The Rise of the Adirondacks

The Adirondacks are something of a paradox. Made from some of the oldest rocks on Earth, they are one of the youngest mountain ranges in existence. Pushing their way through the younger rocks of the Appalachians, this jagged, deformed mess of ancient rock, once trapped deep in the crust, has been rising for the past 15-20 million years. And nobody really knows why.

A view from one of the High Peaks in the Adirondacks

Over a billion years ago, standing high above the lifeless lowlands of the supercontinent Rodinia, a massive mountain range known as the Grenville Orogen extended from coast to coast – one of the largest and longest lived ranges our planet has ever known. Formed when prehistoric continents collided to form a single and massive landmass, its rocks have since fallen deep into fractured valleys and risen once more. They have formed the floors of ancient oceans, and they have withstood the extreme heat of deep burial. These are the rocks that are forcing their way to the surface as the Adirondacks. This complex history makes them unlike any other mountain range – a lesson I learned the hard way.

As a young and somewhat naive hiker in my freshmen year at Skidmore College, I had my heart set on climbing as many of the Adirondack ‘high peaks’ as possible, those peaks that are higher than 4000 feet. I picked up a map of the high peak region and quickly identified what I felt was a surefire way to conquer as many mountains in one trip as possible – I would traverse the Great Range in two days, allowing myself nine peaks in one trip. I was familiar with the ridges of the White Mountains in nearby New Hampshire, and felt assured that it would be similar to those experiences. There I was able to climb to the highest point of a ridge and slowly descend it, making only slight climbs to ascend the other peaks as I moved forward.

The trip was a categorical failure. Two peaks into the trip, my hiking buddy and I were woefully behind schedule and dangerously exhausted. After finishing only the second mountain of what was supposed to be many more that day, I was both dehydrated and incoherent from the effects of mild hypothermia. (Though the trip was late May, there was still three feet of snow on the ground.)  Slurring my words, I explained to my friend that I thought we might have set our sights a bit too high.

The author on top of the second peak of his ill-fated hike. Don’t be fooled by my half smile, I was too disoriented to realize I was on top of the mountain when this photo was taken.

Unfortunately we were too high to set up camp – it would have been both illegal and too cold. Returning to camp was not easy though. There were two mountains on either side of us, requiring a significant hike before we could get to a lower elevation. Forced to climb, we ascended both Basin and Saddleback mountains, some of the most challenging hikes in the Adirondacks. One of the most terrifying and beautiful sights I have ever seen as a hiker was the sun setting while we were on top of this final mountain, miles from any safe campsite. Beaten by the mountains, we did make it to camp that night, but ended our trip a day early.

We were entirely unprepared for the conditions, and had no business hiking at that time of year. These issues aside, though, there was a more central problem at hand. The Adirondacks are not like the White Mountains, nor are they like any other mountain range on our planet. The ridges that characterize so many mountain ranges, formed by the fault lines of colliding land, do not exist in the Adirondacks. To tackle all the peaks of the Great Range, a hiker must ascend and descend each peak nearly in full, finding no benefit in a raised line of topography.

This difference is rooted in how mountains form in the first place. The White Mountains, for example, are part of the larger Appalachian mountain range. (The Adirondacks are technically considered part of the Appalachians as well, but only because they are close to the other ranges.)  The formation of the Appalachians is typical of most mountain ranges. These mountains trace their origins to a time many hundreds of millions of years after the great Grenville Mountains. Rodinia, the supercontinent which held the Grenville Orogen, began to rift apart about 800 million year ago. The process that destroyed those mountains created the Iapetus Ocean – named after the Greek father of Atlantis.

Around 500 million years ago, the Iapetus Ocean began to close.  As it closed, landmasses within the Iapetus crashed into the eastern side of what is now North America. As seafloor was forced under North America, volcanoes formed, erupting through land and forming islands that eventually crashed into the continent as well. This process continued for many millions of years, until 250 million years ago, when the super continent Pangea was formed. As this myriad of landmasses hit the North American continent, they formed long ridges – reminiscent of the ridges of a car’s hood after a head-on crash. They are beautifully clear if you get a chance to fly over them, and they make for easy hiking, as peaks connected by a ridge require less descent and ascent.

