What I Found—and Didn’t—While Hiking the Saranac Six

by Bret Yager | June 2022, Recreation

View from St. Regis Mountain. Photograph by Johnathan Esper

We start from the soil and stone. From there—if we’re lucky—we expand into the forest and eventually a cathedral of sky. First, there is the work and the trails that tie everything together. For now they are enough.

I begin the 2.7-mile trudge to Ampersand Mountain the way I commence all such hikes, by introducing myself to the soil. It’s the most abundant thing around and the basis for all the rest. I find a handful of the dark stuff under the newly sprung foliage beside the trail. Smooth with silt and jumbled with the braille of small pebbles, the paste connects me electrically to the land. Like the dirt itself, this link is full of darkness, half-remembered smells and the odor of ghosts. Understanding it is the reason I am here.

There are a half-dozen summits known as the Saranac Six scattered among the lakes of the northern Adirondacks. Each trek has its own character and commonalities: jewel streams, outsized birch trees and boulders, and airy views to lakes and the teeth of other peaks. The experience of one will never quite be duplicated on another. Hiking them all makes one a “Saranac 6er” and conditions the adventurer for longer and more intense scrambles in the High Peaks region.

My companion, Jason Hunter, shoulders his pack and with a dark nod to each other, we head off the roadway. A solar storm is raging in conjunction with a full lunar eclipse that is building today. Maybe it is these celestial quickenings—along with the diamond shout of mid-May sunshine—that fill the trail with promise. Perhaps it’s why I can already feel that Ampersand is at the center of the Six and their king.

Norman Maclean, the Montana writer whose work has influenced me more than any, wrote about fly-fishing in A River Runs Through It, a spare, haunting gem about love and loss. “It is not fly fishing if you are not looking for answers to questions,” he wrote. I feel the same about hiking.

I had moved back to New York State for a promising job, 40 years after being whisked out of the Catskills by well-meaning but panicked parents right after the Three-Mile Island nuclear mishap. I did not want to leave. Perhaps like all children, I kept a small box with fragments of memory I refused to relinquish. They were shadow and smell, perplexing: the pale outline of stone walls, a particular ash tree that was yellow on the hill when all the leaves around it were red, the musty breath of mock orange and the prim nod of lady slipper flowers that bloomed and evaporated so quickly from the mats of dead beech leaves that you’d likely miss them altogether unless you paid particular homage to the lady who slips away.

Moving to northern New York and the Adirondacks has been a kind of homecoming after four decades of trying to figure out how to get back, drifting from one writing gig and newsroom to another, never fully arriving nor really leaving. When you depart a land so young, something gets broken early. The edges and handholds of the old world all but vanish and you’re left trying to grasp whether there is anything to recover. Toss in a pandemic that upends everything and destroys your job, and it all gets still more incomprehensible. It is not too much to say I am hitting the peaks to ask what place this land may still hold for me, if any. My work as a college writer ended suddenly with the turn to spring, the position shed due to the financial austerities of the pandemic. Jason, a colleague with greater seniority, has kept his job. But the year instead served him a sudden heart attack from a blood clot. He’s gaining back weight and has brushed off some of the shadow of that rush to the hospital in Plattsburgh. He wants to climb as many peaks as he can fit around work, hoping to build back his physical foundations.

I size up a trail by the dream it spins, so the process will always be subjective, the outcome dubious. Yes, I am unreliable; I’m not sure it would be wise to follow me anywhere. Luckily the exact details of these hikes can be found in guidebooks. So the trail to Ampersand weaves a corridor of green and cups a brightness that originates from more than the cascade of sun and new leaves. The world is finally drawing a breath. The masks have disappeared from a group of hikers we meet, and they no longer turn away and duck off the trail with their sleeves over their noses. The path rolls easily with the contours of the land. Along it, Jack-in-the-pulpit present themselves to replace the already-withering trilliums. The green hood folds over modest Jack, but when gently lifted, the inner lining is incredibly em­broidered in white and purple, and Jack’s head is also deep purple, hinting at the flamboyant nature he must keep covered. I point him out to Jason who, as the son of a minister, needs to know about Jack.

The first mile and a half pass easily, then the contour lines tighten on Jason’s hiking app and most of our 1,775 feet of gain begins now. We are both pulling deep breaths and stop to slug water at the foot of a staircase of boulders. A man easily 10 years our senior swings into view and then moves past us with a quizzical sideways twinkle. The glance sharpens a sense of grim humor.

“I’m starting to suck wind,” Jason admits. “I don’t think you’re breathing as hard as I am.” My hiking buddy has four stents in his heart, and I will take any cheap advantage I can get, so I gloat silently.

The next mile is a power hike, in places a scramble over bare rock, where my hiking poles claw for holds at armpit level. Water replaces sweat and the quadriceps begin a steady burn. The trail then levels out and is suddenly moist and cool. The soil is darker here, with the deep smell of organic matter. A mass of stone soars to our left. Muddled from months indoors, I think for a moment it is the summit, but of course it isn’t. The rock is an impressive fortress and as our gaze travels its full height, a vulture glides into view directly above, peering at us on silent wings before disappearing. When it returns, it brings a friend. Then legions gather.

But not today.

