Covill on the banks of Lake Massawepie

Water in the Adirondacks

When living in the Adirondacks, or any place where freshwater is in abundance, it is easy to forget that not all is well with the waters and peoples of the world.

Kimberly Covill '06

In memory of Will Hartman: fellow lover of rivers, friend, and classmate.

In 2003, when I was a student in the Adirondack Semester, we had a well. It was a few steps outside the door of what was then the kitchen yurt. We would have to pump the steel handle several times, hard. Finally the water would gush out, always too much too fast, always biting cold on our hands. We filled water bottles, metal pots, teakettles, and plastic dish bins. Over the years, the well collected silt, and eventually it became unusable. 

When I returned to the Adirondack Semester as an assistant director in the fall of 2016, the water system had changed. Now, the students haul water directly out of Massawepie Lake. Rainwater is also collected, though our current receptacles do not work as well as we would like. Kneeling on the front dock, students submerge two 5-gallon jugs into the golden-brown lake water. Come mid-October, your fingers instantly numb. We carry the full jugs about 100 yards to the kitchen, a small timber frame building that is also new since my foray here as a student. 

We boil our drinking water in giant metal pots using propane. Several years ago, the lake water went through a purification system instead. A small number of students and faculty had become ill, however, and poor water quality was suspected. St. Lawrence had the water tested, but even after the results came back, it was unclear as to whether or not the water from the filtration system was safe to drink. Boiling is the most effective method of purification, thus the semester decided not to take any more chances, and they have been boiling ever since.

Water for dishes gets heated, though it does not have to boil. Dishes pass through three plastic bins of water—first soap, then rinse, then bleach—in an industrial-sized sink with three sections. When finished, we pour the dish water down the sinks, but the piping is cut off just below the drain. This gray water is caught in buckets and then dumped deep in the woods.

Students carry the water jugs along the root-laden path from lake to kitchen at least five times a day. This carry has become a circadian rhythm. Making coffee or bread or washing the dishes always starts at the chilled lake waters, where we must dip our hands in order to fill the jugs.

The adirondack Mountains, like all land formations on Earth, are reflections of the waters that helped create them. Many of the ponds and lakes that dot the Adirondacks were formed by massive chunks of ice left behind by glaciers. From the tops of the High Peaks, it seems feasible, as if a giant hand dropped a tray of ice cubes that pooled in the crevices where they landed. The Massawepie Boy Scout Reservation, where the Adirondack Semester takes place, is home to several long and narrow mounds of land, called eskers, formed by the deposits of sub-glacial riverbeds. Massawepie is also home to one of the largest bogs east of the Mississippi. Thousands of years ago, the bog was once a lake. Slowly, over centuries, the lake filled in. A soft and spongy peat moss has taken over the lakebed, and carnivorous pitcher plants have become abundant. This particular bog is a rare ecological goldmine, studied and admired by scientists near and far. 

When living in the Adirondacks, or any place where freshwater is in abundance, it is easy to forget that not all is well with the waters and peoples of the world. The 2016 drought that spanned the Northeast certainly gave the region a scare with consequences for both the University and local communities alike. When I arrived in Canton in the beginning of July, the athletic fields where I used to play rugby looked odd, and then it hit me why: they were completely brown. The water in the Little River sat eerily low and still. We had to change the route for our canoe expedition at the last minute on the advice from Tupper Lake-local Michael Frennette: Dead Creek, what was to be our final push before landing at Massawepie Lake, was too low for passage. 

As in many states, New York has also had its share of municipal water contamination cases. Similar to the Flint, Michigan, crisis that became national news over the past few year, Hoosick Falls residents (see Troubled Waters below), a community 30 miles northeast of Albany, along with several other nearby communities, continue to question the quality of their public water supplies and the accountability of local industry after discovering unsafe levels of the toxic chemical perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which resulted in a spike in cancer rates for locals. The Crisis in Flint also mobilized individuals across the country, people like St. Lawrence alumnus Robert Rich ’89, president of the Roar Logistics public transportation company-based in Buffalo, who assisted in a major effort to transport bottled water to the residents of Flint back in Janaury 2016 at the peak of the crisis. 

National concern and protest over the potential threat from oil pipeline disasters, most notably the Standing Rock tribe in North Dakota reminds us that the U.S. still has ongoing challenges to ensure safe and reliable drinking water for all of its residents. The North Country’s maple syrup industry, as well as winter sports and tourism, are also dependent on clean and consistent water levels, rainfall, and annual snowfall to support the local economy which has been adversely impacted with erractic winters and drought conditions. The 2017 World Championship Snow Shoe Competition in Saranac Lake on Feb. 25 required an enormous effort and expense to truck in snow to alternate trails after the North Country experienced a record-high temperatures and produced the warmest February on record.

