Autumn Atop Ampersand

Nikki & Joe Gerard on the summit

Ampersand Mountain (3352 ft)

Difficulty: Gradual for the 1st half, Steep for the 2nd
Date of Summit: 9/27/08
Trail head to Summit: 2.7 miles
Trip Time: 3 hrs
Ascent: 1775 ft
Temperature: high 50's

I've finally discovered the perfect hike for out of town guests. Ampersand Mountain. Not too short, not too long, and about as close to Potsdam as one can get if you're shooting for a higher peak to climb with a 360 degree view. Emily's childhood friends, Nikki and Joe Gerard, were visiting this past weekend from Duluth, MN. Since Emily's art show is only a few days away, I had the honor of being the Gerard's "Official Adirondack Mountain Guide" for the day. I knew that they were up for nearly anything, as they both had climbed more than their fair share of peaks out west (Joe is an official "Fourteener", which means that he climbed every peak above 14,000 ft in Colorado!).

The Final Push

Although the forecast said rain, rain, and more rain, we decided to laugh in's face and start driving down to the trail head anyway. Situated just 12 miles after Tupper Lake on Rt. 3, I was looking for the trail sign and packed parking lot I had always noted while driving to Saranac Lake (which is roughly 8 miles further). Unfortunately, due to the sign being completely gone (it looked like someone actually had taken it off the post...), it took us a few extra minutes and drive-by's to find it. Once we finally found the trail head, we parked in the lot with two other cars, and we were on our way! The best part? Once we stepped out of the car, the rain completely stopped.

Atop Ampersand

For late-September in the park, the weather was quite unique. Due to the cloudy day, there was no sun, the air was cool, and just a bit of humidity lingered from the recent rain. Aside from the presence of water - both in the air and in puddles on the trail, it was perfect hiking weather. We made fairly good time, as the first half of the hike was very easy - a well-manicured, rolling trail - nearly the antithesis of typical Adirondack trail conditions. This was of course because Ampersand was saving the best for last. The last mile of the trail was as steep as anything (well, almost anything) in the Adirondacks. My new hiking companions showed no sign of stopping though, as we pushed steadily upward.

The Cloud Shroud

We reached the summit in very good time - about an hour and a half after we left the car. Due to the cloudy day, we were warned by every hiker who passed us that there was nothing to see but clouds from the summit. When we reached the top, we found ourselves immersed in a giant fog, enshrouding us from all sides and restricting our otherwise 360 degree view of the high peaks. As we began to drop our gear and set-up for a typical "trail lunch" of summer sausage, cheese, and Triscuits, something happened. The air became cooler. The humidity dropped. The clouds had parted! The veil on mountain lifted to reveal a beautiful quilt of early fall colors in the valley below! Although we could not see any of the high peaks in the distance, we were able to get short glimpses of the Saranac Lakes spreading out from the base of the mountain. We had the summit to ourselves that day, only sharing it with the remnants of a fire tower, the plaque remembering Walter Rice - the Hermit of Ampersand, and a vicious looking little spider that seemed interested in our presence atop its rock house. After our well-deserved lunch, we departed for our brisk walk down the mountain. In less than an hour, we were back at our car. It's such a great feeling to discover yet another wonderful peak to climb in the park - and there's no better way to do that than with friends!

Could there be a connection here?

Camping at Cranberry Lake

View from atop Bear Mountain, Overlooking Cranberry Lake

Camping at Cranberry Lake & Climbing Bear Mountain

Difficulty: Easy in camp, but a bit harder hiking the mountain
Date of Trip & Summit: 9/13 - 9/14, 2008
Trailhead to Summit: 1.2 miles
Trip Time: 3 hrs
Ascent: 742 ft
Temperature: Warmer than one would think in mid-September...

The Beck Bivouac next to the Heintzelman Hotel

I can't tell you how nice it is to get away from technology. No computer monitors, keyboards, email, or cell phones. The lack of technology, combined with the beauty of the outdoors and an excuse not to shower, represents a slice of my own personal heaven. Don't get me wrong - I love the email. I love the HDTV. I love the video games. But none of these wonders of the modern world can render the sound of a lapping lake, a hot fire, the taste of marshmallows, or an extremely small tent that causes you to become a claustrophobic insomniac. Ahhh, the joy and wonder of the great outdoors!

Little Martin Heintzelman, Contemplating Life's Great Mysteries...

