Friday, July 3, 2009

Day 5 - Lake Champlain-Adirondacks-Saint Lawrence

Having woken up too early to turn on a light in the room, I was writing in an upstairs alcove of the Waybury Inn.  A fifty-something couple walked by on their way to breakfast.  When they returned, I introduced myself to Brent and Kay, recent empty nesters (with 20-something boomerang kids) from Springfield, Ohio.  They agree d to a brief interview.

Different Strokes

“Why are you here?" I asked.  For them, it was the Bob Newhart Show, rather than the ghost of Robert Frost, which was my reason for being here.  As fans of his1970s television show, they had put the inn as a priority for their first-ever trip to New England.  

Being a baby-boomer with grown kids, I have lots in common with Brent and Kay.  One of these is an appreciation of the state of Ohio, in their case as a nice place to live, in my case a fascination is the way their state’s glacial geology controls practically everything about its surface water hydrology. The northwest part of the state is dominated by flat, clay rich terrain that once lay at the bottom of the glacial Great Lakes. The southeast has the typical hills and "hollers" of unglaciated Appalachia, resembling nearby West Virginia. The middle of the state is a diagonal band of rolling moraines, kettle lakes, and highly variable local conditions.  This was especially true for the Miami Valley, where they have lived for decades.

After my gratuitous, but fortunately brief lecture, I thought that Brent and Kay were about to return the favor by telling me about a favorite 1970s television show, but were kind enough to spare me the details. Instead they told me about the terrible beaches they had found on Cape Cod, full of unsightly rocks and bordered by enormous swamps. When probing further, these were the cobblestone beaches and salt marshes Cape Cod is so famous for. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. 

I then switched tactics, asking them the more general question I've been trying to hone during the last few days: “Any thoughts about freshwater resources? Any joys or concerns about them?”  The reply was "no, not really." Then, when saying goodbye, I asked them where they were heading.  “Niagara Falls,” was the reply. That, of course, is arguably the most famous freshwater site in the whole United States! 

Literary Fishing

Two older men, two younger men, and a woman were having breakfast when Kristine and I walked into the dining room.  The snatches of conversation I overheard were peppered with  references to literary themes.  Eventually, all five got up and went outside for a group photo prior to their departure.  After finishing my Eggs Benedict, however, I discovered the three younger ones still on the porch, drinking coffee and waiting for it to rain.  Sensing they might be willing to answer my water questions, I introduced myself, gave them my card, and went at it.

Nick and Mike were both English teachers at private preparatory schools from Dallas, Texas and Buffalo, New York, respectively.  They were also alumni of Middlebury College's Breadloaf graduate school, visiting their former professor John Elder. He was the older gentleman facing away from me at breakfast.  Elder is much more well known to me than Bob Newhart as the co-editor of the Norton Book of Nature Writing, which I’ve used in my classes. Having wanted to meet him for years, I consoled myself with having at least met his backside. I’ll get to see both sides this fall on November 22 when he will guest lecture for our course “Honors Core: Walden and the American Landscape."

Our conversation drifted toward fishing.  So, I read a paragraph from page 143 of Beyond Walden. In response, and with chagrin, Nick identified himself as a “walking stereotype."  On that page, I described three kinds of angling: safari-style game fishing in saltwater; fly-fishing for native trout in freshwater streams with hand-tied flies; and fishing on ponds and lazy rivers, pejoratively called worm-dunking by purists.  Having spent six summers in the Green mountains to get his masters degree, Nick, a preparatory school teacher from Texas, became a serious dry fly devotee. Lindsay was his companion, the woman I’d seen at breakfast. When I asked her what it was like to live with a fisherman, her first response was “expensive,” which is when Nick said he was a “walking stereotype,” with respect to the description I had read to him.  Mike, in contrast, is no fishing gourmet. He goes after bass, pike, and sunfish, the most common fish across the glaciated fringe.  

Lemon Colored Mud

The Champlain lowland is starkly flat compared to the mountains on either side.  In the town of Bridport, VT, we were noticing an abundance of yellow houses and barns, but didn’t know why.  Then, we stopped to photograph a yellow-brown river in flood.  

Lemon Fair River in Flood on July 3, 2009.

It turned out to be the Lemon Fair River in the town of Lemon Fair, which answered our question as to why even the stone buildings were yellow-brown.


Even the rock is yellow near the Lemon Fair River, Lake Champlain Lowland, Vermont.

Less than an hour earlier, we had left East Middlebury in the rain.  Before leaving, I had photographed a rushing stream that runs through town.  Even after nearly a month of steady rain, it was still running clear -- clear enough to see the cobbles of marble on its bed through slightly blue-tinged water.  The contrast between that clear stream in the forested mountains and this muddy stream in the agricultural lowlands of Lake Champlain illustrate end members of the fluvial spectrum.

Fluvial is the word geologists use to describe rivers.  As with more famous rivers like the Mississippi, the Lemon Fair overtops its banks because the slope of the channel is so low in a downstream direction.  It runs brown because the lowland is veneered with ancient mud from earlier and larger versions of Lake Champlain, because: the runoff has been enhanced by the forest clearing for agricultural use; cultivating the soil for seed crops exposes the soil to sheet wash; and the low gradient of the stream causes the channel to migrate back and forth against its muddy banks.  I suspect that as the sediment load of the Lemon Fair River diminishes, the water will pass through a stage when it runs yellow, the color of rust-stained fine clay.

