Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Algonquin and Iroquois 2012-03-21

There are times in life when you're in the right place at the right time, like the Adirondacks on Wednesday, March 21st. The last day of the 46ers official winter season offered Florida weather with Adirondack views.

I picked through my list of winter peaks and decided Iroquois was the best fit for the day. Algonquin and Wright put up a tough fight last winter. When we reached Algonquin's summit we were running low on time and stamina to visit Iroquois. It now seemed fitting to hike over Algonquin on a freakishly warm "winter" day.

I left the Loj at 6:50 AM. I expected the trail to be spring-like muddy but it still came as a surprise to encounter mud in March. As I ascended the trail, the mud's consistency changed from syrup, to fudge, and finally to cookie dough. I managed to negotiate the first bits of icy spine in bare-boots. The rock hummock, near the campsite, was skinned in ice. After ascending it, with some difficulty, I decided it was time to put on my Trail Crampons. The ice eventually gave way to firm-packed snow that ran unbroken all the way to treeline. Except for its north-eastern face, Algonquin's summit was snow-free.

I arrived topside at 9:50 AM. The temperature was about 12C (52F), the winds were light, the sun was shining brightly in a clear blue sky, and I was the only hiker on the peak; it was wonderful! I called my wife and shared the moment with her.

New boots on Algonquin.
I could've spent the entire afternoon on Algonquin watching the ravens soar overhead and listening to the soothing rush of water in the valleys. However, Iroquois was the day's objective and, after a quick snack and a few photos, I began descending Algonquin's southern face. This section is one of my favourite places; it's a comfortable descent over solid rock amidst alpine sedges and sweeping views.

Fifteen minutes from the summit, I arrived at the junction and strapped on snowshoes. The herd path has a narrow spine that stands about four feet tall. It winds its way through the dense, stunted spruce trees and becomes a knife-edge in a few spots; bare-booting would be a bad idea. Boundary's summit was snow-free and so the snowshoes came off temporarily.

The recent version of MSR's snowshoe binding uses a metal stud, in lieu of a clip, to hold the excess strap. Anyone who has ever tried to push a strap-hole onto the stud, in cold winter weather, will attest to the fact that it is a difficult and frustrating task. I am happy to report that I have discovered how to make it easy. The exterior temperature has to match the interior temperature of the lab where MSR invented this infernal system.

Somewhere between Boundary and Iroquois I noticed that my face was becoming uncomfortably hot. I had forgotten to put on sunscreen before setting out. I usually carry a tiny squeeze-tube of the stuff in my ditty-bag but it was missing. A tube of Dermatone Lip 'n Face Protector is normally tied to my shoulder-strap and so I decided to try out the 'n Face part. It did the trick but it feels like greasing up for a Channel swim.

Iroquois's north-eastern slope was paved in snow and I chose it for my ascent route. At 10:50 AM, I was atop Iroquois, peak number 26; my winter season was officially over. The views were excellent; I could see the Sewards in the west and Allen in the east. Colden was covered in tendrils of snow and ice. Lake Colden retained its winter cover but Flowed Lands was clearly flowing again.

Iroquois's summit cairn.
The return to the junction was uneventful and seemed mostly an exercise in donning and shedding snowshoes. I arrived at the junction at 11:30 AM and realized the day would be over very quickly if I simply reversed course over Algonquin. I chose to return via Avalanche Pass. The descent to Lake Colden would change the hike's tone.

Descent to Lake Colden.
My recollection of the 'yellow trail' to Lake Colden was based on a single hike many summers ago. I recalled it was steep and followed the course of a stream that trickled over exposed rock offering good views. I now have a very different memory of this trail. With spring melt in full swing, this trail is a wild ride.

The upper section was paved in soft yet supportive snow. With my snowshoes in a snowplow stance, I was able to slide down the steeper pitches. All the while I heard the ominous sound of water flowing underfoot. The views of Colden were fantastic and I made excellent progress. I optimistically predicted a one hour descent to Lake Colden. I was wrong by one hour.

I enjoyed M. Night Shyamalan's 'Signs'. One of the film's themes is whether there are coincidences or does everything happen for a reason. In other words, events do not happen by pure chance but serve as signs and are part of a plan. If I believed this theory, I probably would've placed more meaning into discovering a puddle of excrement by the side of the trail.

It was very clear that someone, or something, had severe bowel issues and was forced to evacuate very urgently. It was the most disgusting thing I've ever encountered on a hike and prompted a "What the f__k?" The filth was alongside a steep pitch that descended to the first of several difficult water-crossings; was it a sign?

