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 a series of Adirondack Lakes: Lower Saranac, Flower, and 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
I swung the door wide and surveyed the rustic room that would be my home for the next three days. Rich leaf green walls topped pine wainscoting and a red and black checked quilt was deftly tucked into the sides of the heavy wooden cradle bed. Anxious to dive in for a late afternoon nap, I held my hand out for the key.
“There’s no locks on any of our doors,” the caretaker explained. Paranoia took over. How would I secure my laptop and other electronic equipment when I was out of the room? Seeing my alarmed expression, he assured me that they had never had a problem and promptly left.
The lack of locks at Great Camp Sagamore is a holdover from the days when the facility had been the private summer home of the Vanderbilt family. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt purchased Sagamore in 1901 from railroad tycoon William West Durant, who had completed the “camp” just four years earlier in the tradition of grand family compounds built in the latter half of the nineteenth century in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Alfred’s wife preferred the comfort of their glitzy Newport, Rhode Island mansion to Sagamore. Alfred, however, spent a great deal of time at Sagamore, which was soon expanded to include a casino and the “Wigwam,” a separate lodge constructed a discreet distance from the main lodge, where male guests could enjoy the company of ladies of ill repute. The latter was likely a factor in the couples’ scandalous divorce in 1908.
In 1911 Alfred married Margaret Emerson McKim who, unlike his previous wife, shared his enthusiasm for the outdoor life. Though Alfred died in 1915 when he sailed on the ill-fated Lusitania cruise ship, Margaret continued to entertain at the camp for many more years, earning it the nickname “playground of millionaires.” After World War II Margaret’s use became infrequent and she donated it to Syracuse University. Eventually, it was purchased by the State of New York, which transferred the property to a not-for-profit institution that now operates the historic property as a lodge.
Today Great Camp Sagamore looks much as it did back in the Vanderbilt days. In the main lodge a regal fireplace constructed from local stone soars to the ceiling, where it meets enormous burnished pine vigas that glow in the soft yellow lamplight. Bedrooms line the second and third floor halls, punctuated by a series of bathrooms shared by guests, just as they would have been when the house was full of Vanderbilt summer guests. Scattered around the grounds are smaller cottages that were built for specific family members, a communal dining room, conference centers, and even a private bowling alley, which was all the rage in the early 20th century.
My stay at Great Camp Sagamore coincided with their “Grands Camp.” Grandparents, with their grandchildren in tow, participated in a week long program of music, canoeing, swimming, hiking, crafts, singing, campfires, talent shows and workshops with Dan Duggan, one of the country’s finest hammer dulcimer musicians. The kids were in their glory, jumping into canoes each morning for a paddle on Sagamore Lake, while the grandparents cheerfully struggled to keep up. But when the kids were forced to sit through a performance of Romeo and Juliet on the front lawn one afternoon one little girl grouched, “I didn’t understand a word they were saying.” The adults smiled secretly; revenge was sweet.
For a better view of some of the most famous “camps” in the Adirondacks, one evening I hopped aboard the WW Durant for a dinner cruise on Raquette Lake. We sailed past great camps built for Governor Phinneas Lounsbury of Connecticut, the Robert Collier publishing family and the Carnegie family, as Captain Dean Pohl narrated the history of this golden age of the Adirondacks. Read More
Aloof, humorless Brits; dingy gray cities and streets choked with tourists – that’s what I expected to find in the UK. But by the time I had toured Edinburgh, Scotland and visited lovely Newcastle, England, it was obvious how ridiculous those stereotypes were; not only had I found warm, welcoming people, the cities were filled with handsome stone architecture and the countryside was exquisitely green.
As with my previous two destinations, I had chosen York, England in order to visit a friend. For more than two years I had corresponded with the legendary Mike Sowden, otherwise known as “the guy with the big-ass trowel,” a York-based travel writer who blogs at Fevered Mutterings. There was no way I could leave England without meeting Mike in the flesh, especially since I was less than two hours away by train. The morning after my arrival we rendezvoused at York Minster, a great cathedral in the center of the old city that houses the world’s largest single expanse of medieval stained glass. Big-hearted Mike brought along two other visitors from Australia and the three of us spent the entire day and part of the night following Mike around as he peeled away layers of history and exposed York as only a trained archaeologist can. Mike worked for a few seasons on various digs, got his undergraduate degree in archaeology at the University of York in 2004, and promptly left archaeology behind, but not before becoming somewhat of an expert on York.
The history of the city begins in 71 AD when Romans invaded and subdued what is today northern England. They built a fort between the rivers Ouse and Foss and within a few years ships were sailing up the Ouse with merchandise, attracting craftsmen and merchants who settled the town of Eboracum. By the 3rd century a protective stone wall had been built, wealthy people were constructing grand houses with mosaic floors, and public buildings such as a baths began to appear. One of these, a Romancaldarium (steam bath), was discovered during routine construction at the Roman Bath Pub in 1970. The resulting excavation uncovered a well-preserved semi-circular bath with steps at both ends and a nearby plunge pool. Actual footprints and an insignia of a Roman legion; believed to be that of the famous 9th legion that founded the town, are imprinted in the tiles surrounding the bath, which is preserved in a museum beneath the pub.
Roman civilization began to break down in the 4th century and York was all but abandoned. The town fell into ruins and was forgotten for more than three hundred years, until it was given a bishop who built a cathedral inside the old walls. It’s ideal location as a trading place attracted Saxons, who revived the town in the 8th century. By the mid-9th century the town, thought to be named Eofer’s wic (wic meant trading place), was once again flourishing.
The year 866 brought about another transition. Danish Vikings conquered northern England and made York the capital of their kingdom. The city (Jorvik to the Danes) grew rapidly and became a thriving industrial center for wool weaving, blacksmiths, potters, and the manufacture of items such as combs from bone and antler. By 1066 its population may have been as high as 10,000.
In 1068, two years after the Norman Conquest of England, the people of York rebelled. The revolt was put down by William the Conqueror, who immediately built two wooden fortresses on hillocks that are still visible on either side of the river Ouse. Present day Cliffords Tower was built in the mid-13th century to replace the keep of the main castle which burned in 1190. At the end of the day I gazed up at that stone monolith, outlined in sharp relief against the azure night sky by gleaming yellow spotlights, and wondered at the history encased within its ancient walls.
As if we hadn’t abused him enough with our myriad questions, Mike invited the three of us to accompany him on a circumvention of the city’s medieval walls the following day. York has more miles of intact wall than any other city in England. Read More