Artist’s conception of the supercontinent Rodinia. The raised mountains are the Grenville Orogen. Image credit: C. R. Scotese, PALEOMAP Project (www.scotese.com)

The Adirondacks, however, are like a giant wart, pushing its way through the beautifully ordered structure of the Appalachians. A giant dome, the Adirondacks look misplaced on even the simplest of maps. The reason for this is unclear. What is known is that for about 15-20 million years the crust under the Adirondacks has been rising, forcing the younger, more typical Appalachian mountains above to erode away. As they erode and the crust continues to rise, the deepest, oldest rocks are exposed – the Grenville ones. Because these rocks have been subject to one billion years of torture, they have a jagged and disordered topography, making the typical ridges I was used to hiking non-existent.

How fast they are rising is the subject of much debate. Some say they are rising nearly as fast as the Himalayas, thought to be the fastest rising mountain range today. Others say they may not be rising much at all. Even more enigmatic is why they are rising. “Both the existence of current uplift and its modus operandi remain a mystery,” states an official 1995 United States Geologic Survey report on the Adirondacks. The mystery remains unsolved.

The most popular idea is that there is a hotspot under the Adirondacks, creating a pocket of relatively less dense mantle, which, forced to rise, pushes the crust above, and ultimately the Adirondacks, to the surface.  This would explain why the Adirondacks are dome shaped, but the hypothesis is hard to test.

What was not hard to test was how different the Adirondacks were to other mountain ranges I had climbed. The disconnected peaks of the Adirondacks are a completely different world compared with the ridge-connected peaks of the rest of the Appalachians. Exceedingly beautiful and unique, they remain my favorite mountains of the many I have visited, but they taught me a cruel geologic lesson. Know the history of your mountains, as enigmatic as it may be, before you try to conquer them.

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Thy Butt Gloweth Orange?

Behold! Another story of wildlife just beyond my doorstep! It’s not my fault. I can’t avoid the creatures. They’re everywhere, from the tiny red mites on the railings at school, to the slugs that migrate across my apartment sidewalk at the same location every night. I even have wildlife in my apartment. I know this because every time I eat popcorn at the desk in my home-office, some evil creature steals a couple kernels when I’m not looking and then places them under my desk so I’ll roll over them with my chair. Goodness knows I couldn’t be spilling popcorn myself.

But back to the wildlife outside my Baltimore apartment. A little after sundown a few days ago I was walking in the grass along the edge of the park across the street. As is common this time of year, the fireflies were out doing their thing.

Fireflies remind me of my years in Indiana. I must have been 12 or 13 years old when my family moved from steamy and sunny Florida to the Midwest and its long, chilling winters. One day during my first winter in Northern Indiana the temperature hovered around -14 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, my family’s house in Indiana had a huge perk. Beyond our backyard lawn was about an acre of woods, and down a small hill was a pond, about a quarter-mile long. Other homes were right on the pond, but they were all on the north end whereas we lived on the south end. We couldn’t see the other homes from the pond unless we walked around the point. On our end, we had the waterfront all to ourselves, and the whole thing was surrounded by tall trees. My memories from the pond are so fond that, when I’m in my final days of life, thoughts of my time there will be among those I ponder with the simplest but greatest satisfaction.

My older brother and I helped our dad build a sturdy set of wood stairs straight down the hill through the woods. From there, my dad cleared out a path to the pond and covered the path in wood chips. At the edge of the pond, he then mowed down an area big enough for a fire-pit and a dozen people to sit around it. He also built a short wooden dock and installed two floodlights on 20- or 30-foot studs at the end of the dock so that we could ice-skate after sundown (days are short in the Midwestern winter). We’d sit on the dock to put on our ice-skates, then we’d shovel the snow into a rectangle with rounded edges and play hockey with our school friends for hours on end.

