Birch Bark in Excelsis!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, June 1999

Birch Bark in Excelsis!
Looking for someplace a little out of touch with the times? Hang a left at the Adirondacks.

My Delta, Myself | A Little Good, Clean Lust in Utah | Wave Good-bye to the Fiberglass Moose |
Montana, the Dry Run | Birch Bark in Excelsis! | I Brake for Spelunkers |
Borne-Back Blues | Honk If You're Irrational

Nothing says the end of the twentieth century like the New York State Thruway. It's a dreary gray conveyor belt of whizzing cars and veering semis, running more or less parallel to the Hudson River, which shows itself in brief, unspectacular glimpses. But with a left onto Highway 28 at Lake George, suddenly the other cars drop away, civilization diminishes, and I find myself in the idyllic landscape depicted on the flannel lining of old-fashioned sleeping bags—a repeated pattern of stylized pine trees, round blue lakes with leaping trout, and pairs of low-flying ducks. Bears appear randomly, carved from the trunks of trees or whittled from logs into lawn ornaments. Downstate, bears have been chased off by habitat loss, but here in these northernmost reaches, the bear is a totem.

The Adirondack region is a throwback to an earlier era, a land of summer camps and knotty-pine cabins, of mountains so glorious they named lawn furniture after them. It is where rustic meets utilitarian to form an aesthetic that celebrates tree as chair, root and burl as table, birch bark as basket, antler as coatrack. This is the home of the browsing moose, shy wandering deer, squawking blue jay, and of course, the rapacious WASP. At a Warrensburg souvenir shop I watch a wealthy woman in a baseball cap buy a small, hide-covered footstool that stands on four polished hooves.

If she wants to give it a proper burial, there's plenty of room—Adirondack Park is more than double the size of Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. From above, the Adirondacks would appear as a giant dome, an inverted bowl of granite peaks that are, amazingly, continuing to rise because of glacial rebound. It's a super-slow-motion geological bounce, a response to the release of weight when the ice receded. The gla-cier carved out features in the rock and left enormous boulders parked here and there like abandoned cars. The hard granite bedrock of the mountains is marbled with anorthosite, giving it a faint blue cast. Where the rock is exposed, you have blue mountain, blue sky, and blue lake, all against the emerald of the pines and spruces. The very air is saturated with color, but from only two crayons.

As the sun rises over Blue Mountain Lake, the dragonflies hover like small aircraft and then dart away, fish perform acrobatics and their splashes echo. A family pulls off the highway and sits at the picnic table next to mine. The older sister is wearing a midriff top and a sneer, the younger one is wearing flip-flops. As they eat popsicles for breakfast, the father reads the map and the mother smokes, inscrutable behind her dark glasses. In the early morning glare, they look like an old Kodachrome print from 1962, the colors faded but somehow still garish.

To the northeast, on top of Mount Marcy, the Hudson issues from its source—a pond high on the slopes called Lake Tear of the Clouds. Returning to the city, I follow the sparkling blue thread of the river on a meandering course back toward its ocean. Now the Adirondack highway belongs to the indigenous. The raccoons cross back and forth on their routes, sorting through trash cans with dexterous black fingers; the deer move in wary herds, followed by coyotes and footstool designers. And sometime after midnight, when the roadside shops are dark and still, the carved bears come down from their hind legs and cross the road, heading for the trees. —JO ANN BEARD

New York 28 winds through dairy- farm villages for 45 miles before meeting New York 30 at Blue Mountain Lake; then it's 30 miles more to Tupper Lake. From there, take New York 3 east toward 5,344-foot Mount Marcy for a 7.5-mile climb.
DON'T MISS: The 69-item Adirondack guideboat collection at Blue Mountain Lake's Adirondack Museum: 16-foot wooden rowboats that were in vogue with guides and sportsmen in the 1850s.
BEST EATS: Wild Adirondack wintergreen ice cream at the Wawbeek, Upper Saranac Lake.
TOP DIGS: The Adirondack Hotel, in Long Lake, which still has its 146-year-old original furnishings ($50–$75; 518-624-4700).
INFORMATION: Information Center on the Adirondacks, 800-487-6867.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web