Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Shift in Perspective Over the ADK

I love the North Woods, whether they be in Ontario, Quebec, Vermont, Maine, Wisconsin, or as I found them on my recent visit to the Old Forge area of the Adirondacks in Upstate New York. I had only a few days to visit (before my dissertation proposal defense later in the week in New Hampshire) and it was just enough to settle my nerves and restore my spirit. I treated myself to a float plane ride over the area I had just paddled and hiked to gain a high-up perspective of places I'd known only from eye-level.

A moose bog at the north end of Safford Pond at 1500' from a Cesna 185. This view offered me a look deep into restored moose country. These big semi-aquatic animals have reintroduced themselves to the ADK over the past three decades and are now growing a healthy regional population. Despite the efforts of conservation biologists with the Fish and Game Department of Environment to bring this animal back with relocated individuals from Maine and New Hampshire (these attempts all failed), the moose has wandered in on its  own and done quite well. I saw established feeding trails in through the marsh to the aquatic grass beds and lily pad patches, a moose favorite.

 75 year-old white pines at Nicks Lake State Park Campground.

Big trees were the prize for loggers who timbered this landscape for over fifty years.  The ADK is a massive park where commercial logging is still carried out, usually out of sight of campers and other visitors. This practice is an option once again only a after a period of restraint and recovery that the area required to regrow the pulp and lumber woods. Now rather than 'skinning' the mountains of their woods, scientific and conservation lumbering is the plan.

Fulton Chain of Lakes below, and the distant shapes of the High Peaks to the East.

Looking down from the plane, my pilot Ron described what the landscape would have looked like in Teddy Roosevelt's time, 'scalped' and left as scrub and dog-hair woods. "It wasn't much of a wilderness before the conservationists and lumber companies decided to work together." He described the constant threat of fire. Escaped campfires, lightening strikes, sparks from the metal wheels of passing train, were all sources of forest fires, some of them historic. Fire spotters were on duty from ice-out to first snows in towers, some of which remain on the mountains.

Ron is a third generation pilot for Payne's Seaplane Service just north of the town of Inlet.

Missing completely from my view were the open patches of farms that once dotted the hills below. These were farms that supported the lumber camps and local communities. Soil erosion was an almost immediate result of intense logging. Once farmers moved in and began to till and graze the exposed landscape, compaction, gullying, and erosion compounded an already serious situation. FDR, as governor of New York, made soil conservation in this region a priority. As the problem was recognized as a state-wide affliction, his large-scale policy efforts set the stage for his presidential run against Hoover, who thought that soil erosion should be handled by counties and states, not the federal government. The rest is history. One farmer's journal (at the Adirondack Museum) notes that the biggest crop he got the last three years he farmed these mountains was "boulders, cobbles, and bedrock."

A 1930s dairy farm above Blue Mountain Lake, where erosion was especially bad. ADK Museum Collection.

Ron pointed out that some of the rivers of the ADK during the 1920s and 30s carried enormous silt loads and that many of the boggy meadows below us were built upon mudbanks  and outwash plains of eroded soils from the hills above. Looking down on the Moose River, where I'd paddled the day before, I couldn't imagine the water running with mud. Today these waters are crystal clear and full of life.

More recent landscape history is of course nested within the history of thousands of years of glacial process on the land. Until 10,000 years ago the ADK was covered a mile deep in ice. The glaciers that once ground their way through these mountains plucked boulders and dropped them miles away, sliced open fjords in their retreat, and left sinuous eskers snaking across valleys as low hills. 

Boulders transported by glaciers, plucked from mountain tops a hundred miles away.

I compared my views from the plane to observations on the ground. The mossy look of the forests at 1500' resembled the blankets of green that drape glacial boulders and covers logs. A macro-look at a mossy mat looks like the a miniature version of the evergreen cloak of the ADK. Mosses developed to carry their aquatic environment with them as algae evolved to live on land. These plants were in fact the forerunners of trees and so the comparison is a fair one across scales. The moist mats of moss contain a variety of lifeforms including the very cute microscopic water bear. Spring peepers lay their eggs in the mats close to water where tiny tadpoles will swim amongst the protective cover of moss until develop limbs to carry them inland to the forests.

Moss architecture includes the male antheridia, loaded with sperm ready to launch! 

A day spent on hiking and in my canoe followed by the next morning flying over the same area revealed to me not only patterns of similarity, fractal-like and elegant, but patterns of growth, restoration, and maturity. The Moose River, a beautiful backcountry experience by canoe or kayak, from above presented a much richer picture of human use and conservation policy from the air. Recently cut-over patches of forest were quickly regenerating. Old railroad beds were now backpacking and cycling trails. Class IV roads sliced openings through vast tracts of mature forest that provided access to cottagers and loggers. The imprint of human activity appeared controlled and carefully managed from my high vantage point. My paddling experience seemed wild and untouched by human hands. The shift in perspective was both beautiful and instructive.

The Moose River meanders through its valley.

I hope to try this dual perspective experience again, maybe over the Pine Barrens or the wild shores of Chincoteague.  In any case, I love small planes and dimension of wandering by air over diverse landscapes. Thanks to Ron Payne for "I can get you there' attitude. I will definitely be flying with him again!

An ADK naturalist and pilot, Ron Payne of Payne's Seaplane Service, Inlet, NY.

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