A hiker’s tribute to an old friend
By Phil Gallos
Mount Baker was one of those places to which we’d go to play when we were kids. It was one of those places which we’d explore at least once a week: cliffs and ledges and old tote roads, quarries and dumps and intermittent streams.
It was along one of those intermittent streams that D.W. and P.W. dug a hole. They cut poles from the surrounding hardwoods to use as wall supports and roof beams. Tarps went over it, and beds, a stove and other necessities went in it. A small dam was built to impound the unreliable water just outside the front door.
The hole is still there to be seen by those of us who know where to look. It contains some rusty bed springs among other debris. The dam is long since gone.
The quarry at the base of the mountain is where we went for “thrills.” It was a great place to break bottles. The supply of good throwing-stones was limitless. When we were lucky enough to have a big brother’s .22 in our possession, the quarry became what we considered a first-rate shooting gallery.
We somehow ignored the possibility of ricochet and spent our happy hours blasting at tin cans. Cans were better than bottles because they were good for more than one hit, and they would jump. In fact, the best part of the game was to see how many holes we could put into a can before it would fall apart.
It was quite adventuresome. We didn’t worry about shooting anyone. We figured nobody could be crazy enough to come near the place when the air was alive with lead. We just worried about being caught out with that .22. (“Where did you get that gun, boys?” “Uh, uh … we found it.”)
Also, the quarry contained a very enticing vein of fool’s gold (iron pyrite). Boy, how we hacked at that stuff! The chisel marks are still there. So is the fool’s gold.
The summit of Baker never lacked visitors. We’d go up there alone or in small groups or in small armies. We’d go up there to pick blueberries and eat blueberries and not bring any blueberries home.
We’d go up there on sticky summer days to cool off in the breezy shake of Scotch pines which the Girl Scouts planted around 1915, a few years after the mountain had been burned over. Our canteens would be full of Kool-Aid and other questionables.
Sometimes we’d go up just to see how fast we could get there. It was nine-tenths of a mile with a 900-foot ascent. Fifteen minutes was about the best we could do.
Once we went up during a break in eighth-grade midyear exams simply because “it was there.”
Later, when we weren’t kids anymore or at least thought we weren’t, we’d go up for the Mount Baker picture show to see if we could name all the lakes and name all the mountains and point out so-and-so’s house, or to get caught by a sneaky July thunderstorm, or to look down on a fantasy village twinkling in the night, the starry August air making us more drunk than anything we could buy at Mark’s.
Or maybe we’d just go up there to watch September disappear in the haze.
Later still, when we were sure we weren’t kids anymore, we’d go up to taste a bit of that special tranquility which only this mountain offers: go up to sip the stillness of a June evening as the sun sank behind St. Regis Mountain or to quaff the whistling liquid of a blustery November Sunday while snow squalls swept the tattered side of Scarface.
This bushy-headed mountain at the edge of the village is not a guardian like Whiteface or the Giant. It is, if anything, a companion. It is not a mountain for mountaineers or geologists or foresters or other “experts.” It is a mountain just for people, the people of Saranac Lake.
IF YOU GO . . .
A short jaunt up Baker Mountain rewards the climber with sweeping vistas of numerous summits, including McKenzie, Scarface, Ampersand, many of the highest High Peaks, including Marcy, Algonquin, Haystack (look carefully!) and Gothics, and several lakes, including Oseetah and Lower Saranac.
It’s a favorite outing of families and casual hikers. From Moody Pond in the village of Saranac Lake, it’s only 0.9 miles to the top. The ascent is 900 feet. The trail is well-traveled and easy to follow. Just be sure to bear right at a junction about 120 yards from the start. At 0.6 miles, the trail splits again. Either way will get you to the top, but if you go right you’ll find more ledges and more views.
DIRECTIONS: Where NY 86 makes a 90-degree turn in the village of Saranac Lake, turn onto Brandy Brook Ave. Go about 200 yards and turn left onto Pine Street. Go about three-quarters of a mile and turn right onto Forest Hill Ave. Drive a half-mile to a pull-off beside Moody Pond. The trail begins on the other side of the road.
Phil Gallos calls his hometown peak Mount Baker, even though it appears on modern maps as Baker Mountain. “It’s always been called Mount Baker by the locals,” he says. “Only the tourists call it Baker Mountain.” He adds that older maps (and the trailhead sign) back him up. The mountain is named after a family that settled in Saranac Lake in 1852.