Jay Mountain Wilderness in known for borderline-impenetrable wildlands
A couple of months ago I read a letter to the editor of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise by a young woman named Lydia who, in anticipation of Halloween, was making the case that ghosts were superior to monsters.
Monsters, she said, have sharp teeth and will eat you, while ghosts are more spooky than scary.
I put some thought into this, and concluded she was right. I also agree that Halloween is a great holiday, and her letter reminded me of a bushwhack I’d been meaning to take.
A deer-hunting friend a couple months back related a story his dad had told him about Merriam Swamp high up in the Jay Range.
His dad had been hunting there all day, and after having no luck he sat down in the late afternoon, leaning up against a tree for a little snooze. He was awakened suddenly by a loud snap and the sound of an angry man talking loudly as he crashed through the thick underbrush.
His dad had admittedly been asleep, so it could have been a dream, or, possibly, someone else could have been sharing the remote wilderness location at the same time, although that seemed unlikely.
The story was left there, and little if any thought was given to it over the decades until one day my friend mentioned to someone in Keene that he was thinking about hunting up at Merriam Swamp. The guy started at the name and then said, “you’re a braver man than me” before recounting how he’d been hunting there when he heard a loud crash, and the sound of a man cussing and swearing and thrashing through the woods, again without leaving a trace.
The timing of a visit seemed apt, since it’s been raining a ton lately, and I figured MS would be chock full of swampy goodness and at peak spookiness. All told, it would be a six-mile adventure with 1,600 feet in elevation gain.
The Jay Mountain Wilderness is known for having its share of borderline-impenetrable wildlands, so it seemed prudent to take advantage of the Jay Mountain Trail as much as possible. From the trailhead on Jay Mountain Road, I followed the path for a mile and a half up the mountain until I was just shy of the 2,700-foot elevation of the swamp. From here it would just be a simple matter of hugging the contour for a mile and change until the sizable natural feature would hopefully be pretty obvious.
The forest was nice and open for about five seconds until blowdown, woodland marshes, random small cliffs and spruce began to add interest to the hike and slowed progress to a sometimes literal crawl. As advertised, this was heavy stuff. It provided plenty of time to contemplate life’s great questions, such as which is nastier, spruce, hobblebush or beech whips? At this dismal point I could at least appreciate why the Merriam Swamp apparition had been cussing and swearing.
I was a little more than halfway there by my reckoning when in some thickly vegetated wetlands I pushed aside a clump of hobblebush to see, about 10 yards away, a man silently looking in my direction.
I don’t know what either of us was expecting to see at that particular moment, but another human being wasn’t it. Fortunately this hunter was real and solid, the non-see-through variety, and for that I was grateful.
After fighting on for another half hour, two small knobs came into view, and if the map was to be believed, Merriam Swamp was just beyond through this wet and tangled portal. On the other side the ground fell off precipitously. I could see no swamp, but heard the roaring sound of what had to be Styles Brook, the short but beautiful stream that has the swamp for its source.
This turned out to be true. Merriam Swamp appeared as a broad tawny green expanse, ringed by evergreens and white birch. Above was a ridge of hardwoods, their leaves in late fall the color of pumpkins and lemons. High above that towered the stony Jay summit itself, almost Tetonesque, if you used a little imagination.
It doesn’t seem possible that a swamp could be a destination, but certainly this had all the ingredients, a sublime scene deep in the Adirondack backcountry. Styles Brook charged out of the gate and immediately started its plunge to The Glen below.
The bushwhack had been such a hellacious traverse through muck, blowdown and tightly thatched vegetation living and dead that I decided to take the road back down (what, you didn’t know there was a road?) that I’d noticed paralleling the brook.
It’s a relic from times of old that appears on the map, but it rather quickly enters private property. Still, it was such a joy walking on clear ground that I took it to the property line, even though it was going in vaguely the wrong direction.
This was a superior route overall, as it was below the spruce higher up. It crossed multiple streams cascading from the mountainside and contained several of those magical vignettes, including a wide open wood of maple, oak and giant aspen, and a red pine and blueberry ecosystem along some high, southern facing cliffs with views of the Hurricane Wilderness.
I re-entered the Jay trail where it crosses a small stream, and immediately ran into the hunter I’d crossed paths with near the swamp. We compared notes on what we’d seen; a couple of does and tracks of a moose. But zero monsters and zero ghosts. I hope Lydia won’t be disappointed.