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Adirondacks Style

At six million acres, New York's funky wilderness preserve, one of America's largest refuges, is also one of the most alluring. An aficionado explains why

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Adirondack style is also enjoying a renaissance in home design—a trend rooted in nostalgia for the decorative tastes of the great old camps of the Gilded Era. Examples of it include thick-cushioned sofas upholstered in Native American geometric designs, dining chairs embellished with carvings of twigs, porcelain plates featuring game-animal motifs, and bearskin rugs. “Rustic without roughing it—that’s the easiest way to define the style,” says Jon Prime, who co-owns the Adirondack Store, a half-century-old gift and home furnishings emporium, with his mother, Ruth, in the mountain resort and Winter Olympics training town of Lake Placid.

In the town of Lake Clear, not far from Lake Placid’s ski slopes, Jay Dawson has turned his grandfather’s former speakeasy into a workshop and showroom for furniture he fashions from driftwood. One piece, a chair, features a back support and seat crafted from a single piece of cedar driftwood, salvaged from a river. “I work with lumberjacks all over the Adirondacks, and they call me if they come across unusual stuff,” says Dawson. The ice storm of 1998 that devastated the park’s forests proved a bonanza for him. “Alot of dead trees were covered with ice and bent over but didn’t snap,” says Dawson. “I sell them as entrance archways for summer camps.”

In Keene, an hour’s drive south, Bruce Gundersen creates startling dioramas of Adirondack scenes from pine-cone scales, soil, twigs, bark and other materials that he collects in nearby woods. “The northern European fairy-tale feeling of the old Adirondack camps really influenced my work,” says Gundersen. But his occasionally sinister fairy tales can sometimes turn the Gilded Age ideal of “rusticity without roughing it” on its head. In one diorama, a great camp lodge contains a bear’s den; the tableau also depicts wolves prowling through another wing of the house.

Painters have long been identified with the enduring aesthetic of the Adirondack style. During the past century and a half, artists including Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Winslow Homer and Rockwell Kent lived and worked in these mountains. Some 500 paintings by 145 artists—all of them at one time Adirondack residents—are in the collection of the AdirondackMuseum. What defines an Adirondack artist? “More than anything else, an Adirondack landscape,” says Atea Ring, owner of a Westport gallery that bears her name.

Painter Paul Matthews has taken as his subject the skies over this vast wilderness. In his works, turbulent clouds dominate the landscape. “I’m drawn to thunderheads,” Matthews tells me during a visit to his studio in Keene. “I have to get away from the trees to see the skies.” In this quest, he has scaled mountains and even braved the open space of a garbage dump to make sketches or photographs of clouds, which provide the raw material for his paintings. “Clouds change and move so fast, it’s hard to paint them directly,” he says. Matthews’ canvasses hang in the AdirondackMuseum and the Atea Ring Gallery.

Clouds are massing ominously a few weeks later as I stand on the shores of a pond in the northern region of the park. This is the moment when loons converge in flocks, preparing for their annual migration south. The bird is strikingly beautiful, characterized by a velvety black head, ruby eyes and dagger-like bill; but it is the loon’s poignant, eerie cry that haunts anyone who hears it. Nina Schoch, a research scientist, heads the Adirondack Cooperative Loon Program, a project jointly run by state and nonprofit private groups to protect and monitor the birds.

Schoch has monitored several loon families on this pond since 1998. It is the height of the autumn foliage. Russet maples and golden birches—along with the scudding clouds—are mirrored on the clear water as we launch our canoes. “I’m looking at how many loons are returning to the pond and the reproductive success of the birds,” says Schoch. Among the threats facing the loons are motorboats and Jet Skis; wakes from those sources swamp nests on the water’s edge. Another is lead from sinkers, which fish consume and the loons consequently ingest. Another major concern is mercury, an airborne pollutant that precipitates out of the atmosphere, concentrating in lakes and ponds, thus contaminating the food chain and making its way from bacteria to insects, fish and birds. “Because of their heavy fish diet, loons are far more susceptible to cumulative mercury poisoning than ducks or geese, who have a more herbivorous diet,” says Schoch. Females deposit mercury in their eggs, passing on toxic amounts to newborn chicks. Until additional studies are conducted, Schoch and her colleagues cannot say definitively what the long-term consequences of this exposure may be.

The researchers capture loons at night by using recorded loon calls to lure the birds near a boat. They then blind them with a spotlight, scoop them up with a large net and cover their heads with a towel to calm them. The scientists take blood and feather samples for mercury testing and band the birds; the process requires 20 to 40 minutes. After that, on a weekly basis, Schoch paddles out on the pond to monitor the adults and determine how many chicks hatched and survived fledging.

We paddle in slowly. During the next couple of hours, adult loons take turns plunging underwater for 45 seconds or more in search of perch and crayfish to feed their chicks. Across the lake, the haunting wail of loons echoes eerily. An adult male emits a low tremolo, warning us and a chick that we are getting too close. When the youngster catches up to the parent, the two jabber in a series of hoots. “The chick is telling the father to stop talking and dive for some more fish,” Schoch says. As we paddle back to shore, I notice a bald eagle, one of the loons’ predators, wheeling high overhead. Surely, I think, its presence will spook the birds, but they float placidly on the pond. Schoch surmises that the loons somehow recognize that the eagle is too young to pose a real threat.

A few days later, a cold snap desposits a blanket of snow on nearby Whiteface Mountain. Within a week, the loons are gone. Soon, the brilliant autumn foliage will fall away, leaving only bare branches and the black lace of twigs stamped against dark winter skies. Like the Iroquois long ago, I will retreat to more temperate surroundings—in my case, an overheated Manhattan apartment—to await another Adirondack summer.

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