July 9th started out like any other day that we planned to be hiking … early morning pick-ups for a carpool to the trailhead. Unfortunately, it didn’t end like any other hiking day, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself …
We reached the parking lot near Tahawus and started our trek out to 3 of the more remote mountains in the Adirondack High Peaks – Santanoni, Couchsachraga (Kook), and Panther. It was roughly 15 miles roundtrip, we had full packs, half a pack of dogs (3 of them), it was 6:30am and we weren’t wearing sunglasses … Ok, so maybe we aren’t the Blues Brothers, but we were definitely off on an adventure!
The first bit of the hike travels almost 2 miles on a gravel road, then it turns right and you’re off into the woods on the Blue trail. You end up crossing the Santanoni Brook a couple of times via missing or completely dilapidated bridges – take caution on that second bridge … it’s not all that safe. The brook, like most water crossings in the ADKs, is gorgeous — there’s just something about that cool, rushing mountain water that I can’t stop taking pictures of them!
The trail between the road and the junction with the Santanoni Express (SE) is very straightforward with relatively little elevation change — it’s a nice walk in the woods that follows the brook pretty closely. You have a few choices when doing this hike:
- Go up the SE, bag all 3 mountains, and make it a loop by coming down Panther Brook
- Go up Panther Brook, bag all 3 mountains, and make it a loop by coming down the Express
- Make the trip a full out-and-back, and go up then down either the Express or Panther Brook
As usual, a loop is preferred, so we decided that we were going to go up the Express and back out down Panther Brook.
For our proposed path, we were keeping an eye out for a cairn that would denote the start of the Express trail. Once we found the cairn, we took a small break and had a conversation with a large group of folks who had spent the previous couple of days at the Bradley Pond Lean-to (near the bottom of Panther Brook). They mentioned that they had some serious rains over the last couple of days – some of the hikers had to turn back on at least one of mountains because of the weather. Thankfully, the forecast for our outing looked pretty decent – partly cloudy during the day and a chance of showers late at night.
After we turned onto the Santanoni Express, we were going to be on unmarked herd paths for the rest of the day until we reached the bottom of Panther Brook and reconnected with the Blue trail. Since there has been a huge influx of folks working on achieving their 46er goals, the herd paths typically aren’t too hard to follow and the Express wasn’t any different. We did start gaining some elevation fairly quickly as we made our way on the trail. Dave decided to stop and filter some water before we got to far from the source — this turned out to be a good plan because once on the ridge, there wasn’t any real water source to refill at.
Dave mentioned a few times that “this is the easiest ADK trail I’ve been on in the High Peaks” … we warned him that he shouldn’t taunt the mountains because they can be vengeful, and yet he persisted. Looking back on the hike, he wasn’t entirely wrong — the Express, even with it’s steepness, was not a bad trail. I think there were only a few super strenuous portions, but overall very similar to many of the standard difficulty trails that we’ve been on.
While we were on the Express, we came across a fallen tree that was hanging over the trail at chest level. On one of the broken branch nubs was a small stuffed eagle key chain. I remembered seeing at least one picture of this little guy from someone who posted on the Aspiring 46ers Facebook page, and I was convinced that I could get it back to the owner, so we grabbed it and stored it in a pack. The hiking community is full of really great people, and we wanted to be able to help someone in any way we could.
After some more up-up-up, we reached the ridge trail that would lead us to Santanoni Peak (go left) and then to Times Square (go right). From the junction, it’s a quick jaunt to the summit of Santanoni where we were greeted by amazing views and more friendly hikers. We ran into a guy (Don) who was coming from Couchsachraga (Kook) and going to make his way down the Express. We got to chatting for a moment, and it turns out he met the eagle’s owner, Jeanne, when he was coming back from Kook, and told her that he would find the eagle and put in on her car when he got back to the trailhead.
We weren’t sure if we’d also run into Jeanne, so we gave Don the eagle and wished him well. We felt pretty good that we were able to help! We enjoyed some food on Santanoni, and then started our trek to Times Square where we would then branch off to hit up Kook.
The descent from Santanoni to Times Square actually took a lot longer than anticipated. I’m not sure of the reasoning, but that ~1 mile section of trail seemed to go on forever. Mark and the dogs had zipped ahead, while Dave and I stuck together on the way down. We met back up at a large boulder that was my indicator that we were ~100 feet from Times Square. We took a small break at the boulder to drop the packs and enjoyed some super incredible views.
I’m not sure how, but it was already 2:15 in the afternoon when we reached Times Square. With an estimated 3 miles out-and-back to Kook, we should have realized that the day was going to take longer than anticipated. Never deterred, we made our way onto the herd path out to Couchsachraga – a name that is based on an Algonquin or Huron name that actually means “dismal wilderness”. During my research for the trip, everything I read talked about the infamous bog, and how incredibly muddy and difficult it was to cross. When we started out on the trail, I looked down at my pants and feet — I was ALREADY covered in mud … this was going to be interesting!
