By Tim Rowland
From an outcropping of high bluffs just off the trail to Bear Den Mountain in the heart of the High Peaks, it almost appears (with a little imagination) that you could pitch a penny and hit the roof of the venerable Ausable Club in the valley far below.
In the annals of Adirondack hospitality, there may be no more storied spot. Phineas Beede, an unwitting patriarch of Essex County’s short-term rental problem, started out with a humble boarding house, and the family business blossomed in 1876 when his nephew built Beede’s Hotel where the Ausable Club stands now.
Fourteen years later, a conservation group agreed to purchase the hotel and 600 surrounding acres to protect it from loggers. But before the deed could be recorded, the hotel did what most all Adirondack hotels tended to do: it burned to the ground.
Undeterred, the new owners rebuilt the inn, which has remained standing to this day.
But 20 years ago, over the Labor Day weekend, terrified guests standing on the elegant veranda of the Ausable Club figured its luck had run out. A forest fire, the likes of which had not been seen in the Adirondacks for generations, was racing down the mountain with the historic lodge in its crosshairs.
Tony Goodwin, executive director of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society, said some compared the scene to the deck of the Titanic as members of the exclusive club stared down a disaster that, in truth, was probably never as imminent as it looked.
Days prior, an improperly doused campfire on the other side of the ridge had smoldered in the duff before flickering to life on the southwest flank of Noonmark Mountain. The Adirondack forest, generally speaking, doesn’t burn; the duff is too moist, the foliage too green and the rains too frequent. But there are caveats. In 1903, the dried slash left over from logging operations provided ample kindling for fires that devastated a half-million Adirondack acres, including the slopes of Noonmark and Bear Den. That’s one of the things that makes the Noonmark burn site so interesting to scientists, said Mark Lesser, a forestry professor at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. In the Adirondacks, two fires over the same ground in the same century just never happens.
This September, Lesser led a class of students to the burn site (it is officially recorded as the Bear Den Fire, but popularly as the Noonmark Fire) to document the new growth. The trail up Bear Den leaves Lake Road south of the Ausable Club and climbs steeply through mature maple and hemlock before crossing into the burn site where a couple of biological mysteries reside.
Just shy of 3,000 feet elevation, a faint herd path splits from the main trail and onto a rocky ledge offering an expansive view of the Great Range. The ground drops gently then steeply, a mashup of scree, downed logs and charred roots. Struggling to take hold is a thick population of aspens. Because of the thin soil and exposed rock, they are scarcely head high, but what’s puzzling is that they shouldn’t be there at all.
In total, about 90 acres of woods were consumed by the fire, and bordering the burn site are acres and acres of what you would expect: spruce, fir, white pine, maple, birch—but no aspen. “We don’t know where the aspen seeds came from,” said Ken Adams, a retired SUNY professor who led his own classes of students up Bear Den for 10 years after the fire.
Also a bit of a mystery is the absence of pin cherry, a shrubby tree whose seeds can lay dormant for decades until fire jump-starts their life cycle. Adams said the pin cherry sprang up from soil disturbed by the fire breaks, but not in the burn area itself.
Lesser also noted the relative lack of trees that should be taking hold at this point, including hemlock, red spruce and white pine. There are a few, but usually a site such as this would be generously studded with young evergreens.
The lack of cherries and evergreens points to the same thing. Members of the Ausable Club on that Saturday had been witnessing something that in the Adirondacks was highly unusual.
The campers responsible for the Noonmark blaze couldn’t have known it, but at the same time they were lighting their campfire in early September, a low-pressure trough of air running north and south, generally known as a “tropical wave,” was forming over the African continent. Scarcely perceptible at first without a barometer, clouds gradually began to swirl together, then thicken into thunderheads touching off scattered storms south of the Saharan desert. On the same day that smoke was spotted by alert DEC rangers in a helicopter, the tropical wave cleared the continent and entered the Atlantic. It was destined to get the hapless campers off the hook.
