The author, her husband, and a reluctant teenager make a steep climb to a fire tower only to find the view obscured by clouds.
By Lisa Densmore Ballard
With a name like “Vanderwhacker,” I had to climb it, again. Vanderwhacker Mountain, elevation 3,386 feet and located between Newcomb and Minerva, is the highest point in the ninety-two-thousandacre Vanderwhacker Mountain Wild Forest.
“We’ll whack it out in a couple of hours,” said Jack confidently. However, my super-fit husband underestimated the time it would take to climb this seemingly modest 5.2-mile round-trip. The Vanderwhacker Mountain Trail has a 1.5-mile approach, then gains most of its 1,679 vertical feet during the second half of the route. Instead of two hours, it took four. The steep climb certainly contributed to the extra time on the trail, but the delay was more due to our antihiking teenager, Zoe.
History. I had hiked Vanderwhacker Mountain once before, in 2009, with Jack, while working on my book Hiking the Adirondacks. It was a no-brainer for the book because of the exceptional 360-degree view from its fire tower, which includes the High Peaks region to the north, Hoffman Mountain through Hoffman Notch to the east, Snowy Mountain with its fire tower to the southwest, and Moose, Beaver, and Split Rock Ponds to the west. On a clear day, Lake George shimmers on the horizon to the southeast. I didn’t remember much else about Vanderwhacker Mountain, another reason to reclimb it besides its whacky name.
No one really knows where the name Vanderwhacker originated. Most people assume it was named after an early settler in the area like many other Adirondack landmarks. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the spelling was modified from “VanDeWhacker,” which is how Verplanck Colvin noted the mountain during his survey of the area in the 1870s. In turn, Colvin or an even earlier explorer may have added the “h” or miswritten “Vanderwalker,” making the exact origin of the mountain’s name difficult to trace.
Unfortunately, the day we planned to hike Vanderwhacker Mountain a second time, the weather was far from crystal clear. Thick gray clouds shrouded the summit, and the air hung with humidity. But it wasn’t raining, so Jack and I decided to be optimistic and hike anyway. Perhaps the clouds would clear by the time we reached the summit. Zoe did not share our enthusiasm.
Lower Trail. Our hiking party included four of us: Jack, Zoe, our English setter Percy, and me. Percy is always game to do anything that involves being in the woods, but Zoe had become less so as a thirteen-year-old. We coaxed her to join us by waxing on about how great the exercise would be and by taunting her with puns spun from the mountain’s catchy odd moniker. In fact, she had no choice as it was our family activity for the day.
With a groan, she signed us in at the trailhead, then moped down the trail, an old jeep road formerly used by the firewatcher to go to and from his cabin when the summit tower was still in service. The lower part of the hiking trail doubles as a snowmobile trail during the winter, but there were no motorized intrusions this day. In fact, there were no intrusions at all. Though it was noon when we started, we were the first to sign in.
The trail climbed gently through a mixed forest of beech, maple, yellow birch, and hemlock. The hemlock in particular caught my attention. The hemlock in the area was heavily logged during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The leather industry valued its bark as a source of tannin, and its wood was used for pulp and paper products.
Nowadays, most of the logging done near the trail is by beavers. Within a quarter-mile of the trailhead, we passed the first of numerous beaver ponds. We could see beaver lodges here and there across the various wetlands. We hiked past several stumps, eight inches in diameter with telltale cone-shaped tops, evidence of this oversize rodent’s ability to cut down timber.
The route crossed numerous mud holes that turned our enthusiastic white, freckled setter into a lanky black Lab. Luckily, there were numerous stream crossings, too. After several dunkings, the freckles returned to his fur, though he remained slightly tinged with gray.
At one crossing, a broad bridge had buckled and tilted, a reminder of the force of Hurricane Irene. The torrent of water that must have gushed down that stream strong enough to move and twist the bridge was hard to comprehend.
At 1.6 miles, we reached the old fire observer’s tower, long abandoned. The cabin was open, and in the early stages of decay. We cautiously peeked inside. A bed frame rusted amidst the jumble of falling boards and animal nests, but it was easy to picture the life of the watcher. With a touch of jealousy, I imagined him enjoying a cup of coffee on the cabin’s small covered deck in a peaceful woodland setting. A half-hour later, I envied him no more based on his daily trek to his mountaintop post.
Long and Steep. From the cabin, the route turned uphill, moderately at first, then steeper and more washed out in many places.
About twenty minutes after leaving the cabin, we came to a short log staircase with a railing on one side, an unusual touch by an ambitious trail crew. Jack dubbed it the “stairway to heaven” as it was the only element besides a few log steps and a switchback here and there to break up the tenacious ascent. My heart pounded in my ears.
“How are you doing, Zoe?” asked her father.
“I’m still alive,” replied Zoe sarcastically.
“No turning back now,” said Jack, encouragingly. “Besides, we need you in our photos at the top.”
“You could Photoshop me into the fire tower,” she retorted.
“Let’s make a wager,” said Jack, hoping to distract her. “How many pictures do you think we’ll take of you today?”
“Zero,” replied Zoe, putting on her best teenage attitude.
Just under two hours into our hike, we entered the lower boreal forest. We figured the fire tower was close, but Zoe’s mood did not improve.
“This is more like twelve miles than two and a half,” she complained.
Mist swirled around us giving us a mildly claustrophobic feeling, and it began to drizzle. However, Zoe’s tone brightened a few minutes later. Through the fog, we spotted the footings of the fire tower. Then the entire structure loomed above the treetops.
The Tower. Vanderwhacker Mountain’s original wooden fire tower was built in 1911, then replaced in 1918 with the thirty-five-foot tall metal one that stands there today. It was decommissioned in 1988 and is now listed as a National Historic Landmark. We raced to the rock knob on which the tower was anchored, then surveyed the winding steps to the tower’s cabin. The structure was in exceptional condition with fencing all the way up preventing a long fall if one stumbled.
There’s something about climbing a fire tower that’s good for the soul. Despite the dreary day, even Zoe’s mood lifted as we ascended higher into the clouds. We didn’t care that the jawdropper view was completely obscured. The fire tower fascinated us like all fire towers do atop any mountain where they still stand.
Once inside the tower’s cabin, we passed around some food and took swigs from our water bottles. Zoe fully enjoyed her snack, sitting on the floor of the tower, reading the names etched in the paint and speculating on the story behind those other hikers.
“Do you think we’re whack jobs to make you climb Vanderwhacker?” I finally asked her.
“Yes, but I’m glad you are,” she smiled.
DIRECTIONS: From Newcomb, take NY 28N east for 10.2 miles. Just before a bridge over the Boreas River, turn right at the sign for Vanderwhacker Mountain (dirt road). Go 2.6 miles past a number of campsites and over railroad tracks. At the fork, bear right. The trailhead and parking area are 100 yards up a short hill. If coming from Minerva, drive 8.3 miles north and west on NY 28N. Just after crossing the Boreas River, turn left at the sign for Vanderwhacker Mountain.