked up at the trailhead. The woods were gloomy, but here there’s plenty of light.

When you’re ready, step onto the boardwalk. Although most boreal wildflowers were closed for the season and a great many birds had flown south by the time we visited in the fall, we saw plenty to capture our interest. Thriving in the moss were pitcher plants and sundews, both of which catch and digest insects, as well as a Who’s Who of peatland shrubs.

The most interesting plant to us was one we were seeing for the first time: bogbean, or buckbean, in full bloom. The flowers appeared in clusters that topped delicate stalks rising from handsome, three-lobed leaves. The blooms were white and dainty, and their petals wore fuzzy beards. Bogbean’s roots seek nourishment and moisture deep in the peat. That’s unusual, for peatland plants generally soak up their nutrients on or near the surface. The depths of a such a place are short of oxygen and may also be highly acidic. Bogbean, a citizen of the world, lives in cool, damp peatlands across North America, Europe, and Asia.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

I asked Mike about spring and summer sights along the Boreal Life Trail, and he responded with enthusiasm. “In the spring,” he said, “Labrador tea, leatherleaf, bog rosemary, sheep-laurel and bog laurel bloom. The flowers aren’t spectacular, but they’re pretty. Over the course of the summer, if you take the time to look, you could see rose pogonias, white-fringed orchis, pitcher-plants, sundews and bogbean.”

Two of the plants Storey mentioned, rose pogonia and white-fringed orchis, might make any plant lover’s short list of most beautiful Adirondack wildflowers. Both are orchids. The pogonia cuts a sexy figure in the peat, opening its bulging flower-bud to bare soft pink petals, pink sepals and a drooping, fringed projection called a lip. The orchid sends up a shoot often a foot or more high, culminating in a cluster of white, frilly blossoms and buds.

Our friend Beris spotted the sundews—vaguely Venus-flytrap-like plants growing on the surface of the peat. Sticky hairs edge the sundew’s tiny, flesh-colored leaves and small insects get caught in them and digested. Sundews probably originated in the Australian region, where they still reach their greatest diversity. Beris had found a compatriot.

The hour or so it took to complete the Boreal Life Trail was over before we knew it. But we’d be back. Maybe next time we’d see a black-backed woodpecker or hear a mink frog clucking to its mate or inhale the scent of a rose pogonia. One never knows what will pop up in the wild, windy world of Boreas.


The Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center is located on Route 30 about a quarter-mile north of the junction with Route 86 near the entrance of Paul Smith’s College.

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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