Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Reading Dr. Rugge

     All doctors write prescriptions. Some doctors write books. I'm thinking of Dr. John Rugge, who recently announced that he was stepping back from treating patients after a 46 year career. Dr. Rugge is well known in the North Country, both for his role as personal physician and also for founding the Hudson Headwaters Health Network, whose centers provide care for many thousands every year.

A young Dr. Rugge, early in his career

A more recent photo of Dr. Rugge with a patient
web images


The HHHN center on East Street in Fort Edward, Washington County

     Not everyone knows that before he started his long career in medicine he had a published book to his credit. In 1975 Rugge and co-author James West Davidson wrote The Complete Wilderness Paddler, a how-to guide framed around an expedition they had undertaken on Canada's Moisie River.

Moisie River rapids
web image

          News of the Doctor's retirement took me back many years to when I first read his book and enjoyed a canoeing slide show that Rugge gave in Glens Falls. With this year's paddling season winding down, I reread Wilderness Paddler as well as a second book by the two authors. I can recommend both volumes to anyone who loves a good adventure story and also appreciates the talents a challenging river trip requires.  

     It takes a boat load of skills to tackle a river like the Moisie. Planning, navigation, whitewater paddling, camping and basic survival all come into play. All are covered in the book. The technique of using a real trip for structure works well. There is a narrative arc to hang the instruction onto and the style evokes the camaraderie of friends having the adventure of a lifetime. Also note that Gordon Allen's finely drawn illustrations capture the spirit of the river better than photos could.
     Treating patients and building the HHHN must have kept Dr. Rugge busy during the '80's. Still, somehow, he and Davidson found time for more paddling in Labrador. Out of these trips and lots of research came Great Heart. The book was published in 1988 and it too has rivers and canoeing at its core. Great Heart tells the story of three early 1900's expeditions to "the last blank spot on the map of North America". This is history reconstructed from diaries and journals but told with fictional techniques.

     The epic begins with Leonidas Hubbard, a man whose ambitions draw him into an overpowering, unforgiving wilderness that he's  unprepared for. It grows to include his fellow adventurer, Dillon Wallace, his guide, George Elson, and Hubbard's wife Mina. The motivations and personalities of these individuals create a tension that propels the tale. It's an action/adventure thriller but based on actual events.

Goggle Earth screen shot of Labrador, setting of Rugge's books

     Is another book possible now that he's easing away from his health care responsibilities? We can only hope so. In the meantime, here's wishing John Rugge many years of gentle tailwinds, short portages and a safe eddy at the bottom of every rapid.

Rugge paddling Tripp Lake in the Adirondacks
web image


Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Virtually Banff

      I'll give this to the Banff Mountain Film Festival. For a couple of nights it broke up a routine that was beginning to feel like life without parole. It's these late fall days when it seems to get dark shortly after lunch. Going out in the evening is verboten of course. There's nothing happening anyway and even my traditional escape, a few hours at the library, has been taken away.

     So I run laps on our dirt lane or do hill repeats in the fields, both possible after dark with a headlamp, even enjoyable when the stars are out and the local barred owl is hooting. But that only uses up an hour at most and then the only thing left is to settle in by the wood stove to read. OK, not exactly cringe worthy suffering but by eight my eyes start to blur and it just seems so early to go to bed. 

     Enter the Banff films. They're only available streamed this year. Normally, after it's November run in the Alberta mountain town, the festival tours to some 305 cities in 20 countries. Locals will remember when Saratoga's Skidmore College hosted the screenings. Then, several years ago, the venue moved north a few miles to SUNY ADK in Queensbury. Credit Mo Coutant and the Glens Falls Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club for breathing new life into the event with sold out shows and lots of enthusiasm. It became a real gathering of the tribe. At least until 2020... 

Promo shot of audience enjoying Banff ... definitely not  at ACC

     Banff got its start back in 1976. The film and book festival focus's on mountain culture, sports and environment. Other mountain towns - Boulder and Telluride come to mind - have launched similar events but Banff seems to be the granddaddy. When a selection of the films toured they were usually shown over a couple of nights in two separate programs. Streaming uses the same format with the Amber and Onyx programs being available separately or as a bundle. Best to get the combined package as it gives you more days to watch. Also makes sense to order it thru the local ADK chapter because they get some of the proceeds to use for their good work.

     Will Banff appeal to everybody? Well... 