About 15 minutes into our walk out to Kook, we ran into a group of women who were coming back. We got to chatting for a few moments (as we usually do with fellow hikers) and it turned out that this group was Jeanne and her hiking partners! We told them all about the eagle’s adventure up Santanoni with us, and his forthcoming arrival at Jeanne’s car via Don’s helping hands! Jeanne’s face lit up with joy and excitement at this news. The eagle had been with Jeanne for her entire Catskill 35er challenge and all of her Adirondack 46er challenge up to that day (she was in the 40s doing the Santanonis, I believe), as well as countless other hikes over the years. She was so sad to think that he wouldn’t make it through the entire adventure.
After some really great hugs — it’s nice to make people happy — we parted ways and continued on through the “dismal wilderness”. As I mentioned earlier, everyone goes on-and-on about the muddy bog, but not once did I read anyone report on the constant up-and-down that the trail does between Times Square and Kook … there were 2 different times when we were pretty sure we were about to summit, but it turned out to be another nubble. In fact, the up-and-downs were waaaaaaaaaaaay worse than the bog. The bog – which is only about 75′ wide – was easily passable using your hiking poles and the downed trees/logs and the least of our issues during our day in the Santanoni Range.
With tired muscles we reached the top of Couchsachaga – a mountain with a forested summit that is not technically high enough to be considered a High Peak, but tradition demands that a faulty survey reading in 1897 endures, so it’s on the list! There’s not much to say about Kook — we took our boots and socks off, took some silly pictures, and rested a bit (in hindsight, we were probably there much too long). After a small snack, we packed up and made our way back through the ups-and-downs-and-ups to reach Times Square. On this part of the trip, I took point with the dogs while Mark and Dave made their way at a slower pace.
We finally reached Times Square around 8:30pm. Where’d the time go? The original plan had us home by around midnight(ish), but looking at the time, we realized that was nearly impossible. Thankfully Dave had some signal, so we called Chrissie and Erica and explained that the hike was taking longer than expected, but we’re going to continue on and hopefully be home by 2:30am. While not ideal, we were still confident that we could get home safely in the dark.
After the phone calls were made, we popped on our headlamps, and hopped over to Herald Square (which is less than 100′ from Times Square) and followed a scratch on a rock up to Panther Peak. We were already up here and there was no way we were going to bail on Panther when it was less than a 20 minute walk. Knowing that this was the last summit of the day (night), we were moving at a decent pace, then it started raining on us … never a dull moment!
On top of Panther, we found a number of large construction “sacks” filled with rocks that had been dropped on the mountain via helicopter to be used to mark off some of the fragile alpine vegetation that was growing on the peak. It’s super important to preserve these areas because they are home to very unique types of plants — unique not only to New York, but to the entire planet! It’s nice to see that even these trail-less peaks get the preservation love that they deserve.
Since it was dark and raining, we made it to the summit marker stamped into the rock, took our boot shot, and made our way back down. In the distance, we could see some lightning flashing over/behind some mountains to the west … again, not a great situation to be in for too long, so we quickened the pace a bit more and popped out into Herald Square in ~10 minutes. Not too bad!
From Herald Square, we started down the path that follows Panther Brook. This path was going to take us all the way down the mountain and back to the Blue trail. What we didn’t count on was the extreme rockiness and steepness of the Panther Brook. Nor did we expect that Mark’s headlamp was going to die. It’s a USB headlamp, and thankfully we had a power brick to charge it back up, but we were moving slightly slower than normal because he needed to use a spare handheld flashlight.
Pain was the name of the game on the descent — our knees were feeling it and we were just exhausted from being on-trail for ~16 hours at this point and we had ~7 miles left to get back to the car. Slowly, but surely we made our way down to the section of the “trail” that leaves the brook. We crossed the brook and made our way through the woods on very well defined herd paths — remember, these mountains are not identified with DEC markers. In the dark, we were very glad that so many people had taken this path before us. Then things went awry …
We came up to a section where the heavily trafficked foot path turned toward the right. We followed the path and found ourselves in a section of the forest that was fairly open (trees weren’t close together) and had a lot of little paths off into many different directions. Originally, this wasn’t a big deal – we took out our compasses (all 3 of us had one) and worked on figuring out where we needed to head based on our current bearing and our map.
Good plan, right?!
As it turns out, the Santanoni Range has A LOT of iron ore throughout it (makes sense since the old Upper Works mine was only a couple of miles away). This iron ore did a number on our compasses — each one pointed in a different direction. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize this until we’d already started bushwhacking through some super thick vegetation. Frustration levels were high, and we were getting scratched and tripped up, so we turned around to head back into the clear area where we originally lost the trail.
