Adirondacks on a Higher Level
By Bob Leverett (with Monica Jakuc Leverett)
Robert T. Leverett (Bob) is a co-founder of the Native Tree Society, principal organizer of the Ancient Eastern Forest Conference Series, and senior advisor to American Forests Champion Tree Program. Bob was a regular contributor to the original Wild Earth Publication. He is also a co-author of “The Sierra Club Guide to Ancient Forests of the Northeast.” Today he is heavily involved in measuring trees to quantify their stored carbon and rates of sequestration. He is a coauthor of two scientific papers on the subject, one published and one pending. With his wife, classical music pianist Monica Jakuc Leverett, he is working on a book about his forest mecca, Mohawk Trail State Forest, in western Massachusetts.
(All photos by Bob Leverett)
It is no surprise to our friends that my wife Monica and I are bona fide nature lovers. We each have our favorite haunts to maintain our bearings and renew our spirits. A place that we share, near the top of our lists, is the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. For me, and I think Monica as well, passion for the Dacks continues to grow. I say this because our introduction to them followed different paths. Mine was searching for old-growth forests starting in the early 1990s, and Monica’s was in pursuing the adventures of canoe camping. Today, with our limited mobility, we are more into hiking to accessible spots. This suits my need to continue searching for patches of old-growth forest and measuring superlative trees, and fits Monica’s capacity for communing with the spirit of the place.
With this brief introduction, we’d like to share a trip we took in August 2019.
A New Mountain Shangri-La
We made our way by driving our customary scenic Vermont route. Our immediate destination was “Inspirational Heights,” a new B&B on Hurricane Mountain operated by our friends Marie McMahon and Wes Schock. The B&B is located at an elevation of 1,725 feet and looks to the west into the main section of the High Peaks. You can sit on their deck, and gaze across a grassy field into the distant High Peaks that include the Sentinel Range, Cascade Mountain, and a series of summits — Mount Marcy, Upper and Lower Wolf Jaw, the Gothics, and several other 4,000-footers. But a few photographs can do the talking better.
The view below is in the direction of the Gothics and Upper Wolf Jaw, two of a string of 4,000-foot peaks for which the Dacks are famous.
An aside is in order here. According to the Peakbaggers and other groups who keep up-to-date elevations of mountains, the original number of 4,000-footers in the Adirondacks was 46. But the number now is 43 or 44, depending on the specific list. Some of the original 46 were mis-measured. The number went down to 42, then one or two previously unlisted peaks made the grade, and the number went up to 43 or 44. In deference to tradition, Peakbaggers allows the famous 46 number to stand.
Swinging the camera to the right (the north), we see Lower Wolf Jaw, and in the center, the highest peak of all, 5,344-foot Mount Marcy. Marcy’s Native American name is Tahawus, which means Cloud-splitter. The top of the peak is alpine tundra.
Here is Mount Marcy up closer, an imposing sight.
The field in front of the B&B includes a number of grasses and forbs that add variety to the otherwise forested landscape. Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susan, thistle — European introductions to be sure, but they are an acceptable fit for the spot. Monica and I relaxed in a couple of chairs positioned by our gracious hosts in the shade of a venerable old sugar maple in the field. I felt myself entering into a somewhat uncharacteristic meditative state, gazing alternately into the fluttering of aspen leaves across the meadow and the ever-changing cloud formations over the High Peaks — a haven of peace in an otherwise rugged landscape. But in short order, I was up exploring. The thistle below caught my attention.
On the 22nd, Marie took us to several locations to share special trees with us. Hurricane Mountain received a lot of clearing in the past, especially at the lower elevations, but the terrain is rugged enough to afford protection to swaths and patches of older trees. The weathered forms of the trees speak of a returning naturalness to the forest. Marie had picked up on this, and I was indeed able to confirm that she had found a small patch of old-growth.
It is now time to remind our readers that the largest area of old-growth in the East is in the Adirondacks, somewhere between 300,000 and half a million acres, courtesy of the research of Dr. Michael Kudish, retired professor of Paul Smith’s College, and the late Dr. Barbara McMartin. Older, less complete estimates by people such as the late Dr. Edwin Ketchledge of SUNY were at least 200,000 acres. Appearing not to be aware of this research, in its STATE OF THE PARK publication, the Adirondack Council writes: “Old-growth forests cover more than 100,000 acres of public land.” While true, this is an extremely conservative number and undervalues the real significance of the Dacks.
