A Willsboro Wildway?
Taking to all fours in defense of the Wild
“What type of animal is that?” I asked in a state of bewilderment. The slinking mammal, much larger than a marten, made its nimble approach over fallen trees. Whether distracted by the hunt or by the pleasantness of the day, it closed in on my fortuitous location. Fifty feet away, twenty-five feet, ten… Then I noticed that it wasn’t alone. Two dark-colored kits, mimicking their mother, bounded across the forest floor in playful pursuit. Attuning to the atypical scene, my heart rate increased and senses sharpened. Detecting my presence, the enigmatic creatures scurried behind the trunk of a hemlock and changed course. As quickly as they arrived, they left. The ephemerality of the moment fittingly matched the weasels’ elusiveness.
Think about the last uncommon mammal, bird, or amphibian that you unexpectedly crossed paths with in a wild space. Perhaps it was a black-backed woodpecker near a bog. Maybe it was an unassuming spotted salamander among the fallen leaves. Or, like me, you may have seen a frolicking family of fishers ten years ago on your walk in the woods. Anecdotal wildlife encounters help to remind us that we aren’t alone in this world. We share these natural landscapes with thousands of species who call them home. When I learned about the Northeast Wilderness Trust’s opportunity to protect such a habitat for native Adirondack wildlife, it inspired me to think about the land through a new perspective.
Staring at a map of the eastern Adirondacks, you’ll notice a variety of depictions that stand out: Lake Champlain’s massive coastline, a few Wilderness Areas closer to the Park’s interior, and Interstate-87 bifurcating the region. Whether on a quest to find a mate, to find food, or seeking a quiet and secure space to raise their young, wildlife need to move. As weather trends shift, the ability for wildlife to roam becomes essential for survival. Putting myself in the mindset of a fisher, or a bobcat, (choose your own favorite Adirondack animal) I wondered how I might lap water from Champlain’s shoreline, successfully cross dozens of roadways, and wander my way into the High Peaks. While no designated wildlife corridor currently exists, an increasing patchwork of protected lands could make safer passage possible.
Very recently, I endeavored to try this myself.
On January 16th, I stood at the State boat launch on Willsboro Bay. Despite a spell of below-freezing temperatures, I was shocked to discover that the bay was mostly open water! Ducks gleefully waded in the shallows, sheltered by the gentle coastal hills. The silhouette of Rattlesnake Mountain loomed in the background. According to my map there was no public access westward from here, so I resigned to driving back through town towards Long Pond. A private land owner on that side of the mountain graciously allows hikers to access the summit of Rattlesnake via a narrow trail. From this elevated position above the Adirondack coast, the potential of a wildway seemed much more than possible – it seemed like an innate freedom.
Back in the car with my spirit renewed, I drove to the next public access point within the Taylor Pond Wild Forest. Donning my snowshoes, I darted up the Ranger Trail towards Poke-O-Moonshine’s fire tower. The noise of the highway diminished with each step. Pulling out my compass, I followed a bearing to go deeper into the forest. The adventure was only beginning.
Bushwhacking now, I soon discovered that I was immersed in the intangibles of wildness. While I personally appreciated the requisite silence and the solitude as I distanced myself from the trailhead, I imagined that the wildlife might value it as well. A pair of black-capped chickadees soon fluttered over to inspect me. Visible snowshoe hare tracks proved that small mammals were also living on this trailless mountainside. A puzzling track in the snow soon caught my attention. The deep powder revealed the curious path of a porcupine! The narrow chew marks on a nearby sapling confirmed this wild identification. Perhaps I wasn’t so alone after all?
Nearing the edge of the protected State Land, I stopped on a rocky ledge to gaze westward. Down the valley and across the North Branch of the Boquet River, I was overlooking the block of land that I had ventured to see. At 2,434 acres, the hopeful future of the Eagle Mountain Wilderness Preserve was laid out in front of me. There were precipices that might host a peregrine falcon nest, miles of valleys with brooks for the trout, and a ubiquitous hardwood forest that seamlessly blended into the Jay Mountain and Hurricane Mountain Wilderness Areas beyond. En route to the interior of the Adirondacks, this transitional preserve is where an animal would go next.
“What if these islands of isolated, yet protected public lands could become interconnected?” I wondered on my return trip. Much like the visionary Split Rock Wildway to the south, could there one day be a Willsboro Wildway to the north? By donating to protect the Eagle Mountain Wilderness Preserve by March 15th, we can all do our part to actualize this opportunity.
Retracing my steps back to the trailhead, I caught a glimpse of deep impressions in the snow. A solitary animal, its paws landing slightly askew, had passed through this wildlife corridor only hours earlier. “A bounder,” I said with a hint of decade-old nostalgia. The snow helped to reveal the mysteries of this wild scene. I could see body impacts that were bigger than those of most weasels. The paw prints appeared to be wider than the marten tracks I’m accustomed to seeing while guiding. And there was something about the gait, which seemed to exceed the reach of an outstretched marten…
Protecting the Eagle Mountain Preserve as Wilderness would be a testament of selflessness. It would afford future generations of wildlife and people alike with an increasingly rare opportunity to roam freely in a motor-free, intact environment. Ten years from now, perhaps there you could encounter a frolicking family of fishers beneath the hemlocks. Ten years from now, in an ever-developing world, perhaps there you will still find bewilderment.
– Tyler Socash
Tyler Socash is ADK’s Outdoor Skills Coordinator. He believes in fostering a personal connection with our public lands through exposure, education, and stewardship. The day after completing his master’s degree at the University of Rochester, Socash embarked on a 7,000-mile thru-hiking journey across the Pacific Crest Trail, Te Araroa in New Zealand, and the Appalachian Trail. He joined the Adirondack Wilderness Advocates as an activist to promote the intangibles of wildness and their benefits to humanity. In an effort to meld humor with conservation efforts, Socash co-created and co-hosts Foot Stuff Podcast, which spotlights stories of adventure, antics, and activism around the country.
Note: this article first appeared in The Adirondack Almanack, the online publication of Adirondack Explorer Magazine.