Saranac Lake

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There are trees downed everywhere. Tall white birch, littering the forest of younger white and yellow birch. They are strewn in the same general direction; although which direction we aren’t sure. The sun hasn’t been out all day and we don’t have a compass.

“You’ll be able to tell what kind of storm it was from the direction of the blowdowns.”

Kate is my host for the day in the Adirondacks. She is taking me hiking. We hike St. Regis Mountain in a cloud. My crocs inhale mud.

“These younger trees look 15 or 20 years old. There must have been a storm about that long ago. This is all new growth to fill the opened canopy.”

We stop in front of an old yellow birch that appears to have multiple trunks emerging from the same point in the ground. Kate tells me about coppicing, and how you can date coppiced trees to learn about when the area was forested. These trees are old. The protected forest preserve is old.

We swat our way through the mosquitoes. Kate points out pillows and cradles; mounds and depressions throughout the forest. They indicate a blowdown long ago. The root ball has decomposed into the pillow. When the tree falls, it tears dirt from the ground, creating the cradle. The orientation of the pillow and cradle suggests the direction the tree fell.

Fallen trees make other signs as well. Dead trees are a wonderful place for new trees to grow. They grow in a straight line, on these “nurse logs.” Trees growing on dead trees form roots above the soil, moving down over the fallen log. They have “tent roots.” Kate suggests I read Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessel. My notebook is filling up with book recommendations.

View from Baker’s Mountain
Andy and tree
Gray tree frog

I stay in Saranac Lake for several days with my friend Andy, alternately waiting out the rain and hiking. Hiking feels good on the legs after so much biking. Along with St. Regis, I hike Baker and one of the Haystacks (there are as many as three with that name here) with Andy.

On the trail we talk about the N.S.A., Edward Snowden, and Andy’s uranium coffee mug.

“What is it, exactly?”
“It’s a coffee mug, with a uranium glazing.”
“Can I use it?”
“No, it’s radioactive!”
“What’s the point, then?”
“It’s interesting. It’s a relic of the atomic era.”


In the archives of the Saranac Lake Free Library I find a collection of old elementary school lunch menus, handwritten, each menu accompanied by an illustration. The collection is introduced, “The Menues reflect what ever was happening, or did happen on that day or time.” For instance, on Thursday, April 1, 1965, the school ate Tomato Soup, Minced Ham Sandwich, Cottage Cheese, Milk, Apple Betty. There was a baseball game, a batter preparing his swing. On Tuesday, May 11, 1965, it was Tomato Rice Soup, Cold Meat Sandwich, Olives and Pickles, Milk, Sliced Peaches. A car sits outside an apartment, no note as to whatever this meant. I remember Sliced Peaches from my school days, too.

On Monday, June 6, 1966, the meal was Chicken Noodle Soup, Bologna Sandwich, Green Bean Salad, Milk, Pineapple Tidbits. Gemini 9 was splashing down.

The librarian tells me it was the school janitor who, every day, drew the menus.


“He didn’t know, but his wife saved every one of them. When he died she had boxes full.”

There are photographs of the town from the 1920s, when it was larger and seemingly healthier. Saranac Lake was a destination for tuberculosis patients, to rest and heal in the fresh mountain air. In one panorama, the hills are dotted with hotels and cottages, each with porches dedicated for patients. A train used to run here (technically it still does, but as a much-shortened tourist train) bringing patients from the city.

“A lot of folks came to town just for a short time, and left on the train — some of them bodies. And some liked it and stayed, and are still here, in their eighties.”

Bar-B-Q-Burgers, Buttered Green Beans, Milk, Jello. Surveyor on the Moon – Finally.