The Evolution of a Nature Nut

February 25, 2013

About the author. Jackie Donnelly is a nature writer/photographer who lives in Saratoga Springs but spends as much time as she can exploring the Adirondacks. She doesn’t give a hoot about climbing the 46 High Peaks, preferring to paddle the quiet waters or crawl about on her hands and knees to see what’s abloom in the woods. She documents her outdoor adventures on her blog Saratoga Woods and Waterways.

Most folks, if asked, would say, “Sure, I love nature.” Who doesn’t love grass and trees and flowers and birds and butterflies and such? I certainly do. Always have. I grew up in a Michigan boatyard, after all, surrounded by lakes and streams and forests and all kinds of flora and fauna. But at one point rather late in life, this ordinary lover of sunsets and rainbows became a wildflower-obsessed nature nut. It’s all because I became the owner of a super-lightweight Hornbeck canoe. And also because I now reside near the Adirondack region, with its many wonderful waters and abundant fellow nature nuts.

I already owned a big old aluminum canoe, and I’d known how to paddle since I was really young. (My dad always had tons of work for me, and I early learned that two turns of the creek put me well beyond hearing his hollers.) Then, after marriage and kids came along, our family would sometimes all go canoeing on creeks near our home in Saratoga Springs. But man, that boat was heavy! It took a whole team of us to load it onto the car and carry it to and from the water. I could never take that canoe out by myself.

It wasn’t until I was already a grandma that I got my first super-light boat, a 10-foot Kevlar Hornbeck canoe (see below) that weighed just 17 pounds. And that’s when my whole life changed. I could load it onto my car by myself. I could hike through the woods and up and down hills with that dear little boat on my shoulder. I could mosey along the banks in my own sweet time without some bossy guy in the stern determining where and how fast we would paddle. And best of all, I discovered a paddler’s heaven a 15-minute drive from Saratoga.

There’s a three-mile stretch of the Hudson River that lies between two dams at Moreau, where forested mountains come right down to the water, no houses or docks along the banks (it’s all state park!), and the river runs back behind boulder-shored islands and into sheltered bays and quiet marshes. It was here I encountered trees and flowers I had never seen before, trees and flowers that could tolerate not just seasonal, but also daily flooding as the river rose and fell with dam operations. The shoreline here was aglow with masses of radiant Golden Pert. Sneezeweed and Cardinal Flower blazed at the edge of the woods. White dots of Pipewort decorated the shallows. Clouds of clove-scented fragrance drifted my way as I slid along banks that were all abloom with Early Azalea. Miniature forests of Water Starwort caught and held the sunlight’s gold beneath the dark, still water. And oh my, what is that glossy-leaved tree with the blue-black berries that turns the most amazing shade of scarlet in early autumn? Black Tupelo? Who knew that tupelo trees could grow up here near the Adirondacks? This was botanical Paradise!

So I started to keep a journal of all the plants I found, determined to learn the name of every one that grew in this part of the river. But of course I didn’t stop there, and I soon began to document every flower I found, wherever I found them, including the little weeds that spring up between the cracks in the sidewalk. I began to take photographs. My husband surprised me with an IMac computer all my own. A friend suggested I start a blog to preserve and relate my ever-expanding nature adventures. So I did. It’s called Saratoga Woods and Waterways, and amazingly, it began to attract readers, some from as far away as Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa. I was astounded at the reach of the World Wide Web! But the readers I was happiest to find were my nearer neighbors here in northern New York, folks who could share my home-county adventures and, even better, introduce me to marvelous habitats further afield, especially in the Adirondacks. These friends are now frequent figures in my blog posts, and longtime readers will recognize the names of Sue and Evelyn and Ed and Ruth and Nancy and Bob and others. How fortunate I am that I, an amateur wildflower lover, should now have for my guides some of the most noted naturalists of the region.

I had never walked on a quaking bog before Evelyn took me to one up near Indian Lake, complete with sinking Black Spruces and fragrant Labrador Tea. We also paddled together to gather cranberries among the bog mats of Lens Lake, where Evelyn spotted a rare moss called Pennsylvania Dung Moss sprouting from a pile of otter poop. She led the way as we dragged our canoes through trackless blow-down to Little Rankin Pond, then danced with delight as she spotted a patch of state-listed Podgrass that stretched as far as our eyes could see. I have promised never to tell where we paddled to find the exquisite Dragon’s Mouth Orchid, although Evelyn herself would be happy to show anybody around the Ice Meadows along the Hudson River north of Warrensburg, an area as rife with rare native plants as any other site in the state. She would also love to show anyone, as she has me, the mysterious hollowed-out, honeycombed boulders called tafoni that lie on the slopes of Snowy Mountain, or lead any interested group on a bushwhacking search for old-growth White Pines. She knows where they grow.

I once admitted that I would forego a vacation in Paris if only someone would show me where Showy Lady’s Slippers grow. Well, thanks to my new botanical friends, I have now witnessed abundant numbers of these beautiful pink-and-white orchids blooming away in a cedar swamp well worth the two-hour drive to get to. It could be that only five individual plants of the Hooker’s Orchis still exist in all of New York State, and I have the privilege of having seen four of them, because my friend Bob escorted me through an Adirondack forest to find them. (I later learned that they, too, would be gone if Evelyn had not convinced the DEC to reroute the snowmobile trail these ultra-rare orchids were growing in the middle of.)

These examples provide only the merest hint of the many botanical adventures I’ve had since starting “Saratoga Woods and Waterways” on January 1, 2009. I had intended to blog for just one year, to document the seasonal changes of one small part of one county in northern New York State. Four years later, the woods and the waterways and my wonderful friends still beckon me out, and happily, I no longer limit my explorations to Saratoga County. I carry my notebook, camera, and Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide wherever I go, and one thing I have learned is how fortunate we are to have so many native plants still abounding up here where we live. In many places I visit, the only natives I’m likely to find are Skunk Cabbage and Poison Ivy. So far, and as long as we work to keep it that way, the Adirondack region is still a botanical Paradise.

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