After two weeks in the Adirondacks of upstate New York I began to learn more about the culture of the area. Though the Adirondack Mountains are ancient, the human history within them is relatively young. It is unusual to meet second generation residents and third generation families are a rarity, so it was a privilege to meet Judy Damkoehler, a descendant of the men who built the Irondequoit Inn. “My great-grandfather and great-uncle Herbert first saw the Adirondacks in 1877. To celebrate Bert’s graduation from high school in New Jersey, they decided to walk to Montreal to visit my great-great-grandmother. Bert went on to college and married, but he never forgot this area.” When Bert finally convinced his buddies to visit the area they were so smitten that they immediately began buying up land. The present-day Lodge and Annex of Irondequoit Inn – originally old farmhouses in the village of Piseco Lake – were dragged up to the site on rollers by a team of oxen. Soon, the partners were welcoming guests and selling shares in the property. One hundred and twenty years later, many shares are still owned by descendants of the original investors.
Damkoehler first came to the Inn in 1930 at the age of three. Piseco was an unincorporated rough and tumble lumbering town, full of bars and raucous men. “There was no electricity in those days and we ate fried sneaker soles for dinner – probably illegal venison,” she grinned. “By the time I was 10 or 11 I was allowed take the rowboat out on the lake alone.” During the Depression years she worked at the Inn. “We called ourselves ‘slaves’ and lived in the ‘slaves quarters’ (the annex). We waited tables, washed dishes, cleaned rooms…and met boys.” Damkoehler has traveled to South America, Iceland and Europe but her favorite place in the world is still Piseco Lake. “It gets in your blood,” she insists, adding that the next generation – her cousins – are now coming to the Inn every summer.
Everywhere I went in the Adirondack Mountains I met people living close to the land. At the Adirondack Museum Caleb Davis was sponsoring a paddle-making workshop. Caleb made his first paddle by hand at the age of 11 and has run a paddle-making business each summer for the past 22 years. While it’s great fun, paddle making is also hard work; participants on the day I visited had sore arms and aching shoulders from working with wood planes and files. So why do they do it? “Making something themselves – I think that’s the thing people are missing more and more nowadays. It’s about being connected; working with your hands, your eyes…feeling things,” says Caleb. Certainly, that was motivation for Brian and Leia Johnson. “We’ve just gotten into paddling and we thought it would be kind of cool to have our own paddles. It’s a sense of pride to be able to say, ‘This is the one I made and I’m going to use it.’”
At Great Camp Sagamore, I found artisan David Woodward in the original blacksmith shop that served the Vanderbilt family back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In his long leather apron and protective ear muffs, he stoked the furnace to a temperature of 3,000 degrees, pulled a red-hot metal wedge out of the fire, and pounded it with a ball peen hammer to demonstrate the rustic ornamental ironwork that the rich owners of the camps coveted. Woodward, who attended the Brotman Forge Blacksmith School in Vermont, has turned his fascination with the art of blacksmithing into a successful career. When he’s not demonstrating at Sagamore, he is in his studio, Train Brook Forge, where he creates intricately detailed metal implements ranging from fireplace screens to cooking utensils.
Back at Irondequoit Inn for dinner, I was mulling over the unique ways in which Adirondackers had carved out existences in this challenging corner of the world when I turned over the Inn’s dinner menu and read the following: Read More
Nearly twenty years ago, I met another rockhound who traded crystals with me. I was living in Arizona at the time, so I gave him copper-bearing specimens like azurite, malachite, and turquoise; in turn he presented me with Herkimer Diamonds from upstate New York. Tucked into hollow cavities in the dense gray rock were tiny, perfectly clear quartz crystals with points at both ends – a condition known as double-termination. It was love at first sight. I promised myself that someday I would go to Herkimer and dig some out of the ground with my own two hands.
