Reflections at Fall Equinox

September 25, 2020

Tis true without lying, certain & most true. That wch is below is like that wch is above & that wch is above is like yt wch is below to do ye miracles of one only thing. And as all things have been & arose from one by ye mediation of one: so all things have their birth from this one thing by adaptation. The Sun is its father, the moon its mother, the wind hath carried it in its belly, the earth its nourse. The father of all perfection in ye whole world is here. Its force or power is entire if it be converted into earth. Seperate thou ye earth from ye fire, ye subtile from the gross sweetly wth great indoustry. It ascends from ye earth to ye heaven & again it desends to ye earth and receives ye force of things superior & inferior. By this means you shall have ye glory of ye whole world & thereby all obscurity shall fly from you.
~ from The Emerald Tablet of Hermes, translated by Isaac Newton

Scramble to Nowhere, Special

June 19, 2020

I meant to get this written yesterday, but repairmen scheduled to come Friday showed up Thursday instead. Can’t complain. As things stand during the pandemic, you’re lucky to get someone to come to your house at all.

On the way to Little Crow

This week I hiked two lesser mountains called The Crows (Big and Little) and an extended ridge line called the Nun-Da-Ga-O Ridge, all on the same day. Nun-Da-Ga-O sounds like it could be an Iroquois word, or Anglicization thereof, but it’s just a name a local hiker made up.

I’ve hiked pieces of this trail, a few miles outside of Keene, New York, many times, but Wednesday I decided to start on Hurricane Road, summit Little Crow, traverse the coll to Big Crow, and descend a quarter mile to the Ridge Trail, which undulates up and down for several miles in numerous rock scrambles before descending at Weston Mountain to Lost Pond. From there, it’s flat easy trail to Crow Clearing, a parking lot where most people hike to Big Crow or Lost Pond, or hike the Nun-Da-Ga-O loop, bypassing the Crows.

Little Crow isn’t hiked much. There’s no parking lot, the signage is obscure, and Big Crow is a bigger mountain with an easier ascent. I chose a clockwise loop to get Little Crow out of the way early, since it can be difficult for the vertically challenged (a.k.a., short). I carried a heavy day pack , since I knew there would be no water until I got to the Pond, and the Ridge trail is unmarked, so I needed extra gear and clothing in case I lost the trail and spent the whole day wandering around up there.

I find climbing a treacherous trail with a heavy pack disconcerting. Some people find it harder going down, but I think it’s much easier to jump down than scramble up. I only needed to take off the pack to get over one ledge, as it turns out. I’ve climbed Little Crow many times, but this was the first time the trail was dry. I realized that what I interpreted as a difficult hike was mainly my reluctance to get my knees muddy and my bottom wet. Still, I cursed the giants who cut this trail.

Summit of Little Crow

I enjoy Little Crow more for the grass, Red Pine, and lichen near the summit than the views. In the twenty years since I moved to the Adirondacks, many of the views I once enjoyed have partially filled in, as the forests continue to recover from the poor forestry and deliberate fire setting of the nineteenth century. At the summit the scent of balsam pine was pungent. The thing that struck me most when I moved to the Adirondacks from Tucson was the many fragrances, not just of balsam but of sweet fern and wet leaves. The desert only smells like dust, except after a rain, and it doesn’t rain often. In the Adirondacks, it rains a lot. I’ve been up on this range in the rain, in the fog, in many feet of snow, in approaching thunder, and on days when the black flies swarmed so heavy that you had to thread your sandwich under your head net. Usually, though, I pick a better day to be up here. On this day, the deep deep blue of the sky conveyed a limitless calm.

There’s long stretches of scrubby Red Oak on The Crows, not seen much in this area. On the descent into the coll, a Hermit Thrush sang buoyantly. Thrushes kept me company throughout the day.

There was one small section of rock on the descent that looked impossibly steep. I could easily have gone around it, but I calculated that the fall would be minor and there was a tree to grab if I slipped, so I went for it.

