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Adirondacks for Elephants

If there is one thing I'll happily never get used to, it is the feeling that accompanies you down the road less traveled. It is a feeling of curiosity and discovery, that can't quite be explained. If you've ever strolled the perimeter of a particularly commanding structure, like New York City's Cloisters or Quebec City's Château Frontenac, and felt the flutter of intrepid exploration before daring to enter, then you know what I'm talking about. For hundreds of years, explorers and day-travelers alike have explored the Adirondacks, and I expect nearly all can cite an addiction to feeling dwarfed by nature as the chief inspiration. It certainly was mine when I reached out to my neighbor, noted Adirondack naturalist Ed Kanze, in search of adventure.

Published: 02/14/2017

As you meander over the scenic byways of the Adirondack Mountains, you'll no doubt notice what looks like random convergences of cars on the side of what seems to be an isolated road. Sometimes they are lined up neatly in a make-shift parking lot, sometimes lined up one after another; no matter how they are parked, these little auto-armadas all point to the same thing - a trailhead and an adventure. It was at one of these gateways, the trailhead to Moose Pond, that Adam (Innkeeper at Lake House) and I met Ed Kanze the other day, and bundled in at least two layers of everything, borrowed snowshoes in hand, set out into subzero temperatures for a morning snowshoe adventure into the Adirondack wilderness.

For 10 years now my friends and I have had a running joke, "if you don't know, ask... Ed". Maybe it is because I was raised with an Encyclopedia Britannica instead of the internet and research was peppered with the pastoral charm of cracking book spines, sharpened pencils, and librarians in button down sweaters but to me, learning is as much an adventure down a rabbit hole as a walk in an unknown woods. In that context, Ed Kanze is like Wikipedia, but with all of the rewarding character and texture of old-fashioned discovery; as a seventh-generation Adirondack native, and with his history as a forest ranger, acclaimed author, photographer, naturalist, geographer and nature historian, Ed is, for those of us lucky enough to know him, the Bill Nye of the Adirondacks. Every tree, twig and track is a mystery, and every mystery unfolds like an episode of Columbo - expertly told to allow you to follow along and possibly sprint ahead with an excited "EUREKA!"

The entrance to the trailhead was lined with hawthorn bushes, the perfect segue to the story of the Northern Shrike. "Even though it's winter," Ed began, "the Adirondacks are alive with life, and sunny days like this one are perfect for seeing the Northern Shrike; an uncommon bird in the lower 48, but up here in the Adirondack winter you may find them." He went on to explain how, similar to other winter animals, these songbirds turned birds of prey will often hunt for more than it needs. This behavior doesn't stem from a love of killing, but rather an adaptation to winter survival. If a meal comes along during lean months, the shrike can't afford to pass it up and will impale its prey on a hawthorn, refrigerating it for later.

And so, even before we began our sojourn towards Moose Pond, Ed had us captivated.

Though the Moose Pond trailhead was just a few hundred feet from the main road, just as Ed predicted, the everyday bustle of Route 3 faded into the distance as we made our way into the dense forest. The trail to Moose Pond, cutting through the forever wild woods, makes for spectacular snowshoeing (as we were) or cross-country skiing. During winters where the temperatures allow for gradual melting between snowfalls you might even be able to hike it if densely packed but like all things weather related, it is better to be over prepared than under prepared and snowshoes and traction cleats shouldn't go overlooked.

As you make your way over its graceful slopes, you might wonder if it was planned this way. And you would be right. In 1925, Moose Pond was decided to be the perfect spot for a grand resort, "Bel-Lago" or "Beautiful Lake". The road was the first thing cut, almost artfully, through the woods. As I traversed the snow I imagined an old Model-T making its way down the elegant road, its passengers waiting on baited breath for their arrival at their resort and the lake. When the stock market crashed plans for the resort were put on hold and eventually abandoned and in just a few decades, the forest has overtaken the wide passage making it a trail more suitable for traveling on foot. It's a testament to the awesome power of nature and also an example of how we humans influence it by our very existence Ed explains:

"We can easily forget that the forests of the eastern United States, Adirondacks included, evolved in the presence of at least two species of elephant, the Woolly Mammoth and the American mastodon. And there might have been more. Jefferson's Mammoth bones were dug up in the 1960s in Westchester County, near NYC, when an IBM research lab was being built. I've held those impressive bones in my hands! These days, though, I think some scientists question whether the Jefferson's Mammoth (named for Thomas Jefferson) was a genuine species or might have been just a variety of the Woolly.

Elephants of various species inhabited this part of the world for millions of years, enduring through many ice ages and the warming periods between them. The only warming they didn't survive was the most recent one---the one that coincided with the arrival of smart, hungry, tool-making primates from Siberia."

Had the elephants of the Adirondacks been allowed to thrive, Adirondack forests may not actually have grown up to look as dense and dark as they are today. The giant herbivores would likely have kept the woods more open and sunny, and their droppings might have done wonders for the wildflowers. It's food for thought and another fascinating layer to the Adirondack experience. Though we cannot go back in time and allow the elephants of the Adirondacks flourish to alongside our own species, we can experience the Adirondacks that we ourselves have adapted to over time as they are now - the majestic Moose Pond being the perfect introductory adventure and Adirondack Naturalist Ed Kanze the perfect standard bearer.

Adirondack Naturalist, Ed Kanze

A naturalist and proprietor of the Adirondack Naturalist Company, a licensed Adirondack guiding service, Forbes Life magazine pronounced Ed "the Adirondack guide nonpareil." Ed has served as a ranger and writer for the National Park Service in Maine, Florida, Mississippi, and South Dakota; as a field instructor for National Audubon Society ecology workshops; as Senior Naturalist at Teatown Lake Reservation in Ossining, NY; and as Curator of the Trailside Nature Museum in Cross River, NY.

For information on Adirondack Naturalist Ed Kanze and other Adirondack adventures, please visit our activities page.

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