Thursday, June 26, 2014

Jay Mountain Wilderness: Not Exactly A Walk In The Park

Jay Mountain RangeThey say variety is the spice of life. This is certainly true of backcountry adventures as anything else. Every few years, I diverge from my comfort area of the Five Ponds and Pepperbox Wilderness and venture out into other parts of the Adirondacks. Recently, I took a six-day sojourn into the Jay Mountain Wilderness, the smallest Wilderness Area in the Adirondacks.

The main impetuous for the trip was my desire to see Lot 8 in all its unspoiled glory, before saw, drill, bulldozer and explosives leave it nothing more than a giant hole in the ground.

Lot 8 is the 200-acre tract in the eastern-most portion of the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area whose fate was put up for a vote last November in the form of an unwise Constitutional Amendment.

The Amendment allows NYCO Minerals, Inc. to explore the property for wollastonite, a fire-retardant mineral used in paints, ceramics, and plastics as a safe alternative to asbestos, with the potential of eventually mining the area and turning it into a giant pit much like the one the company already operates just feet to the east of Lot 8. In the New York State electorate’s infinite stupidity, the Amendment passed by a vote of 53 to 47 percent.

Most sensible people would visit Lot 8 by approaching from the east, thus bushwhacking the shortest distance possible. But, where is the adventure in that? Instead, I wished to experience the Jay Mountain Wilderness in its totality, warts and all. Doing so required concocting a circuitous path that took me over the Jay Mountain range to the north and then heading east to Lot 8, visiting Slip Mountain in the process. The trip back would be no less ambitious: over Saddleback Mountain, the largest peak in the Wilderness, followed by descending to Merriam Swamp before returning to the trail for a hasty retreat home.

It seemed all so eminently doable in the comfort of my cramped little apartment. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as the Jay Mountain Wilderness had other plans in store for me. The planned route proved a task of Herculean proportions; the bruises, scrapes, scratches and blisters covering my legs and feet prove it! Given a late start and the difficulty involved, necessity demanded scrapping much of the original plan, while simultaneously increasing the length and brutality of the remaining days. The trip’s onerousness made it the most physically and mentally challenging backcountry adventure of my entire career, with the possible exception of my escape from the Five Ponds immediately following the 1995 microburst.

After a long and tiring journey to the area, with only a very old DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer as a guide, which incidentally was of little help as few of the road names matched current reality, I arrived late, but excited, at the trailhead. The excitement slowly metamorphosed into anxiety as I frantically climbed up Jay Mountain in the extremely humid air, as threatening clouds amassed off to the west.

Within two hours, I was already halfway along the ridge to the summit when it finally dawned on me that at 6:30 PM, as threatening clouds quickly approached, it was probably unwise to push on and attempt to bushwhack off the mountain to Hale Brook for the night. So, in a manner that would make Monty Python proud, I did the only thing any partially mentally stable person would do: I ran away. Or, more accurately, I hastily retreated back down the trail, descending nearly halfway off the mountain before heading off-trail to set up camp for the night.

This was not a stellar beginning to the adventure.

In the morning, after a soggy night of rain, wind, thunder and lightning, I summited Jay Mountain surrounded in wisps of fog. The cooler air, saturated with water, combined with a stiff wind insistently tugging on my raincoat convinced me not to linger long, and thus a descent from the col just west of the mountaintop soon followed. Much to my relief, the descent began through a pleasant semi-open mature paper birch forest, with just a smattering of balsam fir in the understory, the slope gradual enough that the likelihood of an injury-producing tumble remained reasonably low.

The accommodating nature of the forest soon evaporated, replaced with a mess of downed logs covered by regenerating spruce and fir when I attempted to navigate over a knoll standing between myself and my ultimate destination – Hale Brook. For the second time this trip, a hasty retreat proved the only reasonable choice, so I re-climbed Jay Mountain until the increased elevation brought some relief from fighting through the coniferous wall. Soon after I crossed a small stream, the sight of an extensive wetland appeared through the trees, right where my map indicated a rocky Hale Brook should be located.

The fear of an extensive detour evaporated when the expected stream appeared just south of the wetland. Beaver-chewed tree stems lined both sides of the stream, providing an answer to the mystery of the wetlands sudden appearance. Obviously, the USGS map makers are unable to keep up with the industrious aquatic rodents.

