Adirondacks Carefree: Trial by Mountain Trail

The mountains are calling and I must go. – John Muir

It wasn’t all leisurely repose during our Adirondack retreat. There was serious mountain climbing to do. As close as we were to the High Peaks of the Adirondacks region, we couldn’t skip doing a little peak bagging of our own. But which peak?

There are 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks, all 4000’ high or more. Many of the trails to reach their summits were too long and steep for us to tackle in a moderate day hike. Something in the 3-4 mile range was more our speed. I’d acquired a book called “Best Easy Day Hikes in the Adirondacks.”  From that we chose a hike to Balanced Rock on Pitchoff Mountain. 2.5 miles, 775’ elevation gain, with a neat rock formation on an exposed bedrock ridge as the payoff. The guidebook described it as the “perfect first hike for kids…” What could go wrong?

Much of the land in Adirondack Park is designated as wilderness. No powered vehicles are allowed. Pitchoff Mountain, in the Sentinel Range Wilderness Area, would be our first foray into the wilderness. The wilderness areas may be lacking in cars, but that’s because they’re all jammed into trailhead pullouts. Our trailhead was on Route 73, across from Cascade Mountain and upper and Lower Cascade Lakes. We parked precariously along the side of the road, climbed a short steep set of steps, and plunged into the deep, shady woods.

If you’re not the lead horse, the view never changes. Don and Robb walking up the hill. The trail started right off with a good stiff incline, and already I was wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into.

After a bit, the trail leveled out, and became a nice walk in the woods. Birches and hemlocks predominated, amongst other trees. The forest floor was peppered with mushrooms.

This is an amanita mushroom, beautiful, but hallucinogenic and poisonous. I’m sure that doesn’t bother the tiny wood sprites that must shelter from the rain under Mother Nature’s umbrellas.

Lycopodiums were everywhere. Sometimes called ground pines, these tiny plants look like little Christmas trees, but they’re actually a club moss. We’re quite fond of them, and get excited every time we find them in a new place.

There were so many Lycopodiums that our excitement wore off after a thousand or so.

Another surprise was finding trilliums, some just past bloom. In our neck of the woods, trilliums are spring ephemeral wildflowers that bloom in late April and early May, after which time the foliage withers and dies away. Seeing them still in leaf in early July was a treat. A few still had old flowers.

We passed some rocks on the side of the trail that led to a nice view. Back in the dark depths of the forest, rocks became more numerous and prominent. We really like to scramble over boulders and slabs, so we didn’t mind. Pitched up at a 45° angle, this terraced outcropping offered a fun trail bed.

Another rock outcropping…

…another view. This is Cascade Mountain. With its sheer cliff faces, it’s a favorite place for rock climbers. Cascade Lake lies far below.

Then the trouble started. It had been an easy walk this far. Until we found ourselves confronted by this, which I later dubbed “The Fractured Staircase.” Perhaps 30’ high, with no way around it. To the right is steep rock face, to the left an impenetrable thicket. No way to go but straight up the middle.

Not a problem for Robb, who’s part billy goat. The first step gave me fits. It was so tall I had to put my knee on it and pull myself up. The rest of the climb was accomplished carefully with hands, knees and feet. I felt a deep sense of accomplishment upon reaching the top.

I also felt out of breath, and would have welcomed a brief rest. But we quickly moved on to the next rocky challenge, and the next. In between the rocky spots, the path grew wet and mucky. These sections had to be negotiated as carefully as the rocks; get too much mud on your boots, and you’d slip dangerously scrambling over boulders.

Along the trail, I heard a rustling in the brush to my left. I looked down just in time to spot a large snake, with strongly contrasting light and dark patches. Before I could react, it slithered out of view. I like to imagine it was a timber rattlesnake, though I never did identify it.

The rock scrambles grew tougher and steeper. We began to wonder what kind of parent would consider this a “kid-friendly” hike. If I had trouble with some of these tall rocks, how could kids with short little legs manage?

Hopes began to rise when the trail dipped a little – right into a bog. We had to pick our way along fallen logs and stones to avoid getting wet boot soles.

On the other side, we saw something that stopped us dead in our tracks. The mountainside didn’t go straight up, but it was darn close. Rock surfaces and boulders everywhere we looked. Oh, dear.

(Full disclosure: This is a composite image of two photos that were never meant to be combined. It looks a little odd, but still gives a sense of the size of the rocky hillside.)

