By Lisa Densmore Ballard
My father handed The Gift to me just after I completed the last hike for my book Hiking the Adirondacks in 2009. It was unexpected and unexciting, an old book, its pages sepia brown and its binding slightly frayed. The name—“Robert L. Johnson, Park Commissioner, Albany, N.Y.”—stood out in faded gold under faintly embossed mountains on the dull green cover.
“I thought you might enjoy this now that you’ve trekked through so much of the Adirondack Park,” he said, passing the nondescript three-hundred-page tome through my car window as I made notes by the trailhead. “I’ve been saving it for you.”
I thanked him for The Gift, a thoughtful gesture, though it would be six years before I realized how thoughtful. I added it indifferently to the excessive pile of books on my bedstand. Eventually, the book became buried under another dozen books and forgotten.
But old books have a way of resurfacing. Perhaps that’s why they survive when so many others are lost. Like a dogged mountain climber determined to reach a summit, The Gift eventually found its way to the top of my reading pile. Last June, I picked it up, casually curious; then I looked more closely. It was indeed old, very old, published in 1874. The author was Verplanck Colvin, the Verplanck Colvin who became inextricably connected to hiking in the Adirondacks as a result of his original survey of the Park. In fact, The Gift was his survey of the Park!
I gingerly opened the cover of The Gift, realizing that in the 1870s, an era long before photocopiers, reports to the New York State legislature were distributed as bound books. In addition to Colvin’s notes, procedures, and calculations, The Gift contained a number of foldout maps and sketches. The paper was so brittle, some of the precious foldouts crumbled or split despite my careful touch. As I turned page after page, an urge to climb Mount Colvin, Verplanck’s namesake peak, started to percolate.
In mid-August 1873, Verplanck Colvin’s party of guides and surveyors headed into the High Peaks from Keene Valley. They followed the Boquet River to Hunters Pass near Dix Mountain, where they constructed a shelter from saplings and birch bark. The shelter served as a base camp from which they spent almost a week bushwhacking to the top of three four-thousand-footers: Dix, Nippletop, and Mount Colvin. The crew calculated elevations, drew topographical maps, and sketched the views. After reading the description of Mount Colvin—which Verplanck reached on the sixth and final day of the expedition—the desire to climb that peak reached a full boil. The next morning I recruited my eighteen-year-old son Parker to climb it with me. I was curious to compare our ascent of the mountain with Verplanck’s.
Rousing the men early on the 20th the last ration of flour baked, and breakfast over, leaving at this camp all of our impediments, we commenced our climb to the summit of the next mountain, eastward, which the guides had named Mount Colvin. The knowledge that it was a mountain heretofore unascended, unmeasured and – prominent as it was – unknown to any map, made the ascent the more interesting. –Verplanck Colvin, Topical Survey of the Adirondack Wilderness, New York (2nd Report, 1873-74)
There’s no short route to the top of Mount Colvin, which is probably why Verplanck was the first to climb it, particularly since there were few trails so deep in the Adirondack High Peaks in the 1870s. Part of Verplanck’s route, between Hunters Pass and Nippletop, remains off-trail today, so Parker and I opted for a fourteen-miler, starting in St. Huberts, following the Ausable River to Lower Ausable Lake, then climbing over Indian Head and Fish Hawk Cliffs to the summit.
Verplanck’s survey party struggled to get their delicate but bulky measuring equipment and camping supplies over boulders in the Boquet River—a slow, arduous process but easier than traveling through the dense forest. In contrast, Parker and I made good time on the well-maintained West River Trail along the Ausable River. We covered the 2.7 miles from the hikers’ parking lot to the bridge at Wedge Brook Cascade in just over an hour despite a number of stops to take photos.
We paused to admire the cascade, which spilled into a clear olive pool, then continued along the trail to the top of a gorge where the river turned into a torrent below us. “There’s so much water!” exclaimed Parker, and it was so dramatic, pouring powerfully between the rock walls.
A half-hour later, we came to Beaver Meadow Falls, which flowed like a bride’s veil down the sixty-foot cliff. The mist off the falls refreshed us as we admired the beautiful waterfall, but refreshment quickly turned chilly, sending us onward.
We crossed the Ausable River using the footbridge by Bullock Dam, a three-foot spillover, then continued toward Lower Ausable Lake along the East River Trail on the opposite side of the river. A doe eyed us from the short grass by the riverbank and then meandered into the woods. “Not exactly like the bears or mountain lions that Verplanck followed to find ways through tough territory,” I observed.
“This isn’t tough territory anymore,” replied Parker.
