Friday, July 22, 2016


I had spent days obsessing over the weather, in anticipation of leading a challenging Adirondack Mountain Club hike. I was thrilled when my three weather websites all predicted a perfect day, until the forecast changed to 65% chance of thunderstorms.  I could not take people to treeless summits, if lightning might come up, and was forced to cancel the outing.

Not only had I planned to lead the hike, but I had also arranged to camp overnight, and head south the following morning to spend the day with my 90-year-old parents in Saratoga. This had been a tri-fold plan, and I wasn't ready to give it up entirely.

The forecast for the Lake George area was considerably better than farther north. I tossed my tent in the car, packed some clothes, and made a quick decision.  I would hike part of the Tongue Mountain Range, overlooking Lake George, stay at nearby Hearthstone campground, and drive the 45 minutes to Saratoga the following morning, keeping to that portion of my previous plan.

Disappointed from having had to cancel the group hike, I set out on my own without my usual sense of excitement. Still, I knew the woods would work their magic once I got on the trail.  I would park at the Clay Meadow trail head, part-way along the Tongue Range, and hike to French Point Mountain, about 8 miles round-trip.

A car was on my tail as soon as I left the Northway.  I watched for DEC's brown and yellow signs, looking for Clay Meadow, but I was more focused on the car behind me.  I should have pulled over to let the tailgater go by, but I didn't have far to go, I thought, and continued on.

The first trail head parking I saw was not Clay Meadow, but the northernmost end of the Range, five miles beyond my intended destination.  That car behind me had made me miss my spot!  Not a great beginning, but, oh well, I could enjoy hiking a different section of the trail.

Even with temperatures in the low 70s, the humidity ran high.  I struck out at a good pace and broke into a sweat almost immediately.  Still, the path was lovely with lush green grasses at either side.  I saw two people coming from the opposite direction. We commented on the nice, though humid, day.

(Lean-to at Five Mile Mountain)

At the Five Mile Mountain lean-to, I took a big swig of water, peered at the western view through the trees, and had a snack. I stood on sunny rocks, checking first to make sure no rattle snakes lounged there.  The Tongue Range is a known timber rattler habitat, but people rarely see them. I knew enough to check sunny rocks, before wandering out on them though.

(view to the west from lean-to)
 A breeze came up and the air seemed to change.  So did my mood.  It felt great to be out here in the woods.  The humidity, now slightly dispelled by the breeze, brought out the aromas of the earth, and woodland plants.  I felt spry and set out on the gradual descent from the lean-to at a quick pace, as the lush green trail turned to stony rubble and last-year's fallen brown leaves. I still felt secure in my footing and skipped along.

In quick succession, just a moment really, I heard the noisy scramble of a grouse scared into flight by my approach, a startling clap of thunder, and the unmistakable, very nearby, loud rattle of a rattle snake. I catapulted about 15 feet down the trail, having taken a split-second glimpse of the snake just off the trail in the leaves.

Then I stopped, and looked back.  Mind you, I did not go back, not even one step, but I did take my phone out of my pocket to get a picture of the distant ground where I knew the snake must be.  My heart pounded.

I would have liked to have turned around and called the hike quits.  My parked car seemed like a distant oasis, but I couldn't go back.  No way would I go around that snake now, not even in a huge arc.  Besides, maybe he had a friend nearby.  I could only go forward.  In my new state of fear, I slowed my pace, so that I could see about eight feet ahead on both sides of the trail.  I would not be taken by surprise again.

(I stood a ways off for this picture, for sure!)

Even though the snake had been just inches off the trail (thank heavens, not ON the trail), I figured he must have felt the vibrations of my footfalls for quite a while, coming ever closer.  And, when I passed by, he shook loud and clear.  The more I thought about it, and pictured it in my mind, the more freaked out I was. An uphill climb to Fifth Peak dispelled some of my adrenaline, and I became more relaxed, still watching every step, however.

The lean-to at Fifth Peak has two beautiful views.  I walked out to the rocky summit (no snakes there) and saw heavy rain falling on the mountains to the southwest.  The sky above me remained blue with a few fluffy clouds.

(beautiful view and rain falling to the southwest from Fifth Peak lean-to)

As much as I loved that view, I could not stay in the strong sun. I moved to the other viewpoint, overlooking Lake George and the mountains on the lake's east side.  I sat on a rock (checking for snakes, of course), and enjoyed my lunch, the breeze, and the view.  My pulse had returned to almost normal. I texted Bill, including the photo below in my message.  All good.

