August 2012

What’s the Rush?

A naturalist hikes to discover what most people overlook

Illustration by Mark Wilson

THE TROUBLE WITH PEOPLE to­day,” the renowned Adirondack guide Les Hathaway (1862–1952) told Wil­liam Chapman White, “is they’re so busy coverin’ ground they ain’t got time to notice what’s on the ground they’re coverin’.” My sentiments exactly! Which is why, as I climb Ampersand Mountain, near Sar­anac Lake, today with a friend, I set the pace of a tortoise.

Having passed many of the happiest days of my half-century-plus-five wandering the Adirondacks, first as a summer visitor and for the last dozen years as a year-rounder, I take almost every hike that way: slowly. What’s the rush? Why on earth would one want to come here and race over the ground, only to miss, as Hathaway lamented, the flora, fauna and all else that makes the place special? These aren’t generic mountains. These are the Adirondacks, unique in all the world. A human life is too short to justify hurrying through them.

Give me a ramble or an amble, not a sprint with blinders on. It’s a genuine in­timacy with the landscape I crave, not a superficial flirtation, a quickie. How many of us pass swamp roses along Adi­rondack trails in summertime, gorgeous bushes with delicate foliage and luminous pink blossoms, without ever taking the time to genuflect and sniff? Their fragrance is transcendent, but you have to put on the brakes to enjoy it.

Sadly, hiking guidebooks, even the best ones, tend to encourage preoccupation with speed. My friend and distinguished colleague, the late Barbara Mc­Martin, did us a great service during her monumentally productive lifetime creating trail manuals and histories. Yet Mc­Martin re­peatedly committed what in my way of thinking is an error: dictating walking times as if they’re set in stone, sometimes with disdain for the slowpoke. “Fifty minutes” she allotted for the 1.7 miles from the Ampersand trailhead to the site of an old fire tower observer’s cabin, and “two hours fifteen minutes” to get to the top.

To her credit McMartin, avoiding the “foolish consistency” that Emerson found “the hobgoblin of little minds,” contradicted herself. During her description of the first leg of the Ampersand trail, she wrote, “You may find yourself walking more slowly than usual, in spite of the easy trail, for the woods are worthy of an ob­server’s pace.” She went one step further in an enlightened direction in de­scribing a hike from a trailhead near Mi­nerva to Blue Ledge on the Hudson. “The 5-mile round-trip walk to Blue Ledge can be made in less than three hours, but you should allow twice as long to appreciate the gorge’s uniqueness.” Amen.

Off my friend and I go, up Ampersand on a summer day. The trail rolls through a grand and ancient realm of red spruce, eastern hemlock, white pine, sugar maple, red maple, American beech and yellow birch. We pause to soak up the thick, green-tinted air, our nostrils exhaling carbon dioxide and surrendering it to the trees while the trees breathe out oxygen and offer it to us. The old goliaths here likely represent original growth, vestiges of the forest that covered the mountains until early European settlers, among them my Brownell and Lawton ancestors, arrived in the Adirondacks after the Revolution and began chopping it down.

The oldest are surely hundreds of years old, some of the hemlocks perhaps long-lived enough to have been growing when the English seized New Amsterdam from the Dutch. Are mossy, gnarly giants such as these worth getting to know? I think so. My companion and I linger. As we do, a family hurries by, with a man and woman tailgating. I’m reminded of the time my wife, Debbie, and I started up Ampersand with friends eight years earlier.

As we stopped and soaked up birdsongs, they showed us their heels. We knew with final certainty that our plan to spend the day together had gone awry when halfway up the mountain we met our friends coming back down.

I’d gladly linger the whole day in the old growth, snooping around, but I’ve promised my friend a summit view. We carry on. Still, interesting things demand the occasional stop. One of them is helleborine, growing beside the trail.

Helleborine is a wildflower, an orchid, but because it’s a European native set loose in the Adirondacks, even most wildflower enthusiasts scarcely give it a glance. Truth is, I hardly gave it a look my­self until I learned from my friend Carol Gracie, a botanist at the New York Botanical Garden and author of Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History (Princeton University Press, 2012), that helleborine, which we find this afternoon in seed, has an astonishing sex life. It involves alcohol consumed to excess and shapely, thin-waisted cupids.

It turns out that wasps, the cupids, come to helleborine flowers to quaff their nectar. While an insect drinks, pollen sticks to its head. The wasp is a fastidious little creature and would normally brush the stuff off, yet it doesn’t. A scientist who took the time figured out why. The nectar has fermented. The wasp, tipsy after drinking it, fails to groom itself. Looking a little the worse for wear, it buzzes over to another helleborine. Bin­go! The pollen glued to its head sticks to a new flower. The first plant’s aim of cross-pollinating a neighbor has been achieved.

