After days of rain, a family beats the blahs by climbing Debar Mountain, a former fire-tower peak in the northern Adirondacks.
By Lisa Densmore Ballard
SOME DAYS I need to go hiking. I don’t want an epic outing, just some time in the woods to clear my head, enough of a climb to exercise my body, and a decent view at the top to rejuvenate my spirit.
After five particularly soggy days, cooped up inside our smallish house on Chateaugay Lake with four antsy kids—Micah, age eighteen; Dominic and Parker, both sixteen; and Zoe, eleven—and my outdoorsy sweetheart Jack, I needed to climb a mountain before I climbed the walls. The whole family did! The weather forecast was still far from perfect, but when the deluge abated, I ordered everyone to put away Monopoly and put on their hiking boots. We were heading up Debar Mountain.
Named for John Debar, a Canadian fur trapper who traveled through the area in 1817, Debar Mountain had been on my sizable bucket list of hikes in the Adirondacks for a number of years. I checked off most of those hikes while researching my guidebook Hiking the Adirondacks but never made it up Debar. When selecting the peaks in the northern region of the Adirondack Park for my book, others nearby were bigger, balder, and/or more well-known. Debar would certainly have made the cut a half-century earlier when it still had a fire tower on its summit, but I was barely writing my ABC’s, not guidebooks, back then.
The state closed the tower in 1970, then dismantled it in 1979, which removed the mountain from many peak-baggers’ to-do lists. Located outside of the High Peaks region and with a modest summit elevation of 3,305 feet, Debar Mountain now receives only occasional attention among visitors with a hankering for a hike. However, locals know it well. Traveling north on Route 30 between Paul Smiths and Malone, it’s a dominant massif, the highest point in the 122,100-acre Debar Mountain Wild Forest. Close to my Chateaugay home, the state-maintained route, a 7.4-miler out and back with 1,600 feet of elevation gain and the promise of at least a partial view from the former fire tower site, seemed like the perfect way to get a hiking fix.
The first half-mile of the route up the mountain follows the Debar Game Management Trail. During the 1930s, the state of New York tried to re-introduce elk to the Adirondacks. The elk were initially held in pens here and then released. They naturalized successfully but were extirpated within thirty years due to poaching. As we started down the trail, we didn’t see signs of elk, of course, but another ungulate, the ubiquitous white-tailed deer, had left numerous hoof prints on the flat woods road on which we walked. (A metal gate at the trailhead prevents ATVs and other motorized vehicles from traveling on it.)
My first impression of the level, smooth route was how lush the woods were. Fiddlehead fern, hobblebush, and a garden of wildflowers filled every inch of the forest floor under towering yellow birch. Finally unleashed from the house, the boys raced ahead while Jack, Zoe, and I took photos of lady-slippers and clintonia, but we caught up to them within minutes. As we rounded the bend, the three younger kids huddled together looking intently at something in Micah’s hand. Suddenly a spring peeper sprang from his palm, barely missing his nose in its leap for freedom. It would be the first of dozens of spring peepers that we spotted that day.
Looking for tiny toads quickly became trail entertainment until Dominic shouted, “Snake!”—causing us all to rush to his side to see this new discovery.
“It’s a cobra!” he declared. “Pick it up!”
Zoe, ever the cautious one, paused to consider her brother’s questionable snake ID, as the rest of us chuckled at his absurdity. The smallish garter snake didn’t wait around for affirmation of its not-so-deadly nature. It quickly slithered into the dense ground cover beside the trail, disappearing into the jumble of knee-high flora.
We continued up the trail as well, coming to a fork a few minutes later. The right fork continued to Debar Meadows along the game-management trail. We took the left fork on the Debar Mountain Trail. Deep in the woods, with the temperature a cool sixty degrees and after almost a week of rain, the air felt fresh, invigorating rather than heavy and humid. It energized the spring peepers too, which were now so plentiful that Jack suggested we rechristen the path “Toad Trail,” which immediately resulted in a chorus of other potential names, such as the Peeper Path and Frog Forest.
The route began to climb gently, becoming gradually rockier and crossing a number of streams. Soon the path resembled a streambed. After so much rain, water ran freely down the trail. Despite my Gore-Tex hiking shoes, my feet got wetter and wetter as I waded up the now-sodden footpath that served as a dirt access road years ago when a fire watcher was needed to man the former lookout. We found evidence of the road at an early stream crossing where the water once flowed under the trail through a twelve-inch culvert. Forest footpaths incorporate waterbars, bridges, and puncheon to help hikers over wet areas but rarely culverts. This particular one was clogged, diverting the stream down the trail.
“I’m going to fix that,” declared Jack, reaching inside the ancient pipe and pulling out a handful of leaves and sticks. His effort reopened the culvert but ultimately proved futile, as the trail seemed to get soggier the higher we climbed. Buggier, too.
My original plan was to hike three miles to a lone lean-to, have a late lunch, then continue to the summit. As with many routes previously unexplored, the path seemed to go on and on. What started as a new and interesting adventure was becoming a tedious toil up a veritable streambed through monotonous forest and increasingly tenacious black flies, a prospect from which teenagers quickly tire.
“How much farther?” asked Zoe.
“I bet there’s no lean-to,” stated Micah.
“My knee hurts,” declared Dom.
“I’m sick of these bugs,” said Parker.
When we reached the verge of a family mutiny, the trail crested a shoulder of the mountain, then dipped toward another stream. A few minutes later, we reached the lean-to and all was well again. No matter how many lean-tos one has visited, each newly discovered one is a curiosity. The kids forgot the bugs as they read the myriad of names scrawled on the log beams. They speculated on what it would be like to camp there and examined the area around the fire pit for clues of past visitors.
After loitering twenty minutes, we continued toward the summit. The last 0.7 miles felt vertical and was vastly more eroded than the first three miles. Two sets of rock steps aided the climb up a particularly steep section, the top of which marked a change of flora to lower boreal forest and offered a glimpse of Meacham Lake through the trees.
We climbed higher and higher and passed a recent slide. I speculated that the slide was a result of Tropical Storm Irene, which created dozens of new slides on slopes throughout the Adirondacks in August 2011.
Just as I wondered when we were going to reach the top, the trail eased, then flattened as we came to a large rock knob. We scrambled up the knob, finding the footings of the former fire tower and several steel loops embedded in the open rock, the former anchor points for the tower’s stabilizing cables. The living-room-size bald spot afforded a hazy view of Meacham Lake to the west, not a breathtaking vista, but a view nonetheless, and a nice spot for a snack and some water. We didn’t dally long. Soon the bugs found us, and the rain returned. We headed for home the way we had come.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines debar as “to bar from having or doing something; to preclude.” Thankfully, Debar Mountain lived up to its name, precluding my family from yet another day indoors. Later that week, a friend asked Dominic how he liked the hike.
“It was great!” he replied. He had forgotten his sore knee, his wet feet, and the bugs, confirming my theory. Sometimes a little time in the woods, a little gain in elevation, and a little view is enough to clear the head.