Ancient Oak Trail leads to escape from the crowds
By Mike Lynch
As I pored over my maps, leafed through guidebooks and searched websites online, the task felt a bit daunting.
I was trying to find somewhere to hike in the Adirondacks that was worth visiting and wasn’t overrun, the way most trails are on weekends in the High Peaks and many of the trails now promoted through hiking challenges.
It seemed like we had written about every single trail in the northern Adirondacks in recent years, and so had others.
Finally, in a last-ditch attempt to find a destination, I came across a trail that sounded interesting, and likely not too popular, at least compared to tourist hot spots like Lake Placid and Lake George.
It was called the Ancient Oak Trail.
Located right off a main road along Lake Champlain in Essex, the trail offered no summit views, no waterfalls, no obvious attractions for the average hiker.
Just an old tree.
I figured on a Monday in April, I’d have the place to myself, and I doubted it would get too busy in the summer.
What I also liked about the trail was that it’s located in the Champlain Valley, a place I had grown fond of in recent years because of its farming culture and numerous hiking trails that are part of Champlain Area Trails, a nonprofit that develops and promotes hikes.
As I drove toward Essex, I thought about how in the past year I had explored the Boquet River to photograph spawning salmon, hiked Poke-O-Moonshine to catch a sunrise and later watched alpenglow light up the Green Mountains over Lake Champlain from North Boquet Mountain. I had skied farmlands and walked alongside a frozen river.
In recent times, this area had given me inspiration, the way exploring redwood and sequoia forests on the West Coast had done when I was younger.
But the valley had provided more than just a place to explore. It had provided me with sustenance.
A large portion of my diet was now coming from its farms and fields. I pretty much now only eat locally raised meat and vegetables, and my bread comes from a little bakery set in a farmhouse near that frozen river I visited mid-winter.
It felt right to be headed back there once again after a year of dealing with the pandemic.
Before long, I was pulling into the empty parking area that only had room for two or three cars. I got out of my vehicle and threw my daypack on. I wouldn’t need much for this 2.5-mile hike, but I pretty much bring my 10 essentials, extra coat, and water everywhere in the spring. Even, as in this case, if I was just walking through someone’s backyard.
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As I entered the woods, I stopped and signed the register and walked down the trail in the wide-open hardwood forest. Oak leaves covered the forest floor.
Within a few minutes, the trail popped out into a field, along some wetlands on the left. To the right were a few buildings. Later I was told by CATS director Chris Maron that one of the structures had been used to raise turkeys by a previous landowner and the other is now used for bird-watching.
The grasslands attract breeding birds in the spring, including bobolink and Savannah sparrow. Other birds visit the wetlands.
But I was more focused on finding the tree, so I didn’t spend much time looking for the feathered creatures. Still, I did see and hear a red-winged blackbird along the edge of the wetlands.
Before long, I re-entered the woods and came across a tree with a wide trunk and tangled branches reaching toward the sky.
This was it: the ancient oak.
The trunk was wide enough that I couldn’t get my arms around half of it. The bark had large ridges, or grooves, that ran up and down it. Moss covered the section above the roots. A severed rope dangled from one of the branches.
Standing there, I decided to treat this tree as one normally would a summit. I would hang out and enjoy the view it offered. I walked in circles around it, got up close and looked toward the sky through its branches.
I listened to wind blowing through the trees. Even though I was fairly close to a road, there was little to no traffic.
On the ground next to me was an old stone wall, perhaps when the land had been farmed years ago. Maron told me that the area had once been popular among sheep farmers, who raised them for wool. Apple orchards were common, too, with farmers harvesting the fruit for wine and not food. He speculated the oaks dated back to this time and was perhaps 200 years old.
Standing there next to this old tree, I once again felt inspired. I wasn’t on top of Mount Marcy or Poke-O-Moonshine or Hurricane Mountain, but somehow this experience was just as rewarding—perhaps more so. The isolation was good. The tree had character. It had persevered.
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After about 15 or 20 minutes, I felt recharged from the experience and decided to continue into the woods. I walked down the trail beneath some tall pines and hardwoods to a place where the trail forked. I headed left and soon found more old oaks scattered in the woods, though none seemed as old as the first one I saw.