They had been foolish, of course, or perhaps just unaware of the conditions that summer, which echoed the parched summer of 1903. Normally emerald green, Goodwin said, the Ausable Club’s golf course that August had turned a lifeless brown. The normally moist duff had been baked into a dry powder, causing it to transition from fire retardant to fire accelerant. Even in wet conditions birch is a good fire starter, and of course evergreens ooze with the same resins that made the heavily varnished hotels so combustible. All that was needed for a true calamity was a good wind—which arrived right on schedule, whipping up from the south toward the Ausable Club.
Fighting wildfires in near vertical terrain has its obvious challenges, Lesser said. Dozers and heavy equipment are useless, so firefighters, scores of them, clawed their way by hand through the duff to the bedrock as sawyers felled trees creating an alleyway that would hopefully deprive the fire of fuel.
Ranger Scott van Laer, union director for the Forest Ranger local of the Police Benevolent Association of New York, said he had just been transferred to the Adirondacks in 1999, and his first day on the job was fighting the Noonmark fire.
Van Laer said he arrived just after the “blow up.” Typical Adirondack fires burn from the ground up, but when the wind and fire hit a forest of highly combustible white birch, the inferno began jumping from tree to tree, much like the devastating crown fires in the West.
As the wind swept the fire down the valley, “the white birch just lit up like a torch,” Goodwin said. Flames leapt 200 feet in the air, an astounding occurrence in an Adirondack forest. Firefighters were ordered off the mountain, van Laer said, not in a panic, but with enough haste that some of the tools were left to burn.
What the onlookers at the Ausable Club were watching was a fire that was so intense it was actually burning the topsoil and everything in it. Blackened tree roots still litter the site that is dominated by rock and gravel. The pin cherry seed never germinated, because it was incinerated along with everything else. Nor is there much ground left where an evergreen could establish a toehold.
The heat was the product of a tremendous amount of fuel. Van Laer, who led a crew of Moriah Shock prison inmates cutting a fire line to the south, said the duff was in places two feet thick, and had to be dynamited by Gary Hodgson, a legend in Adirondack ranger circles.
The blaze left an impression on all its witnesses. At the height of the fire, Katie Britton of Ottawa was 11 years and, notably, was standing on top of Noonmark with her family. “I’d never seen a forest fire before,” she said, as she was preparing to hike over the burn site on her way to Dial and Nippletop. “I remember looking down on it and seeing some flames, but mostly smoke.”
Even at a young age, she knew the resort was in trouble. “It looked for all the world that it was coming right down to the Ausable Club,” she said. “The wind seemed to be blowing it right at them.”
By this time, the tropical disturbance in the Atlantic had intensified and was bearing down on the Bahamas. And the tropical depression was about to be known forevermore as Hurricane Floyd. No storm will ever have that name again. Such was Floyd’s destruction, its moniker was retired by the World Meteorological Organization.
It drenched North Carolina and the Mid-Atlantic before churning straight up the Hudson toward the Adirondacks, where the Noonmark fire still burned. A last-minute shift in the winds had saved the Ausable Club, but without rain more forest would be lost.
Hurricane Floyd brought that rain and more. It officially extinguished the Noonmark fire, but ironically enough, its winds did more damage than the flames. Great swaths of the forest were blown down, trails were buried in tangles of limbs, and the popular route to Avalanche Lake was buried by a catastrophic slide.
But the fire was history. Today the burn site is easy to make out. From a distance it appears as a field of light, minty green aspen leaves standing in stark contrast to the darker hemlock and spruce. The trail to Bear Den still exhibits the scars—stumps, charred limbs and broken rock. Twenty years after the burn, Lesser said that nature is still in the beginning phases of sorting itself out, but with different species than in 1903. “It makes me wonder about the future of this site,” Lesser said.
It may also be a harbinger of a changing climate. “If we see a warmer, drier climate, we’re going to see more fires,” Adams said. “There’s a lot of fuel in the Adirondacks, so the potential is there. If there’s less snowpack, that biomass will dry out.”
But little is known for certain and much is open to chance, like the wind that came from somewhere carrying aspen seed. “The only thing constant in the ecology,” Adams said, “is change.” ν