The first water-crossing made me realize that the so-called 'water hazards' I encountered two days earlier, on the Lillian Brook herd path, were child's play. The yellow trail's steepness ensures plenty of fast water and the early onset of spring eliminated all snow-bridges. I jinxed myself when I hoped it was the worst of the lot. It proved to be one of the easier ones to cross.

At one point, I stood above three raging streams and wondered which one, if any, was the trail. I descended via a narrow finger of land, separating two streams, and eventually caught sight of the trail in the distance. It felt good to get back on 'dry land' but the next water crossing was not far away. The direction of travel was never an issue but finding the path of least resistance kept me busy.

No sign of the trail but the direction is obvious.
After yet another tricky crossing I came to an area covered in earth. I prodded the surface with my trekking pole because I had no idea if the dark earth had caused the underlying snowpack to soften. There were a few ice floes beached on its surface. It was an odd sight and I suspect it is the result of a flash flood because it lay across from a large waterfall. I suspect its sheath of ice burst and released a torrent of water and soil onto the trail. I followed its course and it led to a spot that seemed to be a deadend. It was the first time I felt overwhelmed and that prompted me to stop and rest.

After a few minutes to eat, drink, and clear my mind, the problem seemed solvable. I bushwhacked along the steep shoreline to find a better vantage point. The trees were very closely spaced but at least the snowpack was solid. I spotted the trail and continued to the next crossing.

I had forgotten the yellow trail switches from one bank to another several times over its length. I recall feeling very pleased after successfully crossing a tricky stretch of water. I walked about a hundred yards downstream and discovered, to my disappointment, the trail crossed back over a far more difficult stretch of water. I retraced my steps to the upstream crossing, recrossed it, and bushwhacked a hundred yards to regain the trail. Whoever cut the trail must have done so in August.

The next crossing finally won and I went hip deep through a snow bank and into the underlying water. I probably uttered a few choice words and each squishy step thereafter reminded me of my carelessness. I was heading along the southern bank and came to a very wide crossing to the northern bank. Screw it! Feeling I was close to Lake Colden, I chose to bushwhack the remaining distance.

Someone else had the same idea because I came across snowshoe tracks several times. The snow was supportive but became patchy as I neared the lake. I learned how awkward it is to step over tangled deadfall while wearing snowshoes. Two hours after leaving the Iroquois/Algonquin col, I exited onto the blue trail within a stone's throw of the footbridge.

I had been looking for something to spice up the hike and I had found it. Amongst the numerous crossings I found many beautiful waterfalls and cascades. The rush of falling water served as background music, thunderous yet soothing. The price of admission was a little steep but the spectacle was memorable. I'm very glad to have experienced everything it had to offer.

I stopped at Lake Colden's northern trail register to put on dry socks. I wondered if I'd be able to cross Avalanche Lake and it wasn't long before that question was answered with a resounding "No". Most of the lake is covered in ice but it is gray and fractured; a moat of open water separates the ice from the shoreline.

Trap Dike purged by Hurricane Irene.
Purged by Irene, water was flowing freely through the Trap Dyke. The two Hitchup Matildas were in good shape and the northern one featured a 'hiker wash' in the form of water dripping from above. In Avalanche Pass I finally met another hiker. He appeared to be descending the slide created by Hurricane Floyd. He was wearing running shoes, T-shirt, and shorts. He zipped past me on the icy spine without the aid of traction devices. He made me wonder what kind of magical soles allowed him stick to ice. A silly thought occurred to me: maybe he was moving so fast that he never touched the ice long enough to slip!

Shortly before reaching Marcy Dam, I experienced the new section of trail. It's a very nice re-route and, to my surprise, has a bed of small river stones! Considering the rugged character of most Adirondack trails, this short stretch feels like a manicured garden path.

Marcy Dam's reservoir is full and a torrent of water gushes from the dam's breach. The dam is in a sorry state; it felt like visiting an old friend who had fallen on hard times. How many wonderful memories have started and finished with a crossing of the dam's bridge? I proceeded down the road to the temporary water crossing.

A sign indicates where the blue trail crosses Marcy Brook. It points to a trail that leads downstream; I didn't follow it. I descended the slope to the brook and crossed it via a plank. Getting to the plank is a little tricky owing to the volume of water.

On the opposite shore I met three hikers who asked me where I had crossed the brook earlier in the day. They had been following the brook's shoreline and discovered the plank. I explained I arrived via a different route, namely by hiking over Algonquin.

I now believe the re-routed trail leads to a water crossing, downstream from the plank, that may be impassable due to the water level. It would explain why they were moving upstream and scouting the shore. I headed directly up the slope and, within a hundred yards, found the original blue trail.

The balance of the hike was uneventful and I arrived at the Loj at 4:20 PM. It was a fine day spent on sun-drenched peaks and along rushing streams and waterfalls; memories to last a lifetime. 


See all photos.