On Wednesday afternoon my bride and I departed Essex and headed south on Interstate 87. Driving one of the Adirondack highway’s most handsome stretches always affords decadent views, but yesterday spoiled us with near peak Adirondack fall foliage.
It was breathtaking despite overcast conditions. The flat light desaturated autumn’s cacophonous palette, rendering a landscape more nuanced than the scenes typically conjured up on postcards, calendars and television cutaways. This was especially true in higher elevations of the High Peaks where damp leaves and wispy mist intensified my melancholic, almost nostalgic longing.
Leaf Peeping and Longing
But a longing for what? For High Peaks hiking and climbing and camping and fly fishing, perhaps. Or canoeing lazy Adirondack rivers, the crystal clear water at once reflecting fiery leaves on the surface and revealing those that have drifted down to the pebbled bottom, a sort of autumnal double vision. Or is the longing more abstract? An invitation to flip through dusty photo albums of autumns past, or an unanticipated, uninvited glimpse of mortality, the bittersweet knowledge that today’s bounty is tomorrow’s compost.
It is all of this, I suspect. And more. Autumn is a welcome reprieve from heat and humidity and — for a few fleeting weeks — the weather and light reinvigorate me like an old country elixir that makes me happy and alert and energetic. After months of nursing seedlings, weeding vegetables, pruning fruit shrubs, trees and vines, fall is the long anticipated harvest. It is a time of abundance in so many tangible and intangible ways. Ever since my school days fall has marked the end of carefree summer adventures, but at the ripe old age of forty I have discovered that it also marks the beginning of some of the best sailing and windsurfing and waterskiing and cycling, luxuries I couldn’t enjoy when school blotted out all these activities. If Norman Rockwell had developed a theme park it would have looked and felt and smelled and tasted an awful lot like Adirondack autumn.
Removing ourselves from familiar environs inspires reflection, reminding us what is unique about the place we live. Wednesday’s visual banquet was no exception. Living in Essex, Lake Champlain influences many aspects of our life, autumn among them. Unlike the Adirondack High Peaks, Essex remains temperate longer in the fall. Our growing season is extended. In fact, the USDA recognized this fact during the last year and actually changed the hardiness zone for the Champlain Valley to Zone 5. Whether climate change or just the “lake effect” resulting from Lake Champlain’s immense, slow-to-cool thermal mass, Essex enjoys a unique microclimate.
Essex Leaf Peeping
For this reason, the leaf peeping in Essex trails the rest of the Adirondacks. The towering maple trees in front of Rosslyn remain vibrant green except for a slight blush on a few leaves. Wandering through the back meadows a couple of days ago I was hard pressed to identify any trees that were already flaunting their fall wardrobes.
In many respects a quintessential Adirondack village, leaf peeping in the High Peaks reminded me of yet another Essex exception. While most are quick to focus on Essex’s historic and architectural distinction, our climate is often overlooked as are the ways that nature and agriculture are affected by our often milder weather. The richness of life in Essex in no small part hinges upon the proximity to both.
Adirondacks vs. Adirondack Coast
I close this meandering reflection on Adirondack fall foliage with a forty five minute bicycle ride I enjoyed mid-day on Monday. I had pedaled away from Essex shortly after lunch, headed due west toward the Adirondack foothills. The weather in Essex was sunny and warm with a light breeze. There were clouds in the sky but not indication that I would encounter adverse weather conditions.
But I did. As I gained in altitude the temperature dropped steadily and the wind increased. The clouds thickened and I became more and more aware of the humidity. I was bicycling quickly, laboriously uphill, so the dropping temperatures were compensating for my overheating body. And then it began to rain. Not a downpour, but a steady, cold drizzle. Wind in my face. Colder still. I reached the furthest point in my loop and turned southward and then eventually eastward back toward Essex.
When I dropped in elevation and swapped woods for fields, the rain and wind subsided. The clouds thinned. Sunshine made it’s way through enough to restore vibrant autumn colors to the landscape. As I rode past Full and By Farm I realized that the temperature had also changed. The air was warming. Was I imagining it? I paid closer attention. By the time I started my final descent into Essex from the intersection of Middle Road and NYS Rt. 22 it was clear. The air was growing warmer the closer I got to Lake Champlain. In just over a dozen pedaled miles I had witnessed a range of at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
No wonder our Essex fall foliage is a week or two behind the High Peaks!