Where to See a Hidden Adirondack Silver Maple Forest
by Mary Thill
The silver maple up the street still holds some pale yellow leaves. It’s a wolf tree amid a stand of young spruces, stretching huge, splintered gray limbs past them and over the road.
It was the only one of its species I knew of in the village of Saranac Lake, until last week when author Paul Wilcott, who lives across the river on a different hill, sent an essay he wrote about coveting his neighbor’s three-story silver maple. He planted a sapling in his own yard but it failed to take.
Silver maples were the tree of the neighborhood where I grew up, north of the Buffalo city line. They shaded our street hockey games and littered the lawn with helicopters in spring and sharply lanced leaves in fall. When the trees reached 50 or 60 years old, the municipality decided that their shallow roots pushed up too many sidewalks and their limbs fell too often. One day we found orange Xes spray-painted on every tree on the block. Soon all of them were cut down and replaced with ornamental trees that never grow tall. Silver maples were the urban tree of many 20th century New York State cities, but because they grow fast and decay fast, they are no longer planted.
Sugar and red maples glow much brighter in autumn, and they dominate the Adirondack hardwood forest. I thought for years after moving here that there were no silver maples, except that one tree up the street. But, in fact, the Adirondack Park contains an ecologically significant silver maple forest, though it was unrecognizable to me until it ranked highly in a New York State Natural Heritage Program survey in the 1990s.
For 20 miles upstream of Tupper Lake, the Raquette River is lined by a silver maple floodplain forest, one of the largest and most intact hardwood swamps in the state. But because these trees stand in water much of the spring, they are skinny and don’t get much taller than 20 feet. For that same reason, this timber was never worth logging. It’s virgin forest. These bottomland maples bear little resemblance to the titans of my youth or to the wolf tree down the block. But they make a strange and beautiful canoe trip during spring snowmelt, when you can paddle among the trunks.