A short distance east from the brook yielded another pretty paper birch forest along the northern slope of Slip Mountain; the easy bushwhack more than making up for the earlier coniferous wall. Unfortunately, the original plan to visit the mountain was sacrificed to my need to reach Lot 8 before nightfall. The forest remains largely unchanged until I crossed another small stream coming off the mountain to the south, where the number of paper birch trees receded in favor of sugar maples. With a detour around Bald Peak to the north, I turned south for a short distance until my arrival at the Lot 8 border, conveniently marked with cut vegetation and orange flagging.

Forest in Lot 8Miraculously, I made up enough time to make it to Lot 8, despite my limited progress on the first day, leaving the entire next day to explore its wonders before turning west to begin the long slog back to the trailhead.

Lot 8 was one of the true gems of my trip through the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area. Some will say this opinion depends on my knowing its fate, but it has more to do with my bias for hardwood forests, one so strong that I favor a pleasant walk in the forest over stunning mountain views, such as the one from the summit of Jay Mountain.

Dwelling on my one-day and two nights spent on Lot 8 is unnecessary here, as it will be the focus of my next contribution to the Almanack. Hardwoods, some featuring large girth and towering heights, dominated the area to such an extent that conifers are largely absent in an almost surprisingly un-Adirondack fashion. The only exception is a flat area in its interior, which features numerous coniferous tree species, scattered vernal pools choking with tadpoles and a surfeit of flat rocks along its surrounding hillside, seemingly perfect for woodland snake species.

Although leaving Lot 8 the next day was a sad affair, there was no choice but to begin the process of heading westward, for there were plenty of other places to see within the southern portion of the Wilderness Area. Derby Brook served as my initial route west, a boulder-strewn stream with a thundering roar that would stack up with any in the High Peaks Region.

Upon reaching a level area surrounded by imposing high ridges in almost every direction, the stream meandered through an old beaver vly until finally ending in an active beaver pond, complete with a plentiful supply of snags. The surrounding open forest showed the tell-tale signs of an active beaver pond, deadly beaver spikes buried within a dense covering of vegetation taking advantage of the ample sunshine.

Wanting to get a bird’s eye view of Lot 8’s future by viewing the current NYCO mine, I contemplated climbing either Slip or Saddleback Mountains. Although Saddleback is the tallest in the Jay Mountain Wilderness (which makes me wonder why it’s not called the Saddleback Mountain Wilderness), Slip had the shorter approach. My laziness can be persuasive at times, so the shorter approach won out.

Choosing the easiest drainage for the scramble up, I left behind the beaver pond and almost immediately began to climb onto the Slip Mountain range. The vegetation was often thick and nearly impenetrable, the initial climb made easier by following a well-worn and meandering herd path. At times, the path resembled an old abandoned trail, but it eventually petered out, leaving me scrambling around bare rocks, using short balsam firs for handholds.

Reaching the top of the ridge soaked in sweat and smelling like a dead dog, I was positive there would be a herd path to the top of Slip Mountain. Why, you ask? Just wishful thinking, most likely. No such path existed, leaving me fighting through spruce and fir, detouring around foreboding rock cliffs and boulder fields to reach what turned out to be fairly unimpressive summit.

The summit itself was little more than a single spot surrounded in young spruce and fir. Searching around, I found a large boulder, that once climbed upon, revealed a rather impressive view to the south, but no luck with catching sight of NYCO’s mine pit. I found views to the east limited to looking over treetops, but subsequently I learned from a co-worker that there were rock ledges located farther down the east side with better views. Climbing Saddleback Mountain may have been a better choice after all.

Retracing my path west along the ridge, the effort and several dark clouds overhead insisted I spend the night on the ridge before beginning the descent to Merriam Swamp.

The next day, I happily left the struggle along the ridge behind, plummeting down into a vegetation-choked drainage that feeds Merriam Swamp well below. Soon, to my dismay, the vegetation gave way to extensive blowdown. The large, white paper birch stems contrasted with the surrounding vegetation as they crisscrossed each other in a progress-impeding obstacle course that left my shins sore and bloodied.

Jay Mountain Range from Merriam SwampAfter a seemingly eternal struggle, the descent ended at a level stretch where the stream meanders through a swampy area, much of the immediate shoreline covered in heaps of gravel. The open gravel provided a welcome respite from the claustrophobic feel of climbing through, over and around a nearly infinite amount of downed logs.