Success! It’s always gratifying to find a reasonable place to test the tread on your boots. I would need that security traversing the bare rock up to Big Crow.

Final lip on Big Crow

The views on Big Crow are impressive. You can see the Dix Range and the Great Range of the High Peaks. You can also see the weather coming in for quite a ways on this isolated and exposed peak. I was up here once with a very spiritual woman who was praying and praying and praying as the thunder clouds rolled in. Can she hear that or is she deaf, I wondered, cognizant of the quarter hour scramble, at least, to get down into the canopy. When she finally opened her eyes, she said that of course she heard the thunderstorm coming, but she wasn’t finished with her prayer. That’s one tarry at the summit I’ll never forget.

Clouds gathering on the view from the Tongue Range

The wider loop I chose was about nine miles and some change, but mileage and net elevation gain doesn’t tell the story of an Adirondack hike. I hiked the same distance, on the Tongue Range over Lake George, two days earlier. That hike took four hours, including stops. This one took seven-and-a-half hours. Nun-Da-Ga-O is a continual up-and-down into depressions of hemlock, beech, and Yellow Birch, then along shallow brush and balsam, with exciting stretches of bare rock and exhilarating climbs. Though this is not an official trail, someone has been maintaining it, sawing through the downed Paper Birch trees that are yielding to maturing forest.

My companion at Deer Leap on the Tongue Range

At one point I left the main trail and hobbled up a spur path to a wide cliff ledge for a rest. I’m a steady plodder, not a race-and-rester, on the trail. Even at a summit, I only stop long enough to rehydrate, snap a few pictures, and refresh bug spray. Partly it’s because I’m out for the journey, not the destination. I’m not much of a peak bagger. Also, I usually gauge my abilities against the trail accurately, and I don’t need to rest. There are people, almost invariably young men, who try to race to the summit and brag about their “time,” and I don’t know how to express the derision I feel for this approach to wilderness. Nun-Da-Ga-O is not a scary-steep enterprise, but there is a long way to fall in places if you trip while you’re rushing to “beat your time.”

On Nun-Da-Ga-O

The main reason I spend less time drinking in the view is probably because I live here. Not that I’m inured to the beauty–how can you be? But I’m not indulging in a few days or a few weeks away from it all. My life is here. I have chores before I leave in the morning and my own dinner to cook when I return, possibly with a few have-to’s yet in the day. The next day will probably involve errands or work, even if it’s only writing a blog post, so I’ll need to get to bed early. When you live here, you fit your hiking into your life. I often wonder what it would be like to be on vacation in the Adirondacks; I started a new job the day after I arrived here. Not that I’m complaining. I know I’m incredibly lucky. I also know that when you move to an idyllic spot, you take your life with you.

Ladyslipper are in bloom.

Stepping onto that ledge off the unofficial trail, I stepped between worlds. I reapplied bug repellent, poured some electrolyte replacement powder into my water, snapped some pictures, then just sat. I studied the peaks in the distance and named them. I listened to a Winter Wren singing exuberantly on and on and on. I entered a feeling of aloneness that’s difficult to describe because I don’t understand it myself. I know how to avoid crowds in the Adirondacks and I’m often alone on the trails, sometimes for a full day. I don’t think twice about it. I wasn’t totally alone on this hike. I believe I saw a total of seven people. I don’t like meeting people now that we have COVID-19, but prior to the pandemic I smiled and greeted a fellow traveler as a kindred spirit. With the exception of those beating their time, I like other hikers.

But in that place I felt isolated and alone, in a way that connected me to the rocks and the leafy forest below me, to the blue sky and the Winter Wren singing his complex joyful song. I haven’t felt that far away from other people and their bullshit for a long time. It was like a big bag of other people’s stuff dropped off my shoulders, over the cliff. I felt no pressure, no reason even, to move. I had miles yet to walk, but I knew the trail had no unfair demands to make of me. I don’t even remember if I prayed; the space itself was like a prayer, the heart singing gratitude without reflection.

