By Elizabeth Folwell
At a trailhead between Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake there was a pair of boots in a tree. Not just ordinary boots but a river driver’s caulked boots, tough leather with strong cleats in the soles. My guess is that the logger hiked out from running the Rock River and when he got to the road he tied his laces together and slung the boots over a limb. He likely intended to use them the next spring but for whatever reason his footgear stayed there, growing higher above the ground and eventually nearly encrusted in bark. If you were to search now, I doubt you’d find these; the tree—a maple, I think—may be gone or the boots so completely disguised by wood you’d have to cut open that branch to see them.
I think about being on this river drive, starting at the 34 Flow, now Lake Durant. A hundred years ago that waterway was muddy ponds buttressed by a dam that could be opened in spring to flush spruce and pine downstream. In winter logs were piled on shore, then pushed onto the frozen lake. Ring Rock was the landmark, which, as you’d guess, is a rock face above the water with an iron ring in it. (The ring is still there, just off the Rock Pond trail.) A corral of sorts was made from logs chained together, then piles of logs gathered inside it. A series of dams were opened, the logs freed to tumble downstream, on the Rock River, then Cedar River, to the Hudson, ending up at the Big Boom in Glens Falls. This sequence was repeated on numerous rivers: the Raquette, St. Regis, Black, Schroon, and Sacandaga, all designated as public highways in the early 19th century and used that way until the 1950s.
For several weeks, the scope of that logger’s life was defined by water and wood. The scale of his life was watersheds, towns along streams that supplied what a family may need, farms that grew much that man or beast may want, forests of mixed northern hardwoods and conifers that supplied lumber, wood pulp, firewood, hemlock bark for tanning. But that scale was changing, with roads, cars, trucks, telephones, and devices that made possible connections beyond what a man or woman could cover in a day on foot, horseback, or boat. What may have seemed like a cozy island to him was changing.
At the time of the river drives the Adirondack Park existed, founded in 1892. Back then, the Blue Line, the park’s boundary, encircled more than two million acres, a collection of mountains, valleys, streams, lakes, and ponds, a vast variety of terrain and habitats. Now the park is more than six million acres, part private land ranging from huge timber holdings to hamlets and part public “forever wild” state land.
The scale of the park comes into sharper focus with a graphic the Adirondack Land Trust uses, showing how many national parks could fit inside the boundary: Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, and Grand Canyon national parks all fit comfortably within the Blue Line. These are magnificent places, with amazing natural features and diverse habitats. But in some cases, the scale of national parks falls short.
For many decades national park scientists have kept records of wildlife residents, including large and small mammals. In general, hoofed animals remain abundant, just as they were when the parks were designated. But the disappearance of smaller mammals from many parks, such as skunks, red fox, river otters, fishers, and ermine, points to issues of habitat rather than overt human intervention like hunting and trapping. It seems the parks are insular, like islands surrounded not by water but by civilization. Some wildlife simply need more space to thrive.
This is where the scale of the Adirondack Park rules. Mammals missing from the park include those hunted out—mountain lions and moose, for instance, and those who may have been mere visitors, like lynx. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, 80 lynx from Canada were habituated at the Newcomb campus of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and released into our woods. Each had a radio collar. In my drives from Blue Mountain Lake to Jay in 1990 I saw lynx on four occasions along the Blue Ridge Road.
But the big cats, who had huge home ranges in northern Canada, found the Adirondacks too confining. They ended up in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, and elsewhere, with one lynx clocking nearly 500 miles. The scale of the park just did not feed their needs and to the best of our knowledge none raised their kittens here.
Moose, on the other hand, returned to the Adirondacks as populations grew in adjacent states and provinces. About 40 years ago the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation contemplated an active restoration policy, which was rejected. As that idea died on a desk, the moose began arriving on their own, young males first coming into the territory, then cows, and now a breeding population of several hundred. The habitats and scale of the park fit their needs.
The Adirondack Land Trust addresses scale when we consider conservation easements and nature preserves. How will a protected piece of private land be part of a wildlife corridor linking wilderness areas or wild forest parcels? How will a shoreline or farm field enhance habitat for birds, insects, amphibians? How will a protected farm stream make safe invertebrate and fish habitat? How will a nature preserve honor wildlife residents and build a constituency for all wild lands? How do land trust projects increase access to recreation and complement the work of communities? On preserves there are management options, so a lovely field can stay that way, with sun-loving wildflowers, birds, and all the creatures of meadows.
The Adirondack Land Trust’s efforts are especially important as our century moves on, threatened by climate change, invasive pests, and other forces. Our habitats have always been dynamic, but the scale of possible changes is daunting.
Think of 21st-century footgear left dangling from a tree and how a hiker may find it in a hundred years. The synthetic materials are unlikely to gracefully decompose. What will that forest look like? The topography will be the same, the soil composition likewise, and our actions have the potential to make or break the land around us.
Elizabeth (Betsy) Folwell was an editor and creative director of Adirondack Life magazine from 1989 to 2020, penning hundreds of articles and essays. She is the author of Short Carries: Essays from Adirondack Life and the first three editions of The Adirondack Book. Betsy is also a director of the Adirondack Land Trust, an entrepreneur, and a civic leader. She came to the Adirondacks in 1976 and has lived in Blue Mountain Lake ever since. This essay is a transcript of the keynote address she gave at the Adirondack Land Trust’s Annual Meeting in August 2023.