Gregory Dennis: Wandering in the woods west of New England

When you spend most of your time in Vermont, it’s easy to forget that we live on the west coast of New England. And that to the west, there is a wild kingdom with few equals on this or any other continent.
The Adirondack Park, one of America’s largest wilderness areas, was the playground of my youth — a place to hike from lake to lake, to ascend many of the traditional 46 peaks above 4,000 feet, and to ski trails to the point of getting lost and having to bivouac in subzero temperatures overnight.
Much of that is behind me. I’ll never be foolish and brave enough to try to ski through Indian Pass with a 50-pound pack. The rest of those 46ers will remain unclimbed. (I took the single chairlift to the top of Mad River Glen a couple weeks ago and walked back to the base lodge. After a painful 2,000 vertical feet down, I wanted to call my surgeon to talk about a double knee replacement.)
But there are plenty of gentle hikes in the Adirondack kingdom. Lately I’ve been sneaking over there on a weekend day — leaving behind the rich cultural events of the Vermont autumn — to spend hours rambling through the woods.
The geographical chasm between the Greens and the Adirondacks is literally bridged by the magnificent new span that leaps over to Crown Point. It boings above Lake Champlain in several sections, with a Champ of a middle section arching over the lake near the sites of some of the most dramatic fighting of the Revolutionary War.
Once you’re in New York, the look and feel immediately change.
Narrow strips of farmland, tucked up tight against the rapidly rising face of the mountains, are noticeably less fertile.
The towns strung along Route 9N look tired and played out, like the farmland itself. The sour-mash toilet tang of the International Paper plant hangs in the air.
On the way to the pretty stuff, though, there are a few highlights. Norm’s Bait and Tackle, for instance, provides everything you’d ever want in the way of fish killing implements.
I once bought my Uncle Norm a Norm’s gimme cap there, though I doubt my uncle wears it to Friday evening services at the synagogue.
A little farther south, there is the memorably named Street Road, crossing 9N north of Ticonderoga.
As for Ticonderoga itself, the biggest thing is the Walmart. I stopped there on Saturday to pick up provisions for lunch, perhaps only the second time I’d ever been within the walls of America’s biggest retail employer.
Like the land around them, the people in Walmart look worn down by poverty and ill health. But it must be said that the store shelves still gleam with all the abundance of an American supermarket. So at least none of us shoppers were likely to starve.
I loaded up with canned sardines, crackers and pepperoni — not because I often eat that kind of food, but because it’s what my dad always took with us on our weekend hikes.
Every hike I take these days, in fact, is a kind of gentle homage to my father. He’s the one who got me out from under my mother’s skirts, who showed me the riveting satisfactions of paddling a river and walking in the cold, the views and adventures and peace of mind to be found Out There.
In some quiet way he’s with me on all these hikes. I find myself musing about the same gentle ironies of life that he found so interesting. Delighting — the same way he did — in the angle of the light and the turning of the seasons.
Dad would have my brother and me out the door by 7 a.m. for a day of hiking. But my tastes these days run to easier starts.
Again on Saturday, I didn’t make it too far east of Ticonderoga before I realized that I was burning precious daylight and needed to get out of the car.
It was 11 a.m. by the time I was parked and ready to embark on a hike to Crane Pond, in the mysteriously named Pharaoh Lake Wilderness. (The Adirondacks had pharaohs? Was the place named by some unknown offshoot of Mormonism?)
The dirt road to Crane Pond was blocked with boulders by the state in the 1980s to keep the pond more remote. But those boulders were mysteriously moved, and eventually the state gave up and left the road open.
As I’m lacing up my boots, an SUV with two young guys in camo gear pulls up. “Any luck?” one of them asks me?
“Luck?” I naively ask him.
“Yeah, with finding any deer.”
He has obviously mistaken me for a hunter. Like any good liberal hypocrite, I’m happy to eat deer meat from Ledge End Farm — but I’m no more likely to put an arrow through a deer than I am to take a hatchet to my cat.
As a couple more SUV’s zoom by and head up the road to the pond, I realize I’m in the wrong place on this busy holiday weekend. Consulting the map again, I decide to head over to a trail near Schroon Lake.
I meet more people than I’d anticipated on the hike to Spectacle Pond — young families with a couple kids looking in the stream for salamanders to kill, an earnest middle-aged runner, even a trout fisherman portaging a canoe into the pond, to catch what he claims are 16-inch brookies hiding in there.
But when I reach Spectacle Pond itself, I have the place to myself. I lean against a birch to partake of sardines, crackers, pepperoni and a Belle du Boskoop apple. Overhead, witch hobble and maples wave in blazing colors.
A kingfisher lands on the shore nearby. Even he seems impressed by the beauty around him.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email him at [email protected]; Twitter: @GreenGregDennis.

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