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In the days leading up to The Lake George Land Conservancy’s Hike-a-thon 2018, the first heat wave of the season was roaring across the Lake George Area, promising little hope for comfort to those of us taking part in the annual group excursions on July 5.
The event brings together donors, scores of volunteers and hundreds of participants for 19 simultaneous hikes and paddles taking place at locations around Lake George. Designed to showcase the growing number of parks and preserves under the Conservancy’s stewardship, Hike-a-thon culminates with exciting aerial photography of each group at its summit or other relevant destination.
Dew points exceeding the “oppressive” stage had accompanied the heat, so when me and my volunteer colleagues, Lorraine MacKenzie and Bob Kafin, met at Up Yonda Farm to welcome our hikers before our trek to Pole Hill Pond, the mild 74-degree temperature was a welcome friend. It was 7 a.m., however. Six miles and as many hours lay before us.
Our participants, comprising a good range of ages and abilities, hail from homes down the road and across the country. All of us were eager to hit the trail, so once check-in was completed and introductions were made, a caravan of carpoolers made the short trip north to the trailhead. It helps to know where you are going because the entrance can be easily missed, and there is very limited parking once you get there. The Lake George Land Conservancy has extensive information available at your fingertips and can give you good directions.
Although the swarm of insects I had been expecting had yet to make an appearance, I doused myself with my go-to bug repellant. After taking a measure of elevation (410 feet), I secured my day pack and stepped onto the trail as the last member of the group. My role for the day would be “sweeper,” which is exactly what it sounds like ~ I am there to assist those who may enjoy a more relaxed pace or those who need to take a break, to keep on course when the forward guard advances beyond view; ultimately I am to help keep the group together. It is the perfect job for me because I prefer to have nobody behind me when I’m hiking. ... I’m a dawdler.
Pole Hill Pond, a 1,300-acre tract of land within the Northwest Bay Brook watershed, was purchased by the Land Conservancy in 2000. Sold to New York State in 2004, it is now part of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, with the Conservancy maintaining its trails through a cooperation agreement with the State Department of Environmental Conservation.
There are two round-trip trails in the preserve. The short inner loop is marked with yellow trail disks, and the longer loop to Pole Hill Pond, by way of Walnut Ridge, is marked in blue. Ours would be the “blue trail” route today.
Starting out we follow an old logging road for the first quarter mile. The forest has reclaimed this thoroughfare for skidders and logging trucks of yesteryear, leaving only the hint of a path through the woods. It is clear there is little traffic here, which makes the trail markers that much more essential for staying on target.
The path flirts now and then with a drying streambed. I’m not sure if it is an actual stream or only the remnants of a snowmelt path, but under the thick canopy of hemlock and other evergreen, it contributes to the haunting ambience of this place. Though about 20 strong in numbers, we humans take our cue from the forest and maintain that reverent silence awhile.
In short order, we come to an intersection with the “yellow trail.” This alternative path on the left will at some point take its hikers on a one-mile loop over Bear Knob. But not us, at least not today.
We continue on to the right where we revisit what has become a more robust stream that invites us to cautiously cross its stones and tread its mucky shores if we are to make forward progress. What follows is a pleasant stroll along a gradual incline, surrounded on all sides by endless patches of knee-high fern that have matured out of a moist spring terrain. This vibrant green life appears a stark contrast to the bed of aged brown autumn leaves from which they have sprung. The sweet, pungent scents of bloom and decay blend into the indiscernible here.
I’ve only traveled a mile.
The muscles in my legs are telling me that the casual stroll has reached its end, as lactic acid makes its debut this morning. I look ahead to the file of my fellow hikers. What had been a relatively level line of bobbing heads and shoulders has turned into a distinctly vertical column, slow … measured … serpentine, hugging the switchback trail that ascends Middle Mountain.
It’s a little brighter here. We have left the dusk-like evergreen surroundings behind and entered the domain of the deciduous. Encircled now by a hardwood forest, persistent streams of sunlight dodge through the treetops and speckle the ground with a thousand points of light. Nature’s discotech, if you will.
The surface of the trail has also changed. The subterranean rocks and roots summon their courage and start to protrude from their hiding spots along the side of the mountain. In some locations they are knotted, twisting obstructions on the trail, in others they serve as sturdy steps to assist us up the incline. Middle Mountain has issued its challenge. Her course is undulating, and at times quite steep ~ both the ascents and the descents. Clearly, if we are to make our rendezvous with the helicopter and take in the spectacular views from Walnut Ridge, we can do so only through the sanction of this unforgiving mountain.
Whether it was the terrain, the rising temperature or simply our presence, circumstances had become ripe for inviting into our group some unwelcome visitors. Several hikers are signaling with the Adirondack wave the first sorties of the pesky invaders. I’d been hearing the deer fly’s erratic drone around me for a while, but I had not been kamikazied up to that point so the humming just blended in with the sounds of the forest. My go-to repellant has lived up to its reputation, and during our second water break I offer it up to my colleagues. In my view, the best way to battle natural pests is to deploy natural means. Works for me, anyway. And my fellow trekkers enjoyed a reprieve, as well.
