BIG MOOSE LAKE, N.Y. - For fifty years, Big Moose Lake has been the poster child for the slow poisoning of Adirondack waters by acid rain.
Big Moose isn't the most acidic lake in New York's vast Adirondack Park. But it's size - 1,266 acres of tea-colored water - has earned it the reputation as the largest lake to die from acid rain.
Researchers say 500 of the roughly 2,800 lakes scattered throughout the New York's 6-million-acre park show few signs of animal or plant life. And unless conditions change - mainly by diminishing air pollution generated by power plants hundreds of miles south and west of the mountains - half of the Adirondack lakes could be dead 40 years from now.
"Big Moose is a tragedy," said Karen Roy, the project coordinator for the Adirondack Lakes Survey Corporation, an affiliate of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) that has studied Big Moose since the mid-'80s.
But the reality is more complex. Those who have lived on Big Moose for generations and watched acid rain slowly unravel its web of life have witnessed some recent signs of recovery. Loons now glide across the lake, a signal that there are fish in its waters. Beavers and otters roam its shores and wetlands.
"We have more wildlife than I can recall going back to the '50s and '60s," said Jon Martin, a handyman whose family has lived and worked on Big Moose for 100 years.
In 1987, the DEC began restocking the lake, something it refused to do for 12 years, during which time the pH level dipped as low as 4, a level too low to support most life. Now, with pH readings as high as 5.5 - close to natural rainfall - scientists believe fish have a chance at survival.
But the recovery could be only a quirk of nature and may not be permanent. Big Moose hasn't had much snow or rain the past few years to drive its pH down and make it more acidic. A return to normal precipitation levels, with the acid it would carry, could reverse the rebound.
It wasn't always like this.
Edith and Ennis Pilcher bought a 14-acre camp, accessible only by boat, on Big Moose's East Bay in 1966. They hoped to distance themselves from civilization. But they soon found that even in the center of the Adirondack rain and snow belt, wind carried pollutants from factories hundreds of miles away.
Memories of lake
"When we came to this spot, kids used to fill buckets with clams and crayfish. You could see them disappear year after year," said Ennis Pilcher, a retired physics professor at Union College in Schenectady, sitting in the living room of the house he and his wife built on Big Moose's shore.
Edith Pilcher looked out the window to a lake filled so much with rainwater that their boat dock was drowned on a recent morning. Absent from the horizon are the forests' tallest trees - the white pine - which have succumbed to the toxic aluminum acid rain releases from the soil. Weakened, the pine trees fall prey to white-tailed deer.
"Our skyline used to be full with white pines, but one by one they all disappeared," she said.
Living intimately with their environment, those around the lakes notice the subtle changes acid rain brings. It first attacks the base of the food chain, microscopic plants and animals upon which fish and other life depend. Slowly, over decades, the rest of the chain of life crumbles.
And it's not only the acid that knocks out life. The rain seeps into the lake after a journey through the soil, bringing with it toxic metals such as aluminum and mercury.