The first to know about the crystals may have been indigenous Mohawk Indians, who collected them from stream sediments and became known as ”People of the Crystals.” Early settlers also turned the crystals up in plowed fields, but their discovery is credited to workmen who were cutting into dolomite limestone near the town of Herkimer, New York. Inside the dense dolostone they found small solution cavities called vugs and larger pockets that measured up to several feet in diameter. Floating within the cavities were quartz crystals so pure they gained the nickname Herkimer Diamonds.
As luck would have it, my visit to Adirondack Park put me within a few miles of of the precious crystals. I Googled Herkimer Diamonds and found two commercial mines on New York State Route 28 in Middleville, New York, the Ace of Diamonds Mine and Herkimer Diamond Mine, both of which allow collectors to prospect for a nominal fee. After talking to a few other collectors in the area, I chose the Ace of Diamonds mine because they regularly cut into the dolomite with endloaders, excavators and bulldozers and deposit the rock in giant heaps of stones ripe for the picking.
I paid my $9.50 day fee, rented a geologists hammer, grabbed a pair of safety goggles and set off on foot to tour the site. Some rockhounds were sorting through jagged stones at the top of rock piles, while others hammered metal wedges into cracks in the stone ledge surrounding the site, hoping to expose large pockets where hundreds of crystals await discovery. I squatted down in the no-man’s land between the ledge and piles and began turning over rocks, looking for ones that had evidence of cavities. Within minutes I had collected three medium size boulders and began banging away with my geologists hammer. A few hours later I had amassed a tidy pile of rocks with pure quartz crystals sparkling from hollow pockets in the matrix. Oblivious to the sweat rolling down my forehead into my eyes and shoulders that ached from swinging the hammer, I carried the best specimens to the car and lovingly packed my booty away.
The next day I flexed my hands and winced in pain, but not even blisters that had raised overnight could deter me from another day of rockhounding. This time I headed for Barton Garnet Mine, located in the south central part of Adirondack Park. Read More
A cocoon of ethereal fog enveloped me as I walked to the end of the dock on Piseco Lake. The hush of dawn was interrupted by the gentle splish-splash of a solitary man walking languidly through calf-high water, far out into the lake. In the distance a white wolf-dog stood motionless in water up to his belly, staring intently at something on the shore. Beyond man and dog, all was swallowed up by the white curtain, beyond which echoed the lonely whoop and chuckle of an invisible loon, on the hunt for a mate.
I turned toward shore and let my gaze wander up the hillside, where even the Irondequoit Inn was obscured by the fog. Though my arrival at this rustic old inn had been unplanned, it had been no mistake. My press trip in Adirondack Park had drawn to a close the previous week but my inner voice told me I wasn’t yet done with the Adirondacks. Several years earlier I had visited Lake George during a leaf-peeping tour of the northeast and had written about the area with glowing words that rivaled the color of the fall foliage.
After reading my article, friends wrote to tell me about the Irondequoit Inn, their favorite place in upstate New York. Their coffee shop in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Front Porch Cafe, had been named in Read More
On my final day in the northeast corner of Adirondack Park, I walked across the street to Point au Roche State Park, bound for a narrow point that juts out into Lake Champlain. Hot, humid breezes blew thick grey thunderheads overhead and birds flitted back and forth, as if panicked by the approaching storm. I breathed in the acrid smell of marsh grass decaying in the late summer heat and started when a garter snake crawled across my foot and disappeared into the dense vegetation. The quiet country road wound past marshy backwaters framed by tall green reeds and thick cattails but it was the flowers that drew my attention. Scattered among the reeds were the most enormous Queen Anne’s Lace blossoms I have ever seen.
“Do you remember the story?” my late grandmother whispered in my head. As a young girl I had walked along a road bordered by wildflowers with my maternal grandmother. She pointed to a field of Queen Anne’s Lace and challenged me to find one with a tiny red blossom in the center. I searched a long time but finally found one. “Why doesn’t every flower have red in the center?” I asked. Grandma, who had emigrated from England to Canada and eventually ended up in the U.S., shared the legend of Queen Anne’s Lace with me. “As a young girl, Queen Anne was wandering through a meadow. When she leaned over to admire these same white flowers she lost a ruby from a necklace she was wearing. Though she searched and searched, the ruby was never found. And that’s why, every so often, you will find a red ruby in the center of the flowers.”
