By Tim Rowland
Sometimes you just get an itch to climb a slide. Maybe it’s the physical challenge. Maybe it’s the wall-to-wall view you get on your way up. Maybe it’s the way after you push through the “What in the world am I doing this for?” phase, a warm, rich sense of accomplishment is sure to kick in.
But slides are notoriously hard to get to, and as the days shorten, climbing one becomes, for us mere mortals, a sport that’s off the table until spring. One shoulder-season exception is the slide on Wilmington Peak in the Stephenson Range in northern Essex County.
The kick of the Wilmington Slide is that you can basically ride your mountain bike to the base of it — or at least knock off a pretty good chunk of the approach. Given the vagaries of shoulder season, a biking opportunity can become a skiing opportunity at a moment’s notice, but as the weather has been holding nicely this November, I threw the bike onto the truck for one last run.
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The Wilmington slide was cut in 2011 by Hurricane Irene, an event the locals still talk about as if it were yesterday. It’s also a difficult climb, particularly as you come to the headwall in the upper reaches, but you don’t have to go all the way up to get nice views and be wowed by the awesome power of nature; and I am using the word awesome here as it was meant to be used, not as the kids use it today to describe, say, Pop Tarts.
The slide is accessed from Cooper Kill trail, which has become a somewhat official bastardization of Cooper Kiln. In the olden days, “kiln” was pronounced “kill” which is I guess where the confusion came in. It is a largely unused, 5.7-mile traverse from the notch just past the Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway to Bonnieview Road northeast of the hamlet of Wilmington.
Cooper Kill offers four-season recreation — skiing, biking, hiking and snowshoeing — and includes access to two of the Adirondacks’ Hundred Highest peaks, a lovely pond, lean-to and several good bushwhacking or quasi-bushwhacking opportunities.
I will make two observations about Cooper Kill Trail. 1. People bicycle the length of it. 2. People are insane. But that said, the eastern end of the trail off the Bonnieview trailhead is calm enough for a marginally civilized ride without all the drama of the higher elevations.
The eastern trailhead is accessed by driving north on Bonnieview for 3.2 miles from the four-way stop in Wilmington.
The trail initially follows an old woods road and the ride is quite pleasant. It gets steeper, but it gets steeper gradually, so like the frog in the pot of increasingly hot water, you don’t entirely realize you’re being tortured until after the fact. There’s a stream crossing at a half mile, and the trail grows steeper as it climbs a hogback, leveling out in a cirque at about 1.2 miles.
Soon there’s another stream crossing, and after that the trail is a bit peppery for me, so I ditched the bike and soldiered on for another half-mile where Cooper Kill Trail takes a hard left. Here, a well-established herd path goes straight, with a small stream far below on the right.
At some point you will realize that there’s something odd about the brook — boulders where they don’t seem to belong and freshly excavated and eroded streambanks.
Pretty soon this hodgepodge becomes the slide proper. The ever-fainter herd path continues up the left side of the slide, but at some point you’ll want to leap right in and begin picking your way through the gravel and rocks, which range in size from a softball to a small shed. One in particular gets your attention, an especially a momentous stone that must have been quite a sight thundering down the mountain.
Naturally, it’s slow going, between the loose scree and the briary vegetation taking hold in the thin soil. Heavy clothes, gloves and eye protection is a good idea, and of course as winter approaches, microspikes are always a pack essential. There’s plenty of water running over open slabs, which means that when temperatures drop for good there will be plenty of ice. It’s mostly avoidable though, and you can choose a route on the way up that seems most consistent with survival.
The slide is shaped like a comma, and due to its impressive overall length the views soon open up of the Ausable River Valley, a hint of the Jay Range and the mountains that make up the eastern smattering of the Taylor Pond Wild Forest. Climbing a couple hundred feet above the Big Boulder — you’ll know it when you see it — makes for a perfectly good view and a perfectly good day. From this vantage point there will also be spectacular views looking up to the headwall and the summit of Wilmington Peak with the raw, brutal scar from where the slide all started.
But if you wish to keep climbing from here, well, party on, Garth.
The headwall is a massive, chest-pounding block-o-stone that has a bit of a crack in its 10-foot face. Twenty years ago I might have tried it, but if you are loath to do anything that you will have to explain to Medicare, discretion is probably the better part of valor.
The guidebooks suggest that the headwall can “easily” be skirted on the right. If they say so. In truth, the thickets of dense spruce almost make you wish you were back on the slide, arms pinwheeling wildly to reclaim your balance. But it does get you around the headwall, at which point you can gain the ridgeline that puts you at the base of the summit. Wilmington Peak is one of the Hundred Highest, so you can tag it if you care to, although if the HH is your goal, there’s a better approach coming up from Cooper Kill Pond from the west.
Descending the slide I cheated, I guess you would say, staying in the woods to the left of the slide going down. Being leafless hardwood most of the way you lose nothing of the views, and while fallen dry leaves can be just as slippery as wet rocks, it just felt a little less precarious.
The best part of the day, arguably, is what’s usually the worst — the dreaded Return to the Car after an interesting mountain adventure. Instead of a slog, simply hop onto your bike and hang on for dear life.
This also greatly reduces the chunk of time it takes to complete the adventure. I started at 10 in the morning and was back by halftime of the 1 o’clock NFL game. Shoulder season doesn’t get much better than that.
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