As longtime readers know, I’m a non-native Utahn who absolutely loves living in Utah. I love the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the P-J woodlands- I even love the Great Salt Lake*.
*And I’m one of the few Utahns who does. Utahns generally ignore or malign the lake, and that’s a shame because it is- in its own weird, hyper-saline way- way, way awesome. Someday I’ll do a great post on the lake, and then you’ll get how awesome it really is.
Tangent: Yes, I’m one of those funny people who prefers lakes to the ocean. The ocean is beautiful and all, but it has a weird and frightening power about it at the same time. Standing on an ocean beach is sort of like standing on the edge of the world. There’s constant force and noise, and the certain knowledge that if you just swam out straight ahead, you’d tire and drown long before you caught sight of land again.
Yes, I know that’s true for many lakes as well, but in general lakes and ponds have a quiet peace and serenity and well- finite-ness- about them that the sea just doesn’t have. They’re quiet and full of interesting little mysteries, almost like outdoor libraries, and conducive to study and reflection.
Then there’s the swimming, the act of diving into clean freshwater, that’s somehow- when you slip in all hot and sweaty, fresh from a run, bike, or bike ride- like diving into cool velvet, refreshing in a way an ocean dive just never can be.
Nested Tangent: A reservoir isn’t like this; you don’t get the same sensation from diving into Lake Powell for instance. When you’re raised in and on freshwater, a man-made lake always has a certain smell and feel that is forever reminiscent of a refrigerator in need of a good cleaning. It’s like the difference between real Coke and Diet Coke; if all you’ve ever drunk is Diet Coke, then it tastes just fine. But if you grew up drinking real Coke, the Diet version seems forever a cheap, stagnant copy.
As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I spent many summers alongside a small lake in Western Maine, but have visited, swum in, hiked to and canoed upon dozens more. Northern New England is positively strewn with lakes, and until I was about 20 years old or so, I naively thought pretty much everyplace was so blessed.
Me, Lakes and the CIA
My senior year in college, a defense contractor flew me out for an all-day interview in central Pennsylvania. I had lunch with a young Engineer, about 2 years older than me. We talked about hobbies, the area, and what I liked to do when not working. Since my favorite recreation at that time- swimming, canoeing, sailing- centered around lakes, I asked about them. My lunch-companion furrowed his brow and thought long and hard, but couldn’t think of a single lake in the area.
Tangent: No, I didn’t get the job. In fact, though I interviewed with several defense contractors my senior year (my degree is in Electrical Engineering), none offered me a job. In retrospect I consider this one of the great “lucky dodges” of my life. Years later as a salesman I called on, and sold to, a number of large defense contractors, and concluded after a time that by and large, the people who work for large defense contractors Have No Souls.
No, no, no- I’m not talking about ethics or war or anything; I’m not a pacifist. I think there really are bad people and forces in the world and that war- as awful as it is- is sometimes justified. No, what I’m referring to is the spirit of longtime defense contractor employees. After a decade or 2 it seems that they have no excitement, no joy, like they’ve somehow lost their ability to see the Beauty of the World. Maybe it’s the bureaucracy, maybe it’s the secrecy, I don’t know. They’re just missing something.
Nested Tangent: So what job offer did I get- and accept- my senior year? I accepted an offer from- and I swear to god I am not making this up- the CIA. That’s right, I accepted a job with the CIA. Unfortunately or fortunately, I ran into, er, ahem, ‘issues’ around the security clearance process, and never actually began employment with the agency. I eventually took a job with a non-defense-related tech company.
There’s a great story around this, that involves polygraphs, investigators, an interview with a shrink, interrogators and peeing into absurdly tiny containers, but alas, I’ve “tangented” long and far enough. I’ll save my CIA story for a future tangent in a future post.
When I returned to campus, I got a hold of some maps and did some research. Though New England and upstate New York are littered with lakes, South of New York state they disappear. Continuing West, they appear again only in the far North, as in upper Wisconsin and Minnesota. Eastern Canada of course is practically carpeted with lakes, large and small, and the reason for all these lakes in the North is glaciation.
