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Hiking, Outdoors

Algonquin – Jul 22-24, 2011

Shawn on Algonquin

Shawn on Algonquin

On another weekend in King of Prussia, I decided to get out of work a few hours early and head to the Adirondacks for a quick hike or two. I figured it was only 6-7 hours away, so what the heck. Eight hours later I got within 45 min just to find that everything was booked for Sunday’s Iron Man race. So I crashed at the Blue Ridge Motel in Schroon Lake on Friday night. The plan was to try either the Mount Marcy Loop or Algonquin Peak the next day (or both, depending on pace). That would later turn out to be an absurd thought.

The next morning I chose the “easy” route and just climb Algonquin, what the guide books describe as a relatively short 7.2 mile there-and-back jaunt up the 5,114′ peak from Adirondack Loj. After a very beautiful drive from Shroon up the 73 toward Lake Placid, I turned onto Adirondack Loj and was on the trail by 8:15am or so.

Adirondack Loj to Wright Peak Junction (2.9 Miles)
I should probably note that I had fled King of Prussia and a national heat wave that put temperatures in NYC Central Park at 104 degrees or higher on Friday.  It was supposed to be even hotter on Saturday.  In the Adirondacks, I never checked the temperature, but it was hot.  Damn hot.  And humid.  So I expected misery, given my normal propensity to sweat, or at least a rather damp experience.  I was not disappointed.  I think I was sweating before I shut the car door.

The trail from the Loj parking lot leads drively into the woods at a fairly modest amble.  The first thing I noticed, other than that I was hot, was that I was hot.  Then I noticed that there were a lot of rocks on the trail.  And then the heat.  And then more rocks.  I’m observant, so these things don’t easily get by me.  It occurred to me that when the guide book (Hiking the Adirondacks by Lisa Densmore) called the trail rocky or bouldery, this was not meant in the notional sense that I’d thought she had in mind.  Rather than an exaggerated warning to novice hikers, she was quite literal.  If there was one thing that described every step of the entire day, other than hot, or humid, it was rocky.

Rocks aside, I passed a few people and thought I was keeping a good pace up the trail until I noticed an obviously older and heavier man a bit ahead of me.  Just as I thought I was closing the gap, we passed the Mount Marcy trail junction and the trail got steeper (and rockier, of course).  I was sweating so much in the heat and humidity that I was pretty much soaked.  A half hour later, I finally caught up to him, asked him where he was going — he said Algonquin, in a hopeful tone — and then I passed him by.  Twenty minutes later I was gagging in the heat and stopped for a drink, and he passed me.  Ten minutes later I caught up and we were pretty much in lockstep until just before the Wright Peak junction.  In the interim I learned that he was on a 40-day 50th-birthday hiking vacation through the North East.  Interesting guy.  And pretty much kicking my ass.  Good for him.

Wright Peak Junction to Algonquin Peak (4.6 Miles)
At the Wright trail junction I ran into four 20-something guys who were dropping some of their stuff for a quick run up Wright Peak.  It was only 0.4 miles and, while it was hot and I was already feeling the effort, I figured why not.  So I started up with them.  And of course got my butt kicked again.  Heat.  Rocks.  Out of shape?  Age?  Bah.  The climb up was a set of steep scrambles over bare rock, then a very nice climb over the bare mountain face once you clear tree level.

At the top, I caught up to the four, feeling a bit sheepish, and a local peak ranger or something; I forget what he called himself.  He eagerly show3e us pictures of the mountain top and the fragile Alpine-Arctic ecosystem, and encouraged us to walk on the rocks.  I looked around.  Was there a choice?  You’d have to go out of your way to NOT walk on the rocks, but I got the point.

The view from the top included the flank of Algonquin Peak, and Mount Marcy (the tallest peak in New York) in the distance.  I looked at Algonquin, then Marcy, and realized how ridiculous it was that I had planned to try the full Marcy loop in one day without any real preparation.  I tried to think of the number of rocks and boulders between Wright and Marcy and I shuddered.  On a nice Sierra trail with switchbacks and soft loamy dirt, I could have pounded it out no problem, heat or not.  But all the scrambly rocks made it slower, harder, and more dangerous.

Back at the trail junction I caught up to the four guys again and we started up toward Algonquin.  I was sweating rivers.  My feet felt hot and blistery in new North Face shoes that didn’t quite feel right.  And damned if I wasn’t tired already.  So I expected them to leave me in the dust.  And they did at first, but as it got steeper and rockier, I felt the snack I’d had on Wright kick in, and I soon passed the slower of the two, then the faster two who were waiting for them.  It was cheating a bit, but it helped.  The last part of the climb to Algonquin passed in an flash, and soon I’d claimed my rock at the peak for lunch.

Another ranger approached me.  “Have you heard about–” I nodded quickly.  “Walking on the rocks?  Yes.  Check my shoes.”  She looked at me, non-plussed.  I smiled.  “I did pick some of the grass and scrape off some of the lichens just for souvenirs.  Is that okay?”  It was clearly not okay.  I told her I was kidding, and she laughed, but I think she glanced suspiciously at my pack.  Odds are, I probably wasn’t the first jackass to make light of her mission to save the fragile mountain-top ecosystem.

From Algonquin, Wright Peak seems impossibly close.  On the other side, Iroquois Peak appears just a few quick minutes away.   Marcy still looks impossibly far.  Dozens of 4,000+ foot peaks rise to the north.  It’s an altogether beautiful and daunting view, and a far sight more inspiring than anything I’d found in Pennsylvania.  Delaware Water Gap my butt.

