Where the wild things are
Hike to Rock Lake reveals wonders of nature
By Edward Kanze
A mother, daughter, father and son burst out of the woods, beaming. We take this as a good sign. The path my wife, Debbie, son Ned and daughter Tasman are about to walk is a needle plucked from a haystack. Our aim: to enjoy an Adirondack nature walk well away from our home near Bloomingdale. We picked through a stack of guidebooks, settling on a half-mile jaunt to Rock Lake. The trailhead can be found on the northeast side of Route 30, five miles southeast of Blue Mountain Lake.
Out of the car we tumble and into the woods we troop. Leading our platoon is Ned, just shy of 5 years old, followed by 3-year-old Tassie. The kids are followed by Debbie, then me, then a circling deerfly. Ah, it’s summer in the Adirondacks.
At once we find the woods as Robert Frost once described them in his patch of New England, “lovely, dark, and deep.” We brush past white ash and balsam fir, yellow birch and American beech, striped maple and red spruce. At the start, the trees arch over the trail, forming an arbor. I feel invited. By contrast, many Adirondack trailheads offer an imposing view of rocky footing and a steep pitch. Here the first steps—indeed, all the steps—will be gentle.
We leave the sunshine and plunge into shadow. The forest blends hardwoods such as red and sugar maple with softwoods such as Eastern hemlock, balsam fir, white pine and red spruce. It must be especially pretty in autumn when the broad-leaved trees and their flaming colors will stand out against the needle-bearers and their cool greens.
From the leaf litter, two of my favorite Adirondack shrubs rise: beaked hazelnut and Northern bush-honeysuckle. I show the kids the strange elongated fruits of the hazelnuts, but at this point they find more fun in bolting down the trail, squealing. Liberated after a long car ride, Ned and Tassie revel in movement.
The duff and muted sunlight also support bracken (our tallest, broadest fern), painted trillium, white snowberry, wild sarsaparilla, bunchberry, mountain holly and mountain maple. We descend into a shallow gully. Ned and Tassie enjoy scooting along a series of footbridges.
Because of the dampness here, we decide this is a good place to hunt for salamanders. The kids are skilled log-turners, and they know to practice good etiquette in putting every log they’ve rolled back the way they found it. Still, no luck, at least not the kind we’re after. We find only millipedes, centipedes, ants, beetles and earthworms. Both kids love these creatures, but Tassie is downright besotted. Give her the opportunity, and she’d stay here all day, scrutinizing.
Ned, meanwhile, charges ahead, and soon his sister is hot on his heels. Debbie and I pause to listen to genuine North Country music: the two-parted song of a Nashville warbler. There’s no simple mnemonic for this bird. The ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, a genius at devising clever phrases to help remember bird songs, struggled and came up a less-than-adequate seebit, seebit, seebit, seebit, titititititi. The song is two-parted, the second part faster than the first.
Farther along, the kids find wonder in a gathering of giant white pines. Ned embraces one of the trunks and looks up toward the crown. Tassie quickly grows preoccupied with something lower down. “Look at all the beautiful moss,” she says. Or did she say “moths?” A dozen or more day-flying moths no bigger than postage stamps flit over the spongy ground. A bit of the “moss” is actually moss, but much of it here is in fact a look-alike liverwort called Bazzania. Like mosses, liverworts are non-vascular plants that lack the plumbing needed to grow tall. Unlike mosses, they have green leafy thalluses (properly thalli) that overlap like shingles, or like the lobes of a liver. “Wort” is an old English word for “plant.”
Another muddy spot appears. In it Ned spies something. “Dog tracks,” he announces. The rest of us take a look. Ned’s right, although the dog might have been a coyote. We see the clear impressions of pads and toenails.
Farther along, we discover Clintonia lilies that will soon bear poisonous blue fruit. Nearby grow two kinds of lycopodia, or club-mosses: tree clubmoss and shining clubmoss. Unlike real mosses, lycopodia are vascular plants whose stems contain specialized tissues used to transport moisture, minerals and sugar. During the Age of Dinosaurs, some species grew to the height of trees in the world’s first forests. Lycopodia are distant kin of ferns. Beside them sprouts a wild Adirondack lily called rose twisted-stalk. It suggests a common Solomon’s seal (also a lily) that can’t decide which direction to grow.
