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Take A Hike: Getting Back Outdoors

View from the top of Ampersand Mountain. Photo: Ella Gurney.

Take A Hike: Getting Back Outdoors

By Ella Gurney
June 13, 2018

There’s ice coating one of the boulders next to me. Water drips off of it slowly, tracing a path through some moss below. The boulder in front of me is much larger and steeper, but isn’t slippery with ice, and, looking around me, I can see that the only way forwards is up. Gritting my teeth, I grab a nearby exposed tree root that’s jutting out from the top of the boulder, dig my toes into a crack in the rock, and pull myself up. It’s high, but I manage to lift myself up and get a foot onto the top of the boulder, then throw the rest of my body forwards, landing on cold mud, bare rock, and crushed spruce needles. Not exactly elegant, but at least I’ve overcome the obstacle. Standing up, I brush the dirt on my hands off on my pants and look ahead. More melting ice, more boulders, more clambering in the general direction of up.

This might sound like a forced, rugged Arctic adventure, but actually, this is a willingly undertaken journey in the Adirondacks— a hike up Ampersand Mountain. It had been so nice over the past week that I decided to get back outside and enjoy the warm spring weather, and I finally took the plunge— or should I say made the ascent?

Ampersand isn’t a High Peak— it’s one of the “Saranac Six,” six mountains around Saranac Lake that award you the title of “Saranac Lake 6er” if you complete them all. The Saranac Six are made up of Baker, St. Regis, Haystack, Scarface, Ampersand, and McKenzie mountains, and are more accessible to the everyday hiker than some of the High Peaks. Ampersand is the second-highest with an elevation of 3,353 feet, but distance-wise is reasonable, with a 2.7 mile hike one-way, and can be done in about 4 hours. I had also read that it offered beautiful views, so I grabbed a friend, packed a lunch, and pulled on my hiking shoes, raring to go.

I had another reason for wanting to get out hiking besides the beautiful weather (although the beautiful weather definitely helped). I was about to graduate from St. Lawrence University, and I wanted to reconnect with both my sense of self and sense of place. Getting outside and hiking seemed like the perfect opportunity to challenge myself and reflect on my time living and learning in the North Country and Adirondack Park. When you live in a place, even if it’s just for a short period of time, you get a sense of the place, its residents, and what life there is like. No matter where you go afterwards, you carry that place with you. After four years at St. Lawrence, I wanted to think about what I learned in my time in the North Country, and what I would be taking with me as I move past college.

While I’ve been lucky enough to hike with my family and on my own, I’ve never climbed a High Peak, and since I hadn’t been hiking all winter, I self-assessed my hiking skill level at a solid “moderate.” I knew I could hike Ampersand without any issues, and I had enough experience to know to pack lots of water, snacks, and layers (it gets cold on top of mountains) but I will admit: I definitely broke a sweat. Portions of the trail were slippery and muddy, and as we got about halfway up the mountain, we started to see the last of winter’s snow and ice. There wasn’t a lot— there were a few melting snowbanks the size of a desk, for example— but it was enough to signal that spring comes later on mountains, and I was glad to have packed an extra sweater, especially when we got to the summit. It was a sometimes-sweaty, sometimes-chilly muddy ascent, and at some points we were literally climbing up the rock face. There were a few fallen trees as we traveled up the trail, which made it difficult to stay on the path at some points. However, it was fantastically beautiful, and it felt really good to be back outside after a long winter. There were ferns and wildflowers blooming alongside the trail, and we were lucky enough to see some purple trillium, which are a rare type of wild lily. And of course, the view at the top was more than worth it.

As I sat at the top of Ampersand, I could see for miles all around me. There was a little bit of snow at the top of some of the nearby mountains, but for the most part, they were looking green and lively. Sun shimmered off some of the lakes below, and we were even lucky enough to see a hawk soar past. Sitting on the sun warmed rock, I thought about how my time at school was a lot like climbing the mountain. There were points were it was a struggle, but I was always surrounded by beauty, and I always had a friend watching my back. Getting to the top was a challenge at some points, but I was always strong enough to pull myself up.

Some aspects of my hike were different than my life. The path down Ampersand was clear, and the same way I had gotten up, while I’m unsure where my next steps will lead me. However, taking a hike and getting away from some of the clutter of everyday life was refreshing. As I looked out from the mountain around me, I was reminded that no matter where we’re going or what we’re doing, it’s important to take a break to catch your breath, think about all the work you put in, and appreciate the view from the top.

By Ella Gurney
Canton, NY