We like rocks, but this was ridiculous. It appeared that the trail to Balanced Rock went straight up the rock face. Kid-friendly?

Robb’s a big kid, and he bounded up a few feet to pose valiantly for the camera. Taking pictures gave me a chance to catch my breath for a minute.

There was plenty to photograph looking the other direction. Cascade Mountain. Those cliffs were even steeper than what we were facing.

Down the face of Cascade streams a slender waterfall, plunging hundreds of feet into Cascade Lake.

This was the waterfall that distracted me so driving past that first night.

The top of Cascade is wide open bedrock. Topped by peak baggers.

Wide open bedrock is what we’d climbed all this way to see – the open rock and boulder formations at Balanced Rock, covered with wildflowers, lichens and blueberries. The view of the summit of Pitchoff Mountain itself beyond Balanced Rock, and the surrounding High Peaks, is said to be amazing.

But now we were faced with an obstacle too much for Don and I to surmount. We’d been hiking long enough to get tired, though we’d not gone more than a mile. I might have been able to continue after a break, but I knew we’d have to come back down that same rock face. For us, this was the point of no return.

Back down the mountain we went.

Never let it be said going down a mountain is easy. It’s not; at times I find it more difficult than going up. I was relieved when we came to the Fractured Staircase, knowing it was the last of the truly challenging bits.

This is looking down from the top. Kid-friendly? I don’t know about that, but I took my cue from the younger set – and slid down on the seat of my pants. That’s a favorite technique of mine when confronted with a steep hillside. I figure it’s a lot farther to fall from a standing position than a sitting one.

I was deeply disappointed to fall short of our goal. Even more, I feel we missed something spectacular at Balanced Rock. But with time, I’ve come to see it not as a big challenge I failed, but a series of smaller challenges I met and actually enjoyed.  Don’s always saying it’s about the journey, not the destination. This time, the mountain and the forest were destination enough.

It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves. – Sir Edmund Hillary

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Adirondacks Carefree: Easy Living

Make your heart like a lake, with a calm, still surface, and great depths of kindness.   – Lao Tzu

Mountains are hard, stony, unforgiving. Nothing comes easily on a mountain. Gentle paths are soon strewn with rocks, small boulders must be climbed, and always the trail goes up, up, up. Until it goes down, and usually that’s worse. No question, mountains are hard work.

This summer, my friends and I answered the call of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Forty-six peaks over 4000’. Lots of hiking and climbing and days filled with vigorous activity beckoned.

But…

This year’s destination came with a bonus – a lake.

Lakes are soft, fluid, soothing. Doing nothing comes very easily on a lake. You want to linger, trail your fingers through the cool water, listen to the cry of the loons, soak up the sunset. The living is easy on a lake.

This was a BIG lake. Our rental house perched on the shores of Upper Saranac Lake. With 37 miles of shoreline, that’s a lot of lake. The heck with peak-bagging! We were looking forward to relaxing by the water. It would be restful. Restorative. Carefree.

Adirondack Park is a long drive from Philadelphia, north through three mountain ranges. Our own Poconos, the Catskills, and finally the Adirondacks. The High Peaks rose around us, cascading long ribbons of waterfalls into narrow lakes, thoroughly distracting the driver.

Concentration returned on the three miles of twisting dirt road that led to our home away from home deep in the woods. Ahhh!

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.   – John Burroughs

Early mornings on the dock were a joy. With cameras and journal, I settled myself there after breakfast each day, to write and immerse myself in the peace.

One morning dawned draped in mist.

A Common Merganser swam into view. With her were five fluffy ducklings. Two got a ride on mama’s back, dozing sleepily, carefree. The others paddled along in her wake. I watched as the lovely little family passed in front of me and disappeared into the distance. I wondered where they were going? Maybe Mom knew a good diner for breakfast?

The Merganser story took a turn two mornings later, after a nighttime thunderstorm with winds and heavy rains.  Now Mama Merganser returned – with just one duckling in tow.

I told myself that the time had come for the other ducklings to be out on their own, or perhaps this was a different family altogether. But in my heart, I know that’s not so. Not all the young ones of any species survive their youth.

But this young duckling was handsome and strong, and wonderful to watch.

Above the water’s surface, the mayflies danced, carefree.