     There's a lot of whiz-bang mountain biking, skiing and kayaking. Either big fun or death wish ridiculous depending on your point of view. Several climbing films highlight the close relationships fostered by sharing a rope. Nice, but they can also be scary to watch. My favorite was Voice Above Water with its striking images of 90 year old Wayan, a Balinese fisherman who is so disheartened by plastic in the ocean that he's waging a one man clean-up campaign. A perfect blend of beauty, indignation and inspiration. 


All images from Banff film festival


Tuesday, December 1, 2020


     Days of Heaven is a meditative, beautifully shot film by Terrence Malick. In the movie, landscape and sense of place play roles as large as those of Richard Gere and Sam Shepard. And then there is young Linda Manz's plaintive, haunting narration. The images and that voice are hard to forget. 

     But there can also be rare 'days of heaven' in late November. That's when blue sky, warm sun and gentle breezes surprise and delight. Of course, it's usually otherwise. April may be the cruelest month but November seems to covet the title. There's that raw, cold wind-driven rain. The morning darkness that gives way to gray days that suddenly fade back into more darkness by mid-afternoon. And the woods seem full of gunfire...the intimidating soundtrack of hunting season.

     When November is feeling generous, when it gives you a 'day of heaven', best to accept it with gratitude. That's what we did recently, taking advantage of some fine fall weather to bike along the Battenkill. 

Web images

     Sunday morning in Cambridge begins with a stop at Kings Donut Cart. With goodies in hand and a thermos of hot coffee it was on to Eagleville for a woodsy picnic and the starting point of our ride. Along Roberson and Hickory Hill roads, both deliciously dirt, then a brief spin on 313 where we snuck into Vermont, slipping by the Covid restrictions sign.

     A quick right and we were on River Road. More dirt all the way to West Arlington. The Battenkill close by and mountains all around. A country church, covered bridge and Norman Rockwell's old home. It was a lovely day capped by a rising full moon on the drive home. For the end of November, almost heaven.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Come Together

      Where will you be 20 years from now? Not to go all morbid on you but some of us will be in a place without a great view. Or any view at all for that matter.

     That's why I'll be looking to the southwest every clear evening for the rest of the year. As the sky darkens two prominent 'stars' become visible high above the horizon. In truth they are not stars at all but the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Night by night they will be drawing closer together until December 21 when they will almost touch. It's an event that astronomers call a Great Conjunction and due to the physics of their orbits it won't occur again for nearly two decades.

Sky and Telescope image


This will be the view thru a small telescope on December 21
Saturn upper right, Jupiter left of center with four of its moons
image from

     Jupiter and Saturn are called gas giants because they are mostly hydrogen and helium, the same as the Sun but without the mass necessary to ignite fusion in their cores. They may be 'failed' stars but they are certainly no slouches, Saturn is 9x and Jupiter 11x larger than Earth. 

NASA image of Jupiter

       While they will appear close together in our sky no social distancing guidelines are being broken. It's strictly a line of sight phenomenon with Saturn being 400 million miles beyond Jupiter in space. A celestial 'Zoom' meeting of sorts, Saturn is orbiting at 21,562 mph, Jupiter picks up the pace at 29,205 mph and Earth zips along at 66,622 mph. Puts to shame those turtles crawling around NASCAR tracks.  
     In mythology Saturn was the father of Jupiter and I see some lingering rivalry between the two. Jupiter is bigger and has a whopping 79 moons, including Ganymede, the largest in the solar system. But Saturn may eventually come out on top with 82 possible moons, some still needing confirmation. And Saturn has Titan, just a little smaller than Ganymede and the only moon known to have an atmosphere. It could harbor life of some sort. Then there are those rings, thin bands of rock and ice fragments that make Saturn such a spellbinding sight.

NASA image of Saturn

     I'm no rocket scientist. Maybe that's why I'm so amazed at what real rocket scientists are capable of. I do go out and gaze at the sky every night before bed. It kind of 'puts me in my place'. But I also like to browse the web for breathtaking images no naked eye will ever see. You can find photos that required 300, maybe 400 hours of exposure time. Ah, the skill and patience needed to let photons dribble in from the farthest reaches of the universe, ever so gradually coalescing into a picture of what lies beyond our wildest imagination. And the spacecraft - Cassini was at Saturn and Juno is now orbiting Jupiter - their views make you feel as if you're swooping by rings and moons and great red spots.
     Our little blue planet has its problems ( a certain poor loser amongst them ), but it's in a fine neighborhood and still a great place to call home. Now, if we could all just come together, it would be even better.

