A wise choice
By Edward Kanze
If you’ve ever taken young children for a hike, you know how it can go. In the morning, you sound the rallying cry. Let’s go! Then before you know it, despite stirrings, nobody’s ready to go anywhere. It’s lunchtime.
After lunch, you again sound the cry. This time the troops start to get ready. Then someone needs a drink, another pleads hunger, and the phone rings, twice. While you’re attending to business, the other members of the party busy themselves. You hang up and renew the call to arms and legs. If you’re lucky, a few hours of daylight remain when you climb into the car. Even then, someone may sound the alarm, “I have to go to the bathroom!” So it went with my tribe the day we climbed Owl’s Head.
There are at least three Owl’s Heads in the Adirondacks: one near Malone, one near Long Lake, and the other near Keene. There’s also an Owl’s Head Lookout. The early settlers who named mountains must have had nocturnal birds on the brain. We picked the rocky knob near Malone because it offered much of interest for our kids: not only a walk in the woods and a climb to a viewpoint, but also a small, open-pit magnetite mine on the heights. The climb to the lookout is only 1.1 miles, with an ascent of seven hundred feet, according to the guidebook Kids on the Trail, by Rose Rivezzi and David Trithart.
Late in the afternoon we laced on boots at the trailhead. At first it seemed the hike would be over before it began when our daughter, Tassie, who is five, climbed out and found a robber-fly on the side of the car. Robber-flies are vampires that suck out the juices of insects they catch on the wing. Tassie, much to her then-six-year-old brother Ned’s dismay, instantly formed an attachment to this one and wanted to keep it as a pet.
We pointed to the crown of Owl’s Head in the distance, and happily, the climbing instinct at last took hold. The trail began on an old railroad right-of-way torn up by ATVs and dirt bikes. In late-afternoon light the place was beautiful despite the scars. Common milkweed, ox-eye daisy, and sweet white clover were in bloom, and among them flitted a dainty, butter-colored sulphur butterfly.
Entering the woods, we immediately spied a garter snake. It scooted away from us, as snakes generally do, and eventually the reptile froze like a statue. All admired it. Soon the trail veered to the left on an old roadbed. The grade steepened. The kids began to complain and fight. Improvising, we called a halt at a brook and commenced a salamander hunt. We didn’t find a single salamander, but we did cool tempers and chill water bottles. Morale soared.
As we chugged steadily uphill, basswood trees began to infiltrate a forest of sugar maple, white ash, American beech, and yellow birch. Blue cohosh, a wildflower that does best in rich soils, abounded here, as did jack-in-the-pulpit and jewelweed. As we paused to rest, a hermit thrush filled the woods with riffs of piccolo. The poet Walt Whitman immortalized this bird’s voice by using it as a recurring motif in his elegy to Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Life’s joys and sorrows seem to float in distilled form on the hermit thrush’s exquisite, liquid notes.
We entered a patch of woods where the humidity grew oppressive. Not coincidentally, perhaps, this was the place we enjoyed a run of amphibians. Ned found a big, bulbous American toad, caught it, squealed as it emptied its bladder, and introduced his prize to all. We talked about the paratoid glands which appeared as swellings behind the animal’s eyes and which contain a poison not worrisome to humans but sickening to any predator that tries to recruit a toad for its lunch. Tassie and my wife, Debbie, spied toads so tiny one could sit on a thumbnail, and Tassie picked up two. I made several lunges at an Olympian long jumper before coming up with a slender, golden frog with a black mask like a raccoon’s. It was a wood frog, the Adirondack amphibian that by quacking like a duck when ice still partly covers the ponds heralds the arrival of spring.
High on Owl’s Head, or at least nearly as high on this little mountain as hikers can go, we were listening to the disembodied voices of black-throated blue warblers and an American redstart coming from somewhere in the undergrowth when we noticed a pile of broken rock in the path. It was a tailing from the old mine that we’d come looking for.
Just ahead lay the mine itself, a thirty-foot-deep (or thereabouts) hole gouged horizontally into the mountain in the nineteenth century with pick, bar, sledge, chisel, and shovel. Debbie found that the mouth of the pit was handsomely garnished with an old phoebe’s nest whose mossy interior was still green and alive.
Magnetite is a form of iron ore, and chunks of it lay strewn in all directions. The pieces were incredibly dense and heavy, their color a lustrous black. As the name implies, the mineral is magnetic, which allows a crude compass to be made by floating a sliver of it on a leaf in a bucket of water. Magnetite underfoot throws off a compass, and indeed, the needle on mine pointed far away from north. Owl’s Head’s magnetite occurs within an igneous intrusive rock known as pegmatite, or giant granite. The formation here also includes a type of feldspar called aventurine feldspar, or sunstone. It’s brown, but hold pieces up to the light, as we did, and the surface glitters. Geologists call the phenomenon aventurescence.
About the time we should have been home cooking dinner, we were standing on a ledge below the summit. The view was grand. A lone car parked beside a road in the distance looked like a child’s toy. It was ours. We could see the village of Owl’s Head, Mountain View Pond, Catamount Mountain, sprawling forests, and dozens of mountains we couldn’t name.
Like most who scale Owl’s Head, we skipped the wooded summit and declared victory on the ledge. Here we sipped, snacked, snapped photos, and rested. Here, too, Ned and Tassie came down with the giggles. While they indulged in the kind of carefree silliness I remember from my own early climbs, I studied my watch. Night would soon come to the woods. A mile and a little more remained to be walked, and I knew the kids’ exuberance might turn to fear if we finished in darkness.
Thank heaven for deerflies. They got us moving, and swiftly and with no argument from anyone, we picked our way down the way we had come. Hikes often end with an unexpected bonus. Our surprise began with a hermit thrush that sang a sweet evening anthem. As we slowed to listen, the kids saw a small brown bird rocket up from a point beside the trail. We got down on hands and knees and found the launching pad: a cozy little cup on the forest floor made of twigs, bark, and pine needles. Three shiny eggs of the palest blue lay in the middle. It was a hermit thrush nest. Ned and Tassie wanted to stand back and wait for the bird to return, but we didn’t dare.
We broke out of the woods and found ourselves under a starry sky. The night was moonless and black. We stumbled the last steps to the car, hungry, tired, pleased with ourselves, the better for the adventure and the aventurescence.
Finding the trail is a little tricky. Coming into the village of Owl’s Head on County Route 27 from Mountain View, turn right at the only main intersection, drive under power lines, and then turn left.
The mountain will come into view on the right. Park on the shoulder just before the road dead-ends.
To start the hike, walk under power lines, continuing in the same direction you were heading as you drove to the parking space. Just past the second set of power poles, follow a path to the right into the woods.
Where it meets an old woods road, turn left and continue on it; after a short while, bear left again, uphill, on another woods road.
This quickly peters out to become the well-worn path that leads to the top. Best advice is to be careful about finding the right trail, noting turns so you can find them again on the way back.
We didn’t have a map, but one would be advisable, along with a compass. The Owl’s Head 7.5-minute USGS sheet is the right one, according to Kids on the Trail.