Spring is a season of nature reawakening from winter's long dormancy. By the modern calendar, it begins with the vernal equinox (about March 20). This is the day when the sun's vertical rays cross the equator, and daylight / night time hours around the world are theoretically about equal. Daylight hours continue to increase by about three to five minutes a day, reaching a peak of daylight with the summer solstice of about June 21.
It is not coincidental that Easter and the equinox are closely associated. Keeping the vernal equinox stable around March 20 on the calendar was a major goal of Gregorian reform of the calendar in the 16th century. For Christians, the celebration of Easter, between March 22 and April 25, is an affirmation that spring is finally here. Others would give that distinction to St. Patrick's Day of March 17. This is the largely secularized Saints Day where green symbolizes the shamrock, Ireland, and spring,often accompanied by parades, music, and frequently, by over indulgence in green beer.
A Beginner's Guide to the Night Sky
Four hundred years ago, Galileo began studying the night sky with the early telescope, beginning a scientific revolution. Prior to that, watching the night skies had been with the naked eye, without magnification. Stars, the moon, comets, meteors, and the five planets that the ancients knew as the "wanderers" can all be observed in this manner. One may be fortunate enough to live in a rural area, or perhaps in an urban neighborhood devoid of significant light pollution, as is my good fortune. Viewing the sky from a park or waterfront, or rural area outside the city can limit this problem that adversely affects nighttime observations in most urban areas.
What follows is a brief survey of what is seen in the night sky without magnification with a little time and patient effort.
One quickly notices the constantly changing moon. The full moon rises about local sunset. Then each evening, it rises later, as it wanes to last quarter and new moon (when it is not visible). Then the first crescent is seen in the east around sunrise, waxing over two weeks to full moon again. A full cycle takes about 29.5 days, about a week for each quarter. This is the lunar month, the basis for the first calendars. Cycles of the waxing and waning moon have influenced agricultural planting and harvesting schedules for millennia. Most urban residents have lost sensitivity to this ever-changing natural cycle that dominates the night skies.
A lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth is aligned between the sun and the moon. The full moon changes from a bright yellow-white orb to a dull, blood red or orange. An eclipse is partial or complete, lasting a few minutes to several hours. From any given location, this is visible every few years. The next full lunar eclipse visible from eastern North America occurs December 21, 2010.
The Stars and Constellations
In the night sky, there are thousands of visible stars. Since ancient times, man has connected the dots of stars to form shapes recognized as animals or mythological creatures. These are the constellations, an important foundation for mythology, astronomy, and astrology. In the middle latitudes, most constellations change seasonally, while some are visible year round.
The outer ladle of the easily seen Big Dipper (Ursa Major) points to the handle of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor). This star is Polaris, or the North Star. One's latitude and the angle at which it is seen are the same. The other stars and constellations appear to rotate around Polaris during the night.
Besides the signs of the Zodiac, and the Dippers, other well-known northern hemisphere constellations include Orion, Cassiopeia, and Cygnus (the Swan).
The ancients recognized that certain "stars" were different. They moved in their relationship to the other stars, rather than appearing stationary. Much brighter than stars, they disappeared for days or months at a time. These were the five "wanderers," or planets.
Venus and Mercury are visible only briefly before sunrise or after sunset. Their orbits pass between Earth and the Sun, and they are known as the inner planets. They are commonly called morning or evening stars. Venus, white to blue, is often the brightest object in the sky, while Mercury is much dimmer and less often seen. A conjunction of Venus and Mercury in early April 2010 made Mercury much easier to observe than usual.
In contrast, the outer planets of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn might be seen most of the night during much of the year. Mars usually has a reddish-orange tinge. These outer planets are often are not visible for months at a time.
Comets and Meteors
The night sky has other objects besides stars and planets that are more irregular and unusual. Comets wander though the solar system in a large elliptical orbit around the sun. One orbit may take decades or centuries. They usually have a tail of cosmic dust that becomes brighter as it comes closer to the sun.
Meteors are small fragments of asteroids or remnants from a comet's tail. While meteors may be seen individually any time of year, they are more common as meteor showers with sometimes a dozen or more meteors seen per hour. These happen seasonally as the earth travels through the path of a comet's tail, with small fragments burning up in the earth's atmosphere. Meteors can emit a bright streak of light across 5 to 50 degrees arc of the night sky in white, orange, green, or blue. The Perseid Meteor Shower around August 12 is one of the most reliable for seeing large numbers of meteors.