For now, the Adirondack Semester water supply is not in any immediate danger. And compared to far away communities in rural Kenya and India, for instance, where people must travel many miles each day to fetch water, the St. Lawrence student’s 50-meter walk from the dock on Massawepie Lake to the kitchen seems insignificant, but still inspire them to reflect on the racial and socio-economic disparities that inform the national and international issues of water access and protections. They recognized that at the core of the Flint and Standing Rock water crises are many racial and economic factors. Linking the dots between these related but often sequestered issues seems to be an important place for us to start a dialogue about how issues of water are not simple at all.

Perhaps the best lesson came, not from a classroom conversation, but during our late September backpacking excursion in the High Peaks, when our bodies reminded us of the danger of living without.

Students had selected an aggressive route that involved climbing up and over several ridges and as many High Peaks as possible. Our first real day was by far the hardest. We trudged the steep and rocky trail up to Dix Peak, about four miles, hitting three more High Peaks out and back along the way. 

As we hiked down from Hough, the second peak of the day, knowing that all the “down” would eventually be the “up” on the way back, we started to talk about water. We hadn’t seen any for quite some time now. I had one liter remaining, out of the two I had brought. So did everyone else. 

“Let’s be mindful,” we decided. Ration it out. 

At the top of South Dix, about six miles in, I drank in slow, short gulps that quenched my dry throat, but depleted my supply. To our right, the trail led up to Macomb, a mile and a half away. It wasn’t on our itinerary, but it was staring down at us, beckoning. To our left stood Grace, our final High Peak.

Disregarding our low water reserves, we set off for a quick additional jaunt up Macomb. At the top, another few precious sips, then down again. 

With one-quarter liter, off we went once more to complete our final climb, Grace Peak. The sun was beating down on us, hard. Half way to Grace, not even a mile in, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I needed water. I took the last joyful sip from my Nalgene and thought, “I’ll deal with the ramifications later.” 

I thought of all the others, all over the world, all throughout history, who had endured through water scarcity. I had to be strong here; we weren’t lost and we weren’t cold (that’d be the following day, and the topic of another essay). The students had become quiet, fatigued, and sluggish as we stumbled toward Grace. I was quiet, my throat was dry. This was getting serious, and the physical consequences were starting to interfere with our climb.

At the top of Grace, we could see for miles: blushing green mountains in a hazy fall sunlight, tiny lakes and ponds sprinkled over the land like little mirrors. But the most beautiful thing was right at our feet, tucked in the folds of the bulbous granite rock: a perfectly clear and still puddle of water. I’ve never looked at a puddle the same way since. I don’t think any of us ever will.

Troubled Waters

Flint, Michigan, may have made headlines in the national media. But for one St. Lawrence alumnus, the impact of drinking-water contamination hits a lot closer to home and is very personal. After diagnosing an unusually large number of his patients with cancer, Dr. Marcus Martinez ’94, a local physician and life-long resident of Hoosick Falls, New York, along with another long-time resident Michael Hickey, whose father died of cancer, raised their concerns to local officials and the state in 2014. 

Martinez and Hickey’s request to test the water were initially dismissed by local officials. However, in 2014, independent water tests showed high levels of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, in the municipal water supplies. PFOA is a toxic chemical used in a variety of commercial and industrial products and in the production of Teflon with suspected links to a number of cancers. Despite confirming high levels of PFOA, warnings to residents to stop drinking the water were not issued by the state until December 2015. 

“I do believe our citizens were advised incorrectly to consume water that was unsafe for at least 12 months,” Martinez told The New York Times in January 2017. Not only is he deeply concerned for his patients and others in his hometown, but Martinez has had his own battle with cancer, which he suspects stems from his exposure to the chemical. This is very personal and affects the lives of many in the surrounding communities.

Hoosick Falls is home to Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which, along with Honeywell International, has named by the State of New York Department of Health as the parties responsible for the PFOA contamination in the village and other nearby towns. A temporary filtration system was installed designed to remove PFOA from the village drinking water, and the water contamination advisory was lifted in March 2016, after Department of Health’s repeated testing showed no signs of PFOA in the village’s water system. It was deemed safe for all uses, including drinking and cooking. 

Martinez and Hickey testified at hearings held in August 2016, which resulted in the state’s Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Conservation naming and holding both Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International accountable for the costs of providing safe drinking water to residents and remediating the contamination. Soil and air testing are ongoing and the State Health Department has also launched an investigation to confirm Martinez’s suspicions of unusual elevations of cancer among Hoosick Falls residents.

Spencer Rundquist '19
Claire Pacioni '17