Queer Lake is a magical place. It is queerly shaped, leading one to think it is several different lakes when first discovered by the hiker. This is the epitome of the wilderness lake common in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York. Located between Big Moose Lake and Racquette Lake, Queer Lake is a moderately difficult hike, about four miles from the nearest road, but well worth the effort. Queer Lake, 1979 to 2001
My first visit to this pristine lake was in October 1979. Starting late in the day, my friend Ed and I ended up setting up a tent in the cold rain of a mid fall evening at Queer Lake landing. We didn't realize the Lean-to was less than a mile away, and were too tired and miserable to slog on any further. Arriving at the lean-to the next day, it was already occupied by three men from New Jersey. We spent the cold, blustery day with snow flurries by playing cards and visiting with these other campers.
That four day backpacking trip included hiking further into the Pigeon Lakes Wilderness Area, to Chub Pond and other lakes. Some of this trail is very rugged, through deep boreal forest. The trails often have several blow downs, or fallen trees, blocking the path, and are poorly marked in places. Even then, Pigeon Lake had stands of red spruce under severe stress from acid rain, many trees dead or dying.
The following spring, my wife and I celebrated our honeymoon at Queer Lake for three wonderful days in late May. We actually caught some trout by fishing from the rock near the lean-to. This was the first of many family visits over the next 30 years.
In the early 1980s, several solo excursions into this area included making observations on loons and other birds. This was as a participant in the Loon Preservation Project and the first New York State Bird Breeding Atlas. These programs both had active research projects at that time. A few years later, there were family trips with our two growing sons, or with nephews in their teens, and occasionally alone. We went there the final time as a couple in August 2001. Unfortunately, a month later my wife had a major heart attack and is no longer able to hike the moderately difficult four to five miles.
Cascade Lake: Mergansers and Meteors
While we had been in to nearby easily accessible Moss Lake many times in recent years, it was in August 2009 that Queer Lake called to me again. This time the trip included my adult son, Larry, and friend Jason. A major reason for the chosen date was to coincide with the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. This is when debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle falls into the earth's upper atmosphere resulting in one of the most visible meteor showers of the year. Meteors can be seen a day or two either side of this shower's peak performance about August 12.
We hiked in via Cascade Lake, spending a pleasant night there in a tent. The most difficult part of this stretch was avoiding the horse manure left by a small group of riders that were leaving as we were arriving. This lake is easily accessible, just over a mile to a knoll along the north shore with several spots to pitch a tent. We had a very open view over the lake to the southern horizon.
The loons had been successful in breeding this year, with one young and two adults seen. A family of mergansers swam by while we were swimming, apparently undisturbed by our presence, diving in waves in a line almost like a large water monster. On August 11, between 9:30 and 10:00 pm we saw four meteors in twenty minutes.
Cascade Lake gets a lot of day use from families, individuals, and organized hikes from summer camps in the area. There is the option of hiking to the east end of the lake for a view of Cascade Falls, usually just a trickle of a stream falling over a fifty foot cliff. A hike circling the lake is about five miles round trip from the trail head on Big Moose Road.
Chain Ponds and Queer Lake Lean-to
Our real hike began the next day. The hills are rather steep, and one should be in good physical shape for this trek. A difficult mile and a half brings one to Chain Ponds, a series of small interconnected woodland ponds. The shore is generally inaccessible, the trail skirting the ponds several feet above water level. After passing these ponds, it is back to deep deciduous woods with a few conifers until one comes to a corner of the lake called Queer Lake Landing. Department of Conservation workers and fishermen sometimes portage canoes or row boats into here, and there were two workers there on August 12, testing water quality. Near by were two fisherman in a boat.
Nearly another mile of hiking brought us to the lean-to, recently refurbished and in pretty good shape. A lean-to is a log cabin with one open side. This side is protected by a steeply pitched roof, providing very good protection from stormy weather. The floor is off the ground a foot or more, and provides enough space to sleep six or eight people under the roof. The lean-to was recently painted dark brown, though close scrutiny revealed carvings of visitors names or initials going back to mid 1970s. There was a metal framed outhouse nearby, and the recent addition of a picnic table and bench. There was also a good stone fire pit.
