Snowshoeing Sawyer Mountain

Standing at the Sawyer Mountain trail register, his snowshoes pushing through more than a foot of snow, Ned yelled out: “The last person to sign the register was six days ago.”

That wasn’t a surprise to me. There were no tracks in the snow and the snowbank along the parking lot was 5 feet high, with no indication anyone had scaled it to get to the trail.

Hiking crowds generally dissipate after peak colors fade in the fall, and this trail doesn’t get the number of hikers that frequent popular backcountry destinations such as those in Keene Valley and Lake Placid.

The lack of people would actually make the trip a bit more interesting. It meant we would have to break trail as we made our way through 1 to 2 feet of snow on this modest 2-mile roundtrip hike that ascends 600 feet to the 2,160-foot summit.

Sawyer Mountain, located off state Route 28 between Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake, is the only mountain in the Blue Ridge Wilderness with a trail to its summit, although Wakely Mountain and its fire tower are located in a primitive area within the wilderness.

Other than Blue Mountain, many of the trails near Sawyer Mountain are relatively flat. There are hikes to Rock Lake across the road in the Blue Mountain Wild Forest, and a 10-mile section of Northville-Placid Trail passes through the Blue Ridge Wilderness from Wakely Pond to the Lake Durant Campground.

The 47,177-acre Blue Ridge Wilderness abuts the Moose River Plains in the south and Blue Mountain and Sargent Ponds wild forests in the north. It is named for a ridge that stretches for several miles in an east-west direction through the wilderness.

As we started our hike, Ned darted ahead and disappeared as I was taking photos from the trailhead. I wondered if I’d see him again before we reached the summit, but after a few minutes I ran into him again standing in the trail peering at his smart phone. Before long, he darted off again.

Ned Hallahan is a 19-year-old St. Lawrence University  student who spent the fall in a yurt on Massawepie Lake near Tupper Lake as part of the  Canton university’s Adirondack semester. He’s an avid hiker, having already knocked off more than 30 4,000-footers in the White Mountains. He’s climbed the Knife’s Edge on the way to the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, and he’s already spent time hiking in the rugged Seward and Santanoni mountain ranges here in the Adirondacks.

During the first part of the showshoe, Ned and I did find the trail a bit slow going because it was hard to follow. The trail meandered a bit, and we’d lose it for 30 feet or so and then have to backtrack.

“They probably could use some more trail markers,” Ned said as we searched for them at one point.

Most times of the year, the trail markers are probably sufficient. This was just a rare case where the trail was obscured due to the recent snowfalls.

The forest here was predominantly hardwoods with a few balsam firs, covered in a layer of snow. On the way up we often encountered small beech trees bent across the trail under the weight of heavy snow, which clung to their branches.

One of the other more noticeable impacts of the snow was the lack of sound.

Ned noted the silence, and it’s something I especially enjoy on winter trips when the snowpack is deep.

It was late November when we hiked Sawyer, and winter wouldn’t officially start for another three weeks, but the conditions felt like January or February. Winter had come early to the Adirondacks, as many ponds and lakes had frozen already. In the northern Adirondacks, Lower St. Regis Lake iced over on Nov. 15, the earliest that’s happened since at least 1985, according to Paul Smith’s College professor Curt Stager, who tracks ice conditions there. Several Nordic centers also opened the weekend before Thanksgiving, a rarity for facilities that rely on natural snow.

The combination of these factors led to great snowshoeing or backcountry conditions early in the winter. As we climbed higher up the mountain, we encountered a steep open section of trail that looked like it would make a good ski for about 75 feet. We then passed a couple of areas that offered views through the trees of the surrounding landscape. Finally, we arrived at a viewpoint past the summit. Ned expressed surprise at the great view. There were clouds hanging low over the mountains in the distance but they didn’t obscure the view into the valley below.

Although we were only a mile from a state highway, this spot felt much wilder. Our snowshoe tracks were the only ones on the mountain, and there was no sign of development on the outstretched landscape. Even better, the only sound came from wind making its way through the snow-covered trees. 

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