A Winter Hike into the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness Area

New Snow, New Tracks

As the day warmed from its initially cold beginning, Wren and I took an afternoon this week to hike into the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness Area from the Haystack Mountain Trailhead along Route 86 in Ray Brook. The day had started out not only cold, but clear and blue. Gradually the clouds drifted in to blot out the sun before we departed, but the afternoon was pleasant, and the light powder of snow on our icy base was inviting for exploration.

For those interested in going, the trail was well-packed and for the most part was not icy. This meant that snowshoes could be used, but weren’t always necessary, although crampons would be helpful to anyone who ventures out – particularly if they planned to climb the peaks. We were not out to climb any mountains on this day – we were simply out to look for signs of wildlife.Snowshoe Hare tracks

Hare a track, there a track...

And so we went... I watching my feet for footing and animal tracks, and Wren whizzing along in front of me pulled by her nose and seemingly propelled by her ever-spinning tail. She quickly found the remains of a Snowshoe Hare – leftovers from the Coyotes at night – and I had to corral her down the trail in front of me so she would leave it alone. Not much further along the trail I found snowshoe hare tracks in the light powder covering the icy snow. Perhaps that one had managed to escape. Soon we were seeing hare tracks everywhere as we wound uphill. I sometimes find the traffic noise from Route 86 to be a distraction along the trail into Haystack, but as we crested this initial climb it became less noticeable. It would diminish further as we hiked away from the road.

I soon also found Coyote and White-tailed Deer tracks – not surprising considering they are both common in the area. Here and there I noted rodent tracks starting at a hole in the snow and connecting a string of dots to a second hole or perhaps the edge of a log. Since our recent melt and stint of rain had wiped out most of the tracks in the forest, the prints I was finding were clearly laid since then.Wren - erratic

Birds and Branches

Much of the forest – particularly the understory of American beech and the balsam firs and red spruce – were still covered with the icy mixture that fell during the melt and then froze to their limbs and twigs. The higher branches had lost much of their snow – presumably to wind – but the frosted appearance of many of the trees glistened in the low rays of the sun as if began to peak out from behind the bank of clouds.

In fact, I began to realize that the sun was winning its battle with the clouds which were falling away after initially breaking up. As the sun cut through the clouds, its slanting rays bent and refracted into colors which were reflected in the white canvas of the snow. It gave the quiet forest a sense of life as the gray trunks of the trees stood silently waiting for spring. After all, we only encountered one small group of Black-capped Chickadees and Golden-crowned Kinglets on the trail – a flock which also included a Brown Creeper. But other than that the woods were still.Sun through trees Haystack Trail

The Search is on

We crossed frozen streams and admired (or at least I did, Wren was indifferent) the large forms of the glacial erratics and other large rocks which grace the route. In a few places the trickling water from springs and seeps spilled frozen over the rocks shining in the growing light. A few of these seeps froze solid on the trail - some with icy boot prints - and I chose my steps carefully as I negotiated them. I eventually came upon a set of American Marten tracks in the snow - showing their characteristic hopping pattern. We followed these briefly as the member of the weasel family hopped around boulders and meandered around the forest in search of food.

But we didn’t have time to follow its progress for long. The afternoon was wearing on, and it was time to turn around and head back to the trailhead. I paused to look at a string of Red Fox tracks I had somehow missed on our way out. But since I wasn’t stopping as much for tracks or photos as I had on my way in, I became quite warm as I hiked at a brisk pace back toward the trailhead. But Wren still out-legged me easily as she raced ahead of me as she does when she knows where she is going. Her food bowl was calling her, after all. And, speaking of food, I needed to decide where to stop and grab a good bite for dinner.  

Looking for other great winter snowshoe / hiking trails? Want to try some cross country skiing while you're in the Region? Why not book a room and stay a few days while you work your way through the Saranac Lake Winter 6ers Challenge? We'll see you on the trails!

Categories:Hiking, winter
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About The Author

Alan Belford has spent much of his life outdoors exploring and learning about wildlife – particularly birds. Alan is often out hiking, paddling, running, or cross country skiing – with his Labrador retriever Wren at this side. A certified teacher and former cross country, baseball, and ultimate frisbee coach, he loves teaching others and has taught multiple natural history (specializing in ornithology) courses for both college students and the general public. He is a licensed guide in New York State, he has traveled widely both domestically and internationally, and he is also a published travel writer and photographer – focusing on outdoor and nature writing.

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