Algonquin to Iroquois Peak (Est. 5.5 Miles)
The walk down from Algonquin the the saddle is easy enough to follow given the rock towers that guide you down.  At first I thought they were just overly-enthusiastic cairns, but then I realized they were there to keep us civilians off the grass.  There were even little rock paths laid out all the way down the face.  Cute or irritating?  Not sure.  I’m going with cute for now.

At the junction for the trail to Iroquois Peak, there is a jaunty yellow arrow pointing down to Avalanche lake and a little black arrow scrawled over the yellow arrow pointing toward Iroquois.  I thought at first it was a sweet cost-saving measure, but I soon realized it was metaphorical; the trail to Irioquois takes on a sudden narrow characater with face-slapping dwarf conifer limbs and barely enough trail to walk on.  In fact, sometimes, no trail at all — several boggy areas required hopping from dead limb to rock to grassy patch.  One missed step and you’re shin deep in mountain muck.  It makes a yearning slorck sound when you pull your foot out, and smells like rotting grass.  Yum.

At the top of Iroquois, after more rocks and scrambling, is another great few.  I took a seat to enjoy it.  Well, also because my legs were ready for a long rest.  And from my windy vantage I took in endless peaks, the occasional conversation of other hikers from all over the Northeast, a handsome black dog gamely trying to navigate the path down a rock face, and my inadequate water supply.

I had started with 3 liters (1 in camel form, 1 in a bottle, and another of Gatorade) and electrolyte mix.  The bladder was 80% done, and the Gatorade half gone.  I drank half the last bottle while sitting there — I needed the electrolytes, as my calves were already starting to cramp — so I had just a liter left.  No way it was going to get me back.  Just another reason I need to start carrying a water filter.  This time I brought iodine tablets, so there was no real worry, but I hate drinking that stuff.  Someday I will teach myself to sweat less.  Yeah.

Iroquois Peak to Avalanche Lake (Est. 8.0 Miles)
So, downhill is supposed to be the easy part of hiking.  This isn’t Everest.  You’re not going to get swept into a glacial crevice and be discovered 30 years later frozen in awkward death throws by a volunteer group of trash-collecting Sherpas.  This is the Adirondacks.  You go up, you go down.  No big deal.

Except that after returning the the Adirondack trail junction, having passed through shoe-slorcking bog and the trail of groin-smacking branches, the traik becomes immediately and somewhat dramatically vertical.  One tends to think of names like “avalanche trail” as mere marketing,  but this trail was clearly formed by a mass of snow tearing down a cliff on way to the valley far, far below.  The trail consists of rock faces stripped bare by the last year’s avalanches, with some extra rocks on top and the occasional tree root gamely holding the other rocks in place.

At one point I was standing over a 20-foot drop on a wet rock over what looked like a mulched tree, and it occured to me that I might have lost the path.  In fact, I somehow managed to wander free of the trail several times as it crossed over a rocky riverbed that was indistinguishable from the trail except for a slight increase in humidity.  But, at long last on shakey legs and out of water, I arrived at the trail junction by Colden Lake.  Only 5.2 miles back to Adirondack Loj.

Avalanche Lake to Marcy Dam (Est. 11.1 Miles)
This is a beautiful lake.  Bare cliffs rise on two sides, giving it an almost Alpen feel.  There are great flat rocks by the shore, beautiful wetlands nearby, and nice rocky trail running alongside.  A trail so rocky, in fact, that it is traversed by ladders and walkways and “Hitch Up Matildas” — which are just long wooden walkways with bannisters, making them by far the safest part of the trail.

About half-way down the lake trail I noticed a massive cleft in the flank of Mount Colden, which formed the opposite cliffs.  I was wondering what it was like to climb up the cleft when a group walked by as if beckoned to answer the question.

“Where you headed?” I asked.  The response involved the word “Trap”  and “Dyke” and caught me by surprise.  Turns out the cleft is called the Mount Colden Trap Dike, and is a famous local boulder-type climb.  Looked like a lot of fun.  Someday.

At the South end of the lake, the trail ascends gently toward Avalanche pass and a colossal treefall.  After the gradual climb, the trail turns down and from there back to the Marcy Dam, it’s a pretty easy walk — nothing like the trails that had preceded.

Marcy Dam to Adirondack Loj (Est. 13.2 Miles)
Nice walk.  Pretty trail.  Oh, and the dam looked like an Eagle Scout project made with giant Lincoln Logs.  And someone was making Top Ramen on a camp stove and I seriously considered buying some off of them.  Not sure how that conversation would have gone, but the smell of salt and MSG haunted me.  Delicious electrolytes and starch.

Lake Placid and some Liquids and Solids
Turns out an Iron Man triathlon was happening in Lake Placid the next day, so I was the fattest, palest guy in town.  It was like being a normal girl in Hollywood, as a friend of mine later pointed out.  I took a quick drive through Lake Placid, took a terrible picture or two of the ski jump from the Winter Olympics, and then sought sustenance.

According the Urban Spoon, a bar called Liquids and Solids was the place.  I went.  I drank.  I ate.  Nice people.  Good food.  Okay beer.  So tired.  I mean me, not the bar.  I highly recommend the place.  I should go there someday when I’m fully conscious.

Fort Ticonderoga and Lake George
Nice fort.  Gorgeous lake.  No pun intended.

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