Birds? We haven’t been hearing many. But as the kids grow less clamorous, notes begin to reach our ears. Debbie and I, both wild-music enthusiasts, pause to discuss what we’re hearing. In the near woods, there’s a black-throated blue warbler, uttering a soft, rising zoo zoo zee. From deeper among the trees comes the harsh call note of a hermit thrush. It’s likely a parent concerned about our proximity to its young.
And one more sound commands our attention: the incessant, irritating, high-pitched whine of mosquitoes. Some of them are likely Ochlerotatus intrudens, an Adirondack species enormously abundant this time of year and famous for its genius in penetrating houses.
Suddenly Ned is gone. He’s forsaken the trail for a brook, brown and tannin-stained, that parallels our course. Tassie seconds the motion. “Let’s go see the waterfall,” says she. I’m tempted to correct her. What we’re looking at is a mere riffle. But there are times to bite one’s tongue. It’s a Tassie-sized waterfall, after all.
The creativity of kids unleashed outdoors is a wonder to behold. Immediately brother and sister grab sticks and announce that they’re fishing. It’s clear from the intent looks on their faces that they’re fishing in nearly every way that matters. In a quiet pool they spot small striped fish. They’re dace, by the looks of them, perhaps the Eastern blacknose, widely recorded in Adirondack streams like this one.
Damselflies dart and hover. They’re ebony jewelwings, a species typical of shaded brooks and streams. The bodies look like they’re made of shiny green metal; the wings are somber black. Dabs of white decorate the wings of a few. The spots are called pseudostigmas; they identify females, and their function remains an open question.
As Debbie scrutinizes a clump of false hellebore, a tall leafy herb often mistaken for skunk cabbage, I listen dreamily to the weeta-weeta-WIT-chew song of a magnolia warbler. Soon, however, the kids reclaim our attention. Splash! Splash! They’ve plunged into the brook. Soon they’re soaked, and the extra clothes we brought are back in the car. Tassie breaks out instantly in goose bumps. Suddenly it’s clear that our stay at Rock Lake will be brief.
Down the trail we go, crossing a spanking-new bridge, heavily timbered and designed for snowmobiles. At the middle of the span we catch our first glimpse of the lake, sparkling bright blue and white in the distance. Red-eyed vireos, perhaps the most abundant forest birds east of the Mississippi in summertime, pose and answer rhetorical questions in all directions. Who am I? Vireo. Who are you? I don’t know. We leave them to their dueling monologues and inchworm-eating and march the last few hundred yards to the shore.
Mountain-holly, speckled alder and royal fern crowd up to the water’s edge, and a green frog announces its presence in the usual green-frog way: thung, thung, thung, like a plucked banjo. Looking across to the far shore, we admire a line of stately white pines and balsams. Beyond, Blue Mountain and its stark cliffs dominate the horizon. The forest blots out all automobile noise, but every few minutes, the peace is disturbed by a motorcycle shrieking through its gears.
The kids shiver, and the biting insects are too abundant and fierce to contemplate stripping off clothes and drying them. So we enjoy the place quickly. The highlights, aside from the view, are chalk-fronted admiral dragonflies alighting all around us; at the base of a tree, a burrow about the diameter of a hot dog, with a prodigious pile of dirt heaped near the entrance (the home of a red-backed vole?); and the grand finale, a garter snake about the length of my arm that I pick up for show-and-tell. The kids see plenty of snakes at home and know how to catch them, but I’m able to show something new by releasing this one in the lake. It slices away gracefully, the looping curves of its body flashing in the sun.
Two and a half hours after we started, we reappear at the car. The kids glow. They look confident. They’re calm. There’s nothing quite like unstructured play in the woods to make children—and grown-ups—come fully, joyously alive.