By Day & Night
On a fine day, you can catch a glimpse of Follensby Clear Pond from the top of Ampersand Mountain. Look northwest – it's tucked behind Upper Saranac Lake.
After your descent, take a quick drive to Santa Clara, launch your canoe onto Follensby Clear, and look over your shoulder as you paddle across – there's the mountain you just climbed, a blue-hued giant framed between the hills.
A climb up Ampersand followed by a night of camping on Follensby Clear make for a perfect day-long excursion in the Adirondacks. I went the first Friday in September with Shaun Ondak, a well-known 'dacks photographer and promotions manager at the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, and summer was still in the air.
Ampersand, so called after the nearby twisting creek of the same name, stands at 3,365 feet, and though just under three miles to summit, this hike is no cakewalk. The trailhead sits on Route 3, next to Middle Saranac, and the register sits just inside the mouth of the trail. About halfway to the top, you'll meet a series of stone staircases built into the steep mountainside. A few streams offer a chance to cool off along the way.
The path winds through a verdant old-growth forest of birch, maple, beech, and fir; moss, ferns, jack in the pulpit, and myriad mushrooms. The closer we got to the top, the more it smelled like Christmas, and the more boulders hulked alongside the path.
Just before the summit is when the climb peaks in intensity, the staircase looming above. A gnarled tree root ladder, a tight squeeze between two big rocks, a quick respite downhill, and another short uphill takes you to rock face, and then up to summit. It was a windy day, and the hike-generated heat instantly blew away once we crossed the tree line.
Ampersand's spacious summit greets with breathtaking near-panoramic views of the Saranac Lakes to the west and the High Peaks to the east. Pools of rainwater sit in depressions in the rock – the mountain's own miniature lakescape.
To the north of the summit's pinnacle lies another rocky outcrop. There you'll find a patinated plaque commemorating Walter Channing Rice, affectionately known as the "hermit of Ampersand." Rice, who lived on the mountain from 1915 to 1923, was in fact far from a hermit and well-loved by the Saranac Lake community. He served as trail guide, trail blazer, and watchman at Ampersand's fire tower while living on the mountain; and as tax collector and commissioner of sewer, water, and conservation in town. Rice also published stories and poems about life in the wild, and his cabin library was reportedly well-stocked with the likes of Dickens, Shakespeare, and O. Henry. He died at the age of 72 in 1924, not long after returning from his final vigil on the mountain.
"I'm never lonesome," Rice was quoted in a 1917 edition of the Adirondack Enterprise. "I have the whole Adirondack range as company. There are trees upon Ampersand that are almost as intimate as my friends: birds that come and sing for me during the long hours; squirrels that greet me with chirp of welcome every day. I've lived in the Adirondacks all my life and I love the trees and the mountains and the lakes as much as man can love men."
It's easy to empathize with Rice once you've taken in the expanse and fresh air atop Ampersand, or walked barefoot on a bed of pine needles through camp on Follensby Clear Pond, dinner simmering on the fire and loons calling in the distance.
Follensby Clear is also named after a hermit, though this one may have been bona fide. Still, little is known about Moses Follensby, also the namesake of Follensby Pond to the south and Follensby Junior Pond to the north. There are many conflicting stories of the man: he lived in the Adirondacks in the 18th or 19th century; he was either an exiled officer from Napoleon's army, a British nobleman who buried a considerable fortune near the site of his old cabin on Follensby Pond, or a recluse who took to the woods in attempts to heal from a romance gone wrong.
Follensby Clear Pond has a romance all its own. The 491-acre body of water has 20 first-come-first-serve campsites tucked along its shores, and connects to Horseshoe and Polliwog ponds for a longer paddling loop. Three loons let us get up close on our way to camp before they dove below the water.
Our site sat on the arrowhead-shaped peninsula north of the Route 30 boat launch. A small beach on the other side of the peninsula's apex offered an ideal spot to pull up the canoe, and the secluded site was comfortably equipped with a fire pit, cooking grates, benches, a branch-and-screw table, and an outhouse in the woods. You will need to bring in your own firewood, easily attainable at a roadside stand 10 minutes northeast at the junction of Routes 30 and 186.
Follensby Clear is crystalline, and perfect for swimming with its soft-sand bottom and extended wadeable depths. Wildlife abounds both on land and in the water, and on a cloudless night, the stars are humbling. The sound of water lapping and campfire crackling lulled me to sleep, and loon calls wove through my dreams.
The next morning was overcast, and we paddled back to the launch, narrowly beating the oncoming rain. I spent the next few hours in my car, driving further south and then out of the park, back to highways and strip malls and traffic. But the early-morning Adirondack air was still fresh in my lungs, and I knew I would be back before long.
Amanda Bloom is a freelance writer from Connecticut. Peruse her thoughts on diets, Facebook, and Miley Cyrus on her website, amandabloom.com. She's on Instagram: @bloomamanda and Twitter: @amandajbloom.