Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Adirondacks on a Higher Level

Bob Leverett (well known for his decades of exploring, measuring, and documenting old growth forests across the country) spent several days in the Adirondacks this August with his wife Monica. Botanist Jared Lockwood and I made our way there separately as well, on a mission to film white pines. Bob chronicles their experience below, in his unique style.

Adirondacks on a Higher Level

by Bob Leverett (Edited by Monica)


It will come as no surprise to our friends that Monica and I are bona fide nature lovers. We each have plenty of other interests, but given the opportunity to choose from a palette of possibilities, both of us inevitably gravitate to nature to maintain our bearings and renew our spirits.

While I am commonly associated with trees, my nature interests are broader. I’m drawn to mountains, forests, the ocean, and charismatic animal species, especially the standouts among them. This is one way of stating that I am attracted more to the superlatives than the ordinary. In contrast, Monica is more balanced. In the past, she was an avid birder, but overall, her interests stay balanced so that she is better able to accept a place for what it is, without the need to make comparisons.

We each have our favorite haunts in which we experience nature at her most complete. A place that we share, near the top of our lists, is the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. For me, and I think Monica as well, my passion for the Dacks continues to grow. I say this because our introduction to them followed different paths. Mine was searching for old growth forests starting in the early 1990s, and Monica’s was in pursuing her camping and canoeing passion. Today, with our limited mobility, we are more into hiking to accessible spots. This suits my need to continue searching for patches of old growth forest and superlative trees, and fits Monica’s capacity for communing with the
spirit of the place. With her it is more the gestalt, which I concede is more balanced than my need to discover, document, and compare.

With this brief introduction, we’d like to share with you the trip that we just completed. It promised to be different from recent trips, and it lived up to its billing. We connected with special people who are devoted to the Adirondacks and their forests, which promises to open a path to expanded explorations.

A New Summer Mountain Shangri La

We made our way to our destination (from Massachusetts) by way of our customary Vermont route. It is slightly longer in time and more circuitous than following the simple interstate route west across I-90 and north up
I-87, but oh, so much more enjoyable. Our immediate destination was “Inspirational Point,” a new B&B on Hurricane Mountain operated by our friends Marie McMahon and Wes Schock. The B&B is located at an elevation of 1,725 feet and looks to the west into the main section of the High Peaks. You can sit on their deck, and gaze across a grassy field into the distant high peaks that include the Sentinel Range, Cascade Mountain, and a series of summits - Mount Marcy, Upper and Lower Wolf Jaw, the Gothics, and several other 4000-footers. But a few photographs can do the talking better.

Adirondack Gothics and Upper Wolf Jaw
The first view is in the direction of the Gothics and Upper Wolf Jaw, two of a string of forty-four (originally 46) 4,000-foot peaks for which the Dacks are famous.

To the right (north), we see Lower Wolf Jaw, and in the center, the highest peak of all, 5,344-foot Mount Marcy. Marcy’s Native American name is Tahawus, which means Cloudsplitter. The top of the peak is alpine tundra.

Mt Marcy (center) & Lower Wolf Jaw

The field in front of the B&B includes a number of grasses and forbs that add variety to the otherwise forested landscape. Queen Ann’s Lace, Black-eyed Susan, thistle … European introductions to be sure, but they are an acceptable fit for the spot. In the ambience of the surrounding field, I felt a safe, peaceful feeling envelop me in what is otherwise a rugged mountain wilderness.

Soon after getting settled in our room, Monica and I walked out into the meadow. We relaxed in a couple of chairs positioned by our gracious hosts in the shade of a venerable old sugar maple. I felt myself entering into a somewhat uncharacteristic meditative state, gazing alternately into the
fluttering of aspen leaves across the meadow and the ever-changing cloud formations over the High Peaks. But in short order, I was up exploring the meadow. The thistle below caught my attention.


Our two day stay with Marie and Wes gave a needed boost to my sense of mission, which in part is to promote the importance of the Adirondack’s forests to the health of the planet. Marie and Wes also reinforced my appreciation for the roles of other people in fulfilling the mission. It has to be a team effort.

On the 22nd, Marie took us to several locations to share special trees with us. She wanted to get my reading of their importance on one level or another. More specifically, she believed there were strips of old growth forest along Gulf Brook that would be of interest, and she was right. Hurricane Mountain received a lot of clearing in the past, especially at the lower elevations, but the terrain is rugged enough to afford protection to swaths and patches of older trees. These areas impart a more natural feel to the forest. The weathered forms of the trees speak to a returning naturalness to the forest. Marie had picked up on this, but wanted confirmation.

