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Weird scenes inside the Blue Line

July 25, 2009
By Joe Hackett

It's been an interesting week in the Adirondack woods and on it's waters. The regular rains have finally relented and the sun was actually evident in the sky for more than three days in a row.

Despite evening temperatures that dipped into the low 40's, with reports of low 30-degree range in the High Peaks, the arrival of two consecutive hot, sunny days is proof that there actually is a summer in this neck of the woods.

Over the past two weeks, I've divided my days with trips on the Saranacs and the St. Regis Lakes, with occasional jaunts to nearby ponds and woodlands.

In the course of this time, I've witnessed a number of interesting and unusual wildlife moments.

On the Saranac Lakes, the regularity of seeing a pair of mature bald eagles has become rather, well, quite regular.

The big birds can usually be found over Ossetah Lake in the early morning hours, while their midday forays are evident all along the Saranac chain. A favored haunt, around lunch time, is in the top of the big pines across the river from the Route 3 State Boat Launch.

Although these sightings now seem a common occurrence, I'm always impressed with their size, imposing wingspan and regal bearing. They are a majestic sight to see.

After watching eagles over the course of three days, the contrast provided by the awkwardness of a blue heron in action provided an entertaining moment. Often, I jokingly tell children that the long beaked birds are actually an Adirondack pterodactyl. They certainly look like a prehistoric creature.

In the marsh above the upper locks, we observed at very close range as a blue heron stalked frogs along the river's edge. The poor bird was a horrible hunter, striking the water repeatedly in an attempt to catch a very large bullfrog.

Although the heron finally caught the frog, it lost it's prey in an effort to swallow it. My guests and I roared with laughter, as the frog leaped from the heron's maw and into the muck, as the bewildered bird stared in apparent disbelief as the escapee disappeared.

A day later, we watched a similar, though far more dramatic event unfold in Bullrush Bay on the Middle Saranac Lake. A long line of ducklings, maybe 10 or 12 were trailing behind a single, female merganser as she traveled through the reeds.

In a series of two vicious strikes, a very large fish, probably a northern pike, plowed through the ducky procession. As the mother duck swam around to round up the youngsters, the fish took down another ducking and the entire group scattered throughout the reeds. The highly agitated mother frantically continued her efforts to get them reorganized.

I had heard stories of such attacks, but this was the first I'd ever witnessed.

A few days later, I noticed two ravens battling along the shoulder of Keese Mill Road near Paul Smiths. As I slowed down to see what the two birds were up to, I realized they were battling a rather large, black snake.

My approach scared the birds off, but not before they nearly had the snake in the air.

In their hasty departure, the birds dropped the still writhing snake as they flew to a nearby tree. While the snake slithered off into the woods, the birds scolded me for intruding on their meal. With a cadence of Awk, Awk, Awk, the birds continued until I returned to my vehicle.

Passing of an Woodsman

It is with great sadness that I must report the passing of John "Jack" Knight of Saranac Lake. Fittingly, Jack departed from familiar confines at the Adirondack Medical Center, located up the road from his home on Old Lake Colby Road and in sight of Lake Colby.

An Army veteran, licensed guide and accomplished musician, Jack was an authentic Adirondack character who loved to fish, hunt and tell a tale or two.

My first acquaintance with Jack came by way of referral several years back. I was looking for a craftsman that still made authentic, Adirondack packbaskets in the old style.

"Go see Jack Knight," a friend advised me, "He's got a shop just off Old Lake Colby Road and makes 'em right on site. They don't make 'em any better than Jack!" It proved to be sage advice.

Near a small cabin on the property, Jack kept a collection of black ash logs soaking in a small, spring-fed pond. The logs were ribbed from end to end with cuts made from a saw. The cabin was his workshop.

"When the logs are ready, I pound them with this mallet," he explained to me. "Beating the wood separates the fibers and the splints peel right off. They make a fine basket."

I told Jack I wanted a thin-splint basket, designed with a pot bellied shape and double layered for extra strength. With a mischievous glint in his eye, he promised to deliver on my request while chiding me that "a bottle or two along the way will likely speed up the effort."

Over the next few weeks, I visited with Jack regularly to share a few drinks and laughs. He warned me that the basket I had requested was too large to carry if fully loaded, yet it would still be strong enough to sit upon while I rested.

When the basket was finally completed, a few weeks and several bottles later, it was just as Jack had described. Full of gear, it bowed my legs over the carries, but it sure made short work of big loads.

I was so impressed with his craftsmanship, I ordered two smaller and more traditionally shaped baskets for my daughters. He etched their names into the bent wood handles and signed the bottoms with his name and date. Their baskets are certain to be heirlooms.

In later years, Jack worked as a lock tender for the DEC at the Upper Locks on the Saranac River. I would visit with him while guiding fishing trips. Jack always had a story for my guests. He was a consummate entertainer - I only wish I had seen his band.

He continued to make baskets on site at the locks, selling smaller, less fancy models which he called "tourist baskets".

When I asked him the major difference between the real ones and tourist models, Jack said, "The price, of course. Tourism comes with a cost!"

I still remember the look on one particular boater's face when he asked Jack before entering, "Does it cost anything to pass through these locks?"

With a straight face, Jack gave the man a no nonsense reply. "Yes, it certainly does, sir", he answered, "It'll cost you two cold beers going upriver and one on the return trip."

Without hesitation, the bewildered tourist promptly dug two cold ones out of a cooler and handed them over.

As the boat left the locks and headed upriver, Jack popped the caps and handed me a beer.

"Best job I've ever had!", he explained, "The pays not much, but the check is always cold!"

I still use Jack's packbasket daily, it is my regular companion through spring, summer and fall. And as I pass through the locks, I regularly tell guests of his antics, his humor and his fine craftsmanship.

There aren't many original packbaskets being made anymore and sadly, they're making even fewer Adirondack originals like Jack Knight.

Heaven got a good one and he'll be missed. Godspeed Jack. My sincerest sympathies go out to his lovely wife, Mollie and his family.



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