Lake Champlain

We crossed Lake Champlain, the largest lake in New England, on the bridge between Chimney Point, VT and Crown Point, NY.  


Lake Champlain at Chimney Point Bridge.

As always, the lake is stunningly beautiful, especially at a distance, even if it resembles an oversized torn ribbon.  Up close, it lacks the clarity of the rocky lakes we left behind such as Lake Sebago in Maine. This slight murkiness is due, in part, to the input of mud from places like the Lemon Fair River, which takes a long time to settle.  But it’s also due to higher levels of nutrient in the water, especially phosphorus and nitrogen, which leaches from many sources, especially from faulty septic tanks along the shore.  

Also, near the shore were floating mats of Eurasian milfoil, a wildly successful invasive plant that is wreaking havoc on the aquatic ecology of lakes all over the world. Actually on the shore was a berm (low ridge) of fresh milfoil that had washed ashore in a recent storm. When the rain clouds leave and the daytime temperatures rise, this plant debris will rot to fill the air for miles around with a slightly fishy, manure-like aroma.


Non-literary fishing at Chimney Point, Vermont.

Just inland from the shore on the Vermont side was a campground full of oversized trailers, many attached to beefy pickup trucks.  On that campground was an excavated artificial pond about the size of a two-car garage.  Standing next to the pond were two oversized men and one oversized boy. They were fishing, with their backs to a body of water that has inspired great discoveries, art, and literature.  Why?  Were they afraid of the American sister of the Loch Ness Monster, who is rumored to exist? 

They shouldn’t be.  That rumor was solved a few years ago when scientists correlated the alleged sightings with the periodicity of seiche waves (stationary oscillations caused by the sloshing of water) that raise and lower the water level a foot or so.  These up and down movements were just enough to raise and lower a submerged log that -- in the hazy distance – resembled the shape of the more famous plesiosaur-mimic from one of Scotland’s largest lakes.


Leaving Crown Point, we fish-hooked south from the point, then west, then back north again along the lake on New York Route 9, passing through Fort Henry, site of the nation’s first blast furnace.  Soon we were in Newport, though not the one known for its yacht races and annual Jazz Festival.  The west side of the lake is nearly one continuous cliff, a remarkable contrast to that of Vermont. 

At Newport we turned west to climb the Adirondacks, the most rugged, though not the highest peaks in the northeastern United States.


Natural rock outcrop near Elizabethtown, Adirondacks.

This out-of-place group of mountains amazes me whenever I have a chance to visit them.  Though so close to New England geographically, this group stands apart, sharing more with the Black Hills of South Dakota in terms of topography. As with much of the western Cordillera, the New England Appalachians is an elongated chain formed in the root of a fairly normal mountain range produced b the pressure of colliding continents.  In contrast, South Dakota’s Black Hills and the Adirondacks are odd, oval-shaped, anomalous uplifts that have raised much older rocks to the surface.  As the Adirondacks rose, the valleys created a radial pattern, draining outward and away in all directions.  This was later modified by ice-sheet glaciations, which excavated the lakes and blocked some of the northern drainages, diverting them to the south.  

Arriving at Lake Placid, I was struck by the juxtapositions.  As we pulled in on Route 86, we beheld an amazing concentration of horses being ridden by people with black boots and hats and jumping over various obstacles.  I was surprised to discover that Lake Placid is “home to two of the nation's most prestigious equine masterpieces - the Lake Placid and I Love New York Horse Shows”  (a quote from the home page).


Horse Show on July 3, 2009 at Lake Placid, New York.

That’s fine.  I like horses too.  But where does the manure go, especially when it rains every day, as it has this last month? 

Research is so simple these days.  I simply googled “horse manure phosphorus excretion” and my first hit was a 2004 article by scientists from Auburn University involving a study of “eight yearling geldings (Equus caballus) fed four typical diets.”

The good news is that the manure drains away from the lake. Another piece of good news from the study is that changing a horse’s diet can affect how much pollution there is.  The bad news is that horse manure contains a crap-load of phosphorous, which is the number one cause of making lakes murky. More specifically, the average horse excretes 3.0, 3.9, 5.3, and a whopping 7.9 grams of water soluble phosphorous for “diets containing whole oats, alfalfa cubes, sweet feed and pelleted concentrate,” respectively.

Due to ongoing technical difficulties, I had to post my blog from the lovely public library, located in downtown Lake Placid. There, I noticed a pair of front-page stories for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise of Friday June 26 and Monday June 29, 2009.  The first confirmed the arrival of invasive milfoil in the lake, despite years of effort to prevent this unwanted plant.  The second, only three days later, reported that the problem was far worse than suspected.

