Is it worth 12 hours of driving to spend 24 hours in the Adirondacks? Jack, Jay and Tom would say so after their trip of April 27-28, 2001, in which they climbed Ampersand Mountain and then canoe camped on Middle Saranac Lake.
With Jack and Jay leaving Buffalo at 6 a.m. on the 27th, and Tom leaving Connecticut at the same time, they arrived within minutes of each other at about noon at the trailhead to Ampersand, which Jack had climbed once before. Since Tom had traveled alone, Jack quickly filled him in on the various disdainful critiques of recent National Public Radio stories that Jay had shared with Jack on the trip.
They were on the trail by about 12:15 p.m. It was sunny and the temperature was in the 40s.
Barbara McMartin, who has written a series of excellent guidebooks on the Adirondacks, offers this description of Ampersand:
“Located between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake, Ampersand Mountain sits apart from the High Peaks in the Ampersand Primitive Area, separated by a corridor of private land. The 3,352-foot mountain’s isolation and bare summit gives it wonderful views of the High Peaks and it is often considered one of those noble heights. This is a beautiful 5.6-mile (round trip) hike, a 1,790-foot vertical rise, which will take about 4 hours to enjoy…”
It took the trio about an hour and 45 minutes to get to Ampersand’s rocky summit. It had snowed the night before and there were some icy places on the upper reaches of the trail, where it is most steep and a handhold is required now and then, but the bare summit was clear, except for a few depressions filled with snowmelt and small icebergs.
McMartin describes the summit vista as follows:
“No tower is needed for the magnificent 360-degree view. Ampersand’s location between mountain country and lake country make this vantage point one of the best views in the Adirondacks. To the south, Ampersand Lake is nestled in the center of a giant handful of mountains: from east to west, you see the Sawtooth Range, the Sewards, and Long Lake. Many lakes range north, including Middle and Upper Saranac Lakes and Lake Clear. Facing east, you see Scarface nearby. To the northeast, you see the McKenzie Range and Whiteface with its distinctive white slide behind it.
“The summit was originally wooded and owes its open rock to Verplank Colvin, who had his men cut lines from the summit toward his other signal peaks in 1873. Fires and erosion bared the rest. According to Alfred Donaldson’s The History of the Adirondacks, the origin of Ampersand’s name was derived from a corruption of Ambersand Lake, whose name in turn was inspired by the ‘bright yellow sandy shores and islands, which make it truly Amber-sand Lake.'”
Fortunately for the NCMC, it was a clear day and they were able to see all that Ampersand surveys, including Middle Saranac Lake, which they planned to paddle once they had descended.
Clothing Optional Summit
With them on the summit were a young couple who were on their first trip to the Adirondacks. The NCMC gave them sight-seeing tips and each party took photos of the other.
The man joked at one point that he and his girlfriend normally take their clothes off upon reaching the top of a climb. ”What a coincidence,” Tom said. Jack said later that he was certain that Tom’s matter-of-fact delivery had given the couple pause.
They stayed on the summit for awhile, as the weather was good and Jack had brought a tasty selection of snacks, including “fat-free” bologna (What will they think of next, alcohol-free beer?)
A few other hikers reached the summit as the NCMCers lounged around, including what Jack called an “older couple.” Jack thought it was great that the couple had climbed up, but then realized that perhaps he and his fellow NCMCers appeared just as old. Finishing their snacks, they decided it was time to descend, as they still had to canoe to a campsite.
It is always difficult to leave an Adirondack summit, and Ampersand prompts one to linger as persistently as any other. Although Ampersand is not high, it offers a spectacular view of lake, river, valley and snow-capped peak that rivals many other higher peaks, particularly because so little development is apparent within the 360-degree view it provides.
To the Boats
They made good time on the descent and were back at the cars at about 4 p.m. From there, it was a drive of only a couple of minutes to the access point for Middle Saranac Lake, which has a parking lot, which was full of cars on this day, and a small wooden dock. They loaded the canoes and paddled off into a narrow channel leading into the lake. Jack and Jay manned Jack’s Sundowner and Tom was using his solo Advantage.
Middle Saranac Lake is along the route of the Adirondack Canoe Classic, the three-day, 90-mile race in which the NCMC participates each September on the weekend following Labor Day. There are many campsites on the lake and during the summer months it is operated as a state campground: campers register for a specific site and pay a fee. The only difference from the other state campgrounds is that campers get to their sites by boat rather than driving to them. Motors are allowed on the lake, however, so campers can bring just about everything they could bring to a car campground.
The campground rules are in effect from the middle of May through Labor Day. At other times, one can camp on the lake without having to register and get a permit. The NCMC trip was timed to avoid the registration season, and the crowds and motorboats that accompany it.
They paddled north across the lake to a point that their map indicated had a lean-to. The site was occupied, however, by a group of 30 or more people who had turned the campsite into a small city. Several motorboats were tied up to the point and many tents could be seen among the trees around the lean-to. A keg of beer lay on its side by the water. Jack and Jay were told by two of the campers, who were sitting in lawn chairs by the water, that the group camped at this spot at this time every year. We won’t tell the Department of Environmental Conservation, but the group was several times larger than the regulations permit. One reason we won’t tell DEC is that the NCMC itself had one too many members in its party when it camped on Lake Lila in the Adirondacks in August 2001.
The two guys that Jack and Jay spoke with told them that there were good sites to be found in Weller Pond, which is actually a bay at the north end of Middle Saranac. The NCMCers paddled on to Weller Pond and soon came to a nice campsite. They unloaded the boats and set up camp, erecting Jay’s six-man Eureka Equinox and stringing a tarp over the picnic table that came with the site.
