Where mortals can walk on water
By Will Nixon
To introduce me to bogs, Mike Brennan drops his day pack on a grassy hummock and pulls off his tan fleece jacket. Dressed in green shorts, unlike the rest of us on this cool day, he drops to his knees and plunges his arm into the slender gap of dark water between the bright green lips of sphagnum moss.
“In some bogs you can reach down past your shoulder,” he says, although the water may be so painfully cold that you wouldn’t want to feel around the soggy earth for long. He can only work his arm down to his elbow in the Massawepie Mire, the largest peat-land in the Adirondacks. He pulls up a fistful of stringy roots, preserved for decades in the acidic bog water. Among their many peculiar qualities, bogs are living museums that retard the process of rotting so well that they’ve occasionally been found to contain the bones of ancient mastodons and giant beavers.
But I prefer the description of bogs as places where ordinary mortals can walk on water. Over time, the unusual plants that grow here weave a dense mat that floats on the water almost like a grassy meadow. But now that I’ve hummock-hopped 50 feet into the bog from the edge of the woods at the Massawepie Scout Camps, I’m discovering my hiking companions don’t want to share this quasi-religious experience.
“Anybody who has been in a bog knows that they don’t want to go into another one unless they’ve got a good reason to,” says Bud Lanyon, steadfastly standing on dry ground under the trees. A retired ornithologist from the American Museum of Natural History, he knows bogs better than most folks, having spent June and early July of both 1996 and 1997 surveying the second largest peatland in the Adirondacks, Spring Pond Bog, for the boreal birds that live nowhere else in the Park. Rising at dawn to reach the edge of the bog by 7 a.m, he and his wife wore bug shirts with netting around their heads and arm pits, protecting them from the thirsty, swarming black flies, as they watched and listened each day for such birds as Lincoln sparrows, black-backed woodpeckers, gray jays, and boreal chickadees.
On July 6th, 1997, Lanyon and his wife quietly approached a small island of spruce trees on the bog, lifted the spruce boughs, and found five baby warblers in a nest constructed right on the sphagnum moss. It was the second palm warbler nest ever to be found in New York State.
Lanyon, however, had never explored the Massawepie Mire. So as our guide we have recruited Mike Brennan, a naturalist at the state’s Adirondack Park Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC) at Paul Smiths. Brennan learned the lay of this land not as a naturalist, but as a boy scout. Since 1951, the Otetiana Council of Rochester has owned a 3,600-acre camp that Brennan and other scouting alumni consider among the most beautiful properties in the Adirondacks. Created by the receding glaciers, the area has the large Massawepie Lake and nine smaller ponds strung along both sides of an esker, a long, high, sand-and-gravel ridge deposited by a river that flowed from the prehistoric ice field. The scouts swim and boat on the lake, camp under white pines by the secluded ponds, hike on more than 25 miles of trails around the shorelines and through the forest, and tell tall tales around the campfire.
Although Brennan often played in the suburban woods near his home outside Rochester, he entered a new world when he arrived at the Massawepie Scout Camps in the late 1960s. “This was the northern wilderness I’d read about in books,” he says.
On maps, the Mire looks bigger than Massawepie Lake, but as I learned from experience it’s easy to drive through the camp along the esker road and not see any sign of the peatland at all. (The entire wetland complex, which extends beyond the bog up and down the South Branch of the Grass River, covers about 5,000 acres.)
You must chose the right parking spot and hike a short path down to the large plain of hummocks and scattered tamaracks and black spruces. In the slow-motion world of bogs, a spindly 20-foot spruce may be 100 years old.
Brennan kneels down again, reaches into the dark bog water, and this time hands me a strip of spongy sphagnum moss, a plant so sterile that soldiers have used it for bandages in wartime. He warns me never to step on a bright green spot in a bog. After all, if you can bury your arm past your shoulder, think of how deep you can plant your leg. Like Lanyon, Brennan doesn’t like hummock-hopping on bogs, both because it tires your legs and it damages the plants.
“The best way to see a bog is by canoe,” Brennan says. At the VIC, he leads short paddling tours for visitors to view the bog mat from a gentle stream. At Massawepie, he now leads me off the peatland to show us an outlet of the South Branch of the Grass River that flows through the Mire.
In 1998, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) completed a major land deal with the Massawepie Scout Camps that will preserve their property much the way it is now for many generations to come. For $1.7 million, the DEC bought an easement on the property that grants the scouts the exclusive use of the camp from June 15th to August 31st each year, but allows the public to hike, canoe, hunt, fish, and generally enjoy the property during the rest of the year.