Hiking is not really about geographical space. It’s about a meeting of trees, rocks, animals, and human. Also sky and wind. It’s different every time, and the difference itself is a gift. I’ve hiked Nun-Da-Ga-O as a bug-bitten endurance event. I’ve been disoriented up there, wandering around and around trying to find the cairn. I’m not trying to convince anyone to hike The Crows or Lost Pond or the ridge between, necessarily. It’s not about where you go, it’s where you are when you get there.

My ledge on Nun-Da-Ga-O

I hit the trail again when I felt myself becoming sleepy. The day was far from over, and there were challenges still ahead. An even bigger cliff loomed ahead of me further on, and I hoped the path would lead up there. It did! There was a rocky scramble to view of Lost Pond below. Above, a pair of Golden Eagles circled.

Golden Eagles are rare in the Adirondacks. They like the high cliffs and open spaces that are more common out West. I’ve been on hikes where others pointed to Golden Eagles in the distance, too far for me to distinguish from any other large bird, but this was the first time a pair circled close enough for me to identify. This time, I remembered to pray.

By the time I got to the last view, Weston Mountain, I was ready to go home, and I even wondered if I was walking in circles, as every rocky outcrop was beginning to look the same. I actually got out my topographical map, a thing I mostly seem to carry around for luck. The Pond was directly below me, so I was on the right path. I was sure of it as I descended Weston, which was the unrelentingly steep sonofabitch I remembered. Yes, I can pray to a mountain and call it a sonofabitch on the same hike. Those who have done a grueling all-day traverse can understand.

Lost Pond

I did not stop at Lost Pond, as planned, because a trio of juvenile ravens had already claimed the space. Raven fledglings scream incredibly loud, and you would think something bizarre and terrible was going on if you didn’t know better. They like to hear their own voices. Some people mistake these cries, which can go on for hours, for a person screaming. Fortunately I knew what was going on, so I didn’t panic, but I took the jarring noise as a sign that it was time to make my way home. I still had three miles to go, on the flat. The beautiful, haunting notes of the Wood Thrush punctuated the late afternoon, as I headed for the car.

On the way to Crow Clearing

Late Spring

May 29, 2020

Leaves finally came out this week, in literally two days.

Round Pond
American Toad (?)
Garter Snake

Water, water everywhere

May 22, 2020

This is Deer Brook Falls, a hike I’ve wanted to go on for weeks, and the trail was finally clear and passable. Photo doesn’t do it justice.

I notice that productivity at New Moon seems slow for me. It’s a time when blockages are cleared, hence it feels like things are stationary. This week I had a major water leak in my kitchen, which has been a distraction. Good thing I’m taking a break from writing.

I think it’s a good thing, working with New Moon energy, to be persistent. This can be a rewarding energy if you have the patience.

A new moon teaches gradualness
and deliberation and how one gives birth
to oneself slowly. Patience with small details
makes perfect a large work, like the universe.


View from Blueberry

May 8, 2020

I’m taking a break from writing for awhile. Last week, I finished the draft of yet another novel, submitted another article to an E-zine, and wrote a post on Beltane for this blog. I wonder sometimes why I never get anything done, and I forget that it’s because I’m writing. I have a feeling I would understand my productivity better if I got paid for it.

Wednesday I hiked Blueberry Mountain in Keene, one of the toughest two-and-a-half miles I am acquainted with. About 2,000 foot elevation gain, some of it scary steep. A lot is over bare rock, and there’s one part where I always chicken out and skirt through the brush. I should have taken a picture of that section.

There was a bit of snow and ice uptop and, as you can see from the photos, trees are still bare along the upper slopes, though they are starting to bud in the Valley. Stream crossings on this trail are usually easy, but one was dicey with all the snow melt. I was wearing good boots, so I didn’t get my feet wet, literally, though metaphorically this was a good trail to start the hiking season.