Using such references as the Old Farmer's Almanac, or Stardate and, plan your viewing ahead. These sources provide information on rising and setting time of the moon and various planets, phases of the moon, and conjunctions of planets. Meteor showers and lunar eclipses are also listed in such references.
If the weather permits, take a look at the night sky during a conjunction (when planets appear in close proximity to each other, the moon, or bright stars or constellation). Gradually learn to recognize the major constellations of the season. Plan a camping trip in the country during the Perseid Meteor Shower or a lunar eclipse.
Even in the city, one can often see the phases of the moon, and some of the planets or brighter constellations. Light pollution, seasonal cold, and cloudy weather are all problems at times. But there is little that can rival making an expedition into a rural area away from the city lights. The grandeur of thousands of glittering lights seen in a clear night sky can instill a sense of awe like few other activities.
The Old Farmer's Almanac, 2010
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.
Cascade Lake, near the Adirondack hamlet of Eagle Bay, is an easy hike on a well-maintained trail. It is perfect for families with school-aged children to enjoy back packing in a wilderness area. Just over a mile from Big Moose Road, the north shore of this lake has a small sandy beach that is great for a swim on a warm summer's day. For those a bit more ambitious, a trail of about five miles circles the lake. Cascade Falls is on the east end of the lake. These falls have a granite vertical face perhaps 50 feet high and 80 feet wide, with the falls generally a trickle only a couple of feet wide in the center of this cliff. While a small section of trail near the falls is slightly hilly, and usually a bit wet, most of the trail is quite easy. This lake is a popular destination, sometimes up to several dozen people a day. However, once the sun goes down, chances are you would have the lake nearly to yourself with the quiet solitude increasingly difficult to find in today's world.
By mid August, the woods are eerily quiet, with birds only occasionally singing. The maniacal call of the loon or a barred owl's hoots may break the silence during the night. During the day, insects humming provide a barely perceptible background noise. The silence is occasionally broken by muffled road traffic, small planes with pontoons on aerial tours of the region for tourists, and Eagle Bay's noontime siren. However, the general silence is a welcome respite from the much noisier urban world.
Viewing the Night Skies
The north shore of this mountain lake is a great spot for viewing the night sky away from city lights. Around August 12, the annual Perseid Meteor Shower usually provides one of the best meteor showers of the year. Cloudy skies may, of course, frustrate viewing a meteor shower or night skies at times.
August 12, 2010, while the clouds and haze were intermittent, large sections of the sky were at times crystal clear. About twenty meteors were seen over a couple of hours prior to midnight. Most of the meteors seen streaked to the south or southwest, seeming to come from the constellation Perseus low in the northeast sky, below Cassiopeia. This gives this mid-August meteor shower its name.
The early crescent moon was setting about an hour after sunset, thus not interfering with the meteor show. In addition, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and later Jupiter were all visible that evening, a rather unusual experience. For those usually stuck in the light polluted world of urban and suburban areas, a remote area provides a much better show that what might be seen in the city.
For those unaccustomed to a clear rural sky, hundreds to thousands of stars light the sky like diamonds. Binoculars bring out many stars invisible to the naked eye. However, a meteor shower is best viewed with the naked eye.
From Cascade Lake's northern, one has a very expansive view of the nighttime sky, especially from the southeast to west. It was from this same location the writer and his young children observed a total lunar eclipse in the late 1980s. On that occasion, we were joined by several horseback riders who came into the area just prior to sunset specifically for this occasional occurrence, and clear skies made that event especially memorable.
A Lake for All Seasons
For those interested in fairly easy wilderness tent camping away from the crowds of state parks or commercial camping sites, Cascade Lake provides a very good option. This is an ideal place to introduce young children to the joys of wilderness camping. It is also great for a day hike of two to six miles with a nice location for a swim. A fall hike provides stunning color, with the red, yellow, and orange of changing leaves peaking from mid September to early October. In winter, it is easily accessible on cross country skis or snowshoes. Whatever the season, Cascade Lake is a great site to enjoy the outdoors of the Adirondack wilderness.