She also wondered about an old sugar maple in the field just beyond the house. That led to me sharing my thoughts about the tree and her developing relationship to it – actually two trees growing close together, but sharing an interlocking root system and behaving as a single organism. The tree has recorded the passing of the seasons and thus is a repository of environmental information, but I suspect the information held goes deeper.

Marie and Wes prepared a delicious dinner of grilled veggies and chicken with a rhubarb (from the garden)/apple crisp for dessert. The event gave us an opportunity to meet Barbara Tam, the owner of the surrounding land. It was apparent that she had been a very responsible custodian. We hope to get to know her better. We also made the acquaintance of a second special lady named Cinda Longstreth, whom we’ll discuss later.

After dinner, and the departure of the guests, Monica, Marie, Wes, and I sat on the deck and did some old-fashioned star gazing. The sky was spectacular and rekindled an old interest. We could see Jupiter and Saturn, as well as a host of summer constellations. Bright blue giants like Vega and Altair and red giants like Aldebaran and Antares flexed their magnitude muscle among fainter patterns that never look like what they are supposed to, at least to my eye. Nonetheless, all the magic was still there as I dimly recalled myself as a young boy gazing skyward trying to identify the constellations. I recall that at first, the myriad of stars just formed confusing patterns, but I persisted and eventually became adept at quickly spotting each constellation. I learned the names of the prominent stars, their magnitudes, and sometimes their distances. I still marvel at the intellects of those early astronomers who figured out ways to calculate distances to such far away objects, appearing only as flickers of light in the night sky. It was, and still is, a monumental intellectual achievement for a species that continues to accept flawed leaders and becomes lost in cults. Such is our nature.

Connery Pond

On the evening of the 22nd, we said our goodbyes to Wes, who had to be up early and out taking care of business. On the morning of the 23rd after an excellent breakfast of quiche, we bade Marie adieu, and left their Hurricane Mountain summer Shangri La, heading for a rendezvous in Lake Placid with my son, Rob, his partner Betty, Jared Lockwood, and Ray Asselin. Rob would serve as a guide for the rest of us to visit a spot of exquisite loveliness, which just might play a part in a film being produced by Ray on the history of the white pine. We needed silhouettes of old white pines with no obstructions in the foreground. This could be obtained by looking across a body of water and into pines lining the shore, provided the pines had the features of advancing age. To get such a composition, Rob took us to a wetland on Connery Pond that looks toward Whiteface Mountain, of Olympics fame. This photo shows Connery Pond in the foreground and 4,865-foot Whiteface Mountain in the background.

Whiteface rises prominently about its immediate base, in places as much as 3,700 feet, and almost 3,200 feet above the surface of the pond, albeit over a longer distance. The ski run down the mountainside drops over 3,000 feet dizzyingly fast. Fortunately, the ski run is on the other side of Whiteface. Otherwise the wilderness qualities of the pyramidal peak would be compromised. Whiteface serves as a symbol of two competing uses of a special mountain: human development for recreational purposes, and scenery and wilderness values. Skiers probably are not bothered by ski trails on the side of a mountain. To me, they appear like giant claw marks down the mountain. I find them not to my liking. In my view, they diminish the mountain’s role as habitat for plants and animals, and for maintaining a healthy watershed. However, their economic benefits are not in question. Some compromise is necessary, but in the case of Whiteface, the mountain surrendered too much. Nonetheless, the mountain’s opposite side from ski development is true wilderness with ample old growth. In the image, the ski trails are around the right ridgeline. So long as the Adirondack Park protections hold, Whiteface will retain its real treasures.

As a brief digression, peak baggers swim in mountain elevation data. Numerical comparisons are built into the DNA of some of us. So, where do the Dacks fit in? There are 10 peaks in the Northeast reaching elevations of 5,000 feet or more. The Dacks claim two of them, Marcy and Algonquin. Dropping a thousand feet, the Northeast has 115 four-thousand-footers. The Dacks claim 44 of them.
However, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. How high a mountain rises above its immediate base is also important. In that category, Giant Mountain is the giant of the Adirondacks, rising slightly over 4,000 feet from its immediate base at New Russia. Base-to-summit is a big deal for those of us who are into mountain superlatives, but just to keep us from getting swelled heads, the highest base-to-summit rise belongs to a peak in the Karakorums in Pakistan. The mountain is named Rakaposhi, which at 25,551 feet above sea level is the 27th highest mountain in the world. However, above its base, it rises 19,357 feet in just 7 miles, eclipsing other great mountains, like Denali. So, if Giant Mountain should start to get a swelled summit, just yell the name Rakaposhi and run.

 Whiteface Mtn rises above Connery Pond

You may notice the outline of a structure atop Whiteface. It was a WPA project implemented as an economic stimulant in the 1930s. You drive to near the summit and then take an elevator through the mountain to the top and the observation platform. The structure does the mountain no favors. On the other hand, it does allow people to enjoy the view who would otherwise not be able to walk to the top on a trail.

