Adirondacks Alive

Horizon Editions, 2006 Hardcover, 175 pages, $50
Horizon Editions, 2006
Hardcover, 175 pages, $50

The crowded field of Adirondack photography is filled with magnificent vistas and stunning details of the natural world. In a way, that’s the problem. Any fool with a disposable point-and-shoot can’t help but return from an outing to the old North Woods with some fetching images. I’ve done it, and there’s the proof.

The professionals elevate the game, with better composition, superior equipment and technical precision. But they usually don’t have much to say about their photographs, except the place, time, weather, exposure, etc.

One thing that sets Adirondacks Alive apart is the text. Writer Don Mellor, a longtime Adirondack climber, guide and teacher, collaborated with photographer Olaf Soot in producing a coffeetable book in which word and image complement each other.

Soot, who has taken photos around the world, has assembled a remarkable collection of aerial and ground-level views that are well-edited and organized. Mellor’s essays succinctly explain the region’s history, geology, seasons, forests, trails and climbs.

Of the Hudson River, which flows from the High Peaks to Manhattan, Mellor writes: “To know the origins of the river is to trace the path of man’s desire to extend his reach, backward into his past, outward into the earth’s wilderness and inward into his own human heart.”

It sounds like lofty sentiment, but having made that 300-mile trip, I think it’s just as he says. With my colleague Fred LeBrun, I journeyed from Lake Tear of the Clouds to Manhattan, by canoe, raft, sailboat and powerboat, and wrote about the trip for the Albany Times Union. I can still recall the roar at the confluence of the Hudson and Cedar rivers from almost a decade ago and go back there sometimes in my mind.

Fragile vegetation clings to the rocky summit on Wright Peak.
Fragile vegetation clings to the rocky summit on Wright Peak.

Mellor, the author of rock-climbing and ice-climbing guidebooks, must have influenced Soot’s subject matter: Many of the photos are of cliffs, slides and other high places. The photographs of Wallface, which gets its own chapter (“The Great Cleft”), are breathtaking. Soot juxtaposes wide shots of the mighty cliff with close-ups of climbers making their way up it. I turned most often to this section, awestruck by a cliff I hope to climb for the first time this year.

The book has six other chapters. “Discovery” focuses on the Hudson, from its highest source, Lake Tear of the Clouds, to New York City. “Living Landscape” celebrates slides, those ribbons of bedrock found on many of the High Peaks. “Pathways” is devoted to the paths of men and beasts. “High Winter” is about the cold season. “Fire and Rebirth” demonstrates how magnificently Rocky Peak Ridge has recovered from fire in the early 1900s. The final chapter, “Mists in Time,” contains atmospheric shots of mist, fog and clouds. The book’s last photo is of the blue misty mountains seen on the cover, this time spread over two pages.

Soot’s photos give readers a proper sense of our place in the world. One reason for heading into the wilderness is to restore that proportion. The complications of our lives seem smaller when measured against the grandeur of nature. “The geologist knows that a million years is a very short time, and the seven thousand years of human civilization is insignificant in terms of the life of the planet,” Mellor writes.

This may not be a book for those who charge up and down peaks, and then tick them off in their lists, unless they also take the time to smell the trees, hear the wind and touch the mountains along the way.

In the foreword, the environmental writer Bill McKibben says that the photos in Adirondacks Alive will appeal especially to those who have been to these mountains and know them intimately. “And for those who haven’t yet been?” he asks. “We will see them soon, I imagine, for these images and these words are absolutely irresistible!”