Climbing Algonquin Peak

This is Via Negativa’s 400th post. I think I’ll also make it my submission for Ecotone Wiki’s bi-weekly topic, Weather and Place. I feel very fortunate that the day we picked (last Thursday) to climb Algonquin – the 2nd-highest peak in the Adirondacks – featured a mix of sun and low-hanging clouds. Views are best when not everything is revealed at once.

The approach passes through alder swamp, sugar bush, hemlock stand. Here and there the rotting hulks of beeches, killed by the blight. A couple of rumbles usher in a brief rain shower. Afterwards, the scent of balsam seems even stronger than before. Sometimes you see it first, sometimes you just smell it.

*

From the base of the mountain all the way to the timberline, the one constant theme is paper birch. All else seems mere punctuation. Yet the guidebook claims this is a modern aberration, the legacy of fires that followed the clearcuts a hundred years ago. The short-lived birches rot as readily as they burn. Someday soon the conifers will reclaim all the upper slopes, and lightning won’t be able to take any more than it can touch.

*

The trail maintenance workers have placed stepping stones through a slough of mud. I hop along awkwardly in my heavy boots. My daypack flaps against my back, canteen flops against my belly. I wouldn’t remember any of this were it not for the soundtrack provided by a winter wren, its long and liquid air. I stop, taking in whole lungfuls at time.

*

Higher, climbing into the blossoming of plants in berry down below. Water trickles from the mountain’s every pore.

*

Generations of hikers’ boots have cut this mountain to the bone. We scramble up a bare granite trough through the ever-more-compressed forest of birch and balsam and spruce. The rocks are scored with shallow scratches, too brief and random for a glacier. Very large dogs with unclipped toenails, I wonder? Just then two hikers round the bend wielding alpine hiking poles – imagine ski poles without the horizontal projections for grabbing the surface of the snow. I envy their superior footing, even as I wince at the metallic racket. On either side of the trail the moss and humus lie thick as a mattress under the tangle of krummholz.

*

The trees start to shrink at a most convenient elevation. Every pause for breath takes my breath away. I peer out over the tortured crowns at the grand sweep of lakes and mountains stretching off into the haze. My hiking companion gathers spruce needles for our noontime tea. Clouds and the shadows of clouds. The shimmering lakes. The dark mountains.

*

What’s this, a black-capped chickadee singing in a foreign language? No, a separate species: the boreal chickadee. I had forgotten such a thing existed, if I had ever known. Strange to think they’ve been here all the time, with the equally unfamiliar Bicknell’s thrushes and pine martens. And how must we appear to them, popping up out of the elfin forest in our brightly-colored gear? Like chickadees everywhere they can’t resist coming in for a closer look.

*

For the last mile, a series of signs has warned sternly against the folly of proceeding any higher without the proper gear, and has exhorted us to protect the vegetation by staying on the trail. Now on the summit, we encounter an actual plant cop, on duty here all summer. “Hi, my name’s Kristen, and I’m the summit steward today!” I resist the urge to ask for fresh ground pepper in my soup. The truth is, I’m envious of her job.

*

When the clouds roll in, one thinks: this could be the coast of Labrador. Those waxy, pointy leaves wearing thick coats of down on the side away from the sun – that’s Labrador tea. Those yellow flowers like a child’s crayon sun: alpine goldenrod. We spot three-toed cinquefoil, mountain sandwort, various branched and crustose lichens. Something very small that darts behind a pebble. Two bold juncos.

*

We find a shelf of rock facing east where we can sit and watch the clouds swirl past, ogling the iconic, landslide-scarred face of Mt. Colden whenever they clear. The lunch is as luxurious as I can manage; my only regret is the absence of a white linen tablecloth. After tea – Earl Grey steeped with spruce – I sit with my back against the stone. My companion lies supine for a while, and finally says, I can feel the whole mountain underneath me.

*

I do not need to be alone in the wilderness, though I do share King Cormac’s view that one should speak quietly in it, if at all. I like watching the tiny figures of hikers moving around slowly on other, nearby summits, and imagining all the folks congregating on Mt. Marcy, still shrouded in clouds. And I’m impressed by how many people have carried stones to the summit. This smacks a bit of carrying coal to Newcastle, and I’m not entirely convinced it’s needed, but it is a neat way to get people involved in “healing the wounds.” The summit stewards are restoring the fragile vegetation one square foot at a time. Each rescued patch must be edged in stones to ward off careless boots. People who come here want to do right, most of them. The summit steward has a kind word for each hiker who eagerly tells her they’ve carried up a rock.

*

The way back down is slow, each step studied carefully in advance. The farther we descend, the more the massed mountain above us weighs down our feet and makes our legs tremble.

*

The return along the approach trail seems endless and unfamiliar. How could we have missed it on the way in, all this sameness?

*

After supper and a brief walk to the lake, I crawl into my tent and collapse. I lie sleepless on my back for hours, feeling the mountain in every bone and muscle. I don’t remember my dreams.

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