Queer Lake Lean-to, like many other shelters throughout the Adirondack Park, had a journal and pens left in a plastic bag. This is for visitors to jot their thoughts, going back in this case to early 2008. Reading these lean-to journals is interesting with a mixture of observations on weather and wildlife, humor, and occasionally, bizarre sexual escapades. Entries here included those of volunteers and DEC workers involved in lean-to maintenance, regional back packers, and the occasional tourist, sometimes from Europe.
The 80 foot white pine that used to stand as a single sentry near the shore side boulder is long gone, blown down over a decade ago. Now only the trunk protrudes out into the water. A large branch from this tree lies parallel to the shallow shore. This provided the perfect perch for a merganser family in the misty fog early the next morning. After a few minutes, the adult female led seven young off in a line across the lake.
Near the end of the log was a tunnel type spider web, with strands spanning maybe twenty feet over the water from the log to rocks on the shore. It was built overnight, not seen when we went swimming there the previous afternoon. This peculiar web was a wonder of engineering. What kind of spider constructed it and how was it done?
Loons and other Wildlife Observation
Loons are a symbol of the Adirondacks and the North Country. During the two days there, three adults were seen, and their haunting calls echoed across the lake from time to time, including at night. They expressed dismay towards two low flying military planes by their drawn out high pitched screaming call. Most often, though, there were one note "hoos" with the occasional arpeggio call of two to four notes, rising and falling in pitch. For the first hour or two after dusk there was also the "who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all" of the barred owl. This night time call of the loon, mixed with the barred owl, is perhaps the essence of a remote Adirondack Lake.
Other birds were around as well, though fewer varieties than are usually seen in June or July. Fifteen species of birds were identified, with a few more unknown. Of note were the ravens, the sweet songs of the hermit thrush, winter wren and white throated sparrow. A ruby throated hummingbird flew right up to us, hovering momentarily a few feet away, inspecting us at close range, before disappearing as quickly as he had arrived.
Green frogs, bull frogs, and a variety of toads are also present, though, like the birds, not nearly so vocal in August as in spring or early summer. Chipmunks, red squirrels, and mice can be a common nuisance. If any food is left lying around expect to be raided by these rodents, or occasionally worse, such as raccoon, porcupine, or bear. Suspending food bags off the ground is a necessity in remote areas. This is changing more to use of bear proof barrels, and these are now required in some parts of the High Peaks. This particular trip, we had no problems with rodents.
And, of course, there are deer. When we first arrived at the lean-to, what looked like a large brown bird was in the middle of the lake. Pulling out the binoculars revealed it to be a deer. Two pointed ears and snout where visible, as was the spotted white of a fawn's back clearly visible just under the water's surface. This was the first time I had observed a swimming deer. It finally disappeared into the horizon across the lake.
The Perseid Meteor Shower
Our first night at Queer Lake was too cloudy for seeing any meteors, but a pair of barred owls and loon calls soon lulled us to sleep.
After a close encounter with the mergansers in the early morning mist, we took a day hike of half a mile to a peninsular point where a deep narrow channel connects two large portions of the lake. We went for a refreshing swim in water fifteen to twenty feet deep. But the serenity was spoiled by bees coming from a hole in a tree rooted near our rocky perch at water's edge. Larry and Justin were both stung, and we left shortly thereafter.
The night of August 13th was especially good for meteors, with eighteen meteors observed between 9:30 and 10:30 pm. Most were very brief, and covered ten to twenty degrees arc, but one was very bright with an arc of about 40 degrees. These observations were the best ever for this annual meteor shower for any of us. We might just make the week of August 12 an annual camping holiday.
