Coot Hill

The hike up this airy perch in the Champlain Valley may be short, but the place is long in history.

By David Thomas-Train

Coot Hill rewards hikers with a bird’s-eye view of Champlain Valley. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Horse and buggy plunge off cliff! Husband shoots wife and self! Couple tumbles over precipice, stung by passion! Lurid is the lore of Coot Hill, and all these troubling exploits were told to me before I first hiked there a few years ago; the place has a captivating human backstory and is a natural history hot spot too. It’s also an intriguing and easy hike to a knockout of a view.

Coot Hill is a lower summit of Bulwagga Mountain, the long uplifted plateau overlooking Lake Champlain’s bay of the same name just south of Port Henry. The summit lookout perches a thousand feet above the valley, commanding a vista up and down the lake and over to the Green Mountains. An Irish settler named the hill for one he’d known back home, and Bulwagga evidently was the name of a Native American who drowned in the bay. Between the two is Big Hollow, an abrupt ravine several hundred feet deep, whose name most locals use for this neck of the woods. It’s here the nosedives occurred.

The footpath, marked and opened in 2013 by Champlain Area Trails (CATS), follows the eastern reaches of quiet Lang Road and is made possible by a hiking easement from the landowner. One can drive to within a half-mile of the lookout, but I like to park just past the last house, for a longer hike and better feel for the area. This is where the winter plowing ends along the seasonal road, which mixes mellow and steep stretches for skiers and snowshoers. Starting here triples the distance.

I set off downhill from the car. A wetland chorus of peepers and tree frogs fills the foggy air. There are side paths and traces of old roads, but I stick to the main drag, as this is private land, mostly posted. The roadway is gravel, and it shows signs of recent upkeep; town maintenance ends a mile in at Lang Cemetery. Both road and graveyard are named for an old local family.

This area was settled in the early 1800s by Vermont hunters who chose to remain on this side of the lake. A community grew up here around iron mining, and at its height in the latter part of that century, there were three schools and some eighty homes. Now there might be ten houses. As iron mining shifted to the upper Midwest and the ore-hauling road washed out, people moved away. A few hunting camps and lots of cellar holes still dot the neighborhood.

The route runs down, then up. Grove Brook bisects the roadway at a low point as it washes east to Lake Champlain. This is where the ore was carted down a track to valley transport, but when that route got wiped out in a flash flood in 1904, the population dwindled, and the land began to revert to forest. Tall pines and hardwoods mix with brushy clearings; flycatchers and juncos flit between the two.

The road now cants straight up to the old graveyard, which is no more than seventy feet square. Flags and medallions honor the graves of veterans, one from the Revolutionary War. A Lang or two lie under the lumpy turf, but I’m most taken with the cracked headstone of “Leafy Winters, Wife of Ashley Woods”—such tender sylvan names in this shady and secluded corner of a long-gone community, buried with their little Minerva, named after the Roman goddess of wisdom! I linger and muse on the people and past lives here.

But the pastoral mood fades quickly. Road maintenance stops at the cemetery, but not vehicle traffic. The way becomes a broad mud wallow in three spots, and I carefully skirt the ATV-dredged mire. The Coot Hill lookout is a popular destination, and not just for hikers. The scarred trail ascends steeply over washed-out rocky spines. The footing is a bit dicey, though much more so for anything on wheels. Yet on eight visits, I’ve seen no drivers.

The destruction passes. As I near the ridge, the land smooths and begins to open up. To my right is sky and a more distant hilltop across a dark gulf. Blueberry bushes, juniper, and sweet fern cover the ground between. I’m walking along the brink of Big Hollow, the gaping ravine that splits Coot Hill from Bulwagga Mountain. I emerge at the summit to an outstanding, almost-360-degree view.

The Champlain Valley is carpeted out before me. Farms and fields dominate both sides of the lake and are walled in by mountains, the Greens to the east and our home range behind me. Cattle and hay bales are front and center, and traffic shuttles to and from the Crown Point Bridge. This is a bird’s-eye perch at the eastern brink of the Adirondack dome.

It’s here that hard Adirondack gneiss meets softer limestone and sandstone deposits. This was the edge of at least two much larger ancient water bodies. Lake Vermont was a shallow, muddy meltwater sea trapped by the glaciers. After the ice retreated, but before the land had rebounded from the gargantuan weight, salt water from the St. Lawrence Valley rushed south, and the Champlain Sea filled the basin. Today the main lakeshore is far lower and a mile to the east of where it lapped at these hills.

An eagle wings it, sailing off to the southeast over the next ridge. Then to the north, a red-tail hawk flaps free of the trees. Out in front, a kestrel rockets down toward the pastures. Coot Hill is a kingdom of raptors. Birds of prey work the rising warm air off these ridges to gain height and save energy as they migrate. In fall, the birds are more concentrated as they head southward, but on a late April hawk watch led by CATS, I saw plenty heading north. Birders have been coming here for years.