Much to the relief of my sore shins, the blowdowns ceased as well, and in a short while I arrived at open water and a substantial beaver dam. Merriam Swamp offered an impressive view of the Jay Mountain Range, which dominates the skyline to the north. Numerous paper birch snags stood in contrast with the green background of the mountains, providing one of the most attractive views of my trip.

Unfortunately, the black flies evidently enjoyed the view as well, as they were more virulent here than anywhere else, with the only exception being in close proximity of a few of the streams along the way. For the first time on this trip, I am actually compelled to apply insect repellent to keep the biting down to a manageable level.

While enjoying a late lunch at the beaver pond’s shore, I watched a lone hiker make his way along the Jay Mountain ridge, apparently returning from a successful summiting. The entertainment level of his progress surprised me, and to this point, he is the only other backcountry adventurer I saw on my trip.

After spending a night at Merriam Swamp, I set out for the trailhead early, as a long ride home awaits me. During my stay at the swamp, I envisioned an easy return hike along the mountainside under a full canopy of mature trees, but the reality could not have been more different. The vegetation was dense, boulders were frequent and herd paths scarce. Conditions often forced me to climb the mountain, instead of descending. By the time I finally reached the trail, I had fallen multiple times and on several occasion reverted to crawling on my hands and knees to get through the mess; Jay Mountain made me work for every inch until the very end.

The trail descent was a welcome relief, as I passed many hikers coming in on a Sunday morning. Each gave me a wide berth, as is fitting for a grizzled backcountry adventurer left in the wild too long, stinking more like a wet animal than a civilized human being ought to.

The Jay Mountain Wilderness is a truly wondrous place nestled within the most popular area in the Adirondacks, yet obviously overlooked and under-appreciated. It contains a wild variety of natural features including stunning mountain views, gorgeous paper birch forests, several bug-infested beaver ponds and beautiful mature hardwood forests.

Just do not expect an easy walk in the park, or, in due time, an unspoiled Lot 8.

Photos: Jay Mountain, Lot 8 forest and View of Jay Mountain from Merriam Swamp by Dan Crane.

Related Stories


Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




18 Responses

  1. Pete Nelson says:

    Dan:

    Your very interesting and unpredictable switches between past and present tense have left me in a state of mental confusion not unlike the result of conversing with my mother in law.

    In seriousness this is a great account. It makes want to go. Thanks much for it.

    I’m excited to hear your follow-up account of Lot 8. That will be important.

    Pete

    • Dan Crane says:

      If you think that’s difficult, try actually living in the past, present AND future simultaneously! That HAD to be more difficult than anyone’s mother-in-law.

      Haste makes waste, I guess. I got home from the trip on Sunday night and put this together rapidly during what little time I had since then. I probably should have put it off for another two weeks, but I was just too damn excited to do so.

      I strived to do better next time.

  2. John Warren says:

    I like the changes in tense. The present brings you there, the past puts it in perspective.

    • Paul says:

      Yes,and I like the parts about imagining what he might expect and the reality of what he encountered.

  3. Bill Ingersoll says:

    Great article! I don’t get there as often as I’d like, but the Jays are among my favorite mountains in the Adirondacks. Views everywhere!

    Note: The results for Prop 5 were actually split 3 ways, not 2.

    YES: 1,276,592 (39%)
    NO: 1,222,055 (34%)
    BLANK: 879,267 (27%)

    The third category represents people who cast ballots last November, but did not make any selection for Prop 5. This figure was not reported very well by the media at the time, but omitting it creates the impression that Prop 5 was a narrow but definitive vote–when in fact there was a group of undecided voters so large that the results easily could have been swayed in either direction, had one camp or the other made a more persuasive argument and reached more people. This is a significant part of the Prop 5 story that should not be forgotten.

    Also, there are indeed excellent views on Slip Mountain (officially renamed MacDonough Mountain in January 2014). They are located on the eastern shoulder, and they do overlook Lot 8 and the existing NYCO mine.

    Bald Peak and Mount Fay provide excellent views of the mine as well.

    • Dan Crane says:

      As far as the views from Slip/MacDonough and Bald Peak – ARGGH! I really wish you hadn’t told me that!!

    • Bill Ingersoll says:

      Might I recommend a good guidebook? Haha.

      • Dan Crane says:

        I thought I had one, but I couldn’t find it in the mess I call a bookcase. Most likely, I have all of your series (in much older editions), except the one I needed anyway.

    • Brian says:

      The 3rd, blank, choice has always intrigued me. In this case, why 1/4 of the people who voted chose to ignore a decision that was in their control is beyond me. I would be very interested in the vote breakdown, state wide. Focus future attention on areas with high environmental apathy.