(Lake George from Fifth Peak lean-to)

Since I had begun the hike at the more northern location, I ended up choosing a 12-mile round-trip outing, a bit more than I had originally bargained for.  Fifth Peak was my turn-around point, and I began my return.  With a tedious stride, I scoured the woods and trail at every step.  Spending the next two hours on high alert was not fun.

When I came to the place where the snake had been, I walked more quickly, still scrutinizing my surroundings. Once I reached the Five Mile Mountain lean-to, I convinced myself that the threat had  passed.

Thunder came and went in the distance; the sky was still mostly blue.  At another overlook, I saw rain falling on mountains in the southeast.  Thunderstorms had not been a worry for me on this day, and the occasional shower had cooled me off.

(rain falling to the east from a rocky opening from the trail)

Back at the car, I realized that, overall, I had hiked at a quicker-than-usual pace, despite my intense inspection of the trail. And I had had some good views. In retrospect, I considered my snake experience extremely "rattling" but unique.

Driving south along the lake, I picked up a sandwich at a deli in Bolton Landing, and got a campsite at Hearthstone.  Although just a few days before the 4th of July, I felt fortunate to procure a site quite close to the beach.  On the other hand, I was surprised that my site was the tiniest I had ever seen. It would just fit my Prius and little pup-tent.  Large family sites with multiple tents, huge amounts of gear, chairs, bicycles, and children, surrounded me with no trees between.

(Picnics were a regular Sunday afternoon outing -- my mother, my big sister, my father, and me)

My parents used to bring my sister and me to Hearthstone in the fall, when the campground and beach were deserted.  We would park on the road and walk down the pine-needled park driveway, carrying a picnic to the lake.  In my memory, I could smell the pine, and see the pretty lake. My sister and I waded at the edge of the water, in the quiet of Lake George's off-season.

Now, I looked around for affirmation of my childhood impressions.  Parents yelled, and children shrieked.

I read my newspaper from a bench overlooking the lake. Every now and then one of the big cruise boats went by -- the Minne-ha-ha with its paddle wheel, and the Lac du Saint Sacrement playing music. This, too, was Lake George, Queen of America's Lakes.

Evening came with a quick shower. Everyone, including me, left the beach, but returned within the hour. As if by magic, everything had changed. Rainbows seemed to be all around -- part of an arc to the north, two arcs to the south.  Four families appeared.  Fathers left quickly to get cameras from their campsites.  Children ran through the sand, making friends with one another.  Mothers got acquainted, as they oohed and aahed over the changing sky.  The rainbows became smaller, but more brilliant.  One to the south seemed to be almost on fire, and the clouds changed from gold to deep pink.

(rainbow just coming out before my phone battery died)

I didn't have my camera on this trip, and the battery on my phone died.  I didn't mind.  I waded into the water and watched the rainbows with everyone else, until the sky got dark and they disappeared.  I went back to my tiny campsite to settle in and read for a while, while the families built camp fires and put little children to bed.

In the morning, I got up early and headed for the shower at the campground bathhouse.  A custodian said, "You should go to the campsites across the road.  The showers are really nice there.  It's like paradise!"  Since I was walking, I used the shower closest to my campsite, but now I was curious.

When I packed up and got in the car to leave, I drove across the road to the campsites on the other side.  The sites had space, and plenty of trees between.  Granted, they were quite a ways from the lake, and I didn't get out of the car to check the paradisiacal showers, but many of these sites had a much more remote feel than those on the lake side.  Back on the main road, I reached my parents' house right on schedule, as originally planned.

Eventually, I returned to my own house. Just before going to bed, I transferred the previous day's pictures from my phone to my computer.  I studied the picture of the brown leafy trail, looking for the snake. When I expanded the photo, my heart leapt to my throat.  There he was, huge and coiled as if to strike.  I was freaked out all over again! 

(I added an outline so you could see him.  YIKES!!)

How would I ever get to sleep with these images keeping me wide awake?  Loud rattles filled my mind. I tried to think about the beautiful rainbows, but I wondered if I would ever dare to hike on the Tongue Mountain Range again.  And then I remembered winter.  Cold-blooded reptiles are inactive in the winter.  Okay, if I ever go back, it will be on snowshoes.