Next door neighbors...

     Mars is visible most of the night. Look for the bright orange dot high in the east as the evening grows dark.
     Venus and Mercury can be seen before dawn. Venus is the brightest object in the sky ( other than the Sun and Moon ). Around 5:30 to 6:00 am is a good time. You may be able to catch much dimmer Mercury, lower and closer to the horizon over the next few mornings. 

Sky and Telescope image


Sunday, November 8, 2020

Art by George

     This is the world as it should be. That was my thought while viewing the portrait of a young woman sitting in a color dappled garden. She has an open book on her lap, a serene, contemplative expression on her face. In these overwrought, cluttered times the scene was just so ... so right, for lack of a better word.

     The woman is at the center of a painting by Cambridge artist George Van Hook. In a recent YouTube video Van Hook demonstrates how he created the work while at the same time engaging in entertaining banter with Eric Rhoads, the video host.


     The painting, the video, the artist ... they are all so uplifting. Van Hook is animated, he bubbles with energy - intellectual, artistic, physical. His love of what he does and the skills developed over a lifetime are on full display. 

      In most years George, along with several other local artists, host tours of their studios offering the opportunity to view and purchase their latest work. In this year of our affliction even the much anticipated Landscapes for Landsakes show went virtual, so I'm not sure if there will be open houses this season. While there is no substitute for in person conversation, for viewing art up close, I am still grateful for the web, for the YouTube experience. Should the windfall I so richly deserve ever materialize, I would buy Garden Repose in a flash. In the meantime I can go to Van Hook's website  and see how the painting would look hanging on a living room wall. 

George Van Hook painting "en plein air"
image from artist's website

     Van Hook is known for his "en plein air" painting. I keep coming back to the idea that art both captures reality while also giving us an idealized vision of what reality could be. In a statement about his philosophy of painting Van Hook has said, "The paintings are a marriage of external and internal forces - what emerges on the canvas should be a reflection of both the beauty of the world and the artist's most inner response."

     I believe Garden Repose was painted in the artist's backyard with a local Cambridge girl as model. There is the pleasurable experience of viewing the painting - its color, its balance, the emotion it conveys. Then there is the impetuous to recreate the scene behind my house, to make a small idyllic spot of tranquility for myself and my family. Don't we all long for Garden Repose

Garden Repose
oil on linen by George Van Hook
image from artist's website


Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Road to Death Rock

      No one is shooting at me. For that I am grateful.  

     It could be otherwise.

     I'm on Battle Hill, a rocky knob just north of Fort Ann.It's late October of 2020 and all I hear is the sound of traffic on Rt. 4. But if this were July 8, 1777 the sound and the scene would be much different. That's when a fierce battle was being waged in these very woods. 

     The Americans were retreating from Ticonderoga and had camped near Fort Anne. When the pursuing British forces reached the narrow gap between Wood Creek and the steep hill, the rag-tag army of farmers made their stand. They were able to stop Burgoyne's soldiers from advancing and by crossing the creek a little downstream they cut-off the escape route back to Skenesborough. American fire pushed the British up the hill where there was a hot standoff until a band of Indians whopped into the fray. These reinforcements allowed the Red Coats to slink back north with their tails between their legs. The Americans, though victorious, knew their enemy would return with far superior numbers so they in turn retreated south to Fort Edward. Though they couldn't have known it at the time, their valor may have been pivotal in delaying Burgoyne and setting the stage for his eventual defeat at Saratoga.

     Reading about battles gives you the dates, numbers and positions but their is something visceral about standing on the ground where the action took place. From a ledge I imagine soldiers scared and out of breath, stumbling over the bodies of the fallen as shot meant for them thuds into a tree. Here is a place where you can sense the true horror of people hunting and killing each other. It's a sobering experience that can leave you shaken.

     I was on my way to Whitehall but couldn't resist stopping at another spot that always brings a shudder. A few miles north of Battle Hill, just past Kelsey Pond, there's a long road cut. The Rt. 4/Rt. 22 corridor extending up to Ticonderoga is a favorite of geologists. All kinds of rock easily accessible. Maybe too accessible.

     On the west side of the road is a large ramp that's obviously 'fresh'. This is where a huge slide occurred on October 15, 2012. It totally blocked the highway with an estimated 2000 tons of boulders. In a small miracle no one was hurt although several cars narrowly escaped being buried. But you know what's really scary? These cuts are popular teaching locales. I've been here on tours when bus loads of geology students were literally nose to the rock - looking, listening to their professors, learning. Can you imagine if the ledge had let loose right then? The thought gives me chills every time I drive by here.