My son Rob Leverett has continued to discover more amazing old-growth pines, as mentioned below. Here is one of his drawings of the kinds of old-growth forms you can find in the Dacks:
And now back to “Inspirational Heights.” We had a delicious dinner of grilled veggies and chicken with a garden-grown rhubarb/apple crisp for dessert. After the departure of other guests, Monica, Marie, Wes, and I sat on the deck and did some old-fashioned star gazing. The sky was spectacular. We could see Jupiter and Saturn, as well as a host of summer constellations. Bright blue giants like Vega and Altair and red giants like Aldebaran and Antares flexed their magnitude muscle among fainter patterns that never look like what they are supposed to, at least to my eye. Nonetheless, all the magic was still there as I dimly recalled myself as a young boy gazing skyward trying to identify the constellations. I recall that at first, the myriad of stars just formed confusing patterns, but I persisted: I learned the names of the prominent stars, their magnitudes, and sometimes their distances. I still marvel at the intellects of those early astronomers who figured out ways to calculate distances to such faraway objects, appearing only as flickers of light in the night sky.
On the morning of the 23rd after an excellent breakfast of quiche, we bade Marie adieu, and left our Hurricane Mountain Shangri-La, heading for a rendezvous at Lake Placid with my son, Rob, his partner Betty, Jared Lockwood, and Ray Asselin. Rob would serve as a guide for the rest of us to visit a spot of exquisite loveliness, which just might play a part in a film being produced by Ray on the history of the white pine. We needed silhouettes of old white pines with no obstructions in the foreground. This could be obtained by looking across a body of water and into pines lining the shore, provided the pines had the features of advancing age. To get such a composition, Rob took us to a wetland on Connery Pond that looks toward Whiteface Mountain, of Olympic fame.
The photo below shows Connery Pond in the foreground and 4,865-foot Whiteface Mountain in the background. Whiteface rises prominently above its immediate base, in places as much as 3,700 feet, and almost 3,200 feet above the surface of the pond, albeit over a longer distance. The ski run down the mountainside drops over 3,000 feet dizzyingly fast. Fortunately, the ski run is on the other side of Whiteface, so the wilderness qualities of the pyramidal peak aren’t compromised here.
Whiteface serves as a symbol of two competing uses of a special mountain: human development for recreational purposes and scenery and wilderness values. Skiers are not bothered by ski trails on the side of a mountain. To me, they appear like giant claw marks. In my view, they diminish the mountain’s role as habitat for plants and animals, and for maintaining a healthy watershed. However, their economic benefits are not in question. Some compromise is necessary, but in the case of Whiteface, the mountain surrendered too much.
Nonetheless, the mountain’s opposite side from ski development is true wilderness with ample old-growth. In the image, the ski trails are around the right side of the ridge. So long as the Adirondack Park protections hold, Whiteface will retain its real treasures.
As a brief digression, Peakbaggers immerse themselves in mountain elevation data. Numerical comparisons are built into the DNA of some of us. So, where do the Dacks fit in? There are 10 peaks in the Northeast reaching elevations of 5,000 feet or more. The Dacks claim two of them, Marcy and Algonquin. Dropping a thousand feet, the Northeast has 115 four-thousand-footers. The Dacks claim 43 or 44 of them (or if you are traditional, 46).
However, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. How high a mountain rises above its immediate base is also important. In that category, Giant Mountain is the champion of the Adirondacks, rising slightly over 4,000 feet from its immediate base at New Russia. Base-to-summit is a big deal for those of us who are into mountain superlatives, but just to keep us from getting swelled heads, the highest base-to-summit rise on the planet belongs to a peak in the Karakorums in Pakistan. The mountain is named Rakaposhi, which at 25,551 feet above sea level is the 27th highest mountain in the world. However, above its base, it rises 19,357 feet in just 7 miles, eclipsing other great mountains like Denali. So, if Giant Mountain should start to get a swelled summit, just yell the name Rakaposhi and run.
Here is Whiteface:
You may notice the outline of a structure atop Whiteface. It was a WPA project implemented as an economic stimulant in the 1930s. You drive to near the summit and then take an elevator through the mountain to the top and the observation platform. The structure does the mountain no favors. On the other hand, it does allow people to enjoy the view who would otherwise not be able to walk to the top on a trail.
The Snow Goose B&B
The rain prevented our group from doing much at Connery Pond, so Monica and I said our goodbyes and headed to our place of abode for the final two days, the Snow Goose B&B, which we highly recommend. Our hosts, Amy and Wayne, are always gracious and welcomed our return. The Snow Goose lies at the edge of the High Peaks wilderness just off State Route 73, and it is nestled among some highly attractive white pines. Across 73, we had access to the East Branch of the Ausable River, and up the road, to the above-mentioned 4,625-foot Giant Mountain, and Roaring Brook Falls. Old-growth forests are abundant on the steep sides of the surrounding peaks. However, the area also has a history of intense logging and land clearing. That so much old forest has survived, is a testament to the ruggedness of the Adirondacks.
