Story and photos by Heather Swartz
It seemed like an Adirondack fairytale at first. I had completed the navigation at dawn from Blue Mountain Lake to the Santanoni Range Trailhead at Upper Works. The sun rose on the tree enveloped horizon as I drove Northeast and spied a single young buck at the roadside in the morning light. I considered these good omens. It was early September. I parked at the trailhead and proceeded solo up Santanoni Road and began the Bradley Brook Trail, full of corduroy, horizontal logs laid out to make an old and well used, wet, roadway.
At 3.6 miles, the Bradley Pond Trail intersects with the trail called the Santanoni Express. I had decided on a clockwise approach and I made good time with the steady climb on this endeavor of climbing the Santanoni Range. I read trail reports, use maps and compass, and was further armed with GPS trail tracking and a charger for my device. Further, the detail of this image of inset map I’d transcribed into my notebook, as an intersection which seems simply the crossing of two trails on my larger map had some nuances. I wanted to be sure not to get confused at high altitudes and put myself at risk out on unmarked trails.
So I sailed on from Santanoni Peak at 5.1 miles and 4597 feet, across to the intersection so illustrated here. I scooted to Panther second, a short climb, and the most famously scenic lookout of the Santanonis. Here, after enjoying the view, I took short repass. It wasn’t until the third peak, a light retreat you see, back through the so nicknamed Herald Square to Times Square, where I saw a final omen, or if not omen, a sort of out of body encounter that can happen when faced with wild wonder.
The trail to Couchsagracha is infamous, isn’t it? If you’ve read of it or experienced it personally, you know it is characterized by a bog, and a long haul through a col to reach a peak which has been determined to not stand above 4000.’ Oh, and it gives not much of a view as reward either, from its small, tree enclosed rocky resting place. Even as I am ever open minded out in the Adirondack backcountry, given the backstory, I was happy to encounter on my arrival to the turn down into this dismal wilderness, a glimpse of white. A flash along the ground there in the clearing caught my eye. A hare shot off, the underside of it’s foot or tail already sensing the change of season and in this higher terrain preparing to blend in with a snowy landscape. I saw a white bit of Leporidae, not unlike a flash of a cotton tailed rabbit bounding away as I might have encountered many times in my youth. But here was a large hare, native to the Adirondacks, found throughout the mountains. In the hare springing down the trail to where I needed to go, to Couchsachraga, my third peak of the day, I found encouragement and sensed my ability to carry on.
It was about noon. According to the notes I transcribe after my hike, following along from my pictures and screenshots, I wrote:
“1209… ‘Times Square’ turn off onto Couch trail at 6.7 miles
Saw flash of white take off before me, then maybe 2 tenths
or 3 tenths mile in hear a scampering in brush,
large hare takes off down trail away from me and
small pine martin darts toward me right to the trial side
stops and looks right at me and then runs off”
Much like the wishful thinking that this turn to reach an additional third peak might add only an hour or two to my foray this day, the reality of these two Adirondack dwellers only but playing in the brush around me unfolded as I continued on. With my thoughts as companions and that bright, sharp, ermine face fresh in my mind, I came to accept that the rustling and chase was not a woodland fairy tale, or a play date, but more likely a hot pursuit and a tangle between prey and hunter. Without me as witness, this story line might likely have turned out differently. If not for my interruption, that large hare might well have been a weasel’s lunch. I came to this conclusion after facing at trailside the effrontery of the heart shaped and shockingly cute multi-colored face that came up to me so suddenly and boldly. As the hare again proceeded ahead and I, surprised, let out a short, sudden scream, the martin retreated, a solitary omnivore into the deep woods.
As things do, with time, the details of the encounter became less sharp in my mind. My pictures and journal help me to relive that day. The experience lies captured loosely in memory and more real through writing this. In addition to writing a trail report, for the record, I’ll also say, Couchsachraga was a wonder. It certainly holds secrets there, in deep mud, but proliferates beautiful Tawny Cotton Grass.
Its shoulders of deep moss, still so brilliant green, and moist and shining were magical as I made one way out to reach the peak, 1.5 miles, a three hour detour that those seeking the 46 High Peaks need not want to miss while here. I assure you, many a old cedar extends a broken branch as a hand hold, and gentlemanly the tumbled boulders build staircases to climb. Red shines the spruce roots, eroded along the unmarked trail.
As I was given clues aiding the completion of my journey, I’ll pass on what the man lounging at Couchsachraga’s peak said to me regarding the Santanoni Range as I sat and broke out a snack. At 3796 feet in elevation, miles from civilization, and 8.3 miles logged, he advised, “This is the halfway point of the hike.” We both marveled a while at that.
I returned to Times Square at 1505, my hiked distance now reading 10 miles, about 8 hours into the journey. I descended along Panther Brook and at 1613 caught the first glimpse of Bradley Pond through the trees. At 1729 and 14 miles, I reached the intersection where the Bradley Pond Trail meets the Santononi Road trail, where signage starts again, coming around full circle and so close to finishing my day.
I hopped in my truck and left the woods at 1800, 6:00 pm, a 16 mile round trip complete. For me this day in the Santanoni Range was a great success all around as I work toward becoming an Adirondack 46er and learn to navigate even in unmarked areas. I was happy to have found the detailed reference of Times Square which I regrettably can’t give credit for, as it served me well when trails sometimes seemed to head to nowhere, and in the enormity of the mountains, I like to lose myself but not get lost.
For me Couchsachraga will always hold a special memory. In the struggle, much can be gained. I’ll keep looking for good wherever I go, call it omen or even an actual sign giving guidance that can be a blessing. To the sources of surprise in these mountains, I give my wild wonder and a childlike full attention, marveling like the wild weasel who wondered at me that day. My happy wanderings build not only skill, but stories, and I’m thankful for that gift from these mountains. This is my story of the Santanonis.
Photo at top: Picture of fleeing hare sculpture found at The Wild Center, Tupper Lake.