By Phil Brown
When I decided to move to Saranac Lake last year, a friend joked, “Yeah, Saranac Lake is a great place to live—for two months of the year.”
He meant summer. I saw the humor, but I didn’t agree. Every season in the Adirondacks has something to recommend it. Spring has its wildflowers; fall has its foliage, and winter has its digit-numbing cold.
I was determined to enjoy winter. When December came, I dusted off my snowshoes, bought a pair of cross-country skis and waited for snow. And waited. Finally, on Jan. 2, I couldn’t stand it anymore and set off for a hike up Seymour Mountain in a cold drizzle. By the time I got to the summit, puddles of water had collected in my boots. I couldn’t see a damn thing for the fog. The wind blew rain in my face. I stayed about two minutes. As I trudged back to my car, I started to think that my friend may have been right. Only now I didn’t see the humor.
Later in January, the snows finally came. Ironically, the season was saved by a storm from the south, a nor’easter that dumped nearly a foot in the Adirondacks. That week I went a few times to Dewey Mountain, where the town maintains cross-country ski trails, and acquainted myself with my new Fischers. We got along well enough that I decided to try something more adventurous: the Jackrabbit Trail.
This trail—named for the legendary skier Herman “Jackrabbit” Johannsen—stretches about 24 miles between Keene and Saranac Lake. I intended to ski the 5.5-mile section from Lake Placid to Saranac Lake. This route passes through the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness, climbing a ridge between McKenzie and Haystack mountains and then descending continuously for 1.25 miles. Tony Goodwin, who maintains the trail, describes the descent in his book Classic Adirondack Ski Tours as one of the most thrilling in the Adirondacks.
A co-worker dropped me off on a Friday afternoon at the trailhead on Whiteface Inn Road in Lake Placid. She took my picture to commemorate the historic occasion, and I set off alone. Within a few minutes, the trail started to ascend through a hardwood forest of beech and yellow birch. I can’t say I was skiing at this point. Rather, I was walking uphill on boards, using my poles to keep from slipping backward. I was exercising my arms as much as my legs—a true full-body workout that kept me warm despite the near-zero temperature.
As I climbed, several young men with large packs swooshed downhill past me. I stopped to talk to one skier who had upended in deep snow, and he told me that they had spent the past night in the Placid Lean-to, the only lean-to on the Jackrabbit. They decided to leave after hearing reports that the temperature might drop to 40 below this night.
Twenty minutes from the road, I reached a trail register and the boundary of the state-owned Forest Preserve. As I continued my ascent, balsam fir and red spruce replaced the hardwoods along the trail. The evergreen branches sagged under the weight of globs of fresh snow. I imagined myself in one of those glass globes that you shake so flakes of snow fall all over the miniature scene inside. There was an unreal beauty to this part of the route.
I reached the lean-to in another 20 minutes. The trail then leveled off, enabling me to practice my kick and glide. I was thankful that no one was around to watch: I felt as graceful as an elephant on roller-skates. Soon I came to a four-way intersection. The way left led to Haystack Mountain, the way right to McKenzie Mountain. Continuing straight, I arrived in another 10 minutes at the apex of my journey, the pass between the two peaks, and stopped to eat a snack bar. The forest had changed back to hardwoods, and the trees were cracking in the cold.
Since leaving Whiteface Inn Road, I had traveled 2.1 miles and ascended 600 feet. Now I stood on the brink of my reward: a long downhill run. It had taken an hour to reach this height, about 2,560 feet, but it would take only seven or eight minutes to reach the bottom. I pushed off and let gravity go to work. The rush of cold air filled my lungs and chilled my cheeks, bringing back memories of my high school days, when my friends and I used to ski McCauley Mountain in Old Forge every chance we got. I haven’t skied much since then, either downhill or cross- country, but I retained enough knack to negotiate the turns on the Jackrabbit. Although the turns are not very difficult—if the trail is not icy—someone who lacks experience should not attempt this trip. On the descent, I skied nonstop except on one or two short flats where I paused to enjoy the view of McKenzie Pond in the distance.
Once the trail has been packed down, it becomes more difficult to control your speed and make the turns.This is not a trip for a skier who lacks experience, even after a fresh snowfall. Those who doubt their ability should consider skiing in the opposite direction, for the descent to Lake Placid is not quite as dramatic.
Alas, every free ride must come to an end. Slogging again on flatland, I soon came to a short side trail to McKenzie Pond. There is a bench on the shore where you can sit and look across the pond to Baker Mountain. From this intersection, it’s just under two miles to McKenzie Pond Road, where I had left my car. The way is mostly level, with a few ups and downs. If you ski this stretch, keep a lookout for giant white pines, cedar wetlands and a huge glacial boulder.
The whole trip took two hours. On my way out, I passed a man and then a couple on skis. When I got to McKenzie Pond Road, I noticed that both parties came from out of state—one from New Jersey, the other from Virginia. To think that people drive hundreds of miles to ski the Jackrabbit Trail—and that I live only five minutes away. I guess Saranac Lake isn’t such a bad place to live. Even in winter.
Lake Placid trailhead: From Route 86 just west of Lake Placid village, turn north on Whiteface Inn Road and go 1.3 miles to the trailhead on the left. Look for a small red marker on one of the trees.
Saranac Lake trailhead: From Route 86 in Ray Brook, turn north on McKenzie Pond Road and drive 1.4 miles to the trailhead on the right. Look for the Jackrabbit sign.