The Snow Goose B&B

Rain prevented our group from doing much at Connery Pond, so Monica and I said our goodbyes and headed to our place of abode for the final two days, the Snow Goose B&B, which we highly recommend. Our hosts, Amy and Wayne, are always gracious and welcomed our return. The Snow Goose lies at the edge of the High Peaks wilderness just off State Route 73, and is nestled among some highly attractive white pines. Across 73, we had access to the East Branch of the Ausable River, and up the road, to 4,625-foot Giant Mountain, and Roaring Brook Falls. Old growth forests are abundant on the steep sides of the surrounding peaks. However, the area has a history of intense logging and land clearing. That as much old forest has survived, is a testament to the ruggedness of the Adirondacks.

This brings me to a point. The Dacks are not old mountains as once thought, but young ones with a hotspot beneath the crust that causes the region to bow upward. You will still read descriptions of the Dacks that cite their ancient origins; however, if geologists have it right, you can lay those descriptions aside and revel in the youth of the Dacks. I personally find that exciting news, i.e. the idea of youthful mountains in the East. One point to remember is that the Adirondacks are part of the North American shield and distinct from the Appalachians to the East. The latter are old mountains.

One of the highlights of a stay at the Snow Goose is the people you meet for breakfast. We have had several highly stimulating conversations. Our Snow Goose friends have been accomplished and seem environmentally sensitive. Interestingly, Amy, Wayne, Marie, and Wes are all friends. It turns out that Wayne and Wes go back to their days in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Wes lived at the Snow Goose for a time.

Carbon Role of Pines


The A&W Pines

One of my missions these days is to assist several prominent carbon scientists evaluate the role of bigger, older trees in sequestering carbon. My function is to model trees for their volume (i.e., calculate volume) using the high-performance equipment I own. From volume, the mass can be calculated, and finally, the proportion that is carbon. I have specialized in analyzing white pines because of their fast growth, and have chosen Amy and Wayne’s pines as one study site. They are collectively known as the A&W pines. These conifers are very attractive and they date from a time when the land was cleared. So, they also serve as a kind of historical marker. The larger pines started growing around 125 years ago, and today are an imposing feature that gives visitors to the Snow Goose a feeling of being nestled among worthy trees, i.e. in a real woodland. The pines can also appear intimidating. Those of us who live with these huge life forms looming overhead do have our moments of worry. Nonetheless, I felt it my duty to model them for volume and subsequently their role in holding carbon. The largest of the pines measures a respectable 10.3 feet in circumference at 4.5 feet above the base, and stands 135.5 feet tall. The absolute tallest is 137.0 feet. There are 12 mature pines surrounding the Snow Goose. So, what does the big pine look like? The photograph shows the lower trunk.

The 135.5-ft  "A&W" Pine

How much carbon is in a pine like this? By my calculations, it holds at least 3.5 tons of carbon in its trunk, limbs, and roots. This is equivalent to roughly 13 tons of CO2 being absorbed from the atmosphere to be deposited as elemental carbon in the trunk through the process of photosynthesis. You can look up on the Internet how much the 13 tons offsets in terms of human activity, but there is also the matter of space efficiency.

These 3.5 tons of carbon are packed into the space of a cylinder determined by a crown spread of about 44 feet. Other plants can grow under the big pine’s canopy and sequester even more carbon while the pine holds dominion over the column of space beneath. It is a pretty efficient utilization of the space for the purpose, but the benefits don’t end there. The pine produces oxygen, provides wildlife habitat, and participates in a forest cover which keeps the surrounding land cooler in the summer. When all the services are listed, we see that the tree is a working machine for sustaining life on the planet. It releases chemicals (terpenes) into the air which have direct health benefits. In fact, the role of pines as a promoter of both physical and psychological health is a subject of study by the scientific community.

So far, I have modeled three of the A&W pines. See the photo of number two - a handsome tree that reaches skyward 134.8 feet. Its 8.6-foot girth is large enough to give it an imposing appearance. Thank you Wayne and Amy for being good custodians of your pines.

