Tuesday 14 July 2009

Woken by Woodpeckers

[a travel piece about the Adirondacks published in the Sunday Tasmanian, late 2000]

It is dark. I am in an unfamiliar room in one of the world’s most violent countries. A sound startles me out of sleep. Is that a door creaking? I open one eye, but the sound stops. Then, closer still, another door creaks, then another, until the room seems under attack from all sides.

Before complete panic takes over, I remember where I am, and start to guess what the strange creaking sound is. My “attackers” are none other than woodpeckers! Or to be precise a combination of woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers tapping away in the adjacent woods.

I am staying at a woodland retreat in the Adirondack Mountains in the north-eastern United States. Though just a few hours up the road from New York City, the Adirondacks (said Adder-RON-dacks) contain some of the wildest country anywhere in the USA. It is a loosely defined region of mountain, lake and forest, a vast area of wild country fringed by towns and low-key resorts favoured by New Yorkers wanting to get back to nature (or "head to the woods" as they might say).

That's in summer at least. In winter the region is more likely to be invaded by skiers, with areas like Lake Placid famous for its ski slopes and cross-country trails. The 1980 Winter Olypics were held here, and the US Winter Olympic team still trains here.

Most of the Adirondacks is contained in the Adirondack Park. At 6 million acres the Park is bigger than Yosemite or Yellowstone or most other parks in the USA. Though it has never achieved National Park status, the park is afforded virtually the same level of protection. So the moose, bears and beavers found here are as safe as they can be anywhere in this heavily industrialised nation.

It wasn't always so. During the 19th century the Adirondacks was the scene of widespread devastation as huge tracts of forest were cleared for their timber, and roads were driven into country that was so wild even the Native Americans had seldom visited. The name “Adirondack” appears to be based on a native American word meaning “bark eater” – a possible reference to their belief that, in comparison with the rich hunting lands nearby, the Adirondacks would only support people who could live off the bark of trees!

Certainly trees were the main resource extracted from the area through the 19th century. It wasn't until the late 1800s, with the support of President Roosevelt, that it was realised the same trees were worth more when left for wildlife and tourism. New York State finally declared that the area "shall be kept as wild forest lands" forever. At the time that declaration was wishful thinking, given the extent to which the forests had already been logged. Yet a century or so later their dream is a remarkable reality. The wild forests really do teem with wildlife, and people from all over the world come here to share the natural wonders so close to some of the world's biggest and busiest cities (including New York, Boston and Montreal).

For a Tasmanian in the States for the first time, there is a cartoon-induced unreality to meeting the local wildlife. Just as people's “knowledge” of Tasmanian devils is often derived from "Taz", the cartoon character, so too was my knowledge of woodpeckers, skunks, bears and beavers rather too closely modelled on Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera. With the expert help of local naturalist and author Ed Kanze, I am soon put on the right track. I learn, for instance, that beavers are strong and powerful animals, and considerably larger than I had thought (weighing perhaps as much as a large dog.)

I visit a pond and wetland that has been created by beavers damming up a stream with the trunks and limbs of some sizeable trees that they’ve downed with their own teeth. It is a feat of engineering far more serious than you’d expect of the cute toothpaste touting "Bucky Beaver".

Ed then shows me a pileated woodpecker, a bird about the size of a rosella, and pretty much the model for "Woody Woodpecker". I learn that their tapping noises are not for nest construction purposes. The male woodpeckers use pecking as a territorial sound – in lieu of vocalised calls. When they build nests they do peck out hollows in tree trunks, though then they choose softer wood, and the nest building is a much quieter exercise.

One of the other delights of the area is the canoeing, with dozens of streams and hundreds of fresh water lakes accessible to paddlers. The lakes result from the extensive glaciation of the area during the last ice age. New York’s Long Island is itself a vast terminal morraine, marking the point where the bulldozing glacier finished its work.

Whatever the cause the result for the adventurous canoeist is a network of lakes and streams on which it is possible to paddle for weeks. At times it seems that every second car in the Adirondacks has a canoe strapped on. We stop for a paddle on one of the remote forest-fringed lakes, and I soon begin to understand the attraction. It comes as no surprise that James Fenimore Cooper, author of “The Last Mohican”, spent a lot of time in this region. In such a place it isn’t hard to picture yourself living back in those times.

Just out of the Adirondacks, in the neighbouring Green Mountains of Vermont, I visit the backwoods cabin of another famous local author – the poet Robert Frost. Best known for writing “The Road Not Taken”, Frost spent many years teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont, retreating to this cabin for much of the summer to think and write. Today the log cabin is virtually as it was during the 1950s and 60s, when Frost frequented it. Surprisingly it isn’t sign-posted, and it is only through luck and persistence that we locate it at all. It seems the locals are happy for it to remain a road less travelled.

In a week I felt I scarcely scratched the surface of this delightful region. I reached the top of only one mountain – and there are 46 of them over 4 000 feet! And though I was lucky enough to see a black bear in the wild, I didn’t get to meet a moose or confront a coyote. I guess there’s always next time.

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