Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Whoa! It's Really COLD!

It's beginning to look a lot like . . . Veterans' Day? Whoa!  Seems like it's awfully soon to be welcoming winter!  Sure, we've had snow this early (and even earlier) in former years, but it was always followed by thawing temps.  But not this time. Not yet, anyway. Our warmer-than-usual fall has suddenly plunged into polar cold -- and I mean REALLY cold: down into the single digits last night. I imagine the several inches of snow that fell Monday night will be with us for quite some time.  Ah well, might as well make the best of it and go see how this wintry weather has transformed the autumn woods.

First stop was a little swamp along the road over Mt. McGregor. I expected to see a snowy woods, but I was surprised to see the watery pools already frozen over.

Next stop was a stream that flows into the Hudson River at Moreau, and of course the rushing water still flowed around snow-topped rocks.

Where the stream broadened out before it joined the river, still water reflected tree trunks turned golden by a lowering sun.

Freezing rain had preceded the change to all snow, coating every twig and branch with ice.  All around, the twigs were flashing points of brilliant light.

On the forest floor, evergreen fronds of Christmas Fern were blanketed with sparkling snow.

How amazing to see this Queen Anne's Lace flowerhead completely enclosing a tiny snowball!

I love how the fruit-laden branches of Winterberry add such abundant and beautiful color to the wintry landscape.

I also love how this little guy, our newly adopted four-month-old kitten named Mickey, seeks out my lap when I sit at my computer.  As winter arrives with its bitter cold, how wonderful to welcome this small kitty's rumbling weight and warm silky fur to bury my frigid hands in whenever I sit to write.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Storms Hit the Adirondacks Hard

With all the news of terrible fires out in California, widespread flooding in Nebraska this past summer, Category 5 hurricanes on the coast, and super-tornadoes in the midwest, I had been thinking that we in northeastern New York sure had escaped unscathed by the effects of climate change.  But then came the Halloween night storm, dropping up to 5 inches of rain in a few hours, and with winds approaching 60 miles per hour tearing through the forests of several Adirondack counties, including parts of my home county, Saratoga. We in downtown Saratoga Springs did not suffer much damage, aside from a few toppled trees, but just a few miles north of us roads and bridges were destroyed, homes were flooded, power outages were widespread, and an 80-year-old priest was swept away and drowned when he tried to exit his flooded car.

I knew that priest, his name was Tom Connery and he used to visit the same retreat center I often frequented. So that made the severity of this storm come home to me in a very real way. And so did the storm-ravaged scene pictured here, of a portion of Lake Desolation Road destroyed by a raging flooded creek, not much more than 10 or 15 miles from my home, and a road I often travel to reach some favorite paddling waters.

Just down the road from that devastation, the creek that caused it all looked so innocent today, babbling quietly along, and keeping well within its banks. This was the scene looking downstream.

But when I turned to look upstream, evidence of the creek's massive destructive power lay all about, in gouged-out banks and toppled trees.

These broken trunks indicate that wind as well as water might have contributed to their destruction.  Or maybe the impact of that big uprooted White Pine as it crashed through the woods was enough to snap off other trees that stood near it.

The crown of the pine lay close to the road.  It appeared that branches had been trimmed to clear the road, so that road crews could drive their heavy equipment to the washout site just up the hill.

I think it will be some time before this road is repaired. And from reports that I've seen from around the region, of many other roads and bridges destroyed, there will be lots of work for road-repair crews for quite a while to come.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Fall Finds Along Bog Meadow

Wednesday was gray, but it didn't rain, and the temperature was quite balmy.  A nice day for a walk, but I let most of it slip away before I got out of the house. Luckily, there's a delightful trail just on the other side of town, so I headed over to Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail to stretch my legs before dinner. This trail (a former railroad bed) runs for about two miles amid forested wetlands, swamp, and open marsh, and despite the abundance of invasive plants like Tartarian Honeysuckle and Phragmites that line much of the trail, plenty of native plants thrive there as well.

Many of the trees and shrubs have lost their leaves by now, but as I enter the trail from the Rte. 29 trailhead, I note that the honeysuckles still hold on to most of theirs. Although they are turning yellow now, the leaves remain green enough to continue photosynthesizing, a key reason this shrub can out-compete most of our native shrubs.

But not all of them!  Plenty of Gray Dogwood still thrives along this trail, and this time of year this native shrub easily stands out from all surrounding vegetation because of its startling-pink pedicels that hold its stark-white berries.

By contrast, you really have to search to notice the dun-colored catkins of American Hazelnut that dangle from its hairy twigs.

There are plenty of Poison Sumac trees in the swamp near this end of the trail, and this time of year they are easily distinguished, thanks to their abundant clusters of dangling whitish berries.  These berries would be quite attractive to include in fall floral arrangements, but I would not recommend that anyone try to do so.  Not that ANY vegetation should be picked in this nature preserve, but especially not the kind that could give you quite an unpleasant rash. But they are quite pretty, viewed from a safe distance. And the birds really thrive on them.

