Sunday, July 2, 2017

Creeping Cascadeism: A Visit to Owls Head

owls headI try to stay away from the more popular Adirondack peaks during the summer season, because at my age I’m always afraid some college kid is going to stop me on the trail and ask me to sit for an oral history project.

But I figured I needed to climb Owls Head in Keene before it closes later this year due to overuse and the poor manners of hikers whose cars were blocking the driveways of homeowners on the privately owned property.

I had seen Owls Head many times as I descended from the Cascade lakes on Rt. 73. I’d always thought to myself, What a cute little mountain; I wonder why nobody ever climbs that? This shows what an idiot I am, because apparently about 7 million people a day climb Owls Head, part of the creeping Cascadeism that turns the stunning pass into a three-mile parking lot on the weekends.

I had also assumed the little cone didn’t have a name, embarrassingly oblivious to the fact that everything between Keene and the lakes is named Owls Head this or Owls Head that. As part of my defense, however, I would like to register the complaint that too many mountains are named Owls Head, to the point where the name fades into background noise.

It almost makes you wonder if, back in the day when these mountains were being named, they didn’t have any other birds. “Yup Jedediah, looks like another owls head to me. It could be a haystack I suppose but, nope — owl.”

Anyway, finding myself with a spare hour on a recent weekday afternoon (the trailhead has already been shut down on weekends) I rounded up Pete and Addie and headed for the Head. It was a beautiful day, but it hadn’t started out that way, so the traffic was initially light.

Owls Head sort of reminds you of an old-fashion juicer, the kind with the glass pyramid

in the middle of a high-sided bowl. You would mash half a grapefruit or orange on the protrusion to extract the juice; in fact, you could even say that the passes in the surrounding mountains resemble the channels in the bowl that separated the liquid from the seeds, but I’ve probably taken this comparison too far as it is.

The views are great and the trail is short — just over half a mile — and because of this it screams of overuse. Instead of a single trail, it’s more like a river delta with multiple channels heading in multiple directions. Everyone I saw on the way up expressed sorrow that the trail was about to close, but they were quite understanding of the reason.

Actually, that’s not completely true. There was one trio of teenage girls whose conversation was audible a good hundred feet before they came into view. Based on the contents of this conversation, largely consisting of “for real” and “shut up” — and the radioactive hair loosely shoveled into piles atop their domes — I gathered they probably weren’t up for a philosophical discussion of public access versus private property rights, or the finer points of the Wilderness classification vis a vis Wild Forest, if you know what I’m saying. But they were out on the trail, so good for them.

owls headTwo of the people I did talk to were locals who were there for the same reason I was — to check out the view while there was still time. On the way down I met a group of young adults, one of whom was wailing about the impossible distance she was being required to traverse. They were novices who had not heard about the impending closure, but to my surprise they were quite interested in the circumstance. Hiker decorum had not been on their radar before, but you could see it was an issue they were willing to take to heart. It almost made me wish I could go back and take another stab at the Valley Girls.

The view from Owls Head is of course splendid, an interesting and unusual perspective of Cascade and Pitchoff, along with a long view of knobby Hurricane and a profile of Giant. And who can resist the Adirondacks’ finest view of Porter?

It’s almost a view that comes a little too easily, if that makes any sense. It sounds as if the state is looking to establish a back-door trail to O.H., which I would almost hope will be a little more challenging. I confess, it’s nice to have a gimmee like Owls Head, Baker or the Crows that offer a spectacular reward when time is short. But people tend to value things more highly when they are earned, not given. For example, kids take better care of a car that they pay for with their own money than one that their parents provide free of charge. A bad corollary I know; but it makes more sense than the juicer analogy.

Photos by Tim Rowland.

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

5 Responses

  1. Chester Rosinski says:

    Home Run!

  2. Kirk says:

    I hope the other hikers enjoyed the hike more than you.

  3. Allie Delventhal says:

    I am so glad that I finally hiked this little peak last year. How very sad that inconsiderate trekkers ruin so much for other hikers

  4. Martin Korn says:

    We share your regret over this OH loss. It’s been a favorite youngster introduction to the mountains for decades, and we enjoy it too.
    It was good to meet you and Beth and the dogs at the recent CATS trail opening.

  5. Boreas says:

    I have been thinking recently of what may be at the root of this somewhat sudden interest in the backwoods – both in the Park and elsewhere. I am becoming convinced the backcountry isn’t the draw, but rather a selfie taken IN the backcountry may be what many modern hikers view as the goal of the day.

    Back during the Dark Ages when I hiked, cameras were things you had to think twice about bringing with you because they were so heavy and totally unnecessary. Back when it was not unusual to share the summit of Marcy with just a handful of hikers, you may have only seen one or two people pull out a camera. Even then, if you did lug one with you over the Great Range – often at the expense of food/water – you still had to wait a week to get the pictures developed at a fairly significant cost – and then, only about 1/4 of them turned out well. Recording the deed for posterity was a little more personal, and often just done in your mind.

    Since the invention of idiot-proof pocket-sized digital cameras (which I love) and the now ubiquitous smart phone, an amazing growth in interest in the backcountry seems to have developed – no pun intended. I have to wonder how much is true interest in the backcountry and how much is a simple desire to get a cool selfie and distribute it amongst the 0s and 1s in the clouds only to have it rain back down on a few hundred Facebook followers. Yet is this perceived trend indeed something new or has this always been the case? I wish I knew…

    I certainly don’t condemn anyone who carries a camera into the backcountry today, but I am puzzled as to whether the ultimate draw to search out difficult terrain and unique views is still the same. Do modern hikers still get the same enrichment of their souls as earlier hikers, or is the importance placed in social networking and digital achievements? At least for me, the draw to the backcountry was for solitude, and crowded trails were avoided like a ripe privy. Perhaps newer generations have become simply more social in their view of the world. Perhaps one day the trend will shift again and excursions into the backcountry will become something more personal with a more spiritual goal, and not simply another social engagement. Or perhaps not. So it goes.

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