Over the past million years or so, ice sheets have rolled back and forth across Northern North America repeatedly. Each time they push and carry pebbles, stones and boulders, which they leave behind when they melt/recede. The rocky soil impedes drainage in ways that the soils of the Midwest or South do not, and this leads to the fascinating hydrology of the North.
How Maine Hydrology Is Like A Giant Frank Lloyd Wright House
The interior of Maine contains thousands of lakes and ponds. The first obvious-but-cool thing about lakes is that there is no “lake level.” Lakes and ponds occur at all different altitudes and together form series of terraced pools, linked together in large, complex drainage basins. Our lake (or “pond” as we’ll see in a moment) is one of 4 connected ponds that sits (usually) at 572 feet above sea level. A fifth pond, which drains into ours via a ½ mile-long brook (pic right), sits 8 feet higher. The combined 5 ponds drain through a river and series of falls to a much larger pond- only 8 miles South as the crow flies- which lies at only 369 feet. That larger pond drains into the Saco River and rambles on for another 140 circuitous miles before reaching the Atlantic just South of Portland, being joined on the way by dozens (maybe 100+) more “little” drainage basins en route. And that’s just one drainage basin. Hydrologically, Maine is a like a giant Frank-Lloyd-Wright-Castle, with elegant and complex terraced pools cascading into one another all across the state.
Tangent: Just over the “hill” from our pond lies Cushman Pond, up at 740 feet. Cushman, a mere 1.25 miles Northwest as the crow flies, is the closest body of water to ours that is infected by the dreaded exotic aquatic weed Cinque Milfoil. But fortunately it’s closer to 100 miles away as the water flows. Hydrology involves distances, scale and connections that are often very different from those in the surrounding “dry world.”
Our “lake” – the “Back Pond” of 5-Kezar Lakes- or 5-Kezar Ponds, depending on which map you look at- is usually called a pond. Strangely, there’s no agreed-upon difference between lakes and ponds; ponds are usually bigger, but many “ponds” are bigger than many “lakes.” Technically, according to the state of Maine, our pond, at 62 acres*, is a great pond, as it’s over 10 acres in surface area. Adjoining Middle Pond is the largest of the 5 at 72 acres. The other 4 all drain into it and Middle Pond in turn drains into the falls.
*Which, coincidentally, is the exact same surface area as Walden Pond.
Back, Middle and Front Ponds are divided by narrow, sandy, forested eskers. That dividing Middle and Front Ponds is the longest and best-defined, but our cabin sits on the other esker, between Back and Middle Ponds. Eskers are narrow, thin, sandy strips of land all over the state that divide bodies of water, and generally run North-South, and their origins are absolutely fascinating.
Awesome Tangent/Spotlight About Water Lilies
Botanical Spotlight*- Water Lilies: For this post, I decided to focus on hydrology and geological origins of lakes/ponds. But it was a tough choice, because lakes and ponds are so wildly fascinating biologically. Fish, Loons, Snapping Turtles, Water Snakes- any of these would’ve made for a great post. Even the botany of lakes and ponds is amazing. No, not just the botany of the plants by the lake- the botany of the plants in it. Here’s a quick example:
*I’m using the “Botanical Spotlight” instead of a “Tangent” here due to a complaint from a Tangent-Only-Reader (let’s call him “Sid”)- whom I will henceforth refer to as TORies- that I got technical in a couple of tangents in Monday’s post.
Water Lilies (family= Nymphaeaceae) are common in calm freshwater ponds. Rooted on the pond bottom, with flowers and leaves floating on the surface, they’re angiosperms and have pretty flowers. Often small frogs or dragonflies or damselflies hang out on their pads. Everybody knows all that. But here’s something you probably didn’t know: Water Lilies* are possibly the most basal group of angiosperms, meaning that they branched off on their own path long before, and are more distantly related from, just about every other angiosperm. Their origins long pre-date the monocot/dicot split; even Magnolias are more closely-related to Oaks, Sagebrush and grasses than are Water Lilies.
*Which, by the way is why Water Lilies are named wrong. A “Lily” is a monocot, something that was still millions of years in the future when Water Lilies branched off from the rest of angiosperms.