Inexorable Spring

April 24, 2020

Open water everywhere now! I’ve been hearing Canada Geese from my apartment for weeks. With the reduced traffic from COVID-19 lockdowns, I wonder if even people in the cities can hear them. When I lived in Arizona, they flew so high during migration that they looked like swarms of gnats.

Tired of looking at cats on the Internet? Here’s a duck.

There’s actually a female Mallard nearby in this photo, but she’s impossible to see with her camouflage coloring. Though males are more colorful, females are more vocal.

Video: Stan Malcolm

The Mallard is the most common wild duck, ancestor of the domestic white, found throughout the Northern Hemisphere with slight variations in coloring. This male has a lot of white on its body and a reddish belly and might be confused with a Merganser, also common in this area. The female confirms the identification.

“Like a duck to water,” goes the saying. I took this sighting as a message of being in one’s own element, feeling natural, effortless, and in control.

Coming Home to Nest

April 17, 2020

On an electric pole along the Ausable River, between the villages of Jay and Ausable Forks, I saw a pair of nesting ospreys on Wednesday. They’ve picked this particular site before, and the region experienced a half-day planned electricity outage last year as crews tore down the nest after the chicks were grown. Looked on the map and noticed a pond in a housing development, which may be stocked, flows into the river near this site.

Noonmark from Route 73, along Ausable River.

This video, which is amazing, is not the electric pole in question. These birds eat a LOT of fish. They can pull bigger fish than shown here out of the lakes in the Adirondacks.

video: Tatiana Sappheira

I’ve been trying to learn to differentiate Osprey, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, and Northern Goshawk calls. Sounds doable when comparing recordings, but in the field it’s a bit more challenging.

video: Kees Vanger
video: mylensview

The Pivoting Point of Change

April 3, 2020

I take a lot of photos this time of year, as the light accelerates the land of ice and snow into a brown and gray world. Most photos show the Adirondacks in summer or autumn or, more rarely, winter; few depict this time of year. These scenes are meaningful to me partly because this is a landscape that will not last. In fact, it will disappear quickly. There is a tremendous amount of energy building, waiting to be released. This is the point of power, the transformation of one thing into another. To me, this what magic is about.

COVID-19: A Missive From My Corner of the World

March 25, 2020

As we soldier through the Covid-19 pandemic, many are curious about how people are managing in various parts of the world. Here’s my report.

Photo: Greg Smith

New York State seems to be, outside of Italy, the epicenter of the virus, with most confirmed cases in this state. I say “seems to be,” because we don’t really know. New York is doing more testing per capita than anywhere in the country, but most people who are infected, probably even most people who are ill, have not been tested. When New York City has 17,000 positive cases and urban counties adjoining the city in other states are only reporting 500 to 3,000, the difference in numbers probably reflects the amount of testing more than actual cases.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has been assertive in garnering resources to address the epidemic in the state. The state is now running 15,000 tests per day, with about a third of those positive for COVD-19. That’s a lot. Hospitalizations have been higher than anticipated at this stage, a cause for concern.

On Monday, March 16, the governor ordered schools and many businesses serving the public, such as gyms and theatres, to close, and declared that restaurants must stop seating people but could continue to offer food for takeout and delivery. On the same day, the library where I work part-time decided to close. Rationale behind this was clear: the virus could spread on borrowed materials, many people hang out at the library, and staff were vulnerable to infection through constant close contact with the public. I was opposed to the closure, because I thought people might not heed the advice to avoid crowded places if they could not obtain books and movies to forestall boredom at home, and because about a third of residents in the area do not have access to the Internet. I have to admit, however, that the closure made life easier and safer for me personally.

