Trampling Out the Vintage:  Independence Day on Algonquin

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On the descent from Algonquin Peak, the pastures of John Brown’s Farm in the distance, center left.

The turn-off from New York State Route 86 towards the parking lot at the northern entrance to the Adirondacks High Peaks Wilderness comes in the town of North Elba just past John Browns’ farm. The site was declared a National Historic Landmark a quarter century ago.

Brown moved to the Adirondacks in 1849. His farmstead is said to be the highest arable land in New York State with stunning views southwest to Mt. Marcy and Algonquin Peak and the other summits of the region.

The first known ascent of Mt. Marcy had been made by a group of New York State geologists a dozen years before Brown’s arrival. These explorers’ guide was Charles Fenno Hoffman, who famously wrote of the view, “It makes a man feel what it is to have all creation placed beneath his feet.” The expedition was made in August, yet Hoffman noted patches of ice at the summit. To find any late-summer Adirondack ice these days you have to venture inside to the Olympic Center arena in nearby Lake Placid.

Brown never climbed Mt. Marcy. He was too busy teaching farming to African Americans when he wasn’t battling slavery in Kansas and elsewhere. God’s creation wasn’t to be surveyed from above, but battled for down below.

After raids in Missouri and recruitment efforts ranging from the Great Plains to Ontario, Canada, Brown visited his family one last time in North Elba in June of 1859. He then geared up not for a ramble through the High Peaks but for the attack on the United States Arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, which he led four months later. John Brown’s body returned in a coffin for burial on his North Elba farm in December of that year. It lies there to this day.

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Tombstone of John Brown (and his grandfather) in North Elba, New York.

After we’d driven by the Brown farm and turned from Route 86 onto the road to the trailhead, my daughter had to pull off to the shoulder and send some texts. She was trying to pay the rent for a room she’d taken in an apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, which she would be heading to after the hike. I got out of the car and walked down the road a way, looking back at the red car and beyond it to the ski jumping towers built for the 1980 Olympics rising directly behind.

As I watched this eldest of our daughters sitting in the rusty Honda Fit, head down, thumbing at her phone, I thought of kinds of launching: the flight into the air with only two skis strapped to the feet; the move to a new home and new job in an uncertain world; the attack on the armory in Harper’s Ferry and on slavery itself. Courage: how to rate it? 70 meters? 90 meters? Immeasurable?

I turned from the manmade structures of sport and looked south at the rounded peaks of the Adirondacks: Algonquin and to its east, Mt. Marcy, the two highest mountains in New York, both just above 5,000 feet. They glowered greenly under the low evening sky, hunched against the smoke from the Canadian wildfires. The smoke made everything look threatening, malevolent. The weather forecast had been for plenty of rain and even thunderstorms. I’d been in favor of scrubbing the outing, but that daughter rallied her dad: “It’s the Adirondacks: a little rain won’t keep us away!”

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

She finished her business and we drove on to the trailhead. Time to march.

After a short twilight hike of a couple miles we arrived at Marcy Dam, a wooden barrier on the Marcy Creek built by the Conservation Corps in the Depression and dismantled nearly a decade ago. There are several lean-tos near the remnants of the dam through which the creek now rushes unhindered. We met the young ranger as he headed back to the lodge. He told us that the lean-tos were occupied unless we wanted “to jam into one” closer to the water.

The venerable Adirondack lean-tos, first built in the 1930s by the Conservation Corps, are 12’x8’, have wooden floors and are enclosed on three sides, open on the fourth. According to the rules posted inside, each lean-to can accommodate up to eight hikers.

At various places in the High Peaks some of these buildings have been taken down in order to try and dissuade at last some people from overnighting in overused areas of the park. Some new lean-tos using the trusty old design have also been built, and one sees caches of lumber here and there for what my daughter dubbed “lean-to-be’s.”

Within earshot of the creek, we pitched our tent among the trees, the forest floor softer and more forgiving than the lean-to planks.

There were evening dews and damps and rain in the night, but it had let up by morning.

We had our breakfast, pulled on our still mostly dry boots, shook out the wet tent and crammed it into our packs, crossed the creek and headed up through the muck towards Mt. Marcy. The hike from the parking lot at Heart Lake to the top of New York’s highest point is only about six miles—not the easiest miles since the trail is plagued by the erosion and neglect that I lamented last week. But the paths in this drainage are less steep, less muddy, and less treacherous than those that approach the mountain from the east.

We slogged gently upward, dropping our packs to make the mile-up-mile-back ascents of Tabletop and Phelps Mountains, both members of the 46 Adirondack peaks over 4,000 feet. The clouds were close, mingling with the smoke so that no views offered themselves of the surrounding summits, though there were occasional glimpses of the forest below. It was the 3rd of July and we encountered many groups on the trails and scrambles.

