Treasures of the Champlain Valley
By Will Nixon
Walking through tall goldenrods on Trembleau Mountain, I follow Gary Randorf’s head bobbing above the plants in a baseball cap the color of a yellow highlighter that I couldn’t possibly miss. An inveterate bushwhacker, Randorf climbed three small mountains the previous day without a map and compass, simply following the angle of the sun for his directions.
At 61, he’s a spritely hiker, wearing a red shirt, black pants, and red hiking sneakers. Whenever I finally catch up, I find him always breathing easily and often smiling with playful delight behind his nearly rimless glasses. Although he hasn’t walked up the gentle back of Trembleau Mountain for the view of Lake Champlain in a decade, he plunges through the woods and the bushy clearings as if crossing his own backyard.
I swing my legs over a birch tree that has fallen across our path like a toll gate, then duck under the low archway of a bent oak tree. The 1998 ice storm ravaged this forest, stripping branches until many trees now stood like crude spikes with few bundles of leaves. Walking on the forest floor, we step on so many fallen branches that we sound as if we’re breaking firewood. “What a mess,” Randorf says. “These woods don’t look anything like what I hiked through last time.” The leafy canopy has been replaced by the tree spikes and blue sky. But even before the storm, this hillside wasn’t virgin land. The mossy stumps scattered around the sunny forest floor suggest that the area has been well logged.
Like most of the long green hills in the Champlain Valley, Trembleau Mountain remains privately owned. But Randorf has hiked many of them, either by befriending the owners or after leaving a message visible in the windshield of his car parked at the base of climb, explaining that he has gone to see the view. Unlike many people who think of the Adirondacks as the High Peaks, Randorf also loves the pastoral landscape of this valley, which he dubs the Adirondack Coast. He lives in a restored farmhouse overlooking a long slope of hay with two more hills like a saddle in the distance, North and South Boquet Mountains, which he has bushwhacked but doesn’t recommend for their lack of views.
After retiring as the first executive director of the Adirondack Council in Elizabethtown, Randorf now works part time for the group and spends his free days hiking, biking and exploring, and always taking photographs. He hunts for beautiful scenes the way others might search for gold.
After following an old logging road, Randorf leads us onto the grassy summit of Trembleau Mountain, which offers a view in all directions above the lower crown of gnarled oaks and white pines. To the west, the shark-tooth summit of Whiteface Mountain dominates the range of Adirondack peaks. To the east, Mt. Mansfield crests from the broad ridge of the Green Mountains in Vermont. To the north, we spot Valcour Island in Lake Champlain, which lies as flat as the blue sky, ruffled by wind in only a few places.
“God, the lake is calm,” says Randorf, who takes a small herd path through the oaks to a rocky outcropping with an even better view of the lake, spread before us like a compact sea. We overlook Schuyler Island, an old cow pasture grown wild with meadows and trees, and look south over Willsboro Bay to the narrow waist of Lake Champlain by Split Rock Mountain, where the water shines white with sunlight. “I don’t remember this view being quite so fabulous,” says Randorf, who snaps some pictures, even though the sun may be too bright in his camera.
My companion bends down and retrieves something from the dry grass. “Just so we don’t feel too lonely,” he says, holding up a flattened Bud Light can. From the herd path, we can see that we’re hardly the first people to enjoy this private mountain. But two decades ago, Randorf and a county tax assessor envisioned something much bolder than local herd paths on the Champlain Valley hills. Relying on his knowledge of property lines, the assessor mapped out a hiking trail that would run from Trembleau Mountain just south of Port Kent across the ridges and farm fields of the Champlain Valley, for some 50 miles past Ticonderoga to Cook Mountain at the north end of Lake George. Alas, Randorf has lost the maps, but he believes the time has come to revive this idea.
In the 1990s, local tourism promoters have established bicycling routes through the Valley, which offers miles of easy country roads with little traffic. “We have the best bicycling in the Adirondack Park,” says Randorf, who has occasionally ridden to a trailhead and hiked from there. The Essex County tourism agency has found that visiting cyclists spend $85 a day, adding a new source of revenue to the local economy. If bicycling can catch on, Randorf wonders, why not hiking?
For years, people didn’t think of hiking in the Champlain Valley because they could find few, if any, public trails. In 1994, the state established a major beachhead on Lake Champlain by buying 1,800 acres of Split Rock Mountain, complementing an earlier acquisition of 1,200 acres. Over four miles long, this sawtooth mountain ridge remains the largest tract of undeveloped wild land on Lake Champlain, dominating the shore with dramatic cliffs and steep hillsides that plunge into several secluded bays. Since then, the state has not cleared new hiking trails through the property because such trails are part of a broader management plan that has gotten caught up in politics, says Jim Papero of the Department of Environmental Conservation office in Ray Brook.
Before leaving the rocky shoulder of Trembleau Mountain, Randorf imagines where the trail might head from here, crossing a small gap to this mountain’s twin summit, then proceeding down a gradual ridge towards the round bay below us, where future hikers might enjoy an afternoon swim at the Port Douglas beach.
On Bigelow Mountain south of Keeseville, we find rock cairns and pink ribbons tied onto bushes to mark an established footpath across the rocky shoulder. A higher ridge blocks our view of Lake Champlain, but we find a sweeping view of the High Peaks and closer hills like Poke-O-Moonshine. Augur Lake lies just below us in a lumpy bowl of small hills. The double ribbons of the Northway (I-87) also stretch right below the mountain, filling the air with the hum of highway traffic. But Randorf backs up far enough on the rocky slabs to eliminate the highway from his viewfinder, which is focused on Whiteface mountain. “We’ll fake them out,” he promises. “This scene looks like we’re one hundred miles deep in the wilderness. This little mountain has more to offer than I expected.”