The last scramble to the summit re­quires us to literally entwine ourselves with the roots and then the trunk of a tree to hoist ourselves up a small cliff. Rumor has it a rope used to be tied here, but no longer. From this final challenge, the bald and rolling summit of Ampersand spills its crystalline views in all directions and we stroll into the high, bright wind and take it in, too full for words.

Lakes encircle us in a ring. Islands with the dark spars of trees lie wrecked and immobile despite the shove of wind. Jason lies down at the other end of the summit and stares at the sky. I sit cross-legged on the stone and let myself glide into the trance of the new landscape and remembered history. Everywhere there are shadows and faint echoes of my Catskills heart-home. As I sit and raptly stare, I pull shards of the old land out of this new one.

The journey has been more complex than I had expected and may always be. We lose things as we go—a job, our health, a sunny outlook—and they’re replaced by something deeper and also darker and uninvited. And it gets to a point where we are unwilling to give up one more thing. For me, it is memory I am unwilling to surrender, buried in the ridges of stone that remind me of the parts of myself I like best.

It is just before Memorial Day when I make my ascent of St. Regis Mountain, alone this time. The trek is 3.3 miles to the half-bald summit. The trail rolls through forest and rock features—a stone staircase or two lending architecture to the climb—and steepens to the final ascent without the sudden demands of Ampersand. The summit is earned after a fair and measured climb, but the hike doesn’t feel difficult. Steady wind gushes through the uprights of a fire tower, and when I make the last tenuous climb through steel lattice, a healthy dose of vertigo and a panorama of lakes awaits. The tiny dots of Paul Smith’s College—a place my father loved—cluster along the banks of one of them. The water is glassy and still in the lee of the peaks and islands, and ruffles scaly and gray on the windward side.

The trail to Scarface Mountain is heavily wooded with conifers, the ground soft and springy under the sole, the soil warm and sandy. Because I love the bright smell of pine and spruce and the easy manner that the trail works its way through the landscape, I enjoy the approach to the 3,088-foot mountain and the bridges through a bog as much as any hike I have taken in northern New York. The summit itself, gained after 1,480 feet of ascent, is heavily wooded, but a break three-quarters of the way to the top opens onto ledges to the right and a view of the mass of Ampersand presiding in the distance.

McKenzie and Haystack Mountains can be hiked together in a single trip. The summer has taken a turn for the wet, and weeks of rain have preceded my potentially unwise decision to take on this hike. I head first to McKenzie, crouching at 3,822 feet with 2,340 feet of elevation gain. A necklace of streams and green-and-gold plunge pools entwine the middle portion of the 5.3-mile trudge, which soon becomes real work as mud and flowing streams force me to prance from stone to cobble like a ballerina. Handholds on muddy boulders hoist me to viewpoints with soaring cliffs straight out of James Fenimore Cooper, then to false summits and a glimpse of the true one, ahead like a crow’s nest of jumbled spruce. No bald summit here, but openings in the trees look down on Placid’s ski jumps and the huddled avenues of Saranac. The summit of Haystack, at 2,878 feet, is a detour on the way back via the Jackrabbit trail, offering similar partial views onto the jumble of High Peaks. Then it’s down through a world of water, feet sopping wet, breathing deep, close to it all.

Sometimes we don’t find what we expect on a hike; it can feel like nothing has happened. While I’ve gained back a few fragments of the past, I can’t say I am any closer to understanding why I am here. It is easy to get impatient and reach for some tangible result, and to forget we are dealing in the currency of ghosts who may surprise us on the next trek. All we can really do is hike, and stay open.

Baker Mountain, right in the village of Saranac Lake, is joy in short form. I find it easy to eschew urban hikes, but this one quickly lifts the hiker out of a neighborhood and into pine and stone crags reminiscent of the old Hudson River painters. It is the sort of landscape my mother would have made in watercolor, at her easel in our Catskills place, steeped in quiet, before our move West.

I start the one-mile trail to the summit of Baker, with 884 feet of gain, on summer solstice, under a severe thunderstorm watch, and I can no longer find Jack anywhere. The lilies-of-the-valley have also withered, but the ferns are thickening in their place. Rocky outcroppings sprout with the ascent, offering wider views the higher I go. A hundred yards from the peak, gripping tight to the rock with my talons, I choose a perch. The underside of leaves boil in gray wind; the village and the ribbons of lake water roll in haze. The summit itself, marked by the trunk of a pine worn smooth with caresses, has more limited views due to foliage. It’s a reminder that the journey tells us more than the destination ever will, Ampersand notwithstanding.

Eventually, it is time to go back, the journey through the Six brought to a close with echoes and half-answers. Over rotting logs and impenetrable granite, in a sea of leaves and sun, I stop and listen. A line of hikers has passed the other way, pleasantries exchanged before they fade into a bright screen of non-reality.

I think we all go into the forest looking for some kind of answer. We want to reconnect, across time or distance—or both. In the emptiness, when the mind and body are both tired enough to listen, we can almost reach the source. But the forest is its own question, mirroring back ours and leading us to still others. The flat, tan mats of beech leaves, moss and gray scale of maple are the eyes of the forest and its memory. Under their stare, we return to ourselves. 

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