This is the kind of stuff tortoises teach us, and we can teach ourselves. I roll a dozen logs, careful to place each one back where I found it. Things—millipedes, centipedes, sowbugs, beetles, fungi and more—live under the moist wood, and we want to preserve their hab­itat. Eventually I find what I want to show my friend: a red-backed salamander, about the length of my forefinger but far more delicate.

This is a big red-back, a paragon of its species, rusty in color and glistening with moisture. It’s a good thing the amphibian glistens. It absorbs oxygen through its skin, and the skin must be wet for this to work. The red-back is the most abundant Adirondack representative of a family of salamanders, the Plethodontids, whose ancestors became so specialized for in­habiting damp, shady places that evolution took away their lungs.

Scientists tell us that red-backed salamanders are the most prolific vertebrate animals in Adirondack forests. Untold millions inhabit the park, so many that if you could catch them all and weigh them and add up the numbers, they’d outweigh the bears or the deer.

We huff and puff our way up, straining a little despite our measured pace, until we arrive on the mountain’s bald, 3,352-foot summit. We are not alone. Ampersand is among the busiest of mountains, yet it’s worth putting up with the crowds. The views on a clear day are sublime. We gaze to the High Peaks to the south, the Saranac Lakes and beyond to the north, to Moose, McKenzie and Whiteface Moun­tains to the east, and to the Sewards and Tupper and an array of other luminous lakes to the west. Two hikers chatter into cell phones. Some of those who arrive well after us depart far in advance. They’ll be in their cars rocketing off to the next quick adventure before we’re a quarter of the way down.

During our descent my friend and I pause to examine a wildflower. It’s so tall and sprawling—three feet high at least, and as wide as the average bush—that I’m astounded I missed it on the way up. Walking too fast?

I get down on hands and knees. What could it be? My first thought is bristly sarsaparilla. It’s a plant often en­countered on Adirondack spring and summer hikes, not nearly ubiquitous like its close relation, wild sarsaparilla, but widespread all the same. I tell my friend it’s probably bristly sarsaparilla but I hedge. I’m feeling rusty. Even I, a card-carrying tortoise, have been scooting too briskly lately and not paying homage to the flowers.

As soon as I reach home, I plunge into a field guide. My uncertain identification was wrong. The plant we saw was not bristly sarsaparilla but a super-sized cousin called spikenard. Like the sarsaparillas, it has an aromatic root once used in the brewing of tonics.

“Most people are on the world,” wrote the naturalist John Muir, “not in it—have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them—undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.” Those words resonate with me a little more each year as I encounter ever more runners and power-walkers on the trail, most of them clad in Spandex and nylon and other fruits of the petrochemical industry, their bodies sculpted by strenuous exercise, their minds clenched on time and distance and heart rate, skimming the landscape without savoring its nuances.

It’s nothing new. Back in 1873, observing the fast-walking phenomenon with a skepticism like my own, the naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “If we take a walk, it is as we take a prescription, with about the same relish and with about the same purpose; and the more the fatigue, the greater our faith in the medicine.”

Instead of celebrating the man or woman who climbs the 46 Adirondack High Peaks in record time, we could do better by championing those who ramble, amble, putter, potter, saunter and otherwise plod like tortoises. These are my heroes: not speed demons without a minute to spare for an orchid or a salamander or a friendly fellow pilgrim, but people such as Sean O’Brien, a self-taught naturalist of the highest order, who spends days on end in seriously wild places like Mada­waska Bog, studying and recording the voices of the birds and frogs. Or Charlotte Demers, a biologist at the Adirondack Ecological Center, in Newcomb, who spends her days and nights scrutinizing jumping mice, bog lemmings and shrews.

Walk slowly, I say, and carry a big curiosity.

A Tortoise’s Toolbox

Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) offers beautiful images and un­matched song descriptions.

Use Roland Kays and Don Wilson’s Mammals of North America (Princeton, 2009) for quick critter identification or Field Guide to Mammals of North America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006) by Fiona Reid for more detail.

For the cold-blooded crowd try The Am­phibians and Reptiles of New York State (Oxford University Press, 2007) by James Gibbs, et al. Or learn about our ravishing residents with Wildflowers in the Field and Forest (Oxford University Press, 2006) by Stev­en Clemants and Carol Gracie.

The best tree guide for the mountains is Ed Ketchledge’s Forests and Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region (ADK, 1996). But George Petrides’s Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs covers the entire re­gion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1972).

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