Returning to our packs we continued upward towards Mt. Marcy as rain began to fall. We emerged from the tree line onto the open, lichened-covered anorthosite rock offering good grip even in the wet. Climbing to within twenty minutes of the top we met a Summit Steward on her way down. These bright-eyed employees of the park, typically college students on summer vacation or recent graduates, spend their days from the end of May to the beginning of September explaining to hikers the arctic tundra plants unique in New York State and the Krummholz (crooked) formations of fir and spruce sheltering from the winter winds. Most important, the stewards remind people of the need to avoid stepping or sitting on these fragile plants now under increasing duress from the legions of hikers and the warming climate.

The steward told us that she had heard thunder, so we followed her back down to relative safety below tree line. A pair of teenagers ignored the warnings and forged on towards the summit.

Underneath my backwoods umbrella, we considered our options, finally deciding to make our way down through one of the steepest, wettest, narrowest, most bouldered paths in the park to a lean-to at Shelter Rock. But after a half-mile, the going had become so miserable and precarious that we turned around and climbed back up to the junction in the driving rain, the path itself now become a coursing brook. We then decided to descend once again into the Marcy Creek drainage to a point upstream from where we’d spent the previous night. That path was much less grim and there were lean-tos.

When we at last arrived down in the valley the rain had let up. We’d been hiking for nearly twelve hours with only a break for lunch. To get to the first lean-to we climbed up a spur trail that tested our resilience, our goal now seemingly close.

The lean-to was occupied by two young women. They had pitched their tent crosswise inside so that it stretched from one wall of the lean-to to the other. They sat facing each other with their backs to the log walls on either side, their legs stretching out across the opening of the lean-to like forbidding battlements. There were no smiles or greetings of welcome for the exhausted hikers that now appeared before them.

“Mind if we join you?” I asked. “Yes,” came the immediate response. “Really?” I responded. “We want our privacy.” I reminded her that she was sitting in a public structure and had no right, Ammon-Bundy-like, to take possession of it for private pursuits. I directed her attention to the rules posted inside the lean-to that stipulated that as many as eight occupants could shelter inside. “You’re being rude for telling me the rules,” she informed me stonily. “We’re two women and you’re a man.”

We preferred to huddle in our rain-lashed tent than force our way under the same roof with these anti-communitarians.

We headed back down the spur trail. At the junction we came to a man sitting on a rock smoking a cigarette. “How you doing?” he asked. “Not exactly bathing in the milk of human kindness,” I replied, explaining that we’d just been rebuffed at the nearby lean-to. “Outrageous!” he cried, then said we’d be most welcome at the lean-to a quarter mile down the trail where he and his hiking partner were set up for the night.

Caked in mud up to our knees, our boots sodden and barely visible through the muck, we cleaned up in nearby Marcy Creek then spent the evening in front of the lean-to mulling over the state of the world with Dexter and Ryan. They hailed from the city of Niagara Falls, that shattered jewel of Jazz Age industry and leisure about seven hours drive west from North Elba.

The pair told of Niagara Falls’ boarded up houses and black mold, the death of the Triscuit factory, which first produced the esteemed crackers in 1902. It was shut down by Nabisco in 2001, the year before its centennial. We learned that the grand Hotel Niagara, completed in 1925 with its concave façade facing the Horseshoe Falls, had been abandoned five years ago. My Danish-British wife and I had, within a year of our wedding so technically still as newlyweds, stayed in the hotel nearly three decades ago on her 30th-birthday before our appointment at the I.N.S. in Buffalo the next morning.

As for the Adirondacks, Dexter put it in a nutshell—or perhaps in the bowl of his pot pipe: “The Park tries to make it is as unfun as they can.”

One the morning of the Fourth of July the sky was blue. There were few clouds and the smoke had mostly cleared. After a long climb up a steep, eroded trail with occasional stretches of sweaty respite on the welcoming rock alongside the cascading creek up to Cold Brook Pass, we made it the top of Algonquin Peak by early afternoon. There were many people about, each party welcomed by the steward. He was recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire unsure where the winds would blow him next, but like his colleagues knowledgeable and encouraging and happy to be where he was at that moment.

The Great Range presided over by Mt. Marcy rose in the east, Iroquois Peak nearby to our south, John Brown’s farm to the north in front of McKenzie Mountain and Whiteface where the 1980 Olympic downhill had been run.

Like Charles Hoffman nearly two centuries ago, one wonders on the mountaintop, reflecting on life and death, and everything in between and beyond.

I thought of freedom and privacy and hospitality and independence. I thought of Derek Malcolm’s lines not from high elevations but from the Caribbean island of Tobago: “Days I have held, / days I have lost, / days that outgrow, like daughters, / my harbouring arms.” I looked from the lichen and mountain sandwort at my feet, to my daughter, to John Brown’s farm far below, and then to the horizon.

A thunderhead loomed the west: “He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.”

We embraced, then started down.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at