If there’s water, there must be kayaking… I’d dreamed for months about long solo paddles in the early morning or evening, sneaking up on loons, perhaps even catching a moose as it drank at the edge of the water. One look at the dock crushed that dream. I’ve yet to master the art of dockside kayak launches. Even with three of us, it’s a challenge. Alone? No, that wasn’t going to happen.

However, my friends agreed to try the two kayaks out with me one still morning.

Don first…

And then, reluctantly, Robb. These kayaks were much narrower and longer than the boat he’s used to, and it took quite a while before he got the confidence to paddle more than two strokes at a time.

Once he got the hang of it, though, he was the king of the lake.

We weren’t out long, but it gave me the chance to get that obligatory view-from-the-kayak shot.

Peeking around the point as Don paddles back to our dock.

Bird feeders in the back yard drew lots of feathered friends. Some were birds we don’t get to see often. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Black-capped Chickadees (we get Carolina Chickadees) and lots of Purple Finches. Ruby-throated hummingbirds visited.

Underneath the feeders, though? That was the domain of the red squirrels.

The time was rare when there was no squirrel under the feeders. Not much bigger than a chipmunk, red squirrels are much smaller than our common gray squirrels. These jaunty little fellows have a white ring around their eyes and a black stripe along the side of their bellies.  We never grew tired of watching their antics.

Did someone mention chipmunks? Yes, they visited from time to time, too. Tiny but fierce battles broke out between the two tribes when a chipmunk and a squirrel both wanted the prime real estate. Surprisingly, these war games usually ended with the squirrel fleeing the chipmunk.

Each day ended lakeside on the dock, awaiting the sunset. Occasionally a highly polished classic wooden boat would motor by. A classic Adirondack sight.

We looked for the Milky Way one evening. We didn’t see it. Perhaps it was not yet dark enough. Still, there were an amazing number of stars. I can only imagine the sky in the middle of the night, when we were lost in our dreams, in our lakeside reverie.

Oh! For the lazy lakeside living! We could have happily passed the days by the water’s edge, relaxed and carefree.

But…

The mountains are calling and I must go.   – John Muir

On the Shores of the Inland Sea

Summer morning, Lake Michigan. The path to adventure beckons! Come, spend a day with me. Let us see what treasures we find along the shores of the inland sea.

Silky soft sand gives way to an endless ribbon of pebbles.

Like snowflakes, no two pebbles are alike. Each glistening gem shines in its own unique light.

Patches of wildflowers flourish in the dune meadows.

In the marsh at the foot of the breakwater, a Great Blue Heron stalks his prey.

Ahhh – lunch!

In these parts, the forests march clear to the edge of the water. Fallen timber abounds, exposed to the wind, waves and sun, weathering into marvelous driftwood tableaus.

What have we here? Critter tracks run like zippers up and down the sand. Tiny tracks mean tiny critters. It’s likely this was made by a bug.

Along the path, grasses dance in the breezes that sweep over the dunes.

Afternoon lengthens into lingering evening. Cocktail hour for bees! For tonight’s drink, we offer the nectar of Russian sage.

The glassy calm waters of the big lake entice the paddler to sea with the offer of a golden sunset.

In the glow of the evening, a sailboat awaits tomorrow’s adventures.

The sun sets on Lake Michigan, an enchanting finish to a delightful summer day spent on the shores of the inland sea.

Lost and Found

Lose yourself in Nature and find peace.   – Ralph Waldo Emerson

In a few hours along the lake shores of Western Michigan, one loses sight of many things – and finds so much more.

LOST: Traffic.

FOUND: Freedom.

LOST: Pavement.

FOUND: Softness.

LOST: Smog.

FOUND: Clarity.

LOST: Noise.

FOUND: Tranquility.

LOST: Trash.

FOUND: Beauty.

LOST: Deadlines.

FOUND: Constancy.

LOST: Budgets.

FOUND: Treasure.

LOST: Self-doubt.

FOUND: Tenacity.

LOST: Narrow-mindedness.

FOUND: Perspective.

LOST: Stress.

FOUND: Imagination.

LOST: Anger.

FOUND: Serenity.

The Tinicum Tattler

Hello, my darlings! C’est moi, Madame Catbird, gossip maven extraordinaire! I’ve got all the latest celebrity dish from John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge for you, right here on KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio.

It’s the season for love, and all that results from love, and don’t I have the juiciest tidbits for you today!