134.8-ft  A&W Pine #2

Cinda’s Pine

We met a special lady, Cinda Longstreth, at Marie and Wes’s dinner on Aug 22nd. She and her husband Rich own a summer home in Keene Valley. We were invited to Cinda’s home on Aug 23rd to see her art work, her Native American collection, and to look at the stump of a large white pine that had been cut down of necessity 7 or 8 years ago. Cinda had mentioned the pine at dinner, and it was apparent that the tree carried special meaning for her. Cinda’s brother thought the tree might be very old because of its size, but a ring count showed it to date to the approximate time that the house was built. That made sense. The pine grew in the opening. It had, nonetheless, been a worthy tree that left an impression on Cinda. Fortunately, the pine had companions. Other pines thrust their blue-green foliage through a prevailing hardwood canopy. That always gets my attention. Pinus strobus, the lordly white pine, has long been a favorite species of mine, so much so that I’ve devoted countless hours to searching for outstanding examples and documenting groves from Canada to Georgia. Working with my Native Tree Society (NTS) colleagues, we have acquired an almost encyclopedic level of understanding of where to find the biggest, tallest, oldest of the species, and what the white pine is capable of achieving dimension-wise - past and present.

I believe that the Adirondacks may well be the repository of the largest distribution of large and old white pines across the full range of the species. The pines in the mountain South will grow taller, but for sheer bulk, the northern pines may win the prize, and certainly in terms of their number. This establishes a new mission for us, i.e., to put the big Adirondack pines on the map in terms of a greater public awareness. I think of Cinda’s pine as a kind of messenger, alerting us to the presence of unheralded giants scattered across the great Adirondack wilderness. They offer us a chance to experience the full power of the species, an opportunity not to be taken lightly.

Across the driveway, I spotted the crown of what looked to be a large pine. Going over to it, I was not disappointed. The tree is huge and picture-perfect in shape. It appears very healthy. I’m not sure why the pine called to me so strongly, but it did.

Cinda's Pine, 12-ft circumference

The handsome pine measures 12 feet in girth and stands 130 feet tall. It is not an old tree, although it may be older than I think. My guess is 130 years, and from the appearance of its broad crown, it has a lot of growing left to do. I see big trees all the time, but was especially struck by this one. What to name it? What to name it? Ah yes, CPPP! That stands for Cinda’s Picture Perfect Pine. So Cinda, who mourns the loss of the big pine we went there to see, has an even larger tree in tip-top shape to take comfort in.

A Place of Reverence

When Monica and I stay at the Snow Goose, we routinely visit the Rooster Comb Trail, which leads appropriately enough to Rooster Comb Mountain, with its heralded views into the lofty High Peaks. Presently, neither Monica’s nor my knees will stand the 2.5-mile trek to the top, but there are features along the trail to attract us. One is a small pond near the trailhead. A short trail encircles the pond, and while it seemed a bit tame to me initially, I have grown to appreciate it.

You begin on a boardwalk that crosses a wetland and small stream. It then makes its way to the pond, passing some fairly large northern white cedars on the way. White pines adorn the hillside. Smaller hemlocks add to the deep-woods ambience. Nature is making a comeback here, but it takes time to re-establish the soil base. So, while the plant communities have become re-established, they are still sparsely distributed relative to what one sees in older forests. This distribution can easily be overlooked, but not by Monica, who is sensitive to the ferns, mosses, and rich assortment of small plant communities associated with the North Woods. Her connection to these plants reminds me to look toward my feet as opposed to always gazing aloft. Plus, it’s safer that way.

On the evening of August 22nd, the pond beyond the boardwalk begged to be photographed. The water was still and captured tree and cloud reflections. Some mature pines grow along the far side of the pond next to the trail to add ambience to the water, aquatic vegetation, and peaks on the horizon.


We could share more about our stay, but in truth, we are still trying to assimilate what happened. We both think we received a special gift made possible through the magic of the two places we stayed, splendid treatment from our hosts, and the pure power of the High Peaks.

If you are looking for a place to stay for a few days where you can meditate and connect with the Adirondacks on a deeper level, either of these two B&Bs are the place to be, but especially Marie and Wes’s “Inspirational Point,” if meditation is the goal. Sitting in comfortable chairs under a centuries-old sugar maple, with its own stories to tell, and gazing into the vastness of the High Peaks while feeling the intimacy of the meadow – well, it just doesn’t get better than that. Oh yes, don’t forget the nights under the stars.

On the other hand, if you want to meet fascinating people, you can’t beat the conversations around Amy and Wayne’s table. People seem to be drawn there to share experiences under their canopy of tall white pines.

In summary, I believe our visit was, in part, to take on a new mission to celebrate the white pine, and to affirm its importance to the Adirondack forests. Its inner bark is edible. It was the tree of peace in the Iroquoian culture and played an equally important role to the Algonquins. It is our tallest eastern species and is once again reaching significant heights in many places within the Adirondack Park. Viva la white pine. Its commercial role has never been in doubt. But the species is so much more than that and deserves to be seen in its totality instead of simply as a resource for wood products.

The pines are whispering in our ears, “This is our land, we welcome you to it, but be gentle with us and all the life forms that depend on us. For in our protection is the salvation of your species.”

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