The fluffy seed heads of asters are also quite pretty now, especially when found amid the colorful leaves of Blueberry and Meadowsweet.

I'm always delighted to find the dry seed pods of Canada Lily, for I love how the separating sections of the pods are held together by what looks like delicate stitchery.

This old rotting stump almost looked as if it were afire, covered as it was with flame-yellow masses of the tiny discs of Lemon Drop Fungus.

About a mile in, the trail approaches an area of open marsh, a favorite resting place for many migrating waterfowl. Not today, though, for only a few silent Canada Geese could be found quietly moving amid the cattails on the far side of the open water.


On the opposite side of the trail from the open water, a tussock swamp stretches as far as the eye can see. All these varied wetlands create a rich habitat for many kinds of wildlife, where mammals like deer and beavers and foxes and coyotes thrive, as well as abundant numbers of bird species.  Bog Meadow Brook Nature Trail is a favorite haunt of avid birders,  especially on early mornings.

But this was late afternoon, and all was calm and quiet.

The autumn foliage is muted now, with the exception of a single oak with startling-red leaves.

The leaves and fruit on this Swamp Rose, however, added their own vivid glow to the scene.

I found many other Winterberry shrubs that were laden with more thickly clustered berries than this one was, but I was particularly drawn to the beauty of these graceful branches leaning over the quiet water. They reminded me of Japanese watercolors.

But I was not happy at all to find these berries, as vividly colorful as they are.  For these are the fruits of Autumn Olive, an aggressively invasive shrub.  Maybe the already-established invasive honeysuckles growing nearby will help to keep this shrub at bay, but I think I will point it out to Bog Meadow's trail steward and ask him to cut it down.  Despite the fact that birds love these fruits, we don't need any more alien species here!

Monday, October 28, 2019

Climbing a Waterfall, Walking a River Road

It sure did rain yesterday.  Rained and rained and rained.  At first, I thought, "Oh shoot, this will bring down all the leaves!  But then I thought, "Oh great! This will fill up all the streams!" I was thinking of one stream in particular, one that tumbles down the mountain that rises just across the road from Spier Falls Dam and which was mostly dry the last time I checked on it.  But it sure was full and rowdy and rolling when I went to visit it today.

I love this little stream and the way it bounds from boulder to boulder through a beautiful woods. So I leapt across a water-filled ditch and climbed the rocky watercourse to where it disappeared under a high powerline road.

Up and up I went, pulling myself up the steeper spots by grasping the sturdy Striped Maple and Hop Hornbeam trees that line the streambank. The water splashed and danced quite merrily as I made my way along.

At last,  I reached the high powerline service road that follows the rolling contours of the Palmertown Ridge, the range of mountains that rises above the Hudson River here on the northern boundary of Saratoga County. I could see my stream pouring through a culvert that passes beneath this road.

Beyond the road, the stream sheeted out across a rock face before it plunged through the culvert.

In winter, when this rocky terrain is smoothed by several feet of snow, I have followed this stream much higher up the mountainside, snowshoeing up and up and up to where its freezing water has transformed huge boulders into icicle-festooned palaces.  But today, the steep and slippery rocks, as well as the hip-high vegetation, dissuaded me from climbing higher.  So I followed the powerline road down to Spier Falls Road instead.

I always marvel at how the power company manages to erect its poles and pylons on such rugged and uneven terrain.  But erect them they do, to carry the many megawatts of power generated below, where the Spier Falls Hydroelectric Dam crosses the Hudson River.

I was delighted to see so much wonderful color still, with the mountains covered with cinnamons, ochers, greens, and bright gold.  And what a spectacular grass this is, with its vivid multi-hued yellow  blades and such an exuberant habit of growth, streaking up straight and tall from the ground and topped with a frothy mist of spent flowers. I sure hope it is not some horrid invasive, introduced by the trucks that install and service the power poles.

UPDATE: Several experts have suggested that this grass is Panicum virgatum (Switch Grass), a grass that is both native to New York and demonstrably secure within its range.  I am happy to learn this. I am also amazed that the land surrounding this powerline service road is so remarkably free of invasive species, considering the amount of disturbance to the soils.

Eventually, the service road led me downhill to Spier Falls Road, which I followed back to where I had parked my car.

Craggy boulders line Spier Falls Road, and the spring-watered rocks are home to many beautiful and interesting plants.

Mounds of the aptly-named Fountain Moss (Philonotis fontana) thrive on the spring-watered ledges, happily co-existing with the multitudes of Early Saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis) that also make their home here.  The basal rosettes of saxifrage leaves will stay green all winter, nourishing the plants that will transform these boulders into flower-covered rock gardens early in the spring.

These rosy-red Wild Strawberry leaves and their scarlet runners looked quite striking against the water-blackened boulders.

A single Highbush Cranberry shrub (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) had sprung from the rocks, its branches heavy with glossy ruby-colored fruit.

