Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 20, 2012

Things I would have written Part II

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:15 am

Sept. 6   In the Adirondacks     

Although not exactly Rip Van Winkle territory, the Adirondacks of upper New York State certainly have that misty mountain Winkle feel. You could fall asleep here for decades and wake up to a place that looks exactly the same as it always was. We stopped at Eagle Point  State Park, located on Schroon Lake at the eastern edge of the Adirondacks on the Vermont side of the state, for an overnight stay. Schroon is one of those narrow north-south bodies of water carved out by the glaciers. The opposite shore is speckled with cabins but the un-tamed peaks behind them dominate the horizon. It is a deep cold lake that probably holds a lot of deep cold secrets.

My wife and I were pretty much the only residents of the park – this being very late in the season. The place was scheduled to close down for the year in just a few more days. This, of course, allowed for ample solitary exploration of the abandoned lakeshore the following day.  As expected, a singular loon was gliding the still lake waters in the morning (would it be a northern lake without one?) along with another solitary fisherman in the form of a human in a small aluminum boat.

As stunning as the scenery was, my attention was drawn to a pile of mussel shells on the bank bordering the sand beach. There were dozens of them in the cluster and all of them were cleaned out. Each had been opened and the valves remained connected by their hinge – “butterflied,” I guess you’d call it. This bore all the characteristics of a muskrat midden.

Muskrats are primarily vegetarians but they do not adhere strictly to this regime. They have to have a bit of bloody meat every now and then in order to stay interesting. Fresh-water mussels are one of their favorite guilty pleasures. Muskrats will pig down on mussel flesh whenever and wherever they are readily available. A purple nacred (that means purple mother-of-pearl) Sand Shell and a thin-shelled Paper Shell appear to be the most common varieties in this lake.

It is still somewhat of a mystery as to how muskrats open these things, but they do manage to force them open enough to sever the single muscle that holds the two shells together. On occasion, they will break the thinner shells in the process, but for the most part the only evidence left are some tooth marks marking the where the mussel was carried.  They rarely separate the two shells at the hinge. Because they are creatures of habit, the ‘rat will return to the same location repeatedly for their shellfish respite and thus these piles are created.

The only unusual thing about this muskrat midden was that it was located nearly 25 feet from the water. Due to the unusually hot summer, the lake level was obviously down by many feet. The original shore lapped at the base of the slope where the shells were deposited and it is likely that whatever ‘rat  built this shell temple did so in the early spring when the water was still up. “Eat clams while the water is high” is an old muskrat saying (original text: “wheep chip chatter gnash-chup”) and it certainly applied here.

Elsewhere in camp, squirrels were again part of the main show. I’m sure there were raccoons about (along with a few black bears) but the only garbage raider I saw was yet another portly Grey Squirrel. This one was trying to act innocent -like he was just using the edge of the dumpster as a perch -but I know he was eying the contents and was ready to dive in when I interrupted him. And talk about bushy tails. This one was certainly well-endowed.  It’s not a muskrat saying, but perhaps you’ve heard the one about “Big bushy tails means that a long hard winter is ahead.” Although this is a totally false concept,  it can be said with complete confidence that it means that winter will eventually get here.

A brightly spotted giant slug completed my morning discoveries at Schroon Lake. It was sliming along the Hemlock needle mulch looking for someplace to hide for the upcoming winter. Sure, it’s a bit early to take cover but slugs are not all that fast. It also serves as a reminder that this place is not entirely timeless because these are European introductions (and so, I remind myself, am I).

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