Life in the slow lane
By Edward Kanze
It’s a fine day for a ramble: blue sky, shirt-sleeve temperature, and no bugs to drive us batty or hasten our molluscan pace. We aim not to make time today but to make observations, to discover what’s what in the woods rather than impress anyone (including ourselves) with our speed or fitness. I buckle the kids into a double jog-stroller. Just south of a horse farm on the east side of Route 3, halfway between Saranac Lake and Bloomingdale, we set off on a trail leading to Moose Pond.
A few brisk strides bring Ned, 4, Tassie, nearly 3, and me, 51 but who’s counting, dead-straight down a gentle slope to the west bank of the Saranac River. We do our best to ignore the clamor of the highway and tune instead to bird songs. The kids identify the first two: plaintive introductory notes and triplets whistled by a white-throated sparrow (Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, the bird seems to say), and a robin in an aspen, caroling Cheery-up, cheerily. My ears also pick up a bluebird’s soft warble and the easygoing babble of a catbird.
Just for fun, we hunt for the catbird. The kids spot it. Dark gray and long-tailed, it’s perched in a shrub that stumped me here a few years ago when I first set eyes on it. The leaves look like those of a sumac, while the flowers and fruits suggest those of our common spiraeas. My friend Bob Hagar solved the mystery for me. The plant is false spiraea, Sorbaria sorbifolia, an East Asian native. Why is it here? Perhaps someone planted it. Perhaps that someone was a bird.
Across the trail grow hawthorns. The long, sharp-pointed thorns of these shrubby trees look menacing. Animals such as mice and voles sometimes turn up on them, impaled, the work of a songbird turned predator, the northern shrike. Shrikes are winter birds here, and today we find no victims.
Across a metal footbridge we go, stroller and all. I scan with binoculars for herons, eagles and sandpipers along the Saranac’s edge but see none. Then it occurs to me to invite my sharp-eyed companions to look for moose. I have yet to see my first Adirondack moose (only tracks so far), yet sightings are reported often near here, especially just to the north by a bus garage.
Alas, no luck. I sign a trail register, and we press on, climbing slowly away from the river. The trail follows an old roadbed, much built up in places and clearly a thoroughfare of significance in the past.
The forest here is youthful, a blend consisting mostly of balsam fir, northern white cedar, quaking aspen and choke-cherry. Just for fun, I show the kids what happens when you press one of the blisters that cover balsam bark. Out squirts a sticky, aromatic goo. The stuff was once bottled and used to glue microscope lenses in place and to anchor cover slips on slides.
Behind us a swamp sparrow sings. Ahead we push into deeper, darker forest, and the birds reflect the change. Now we hear wood warblers: black-and-white, parula, Nashville, magnolia. Many Adirondack warblers breed only in the north yet bear Deep South names. Why? Early American ornithologists such as Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon collected the first scientific specimens during the birds’ migrations through Dixie.
Ned and Tassie ask about the trees and shrubs that brush against the stroller, so we begin paying close attention. I show them beaked hazelnut, a widespread Adirondack shrub and one common in our backyard. We also note red maple, striped maple, white birch, yellow birch and black cherry. I show the kids how to tell balsams from red spruces at a distance. Balsams typically have tight crowns, like church steeples, while spruce tops tend to be more broad and show sky between individual branches.
The farther we move from the river, the taller and older the trees become and the richer the life on the ground. We begin to find extensive patches of bunchberry, Canada mayflower and shining club-moss. Among them sprout wild-sarsaparilla, a smattering of ferns, northern bush-honeysuckle and sapling sugar maple and American beech. As if to confirm that we’re in a proper forest now, a classic Adirondack woodland bird, the blue-headed vireo, sings its emphatic, whistled phrases.
At last we can no longer hear road noise. Traffic’s roar has been replaced by the rush of wind through the trees. About this time, I hear commentary. “I’m hungry,” announces Ned. “That was a really big bump, Dad,” adds Tassie.
I assure the kids we’re nearing Moose Pond, where we’ll lounge on billion-year-old rocks and have snacks and drinks. We press on. I point out the four species of maple that grow along the trail: red, striped, sugar and mountain.
Soon we pass a small cliff on the left, the rocks thick with a lettuce-like, purportedly edible lichen called rock tripe. Just afterward, the old roadbed forks, and we veer to the right, downhill. We’ve ascended a ridge built of two kinds of gneiss. Now we’re dropping into a basin formed of an even older rock called anorthosite. It forms Moose Pond’s bottom and lies buried in places under sediments dumped by the late, great Pleistocene glaciers.
We pass the concrete footers and crumbling fireplace of an old platform tent site, then plunge into a grove of hemlocks. It’s dark in here, but between the trunks we make out the sparkle of sunshine on water.
The moment I liberate the kids, the walk shifts from low gear to high. Ned and Tassie, squealing with delight, bolt for the shoreline. The water’s deep here and they have no idea how to swim. I sprint to catch them.
Moose Pond and the hills and mountains rising beyond it provide a dramatic end to an easy and agreeable walk. We burst out of gloom and into sunshine. One of the finest views in the Park rises to greet us.
In the foreground, the lake (“pond” is a misnomer, for Moose is cold and deep, the province of lake trout and salmon) stretches out before us. In the distance loom Whiteface, Moose and McKenzie mountains, their slopes cloaked in dark-green and chartreuse and streaked here and there with bedrock exposed by landslides. The sky glows cobalt-blue. Wisps of crystalline cirrus hang suspended, suggesting tufts of cotton candy.
For the better part of an hour we goof off. We snack on granola bars and pistachios, I gulp water, and the kids slurp milk. They turn pine boughs into make-believe fishing poles, and we all scuff around the rocks. Northern white cedars grow on the point, and at their base we discover a shrub with hard, fingernail-sized leaves. It’s leatherleaf, a plant typical of Adirondack bogs. The entire time we’re there, a yellow-rumped warbler serenades us. The bird is a male. It blares its torch song again and again, letting females know it’s in the mood for love and prospective rivals that it’s staked out the territory.
Ned and Tassie clamber back into their seats, and we begin retracing our steps. Back on the ridge, I spy an American elm about the diameter of my forearm. Like the elms near our house, it’s covered in coin-shaped seeds that purple finches relish. The kids aren’t impressed. Instead they show interest in a nearby white ash, whose textured bark they demand to touch.
We also discover things that may, or may not, have slipped by us earlier: the treetop caroling of a Blackburnian warbler (I call it in with a spish, and we all gasp at the brightness of its orange throat), a winter wren that showers the landscape with tinkling notes, and a barred-owl feather. I feel certain the feather, white and soft with brown lines crossing it, has just materialized. Is the bird somewhere near, watching? We look to no avail.
The kids and I have had fun together, and their pleasure in the ramble delights me. One day they may grow up to be record-setting Forty-Sixers, marching up and down every mountain at speed. If so, I’ll remind them of an old Indian saying, quoted in Richard Louv’s recent bestseller, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder: “It is better to know one mountain than to climb many.”
In years ahead, there will be times when Ned and Tassie show good sense in covering ground swiftly, if only to keep ahead of the black flies. But I hope they take these mountains not just on the run, but slowly and thoughtfully and inquisitively, too. There are too many riches here–birdsong, wildflowers, ferns, salamanders, the occasional windblown bird feather–to justify always hopping like a hare when leisure so handsomely rewards the pace of a tortoise.
From the T intersection of NY 3 (Bloomingdale Avenue) and NY 86 (Church Street) in Saranac Lake, drive north on NY 3 for 3.9 miles to a dirt road leading between fields to a steel bridge over the Saranac River. Turn right and park next to the bridge.