Macdonough Mountain lives up to greatness for which it is named
By Tim Rowland
Had anyone been sitting on the easternmost peak of the Jay Range with a spyglass in early September 1814, they would have been able to spot a handful of gunboats under sail from a shipyard on Otter Creek in Vergennes, Vermont, up Lake Champlain to the New York town of Plattsburgh to the north.
Neither the British nor the Americans were particularly enthusiastic about fighting the War of 1812 so soon after the close of the Revolution. The Brits had their hands full with Napoleon on the Continent, and most Americans had better things to do, getting to the profitable work of building a new nation.
But—stop me if you’ve heard this one—some in Congress became incensed with British insults on the high seas, and in the name of honor demanded that President James Madison declare war, which he did against his better judgment.
Lake Champlain was defended at the time by a two-boat fleet that early on in the war got out over its skis in pursuit of a British gunboat and wound up getting themselves captured after misjudging wind and current.
The responsibility for bringing order to this mess fell to a tall, affable redhead named Thomas Macdonough, who had been to sea but was wholly inexperienced at ship-to-ship combat. Starting from scratch, he cobbled together enough ships so as to be taken seriously, and then sailed for Plattsburgh, which had become a focal point as British forces descended from Canada.
Early American naval history is filled with spectacular, improbable victories and humiliating and equally improbable defeats. No one could have predicted that Macdonough would perform brilliantly on Sept. 11, 1814, and stall the British advance at a critical point in the war, but he did, and even his enemies tipped their bicornes to his tactics and his honor.
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You get the feeling that if Macdonough’s handlers had just assigned to him a quote, like, “I have not yet begun to fight,” or, “Damn the torpedoes,” he would be remembered along with names like John Paul Jones and Oliver Perry.
One man who did take notice was the great Adirondack surveyor Verplanck Colvin, a man who did some of his best thinking on mountaintops and from a long and prominent blade of stone and spruce in what is now the Jay Wilderness would have seen in the distance the band of sapphire that is Lake Champlain and pictured the sails of Macdonough’s fleet and the rising smoke of his guns.
It was Colvin who gave Mount Macdonough its name, at least for a time. Originally spelled McDonough, the captain changed it for unknown reasons. For reasons that are equally unclear, the name of Mount Macdonough was changed to Slip Mountain, which began appearing on maps in 1953.
That left a bad taste in the mouth of Clinton County historian Jim Bailey, not just because it disrespected the memory of Macdonough and the City of Plattsburgh, but because Bailey was a descendant of Capt. Levi Brown, who helped repulse the British more than two centuries ago.
“It irritated him no end that it was named Slip,” said his wife Anne. “He did a lot of research and no one seemed to be able to justify it.”
So Bailey went to work to change it back, finding a 19th century map with “Macdonough” overlaying the peak, and unearthing in Colvin’s writings that he had indeed named the prominence “after the gallant officer whose victory upon Lake Champlain was witnessed by this mountain.”
Bailey—who happened to have been born on the 122nd anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh—petitioned the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, which eventually agreed eight years ago that Macdonough was correct. “He was working in the basement and I was upstairs, when I heard him go ‘Yahoo!’” Anne said. “He was thrilled, and said it was the best Christmas present he had ever had.”
In honor of both Macdonough’s late-summer victory and Bailey, who died in June, this summer seemed like an appropriate time to explore the 3,320-foot peak and see what Colvin would have seen as he was making his indelible mark on Adirondack mountaintops.
Macdonough sits among a warren of interesting mountains reached from a small parking lot at the end of Seventy Road in the Town of Lewis. The area may unfortunately be best known as home to the NYCO mine that was the subject of a controversial land swap eight years ago that was approved by voters but to date has yet to materialize.
The Fay Mountain Tract parking lot is reached by taking the Wells Hill Road out of Lewis until it bends to the right and becomes Seventy Road. In a little less than a mile, Seventy Road passes the NYCO entrance and veers to the right past a DEC sign. The road turns to apathetically maintained dirt at this point, but if you’re in an SUV or a passenger car that you don’t particularly care about, you should be fine. The parking lot appears on the right after about eight-tenths of a mile with a DEC sign announcing your arrival.
Fay is a nice little destination of its own, best reached by fish-hooking around to the north to avoid a steep face and a band of stubby spruce. It offers the best view of Macdonough if you want to get a perspective on it, because you can see the whole ridge, beginning on the right with Seventy Mountain, which then rises to Bald Peak and then rises more steeply on to Macdonough itself.
Macdonough is a bushwhack, and while you will encounter enough troubles to earn the spectacular views at the top, it is not, as bushwhacks go, too awfully terrible, and it is relatively short—you can have the whole thing, including summit wanderings and sundry bushwhack meanderings, wrapped up in under 5 miles round-trip.
