Panther Mountain

Nelle and Miles share a perch on top of Panther Mountain, but the trail snacks are another matter. Photo by Kenneth Aaron.

An epic half-mile

By Kenneth Aaron

One of the things I like most about taking a long hike are the different ecosystems you may find yourself in from start to finish. You start near a road, you go through marshland, you walk through a pine forest, and, if you go high enough, maybe you see some alpine grasses.

You wouldn’t think a short hike, such as up a tiny hill like Panther Mountain, would have that kind of variety.

So take a four-year-old girl. They bring their own variety.

On Father’s Day, I was left to fend for myself, my daughter, Nelle, and my eleven-month-old son, Miles,while my wife went off to work. Nelle had been up Owl’s Head in Keene twice under her own power, and she managed not to pitch herself off the cliffs that ring the summit either time. I’d made plenty of solo trips with her perched in a carrier lashed to my back, too. So I felt comfortable about hauling the little guys up Panther, which is widely noted as one of the more child-friendly hikes in the Adirondacks.

“Are you sure?” my wife asked.

The author poses on the summit with his budding mountaineers.

Sure, I’m sure. Well, no. Not really. But it was a beautiful day, and the alternative was sitting home trying to burn off eight hours while keeping Miles from playing with the knobs in the stereo cabinet.

So we headed to the trailhead, about 1.6 miles east of Wawbeek Corners, between Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.

Once we got to the trailhead, Nelle bounded out of the car. I strapped the perpetually calm Miles into the Kelty backpack that had ferried his sister so many times. After hoisting the contraption onto my back without assistance—always tricky to do without inverting the child—we headed across Route 3 and up the trail.

“Trail to Panther Mountain,” the sign says. Point six miles.

About point zero one mile into our hike, Miles is babbling and Nelle tells me she’s hungry about four times.

It’s early for “I’m hungry” even for Nelle, and besides she’s loaded with eggs and pancakes, which we had for breakfast about forty minutes earlier. So we forge onward with a promise of trail mix later. A little farther up the trail, I see a small brown fleck jump in front of my feet: a toad. “Look!” I tell Nelle. “See that?” She squats down and stares hard at the dirt and, after a few moments, spots the warty little thing as it looks for something to hide under.

I pull out my camera to see if I can’t get a picture with her and the toad. She grabs a stick, and I tell her to leave it be—she wouldn’t want to be poked by a toad, I say, and the toad doesn’t much want to be poked, either.

It hops off after a few minutes, and Nelle rises. “I can’t believe we saw a real live toad!” she exclaims.

Me, either. It helped us go from hunger to fascination in less than a quarter-mile. Two ecosystems.

I start up the trail, but Nelle is rooting through her pink-and-purple Dora the Explorer backpack. It doesn’t hold much, but we were able to put a few snacks in there and her pink Fisher-Price camera as well. It looks like an old-fashioned View-Master but is a real digital camera.

I thought it would be cool if she took a few pictures on the hike to illustrate this story, so I’m happy to see her take the camera out. But instead of snapping pics, she’s walking up the trail with the camera pressed to her face, like she’s wearing night-vision goggles.

This is a disaster (or a scraped knee, which is equivalent) waiting to happen. Especially because we are in a place where the trail gets a little narrow and rooty and it wouldn’t be too hard for a young person to trip. I advise Nelle to put her camera away and concentrate on hiking.

“But I want my camera out, like you!”

I promise to put my camera away. It fails to sway her. Now she’s crying. She wants to walk with the camera pressed to her face. “But if you do that,” I say, fumbling for a convincing argument, “we’d walk off the trail. And get lost. Because we have to look for those trail markers on the trees so we stay on the path. You need to keep track of those.”

Nelle looks up and sees a circular disk. Given a new task, she agrees to put the camera away and look for more trail markers.

We proceed. We are moving slowly, but we are moving. Miles is still babbling. And then Nelle announces she needs to pee.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

I’m a little surprised it took this long. On her first self-propelled hike, up Owl’s Head in Keene last summer, she liked going potty outside on the way up so much that she insisted on doing it again on the way down. She’d done the same on every hike since. By now, we’ve perfected the mechanics of the operation: I pull her off the trail, remove her shorts, and perch her on a log.

Done. Except for the two additional times that she will want to go to the bathroom before we leave Panther.

Hunger, frogs, trail markers, pee—Nelle’s trip up the mountain is beginning to sound like an odyssey. But there will be no more drama. By this time, Nelle has decided that the best way forward is to bound up the mountain, and she practically sprints the last third of the trip on her four-year-old legs. When we get to the top, Nelle glances to the west, where Tupper Lake is visible, and then takes in the rest of the view toward Ampersand and the Sewards, but she is more interested in getting to the PB&J, apple, and Hershey’s bar we packed. Miles, still content, takes a big draw off a water bottle and clutches a container of baby snacks, munching happily.

Before descending, we mill about the summit. A couple of other parties join us, including a couple from Saratoga Springs and a large contingent from Canada. There are also tons of butterflies, which Nelle chases through the grass as Miles, freed from his backpack, crawls around. When the others leave, we have the summit to ourselves. It’s just the three of us, and the sunshine, and the last ecosystem of our Father’s Day journey: utter contentment.

DIRECTIONS:

From the intersection of NY 3 and Main Street in Saranac Lake, drive west on NY3 for about 11 miles to a parking lot on the left. The trail begins a little farther west, on the opposite side of the road. If coming from Tupper Lake, the parking lot will be on the right about 1.6 miles past Wawbeek Corners, where NY 3 and NY 30 diverge.

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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