Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Lyon Mountain: Ballard’s Favorite Is Mine As Well

Lisa Ballard’s recent piece, “Her Special Mountain,” which appears in the March/April 2018 issue of Adirondack Explorer, struck a chord with me and rekindled some great memories.

In the opening paragraph, she writes, “You might climb many others, but there’s always one that’s yours… a favorite you climb over and over. It’s your go-to hike when you need exercise, you want to share quality trail time with someone else, or you need to get above the daily fray.”

Lisa’s choice is Lyon Mountain, which, at 3,830 feet, is the highest point in the northern Adirondacks and offers commanding views in all directions. She first climbed it via the old trail when it was being replaced, and soon after ascended on the new trail, which was completed in 2008. In September of that year, the Adirondack Almanack reported the change:

“The old, 2.5-mile Lyon Mountain Trail was very steep and difficult. It was also vulnerable to erosion. ADK’s Professional Trail Crew recently completed work cutting a new 3.5-mile trail that takes a more leisurely route, incorporating 11 switchbacks in some of the steepest sections. Two new bridges were also constructed. The new trail section provides a more scenic walk and passes many exposed bedrock outcrops.”

Lisa’s choice parallels my own, which was made long ago. While growing up in northeastern Clinton County in the 1960s, I had long admired the massive profile of Lyon Mountain, which dominates the southwestern skyline. I felt drawn to it in powerful fashion, but with no hikers among family and friends, it remained a distant love until my personal independence day arrived (owning my first car).

One of my earliest trips was to Lyon Mountain in early spring. Like Paul Anka wrote and Sinatra and Presley famously sang, “I did it my way.” Shunning the trail, I parked along the secondary road at the mountain’s eastern base and bushwhacked with the aid of map and compass. Except for a halfway decent day pack, I had no hiking gear, forging ahead in blue jeans and cumbersome boots known among area farmers as “sh**kickers.” After many difficult hours, including a final stretch of physical torture up a steep incline thick with evergreens and more than four feet of snow, the summit was attained. It was every bit as glorious as expected, and I was hooked for life.

After a few more bushwhack ascents from different locations, I began using the trail for speed. This allowed for long hours on the mountaintop picnicking on the “generous swath of bedrock” noted by Lisa Ballard, exploring the expansive summit, and devouring tremendous views from the tower and rocks.

On subsequent trips, I discovered what became a must-visit spot on every climb thereafter — a summit spring, in a cleft between rocky outcroppings that offered views of Whiteface and Catamount (the latter of which would become another of my favorite repeat climbs). The spring site, besides providing water (yes, we drank from it back then) and beautiful scenery, afforded certain quiet and solitude if noisy hikers (a real rarity at the time) arrived at the tower area.

The next four decades were filled with hundreds of mountain-climbing, hiking, and canoeing trips across the Adirondacks, but my go-to place, like Lisa Ballard’s, was Lyon Mountain. Every year I climbed it three or four times as life rolled on. By the time each of my three children was a few months old, they had eaten (and slept) on the mountain’s summit. They were born within a four-year span, so at least a couple dozen climbs were made with one child strapped to my chest in a front-pack and another on my back in a child-carrier pack (early and less-than-optimal renditions of the quality packs available today). On rough stretches, like steep inclines, I was thus sandwiched while holding the hand of my oldest, the four of us linked together as we climbed. We also camped on the mountain, creating many great memories.

The fire tower was still manned in those days, so the Gooleys became familiar faces to the observers, four of whom served during that time. When we summitted one day in 1982, the observer on duty asked if I had carried my youngest child to the top and set him down for the final stretch. No, I said, Josh climbed every step of the way himself, at which point he was pronounced the youngest to have ever climbed from bottom to top under his own power. (Josh, a skinny, tiny little guy, had just turned four.) It was an informal declaration, of course, but one of many wonderful recollections still fresh in my mind nearly forty years later.

Another source of pleasant memories is John Kowalowski, a former iron miner from Lyon Mountain (the mines closed in 1967) and a baseball player of great local renown. He spent roughly a decade manning the tower and became a cherished part of each trip during fire-watch season.

While I’ve climbed the new trail, I differ from many in my dislike of so many switchbacks. But that’s just a matter of personal preference, based on two things: a desire for physical challenge (the original trail certainly provided that!), and an affinity for the past. For me, the old trail will always be a prohibitive favorite because of the memories and its history.

Climbers who knew where to make a strategic detour early in the ascent could visit the little-known slopes of the short-lived, once-popular Lowenberg ski area. And several minutes shy of the mountain peak, at a sharp turn in the trail, was a wooden bench, inviting both to tired hikers and anyone interested in catching a scenic glimpse of Bradley Pond to the north.

The most enchanting place on the trail back then is now in ruins, described by Lisa Ballard after her first climb of the mountain: “When we came to the remains of the old firewatcher’s cabin, a short wall of rocks with more grass than mortar filling the cracks, the boys’ enthusiasm waned.” I found that passage particularly interesting, for back when it was in great shape, the cabin was one of two sure-fire “carrots” (the observer’s summit tower was the other) used by parents as incentives to keep children engaged on a difficult journey.