The preferred route, if there is such a thing, goes directly beneath the summit of Bald, if you care to bag that one too.
Adirondack Explorer photographer Mike Lynch and I decided to make the jaunt in anticipation of the September anniversary of Thomas Macdonough’s finest hour, and it should almost go without saying that if you are looking for solitude in the Adirondack Park, this is about as good as it gets. The parking lot has space for two cars, but if there’s even one there, I owe you a Coke.
Water and profanity
From the parking lot, Macdonough is best accessed by crossing the meager little road you drove in on and heading up the right bank of a small brook. The first half mile is a relatively pleasant, moderate climb through an open forest without any real blowdown to speak of. The stream and easy, obstacle-free hiking won’t last, so you will want to make sure you’re stocked up on water and profanity, because you will need plenty of both before you’re done.
Our immediate goal was to shoot for the col between Seventy and Bald mountains, which is achieved by more or less following the stream, although you can go straight up instead of hugging the meandering streambank. After a half mile, the going gets steeper. The stream becomes more of a drainage before long, and we continued to follow it until we turned left into another draw coming down from Bald. In a short time, this becomes less of a drainage and more of a small chasm with an impenetrable debris field of fallen logs, moss-covered boulders and other miseries too numerous to mention.
We climbed up out of the drainage on the left and continued up until we were at the foot of the summit cone of Bald Peak.
“Summit cone” might sound a tad chesty for a peak of some 2,300 feet, but it can be a tough little nut to crack, although it is ever-so-worth-it. The best approach I’ve found is from the north up through the spruce (sorry), which is marginally easier than battling the rock bands found elsewhere. So, if you find yourself in an interesting little chasm between Bald and the resumption of the Macdonough ridgeline, you have gone a bit too far to the south.
The views from Bald are superb, and its summit, per the name, is more open than Macdonough itself. It also provides a great view of Macdonough and the ridge leading up to it, which for part of the way is an interesting staircase of open cliffs. A quick scramble up and down will only cost an extra half hour or so, counting time spent gawking.
From the base of Bald’s summit cone, the route to Macdonough squeezes along the northern flank of an unnamed knob. While map and compass are always the standard, a GPS app that tracks your route is helpful here, as this passage can be easy to miss on the way back.
At least to me it is. Mike, it should be pointed out, is way too polite to ever question my navigation skills openly, but some people have, so I would occasionally throw out knowledgeable sounding pronouncements designed to inspire confidence, like, “There’s a draw coming down from the left,” and “The sun is in the sky,” in hopes he would think I knew what I was doing.
In all seriousness, this is the one part of the route that I find to be a little tricky, so it’s a place to pay attention going up and coming down. A springtime oddity is that the slope here is carpeted with trout lilies and spring beauties that seem to go on forever.
Emerging from this passage, which is about at the halfway point, it’s now clear sailing to the summit, at least in geographical terms. Just keep the ridgeline on the left all the way to the top. Because the ridgetop is a bit sprucy it’s advisable to stay a bit below the spine that admittedly looks so tempting when viewed from Bald.
There are views to be had along this ridge though, and there’s no terrible harm popping up here and there to see if you can find one. Mike found a great little break in the pines that offered a fine look up at Macdonough’s sheer, east-facing cliffs.
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The way is littered with standard amounts of blowdown, more irritant than impediment. We found no evidence of human herd paths, although a few little worn patches with copious amounts of moose scat told us we were not alone.
The final ascent is a matter of trial and error as you hunt for chutes through bands of cliffs that are not terribly high, but need some care in negotiating. As you approach the summit stay to the right and a rock outcrop the size of a minivan and guarded by a tight wrap of spruce and balsam will present itself. Hoist yourself up and you’ll be treated to an up-close view of Jay Mountain and rows of mountain majesties soldiering on into the west.
The best view from Macdonough, however, takes a little hunting and is on the south end of the summit, where a sheet of open rock (and an ancient fire ring) affords one of the best views of the Great Range there is, framed by Hurricane and the Jay Range, and decorated with perfect conical balsam piercing the skies like green stalagmites.
Continuing counterclockwise around the summit there are finally views here and there to the east, the ones that inspired Verplanck Colvin so many years ago. There is Lake Champlain, the blue welcome mat to the Green Mountains of Vermont. There is Split Rock, Camel’s Hump, Mansfield and the Boquets—all of which would have been familiar landmarks to the surveyor.
It is a view worthy of a fine naval captain, and a story worthy of a fine historian whose persistence helped keep the captain’s memory alive.