      • Bill Ingersoll says:

        There is a breakdown of the vote by county in spreadsheet form, although that table doesn’t paste very well into this text-only forum.

        But there were considerable percentages of “blanks” in every county for Prop 5. Some interesting examples:

        Hamilton County had 224 “blanks” out of 2439 ballots, or 9%. This was the lowest of any county in the state. By contrast, Essex County (where Lot 8 is located) had 1602 blanks out of 9900 ballots, or 16%.

        The average number of “blanks” for counties outside of NYC was 20% (426,511 blanks out of 2,176,023 ballots).

        The counties outside of NYC with an above-average number of “blanks” (20% or higher) are as follows:

        Livingston – 24%
        Nassau – 24%
        Orange – 30%
        Orleans – 22%
        Rockland – 39% (highest outside of NYC)
        St. Lawrence – 24%
        Sullivan – 22%
        Westchester – 25%

        So downstate was a hotbed of indifference, so to speak, with a few pockets in western NY. St. Lawrence is a North Country county, so its appearance here is interesting–although the “yes” vote carried this county by a healthy 47%.

        However, indifference ran high within all 5 NYC counties:

        Bronx – 51%
        Kings – 47%
        New York – 34%
        Queens – 40%
        Richmond – 29%

        I heard from a few people in NYC that they had heard very little about the Adirondack amendments, other than a PSA regarding Prop 5 that essentially said the situation was good, no need to get alarmed. This was presumably the commercial that NYCO sponsored.

        Statewide, there were 426,511 “blanks” outside of NYC, and 452,756 within the boroughs, for a total of 879,267.

        There were seven counties where “no” votes for Prop 5 prevailed: Otsego, Schuyler, Seneca, Tompkins, Ulster, Kings (Brooklyn), and New York (Manhattan).

        It is also interesting to compare the “blanks” across all 6 propositions:

        Prop 1 (Casino Gaming): 511,937 blanks
        Prop 2 (Civil service credit for vets): 679,629 blanks
        Prop 3 (Sewage indebtedness): 872,402 blanks
        Prop 4 (Township 40): 877,251 blanks
        Prop 5 (NYCO): 879,267 blanks
        Prop 6 (Age limit for judges): 739,593

        The fact that the number of blanks differs across the 6 proposals suggest that it was more than simply a matter of people not turning over the ballot; people had pet issues, and avoided others. The numbers are pretty consistent across both Props 4 and 5, the two Adirondack amendments, but overall Prop 5 earned the highest amount of statewide indecision.

        Remember, these “blanks” aren’t people who never bothered to vote at all, but people who cast ballots without marking either YES or NO for Prop 5. The idea is that this is significant number of people who simply weren’t reached, or were skeptical, or never turned over their ballot, or whatever. They were essentially neutralized. There were enough of these voters to potentially sway the results of the vote, had one side or the other been successful at motivating them to make a decision.

        • Adkmike says:

          Have you looked at the demographics in the areas with blank votes? There might be something interesting in that data.

  4. Meredith says:

    Our modern-day John Colter! Good adventure.

    Bill and Dan, thanks for keeping the disaster that is Prop. 5 alive.

  5. Brian says:

    By the way I really enjoyed your article. The data you collected will be valuable in days to come, along with your bumps and bruises. Keep up the good work!

  6. Dave Gibson says:

    Dan,

    Thanks so much – I am living your adventure vicariously, and breathing hard as a result, from my desktop.
    We got a good photo from Bald last year – part of our campaign against Prop 5.
    best,
    Dave, Adirondack Wild

  7. joe says:

    The view from Jay Mtn I find most unusual and interesting is the vast flat concrete runway of the former AFB. I believe it is one of the largest in the nation. It was built that big to be an emergency landing site for the space shuttle but was never used that…. Our own artifact of the space age. It is so big it is actually hard to realize what you are looking at.

    A trip to see that view, combined with a visit to the old missle silo in Lewis, not far away, make for an interesting day of cold war history.

  8. Dan:

    Can you tell me how to reach you by phone or email? I want to understand the “vegetation cutting” you saw on Lot 8’s border. I know all about the survey tang of the trees on the proposed drill pad sites and roads, but there was no cutting when I was last there in May.

    Thanks much.

    Dan

    Dan Plumley, Partner
    Adirondack Wild
    (518) 576-9277