On the up and up
By Winnie Yu
To describe my family as hikers might be a bit of a stretch. True, we’ve hiked in the arid deserts of Arizona and trekked along the rim of the Grand Canyon. But most of our big hikes have been inside National Parks, along well-groomed trails where the elevation change is minimal.
Hiking in the Adirondacks was a new adventure, one that I anticipated with some concern for my daughters, Samantha, 10, and Annie, 8. Though they have always liked the outdoors, if they had their choice, they’d probably prefer exploring the American Girl store in the man-made canyons of Manhattan to rambling the forests of the Adirondack wilderness. Nonetheless, my husband, Jeff, and I decided it was time we went on our first family hike in the Adirondacks.
And so we hiked up 2,551-foot Pharaoh Mountain in late April. After a week of sunshine and warm temperatures, rain fell the night before our outing. We awoke to gray skies and damp ground. Even before we headed out, Samantha wanted to know if there were benches on this trail. My despair grew.
We met two friends, Mike and Saundra Virtanen, on Crane Pond Road. They brought along Silviano Urbano-Perez, a 14-year-old friend. In addition, we had invited Herb Terns, Jeff’s colleague and a veteran Adirondack hiker.
We drove as far as we could up the muddy, narrow road, parked near Alder Pond and walked the last half-mile to Crane Pond, where the trailhead sign informed us that we had 2.9 miles to go (and a 1,470-foot ascent) to reach the summit.
As we entered the woods, the smell of pine hovered in the air. In the early going, we dodged puddles on the fairly flat terrain. The sounds of winter wrens serenaded us, as we hiked past a toppled pine with exposed roots and ventured into an opening bordered by Crane Pond on our left and Alder Pond on our right.
Less than a mile into the hike, my daughters launched their first complaints. “I might die of thirst,” Samantha declared with a roll of her eyes. Both girls complained that their feet hurt. And here I had my first regret: We had dressed them in brand-new hiking shoes that hadn’t been broken in.
Before tending to their thirst and pain, we stopped at Glidden Marsh to gaze up at Pharaoh Mountain. The peak was draped in the early-morning fog, too high for us to see. Were we really going up there?
We paused to rest on some boulders so that Saundra, a nurse, could put Band-Aids on the backs of Samantha’s and Annie’s ankles, where blisters had started to form. Mike and Silviano climbed to the top of a boulder to watch. “Serenity up there, MASH unit down here,” Herb quipped.
As we pressed on, Jeff paused to look for a yellow-rumped warbler that he could hear singing. By now, we were about a mile and a half from the summit. Looking ahead, we saw nothing but up.
An hour or so into the hike, the girls announced that they were hungry. I was amazed that they had lasted this long. Samantha popped a couple of Tootsie Rolls, while Annie broke out a small bag of Goldfish crackers. Today it was all about energy, not nutrition. Freshly fortified by sugar and carbs, we moved on. The girls stopped to examine the exposed roots of another pine tree. “It looks like Yoda’s hut,” Annie said, referring to one of her favorite Star Wars characters.
By now, Saundra and Silviano had gone on ahead. Annie assumed the lead among the rest of us. We started shedding the layers of clothing we’d put on to shield us from the cool morning temps. The girls were tiring.
“Don’t look up,” I told them. “Just keep taking steps forward.” Like life, hiking is most enjoyable when you focus on the moment.
Despite the arduous climb, our daughters were clearly excited by this adventure. We crossed a bridge that had been fashioned out of half a log. “This is awesome,” Samantha said. “We have to cross a river.” (In reality, it was a small stream.)
At one point, I fell and landed flat on my chest. The girls grew panicky and called out to their father, who was now ahead of us. It didn’t matter that Herb was with me. They needed their father to know that their mother had fallen.
Eventually, the girls began asking the inevitable question: “When are we going to get there?”
I guessed that we had a half-mile to go.
“How many laps around the track is that?” Annie asked.
“About two,” I replied.
Finally, we heard Saundra and Silviano calling to us, announcing that they had reached the top. As soon as we joined them, we dropped our backpacks, sat down and pulled out our peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, eyeing them as if they were gourmet meals from a five-star restaurant.
We were surrounded by sky and peaks, but for the moment we were more interested in lunch.
Once our stomachs were filled, we could really enjoy the view before us. In the northwest, we could see the High Peaks. Closer to us were, Schroon Lake, Crane Pond and Treadway Mountain. We walked over to another lookout from which we could see Treadway again, Grizzle Ocean and Thunderbolt mountains, and Pharaoh Lake below us. Far to the east were the Green Mountains of Vermont. The breathtaking vistas—with few signs of civilization—more than made up for the difficulty of the hike.
Knowing that the climb took us almost four hours, the troops were ready to go back down. Saundra and Silviano darted ahead, while the rest of us slowly gathered our belongings and began the descent.
About half a mile down, I fell again, slamming my tailbone on a hard rock. The pain shot up my back and through my buttocks. I took hold of a walking stick and decided to slow my pace.
Samantha and Annie were getting tired, too, but being troupers, they forged ahead. Each girl used two walking sticks to help her navigate.
About a mile from the end, Annie’s complaints intensified. She even started to whine, which I forgave since truth was, I wanted to whine, too. My tailbone was killing me, and my knees throbbed.
“We’re almost done,” I assured her. “We’re really close now.”
But not before we enjoyed another special moment. Samantha looked down and saw a red eft on the ground. He wasn’t moving.
“Is he dead?” Samantha asked. I told her he was probably just terrified by our presence.
While crossing rocks over a creek, I spotted another eft. It took some gentle maneuvering to avoid stepping on it, but I managed.
Reaching the end was almost as satisfying as getting to the summit. Though we were never so happy to see our mud-spattered car, we also took immense gratification in knowing we’d witnessed one of the most glorious views in the Adirondacks.
In hindsight, the hike up Pharaoh is probably more than novice hikers should have attempted. But having made it, we were exhilarated, and we celebrated in town with pizza and ice cream. On the way home, the girls fell asleep in the car.
From Northway Exit 28, just north of Schroon Lake, go east on NY 74 briefly to US 9. Turn right and go 0.5 miles to Alder Meadow Road. Turn left and go 2.2 miles, where you bear left at a fork. Continue 2.4 miles to a parking area at the edge of the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness. When the road is passable, many people drive beyond the official parking area.