They 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.
Miraculously, 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.
After 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.