Uncle Big Guy and Mrs. Uncle Big Guy drove down to Bel Air from their home in the Adirondacks over the holidays. After dinner one evening, we sat around the living room enjoying the fruits of a day trip to the Fiore vineyards in nearby Pylesville. As I suspected it would, the reminiscing turned eventually to Big Moose Lake.
Up in the deep north woods near Old Forge, N.Y., Big Moose is not just a lake -- it's an attitude. Maybe it's a testosterone thing, but there is something about a moose, especially a big moose, that captures the imagination in a way that no otter or skunk or beaver ever could.
For the uninitiated, Old Forge is north and east of Syracuse and directly north of Utica. The natives up there refer casually to Big Moose, and it's hard for a newcomer to catch whether they're talking about the lake, the river, the old railroad station, the inn or the high plains, all bearing the same name. It doesn't matter. When I'm up there, I have to fight the temptation to drop my voice an octave and blurt the secret call of the wild to any passing stranger: "Big Moose!"
It's not surprising, I suppose, that the last time we were there I bought a sweat shirt with the word "Moose" on it and my wife, Katherine, bought a delicate book about loons.
Our family has vacationed numerous times in the Adirondacks, always within socializing range of the Uncle Big Guy compound. I should explain that Uncle Big Guy is not really my uncle but my children's uncle; in fact, he is my effervescent brother-in-law Bill Ransom. His wife is Mary Anne, sister of my wife.
I gave Bill his nickname several years ago, when it seemed he was always winning some kind of national honor or being invited to the White House for doing legendary things with students as an agriculture teacher at a rural high school near Albany. Thanks to New York's generous retirement system, he and Mary Anne, also a longtime teacher, have retired in their 50s to a year-round vacationland. Needless to say, the rest of us are bitter with jealousy.
The Uncle Big Guy compound, by the way, tends to move. At first they bought a cottage on Fourth Lake near Old Forge that had once been owned by J.P. Morgan. At the turn of the last century, the Adirondacks became the favorite summer place for moguls like Morgan and John D. Rockefeller to take the cool mountain airs. Because they didn't know any better, they built outlandish groupings of stone mansion-like structures they quaintly called "cottages."
With all of Uncle Big Guy's freeloading relatives (ourselves included) popping in for a week or two -- sometimes the same week or two -- his Morgan hand-me-down turned out to be cramped, even by captain-of-industry standards. So, two years ago a grand decamping took place. Uncle Big Guy bought a 100-year-old spread right on Old Forge Pond, which is the first body of water in the Fulton Chain of Lakes.
The Fulton chain is a series of picture-perfect Adirondack lakes, numbered from First to Eighth, each connected by a navigable waterway and teeming with boaters or skimobile enthusiasts, depending on the season. Down at Old Forge Pond, the lakes drain into the middle branch of the Big Moose River. Old Forge itself is the tourist's jumping-off point for the Fulton chain and dozens of surrounding but unconnected lakes such as Cranberry, Long, Blue Mountain, Raquette, Indian and Big Moose.
Last summer Uncle Big Guy invited everyone to the new place for a mammoth family reunion. He rented a party tent, brought in a disc jockey, portable toilets and beer by the keg. We swam, boated, waterskied, golfed, hiked, biked, rode horses, paint-balled and antiqued all over the place to our heart's content. (They take credit cards in the darndest places these days.)
If you look at a map of New York state, you will see in the northern regions that someone has gone crazy with a green crayon. Those are the 6 million acres of Adirondack Park -- the largest park in the United States outside Alaska -- and usually thought of by tourists as three distinct vacation areas.
North of Albany and Saratoga Springs is the Lake George area, extending north to Fort Ticonderoga and the southern tip of Lake Champlain. Here you will find traces of "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne's march from Canada to his doom at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. Burgoyne was the first British general ever to surrender an entire army, and doing so gave the moral advantage in the War of Independence to the Colonists' cause.
Northwest of Ticonderoga are the Olympic ski areas of Lake Placid and Saranac Lake and, just south, Tupper Lake. From here you can view New York's highest peak -- Mount Marcy -- at 5,344 feet. This is the mountain referred to in Russell Banks' excellent best-selling novel "Cloudsplitter," the story of John Brown's exploits running escaped slaves into Canada before the Civil War.