This time, I continued walking past the old trees, enjoying the quiet surroundings, including some mossy rock outcroppings.
It felt great to have this place to myself, although I knew part of that was due to the time of the year when tourism is down. Maron said there is often a vehicle or two in the parking area during the summer.
This peace and quiet is what many people have been seeking when they have visited the Adirondacks for the past year to escape more populated areas.
I encourage you to seek out a similar experience. Study maps, search the web, and try to find someplace new. It doesn’t have to be too far off the beaten path. But avoid the main routes.
Look for old trees or glacial erratics, or whatever strikes you. Move slowly through the forest with your eyes and mind open, instead of racing toward the summit.
And if you do happen to visit the Ancient Oak Trail, make sure to grab a CATS map ahead of time. If the lot is full when you arrive, there are several similarly interesting hikes within a few miles of it, including some along the Boquet River in Willsboro.
MORE TO EXPLORE
A list of “routes less traveled” from around the Adirondack region
I envy your time spent with the old oak. Although 200 years old isn’t particularly “ancient” for an oak, it is certainly a survivor in it’s prime of life. It is what many of us would consider “mother tree”. In Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life Of Trees”, he discusses the intricacies and misconceptions about forests.
One of the takeaway ideas of the book is that a healthy forest is not a collection of trees all struggling and competing to be come top dog, but rather a coalition of trees of all ages, along with unnoticed but vast mycorrhizal network (“wood-wide web”), all working together to keep the forest healthy and resilient. These “mother” trees actually help nourish and defend younger trees, slowing their above-ground growth and extending their youth almost indefinitely. They are in-waiting, not competing against the mother tree. This enables them to grow very dense tree rings making them exceptionally strong for their apparent age. They help send nutrients they cannot use to the mother tree – and the mother tree responds in kind (via the wood-wide web) when drought, fire, disease or other stresses threaten the forest or an individual tree. It is in the forest’s best interest to keep all of its inhabitants healthy.
Thus, in a mature forest, the average age of the trees approaches their possible age limits in contrast to a re-forested tract where the trees have grown QUICKLY (with wide growth rings) but are not as strong, resilient, or healthy because they do not have the associated sub-surface networks to support them and their weaker trunks.
When these mother trees eventually succumb to old age, they topple – opening up the canopy for the trees that may have been in-waiting for a century or more. Now they put on their growth spurt – supported by their strong trunks – and become a mother tree themselves an another century or two, supported nutritionally by the previous mother tree as it decomposes above and below ground.
Humans have difficulty understanding forests because the lifespans are on dramatically different scales. They also do not understand the vast extent and intricacy of a forest community. They literally cannot see the forest for the trees. Spending time sitting under a mother tree for a day can reveal a great deal to anyone with an open mind. Watching the numerous animals that frequent the area under the canopy, what plants surround it, and imagining the enormous wood-wide web and its processes taking place under their seat.
Boreas, I bet you would really like the 2019 novel “The Overstory” – the author cites “The Hidden Life of Trees” as one of many inspirations for the novel.
As a librarian and a frequent reader, I cannot stop raving about “The Overstory,” seriously, it’s that good. Check it out if you get a chance 🙂
I will try to remember that one. Is it fiction??
A more general comment: this was a beautifully written article, many kudos to Mike. What is also complex is that by writing about a place, you inevitably popularize it and drive usage there. I maintain the perhaps unpopular opinion that this isn’t universally bad either, or even usually bad. People just like to hike with a destination or particular goal or site to see. People also like to wander freely through the woods, but sometimes doing so off trail can lead to a whole new set of problems for the inexperienced.
I wish we didn’t look down on the newer hikers who are probably gonna go on popular trails or go on a trail they read about in a magazine. To be clear – I don’t think this article is doing that! – but in our discussions on how to handle overuse, imo sometimes there is blatant discouragement of any use, which is a bummer.
Mike Lynch says
Thanks for the feedback. I’ll have to read both of the books mentioned here. I already had The Overstory on my list. Good to know about The Hidden Life of Trees.