By Stephen Williams
The Capital Region forecasters were predicting a high of thirty-five degrees, meaning this day would rival the warmest in six weeks. So my son Nicholas and I debate: ski pants or blue jeans for our snowshoe trip? Nick, a college student who spends most of the winter in Potsdam—where it can be fifty degrees colder than this—quickly settled on blue jeans. I came around too, though not until walking around the house in ski pants for so long that I scared the cat.
I later was informed, by the Explorer editor, that blue jeans are not appropriate attire for a winter hike. Like other cotton clothing, blue jeans will not insulate if they get wet.
Now I know. In our case, though, we never felt in danger. Our destination was Jockeybush Lake, which lies just a mile or so from the road. It’s a nice little hike for people learning the fundamentals of winter travel in the woods.
As we drove from our home in Saratoga County to Hamilton County, the temperature dropped and the wind rose. By the time we reached the trailhead on Route 10 in Arietta, there was enough snow in the air and biting wind to make it obvious we weren’t in the Capital Region anymore.
Joining Nick and I were my friend Dan, his twelve-year-old son, Miles, and Patrick, a photographer using snowshoes for the first time. Also Jorja, Dan and Miles’s four-year-old pooch, whose breed history involved exotic mystery.
At the trailhead, opposite Lake Alma, we strapped on our snowshoes and then headed up a well-marked path that ascended a short ridge. The snow was falling lightly—fat flakes of it—and it was charming once we got out of the wind. Although we soon crossed a snowmobile trail, we neither saw nor heard one of the machines all day.
Miles bolted into the lead and quickly disappeared from my sight, while Jorja romped back and forth between Dan and Miles, scattering snow with each bound. Fortunately, others had broken trail, for stepping off the packed surface meant sinking in even with snowshoes.
Nick, on aluminum-frame snowshoes Santa brought him a few years back, followed Miles and Dan. Then came Patrick, who was snapping photos of the snow-covered woods.
I found myself trailing everyone else. Trailing rather badly, in fact, as time went on.
Everyone else had a significant age advantage, I’ll concede, but I was also the only one using traditional wooden beaver-tail snowshoes, a pair of Tubbs that I also got from Santa. (Should I mention that my wife owns a sweatshirt that says, “Be Nice to Me. I Know Santa”?) Mine lacked the crampons found on most new snowshoes. Since most of the trek to Jockeybush Lake is flat, I didn’t think it would be much of an issue. But the trail wasn’t as flat as I remembered, and I slipped backward a few times and had to stop a couple of times to adjust my bindings. Since I was trailing, at least there wasn’t an audience.
According to the trailhead sign, Jockeybush Lake is 1.1 miles from the road, which seems accurate. After the short climb, the path stays on the ridge for a while before dropping to cross a stream. The trail turns right and runs parallel to the brook for the next half-mile, climbing a bit as the forest shifts from conifer to a mix of hardwoods. Just before the lake, the trail veers up a slope to the left, away from the stream. The hike entails a gain of 240 feet in elevation.
Patrick and I needed fifty minutes to reach the lake. Miles, Dan, and Nick got there a few minutes earlier and had already ventured out onto the snow-covered ice.
I asked Dan how he’d been able to keep up with his son, a seventh-grader. I hadn’t seen them in a half-hour.
“I could see his yellow coat once in a while,” Dan said.
“It’s green,” Miles interjected.
On the color question, I had to side with Miles.
The wind was blowing pretty hard on the lake. Nevertheless, we wanted to keep going. Walking on water is one of the joys of Adirondack snowshoeing.
Jockeybush Lake is long and narrow: it stretches three-quarters of a mile, east to west. Plenty of room for wind to accelerate. On this day, snowdrifts had formed near the foot of the lake. As we headed into the wind, I was glad for every layer I had on my upper body (three). But my blue jeans still felt fine.
As we humans trudged through the snow, Jorja dashed about happily. Rescued from a shelter in Georgia, she has a backstory that’s said to include a broken leg, but her frisky demeanor showed no evidence of a lingering handicap or Southern aversion to cold. Whatever her past, somewhere along the way she became quite adept at begging for chocoloate-covered pretzels and morsels of sandwiches.
In other seasons, fishermen sometimes haul a canoe to Jockeybush Lake to fish for the brook trout stocked by the state. (Unfortunately, acid rain has hurt the fish population.) It’s also an easy summer hike for families. In winter, the lake is seldom visited, though on this day we did see two other snowshoers.
Jockeybush Lake sits on the eastern edge of the 147,000-acre Ferris Lake Wild Forest, and on other side of Route 10 is 107,000-acre Silver Lake Wilderness. While the southern Adirondacks may not boast big mountains, the region offers vast stretches of unbroken wild country. With the exceptions of two state highways the Forest Preserve stretches uninterrupted for better than forty miles.
Deer congregate near Jockeybush Lake in winter, though I saw only one set of tracks. I’d encouraged our party to keep an eye peeled for moose, too—this is now well-established moose country—but none of those great mammals appeared either.
We all wondered how Jockeybush Lake got its name, which dates back at least as far as 1874. After our outing, we contacted Hamilton County Historian Bill Zullo, who has researched local names. “It’s intriguing, but I don’t know,” he said. Nor did others we contacted.
After our standing-in-a-circle-on-the-ice lunch, we headed back out into the wind, which was swirling up snow devils. At least it was at our backs on the return crossing. Once in the woods, we were sheltered again. The hike out was mostly downhill, but again I was left in the powder by the rest of the crew.
“Maybe you could put some nails in the bottoms of your snowshoes,” Dan suggested afterward.
A few weeks earlier I had used Nick’s snowshoes to climb Thomas Mountain, near Lake George. They worked fine on what was an actual climb. Next time, instead of hammering some nails, I think I’ll borrow them again.
The Jockeybush Lake trip got a thumbs-up from everyone. A round trip that takes as little as two hours, this is a nice outing for beginners, for families, and even for people without crampons. ?
GETTING THERE: The Jockeybush Lake Trailhead is opposite Lake Alma, about 15 miles north of Caroga Lake, or 10 miles north of the Route 10/Route 29A intersection in Stratford. From the other direction, it’s about eight miles south of Route 10’s intersection with Route 8 in Piseco.