Owls Head

Two guys on top of the World

By Michael Larabee

Mike Larabee and his son Tadhg at the summit of Owls Head Mountain.

He’d prefer to do Marcy. Or Little John Mountain back behind our rental, because he likes to pretend he’s Robin Hood. Or, better yet, Everest.

But I prefer Owls Head Mountain, because I want to carry him as little of the way as possible. 

Four-year-olds can’t drive, and even if they could they definitely wouldn’t be able to read a trail map. It’s my call. Owls Head Mountain it is.

It’s a fine Memorial Day weekend, and we’re part of the first wave of the summer season’s Lake Placid tourists. My wife, Caitlin, and I have come north from Albany with her sister, her brother and her brother’s family. We’ve come to amble the village strip, get blown about amateurishly in rented canoes and cajole our four-cylinder sedan up the hill to Whiteface. We’ve come to spend some good family time together, talking and playing games and watching dumb Ben Stiller movies.

And we’ve come to bag a peak.

For my wife and me, it would be our first peak in a while, parenthood having – temporarily, we hope – thrown a real damper on our Adirondack hiking.

For our son, Tadhg (an Irish name, pronounced like the first syllable of the word “tiger”), it’s something far more special: his first peak ever, on his first visit to the Adirondacks.

I’ve assured him it will be fun, but I worry it might be too soon. I worry about a bad experience – too tough a climb, or too many bugs, or a stumble and a skinned knee – that would sour him on the mountains for a long time. A 4-year-old’s enthusiasm is an easily shattered thing. Hell, he’s only 40 pounds; I’ll carry him the whole way if I have to. If it kills me, it’s going to be fun.

The signs have been encouraging. We’ve taken short hikes in the countryside around Albany. He’s gobbled them up, dashing ahead on a whim or stopping to declare a rock or stick a Native American artifact. When we come to a stream, he strips and wades in. And he’s wanted to climb an Adirondack mountain ever since he learned there was such a thing as Adirondack mountains.

We zeroed in on Owls Head because my Adirondack Mountain Club guidebook calls it “a near-perfect little hike for children” and reports that scores of young hikers have gotten their start there. It’s easy to understand why: A climb of just 460 feet gets you to the 2,120-foot summit a little more than half a mile after you leave your car.

After a little trouble finding the trailhead – the gravel Owls Head Road off Route 73 was in the right place, but the sign that was supposed to be at the end of it wasn’t – we were on our way up.

I expected to have to spur Tadhg on, point out views or boulders or oddball trees ahead to keep him moving. I was wrong. He took the lead and held it. Soon we had broken into two groups. Me, Tadhg and his cousins Christopher, 14, and Cormac, 11, up front, with the other four adults chatting somewhere behind.

When the hill got a bit steeper, Cormac wanted a rest. Tadhg kept going. Christopher stopped to take in the view. Tadhg kept going. I wanted a rest. Tadhg kept going.

It wasn’t till we were three-quarters of the way to the summit, on the mountain’s lopsided shoulder, that he finally said his legs were getting tired. Well, I thought, the little guy did pretty good, and I was about to ask if he wanted me to carry him when he noticed his cousins scrambling up some rocks.

“Christopher and Cormac, you’re going off the trail!” Tadhg called out.

“No, that is the trail,” I told him. “That’s the way to the top.”

That was all he needed to hear. Tadhg loves to scramble up rocks. I had to jog to keep up. Did someone say something about tired legs?

In no time we were at the top. The sun was shining on an undulating landscape of peaks and valleys, light and shadow, green forest and gray rock. We marveled at the views of Cascade, Pitchoff, Giant and other peaks. I’ve done few hikes with so big a payoff for such little effort.

When the rest of our group caught up, Tadhg reminded everyone that it’s safest to stay back from the ledge. He drank his water and savored the chocolate his Aunt Kathy gave him.

“Daddy, I think we might have gotten the mountains mixed up. I think this might be Mount Marcy.”

“Why do you think that?”

“You said Owls Head Mountain is a small mountain. This isn’t small.”

“No, this is definitely Owls Head Mountain.”

I could tell he wasn’t quite convinced. He also wasn’t thrilled when, worried he’d get up a head of steam and catch a toe on a root, I made him hold my hand much of the way down.

After all, he wasn’t some rank novice. He’d climbed an Adirondack peak – all the way up without once having to be carried. And if it wasn’t Marcy, well, give him a little time.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

DIRECTIONS

From the junction of NY 73 and NY 9N in downtown Keene, drive north on NY 73 for 3.2 miles to Owls Head Lane. Turn left onto the gravel road, drive 0.2 mile and turn left again. The trail begins on the right just after the latter turn. If driving from Lake Placid, Owls Head Lane will be on your right 3.6 miles past the trailhead for Cascade Mountain.

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