While we had hiked in from Cascade Lake via Chain Ponds, on the return, about 1/4 mile beyond Queer Lake landing, we lost the trail near a blow down. A half hour's search failed to reveal this hidden trail, though we had come in this way. Fortunately, there was the option of backtracking to Queer Lake Landing and come out via Windfall Pond. That is likely the easiest way to hike into Queer Lake. Even with the delay, we made it back to Big Moose Road in just over three hours vs. the four hours in from Cascade Lake. But we were 1.5 miles from the trail head where we started. This meant an easier though hot and sunny walk down Big Moose Road, with an hour's break to swim at nearby Moss Lake. Our ride came at the pre-arranged time, ending yet another camping trip at Queer Lake in the remote back country of the Adirondack Mountains. Hopefully, it won't be the last.
Oringinally published on www.critters360.com
Loons are a fascinating bird, and a symbol ot the North Country whether in New York, Maine, or Minnesota.
My interest in the loon was piqued by another passion, short wave radio. I recall in the late 1960s and early 1970s listenening to Earle Fischer and his “Listener’s Mailbag” show on CBC International Service. There was a weekly feature on birds of Canada, many recorded in Algonquin Park. This included songs of the loon. Listening to these calls then, and subsequently for many years in the Adirondack Mountains, it is easy to see how “crazy as a loon” originated.
Much of the information here may apply to any of the five species of the Family Gavidae. In the spring of 1983, the author observed a red throated loon (Gavia stellata) on Pine Lake in Lewis County. However, information here mostly concerns the common loon (Gavva immer), hereafter referred to just as loons. Most observations have been in New York State, but also Maine, Quebec and New Brunswick.
The loon is one of the most primitive birds, and uniquely equipped for swimming and diving. With legs very far back on the body, it can not walk. However it is a superb swimmer, on the surface and especially underwater.
Loons are larger than most ducks, about 28 to 36 inches. They are usually seen swimming alone or in pairs on the surface of remote northern lakes. With the young in late summer, there may be three birds, very rarely four or more. A common mistake for beginners is seeing a family of loons with six to ten birds. These are much more likely mallards, wood ducks, or mergansers, as one would rarely see loons in that number in the north.
The loon ranges across the Canadian – US border, though its southern range is not so extensive as it was 50 years ago. In the US it is largely restricted to Northern New York, Northern New England. Formerly, it ranged into much of the Ohio Valley and Southern New England. Much of this loss is due to development of previously remote lakes and habitat destruction. Loons are very susceptible as well to lead, mercury, and declines in prey due to acid rain.
Nesting and Young of the Common Loon
Loons mate for life, with pair bonds lasting 10 to 20 years. The loons spend their summers and breed on northern mountain lakes straddling the Canadian border. The lakes of northern Minnesota, the Adirondacks of New York, and northern New England are all home to the loon. Most of them winter at the sea coast. From New York and New England, they migrate to the Atlantic, while from the central US, to the Gulf Coast.
They usually return to the same lake to breed, and usually have one young, occasionally two. Their nest is usually on islands of mountain lakes, or on remote, undeveloped wooded shore lines. Quite often their nest is on abandoned muskrat mounds, and almost always within a few feet of the shoreline. To move from the nest to water they either slide on their belly, or waddle very awkwardly using wings and feet to propel themselves forward.
Loons are very secretive and require pristine environments and their presence is usually a sign of pretty good natural conditions. On large lakes where boating and skiing is allowed, they require undeveloped shore for nesting. In many of these lakes, there may be markers warning boaters and canoeists to go very slowly as heavy wakes could flood their low lying nests. Motor boats in particular could cause them to abandon their nest, leaving it open to raccoons, weasels, or other predators of their eggs. The most critical period for protection is mid May to 4th of July. Boaters on mountain lakes should be sensitive to this and avoid areas that may be posted with floating markers in some lakes.