Dinner was fettucini alfredo and grilled salmon. The fine meal was provided by Jay, of course, who also built the wood fire on whch he grilled the salmon. The meal was accompanied by Budweiser and a Pinot Noir, in a bottle no less.
The wine had one of those plastic corks that are hard to get out. Tom and Jack both failed in their attempts to extract the cork, and then Tom held the bottle with two hands while Jack pulled on the Swiss Army Knife corkscrew with two hands. They looked like two winos having a tug-of-war over the bottle. The cork did not budge. “Jay,” Tom said, “we can’t get this out.” Jay had walked briskly over, took the bottle and pulled the cork out without a grimace or a grunt. A man among boys!
The other notable item on the menu was the alignment of the planets. Their campsite faced west, so they could see Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Venus and maybe Mercury in the direction of the setting sun.
After the planet-gazing, and quite beat from their climb of Ampersand and the subsequent paddle, the NCMCers brushed their teeth, said their prayers and turned in early. No snoring episodes, a staple of NCMC nights, were reported. At one point, the cries of loons were heard.
Let It Snow
It was cold when they awoke and it soon began to snow, but they had the tarp up over their breakfast table, and all they had to do was to punch it occasionally from below to dislodge the wet snow that was piling up. Two loons were spotted cruising the lake in the direction that the driving snow was being blown. There were no waves to speak of on Weller Pond, but the campers figured that they would have a tough paddle on the open lake. A northwest wind had been coming over their bow quarters during their paddle into camp the night before, and, having shifted to the southeast, the wind would be coming over the same quarter on their way home. It was like walking to school uphill both ways.
Tom had left Bob’s honey in the car, so they eschewed the frozen pancakes he had brought and had sausage and coffee for breakfast. After breakfast, they broke down camp and took to the boats. They paddled out of the pond and back toward the main lake, passing a pair of mergansers on the way. The huge group that had camped at the lean-to the night before was gone, leaving only a pile of firewood in front of the empty lean-to.
Past the point of the now-empty campsite, the open lake showed good-sized waves. Tom suggested that the two boats stay together in the event that he would be unable to keep the solo canoe from being turned broadside to the waves. The size of the waves meant they would have to tack across the lake so that they could take the waves at the required 45-degree angle to avoid capsize. They headed out together, but the boats were soon separated. It proved to be a slightly hairy voyage, but both boats crossed the open lake without mishap. It had even stopped snowing during the trip. Jay opined after the crossing that it would have made more sense to hug the shore, even if the paddle would have taken much longer, as a capsize far from shore in the very cold water would not have been pleasant. Another plan would have been to tow the solo and have the three campers in the Sundowner. With one of them sitting on the floor in the middle of the Sundowner, the boat’s center of gravity would have been lowered. Spare paddles would have also made sense!
Soccer Is No Excuse
Back at the dock, they unloaded the canoes and put the boats on the cars. With the wind blowing hard, Tom asked Jack to secure his solo canoe with a trucker’s hitch, which he had for many years told Jack was overkill. The parking lot was now empty, indicating that.most of the cars had belonged to members of the motorboat rally who had been camped at the lean-to. Miraculously, three of the 10 beers that had made the canoe trip were still in the cooler, and each camper was now given his ration to bring home, as the NCMC does not allow open containers in its members’ cars. Just as they finished loading the cars, it began to rain hard. Acknowledging their good fortune, they headed home.
No significant NCMC business was conducted on the trip. There was some lackluster discussion about reprimanding Billy for not coming, but the talk was dropped because, unlike last year’s Long Pond trip, he had not reneged on a commitment to come. (Not that he had a great excuse this year, as he cited his need to coach youth soccer as the reason he could not go camping. As the criterion for being a youth soccer coach in America is ownership of a minivan, presumably a few thousand of Billy’s neighbors could have picked up the slack! Soccer, by the way, was a sport invented by European women while their husbands were home cooking dinner.) There was also discussion of Billy’s recent complaint, upon viewing photos from the March 2002 Lake Placid trip, that the photos all showed the same scene, just with different people in them. Jay suggested that the web site ought to have a page of the photos that Billy the photo critic has contributed. Here is the link toBill’s photo gallery
Finally, this trip underscored the need for more Adirondack waters to be off-limits to motors. Only five percent of the surface water in the Adirondacks is free from motors, including Lake Lila, Little Tupper Lake and the St. Regis Canoe Area. The Adirondack Explorer magazine has started a Quiet Waters campaign to add a few more lakes and ponds to the list of those on which paddlers can enjoy a peaceful experience free of roaring engines and buffeting boat wakes. One of the lakes that Adirondack Explorer would like to see added to the motor-free realm is Middle Saranac, or at least the Weller Pond portion of it. Follensby Clear Pond, where the NCMC made a trip in August 1999, is another body of water on the Adirondack Explorer’s list.
The Adirondacks are far superior to other big forests in the Northeast as a recreation destination precisely because they have so many more lakes, ponds and navigable rivers. All but a handful of them are open to motors. If more of them were restricted to canoes, kayaks, guideboats, sailboats and other craft propelled by muscle and wind, the Adirondacks could rival the Boundary Waters and Algonquin Provincial Park as paddlers’ paradises. The NCMC thereby enthusiastically supports the Quiet Waters campaign of the Adirondack Explorer.
Gallery: Middle Saranac