Deere, deere ... heavy equipment prepares to clear the Rt. 4 rock slide back in 2012
Derek Pruitt photo from the Post-Star

       Drive a little further and, if you dare, you can turn right towards Comstock. After crossing the canal you come face to face with the massive grey walls of Great Meadow Prison. Can there be a more foreboding place? Razor wire and guard towers and eerie floodlights that pierce the night. People in cages. Anger, regret and despair seem to seep out of here and into the surrounding countryside. This is life at its worse, not a Halloween make-believe haunted jail but the real deal. I cringe just being near the prison and yet it seems important to experience and acknowledge its existence.

     On towards Whitehall with a quick stop at a small roadside cemetery. It's on the left, all but invisible to the thousands who zip by here everyday. This must have been a serene spot at the time of the first internments in the late 1700's. But rest in peace? Here today? Not likely with the incessant buzz of traffic. The place left me with an uneasy sense of disturbed spirits. Unlike the permanent residents, I could move on and soon enough I was back out on the road, back in the mad rush.

     The only difference was that I was actually going to Whitehall while nearly everyone else was going thru it on the way to someplace else. If there was such a thing as a transportation hub in Washington County it would have to be Whitehall. Canals, railroads and highways all converge here. In the past this meant great economic vitality. Today, not so much.
     A former car hop place seems to memorialize the towns reversal of fortune. It's been abandoned, decaying and kind of creepy for as long as I can remember. This along a strip where even the ubiquitous franchises - McDonalds, Subway, Dunkin Donuts - have pulled out. As Marie Kondo would say, "Whitehall could use some tidying up."

Fries and a shake? Maybe not

     Two of Whitehall's most famous (and semi-frightening) residents can be found in the village center, down by the canal. Henry Francisco resides in the Skenesborough Museum. Reputed to be 134 years old when he died, it's hard to tell if Henry is a mannequin, a mummy or the real deal just sitting for a spell. The museum is filled with neat exhibits and well worth a visit but the wizened Mr. Francisco is the image that sticks with me. He looks like something people would put on their porch this time of year to scare the willies out of Trick-or-Treaters. 

       Then there's Big Foot. Let's just say Big Foot is big around here. Books, festivals, likenesses - all based on some supposed sightings  years ago. Fun? well maybe. Kitschy? absolutely. Someone trying to make a buck? probably. But with Covid and opiates, with a warming climate and boiling politics, with nut-cases armed to the teeth you have to question the wisdom of encouraging people to be looking over their shoulder for a large hairy beast? It just seems to reinforce a sense of lurking evil.

He's everywhere...a few Big Foot sightings around Whitehall

     And there are other things about Whitehall. Stalker Road? Doesn't that sound inviting. Rattlesnakes? You either bemoan their persecution or rank them right up there with Big Foot as reason to avoid the area. Skene Manor? The local landmark sits high and supposedly haunted.

     Philip Skene is the founding father of the area. Thus Skene Mountain, Skene Manor and Skenesborough - an early name for Whitehall. In the 1770's the British Captain amassed holdings of  56,350 acres extending from Fort Ann to far up the shores of Lake Champlain. He built a stone house and barn on the north side of his namesake mountain, but they stood for less than ten years before being destroyed in the war. Being loyal to the King, he was on the wrong side of history and eventually lost everything.
     He had already suffered his greatest loss, that of his beloved wife Katherine in 1772. Therein lies the origins of haunted Skene Mountain. Legend has it that Katherine wasn't buried but kept in a vault above ground. You can imagine where that has gone. In Whitehall even Big Foot is wary of Katherine's ghost. For a number of years patrons of a tavern in Skene Manor could see her (fake) hand reaching out of a grotto. Made up stories created a lot of 'buzz' for the restaurant/bar. It's a 'buzz' that continues to echo. 

See something in that upstairs window? Ghostly Skene Manor

     While in town I returned a  book about the Skenes to the local library. "Kathi" of Skenesborough was written in 1914 by May Belle Curtis. It is historical fiction telling the family's story in the years 1774-1775. I had been trying to find out how Death Rock got its name and a local historian suggested "Kathi" might have a clue. 

     Death Rock is a prominence on West Mountain. West being the ridge between the village and South Bay. On my tour of scary sites Death Rock seemed a fitting finale. Little did I know how frightening my attempt would be.