Looking up from the papers, I saw a thoroughly relaxed guy, probably in his mid 60s, reading a book and enjoying the beautiful view of the lake seen from the reading room.   When Kristine was speed-editing my blog, I introduced myself to William; he consented to answer a few questions.  He lives on the beach in Santa Monica, California, and was in Lake Placid to visit an old friend for a week.  He was there reading because he preferred that to playing golf with his friends, a man after my own heart.   To my double-barreled water question (experiences or issues involving freshwater), he returned a double-barreled answer.  He said that when swimming in the ocean, one must spit out the water that gets into your mouth, whereas in Lake Placid, you can just drink it down.  My first thought was of the horse manure a few miles upstream.

His second response was that he found it interesting that the water temperature of Lake Placid was nearly identical to that of the Pacific Ocean in California, which ranges from the high fifties to the high sixties.  This made me think about the complexity of water temperature variations in northern freshwater lakes relative to the much larger thermal mass of the ocean.  Lakes here freeze in the winter and mix twice a year at a critical temperature of 39 degrees Fahrenheit.

West of Saranac Lake, the physical and cultural landscape changes dramatically.  It’s less rugged but more remote, and the towns seem more worn out and tired.  Even some of the forests are sick, their reddish wood exposed where the bark has fallen off.  Though I didn't have time to research this, I suspect one or more species of bark beetle are involved.  They stand sadly above the beauty of the purple lupines, whose dark lavender color can perk up any gray day. 

The town of Tupper Lake held a mystery.  On its eastern edge is an enormous white building with hundreds of very strong metal-framed windows that I initially mistook for a grand hotel.  It presides over a campus of white buildings, some of which are surrounded by fences over fifteen feet high that seemed impossible to climb.  There is no name on the complex, and only a wooden sign giving traffic directions for the RBTI, whatever that is.   Though this is by far the largest facility in Tupper Lake, there isn’t a hint of what it is on the town’s home page.  Perhaps it’s best to leave this a mystery.

Cranberry lake came and went in the pouring rain.  To take a photo, I had to use my coat as a tent.   


Cranberry Lake, Adirondacks New York.

Just to the west was Star Lake, which is far more beautiful than the town of the same name.  It’s an old mining town that seems to have fallen on hard times, given the number of empty buildings and falling-down structures. The Internet says they mined iron at Benson’s Mines. My atlas locates many mining dumps, which have no doubt changed the chemistry of the streams.  The biggest building we saw had railroad tracks running in one side and out the other, though no trains were in sight.

The town of Natural Bride came and went.  Carthage came and went as well, all in the heavy rain. 


Way Cool Watertown

We headed Watertown, New York, because we couldn’t think of a more aptly named place to interview people on a fresh water journey. Just north of town we found the “Way Cool,” ice cream stand.  There, I got a junior-sized peanut butter chunk frozen yogurt to eat in the rain.  Eating it gave me an affinity with those who I wanted to interview,  


Way Cool Ice Cream Stand, Watertown, New York.

Pat and Tara were about my age, were eating adult-sized cones while sitting in a shiny red pickup.  I started with an easy question. “Do you know how Watertown got its name,” I asked.  “No,” said Pat. “No,” said Tara between licks.  Pat then added, "and I’ve lived in Watertown my whole life.”  Next, I moved on to my tougher double-edged question about positive experiences and concerns.   Both times, they spent a few seconds thinking before answering  “No.”  I guess they had neither an interest in, nor issues with, freshwater.

Josh and Amanda were sitting nearby in a dark blue Chevette, also licking large cones.  They rolled down the window to inform me that they too had no idea how Watertown got its name.  Knowing I was actually in the adjacent town of Black River, I asked them if they knew how it was named. Josh said “no,” while Amanda said, “after the Black River,” which runs through it.  Of course, my next question was if she knew the source of the name Black River.  No.  Thoughts or concerns about freshwater? No.  I got the distinct impression they were not trying to avoid me. They just didn’t seem to care.

At the gas station were two Watertown locals.  Neither knew nor cared how the city got its name. 

Then it dawned on me. Perhaps our nation has the serious water issues it does because many, if not most of the voters are simply clueless about it. They can be both intelligent and educated, and still not care.



Historically, the Saint Lawrence River is probably the most important river in North America, the gateway to New France, then later to the heart of British Canada. 


Landon's Bay on the Ontario Side of the Saint Lawrence River in the Thousand Islands area.

We crossed into Ontario at the Thousand Islands point of entry to arrive in Gananoque, where we spent the night of July 2.  This date fell between the Canadian (July 1) and U.S. (July 4) Independence Day celebrations.  Concerned that I might not find a place to stay, I booked a night at a chain motel, our case the Comfort Inn.  We found it in the bull’s eye of an exit ramp strip so typical of places designed for driving, eating, and sleeping.   Near us on the strip were the Ramada, Holiday Inn Express, Howard Johnson’s, familiar fast food and family restaurants, and a mini-golf course.  It looked like any other exit ramp in the world.



A small piece of the exit ramp culture just inside the gate of Gananoque, Ontario.

The name of the city is pronounced "Gaahn ah knock' quay."  There, we found the first of many fish statues to come.



The muskie is rusty in Gananoque, Ontario.  

This enormous statue portrays the largest game fish of the region, the Muskellunge in a fighting mood.