The view looking east towards Snake Mountain in Vermont.

So have many others. In February of 1756, as the British and French skirmished for control of the Champlain Valley during the buildup to the French and Indian War, Major Robert Rogers, commander of a special operations company, the guerrilla-like Rogers’ Rangers, used the mountain as a lookout for spying on the French Fort St. Frederic on Crown Point. He named his perch Ogden Mount, after one of his officers, and then went down to burn French farms near the fort.

Over a hundred years later, as the iron mining fizzled, a local attraction called Grandview at Cold Spring Park was established just across the Hollow on Bulwagga Mountain. Starting in the 1870s, here were a pavilion and dance hall, a refreshment stand and a mineral spring, a viewing platform and telescope, history talks and fireworks, church meetings and parties. Season tickets cost fifty cents. A stagecoach brought visitors up from the valley; there was a vacation feel to the place, but all did not turn out to be fun and games. The owner, into a hot and perhaps psychotic argument, shot his young second wife and himself. The children were spared.

So the place lost its appeal, and the crowds dwindled. By the 1920s, Cold Spring Park had outlived itself and was shuttered, and today almost no traces remain. Curious or reminiscent visitors kept trickling in to pick blueberries or search for ruins. Another disaster went down as a luckless horse, hitched to an empty buggy, got stung by bees and in panic crashed off the cliff.

Conservation easements are legal agreements to protect private land and specify uses for it. Bulwagga Mountain and Big Hollow are owned by Lyme Timber and safeguarded by an easement for sustainable timber harvesting, but hikers are not allowed in. Coot Hill’s owner, a descendant of the early settlers, prohibits logging but does allow ramblers. (CATS holds a public easement.)

Teetering on the edge, I spy off to my right the Dix Range and a snippet of the Great Range. I can’t get too taken with my hometown peaks or I’ll lose my footing here on the brink. It’s hundreds of feet to the talus field below, though trees here and there along the cliff might break a fall.

One dark and steamy evening here in the 1990s, just that happened, as an amorous couple was distractedly engaged in their vehicle when its emergency brake disengaged, and over the lip they plunged. Luckily, the trees did halt their tumble, but unluckily, it was right atop a bees’ nest. The tormented pair extricated and hoofed it in the raw to the nearest house for help. They also had to remove their truck from the precipice.

Yellow jackets scramble from a nearby ground nest, reminding me of the lovers’ torment; I back away from the brink. Then over the chasm, a raven loops acrobatics, and a sharp-shinned hawk zooms down the edge of the valley. The thermal updrafts alongside the ravine and the eastern escarpment help keep them aloft. So, why these uniquely sharp drops in the land? There are few canyons in the Adirondacks as abrupt as this one, and no others so close to Lake Champlain. It’s half a mile long, a quarter-mile wide, and three hundred feet deep.

Our bedrock—called Adirondack basement rock—is old, very hard, and doesn’t weather easily. It ends here at the rim of the Champlain Valley where softer, erosion-prone rock takes over. The hard-rock hills remain, while the limestone and sandstone plains wash away, creating the mountain-valley border. But what cut Big Hollow, this gaping canyon well up the hard mountainside?

The place has not been much studied. Geologists tell me it’s likely a “U-shaped  hanging valley” sculpted by a huge  weight of glacial ice. It’s “hanging” because it extends only partway down the mountain; the tongue of ice from the main glacier wasn’t long enough to reach the base of the mountain. Jagged talus piles at the bottom attest to this scenario. The ravine might also be carved by the outwash of an ancient lake trapped farther up in the melting glacier. Rounded boulders and gravels down below would support this idea. Further research beckons.

I’m itching to head down the side of the cliff to check out the gorge, but the sheer drop-off and the fact that access is illegal deter me. An alarmed peregrine falcon shrieks, kak, kak, kak, and wings it over the abyss, reminding me whose property Big Hollow really is. I turn for home.

Map by nancybernsteinillustration.com

This sheer mountain-basin rim makes a gorgeous place within a largely protected landscape. The transition from extractive industry to conservation, education, and recreation continues at Bulwagga Mountain and Coot Hill. Many have visited, and their tales have been all of upbeat, slapstick, and tragic. If you come, mind your p’s and q’s, be heedful of the birds and the bees, ogle the view, and take care of the place. It can be perilous around here.  

DIRECTIONS: From the center of Port Henry, drive south on South Main Street for a mile. Turn right on Edgemont Road and follow it for 1.5 miles. Drive left on Harry Allen Road for 0.8 miles to County 7/South Moriah Road. Turn left and go 0.8 miles to Lang Road, a small dirt lane. Turn left and go 0.6 miles to park on the right shoulder after the last house. You also can continue another mile to the Lang Cemetery and park on the right. Two-wheel drive is adequate for this slow approach. In winter, park at the end of plowing and proceed on skis (intermediate skills needed) or snowshoes

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