I have been following media reports about COVID-19 since mid-January, and I have always been nervous about this disease, in a way I never reacted to H1N1 and SARS a decade ago. I had been slowly stocking up on essentials since that time, anticipating a period of possible quarantine and panic buying. It was difficult to do this, not knowing how much I would need, since I was using money I felt I needed for dental work and car repairs. We are used to preparing for emergencies in the North Country, and I would have to stop sometimes in the midst of my preparations and remind myself that I was only preparing for a stay at home, not for electricity and Internet outages or road closures.

On Sunday, March 22, the governor ordered all businesses closed and all workers furloughed except those working in vital healthcare and infrastructure. This was for the whole state, not just the New York City area, and these mandates have been observed here as they have been in more populated areas. The ski resorts were already closed and the tourist industry is shuttered for the time being. We are having an early spring, and spring is when tourism is low here, so this shutdown comes at a time of least economic disruption.

The social distancing thing is a bit weird, but it hasn’t been bothering me psychologically, and I have plenty to do around the house. I live alone, so my exposure is minimal except when it becomes absolutely necessary to go out. The long cold snowy winters prepared me for isolation. So far, it’s been tolerable. Of course, I could still go hiking (more on that later), but we’re not supposed to be on the trails at the moment, because they become eroded if they’re walked on before the mud has dried up. Bummer.

Mid-March, people with second homes in the area began arriving, either to escape the virus or to take advantage of forced time off work or in the mistaken belief that they would circumvent the shop closures downstate. Such moves would have made sense if they had been taken in early February, but migrating northward at that point only spread the virus up here. Visitors have now been asked to self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in the county, although I doubt that most are. People who live here shuttered their bed-and-breakfast businesses right away out of self-preservation, but people downstate with vacation properties have been advertising them as coronavirus getaways, to the consternation of the locals.

The capability of the local healthcare system to respond to the epidemic is concerning. I do not mean to disparage Adirondack Medical Center or Elizabethtown Community Hospital. We have a great rural health system here, but a rural health system is still a rural health system. Essex County, which is the second largest county east of the Mississippi, is sparsely populated, with only two ventilators and no intensive care units in the entire county. There may be more ventilators in nursing homes or private residences, but that’s all there are for the public. When patients are critically ill, the emergency rooms usually stabilize them and transport them elsewhere (as they should). Contact tracing would be feasible in a sparsely populated area such as this, but almost all testing is happening downstate. There are no test kits in the county and the few residents who have tested positive were sick enough to need medical attention elsewhere. This is not a place you want to get sick.

Another issue has been hikers coming up from the cities. There is concern about the concentration of people in parking lots and on the more popular trails, and a marketing system designed to sell the area as a vacation spot is going full gear into trying to persuade people to stay home. Plus, as mentioned earlier, the trails are fragile right now. A bigger concern is the possible strain of backcountry injuries on the precarious healthcare system, and the paucity of rescue workers for locating lost hikers. Spring is a particularly dangerous time to be in the woods, with flooding, ice, and cold nighttime temperatures.

One of the benefits of living in this area is the resilience of the community. People have been wonderful about pitching in to help the elderly and infirm manage social restrictions. The generosity of others with their time, money, and resources has been gratifying to watch. The library is continuing to pay me at the moment (fingers crossed), and I haven’t really wanted for anything.

One of the hardest things about this epidemic is all the uncertainty. I’m a numbers-oriented person, and there are a lot of numbers floating around that don’t mean anything. What is a 30,000 infection rate when most people in the state have not been tested? What is a 4% death rate when many people who have had the virus don’t know they were ever infected? I take a lot of comfort in the principles I learned through Al-Anon. The coronavirus pandemic is not my responsibility to solve, nor is it anything I can control. We all have a part to play, even if it’s not going hiking, but ultimately we have to let go. Today I have what I need and today I am well. I don’t know about tomorrow, but I only have to take care of today.

The Ice of March

March 20, 2020

We’re having an early spring, which means lots of ice right now. Here is a collage of photos I took earlier this week.