A low-peaks bushwack on 2020 Open Space Institute land acquisition in Champlain Valley
By Tim Rowland
In 2020 Open Space Institute purchased a heapin’ helpin’ of low forested mountainland tucked between an eastern segment of the Taylor Pond Wild Forest and the Northeast Wilderness Trust’s Eagle Mountain tract on the upslopes of the Champlain Valley.
It was a natural fit for protecting a wildlife corridor ferrying critters from Lake Champlain to the park interior by way of wild backcountry forest stretching from Poke-O-Moonshine Mountain to the Jay and Hurricane wilderness lands.
OSI’s tract will in time convey to the state Forest Preserve, but meanwhile it is open to “passive recreation,” (or, as I like to call it, “poking around”) so why wait?
The tallest peak in this beautiful 2,230-acre tract is the 2,100-foot Deerfield Mountain — so after you’ve conquered that, everything else is just details. It is a delicious winter climb that takes you into some startling rugged terrain, considering that it’s within sight of the bustling Northway.
For all things in and around Poke-O, David Thomas-Train is the source to go to, and he gave me a quick primer on accessing the territory from Poke-O-Moonshine’s Observers’ Trail. The Observers’ Trail is south of the shorter and steeper Ranger Trail.
If you tool on up the O.T. for about three-quarters of a mile you will come to a point that the trail jogs to the right away from the old woods road it’s been following. A rather elaborate twig crosshatch dissuades hikers from continuing straight. After a short distance you cross a small bridge, and from there it’s about 50-60 paces to the point where a faint herd path allegedly bears to the left at a shallow angle. Frankly, I wouldn’t have recognized it had not another snowshoer taken this route maybe a week or two before.
But if you can make this leap of faith you will be rewarded in a couple hundred feet when an obvious woods road materializes that is child’s play to follow, at least for a while. From this road, which climbs moderately, you will see a brook below on your left, and pretty soon you will see Little Deerfield rising steeply from the floor of the narrow valley (Deerfield is behind Little Deerfield at this point.) The severity of the slope will convince you of the necessity of continuing north well past Little Deerfield before curling to the west through a remarkable basin ringed by some tough customers — dark, jagged mountain faces and sharp crags leering down through the trees.
If you are a golfer, this deep cup, which becomes smoother and more shallow to the east, looks for all the world like Satan’s own divot, and is some of the more impressive topography you’ll see in this neck of the woods.
I need to talk about the names of the mountains in this region, which for creativity wins hands down. Poke-O-Moonshine, obviously, but for the changing climate we have Dry and Burnt mountains; for pork lovers we have a Hogback Mountain, not to be confused with its neighbor Pigback Mountain; there is a Barber Mountain right next to, wait for it, Baldface Mountain, and if all that isn’t enough we have the grand prize winner, Alec Le Mountain Mountain. I couldn’t find the source of this name, but I did find that you can buy a tin Alec Le Mountain Mountain street sign on Amazon for $24.95, suitable “for man cave, tavern or game room.” I am not kidding about any of this.
Once you are deep in the cirque, angle left and head for the notch between Deerfield and Carl mountains. A woods road runs between these mountains, and where it passed a large erratic boulder, I made a left and bushwhacked straight for the summit. It’s steep, but if you proceed to the left (north) side of the top there are no cliffs and no spruce.
The logged summit plateau was festooned with striped maple and beech whips, and normally I don’t have much good to say about either species, but thorough a climatic quirk, every twig on every hardwood was adorned with quarter-inch ice crystals that sparkled up close and at a distance made it look as if the ridge above 1,800 feet had been spray foamed.
The highest point of Deerfield is to the south on this plateau, and that’s where the views were — excellent perspectives on the Champlain Valley to the east and south and a cool window looking over to the tower on Poke-O.
And if animal protection is a goal, mission accomplished. Tracks were everywhere and of multiple species. David says wind and melt can make a deer track look like a sasquatch, but I swear, I saw some spooky tracks up there, including a rabbit big enough to scare a greyhound into making a U-turn.
The round trip gained about 1,500 feet and covered five miles and change. Even without the climb, this is really interesting territory to explore, particularly in winter when leaves don’t hide the landscape. There are also some interesting stone walls and foundations back there, and the tract in total is largely made up of open hardwoods with plenty of old logging roads to follow if getting slapped in the face with a beech whip in 3 degree weather isn’t your thing.