After bushwhacking down Bigelow, we knock on the back door of Marilyn Kearney’s house on Route 9. In 1961, her family purchased an old farm, then added the mountain in 1969.
“We bought the mountain just in time. A developer was interested in it,” says Kearney, a vibrant woman with white hair cut boyishly short. She must hobble about on crutches after breaking her foot while gardening, but she graciously serves us ice tea on her sun porch. For 30 years, her family has enjoyed Bigelow Mountain as a natural refuge, although they’ve seen trees and brush grow to hide many of the rocks. “I’ve got the blueberry picking record,” she says. “I’ve been up there, picked a quart, and come down in an hour.” In her will, she has left the mountain to her grandchildren. Her first husband’s ashes lie buried by a huge white pine at the base of the mountain and hers will be, too.
“All kinds of people have hiked this mountain with our permission,” Kearney adds. The North Country Camp on Augur Lake has even cleared her trails of the trees and branches that fell in last year’s ice storm because their campers hike to the outlook so often. “I think your trail idea is wonderful,” she tells Randorf, but we learn that the idea isn’t entirely new to her. Years ago, her first husband worked in a county office with the same tax assessor who plotted the path on Randorf’s lost maps.
In fact, I later learn that a good handful of people have conceived of their own versions of a Champlain Valley trail. In a proposal for the Adirondack Mountain Club, Tony Goodwin once plotted a more rugged route from Tongue Mountain on Lake George through the Pharoah Lake Wilderness and other state lands to Bluff Mountain about seven miles southwest of Poke-O-Moonshine. Although farther inland than Randorf’s route, this path has the advantage of following land that the state already owns, eliminating the need to negotiate public access with private landowners like Kearney.
The Essex County planner, Bill Johnston, would like to see hikers not only climbing the hills but strolling through farm fields from village to village, where they would dine in country inns and sleep at bed-and-breakfasts. “What makes the Champlain Valley different from the High Peaks is our pastoral landscape,” he says, “and our picturesque villages set about 10 miles apart.” Since the early 1990s, he adds, local officials have participated in an exchange program with their counterparts from the English countryside, where the public has enjoyed the right to walk across private pastures for about a thousand years. We don’t share this tradition, of course, so farmers in the Champlain Valley must be persuaded to allow strangers to walk through their fields. But given an incentive, Johnston believes that many farmers would agree to such a plan. “As long as you respect people’s rights,” he says, “you can usually work things out.”
But a bitter landowner can present a major obstacle for a proposed trail. The bicycle routes through the Champlain Valley have succeeded by sticking to public roads, says Virginia Westbrook of the Champlain Valley Heritage Network. Although the bike planners have considered expanding the routes onto old railbeds, they’ve been wary of encountering unsympathetic landowners. “Some landowners say they don’t want Yuppies in their backyards,” she says. In Port Henry, one unfriendly owner has prevented the town from opening a footpath that would link campgrounds on the lake shore with a museum on the town bluff, a potential boost for tourism. “Owners like that are more common than you would like to think,” she says.
“They can plan all they want, but they don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of putting that trail across private property,” says Dale French, the town supervisor in Crown Point. He, himself, has refused to grant an easement on his land for a trail that the Adirondack Mountain Club and National Park Service have proposed that would connect Crown Point to the higher Adirondacks, as just one link in a grand trail across much of the United States.
Yet Westbrook believes that the region should seriously consider a trail. “In the Champlain Valley, tourism is our last best hope,” she says. For this idea to succeed, someone would need to work on it full time. And they would need to find support among the local communities.
“It will take a long time,” Randorf says. “We will have to find people willing to sell land or easements.” And he knows that the planners will face tough going in the property-rights strongholds of Ticonderoga, Crown Point and Moriah.
As we finish our ice tea, I conclude that the proposed trail will have at least one booster in Marilyn Kearney, but someone must engage in the slow but crucial process of meeting with every owner along any proposed route. Randorf brings our visit to a close. He must meet a friend to hike up Rattlesnake Mountain to share a bottle of champagne and watch the full moon rise over Lake Champlain.
On another sunny afternoon, Randorf leads me up Rattlesnake Mountain on an old woods road that turns into a footpath skirting a cliff and finally reaches the broad summit slabs, where we sit in the humid summer air scented by blueberry bushes. “I didn’t find out about this trail until last summer, after living nearby for 18 years,” Randorf admits. Although the trailhead on Route 22 remains an unmarked gap in the trees, the owners of Rattlesnake Mountain have granted general permission for those people who find the trail to hike it.
From this summit, we enjoy our best view yet of Lake Champlain, which truly seems an inland sea with tiny sailboats like white commas on the water and the Four Brothers Islands poking up from the lake like brown fingertips. In many regions of New York State, I suspect, this summit would be crowded with day hikers, but in the shadow of the renowned High Peaks, this treasure in the Champlain Valley remains little known. Randorf leads me into a tangled group of oak saplings, where we find a trail canister. In the curled notebook, I count 11 parties signed in between January and July, an absurdly small number.
Randorf suddenly calls me away from the saplings. “I think I’ve got a peregrine falcon,” he says, tracking an approaching bird in his binoculars. I rush over to his open view and train my own binoculars on this rare raptor flying on the air currents along the ridge. Its gray wings seem almost as sharp as carving knives, a characteristic that helps make peregrine falcons the fastest birds on earth. As it rushes by, I spot the black pencil sideburn on its face like the mark of warrior.
The moment seems like a gift from the Champlain Valley — which may some day, if Randorf and others fulfill their dream, provide us with a countryside walking trail unequaled in this part of the world.