Finding wilderness in a scarred landscape
Photograph courtesy of the author
My hometown of Morrisonville, on the Saranac River, is a five-minute ride away from the stores and fast-food joints of Plattsburgh. But follow the river west and those same five minutes bring you to the brink of the vast Adirondack Park. It was an odd way to grow up, balanced between what seemed—to mini-me, anyway—like two different versions of nothing much. I gave myself over to books and daydreams, barely registering the natural world around me. The park was just a brown and yellow sign I passed on my way to school.
Except on Sundays. On Sundays my family went “to the Mountain,” Lyon Mountain, where my grandparents still lived in the company cabin staked by my great-grandfather in the early 1900s. It was a place apart, a town fully dependent on the land—on ore torn from the earth, plants grown among the rocks, animals culled from the forest. There was a shift, from this to that, settled to wild, on the rides there. The borderland was Dannemora Mountain, a steep climb on a road blown through bedrock, where the landscape turned hard and the air took on a bite, even in high summer. Then it was down into the valley, past Chazy Lake, and back up again to the tiny mining community in the top-hat of the park.
My grandparents’ home—wrapped in faux-brick siding—sat at the edge of the forest, tucked into a hillside with a little brook tripping past. There were crabapple and chokecherry trees for climbing, and terraced gardens dotting the yard. Beyond, the woods stretched farther than I could imagine.
Lyon Mountain, where I first came face-to-face with wilderness, sounds like an ideal playground. But it wasn’t, not exactly. That little brook running by my grandparents’ house was fed by a larger one, Separator Brook, which provided power for the No. 1 Separator in the early years of the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Company. The bones of that mining operation were scattered just up the way, a hulking millhouse—still visible from Route 374—a powerhouse, hoist house and machine shop, and, though it’s gone now, a dry house, its empty hooks waiting on another round of miners’ soggy work clothes.
The Lyon Mountain mines took more than 15,000,000 tons of ore from shafts that plunged 2,000-plus feet, leaving behind twisted ruins, open pits and a 400-foot-high tailings pile in the center of town. But they also provided jobs. Both of my grandfathers worked there for decades, until the operation—then owned by Republic Steel—closed in 1967. Grandpa Wood left for a job in New Hampshire; Grandpa Kourofsky, known as Joker, stayed.
Joker had a deep connection to the land, though he didn’t have time to aimlessly wander the woods or sit by a stream and philosophize. The forest gave his family venison and rabbit stew, chanterelles and leeks, firewood and Christmas trees; the waters provided brookies by the bucketful. He and my grandmother coaxed what vegetables they could from the Mountain’s blink-and-you-missed-it summers.
My dad was dispatched to collect berries for pies and jams, crabapples for jelly and hazelnuts in the fall. He hunted and fished, too. But, being a kid, he had more freedom to simply romp around—unless the blast warning sounded, signaling that chunks of rock might rain down any which way. Technically, children were supposed to go inside, but they’d just hide behind trees. (A cousin was a little too slow once, and took a hit to the knee.)
To play in the woods, Dad would skirt around the train cars parked on the rails behind his home, then wait for the Euclid trucks to lumber by before crossing the road. He fell asleep every night to the steady booms of the powerhouse; my mother, in a house near the headframe, fell asleep to the crusher.
All that had quieted by the time I made my Sunday visits. After the mines closed, everything that could be broken down and sold was carried away. So the land, scarred as it was, went back to being a little more wild. We’d wander the abandoned railbed out back or splash around in the brook. At least once every fall, the whole clan—aunts, uncles, cousins, friends—would bushwhack up Rocky Mountain, Birch Hill or the unnamed bump behind the house the family called “Little Mountain.” My first camping trip was with the whole clan, too, in a tarp village on top of Little Mountain.
In all that nature, the mines were always there—in a chimney marooned in the woods, or an ore-sand pile to race down. But especially in the open pit directly behind my grandparents’ house. Sometimes my father would take me there to explore, following the same road where he once waited for the Euclids to pass.
I remember the pit appearing suddenly, as the forest gave way to towering cliffs. There was an open shaft at the bottom; standing in front of the opening was like stepping into a frigid, musty wind tunnel. I’d only ever poke my head in, but my father would explore a bit, throwing rocks out ahead to avoid dropoffs. On the far side of the mine were older, deeper pits, coated with ice for most of the year.
Joker died of lung cancer when I was 16, and weekly trips to the Mountain sputtered and eventually stalled. It wasn’t until I started dating my husband, a Saranac boy, that I was reintroduced to the Adirondacks on hikes and paddles and camp-outs. But I’ve always felt like a tourist in my own backyard, barely scratching the surface.
My father and I went back to the open-pit mine recently, tracing the paths of my memories. We were less sure on our feet this time around, awkwardly descending one ledge with the help of a thick rusty wire. And everything was overgrown, the trees stretching halfway to the cliff tops—nature taking back its own and all that.
“Nice day for a walk in the woods,” he said, as we headed out the other side.
“We’re in a pit,” I reminded him.
But he was right, we were in the wilderness. Nothing else has ever seemed as raw as the Mountain. A place so isolated and damaged and healing. A place I know intimately, and not at all.