In all seriousness, Emily and I were extremely fortunate to be invited by the Heintzelman family on their annual fall camping trip to Cranberry Lake. Cranberry Lake campground is located just inside the Adirondack Park, roughly 45 minutes south of Potsdam. It's run by the DEC as a state campground, only one of a few campgrounds like it in the park. Martin Heintzelman had reserved this special campsite (right on the lake, with our own personal beach!) over 9 months ago. The Heintzelman parents, Martin and Louise, brought along their two sons, Martin and Eric. While little Martin has a bit of experience camping and hiking in the great outdoors, this was baby Eric's first overnight outing in the wild!

Baby Eric and his dirty knees!

After arriving at the campsite and setting up our tents (as you can see in the above picture, they were just a teensy bit different in their overall cubic space...), we all decided to take advantage of a lazy, Saturday afternoon. The Martins decided to take the kayak out for a spin around one of the islands on Cranberry Lake. While they were gone, baby Eric got an extra amount of attention from his mom, Emily, and even (surprisingly) me. It wasn't long before he was splashing in the water for his afternoon lake bath. After the Martins arrived back from their boating trip, it was time to head off to the mighty Bear Mountain, our mini-peak to climb for the afternoon.

Coming back from a kayak trip on Cranberry Lake

With little Martin as our guide, we slowly made our way down the trail. All seemed fine, until about 2/3rds the way through the trip - we came to quite a steep pitch in the trail, which appeared to persist until the end of the trail at the top of the mountain. Although it was a struggle for some of us, we all finally made it to the top in one piece, with dad and his "baby backpack" leading the way in the final push.

Heintzelman Family Photo - Before the Big Hike

There was a wonderful view from atop Bear Mountain, as we could see the Adirondack High Peaks in the distance, as well as the expanse of Cranberry Lake, which surprised us with its extensive reach around the many different corners of the park's surrounding topography. After a short rest and photo-op at the top, we quickly made our way back down the mountain, enjoying the views peeking through the trees intermittently throughout our descent.

Emily and me, resting atop Bear Mountain

After a long day of hard work and exercise, it was time for a well-deserved and hearty meal. Thanks to Louise, we had a welcomed surplus of hot chili and cornbread to replenish our energy. The men, having such manly appetites, took advantage of the campfire by cooking some brats and hot dogs as well. Of course, no camping experience is complete without some marshmallows! I actually had the pleasure of being attacked by little Martin and his sticky marshmallow fingers, which made for a good excuse to finally wash some of my clothes!

The Heintzelman Family, saying "Cheeseburger!"

Before bedtime, there were two more activities in which we needed to participate. Little Martin had brought two camping essentials with him on this trip: a deck of (Uno) cards and a book (of Scary Stories). We had a few rousing games of Uno, complete with squeals, screams, and bouts of laughter, all of which successfully (but unfortunately) woke baby Eric, who was sleeping in the tent. After the Uno games, it was time for some scary stories out of Martin's book! We heard "In a Dark, Dark Room" and "The Teeth", both of which we certifiably scary and worthy of being nightmare-inducing for all who were present for the storytime :)

Father and son, taking a load off

Of course, every perfect trip needs to have a rusty lining. That rusty lining came at around midnight, as the rain began to pour down hard, and continued throughout the entire night and into the morning. The rain, combined with the hard ground and the cramped space, did not make for a sound night's sleep for Emily or me. The idea of fitting two people into my tent is practical, but definitely not comfortable. My tent is meant for backpackers, who need the lightest and smallest possible shelter to carry - they are not concerned with space or comfort, because frankly, after a long day of hiking it's easy to fall asleep in a small space. This trip definitely taught me a lesson - if I'm lucky enough to have my wife agree to accompany me on a camping trip (and if you know Emily, that is quite a favor to me...), I should treat her like a queen, pampering her with a spacious abode, much like that of Martin Heintzelman's (for the record, they had two adults, a child, AND a baby in a crib in that freakin' thing - now THAT'S A HUGE TENT!).

Attack of the sticky marshmallow fingers

We woke up early the next morning and broke camp somewhat early as well, due to the rain that was looming in the distance. Overall, it was a wonderful trip - full of laughter, good friends, and great memories, set in a beautiful spot that is probably only one of a handful of ideal settings like it in the world! Thanks for inviting us along, Heintzelmans!