Misadventures in the Adirondack Mountains
“What was that?” my friend whispered, as we froze together in the fading light of the surrounding forest. We held our breaths for a moment before shakily letting them out as we realized it was just a deer. But that was when I remembered: these mountains have their fair share of toothy wildlife – bears, wildcats, and rattlesnakes, to be exact.
Please don’t tell me we’re going to get eaten up here, I thought. Why do I do these things to myself??
We were up in these mountains because becoming an Adirondacks 46er was the newest challenge I’d given myself. Essentially, this entails hiking the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, most of which are over 4000 feet tall. By no means am I an expert hiker but I figured this challenge would be fun. A friend of mine agreed to come on my maiden hike, so I poked around online to determine which peaks we could do in one weekend. We wanted to start with a bang as this trip required renting a car and driving to another country. We decided on the Lower Great Range which included five High Peaks. Sure, it was 17 miles of what was called “difficult” terrain but all the websites I found said that it was doable in 10-12 hours – perfectly fine for a bright summer’s day. Right?
Friday, the day before we flirted with the circle of life, we drove from Canada to the Lake Placid area of upstate New York. Saturday morning, cheerful and excited, we reached the trailhead parking lot at a local golf course just after 7am. Looking at all the cars already there, I started to wonder if we were starting late. With a shrug, we took note of the time and headed off.
The first bit was a stroll past the golf course, past the sign-in hut, and then through some gentle woods complete with babbling brook. It went on and on and on. Pretty, yes, but three stinkin’ miles that were not High Peaks trails! This was where we made our first mistake – this part we should have pretty much run as it was so easy. Instead, we strolled for over an hour; it was well on its way to 9am by the time we actually hit mountain terrain.
We crossed a bridge to the West River Trail towards Rainbow Falls. Technically, this was mistake number two but it was well worth the short detour to these tall falls. We had it to ourselves so it felt like we had discovered something new! We headed back to the junction and chose (mistake number three?) the scenic trail to the first summit (Sawteeth) rather than the more direct trail. The terrain was narrow, full of boulders and roots, and was definitely a challenge. Every once in a while, we saw the river below as it cut through the mountains. The trail went up and up and up; sometimes the trail seemed to end but then we’d realize that the giant boulders in front of us were actually the trail so we’d have to figure out how to get on top of them. Sometimes the gap between the ground and the next part was very high. Thankfully, those bits had a wooden ladder to make things easier.
On this particular trail, there were about five marked lookouts where we could see the river running in between the surrounding mountains. The obnoxious thing about Sawteeth was that there were many places where we thought we’d reached the summit but no…the trail just kept going and going. It was after 1pm by the time we reached the summit and that was when we fully realized that we may be screwed. But! We held onto hope. Mistake number four.
If you’re hiking just for the sake of bagging 46er peaks, you’ll hate that you have to climb Pyramid which doesn’t count, in order to reach Gothics, which does count. But if you’re out here enjoying the hike…actually, you may still hate it because it is quite up and down. It was pretty, though – when we had views, it was of layers upon layers of mountains in the distance. We reached the summit of Pyramid at 3pm and then Gothics at 3:50pm. By then we were really screwed because the clouds that had been lingering all morning, decided to unleash a storm. It poured. Views were obscured and our footing became even more treacherous. Because these mountains were steep, the trails became riverbeds. Water gushed from every direction, rushing as fast as it could downhill. It wasn’t long before we gave up trying to keep our feet dry and just marched through the mud and puddles. As we descended Gothics, we passed a sign saying that we were in the Alpine zone – amazing yes, but being that high in a storm really wasn’t a good idea.
As we made our way to the next summit, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Gorgeous late afternoon light reflected off the water, highlighting the damp trees. We arrived at a junction: left would take us to the final three peaks and right would take us back to the parking lot. It was 4:45 pm and both directions would have been ballpark five miles. It was Fate testing us. We went left. Mistake number five.
As we summited Armstrong at 5:15pm, the clouds rolled back and the rain started again. With thunder and lightning. Soaking wet, even with ponchos, we splashed through streams and puddles, slid along rock slides, climbed through impromptu waterfalls, and hoped that neither of us would hurt ourselves. Making matters even worse, the little disks on the trees that marked the trail were a little too far apart for comfort, sometimes making us guess in which direction the trail continued. We reached Upper Wolfjaw at 6:35pm. And since we were documenting via photograph that we actually made it to each summit, we had to time the dash just right. We waited for a lightning strike to flash overhead, ran for the summit, took the photo, and ran back to the tree line cover before the next flash. Not our finest moment.
We came to a second junction that pointed the way to a lodge several miles away to the left and to Lower Wolfjaw to the right. That was it. No parking lot sign. Crap. Do we go for the lodge? Do we try our cell phones and call for directions? What do we do?? As we tried to make a decision, that was when we saw the deer strolling by in the distance and I remembered that we were in hungry animal territory. Just when we were thinking to go to the lodge and hope we could get a ride back to our car, something made me run off in the other direction for a few feet. Nothing. Just as I was about to turn back around, I saw a sign. Hallelujah! It was to the parking lot! And off we went – practically running down the mountain, racing the dimming light and setting sun. But it was too late – it had been too late hours ago.
We spent the next two hours hiking in the dark. Thank goodness we both had headlamps and my cell phone’s flashlight. Twice my light picked up glowing eyes in the distance, one time the eyes staying perfectly still for the longest time. Probably only a few seconds but it felt like forever as we waited for it to move so we could identify it as harmless or painful death. It turned out to be yet another deer and I wasn’t sure if I should be simply thankful or to start wanting some venison for dinner. Picking out trail disks up in the trees in the dark with a headlamp and a cellphone flashlight isn’t high on my list of things I ever want to do again. Nothing like knowing that, if we missed just one, we could be stumbling around in the dark all night.
By the time we reached the wide path on which we started that morning, it was 10pm and we saw fireworks. Literally. It was July 4th, the American Independence Day, and the golf course had a fireworks show going. The pretty lights in the sky were a great distraction as we sped walked along the dark path to the parking lot. But I, for one, refused to look behind us because with my luck, I’d spot something stalking us in the pitch black. It was 10:30pm by the time we got back to the car. 15 hours after we started.
By the way, if anyone has found a red hiking pole somewhere in the Lower Great Range…well, you’re welcome!
About the writer:
Kendra Seignoret considers herself to be a cubicle escape artist: she tries to find ways to keep her job (which is in a cubicle) while also trying to escape it as often as possible. When she travels, she’s generally that solo female you see wandering with a camera firmly clutched to her face as she traipses around, narrowly avoiding being hit by some form of local transportation. You can find her adventures at her blog, Rusty Travel Trunk, Instagram, Pinterest, and on Facebook.