When I reached my car, which I'd parked by the dam, I was struck by the river's beauty today, with the multi-colored mountains so perfectly reflected in the still water.  I drove down the road to the Sherman Island Boat Launch, where I feasted my eyes on one of my favorite vistas, looking downstream.

Turning to face upstream, I was met with the equally stunning sight of these little islands and more quiet reflections.

Driving home, I had to stop once more to observe the same little islands from upstream.

And again I stopped, reluctant to leave this gorgeous landscape, pulling into the parking lot at the river's bend to gaze at this colorful mountainside that ascends from the river's rocky shoreline.  There's a trailhead quite near, which can lead hikers up to that ridge of bare rock visible in this photo near the mountain's summit.  The view of the river valley from up there is really quite spectacular.

Heading home at last, over Mt. McGregor, I had to make one final stop, this time at a little roadside swamp where Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) thrives in astounding abundance. I am so grateful I live in such a beautiful part of the world.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

My Paddling Pals on Pyramid Lake

There probably won't be too many more autumn days as lovely as Monday was.  A bright sun burned off the fog that lay over Pyramid Lake and the rest of the north country this morning, and also quickly warmed the air from the 36 degrees Fahrenheit at dawn to a comfortable 60-ish by the time my pals Nancy Slack and Ruth Brooks joined me for a paddle on this pristine Adirondack wilderness lake.

Here's Nancy in her Kevlar Hornbeck canoe.

And here's Ruth in her inflatable canoe that she can pack in a bag and stow in her car's trunk.

As soon as we pushed off from shore, I led my friends down to the eastern end of the lake,  paddling close to sun-warmed banks made brilliant with blueberry shrubs.

The eastern end of Pyramid Lake eventually narrows into a stream that penetrates deep into a cedar swamp.  A fascinating feature of this swamp is that, while the sphagnum-carpeted banks support such acid-loving plants as cotton sedge, sundews, and cranberries,  the water itself is basic, due to its underlying marble substrate.

As we moved through the shallow water of the swamp, our paddles stirred up uncountable numbers of Nostoc balls, colonies of cyanobacteria encased in pea-green gelatinous orbs.  During the chill of the night, the Nostoc balls had sunk to the muddy bottom, but as the sun warmed the water, they began to rise closer to the surface.

Recent heavy rains had raised the water level enough that the extensive patches of Small Bur-reed (Sparganium natans) that thrive in this lake were completely submerged.  Normally, at this time of year, the spiky seed heads of this emergent plant (rated as a Threatened species in New York State) would extend well above the water.

Nancy pulled one specimen of Small Bur-reed above the water so we could all have a better look at it.

Here's just one of the sphagnum-covered hummocks, this one displaying both red and green species of the moss.

Down under the shallow water, masses of the green alga called Chara carpeted the muddy bottom.  Because of its branching structures and green color, this alga resembles a land plant, but it is found only submerged in fresh water, particularly in lime-enriched areas of the northern temperate zone.  This alga feels rough to the touch because of calcium deposits on the cell walls, and the metabolic processes associated with this deposition often give Chara a distinctive smell of hydrogen sulfide. This odor suggested one of this alga's common names, which is Muskgrass.  And yes, the odor was immediately detectable, as I pulled a few pieces up from the bottom to more closely examine them.

While the foliage of trees surrounding the lake was beginning to fade from the apex of its brilliance, the leaves of Marsh Cinquefoil (Comarum palustre) lining the shore remained as vivid as ever.

I love this image of Nancy and Ruth comparing their bryophyte finds!  And there certainly were lots of mosses and liverworts to be found in this shallow end of the lake. I am so very grateful for such knowledgeable (and also delightful!) friends like these, who can teach me so much about the natural wonders we find together.

Before our visit to Pyramid Lake was complete, I urged my friends to paddle over beneath the cliffs, where the sheer rock face of Bear Mountain rises dramatically from the water's edge.  Ravens often roost on these craggy cliffs, and a pair of them loudly announced our presence as we approached the mountain.  Ruth recorded their calls on her cell phone, and entered into conversation with the Ravens as she played the calls back and the birds responded.  I was struck by how the calls echoed across the surrounding mountains, especially since I had earlier noted the absolute silence we had encountered here as we first set off across the lake's quiet water.

An afternoon breeze had come up, to ripple the water and set the trees to whispering. The gentle lapping of wavelets against our boats and the sighing pines seemed to be begging us to stay, but other obligations called us home, sorry to leave but filled with gratefulness that such perfect beauty was ours to enjoy any time we wished to return.

I still had one more stop to make before returning home.  There are marble boulders that line the entrance road to Pyramid Lake, and each spring I find those boulders adorned with the beautiful tissue-thin flowers of American Purple Clematis (Clematis occidentalis).  I wondered if I would find their fluffy and curvaceous seed heads at this time of year. As this photo reveals: yes, I did!