Thursday, July 7, 2011


July 2, 2011
Pyramid Lake, NY

Near the lake, which we were approaching with as much expectation as if it had been a university, -- for it is not often that the stream of our life opens into such expansions, -- were islands, and a low and meadow shore with scattered trees.
       HDT, The Maine Woods

Today I happily returned to Pyramid Lake, for an excursion organized by Jackie Donnelly to explore the plant life in this Adirondack setting. Pyramid is a retreat center, and on this summer weekend, there were youth groups enjoying the great outdoors here too. This is one of Jackie's special places - she volunteers here - and she delighted to share it with us.

Just one hour's drive from my front door, I can step out onto land so wild and interesting, it's like visiting another planet.

At the lake, our morning party consisted of Jackie, myself and Ruth Schottman. Once again it was my pleasure to follow in their footsteps – er, in this case, paddle-dips – and learn something new.

The center sits along a small portion of the northern shore, and the rest of the lake and surrounding forest is classified as Adirondack wilderness.

In the first cove, we spotted Rose Pogonia – we would see much more of it throughout the day.

Water lobelia, water-lilies and irises were all out and looking beautiful.
No pickerel-weed flowers yet -- it seems late this year.
We saw a cove full of mini-lilies, 2-inch replicas of the familiar sweet white lily. Are they a separate variety?

 Tiny sundew plants sparkled on fallen logs, in terrarium-like mixes here and there.

Jackie led us to the far end of the lake, where a cedar swamp contained some treasures she hoped to share with us.

It is remarkable how little these important gates to a lake are blazoned. There is no triumphal arch over the modest inlet or outlet, but at some undistinguished point it trickles in or out through the uninterrupted forest, almost as through a sponge.
    HDT, The Maine Woods

A sponge, indeed ! We put ashore and gingerly stepped (or stumbled) among tree-roots, onto deep sphagnum moss covered with delicate bog-loving plants.

And, lacking a "triumphal arch," Jackie and Ruth wisely brought along orange survey-tape, to mark our trail, so that we could find our way back to our boats. It made me think of Hansel and Gretel in the dark spooky forest, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs. (And we all know how THAT turned out.)
This was bushwacking at its finest.
I kept nervously checking over my shoulder at our backtrail, for this cedar- swamp was so thick that it would have been very easy to get lost.

Just as I was thinking about that possibility – who would ever find us ? and when ? – I saw deer fur and some bones. Only the shadow of this deer remained. Perhaps she went peacefully, and just became one with the swamp ... ? My timid mind considered other possibilities.

But I soon got over it. My companions kept pointing out so many plants that were new to me. At our soggy feet was spread an amazing assortment of green treasures.


One-sided Pyrola, Twinflower, Snowberry,  and Wood sorrel --

Though Jackie did not find the one particular plant she had hoped to show us here, we didn’t care. The mosquitoes were surprisingly lackadaisical, and we could take our time exploring.

I could see my own reflection in a glistening dewberry -

With the loss of the usual visual cues, the cardinal points became ...
less obvious.
Lines between things became blurred. 

After just a few minutes in this emerald forest, it was difficult to discern what was land, and what was water.
What was sky, or what was earth.

It was a pleasant, slightly hypnotic feeling.
The Sirens of the swamp are very real.

All this time, we were never more than fifty feet from where we put ashore!

Back in the boats (which we had a little spot of trouble locating, even WITH the orange tape), we continued around the far side of the lake, in the lee of Bear Mountain, which rises steeply above with water.

Under the gaze of the Lady of the Lake,

we floated past giant pinkish boulders covered with green and white lichens.

And giant fishing-spiders !

Damselflies were everywhere, clasping in courtship. Ruth had several of them hitch-hiking on her kayak. I even saw two of them hooking up underwater.
Glub. Glub.

There was fireweed (complete with teensy fly on the left)

and a basking water-snake -- right at eye level !
I think I put the camera up more to protect my face, than to take his picture.

We came ashore back at camp for lunch, and sat at a deck overlooking the beach cove. Entertainment was provided by a large snapping turtle, who was trying unsuccessfully to make friends with the girls on the swimming-float.

At lunch we met up with the fourth member of our boating party, Nancy Slack, an expert on mosses and lichens. She had just missed us in the morning, and had done some solo botanizing on the lake. If she had been with us, we would probably still be in that swamp, learning our mosses. She joined us for the afternoon paddle into the swampy outflow of the lake.

It was a lovely day, and despite seeing more lovely things in those shallows - things like salamander eggs and sheep laurel -- 

-- I physically ran out of gas soon after lunch, having worked late the evening before.
It was time to call it a day.

Once again I am grateful to accompany such knowledgable friends, who lead the way to (formerly) spooky places like impenetrable swamps, and expand my horizons.

Ruth shared her field-notes with us later, and it is strikingly similar to one of Henry’s lists from The Maine Woods. Here is what he noted on one of his trips:

The prevailing flowers and conspicuous small plants
of the woods, which I noticed, were:
Clintonia borealis,
checkerberry (Gaultheria procumbens),
Aralia nudicaulis
(wild sarsaparilla),
great round-leaved orchis,
Dalibarda repens,
Chiogenes hispidula (creeping snowberry),
Oxalis acetosella (common wood-sorrel),
Aster acuminatus,
Pyrola secunda (one-sided pyrola),
Medeola Virginica (Indian cucumber-root),
small Circæa (enchanter’s nightshade),
and perhaps Cornus Canadensis (dwarf cornel).

Thoreau always sniffed at Emerson’s suggestions to join him at the Philosopher’s Camp (click for link) in the Adirondacks; preferring the wilds of Maine instead.

But I think he would have liked this place.


  1. Yes, I believe Thoreau would have loved Pyramid Lake. I certainly do, and I love sharing it with friends like you, who show its beauty back to me with your wonderful photographs. Thanks for offering such a lovely account of our special day in this magical place.

  2. Yes, very nice visual story and commentary! Thanks!

  3. Headed home for a visit to Lake Champlain/Adirondacks in two weeks, hope to see some of same!
    Your pictures are a teaser to someone on the SD prairies. :o)

  4. My oh my! All I can say is Beautiful! And I wish I could have been with you! What an experience!

  5. Only a place as SACRED as Pyramid Lake .... has those breathtaking waterlilies. I would canoe to the far ends of the lake just to see them up close. My 10 years of summer camp @ Pyramid Lake were, by far, the best of times ...... and hold, without doubt, the fondest memories close to the vest. <3

  6. Hello Kristin, thanks for visiting ... you are lucky to have spent so much time at Pyramid ! it truly is a sacred place