TrekEast Blog 52 Adirondack Rambles

Traveling a Good Bit about Home

Mid-August 2011

Photos: Courtesy of Larry Master, Philip Lacinak and Gretel Scheuller, some of the best photographers I know. 

The great walker and writer Henry David Thoreau (pictured left) noted in his most famous work, Walden, he had traveled extensively around his home on Walden Pond, Massachusetts.  I took inspiration from his sauntering lifestyle while I was back home in the eastern Adirondack Park – enjoying a little adventure every day, seeing new parts of the Park, especially my neighborhood of Split Rock Wildway, by trail or stream or lake or back-road or bush, as weather and time dictate.  After about 5,500 miles of exploring new ground, I enjoyed a couple hundred miles of simply walking and cycling and paddling familiar yet ever-new terrain in one of the main biological connections between the Adirondack Coast, as some of us affectionately know our west Lake Champlain shoreline and adjacent hills, and the Adirondack Mountains to the west.

 

From years of living and wandering in the West Champlain Hills, I know that Split Rock Wildway provides connective habitat for many species of concern.  My species list for Hemlock Rock Wildlife Sanctuary (private land in the heart of the Wildway that the Northeast Wilderness Trust and I are conserving) includes: bear, bobcat, fisher, otter, mink, coyote, moose, bald eagle, osprey, barred and great horned and saw-whet owls, many warblers and thrushes and other interior forest songbirds, five frog kinds, more but seldom visible salamanders, painted and snapping and spiny softshell turtles, dragon’s mouth and grass pink orchids, sundews and pitcher plants, and some 20 tree species. 

 

Nearby Split Rock Wild Forest adds habitat for peregrine falcon, timber rattlesnake (in one of our country’s most northerly populations of Crotalus horridus), and reportedly the five-lined skink, which lizard tends to live in association with the rattlesnake.  Nearby Lake Champlain waters afford habitat for more than 50 native fish species, though sadly, lake sturgeon, lake trout, and landlocked Atlantic salmon are so depleted they may not be reproducing any more, and American eel barely make it  from the sea, up the altered Richelieu River and into the lake.

 

The work of protecting what we earlier called the Split Rock to Coon to Boquet Mountain Wildlife Corridor, then simplified to Split Rock Wildway ten years or so ago, has been a cooperative effort involving many conservation groups, agencies, and families, including Northeast Wilderness Trust, Champlain Valley Conservation Partnership, Adirondack Nature Conservancy & Land Trust, Wildlife Conservation Society, Open Space Institute, Adirondack Council, Keeping Track, Boquet River Association, Eddy Foundation, Wild Farm Alliance, conservation-minded land-owners such as my folks (Robert & Mary Davis), and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  The DEC has jurisdiction over the largest single block of protected habitat on Lake Champlain: Split Rock Wild Forest at nearly 4,000 acres.  Lands owned and protected by Northeast Wilderness Trust, Adirondack Land Trust, and Eddy Foundation raise the protected tally to something near half of the 15,000 or so acres that need to be conserved to ensure a viable habitat connection between lake and mountains.

 

One of my best wildlife days ever was in Split Rock Wild Forest seven or eight years ago.  Nature Conservancy friend Chris Maron walked up to my cabin one late summer morn while I was splitting firewood for the cool weather to come,and with him was a Conservancy supporter who wanted to see a real live timber rattlesnake (pictured right).  We cautioned her that the chances of finding one in the convoluted Split Rock hills were not great, but we’d do our best.  By the end of the day, we’d amazed ourselves and this donor by finding 11 of the venomous yet docile reptiles! 

 

This summer, my experience with Split Rock Wildway rattlesnakes was decidedly less happily.  A neighbor mowing around the barns for my father at his home on Lakeshore Road was bitten by a rattler, though not much harmed or angered by what must have been a small dose of venom or a “dry bite.”  A short while later, while I was cycling along Lakeshore Road – a relatively quiet road, but one that cuts through the Wildway and thus yields grievous amounts road-kill – I came upon two recently stricken rattlesnakes, both run over that day, only about a hundred yards apart.  Their pointless deaths reminded me that even seemingly innocuous, bucolic country roads destroy the lives of unlucky animals.  A study of rattlesnake populations in the Northeast a year or two ago found genetic divergence between snake populations on either side of a primary road.  Here in Split Rock and in the next population southward, in the Tongue Range above Lake George, so far as is known, all the snakes congregate during winter in just a few hibernacula near the lakes, so road-kill is a real problem, as both these great Adirondack water bodies are nearly bounded by roads.

