What “Are” the Adirondacks?

We usually refer to the Adirondack region simply as “the Adirondacks”, a catch-all phrase that seems to encompass everything that the Adirondacks have to offer. Outsiders sometimes refer to the region as the “Adirondack Mountains”, but to characterize the entire park simply as one large mountain range is misleading. The long western fringe, for instance, has no true mountains at all, and yet that part of the wilderness is just as Adirondack as the High Peaks. So what, then are the Adirondacks?

The Adirondacks are a mountainous place, to be sure, but the peaks do not easily arrange themselves into ranges as do other mountain groups, like the Rockies, the Sierras, the Cascades, or the Appalachians. A few mountains are aligned into long chains, but most are thrown willy-nilly across the map wherever chance happened to place them. This has to do with the origin of the mountains, which, unlike the neighboring Appalachians, are still rising. The rocks that comprise the Adirondacks may be among the oldest on the North American continent, but the mountains as we see them today are newcomers, growing as fast as one millimeter a year. This is because of an unknown geological force deep within the earth that is placing pressure on the planet's crust and forcing it upward, creating a round, dome-like plateau that radiates rivers in all directions of the compass.

It is hard to comprehend that the Adirondack's highest mountain, Mount Marcy, was not identified and climbed until more than 30 years after the Lewis and Clark expedition successfully reached the Pacific Ocean. Before that, the Catskills were believed to be New York's highest mountains. It was not excessive ruggedness that kept people away from the Adirondacks for so long, but rather the sheer scale of the landscape—a fifth of the entire state. The land had little value for farming, and as a result settlements tended to be small, with few roads leading to them. There was no easy way to get to the mountains, and so while tourists were vacationing in Catskill resorts the Adirondacks went relatively unknown, unnamed, and unmapped for quite a long time.

But not only are the Adirondacks a place of rocks, they are a place of water as well. The region has an impressive hydrology: 5 principal watersheds, 3000 lakes and ponds, and 30,000 miles of streams and rivers, for anyone keeping count. For the most part, it was the last ice age that contributed this gift of water to the landscape. With the ancient bedrock so close to the surface, water cannot simply soak into the ground out of sight. It forms pools in the hollows of the rock, and streams and cascades along the fault lines. These waterways are just as “Adirondack” as the mountains, and in fact the ponds and lakes vastly outnumber the mountains. The thousands of people who come each summer to only hike the High Peaks are only getting half the picture.

Another defining element of the Adirondacks is its forest cover. This is a densely wooded wilderness, where the boreal zones of Canada mix and harmonize with the more “southern” sugar maples, hemlocks, and white pines. All mammal species in the Adirondacks are by necessity forest dwellers: moose, white-tailed deer, coyotes, hares, martens, and bobcats, to name a few. Moose were completely exterminated from the Adirondacks in the nineteenth century, but in one of the region's most triumphant success stories, these emblems of the North Woods have been wandering back on their own since the 1980s, probably coming in from Vermont across a frozen Lake Champlain.

There is a fourth factor to consider when trying to describe what the Adirondacks “are”. Make no mistake, the Adirondack Park is a place of cultural significance as well as wild beauty. Unlike national parks, more than half of the Adirondacks are privately owned, with about 150,000 year-round residents, and perhaps just as many summer residents. This is a place where people live and work, with an economy based as much on logging as tourism. Adirondackers have created art forms and architectural styles with a distinction all their own, and the lore that they have passed down over the decades has filled dozens of books. There is a regional identity here that simply has no parallel—nothing like it exists in the Catskills or the Whites. Just look at the Adirondackana available in gift stores in all of the larger towns. In the Catskills you are lucky if you can find a Catskill T-shirt. Adirondack stores have entire libraries of local literature for sale.

The Adirondacks are not simply a mountain range, or a chain of lakes, or a moose wandering through a spruce-fir forest, or a literary genre. They are all of these simultaneously.