The tower, after all, held great promise, beginning with an adventurous/scary climb in nearly constant wind, and culminating in a crawl maneuver through the trap door into the cab (the booth at the top). Once inside, there was the fun of identifying landmarks near and far via the circular map on the round tabletop; and if no one else was waiting below, enjoying lunch there, protected from the elements by strong windows all around and surrounded by a fantastic panoramic view.

But well shy of the summit was an equally enticing attraction, what everyone referred to as “the ranger’s cabin,” located at the base of the final, steep, 30-minute climb to the top. It was used by Kowalowski and others for supplies and relaxation. If the weather was poor, John sometimes slept there rather than return home at the end of a day’s watch. But most of the time, even into his seventies, he slept at home and returned daily to make the very tough climb at a fast and steady pace. His stamina was amazing.

But for part of its life, the cabin was much more than just a station for fire observers. While I seldom stop to rest while climbing, the cabin on Lyon Mountain, because of its charm, became an exception that I visited at least briefly on every ascent. As Kowalowski told all tower visitors, the cabin was open to anyone wishing to catch their breath and avail themselves of the “amenities.” Hikers were welcome to use the supplies on hand — peanut butter, jam, bread, other foods, utensils, napkins, and more.

The “code” (it even appeared on notes in the cabin during John’s tenure) was that visitors should replace items that were depleted and help keep things shipshape, which they did. Repeat hikers were key to replenishing the cabin’s stock, and because of experience, they didn’t need the food items, most of which were used by appreciative parents who hadn’t planned well or needed a brief distraction that their children would enjoy.

Modern germaphobes are cringing, no doubt, but the place was well kept by all and a joy to visit. Everything — the chairs, the bed, the food — was treated with respect as community property, even though the cabin belonged to the state and most of the contents were John’s. The storage shed was also in good condition, as was the outhouse off in the woods (visited often by porcupines that chewed on it regularly, and climbers who didn’t … I presume).

And one other thing about the cabin, perhaps best of all: for at least fifty feet, the downhill area just below the steps was clear of trees, so sitting on the porch afforded a beautiful view of Chazy Lake. Spectacular!

That all helps explain how Lyon Mountain became “my” mountain. Despite the fact that much of what originally drew me there is gone, it’s still my favorite, and the mountain itself remains alluring enough for Lisa to have chosen it as her own. It was great to hear her sing its praises, especially the flora. A newspaper article from more than a century ago cited many of the same wildflowers that she mentioned.

I miss clambering up the steep, rocky sections of the old trail, trying to reach the summit in personal-record time (from car to tower, 53 minutes in blue jeans and sh**kickers was my fastest). Again, I went fast partly for the exercise, and partly to spend a long day drinking in the views from the top. Clear skies reveal Montreal’s skyscrapers 57 miles to the north (you can even ID some of them with Google Maps), and the St. Lawrence River west of the city. In other directions you’ll see towns, ponds, rivers, the Adirondack High Peaks, Lake Champlain, Plattsburgh, Burlington, and Vermont’s Green Mountains. With snow caps, Mount Mansfield and Camel’s Hump are hard to beat for views across the lake.

I’m appreciative that photos and memories from long ago contain no windmills. I’m not calling them beautiful or ugly, but purists will be dismayed that a great number of 400-foot towers on wind farms are part of today’s view from Lyon Mountain’s summit. In the distance to the east, where controversy surrounded alteration of the treasured Vermont skyline, a few towers are visible on ridges beyond Lake Champlain’s eastern shore.

But for reasons cited here by me and by Lisa in Adirondack Explorer — and despite the changes — Lyon Mountain will always be my favorite.

Next week: the history of Lyon Mountain’s “Old Trail,” including Verplanck Colvin’s connections

Photos: Lyon Mountain from Chazy Lake dam, five miles away (2005, Jill Jones); Chazy Lake from Lyon Mountain summit (the dam is at the distant end) (2009, Jill Jones); advertisement, Lowenberg Ski area (March 1967, Plattsburgh Press-Republican); new trail versus old trail (Adirondack Base Camp); Lower Chateaugay Lake and wind farm north of Lyon Mountain (2009, Jill Jones).

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

2 Responses

  1. christine cayea says:

    I was just talking with my husband after reading about Lyon Mountain and the fire tower. He believes his brother, Pat Cayea, was the last to man the tower.
    just a tid bit thought you would be interested in. Maybe because I married a Cayea, I hear alot of stories about the mines, growing up on the mountain, etc, the Cayea’s had a presence in Lyon Mountain. Grandfather, Zeb, father, Cliff, and a couple of my husbands brothers worked in the mines, not to mention uncles, Zeb died in the mines, as did an uncle Lawrence and his father Cliff, lost a leg. there were 13 kids in his family. just a little Cayea, Lyon mountain history!

  2. Lawrence Gooley says:

    Christine … thanks for the comments. Yes, Pat was the last one to man the tower (1982-88), and yes, the Cayeas are certainly part of Lyon Mountain’s history. I’m guessing you don’t know of my work on the village’s past and my coverage of the topics you mentioned. I’ve written two books about Lyon Mountain, and included in them are details on Cliff’s injury and the deaths of Zeb and Lawrence.

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