He was right, comparatively speaking. The four-and-a-half-mile walk from the Ausable Club to Lower Ausable Lake had a vertical gain of only 613 feet, and the footing was as tame as trails get in the Adirondacks, but the route was about to get more challenging.
The indications of game were naturally abundant; the rocks and ledges geologically interesting, and, judging by the outlook from inferior summits, the view from the top could not fail to be superior. A trap or sienite dyke was discovered, but there was no time for its examination, and reaching at length the height, its last approach a cliff almost impregnable, we drew ourselves up over the verge to find a seat upon a throne that seemed the central seat of the mountain amphitheatre. –Verplanck Colvin, Topical Survey of the Adirondack Wilderness, New York (2nd Report, 1873-74)
From the lake, the route turned upward through boreal forest, allowing glimpses of Gothics and the Great Range to the northwest. We climbed steadily to a four-way junction on a tree-covered ridge, opting to bear right and stay on the ridge toward Indian Head. A mile from the lake, we emerged onto a broad cliff overlooking Lower Ausable Lake. The view of the Great Range across the water was a jaw-dropper. Indian Head was a destination itself!
Indian Head was also a déjà vu. Verplanck made one of his largest and most detailed sketches from the very spot on which Parker and I stood. By odd coincidence, Parker took a photo of me from which one could easily substitute the two explorers in the sketch. Though we could have dallied there the rest of the day, Verplanck’s spirit pushed Parker and me to resume our climb. We returned to the junction, then followed the sign toward Fish Hawk Cliffs, a half-mile away.
Fish Hawk Cliffs proved a small perch, but it offered a breathtaking view of both Upper and Lower Ausable lakes. We paused only briefly, the summit of Mount Colvin beckoning us, still 1.8 miles away.
“When I was little, one mile was far, but now 1.8 miles is shorter than the run I did yesterday,” said Parker, energetically.
His optimism soon waned as we labored up the steep upper slopes of Mount Colvin. “You’re killing me, Verplanck,” he mumbled, our heart rates surging.
“I will never name my dog Verplanck!” he finally shouted, as if it would lessen the pitch of the path.
Above Indian Head, the trail to Mount Colvin is older and more eroded, with exposed slab and roots. At about six miles from the trailhead, it reaches the junction with the trail to Elk Pass and Nippletop, then turns near vertical, up several rock chimneys. These rocky scrambles added to the challenge of the hike but made it more interesting as well. We could feel the elevation gain and see it. Here, spring is a month late. Painted trillium bloomed beside the trail, and fiddlehead ferns were just unfurling in boggy areas.
The cone of Mount Colvin rose like tilted, warped giant steps that finally petered out at the summit, a rock knob about twenty feet wide. The view was shy of 360 degrees, blocked here and there by scrubby conifers, but it didn’t matter. I counted twenty-seven four-thousand-footers (including nearby Blake Peak, named for Verplanck’s assistant Mills Blake), when I wasn’t ogling the Ausable Lakes, two thousand feet below
Deep in the chasm at our feet was the lower Ausable lake, each indentation of its shore sharply marked as on a map; beyond it the Gothic mountains rose, carved with wild and fantastic forms on the white rock, swept clear by avalanches and decked with scanty patches of stunted evergreens. Everywhere below were lakes and mountains so different from all maps, yet so immovably true. There was too little time to satisfy us. Here was golden sunshine, a balmy air and a wealth of work before us, but an empty larder. It was the sixth day, the evening of which I had before set as the termination of this branch expedition. Topographical reconnaissance was therefore pushed forward, and a careful measurement made, from which the height of Mount Colvin is found to be 4,142 feet above tide level. –Verplanck Colvin, Topical Survey of the Adirondack Wilderness, New York (2nd Report, 1873-74)
Modern surveys give Colvin’s height as 4,057 feet, so despite his antiquated equipment, Verplanck’s measurement was not far off.
Our hike up Mount Colvin varied from the legendary Adirondack surveyor’s in both purpose and path, but they were the same in one intrinsic way, our impressions from the top. The summit of this peak is arguably the best seat in what Verplanck called the mountain amphitheater. Parker and I fully enjoyed the show, mesmerized by the vast wilderness around us.
After an hour atop Verplanck’s namesake peak, we departed for the long hike back to the trailhead. At the junction to Indian Head, we continued straight, descending the Gill Brook Trail, a joint-friendly way down beside a lovely, tumbling stream. Along the way, I realized The Gift was not the book, but the mountain itself.
DIRECTIONS: In St. Huberts, turn right onto Ausable Road. The trailhead parking lot is on the left soon after the turn. Note: Parking is not permitted along Ausable Road. Walk up the road to the trailhead (on the Ausable Club grounds).