Vintage post-card view

     The short version of Death Rock's name involves an Indian maiden and unrequited love. "Kathi" tells the whole tale. Since the time of the Skenes, for some 250 years, people have enjoyed the trek up the mountain to picnic and take in the scenic vista. It's part of the cultural heritage of the area. There is interesting geology, breathtaking views and, of course, the name/origin legend.

     An abandoned road that begins at the end of School Street has long provided convenient access. But on my visit I found a huge boulder blocking the way and POSTED signs plastered to the trees. It appears Whitehall has suffered yet another loss. A favorite outing for hundreds of years is no more. The simple pleasure of hiking to Death Rock has ... well, it has died.


     Halloween frights - ghosts, goblins, witches - they are fun. But for myself, and for others who love to roam wild places, the continuing loss of our shared heritage is scary beyond words. 


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Georgy Girls


Christopher Spangler photo

     Georgy Girl was a 1966 romantic comedy starring Lyn Redgrave. It featured a bouncy, hummable title song by The Seekers. I've never seen the movie but for some reason the song has stuck with me. Maybe that's why my first thought upon seeing this photo was "These are the new 'Georgy Girls'". Lake Georgy girls to be precise.
     In these pandemic times the masks need no explanation but maybe the pose does. The four women are whimsically demonstrating their swim stroke, a motion that served each well in recent Lake George swims. You may already be familiar with these athletes and their accomplishments. Perhaps you have read about them in local media. What's extraordinary is to see them all together, clearly enjoying each others company. 
     That's Louise Rourke on the left. In 2018 she did a relay swim of the lake that raised well over $100,000 towards eradicating polio. Louise was stricken by the disease as a young child (notice the leg brace) but has overcome its debilitating effects to lead a full, productive life. She has a deep love for Lake George and has written a memoir about growing up with polio and how liberating swimming has been for her. Watch for Louise's book which should be available soon. 
     Next to Louise is Bridget Simpson who partnered in the Swim for Polio and who also completed a solo swim in 2017. Bridget is a Ticonderoga resident who often swims from the Tiroga Beach. In my humble opinion this Washington County gem is the best beach on Lake George. Always looking for a challenge, Bridget has become fascinated with the idea of doing an 'Ice Mile'.
     The girl looking at the world thru rose colored glasses is Charlotte Brynn. She's originally from New Zealand but has been living in Vermont for some time. This summer Charlotte set dual records becoming both the oldest (at 54) and the fastest (just under 18 hours) to swim the lake.

Charlotte Brynn and Gwenne Rippon
Christopher Spangler photo

     Finally, that's Caroline Block on the right. She's done the only double crossing of the lake to date. 'Crossing' can be a bit confusing when it comes to Lake George. Many who spend time on the lake might think of crossing as going from shore to shore, east to west or vice versa, a distance of several miles on this long but narrow water. But in distance swimming parlance that's not what crossing means. Block actually swam end to end - a distance of 32+ miles - and then turned around without stopping to swim back another 32+ miles, spending over 52 hours in the water!
     The photo was taken last month at a book launch event in Lake George Village. Gwenne Rippon's Called by the Water - When Diane Struble Swam Lake George is about her mom's historic first swim of the lake in 1958. One of Struble's favorite sayings was "You never know who you might inspire". When you look at these four women I think it's safe to say that Struble inspired some pretty amazing people. I'm hopeful these swimmers will inspire a new generation to both protect the lake and rise to its challenge in the years to come.

Christopher Spangler photo

     In the photo above Andrea MacGloin is signing as Gwenne  speaks about her book. Caroline Block is hearing impaired and needed a little help to catch the stories about Struble, swimming and the lake. It struck me how someone can be so talented (Block has a doctorate, is about to take the bar exam and obviously has phenomenal endurance) yet still have disabilities. We all have strengths and limitations. Maybe it's the attitudes we bring to them that make a difference. 

     I like author and swimmer Sally Friedman's idea from her book Swimming the Channel: "...the feeling that this is what we do best, the most we can offer to those we have loved...". May we all offer to the world that which we do best while taking inspiration from others who do the same.

Louise speaking as Andrea signs
Christopher Spangler photo

     All the photos here were taken by Christopher Spangler/Down to Earth Aerial courtesy of Rotary International. Rotary has also sponsored Louise Rourke and is helping with the publication of her book. Many thanks to Rotary.