 

What good are rattlesnakes, some neighbors want to know.  Then ask what good are birds or butterflies -- or people of different backgrounds.  They are part of the rich variety of life that makes Nature beautiful, fascinating, resourceful, and resilient.  Moreover, snakes are key predators of mice, rats, and squirrels; and an unnatural abundance of rodents can mean problems for farmers and outdoorspeople, who may be susceptible to rodent-borne parasites or illnesses.  An ecosystem with all its native predators is a more effectively governed system, which ultimately redounds to the benefit of all its inhabitants – scaled, furred, feathered, finned, four-legged, and two-legged.

 

Friends and I have tended to view Split Rock Wildway as a corridor for bears, bobcats, fishers, otters, mink, moose and other wide-ranging mammals; but it is also crucial for the movement of snakes, turtles, and other smaller animals.  Moving west from the lake, the next main fragmenting feature in Split Rock Wildway -- another avenue of road-kill -- is Route 22.  Here painted and snapping turtles are often the victims, as the females leave the Boquet River and nearby wetlands to find sandy areas, on the other side of the state highway, in which to lay their eggs.  Friends and I commonly escort turtles across the road; yet still, painted and snapping turtles in alarmingly high numbers get squashed as they try to reach historic nesting areas.

 

Of course, Split Rock Wildway is a crucial but small part of the six-million-acre Adirondack Park.  Protecting the Park in perpetuity, and ensuring that it will be a durable anchor in an Eastern Wildway, means better protecting and restoring of habitat connections within the Park, and between the Park and other wildlands, particularly Vermont’s Green Mountains to the east, New York’s Tug Hill Plateau to the west, Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park to the northwest, and major rivers draining the Adirondack dome in all directions. 

 

Knowing I’ve years ahead to explore more of these connections, I did not spend long this month reconnoitering remote parts of the Park.  I did find time, though, for a little sauntering out from home: for a study of the mysterious tafoni boulders below Snowy Mountain, south-central Adirondacks, with naturalist Evelyn Greene; for a paddle up the Osgood River in the north-central Adirondacks with artist Kevin Raines (pictured lower right on left), biologist Larry Master (pictured middle right), and writer Gretel Schueller; for another sail down Lake Champlain with Jamie Phillips of Eddy Foundation, Julie Ball of Adirondack Council, and Michelle Maron of Live Well; for a kayak trip down part of Boquet River with Heron Dance artist Rod MacIver; for a ramble up Spotted Mountain with Adirondack Land Trust steward Erika Edgley; for a canoe camping trip in Hoffman Notch Wilderness with Northeast Wilderness Trust president Tom Butler and Hell on Wheel unicycler Jason Kahn; and for a paddling & portaging trip in Wilcox Lake Wild Forest with my wife Denise (pictured left), in our nifty new 16-pound Hornbeck canoes.  These little adventures confirmed my feeling that the Adirondack Park is the wildest landscape in the East, yet not nearly wild enough.

 

My rambles about home this August further confirmed for me the importance of Split Rock Wildway to the Adirondack Park and the Adirondack Park to the Eastern Wildway; yet while the rambles were great fun, the confirmations happened partly by tragedy.  Adding to the sadness of the aforementioned road-killed snakes was the death of an allegedly very large long-tailed cat, hit just northeast of Adirondack Park as it tried to cross Interstate 87 – the most fragmenting feature in New York’s North Country.  Denise and her friend Michelle were among the motorists who saw the big cat lying dead between the south and north bound lanes of I-87.  I was in the central Adirondacks at the time, and Denise and Michelle did not feel safe stopping on a busy interstate highway to get photos or hair samples.  Whatever the origin of this big cat, released pet or dispersing young male, its death is another painful reminder of how deadly is our transportation system and how incompatible with wild life.

 

Conserving the many thousands of acres needed to complete protection of Split Rock Wildway and key linkages in the Southern Lake Champlain Valley, Tug Hill Plateau, Adirondack to Algonquin axis, and along major rivers is all absolutely critical.  However, even these biological corridors will not be enough until we also effectively address the tragedy of road-kill and the blockage of wildlife by our nation’s roads.  Thus do I dream, as I ramble the West Champlain Hills, of a future time when Lakeshore Road is a bike path and I-87 a lightly-used road reserved for public transit, when a bobcat or a fisher or a panther or a rattlesnake or a hiker can safely roam the hills along Lake Champlain without hearing the sounds of speed boats or trucks, when I may fall asleep in my cabin in the woods to the howl of distant wolves …

 

How You Can Help:  Join and support the above-mentioned conservation groups.  Urge the new administration of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to fulfill its promise to acquire and permanently protec lands in the Heart of the Adirondacks being temporarily protected by Adirondack Nature Conservancy as Forest Preserve lands.  Pressure departments of transportation at all levels, from town to state to federal, to immediately commence studies of wildlife crossings and implement the needed changes – underpasses, overpasses, lower speed limits, driver education … -- to make our infrastructure permeable to wildlife movement and safe for animals of all kinds, humans included.

For the Wild,

John 

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