Skiers take advantage of early snow
By Phil Brown
I had skied Jenkins Mountain once before and had hiked it a few times as well, always starting at the state-run Visitor Interpretive Center in Paul Smiths, and though I enjoyed the view from the summit, I didn’t particularly like the long slog down an old woods road to get to the mountain’s base.
Last winter, I discovered a much better route. Starting at Keese Mills Road, I skied across Black Pond and Long Pond to a lean-to, bushwhacked over an esker to get onto the Jenkins Mountain Trail and then followed the trail to the 2,513-foot summit. From road to mountaintop, it’s about three miles, perhaps a bit more, with an elevation gain of about 900 feet.
This is a trip that can be done on skis or snowshoes or a combination. If you do it entirely on skis, as I did, you may want to use climbing skins to ascend the mountain. Those who don’t want to climb the mountain can do a loop around Black and Long ponds or stitch together a longer loop or an end-to-end trip by utilizing other trails maintained by the Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC). You can ponder the possibilities by examining the map accompanying this story.
What I liked most about the trip was its variety: a pair of scenic ponds, a short bushwhack, a quiet trail, an open summit and skiable birch glades on the way back.
And so when we were blessed with an abundance of snow early this winter, I headed up Jenkins again, this time with Sue Bibeau, the Adirondack Explorer’s designer, and her husband, Jeff Oehler.
The western leg of the Black Pond Trail begins 2.6 miles down Keese Mills Road from state Route 30. There is a small pond, an appendage of Black Pond, to the right at the start of the trail. We skied past this waterbody and reached a lean-to at the foot of Black Pond in less than 10 minutes.
Here we stepped cautiously onto the ice and jabbed it with our ski poles.
As a rule of thumb, it’s safe to ski on ice that is at least two or three inches thick (avoid inlets and outlets, where the ice may be thinner or non-existent). Generally, the ice is plenty firm in midwinter, but this was Dec. 8, and it seemed a little soft. After a few subzero nights it probably would be fine, but we decided to stick to the trail.
The narrow path was not ideal for skiing. The snow cover, though great for early December, was not deep enough to bury all the rocks and roots. Also, the trail slabs across the base of an esker (a narrow glacial ridge) and bedevils the skier with lots of annoyingly steep little pitches that require sidestepping. With more snow, the skiing no doubt would improve.
If you do this trip when the ice is safe, you’ll want to ski to the middle of Black Pond to enjoy the views of St. Regis Mountain to the southwest and the cliffs on Jenkins Mountain to the northwest. If you travel on the ice, as you approach the end of the half-mile-long pond, be sure to get back on the trail to avoid the inlet. Then stay on the trail until you reach the foot of the smaller (and not so long) Long Pond. Again assuming the ice is safe, you can ski across this pond to a lean-to at the north end. This is a good spot to relax and check your map before embarking on the bushwhack. (Camping is not allowed at the lean-tos on either pond.)
Following the trail the whole way, we needed an hour to reach the lean-to, even though it’s only about 1.5 miles from the road. True, we had stopped a few times to take photos, but if we had been able to ski across the ponds, we would have arrived much sooner.
A minute or two after leaving the lean-to, we came to a nearly open slope on the esker. We removed our skis and climbed to the top of the ridge. We then descended into a little bowl and climbed the other side to another esker, where we picked up the Jenkins Mountain Trail. The bushwhack took only 10 or 15 minutes. Be aware that the trail doesn’t get a lot of use (that’s one of its charms), so you might have a hard time finding it after a recent snowfall. Look for blazes of blue paint on the trees.
As far as we could tell, no one had been on the trail all winter. After putting on our skis, we descended along the ridge’s spine through fresh powder. The trail took a right turn and descended again. We then began a mile-long traverse along the base of Jenkins, with several ups and downs though the open woods. Several times, we had to step over downed trees, always an awkward maneuver on skis.
“If I were a little bit taller, this would be a lot easier,” Sue remarked in the middle of one such rearrangement of her limbs.
Eventually, the trail turned sharply right and began a short, steep ascent past a small cliff. Afterward, the grade eased but continued upward. We found ourselves pushing through a tunnel of saplings and small trees bent over under the weight of ice and snow.
We emerged from the woody gantlet into a glade. Last year, I had followed someone else’s tracks through the glades to the summit. On this day, we stayed on the trail. Just below the top, we took off our skis and sank knee-deep in snow. In one drift, we were up to our thighs in the beautiful stuff.
The day was overcast, but from the open summit, we could see Follensby Junior Pond to the west, St. Regis Mountain to the southwest and the St. Regis Lakes east of the mountain. On a clear day, you can see many of the High Peaks, in a jagged skyline stretching from Whiteface Mountain in the southeast to the Seward Range in the south.
Fires in 1902 and 1912 burned much of the timber on Jenkins Mountain. That’s why the undergrowth is so sparse along much of the trail. It’s also why you’ll find large paper-birch glades on the west and north sides of the summit (birch sprouts up in fire zones). Skiers with the appropriate skills can slalom through the glades on the way down.
Because it was getting late in the afternoon, we decided to return by our tracks rather than explore the glades. Zipping down through the whippets posed a few problems. Jeff, who wasn’t wearing goggles, got a black eye from one recalcitrant branch. In no time, we were back on the relatively flat part of the trail that skirts the mountain’s base. We hurried along, abetted by a few delightful descents, and managed to arrive at Long Pond just as night fell. Rather than ski the trail in the dark, we carried our boards back to the car, guided by starlight and by a flashlight on Jeff’s cell phone.
We got out of the woods at 6:30 p.m.—seven hours after we began (the trip can be done in much less time). Seven hours of gliding (mostly) on snow. That would be a good day in midwinter. It was an especially good day in early December.