After the young is born, it may ride on its mother’s back for a few days, then be seen floating in the water. They may be about 1/2 adult size, to nearly full grown by fall. The coloration is generally like that of an adult in winter plumage.The back and head is a grayish brown, merging gradually into a white throat and breast visible when swimming on the surface. The adult in breeding or summer plumage has a dark head with an occasionally metallic green cast, and a checkered black and white back. There is a broken band of black and white stripes on the neck, then a solid black band just above the white chest. The eye is a brilliant ruby red, often visible with binoculars.
Swimming and Flying Habits
Loons are most commonly seen on the surface, lying low in the water. They often dive by just sinking unobtrusively, leaving only the slightest ripple if any at all. They can stay under water for up to a minute or more, and may resurface several dozen yards away from where last seen. Quite often, their head will enter the water while on the surface, visually hunting for prey. The two or sometimes three birds in a group will maintain contact with one short clear high pitched “hoo.”
Loons have a wing span of 50 to 58 inches with rather narrow wings. Unlike most ducks who just “lift off” for flight, they need to skate or skitter across the surface of the lake for 20 yards, or often much more, to build up enough momentum for flight. This is somewhat similar to the dancing of some grebes in the west. Then they very gradually climb, meaning they have to fly in a corkscrew pattern to gain enough height to clear the trees that enclose the mountain lake. They may circle the lake in one to three revolutions. If one sees the bird take off, it often is possible to follow this path and see the bird at fairly close range as it flies by your section of shore. As it flies close by, its wings give off a distinctive whistling noise.
In the fall the author has seen adults trying to teach the young how to fly, with limited success in the lesson observed. The adult showed the young how to take off twice, but the young was unable to attain flight on three attempts. As this was in late September, there was still perhaps another month or six weeks to learn the lesson, otherwise risk the threat of being frozen in.
Loons eat mostly fish, but also frogs and aquatic insects. Smaller prey may be eaten underwater, while larger prey would usually be brought to the surface. The author has observed in September an adult and young hunting together. The adult attempted to pass off from its bill to the young a rather active frog. The young promptly dropped the frog, and the adult had to dive to retrieve it. A second hand off to the young was more successful.
These are perhaps a most memorable part of observing loons. There are at least 4 major distinct calls. The first is the one note “hoo” mentioned above. This is used to keep in contact with the young or mate of the adult.
The second call is commonly referred to as a wail. It is clear tones rising in pitch like a musical arpeggio, at intervals of a third, fourth or fifth. It tends to linger on the highest pitched note, then fall back to the lower pitch. This could include two or three pitches most commonly, though sometimes four or five notes.
A third call is a distress call, sometimes called a yodel. This starts out like the second call, but then raises in pitch and has an “eee-ooo-eee” aspect to it. The “eee” being about a third higher than “ooo,” The pattern could repeat several times in clusters of three, thus “eee-ooo-eee, eee-ooo-eee, eee-ooo-eee, eee-ooo-eee.” Then there might be a pause of a few seconds and the call could be repeated. This call is sometimes repeated several times with short breaks between.
The fourth call is a laughing yodel, very difficult to describe. It is a wavering song on two or three notes at close intervals, and could be heard for a few seconds, or sometimes much longer, to 30 seconds or more. Usually this would be shortly after take off as the loon is circling the lake.
Some of the indigenous peoples thought the call of the loon to be perhaps evil, or an omen of death. It is indeed a haunting call. Once heard it is not forgotten, and easily recognized when heard again. If one camps in remote North Woods or mountains, the trip is almost incomplete without hearing the call of the loon. It is an iconic symbol ot the North Country.
Peterson, Roger Tory. A Field Guide to the Birds, 1980. (Eastern North America)
Pearson, T. Gilbert, Editor. Birds of America, 1936, Doubleday & Company.
Alsop, Fred J. III. Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America, New York: DK Publishing, 2001.
A Day in Algonquin Park, non commercial recording on cassette tape.
Eastman, Whitney and Karen, et. al. The Treasury of Birds, 1972. ISBN 7064 0013 5
E. Thomas Gilliard. Living Birds of the World, Double Day & Company, Inc., 1958.
Understanding Loons – Cyber Tower – Cornell University This site includes video with loon calls.