“The Council wanted to insure the long term protection of the area,” says Doug Wilson of the DEC office in Watertown. In an unusual twist for the Adirondacks, where many local governments oppose state land acquisitions, the town of Piercefield also embraced the deal. They had good reason to.
“The boy scouts are tax exempt,” Wilson says. “They didn’t pay real estate taxes. But the state does pay taxes on the easement value of the property, amounting to about $75,000 a year in new income for the local government.”
“It was a win all the way around,” according to Tom Duffus, who left the Adirondack Nature Conservancy in 1997 to establish a new Conservancy office in northern Minnesota. A former Eagle Scout from Rochester, Duffus has his own boyhood memories of the magical wilderness of this camp. As an adult, he worked for 10 years to clinch the deal with the Otetiana Council.
The sale of the easement also gave the camp a significant fund to pay for much-needed improvements. “We expect to have significantly more kids in the camp in 10 years,” says Frank Crego, a Rochester attorney who serves on the Council’s board. And he praises Duffus and Wilson for being such good negotiators. “This thing could have gone awry any number of times if not for them,” he says.
On Brennan’s tour, the only indications we find of the new ownership arrangement are several new parking lots along the esker road with freshly painted brown trail signs. Yet Brennan pauses at one of the secluded campsites under the white pines by the lake and admits to some misgivings about the easement. Although the public has been able to visit the property for years when the camps weren’t in session, they can now camp here for the first time. Softened by brown needles, this beautiful spot that the scouts may use 12 nights a summer could eventually look as hardened and overused as tent sites at a state campground.
“I have friends who were a part of scouting who were saddened by the easement,” he says. “They were worried about camping and afraid of trash. But I still think that an easement was the best possible outcome.” Doing some crude calculations, he figures a developer could have subdivided the Massawepie lakeshore into 20 lots and found six ponds that could hold five lots each.
“There must be at least 50 former scouts in Rochester who are now rich enough to afford seasonal homes here,” he says. He is glad that they, like he, can only return to enjoy the property in its wild and undeveloped state.
The Massawepie Scout Camps own only the eastern portion of the Massawepie Mire, however. The western side has been the private property of the Grass River Association for more than a century. “We don’t have any plans to do an easement on our property,” says club president Donald Baxter. He explains that because of the fragile nature of the Mire, the members don’t drive or walk on the peatland. “We have a gentleman’s agreement within the organization to do nothing on the Mire. We’ve been good stewards of the property for a long time.”
Brennan now leads us along his favorite stretch of the trail that circles Massawepie Lake. We find small coves with soft banks of pine needles and alder bushes. The golden tamaracks along the shoreline reflect like schools of goldfish in the water. I crane my neck under one towering pine to wonder at the nest of sticks near the top—an old osprey nest, I’m informed. The wind whispers through the conifers with that distinctive sound of the deep north woods.
Gary Randorf, the photographer, tells me that when he lived in Hawaii many years ago, he would climb far up into the cool reaches of a volcano where pine trees grew, just to hear this comforting sound of home.
We follow the path into a muddy patch where new planks keep our feet dry. “That smell isn’t a wet dog or dirty feet,” Randorf says of the pungent air. “It’s wild raisin.”
He identifies the yellowing leaves of this viburnum shrub that grows in swampy woods.
Around the next bend in the trail, we meet a flock of gray jays, the first time I’ve seen this bird of the Canadian boreal forest. In my binoculars I study one perched head high near the trunk of a tamarack. It looks bigger than a blue jay, plumper, a custodian rather than a cop. “This is the largest number I’ve ever seen in the Adirondacks,” Randorf says, scanning from bird to bird in the trees.
We catch up with Lanyon and Brennan, who has been skipping from root to root on the wet trail in his hiking sneakers. “Now I remember why I lived in Bean boots all summer,” Brennan says, alluding to his camp days. We reach an elevated boardwalk that runs between the edge of the forest and the marsh and then turns across a winding stream. “It’s just one meander after another,” says Brennan. Randorf, who has canoed many such streams in the Adirondacks, nods knowingly.
“If you paddle fast enough,” he says, “you can see your own back coming around the last bend.”
Bud Lanyon stands quietly on the middle of the bridge looking at the shorelines of wheat-colored marsh grass. He’s imagining next June. He has decided to return to this spot with a canoe and a tape recorder that plays bird calls. In the buggy early morning air, he’ll float silently alongside the banks, watching and listening for every little bird clue.
“I’d like to find the first Tennessee warbler’s nest in New York State,” he says, with a eye toward making more history. “They could be nesting anywhere along the edges of these bogs.”