This brings me to a point. The Dacks are not old mountains as once thought, but young ones with a hotspot beneath the crust that causes the region to bow upward. You will still read descriptions of the Dacks that cite their ancient origins, however, if geologists have it right, you can lay those descriptions aside and revel in the youth of the Dacks. I personally find that exciting news, the idea of youthful mountains in the East. One point to remember is that the Adirondacks are part of the North American shield, and distinct from the much older Appalachians to the East.
The A&W Pines
One of my missions these days is to assist several prominent carbon scientists evaluate the role of bigger, older trees in sequestering carbon. My function is to model trees for their volume using the high-performance equipment I own. From volume, the mass can be calculated, and finally, the proportion that is carbon. I have specialized in analyzing white pines because of their fast growth, and have chosen Amy and Wayne’s pines as one study site.
They are collectively known as the A&W pines. These conifers are very attractive and they date from a time when the land was cleared. So, they also serve as a kind of historical marker. The larger pines started growing around 125 years ago, and today are an imposing feature that gives visitors to the Snow Goose a feeling of being nestled among worthy trees, i.e. in a real woodland. The largest of the 12 mature pines measures a respectable 10.3 feet in circumference at 4.5 feet above the base and stands 135.5 feet tall. The absolute tallest is 137.0 feet. So, what does the big pine look like? The photograph below shows the lower trunk.
How much carbon is in a pine like the one above? By my calculations, it holds at least 3.5 tons of carbon in its trunk, limbs, and roots. This is equivalent to roughly 13 tons of CO2 being absorbed from the atmosphere to be deposited as elemental carbon in the trunk through the process of photosynthesis. You can look up on the Internet how much the 13 tons offsets in terms of human activity, but there is also the matter of space efficiency.
These 3.5 tons of carbon are packed into the space of a cylinder determined by a crown spread of about 44 feet. Other plants can grow under the big pine’s canopy and sequester even more carbon while the pine holds dominion over the column space beneath. It is a pretty efficient utilization of space for the purpose, but the benefits don’t end there. The pine produces oxygen, provides wildlife habitat, and participates in a forest cover which keeps the surrounding land cooler in the summer. When all the services are listed, we see that the tree is a working machine for sustaining life on the planet. It releases chemicals into the air that have direct health benefits. In fact, the role of pines as a promoter of both physical and psychological health is a subject of study by the scientific community, and a principle of shinrin yoku, the Japanese practice of forest bathing.
So far, I have modeled three of the A&W pines. Below is a handsome tree that reaches skyward 134.8 feet. Its 8.6-foot girth is large enough to give it an imposing appearance. This combination is sufficient for the pine to have sequestered 8.0 tons of CO2 equivalent. Here is a photo of A&W-2.
A Messenger Pine
We met a special lady (I will identify her as “C”) at Marie and Wes’s dinner on Aug 22nd. She and her husband own a summer home in Keene Valley. We were invited there on Aug 23rd to see her art work, her Native American collection, and to look at the stump of a large white pine that had been cut down of necessity 7 or 8 years ago. “C” had mentioned the pine at dinner, and it was apparent that the tree carried special meaning for her. Her brother thought the tree might be very old because of its size, but a ring count showed it to date to the approximate time that the house was built.
Fortunately, the pine had companions. Other pines thrust their blue-green foliage through a prevailing hardwood canopy. Pinus strobus, the lordly white pine, has long been a favorite species of mine, so much so that I’ve devoted countless hours to searching for outstanding trees and documenting groves from Canada to Georgia.
I believe that the Adirondacks may well be the repository of the largest distribution of large and old white pines across the full range of the species. The pines in the mountain South will grow taller, but for sheer bulk, the northern pines may win the prize, certainly in terms of their number.
The Dacks have long had big tree groves such as the Cathedral Pines between Seventh and Eighth Lakes, Pack Forest in Warrensburg, the Elder’s Grove near Paul Smith’s College, and a few other spots. But we had been led to believe that these were our last, best places. It has been only in the last few years, in large part due to efforts by my son Rob Leverett, that we’ve come to realize just how much more there is. Rob continues to make important discoveries in both easy and hard-to-access places.
