This range consists of three mountains… Santanoni, Panther, and Couchsachraga (Cooch-sa-crog-ah - Couchie). Santanoni is supposedly an Indian mispronunciation of Saint Anthony. Couchsachraga is an Algonquin (?) word for “dismal wilderness”. As you can deduce, these mountains, like the Seward Range we hiked last weekend, are very remote and rugged. There are no maintained trails to the summits, only herdpaths. Due to local topography, these mountains are normally wetter than the remainder of the High Peaks.
I hiked Panther and Couchie last year, so knew what to expect. I had also planned on summiting Santanoni last year, but Couchie sapped all my energy. Santanoni would be my 43rd High Peak, while these three mountains would be #s 44, 45, and “the big 46” for Kevin.
The first part of this hike is on a rock/gravel road. Although this road is easily hiked, last year the bugs (especially deer flies) were horrendous on the road. A maintained foot trail to begins a couple miles up the road. Although officially “maintained” by the DEC, this trail has to be the worst in the Adirondacks. In the few area where running water isn’t flowing down the trail, mudholes and rotting, undercut, slippery corduroy (logs laid perpendicular to the trail) abound.
A steep hike along the banks of Panther Brook brings you to Times Square, a small (400 square foot) alpine meadow. The summit trails to each of the three peaks originate from Times Square.
The weather forecast for Friday night was rain; Saturday was morning rain, giving way to clouds and sun; and Sunday was supposed to be a beautiful sunny day. So as luck would have it, I could only hike on Saturday.
I arrived at the trailhead on Friday night at around 10:30, just as it started raining. I unrolled my sleeping bag in the back of my SUV, packed my bag for tomorrow’s hike, and got to sleep at around 11:30. Just like last week, there were no mosquitoes, so I was able to sleep with the rear door open. It rained the whole night, with some intermittent downpours. Every time I woke up, I cringed at the thought of the trail conditions, especially the bog between Panther and Couchie.
I woke up at 5:45 am and ate a powerbar and some carrots for breakfast… still raining. Kevin arrived at the trailhead at 6:00, and we were on the trail at 6:30. It was still raining. About halfway up the road, we passed a family who commented on our “superior gore-tex”. Kevin and I had a good laugh, for I was hiking in shorts and a t-shirt, and his pack was covered with a garbage bag. Later in the day when we were soaked to the bone, we were happy that we were wearing our “superior gore-tex”.
The road hike passed quickly, and soon we were at the beginning of the footpath. I really, really hate this trail.
After an hour of hiking through running water and mud, we reached the herdpath near Bradley Pond. There was much less mud and water on the herdpath than the “maintained” trail.
To celebrate Kevin’s completion of the 46 High Peaks, I stashed a bottle of champagne in a small tributary along the trail. I was going to bring it up to the summits, but thought all the bouncing would make for a rather explosive opening of the bottle. We passed a nice campsite about ½ mile up the trail, and then skirted along the bottom of some cliffs on the way to Panther Brook. Once at the brook, the trail climbs steeply up to Times Square. Due to the amount of rain from Friday night, the water was running high, and coupled with the rain, Kevin and I were soaked by the time we reached Times Square, which was underwater today.
We had a snack at Times Square, but we were getting chilled and we soon headed down the herdpath to Santanoni. The rain continued, and there were plenty of mudholes in the cols along the ridge to Santanoni… but we couldn’t get any wetter, so we basically ignored them. Although Santanoni had plenty of false peaks, we made good progress, and summited within 50 minutes from Times Square. We took some summit photos, had a quick snack, and began our descent.
As we reached the first false peak, the rain stopped, and the fog began to break. As Kevin took some photos of the surrounding mountains, the fog rolled back in.
We ate lunch at Times Square, happy that things were beginning to dry. Kevin had wanted to finish his 46 on Couchie, so Panther was our next summit. Since the summit of Panther is only about ¼ mile from Times Square, we easily ascended within 15 minutes. The summit was very foggy, except for a 30-second window of “clear” views. Fifteen minutes later, we were back at Times Square.
Couchsachraga is a strange mountain. Although originally surveyed at over 4,000 ft (and hence, one of the 46 High Peaks), it was later resurveyed at 3,820 feet. Since the summit is actually at a lower elevation than Times Square, so you descend to the peak. This means that the hike back to Times Square involves more climbing, which is mentally draining. In addition, the trail to Couchie is very rugged, and the spruce trees grow close to the herdpath… resulting in a feeling of thousands of prickly fingers grabbing you. Just to make it interesting, a “bottom-less” bog is located at the col between Panther and Couchie. I think Jimmy Hoffa’s body rests at the bottom of this bog. Last year, I couldn’t find the herdpath on the far end of the bog… after 45 minutes of searching, I finally found it on the right side of the bog.
As we passed an open view on the northern side of the ridge connecting Panther and Couchie, the fog again lifted and provided us with nice views of the valley below. However, within minutes, the fog settled back in.
I knew we were approaching the bog when Kevin leaned on his hiking pole and the ground nearly swallowed it whole.
I had figured that the bog would be nearly impassible due to all the rain, but was surprised that the bog was in relatively good condition. However, not being thoroughly convinced, I had Kevin take the lead through the bog to see if it sucked him up. It didn’t, but I laughed as Kevin took the obvious (and wrong) path at the far end of the bog. After I was sure he was good and muddy, I told him the correct way to the herdpath, and we were on our way up the summit ridge.
Since we had no views of the horizon, our eyes were fixed on the trees and boulders closer to us. I soon realized that Couchie has one of the nicer summit ridges in the Adirondacks. Due to its wetter climate, many different types of ferns, moss, lichen, and mushrooms grow along the trail. Some of the boulders supported micro-forests of moss and ferns.
After traversing the ridge, we came to a final steep pitch to the summit, where Kevin completed his quest for “the 46”. We took some summit photos, and ate our “second” lunch. Every now and then the fog would lift and we’d get a nice view for few seconds.
After about 45 minutes on the summit, we began our descent of Couchie. On the far side of the bog, we ascended the steep ridge up Panther. Kevin was setting a fast pace up the ridge. We actually made the return trip to Times Square 10 minutes faster than our traverse to Couchie.
The trip back to the trailhead was uneventful, and seemed to be twice as far as the ascent. Although I was feeling relatively fresh, Kevin’s knees were bothering him on the long slog down the “maintained” trail. However, I wasn’t about to argue with the comfortable pace he was setting. Once we arrived at the road, I took off my gaiters and loosened my wet boots. We arrived at the trailhead around 7:00. Changing into dry clothes felt like heaven.
Within the past six weeks, Kevin and I had summited eight of the most remote and rugged mountains in the northeast, ending with the completion of Kevin’s 46 High Peaks. I congratulated him one last time, and began the long drive home.