After a seemingly endless series of ascents ~ and a Coming-to-God moment where I realize another 20 pounds must be shed before I’m at my preferred hiking weight ~ Middle Mountain is satisfied with our endurance and releases us into the col that will carry us to Walnut Ridge. I take an elevation reading here of 1,520 feet. We’ve climbed the equivalent of a 100-story building over the course of a couple of hours. For the moment, I feel that my wholly unexpected exhaustion is vindicated.
The comparatively flatter terrain of the col gave a subtle impression that the hard work was behind us. And it really was, but not without one last climb; one last salvo … an echo from Middle Mountain of what we had overcome. That steep ascent would reveal a sky unobstructed by the ridgeline for the first time on our journey.
From here we look down along a grassy path onto the rocky surface of Walnut Ridge. Some slim, leafy sentries guard either side of the walkway to the ledge, and on passing through we are rewarded first by thickets of wild blueberries and then by the awe-inspiring view of Lake George. We take our fill of both.
Rest and relaxation were the trophies of the day on Walnut Ridge. A pleasant breeze was blowing at our 1,480-foot perch overlooking Northwest Bay, drying the perspiration from our skin and cooling our bodies.
It felt nowhere near the 87 degrees my temperature app reported. We took water and we took pictures. We snacked on blueberries and granola bars and engaged in the giddy chatter of a proud group of strangers-become-friends that has accomplished a substantial feat for the day.
There was but one thing left to do and it just happened to be the annual highlight of Hike-a-thon ...
In the distance, we hear the muffled pattering sound of the chopper blades. We rally ourselves from our resting places and form up on the ridge as the whirring of the engines crescendo. The helicopter zips with a roar over the tree line and less than 100 feet above us photographer Carl Heilman makes his ethereal appearance. We angle upward our Lake George Area banner, smile squint-eyed into the sky and wave like champions as the lens captures our moment in time. The longest and arguably the most difficult challenge of Hike-a-thon 2018 has been recorded for posterity.
Some of our group elected to head back down to the trailhead the way we came, but most of us join our fearless leader Lorraine and continue on toward Pole Hill Pond.
As you would imagine, the descent is pretty much continuous. I navigate over the root-and-rock surface of the trail, top heavy as I lean forward to steady myself against tree trunks.
My hiking poles would’ve been a wise addition to my pack today. I am a little fatigued as I negotiate the trail on my way down, and so I am not as astute with my footing. I take it slow.
We travel about a half mile and come upon an intersection.
The sign, as if in the throes of indecision, points back to Walnut Ridge, right to the pond, and left to Padanarum Road. The latter route takes hikers across Godwin Preserve to the road where they can then connect to Amy’s Park. Again, a worthy hike for another day.
A short walk brings us to secretive Pole Hill Pond. This place is absolutely beautiful and well worth today’s effort in itself. There is a rustic fire pit complementing the shoreline that is shrouded in evergreens, the forest floor carpeted with soft auburn pine needles. What a perfect spot to set up camp.
When I think of an Adirondack mountain pond I envision more of a swampy area with limited open water. Not the case here. Were it possible, you could motorboat around Pole Hill Pond with no worries of entangling vegetation in your propeller. You could take a refreshing swim without emerging covered in a slimy algae film. I almost want to forego my water bottle and slake my thirst with handfuls of the crystal clear elixir. Almost …
As I stand on the exposed boulder jutting out from the shore of the pond, I feel the heat of a 90-degree day, certainly. There is just a hint of mugginess in the air, but it is not uncomfortable to me. On the contrary, it is soothing. It is the expression of the unspoken life force of the forest … this enormous, silent ecosystem that processes energy as vast as a nuclear explosion with the decorum of a whisper. Meteorologists call it humidity. I say my host is breathing, and she is content.
I’m not ready to go when Lorraine signals time for departure. As I said, I’m a dawdler. I linger at the pond for as long as I can while the group heads out. I know my schedule back in the real world and I know I’ll not be back here anytime soon.
I take in my surroundings and hope the image endures in my memory long enough to compel a return visit. But if the scene ultimately fades and I never enjoy a fire at the campsite on Pole Hill Pond, it will most assuredly be my great loss.
We travel along the eastern shore of the pond and I glance back periodically as the forest slowly swallows up her treasures. The trail twists and turns through the woods, wending its way back onto an old logging road and with only a couple of deviations from this path, we make our way toward our hike’s conclusion. Reminders of civilization take the form of “posted” signs delineating private property boundaries alongside the preserve.
About two hours after leaving Pole Hill Pond, we have traveled 2-1/2 miles and have reached again the yellow trail. The time has passed like minutes, thanks to the lively conversation my volunteer colleague Bob Kafin shared with me. Our discussion on local history meandered to and fro, like the trail we tread, melting away the hours until wrapping with the sound of our colleague’s Suburban horn. The leaders of our pack have reached the parking area and closed the 6-mile loop we started our day with six hours earlier. We say our goodbyes and promise to meet up again next year for Hike-a-thon 2019.
If you are weary of a busy, noisy lifestyle and in need of a dose of the idyllic, Mother Nature stands ready to oblige. You no longer have the excuse that the wilderness is beyond your reach, that you don’t have time to experience the marvels of the natural world. You need look no further than our own backyard, the Lake George Area. You can start small. And you can start right now.