After measurements taken in 2017 to 2020, by Erik Danielsen, Elijah Whitcomb, Jared Lockwood, and Howard Stoner, we can say that the tallest tree thus far measured in New York grows on the lower slopes of Ampersand Mountain, in a grove found by Rob. It has these dimensions: circumference of 13.2 feet and height of 164.7 feet. It is so far New York State’s only confirmed 50-meter-tall tree, but rest assured, that will change. This pine is a real beast. It has stored not less than 26.3 regular tons of CO2 equivalent in its above and below ground components.
For comparison, a 2-foot diameter, 100-foot-tall white pine will have sequestered 3.7 above and below ground tons of CO2 equivalent. A pine of that size would be around 60 years old if growing on a relatively good site. By contrast, our big pine may be 200 years old, but probably not older. Assuming 200, the ratio of the ages is 3.33 to 1 while the ratio of CO2 sequestration is 7.1 to 1, showing that the tree has performed better as it has gotten older. This is contrary to what many forest managers believe. The faster percentage growth of a pine’s younger years does not translate to more absolute growth, which occurs later. The sweet period of overall volume occurs from around 60 to 120 years, and it can continue for decades after that for dominant pines.
Back to “C’s” place. Across the driveway leading to a parking area, I spotted the crown of what looked to be a large pine. The tree is huge and picture-perfect in shape and very healthy. Here is a look at its lower trunk.
The handsome pine measures 12 feet in girth and stands 130 feet tall. It is not an old tree, although it may be older than I think. My guess is 130 years, and from the appearance of its broad crown, it has a lot of growing left to do.
I see big trees all the time, but I was especially struck by this one. What to name it? Ah yes, CPPP, or C3P (without the Star Wars “O”)! That stands for “C’s Picture-Perfect Pine.” So, “C”, who mourns the loss of the big pine we went there to see, has an even larger tree in tip-top shape to take comfort in. I think of C3P as a kind of messenger, alerting us to the presence of unheralded giants scattered across the great Adirondack wilderness, offering us a chance to experience the full power of the species.
A Place of Calm and Reflection
When Monica and I stay at the Snow Goose, we routinely visit the Rooster Comb Trail, which leads appropriately enough to Rooster Comb Mountain, with its heralded views into the lofty High Peaks. Presently, neither Monica’s nor my knees will stand the 2.5-mile trek to the top, but there are features along the trail to attract us. One is a small pond near the trailhead. A short trail encircles the pond, and while it seemed a bit tame to me initially, I have grown to appreciate it.
The trail begins on a boardwalk that crosses a wetland and small stream. It then makes its way to the pond, passing some fairly large northern white cedars on the way. White pines adorn the hillside. Smaller hemlocks add to the deep-woods ambience. Nature is making a comeback here, but it takes time to re-establish the soil base. So, while the plant communities have become re-established, they are still sparsely distributed relative to what one sees in older forests.
Here is what the boardwalk and surrounding vegetation looks like:
On the evening of August 24th, the pond beyond the boardwalk begged to be photographed. The water was still and captured tree and cloud reflections. Some mature pines grow along the far side of the pond next to the trail to add ambience to the water, aquatic vegetation, and peaks on the horizon. The featured image at the top and this photo below show what we saw.
In conclusion, I believe our visit was, in part, to take on a new mission to celebrate the white pine, and to affirm its importance to the Adirondack forests. Its under-bark is edible, hence the name “Adirondack” or bark-eater, given to the Algonquin-speaking Indians who lived there. It was the tree of peace in the Iroquoian culture and played an equally important role to the Algonquins. It is our tallest eastern species and is once again reaching significant heights in many places within the Park. Viva La White Pine! Its commercial role has never been in doubt. But the species is so much more than that and deserves to be seen in its totality.
The pines are whispering in our ears, “This is our land, we welcome you to it, but be gentle with us and all the life forms that depend on us. For in our protection, is the salvation of your species.”
Robert T. (Bob) Leverett is a co-founder of the Native Tree Society, principal organizer of the Ancient Eastern Forest Conference Series, and senior advisor to American Forests Champion Tree Program. He is also Chair of the Forest Reserves Science Advisory Committee (Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation). Bob was a regular contributor to the original Wild Earth Publication. He is also a co-author of “The Sierra Club Guide to Ancient Forests of the Northeast.” Today he is heavily involved in measuring trees to quantify their stored carbon and rates of sequestration. He is a coauthor of two scientific papers on the subject, both published. With his wife, classical music pianist Monica Jakuc Leverett, he is working on guides for his forest mecca, Mohawk Trail State Forest in western Massachusetts.