I looked down and directly in front of me was an enormous frilly Queen Anne’s Lace bloom with a perfect red jewel in the center. My grandma also said that no one ever died, as long they are remembered. I smiled. “Hi Grandma.”
The weather-rounded mountains of upstate New York undulate between hundreds of lakes that dot Adirondack Park like an enormous sea serpent. Anchoring its dusky blue-black tail on the horizon, the creature dips its shimmering green coils into one cobalt pool of water after another as it slithers down the mountains. I followed its serpentine route to the village of Tupper Lake where I dipped my toes into the lake of the same name and stopped to visit The Wild Center, a natural history museum that focuses on one of the world’s critical issues: the coexistence of people and nature.
Clear-cut by loggers in the mid-19th century, the Adirondack Mountains may be the nation’s prime example of the negative impact that man can have on the natural world, as well as a rare example of human actions that have helped nature stage a comeback over the past 100 years. The Wild Center encourages that relationship with interactive exhibits like its Living River Trail, a trout stream that culminates in a waterfall where river otters cavort. One young boy knelt on the floor and pressed his nose to the glass, laughing with delight each time a trout darted by. A giant mound of ice at the Glacial Wall demonstrated how glaciers carved out the Adirondacks at the end of the last ice age. The icy stalagmite was pitted where visitors had pressed their fingers into it; I touched an unblemished area, assuming I could easily leave an impression of my fingertips. Sixty seconds later I withdrew my numb fingers without having made the slightest dent, giving me new perspective on those two-mile thick sheets of ice that disappeared from the face of the earth.
Later that afternoon I drove down the serpent’s spine, past Lower Saranac Lake, Lake Flower, and Lake Placid, emerging at the city of Plattsburgh and the crown jewel of the Adirondacks, Lake Champlain. I dipped down into the Champlain Valley and pulled into Point au Roche Lodge as the setting sun was igniting clouds in shades of pink and mauve. Because I’d arrived at the B&B after normal business hours, owners Karen and Creston Billings had left a note with directions to my suite and a reminder about their gourmet breakfasts. Tired from a long day of traveling, I dragged my luggage to the end of the hall and stopped dead in my tracks. Read More
From the view deck at Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake sparkled like a dazzling sapphire surrounded by emerald forests. I contemplated the distant dusky blue mountains and tried grasp that every bit of the vista spread before me had at one time been covered by a shallow inland sea.
The Adirondack Mountains began to take their current shape about 10,000 years ago during the last ice age, when lake waters froze into glaciers and exposed the seafloor. Erosion gradually removed the soft sediments, uncovering slightly tilted crustal rock that had been contorted and folded by eons of plate tectonics. Glaciers transformed this exposed Adirondack dome, wearing away bedrock and gouging river valleys as they melted, leaving behind more than 30,000 miles of streams and brooks, 1,500 miles of rivers, and 2,759 lakes and ponds. In a final act of whimsy, the receding glaciers deposited isolated boulders that today dot the mountains like giant marbles cast aside by a long-lost race of giants.
These mountains may be some of the oldest in the world but the human history within them is remarkably young. Though Indians hunted in the Adirondacks they developed no settlements. Even homesteaders heading for the American west skipped over the forbidding, rugged terrain with its brutal winters. Just getting there required a monumental effort; it took a minimum of 15 days to travel by sloop, keelboat and horse from New York City to the Old Forge area. By 1800, there were only 11,000 permanent residents in the area, most of whom worked at 17 sawmills and three iron mines.
I wandered through the Adirondack Museum, learning about the life of the loggers, miners, and naturalists who finally brought the area to the attention to the general public in the mid 1850’s. As stagecoaches, trains, and cars made the Adirondacks more accessible, it became fashionable to spend time in the wilderness. Hotels sprung up, tourists flocked to the area, and wealthy east coast families built elaborate lakefront summer camps. Read More