Side Note: Technically, the absolutely most basal/distantly-related angiosperm is now thought to be the family Amborellaceae, which consists of a single species, the shrub Amborella trichopoda, which is native to- where else?- yes, that’s right, my absolute favorite Gondwanaland fragment- New Caledonia*. Another group that appears to be about as basal/distantly-related to all other angiosperms as Nymphaeaceae is Austrobaileyales, an order of about 100 species which includes the spice Star Anise.
*I have got to get there someday. That place has so got it (botanically) going on.
Water Lilies have big showy flowers that are “primitive” in that they have lots of stamens, lots of not-clearly-differentiated petals/sepals, and fair number of sort-of-petals-sort of stamens. In this respect they’re reminiscent of Magnolias (also notable for their “primitive” flowers) and also bring to mind cultivated Roses, many of whose stamens have been coaxed by breeders back into a more primitive, petal-like form.
There are about 70 species of Water Lily, around the world. The common species of Water Lily around the lakes is Fragrant Water Lily, Nymphaea odorata, which is one of the most widespread Water Lilies in the world, ranging from Central America to Norhtern Canada. Like most Water Lilies, N. odorata flowers open during the warm part of the day- late morning to mid-afternoon- then close up for the night (pic right). True to their name, they smell absolutely lovely, though you have to get up good and close to sniff them.
This Part Is So Freaky-Cool It Blows My Mind
The eskers dividing our ponds are the deposited sediments of ancient streambeds that ran under the mile-high ice-sheets under the state. Our cabin sits on an ancient streambed that only 14 or 15,000 years ago lay under a mile of ice! These sub-glacial streams typically ran out toward the South-facing edge/front of the ice-sheet, which is why most eskers run North-South.
Tangent/Spotlight/Whatever/Get-Over-It-Sid: OK, one more botany thing. The sandy soil of eskers makes them a frequent home for Red Pine, Pinus resinosa, which otherwise doesn’t seem to be all that common in the Maine woods.
As the glaciers receded from Southern Maine about 13,000 years ago, they generally retreated fairly evenly by the coast and adjacent lowlands. But in the hilly interior, large, multi-acre glacial chunks became isolated and later buried by sediments. These chunks endured for several centuries, and when they finally melted, left deep depressions that became the sites of many of today’s lakes and ponds (often called kettle ponds.)
Shortly after the glaciers receded, 5-Kezar Ponds probably was a single, bigger, deeper pond. But the ice melted, it fed strong flows that carried sediments and gravel, making its waters highly erosive, and they carved a deep gorge through the granite blocking the South end of what is now Middle Pond, providing a lowered drainage outlet that lowered the elevation of the ponds to below that of the eskers.
Today Kezar Falls Gorge (pic left) is 6 feet wide and 30 feet deep. On Friday we canoed down to the South end of Middle Pond, then hiked down and around a few hundred yards to the bottom of the Falls, where together we jumped in and swam up the gorge. In a “normal” year, you can swim all the way up and stand atop the pile of boulders at the bottom of the falls, but the flow is so high and strong this year that I could barely make it to within 6 feet of the bottom before the current forced me back.
Happy but a bit worn out from our efforts, we returned to the canoe and started the long paddle home. The South end of Middle Pond is my favorite part of the ponds. It’s un-developed and wild-looking, and it’s easy to think it’s been like this forever. But only 800 or so generations ago, none of this- forest, ponds, falls- was here. The world changes fast.
Next Up: Uh, nothing for a bit. Believe it or not, we’re leaving on our next vacation tomorrow morning*. After 10 years, Awesome Wife is going back to work, a part-time Reading Specialist position with Salt Lake School District. She’s thrilled, but we had to compress our vacation schedule a bit to be home in time for her start-date.
Our vacation will take us up into Western Montana, and I probably won’t be blogging much over the next week. But I expect I’ll have plenty to blog about when we return, including some surprising botanical and geological parallels between our 2 vacations. Have a great week.
*Yes, of course Ray will be at the house while we’re gone. Don’t even think about it.