Solving a forest mystery; hiking Potash Mountain
By Tim Rowland
Deep in our woods in Jay is an ancient iron cauldron, the purpose of which has been a mystery. Too deep for boiling sap, too round for scalding hogs, too remote for cooking food, there it sat, the bottom broken out and, even if it had been in one piece and a desirable antique, virtually unliftable.
It took Adirondack historian John Sasso to figure it out. After inspecting it, taking some photos and doing some research, he concluded it was used to cook potash, a pursuit of the earliest settlers in the late 1700s and early 1800s as they cleared their land and burned up the bothersome trees.
The forest today is evergreen, but it was likely hardwood when Jay was founded in 1799. Needing pasture for their sheep, settlers cut the trees and burned them up.
The resulting hardwood ash was mixed with water and cooked down in large iron cauldrons into what were perhaps the first industrial chemicals manufactured on these shores.
This “pot ash” (hence, potassium) was used in a variety of applications, including glass, pottery, soap and textiles.
Much like celebrated communal barn raisings and corn-huskings, settlers would come together for “logging bees,” where the hard work felling forests was rewarded with some raucous partying around what must have been some pretty intense bonfires.
There was a financial benefit, too. Britain, long on textiles and short on forests, had particular use for this chemical, and was prepared to pay cash for ash. To settlers, with next to nothing in the way of coin, this source of hard money was virtually a miracle.
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In 1779, Julius C. Hubbell told that Plattsburgh Republican that, as an attorney, potash was good for his business as well: “There used to be plenty of whiskey on hand at these logging bees, and as a natural consequence considerable fighting followed that made litigation brisk — assault and battery cases coming up in abundance, and as I was the only lawyer between Champlain and Plattsburgh, it made me plenty of business.”
I had known that there was a Potash Mountain in my relative neighborhood — in the Hurricane Mountain Wilderness — and the positive ID of the kettle seemed like a sign that I ought to check it out.
Although there’s no trail, the approach is straightforward. Take Hurricane Road at Town Hall in Keene and follow it to O’Toole toward the Crow Clearing that features trails to Big Crow, Little Crow, Weston Mountain, Hurricane Mountain and the Nundagao Ridge.
(Technical Point # 1: Since there are only two Crows, I have suggested Crow Clearing should be renamed Attempted Murder Clearing, but I’ve been warned that I’m getting pretty close to dad-joke territory here.)
Nun-Da-Ga-O Ridge is part of the Soda Mountain Range, the names of which are indicative of a gritty, industrial past: Potash Mountain, Soda (ash) Range, Coal Dirt Mountain and Red Rock Mountain, likely a reference to iron ore. So all things considered, I kind of took this to be the Toledo of the Adirondacks, once upon a time, although today it is about as untrammeled as it gets.
The Nun-Da-Ga-O Ridge Range used to be in the same boat, and when I started hiking it 20-odd years ago, you needed a machete and navigational instruments generally associated with Capurnicus to make it out alive. Today it gets a lot of ink and traffic, and although the trail is unmarked it is easy to follow. Hikers looking out to the north, however, will see endless wilds (including Potash Mountain), with no trails or unofficial destinations. Which, of course, is what makes it cool.
A third of a mile from Crow Clearing the plowing stops, which means a little extra hiking in winter. From the clearing, head toward the Crows to the split with the Nun-Da-Ga-O Ridge trail, marked with a small badge.
There were bootprints of fellow hikers past, making it easy to follow to the small saddle between Big Crow and the ridge. At this point I left the trail and started to descend a drainage leading to something of a wide cirque north of the Nun-Da-Ga-O Ridge. Since I was already at about 2,500 feet, the idea was to hold the contour parallel to the ridge to the east side of Potash, leaving only a small bit more elevation to the summit.
Of course, as every bushwhacker knows, if you want to make the spruce laugh, make a plan.
A discouraging evergreen thicket forced me down the drainage of the saddle in hopes of finding a more civilized forest.
(Technical Point # 2: You can stay down in the drainage and battle the blowdown, or remain on the rim and battle the spruce. I chose spruce going down and blowdown coming back up — I like to think of myself as a well-rounded, Renaissance man when it comes to backcountry torture.)
A couple hundred yards beneath the saddle, the spruce and blowdown give way to one of the most beautiful birch woods you are likely to see. Just wandering through this forest would make for a pleasant afternoon, but even though I had lost the elevation advantage I still had designs on Potash which, continuing north, I began to see through the woods.
Still pretty high in the cirque, I crossed beautiful little ice-laced Jones Brook and arrived at the foot of the mountain. Having no delusions that there would be a view from the top, the goal was to find a band of cliffs that might afford a view. Sure enough, after a modest amount of climbing there was a long ring of cliffs, helpfully breached by a drainage.
Most were socked in with trees, but one outcropping was topped with a little meadow about the size of a volleyball court with a nice view of the Great Range, and a rare glimpse of Nun-Da-Ga-O Ridge from the north.
I found no cauldrons, and neither did I find any old industrial or logging roads, man made pits or any other sign of human meddling — which was kind of surprising. Obviously there is a little more exploring in this Hurricane Mountain Wilderness left to do.