Everyone, simply everyone, is talking about the handsome young Prothonotary Warbler laying it all out for romance in the impoundment. He’s doing everything right, dearies! He’s found the most-coveted property in town, and decorated with the best moss.

Look at him singing his blessed little heart out.

It’s not all about home decor and show tunes, though, and he isn’t afraid to show his masculine side! He’s carried on a relentless aerial battle with the local tree swallow families in the vain hope of having the tony neighborhood of Horseshoe Cove to himself.

The paparazzi have been camped on the doorstep of our golden boy for weeks. Who will be first to get that money shot of the lucky Mrs. Prothonotary? Only time will tell… but time is running out if Mr. P. hopes to hear the patter of tiny feet in his waterfront mansion this summer!

Guess who else was caught on film this week, my lovelies? Yes, those reclusive songsters, the Marsh Wrens.  We are frequently graced with their operatic voices, but not their feathered fabulousness. They much prefer the quiet life at home in their posh upscale development, The Reeds.

Not so now. The Wrens are busy, busy, busy, plucking bugs from the spatterdock and carrying them off to The Reeds. Why, could it be? Do they have a bun in the oven – or chicks in the nest? Madame Catbird thinks so!

Surprising to hear that the Least Bitterns have been out and about in public recently. They are notoriously camera-shy, don’t you know, dearies.

They’ve taken the art of dodging the flashbulbs to new lengths.

“You can’t see me,” says our plumed contortionist.

“You can’t see me!”

“Can you?”

Let’s leave them their little illusions, shall we?

Rumor has it the Least Bitterns are also raising a family in the oh-so-exclusive conclave of The Reeds.

Madame hears that a few very lucky fans have caught glimpses of the bouncing baby Bitterns!

There’s a new star in town, my darlings, and he’s got the Missus and the little ones in tow. It’s been many a year since the Common Gallinules saw fit to raise a family in our neck of the woods. Why, back then they were known as the Common Moorhens, mere hoi polloi.

Yet, here they are now, with a distinguished new name, mingling with the beautiful people. Perhaps there’s a little scandal lurking in the Gallinules’ family tree, no?

Clearly Mr. Gallinule now has exacting standards, and this elite community has met them. He’s made sure to show off his lovely mate and their four fabulous offspring frequently, parading them past the persistent paparazzi at every opportunity.

Ah, a little escargot for the little cherub. Parents may crave the spotlight, but the little ones are little ones, after all, and their needs must be met.

Mother and father alike see to it that the youngsters experience only the finest haute cuisine. Aren’t they just adorably ungainly at this age?

Madame Catbird has many, many more delicious morsels to dish about. You say you must have more celebrity goodies? Now, now! Patience, darlings! Moderation in all things, don’t you know?

Do tune in next time to find out just who has all the bees abuzz, won’t you? Madame Catbird awaits! Until we meet again, on KRTR 99.9 FM, Critter Radio.

Au revoir!

Extraordinary Birds, Bayshore Edition

In search of avian wonders out of the ordinary, we turn now to the sparkling shores of the Delaware Bay. A large expanse of sandy beaches and saltwater marshes along the New Jersey side of the bay attracts many feathered marvels.

I went to the Bayshore one sunny May day to see migrating shorebirds. I’m easily distracted. A side trip to Cape May Point State Park occupied most of my morning.

You’d be distracted, too, by the Glossy Ibis I found at the edge of a pond. His deep burgundy plumage shimmered in the sun as he stalked, slow and stately, along the shore.

Everything about an ibis is long: long legs, long neck, long bill. All the better to eat with, my dear!

Distracted again, this time at Heislerville WMA. Bald Eagles, once endangered, are now common in some areas of the region. But an eagle posing on the roof of a nearby house? Extraordinary!

Alongside the road, a gravel, shell and grass area serves as a parking lot for visitors. It also serves as a nesting area for the local Killdeer population. We didn’t see this little mother when we pulled in; three feet to the right would have been disastrous.

The Killdeer was incubating eggs right there in the parking area. She was none too happy about our near-miss and our presence, so I took my photos quickly and left her in peace.

Wait, that’s not a bird! Did I mention I’m easily distracted? Clouded Sulphur.

Well, finally! Distraction-free at Reeds Beach.  There was no shortage of shorebirds.