Aside from the mosquitos, summers down on the pond were just as good if not better than winters. My dad had an old slightly waterlogged sailboat. We didn’t bother putting the mast and sail on — there wasn’t usually much wind down on the pond — but the boat had two oar-locks. So whenever I brought a girl over, even just a friend, my dad would suggest I take her out in the rowboat. I’d row and we’d chat while admiring the houses on the north end, and the fish, lily pads, turtles and tadpoles. Some evenings, my marching band pals and I would sit around the fire well into the night and talk about whatever. At other times, my dad and I would stroll around down by pond, talking about girls, my future, my brothers, or my awful grades.

But the end of the dock was where the real magic happened. If the water was low enough, you could sit on the dock without your shoes getting soaked and stare across the pond. On certain nights in the summer, the wall of trees across the pond would erupt into a silent light show. From high in the trees right down to the pond, the fireflies were everywhere shopping for mates.

But here’s the thing, I spent a lot of summer nights down by the pond, and I only ever noticed one color of firefly. In fact, it never crossed my mind that there were more than one species, let alone any firefly whose butt didn’t glow in a yellow-green color. I’ve enjoyed fireflies before and since, but only ever the one color. But on this recent night in Baltimore, walking along the trees near my apartment, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.

First, I started paying attention to the fireflies because of how they were lighting up. Several of the insects weren’t doing the familiar slow fadeaway after they glowed. They were flashing on, off, on, off with no fade. This caused me to do a double-take. I couldn’t remember fireflies flashing so quickly on and off. A moment later I forgot about that surprise because I thought I saw an orange firefly. I stared and waited, then saw not one orange firefly but three.

After a while it was easy to know I wasn’t mistaken because the orange fireflies were mingling near the yellow-green ones. Have you ever been unsure whether a certain pair of pants were black or dark blue? What do you do to make sure? You find a piece of clothing you KNOW is black, and you put it next to the pants in question. Suddenly, they’re clearly blue, not black. It’s the comparison that makes their color clear, and it didn’t take long to confirm these were orange fireflies.

I wondered if maybe the fireflies had evolved to use orange streetlamps to hide from predators, or maybe the lightning bugs had somehow ingested manmade chemicals, which then accumulated in the insects’ light organ and changed the chemistry enough to make an orange color instead of a yellow-green one. Was I the first to see this change in the species? Or maybe I discovered a new species of bioluminescent insects that just happened to come out and glow at the same time of day in the same places as fireflies. [Ahem] No. I’ll have to keep dreaming of the day when I can name an orange-glowing-butt insect after myself.

Turns out there are more than one species of firefly. Well, a whole lot more than one. The National Geographic Society says there are about 2,000 species of firefly, and fireflies’ flashing patterns are unique to each species. Scientists aren’t certain how the insects control the on/off switch, but they do know how they glow. Fireflies take in oxygen and introduce it to a chemical called luciferin in a special organ in the bug’s rear end. The chemical reaction creates almost no heat and almost all light. We’re talking not quite 100 percent but darn close, according to the Ohio State University, which offers firefly facts online. The university’s site also says that a normal lightbulb converts only about 10 percent of its energy to light. The other 90 percent becomes heat.

But what about the color of fireflies’ glowing butts? That can range from the common yellow-green to a reddish-orange. I had no idea.

While we’re at it, here are a few other things you might not know (and I certainly didn’t know) about fireflies, from Ohio State University’s and Nat-Geo’s websites:

  • Fireflies are not flies. They’re beetles (of the family Lampyridae), and most firefly species, but not all, have wings.
  • Like humans, fireflies are omnivores.
  • Unlike humans, fireflies generally live only 2 months.
  • Some firefly species don’t glow. In the U.S., you’re unlikely to encounter the glowing types west of central Kansas.
  • Both firefly larvae and adults glow, and both taste not-so-good to predators.
  • Some Asian species of firefly live underwater, breath using a type of gills, and eat snails.
  • Fireflies live just about everywhere humans do, except for the southernmost tip of South America, most of Greenland, and the northernmost reaches of Alaska, Canada, and Russia. Also, you won’t find any fireflies in Antarctica, though you’re welcome to go there to look.

That said, keep an eye out and you just might see a firefly that’s not yellow-green. I’ve seen just three, and though I’ve kept looking since, I haven’t seen another orange one. Maybe I’ll never see another, but I’ll still remember the joy and surprise of this single occasion — one more fond memory to relish.