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Adirondack Explorer

January, 2007

Why the Adirondacks Look the Way They Do: A Natural History
Author: Mike Storey

Review by: PAUL GRONDAHL

Nature Knows Best Books, 2006 Softcover, 172 pages, $16.95.

Nature Knows Best Books, 2006
Softcover, 172 pages, $16.95.

On the bookcases in my study, I have three shelves of books on the Adirondacks. The bulk of the volumes came from the library of Barney Fowler. Barney was the author of three volumes of the Adirondack Album compilation and a columnist at the Times Union. It was my good fortune that Barney, in all his big-hearted gruffness, took this cub reporter under his tutelage when I joined the paper in 1984.

Barney taught me that a storyteller could find a deep well of colorful characters and authentic places to write about within the Blue Line. He introduced me around and pointed me in directions that allowed me to produce a cavalcade of North Country pieces. After Barney died in 1986, his wife gave me several boxes of his Adirondack books.

After 20 years, I’m still working my way through them. I’ve read many in full and roamed around in most of the rest while doing research. Over the years, I’ve bought a few dozen more myself to add to my collection of guidebooks, histories, biographies, memoirs and photography books on the Adirondacks. All this time, there was a gap in the collection. What was missing was a slim, readable, richly illustrated book on the region’s natural history.

Enter Mike Storey and his new book, Why the Adirondacks Look the Way They Do, which is the printed equivalent of a leisurely ramble across the Park with a skilled naturalist. What makes him a genial guide is that he dispenses knowledge in plain language, without the hubris of a know-it-all or the puffed-up pedantry of an academic. He’s also a fine illustrator who makes lovely sketches of the flora and fauna found in the Park. The book contains dozens of his drawings and photographs.

Storey, who lives in Saranac Lake and published the book himself, brings solid credentials to the task. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse University. He worked in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and the Everglades as a National Park Service naturalist. He retired in 2001 as chief naturalist for the Adirondack Park Agency. He spent 24 years with the APA, much of it at the Visitor Interpretive Centers at Paul Smiths and Newcomb, which he helped to develop. He is also a free-lance photographer and illustrator who has contributed regularly to the Adirondack Explorer.

Cedar waxwings

Cedar waxwings

Glaciers deposited sand and gravel in Adirondack valleys.

Glaciers deposited sand and gravel in Adirondack valleys.

In his introduction, Storey explains that the book began with the question that he heard most often from visitors during his many years as a naturalist at the Visitor Interpretive Centers: Why do the Adirondacks look the way they do?

The answer is multifaceted, starting with the topography, which was shaped by powerful and ancient forces: continental drift, uplifting of the crust, erosion and glaciation. Frankly, geology does not float my boat, even when I took it in college (because it was supposedly the easiest of sciences—“jocks for rocks,” we called it). The subject has the potential to cause a migraine, but Storey goes easy on the mind-numbing specifics, although he doesn’t dumb it down and casually interjects discussions of the Grenville Orgeny and the Pleistocene Era. Storey is at his best when he describes scientific data with an unbuttoned brio: “The pressurecooked rock was pulled, folded and squeezed like a giant batch of saltwater taffy, as evidenced in the geologic map of the region.”

The text is full of astonishing nuggets of information. For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen the black lines along Adirondack beaches without giving it any thought. Storey tells us the lines are magnetite sand grains, which settle out through wave action, leaving a dark residue.

Trout lily

Trout lily

Bullfrog

Bullfrog

Another new one on me was “springtails.” Storey writes: “Springtails are tiny pepper-size soil insects that normally remain hidden, but on warm late winter days, they come to the snow surface and hop around using their abdominal ‘spring,’ hence the name snow flea.” If somebody had told me about snow fleas, I would have suspected he or she was relating a North Country tall tale. Now I’ll look for them when I’m cross-country skiing on a warm day.

Storey also writes succinctly about large, complex matters such as the composition of Adirondack forests. Nearly 60% of the Adirondacks is covered by hardwood forests. Evergreens take over on slopes above 2,600 feet, where the soil is not as rich. “At about 3500 feet,” Storey writes, “the forest begins to shrink in height as growing conditions get tougher, and black spruce replaces red spruce. Higher up, the trees cannot grow any taller than the normal snow depth. During winter, snow acts as an insulator and protects trees from wind-driven ice crystals.”

He also offers suggestions for seeing natural phenomena in the field. For instance, in a discussion about marble deposits, he directs readers to a road cut in the Rich Lake valley in Newcomb, “about half-way between the Visitor Interpretive Center and the west edge of the hamlet on Route 28N.” He adds this great little factoid: “Rich Lake supposedly got its name from the eroded grains of mica that shimmer like gold flakes on its beaches.”

Cross section of a beaver lodge in winter.

Cross section of a beaver lodge in winter.

Rough-legged hawk descends on a meadow vole

Rough-legged hawk descends on a meadow vole

One criticism of the book is that too much space is devoted to geology, the Ice Age and ancient forests. I would have liked more discussion of the region’s animals and plants (although, as mentioned, the book has many exquisite drawings of both).

Overall, this is a delightful book. After reading it, I decided that I would like to meet the author in either of two circumstances: As my guide on a backpacking trip or as a teammate in a game of North Country Trivial Pursuit.

For these reasons and more, Mike Storey’s book deserves a place on your Adirondack bookshelf shelf.

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