We interrupt this trip report for a special public service announcement from Jay:
I would like to take a moment to tell you about the emergency plan that Chrissie and I have. If I’m not back from a hike by 8am the following morning (if it’s not a planned overnight), the plan is for her to call the NYS Rangers and to give them the information on the itinerary that I leave her before every trip, a description of who I’m with, when she last heard from us, and what was the expected time to be home. I think that *everyone* should have a plan like this when they are traveling into such remote places like the Adirondack High Peaks. It’s for safety and peace of mind for yourself and your loved ones, and really only takes a few minutes to come up with.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled trip report …
Back at the clearing, we tried for ~10 minutes to find the proper trail, but had no luck. It was about 1:30 in the morning, so we decided to stop for the night, setup a make-shift shelter, try to get a fire going, and get a few hours of shuteye until the sun came up. This was not an easy decision to make; however it was the right one – had we kept going, we could have ended up in a dangerous situation where we were either hurt, lost, or both. It just wasn’t worth it.
Dave tried to get the fire going, but the rain had soaked everything so it wasn’t really cooperating. Mark and I jury-rigged a lean-to out of a couple of solar blankets, duct tape and some rope. The shelter was a “first pancake”. You know, where you’re not 100% sure if the heat is right, or how long you should leave it on the pan before flipping? With the burnt edges? Yea … it wasn’t a great shelter, and we’re really lucky that it didn’t pour on us all night long, but it’s what we had. I have a better plan for a shelter if we’re ever in this type of situation again … at least, I *think* it’s better. At least the dogs cuddling up against us kept us warm 😉
Knowing that spending the night on the mountain side would mean that Chrissie would likely enact the emergency plan, I had a tough time falling asleep even though I was exhausted. I was up when the sun started casting its first bit of daylight through the woods. After a quick bite to eat, we started breaking down camp and getting a move on. To try and figure out where we went wrong, we backtracked all the way to the brook – maybe we weren’t supposed to cross at that point? No — the path clearly went across the brook to where we were, so we turned around again and made our way forward back to a place where we noticed (in daylight) that the trail splits. One well-worn path went off to the right and led back to the clearing that was our home for the night. The other path went straight … this was the correct way to go!
Once we were aware of how/where we got confused – which, looking back was very easy – we made our way down the rest of the mountain. There were a few sections of steep rock that we scooted down on our butts, but otherwise, the descent was fairly pleasant. We reached Bradley Pond, crossed a beaver dam, and popped out onto the Blue trail — we were well on our way back to the parking area that only 2.7 miles away.
The hike out was quiet and our brains were on autopilot. I had, once again, taken the lead and was blazing ahead while Mark and Dave were moving a little slower — I think Dave was a little broken 😉 Every 1/2 mile I’d pause and wait for the guys to catch up, see how they were doing, and then start out again. I was moving so fast because I knew that Chrissie and the kids would be worried about us, and I wanted to get to a place with service as quickly as possible to let them know I was OK. I think/hope the guys understood that.
Just past the dilapidated bridge over Santanoni Brook, we were greeted by a New York State Ranger. He stopped and asked, “are you the guys I’m looking for?” Yea — that was us. We explained what had happened and our decision to spend the night, and he was super cool about it – indicating that we made the right choice, and that particular section of the trail messes with a lot of hikers coming down in the dark. On the 1/3 mile walk back to the gravel road, the Ranger was getting in touch with the other two rangers that were also out looking for us. One guy was getting ready to make his way up the Express, so it was good to catch him before too much unnecessary hiking.
Once we made it back to the gravel road, the Ranger had his truck right there. With Dave being a little busted, we opted to hop in and get taxi’d to the parking area. Before getting in, the Ranger asked me if I’d ever gotten in trouble with the law before. I was definitely taken aback and answered, “Me? No way man … that’s not how I roll.” He gave me a sideways look and kept pushing about some boating and drunken belly-flopping incident in the past. I assured him that my record is embarrassingly squeaky clean. That seemed to abate his curiosity and he let us into the truck, albeit, sitting on a thick pad so we didn’t get mud on the inside 😉
We got back to the Jeep, changed into some clean cloths, thanked the Rangers, and started the trip home. Once we got home, I found out that Chrissie was less worried about us being stuck on the mountain – she knew we had what we would need to survive – but more worried about us driving home too tired and crashing off the side of the road. I was glad to know that the emergency plan worked, and apologized profusely for her having to use it in the first place.
The following week, we became semi-famous on the NYS DEC site, when they posted the previous week’s Ranger activities:
The trip was good even if it didn’t go exactly as planned. I think that the Santanoni Range gets a lot of flack (probably because of Couchsachraga), but it’s definitely a beautiful, remote part of the Adirondack park. Looking back on the experience, I think I’d like to hit the range again at some point, just to see if it’s really that difficult, or if we just had an off day.
These 3 mountains were repeats for Mark, my numbers 14/15/16, and Dave’s numbers 15/16/17 on our trek to becoming Adirondack 46ers.
Distance: 14.67 miles
Time: 24:05:12 (over 2 days)
Height: 4,607 (Santanoni), 3,820′ (Couchsachraga), 4,442′ (Panther)
Party: Jay, Mark (& Daisy), Dave (Buddy & Lady)