On a clear winter day, Ray Falconer, the scientist in charge of the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center field station atop Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks of northern New York, can see Mount Washington, 130 miles to the east in New Hampshire, and Montreal and the St. Lawrence River, 80 miles to the north. Directly below to the southwest, a mere six miles away, he can easily see the village of Lake Placid, the site of the 1980 Winter Olympics. But what Falconer sees most of all around him are the snowy summits of other Adirondack peaks rising above spruce and fir forests like whitecaps in a roiled sea.
Seen in perspective, Lake Placid is merely a small village of 3,000 set in the midst of the Adirondack Park, an enormous wilderness and playground that, for all the Olympic hoopla, has been called the best-kept secret in the U.S. Even many of those aware of the park are not quite certain how it is administered. Comprising six million acres—almost 10,000 square miles—the Adirondack State Park is the biggest park in the country. It is almost three times as large as Yellowstone; it is, in fact, bigger than the state of Massachusetts, which is visible from the top of Whiteface.
The park contains 42 mountains higher than 4,000 feet, 11 of them with Alpine summits harboring plants not otherwise found south of Labrador; sheer cliffs that reach to 1,400 feet; gorges that sink as deep as 2,000 feet and shelter almost sunless rain forests; a waterfall with the odd name of O.K. Slip that is higher than Niagara; 2,300 lakes and ponds and 31,000 miles of rivers, brooks and streams, among them the Ausable, one of the best trout streams in the East. Despite the stocking of hatchery fish over the years, a couple of Adirondack lakes still contain genetically undisturbed strains of brook trout and lake trout. Within the park there are deer, black bear, fishers, mink, otter, beaver and coyotes. On occasion there are reports of mountain lions.
New York State owns 2.3 million acres of the park outright, and this land is locked up as much as any wilderness can be as a Forest Preserve. As the result of public protest against devastating logging practices in the 19th century, a unique clause in the state constitution decrees that this tract "shall be forever kept as wild forest lands." Except for the maintenance of trails and campsites, no trees can be sold, removed or destroyed without constitutional amendment, and that would require passage by two successive legislatures and statewide approval by the voters. This protection has been in force since 1895, and in all that time no constitutional convention or session of the legislature has adopted any amendment to repeal the Forever Wild clause.
Approximately 100,000 acres of the state land have never been cut at all, and this primeval forest imparts to the visitor a sense of timelessness that is extraordinarily rare in this age of future shlock. As William Chapman White wrote in Adirondack Country, published in 1967, "As a man tramps the woods to the lake he knows he will find pines and lilies, blue heron and golden shiners, shadows on the rocks and the glint of light on the wavelets, just as they were in the summer of 1354, as they will be in 2054 and beyond. He can stand on a rock by the shore and be in a past he could not have known, in a future he will never see. He can be part of time that was and time yet to come."
The remaining 3.7 million acres within the Adirondack Park boundary, popularly known as the Blue Line, are privately owned. These private lands are given over to estates, villages, resorts, lumber camps, factories, mines and farms. The private and Forever Wild lands occasionally intermingle like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but the use of any private property must conform to the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan adopted into law in 1973 and administered by the independent, bipartisan Adirondack Park Agency. Indeed, the Adirondack Park is the largest area in the U.S. under one comprehensive land-use plan.
Starting in the 19th century, the park has attracted outdoors enthusiasts. In 1815 Joseph Bonaparte, the exiled king of Naples and Spain, bought 100,000 acres and built a hunting lodge near Diana, where, it was said, he hoped to settle his brother if he could escape from St. Helena. James Russell Lowell, Louis Agassiz and Ralph Waldo Emerson roughed it at Philosopher's Camp near Follansbee Pond. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow refused to go along when he learned that Emerson was taking a gun. "Then someone might get shot!" the poet exclaimed. John Brown, the abolitionist, had a farm in the Adirondacks, and his body lies amoldering in a grave just off Route 73, two miles east of Lake Placid. Theodore Roosevelt was only 18 when he wrote his first book, The Summer Birds of the Adirondacks. He counted 97 species; 165 are known to be there today. When he was Vice-President, Roosevelt was picnicking near the summit of Mount Marcy, which at 5,344 feet is the highest peak in the Adirondacks, when he learned that President William McKinley had taken a turn for the worse after having been shot by an assassin in Buffalo.
Thomas Cole and other artists in the Hudson River School sought out the mountains; Frederick Church painted Twilight in the Wilderness, one of his finest oils, in the Adirondacks, while Winslow Homer's Adirondack watercolors had a freedom and brilliance never seen before in this country. Mark Twain had a camp at Lower Saranac; Robert Louis Stevenson sought the clean air at Saranac for treatment of his tuberculosis; Theodore Dreiser based An American Tragedy on the case of Chester Gillette, who dumped the body of his girl friend in Big Moose Lake. William James refreshed himself in Keene Valley. Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud once spent three days at James' old camp, and although Freud was charmed by the wilds he wrote his daughter that he was glad it rained the last day because "my horns and hoofs" were not up to the steep mountain slopes. Melvil Dewey of Dewey Decimal System fame, a founder of the American Library Association and the Library Journal and a man prominently involved in the American Metric Bureau and the Spelling Reform Association, started the Lake Placid Club, where the International Olympic Committee will stay for the Winter Games. Dewey introduced skiing to the Adirondacks, and his son, Godfrey, a winter-sports enthusiast, was a driving force behind getting the 1932 Winter Games for Lake Placid.
That such a vast area as the Adirondack Park could still exist within a day's drive for 55 million people is largely the result of the rugged nature of the Adirondacks themselves. Geologically, the Adirondacks go back more than one billion years. They are not part of the Appalachians but are a southward extension of the ancient Canadian Shield, which includes the Laurentians. At one time the ancestral range towered as high as the Himalayas, but erosion, subsidence and glaciation have worn the High Peaks of the northern Adirondacks down to their tough roots of anorthosite, a very durable rock, the nether parts of which extend six miles deep into the earth. No water can penetrate the anorthosite, and a heavy rainstorm will send tons of water roaring down the slopes, tearing away the thin cover of earth and forest. The scars give the High Peaks an awesomely primitive appearance; White-face takes its name from a slide that left an enormous glare of bare rock down the east face of the mountain.
Because of the geology of the Adirondacks and the fact that the mountains were scoured by glaciers as recently as 9,000 years ago, the soils, derived largely from the underlying rock, lack many basic nutrients. The Indians of pre-European days tended to avoid the mountains, preferring to fish, hunt and forage in the rich bottomlands along the Mohawk and St. Lawrence rivers. The very name Adirondack is an old Iroquois slur upon the enemy Algonquins. It means "bark eaters," and the Iroquois applied the term to the Algonquins who sometimes came down from Canada to hunt in the mountains that the Iroquois dismissed as barren.