And gulls. Laughing Gulls are quite common in my neck of the woods. The sheer numbers of them clustered at the water’s edge was extraordinary. Extraordinarily noisy, too.

And comical. Heads down to feed, the gulls resembled a tail-feathered basket-weave fence. One poor guy in the middle had a complaint.

“Hey! Quit stepping on my toes!”

Ruddy Turnstones were dramatic in russet, brown and black plumage.

The stars of the show were the Red Knots. This little shorebird travels immense distances every year from wintering grounds at the tip of South America, to breed in the far north. Along the way, having lost much of its body weight to the rigors of flight, it joins other long-distance migrants at the Delaware Bay, to feast upon the fat-laden eggs of the horseshoe crab.

Horseshoe crabs come ashore to lay their eggs at the same time the shorebirds arrive. Unlike this unfortunate crab, most remain right side up and survive to breed another year. Their numbers are dwindling though, due to sustained over-harvesting. Bad news for the shore birds, especially the Red Knots.

Hey, wait! Was it something I said? Come back!

And back they come, in a big hurry to get to those eggs.

There is concern for a number of shorebird species, but the Red Knot population is in the worst shape. In an attempt to protect and conserve these birds, scientists have been tracking their numbers and movements. Spotters were posted at Reeds Beach, recording band colors and numbers. Only time will tell if conservation efforts succeed or fail.

This Red Knot has been captured, weighed and released, and wears some distinctive jewelry to commemorate the experience. Green is the color used for birds in the United States. I saw orange bands as well. Those birds were banded in Argentina!

From Argentina to New Jersey, and on to the far north, shorebirds undertake extraordinarily long journeys, twice, every year. The horseshoe crabs along Delaware Bayshore provide the fuel they need to keep going. Its sandy shores are the perfect places to savor the wonder of these extraordinary birds.

Extraordinary Birds, Woodland Edition

Extraordinary (adjective): 1. beyond what is usual, ordinary, regular, or established. 2. exceptional in character, amount, extent, degree, etc.; noteworthy; remarkable. SYNONYMS: uncommon, singular, rare, phenomenal, special. (Dictionary.com)

If the commonplace birds that frequent our everyday world are “ordinary”, then “extraordinary” birds must be those that are unusual or rare visitors in our lives.

What’s ho-hum to one birder might be remarkable to another, however. Here are a few of the extraordinary birds I saw in the woods this spring, each one more special than the last.

I see Yellow-rumped Warblers like the one above all the time. Common, yes, but far from ordinary.  Because there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. Yellow-rumps in breeding plumage are quite striking.

Yellow Warblers are also at Heinz NWR in large numbers in the spring. They’re plain, but very bright. And they are always cheerfully singing their little heads off.

In the Pine Barrens, a Prairie Warbler spent a long time perched  at the top of a pitch pine in the sun.

Then he started caroling. Prairie Warblers are more frequently heard than seen, for me at least.

Back at Heinz, an Eastern Kingbird at the water’s edge.

I see Baltimore Orioles from time to time in the spring. If one oriole is good, two must be better!

Spring migration brought the warbler hit parade to Heinz. Magnolia Warbler.

I don’t see Black-throated Green Warblers too often, and had never photographed one before. Catching this one was tough. It hung around for a long time, but like most warblers, it never stayed in one place, and was always just a little too far away.

Canada Warbler. Another bird new to my photo collection, though not my life list.

I can’t show you my favorite warbler of the spring. There was a brilliant Blackburnian Warbler in a treetop at Heinz. I’ve only caught brief glimpses of Blackburnians in Michigan. This time I got a good look at the bird, but you’ll have to take my word for it. He didn’t come close enough for a portrait.

Rarer still was this bright confection in Higbee Beach WMA in New Jersey. It’s a Yellow-breasted Chat, only the second one I’ve ever seen. I was shooting here from a tall observation platform at treetop level, the perfect perch from which to watch this warbler sing and dance.

Walking along the path at Cape May Point State Park, I spotted a flash of bright blue. Bluebird? Blue Jay? Tree Swallow?

Nope!

At the edge of the woods, a Blue Grosbeak was feeding on grass seeds. I’ve never seen one before. That makes this a life bird, the first one of its species I’d ever spotted.

Warblers to orioles, kingbirds to grosbeaks, there’s no such thing as an ordinary bird. They’re all special in their own way.

How extraordinary!