‘The finest square mile’

Happiness is reaching the summit with its great vista.
Happiness is reaching the summit with its great vista.

It was on the sunny afternoon of the 6th that Nebra and I decided to hike up Mount Jo.  It is a small mountain in the Adirondacks, only 2,876 feet in elevation, with a round-trip of less than two miles.  Jo rests just southeast of Lake Placid, in the High Peaks area and is about half the height of nearby Mount Marcy, the highest point in New York at 5,344′.  Still . . . .

Jo has a tragic story.  It was originally called Bear Mountain.  But in the 1870s, Adirondacks trailblazer Henry van Hoevenberg renamed it “Jo” after his fiance, Josephine Schofield, died shortly before their marriage.  Or so one story goes.  Another has her unhappy parents breaking up the affair.

The couple loved this area of the Adirondacks by Heart Lake and called it  “the finest square mile in which to get closest to Nature.”  In fact Sandra Weber wrote a book about the couple, “The Finest Square Mile:  Mount Jo and Heart Lake,”  which was published in 1998.

Boulders and more boulders on the short trail.
Boulders and more boulders on the short trail.

But I didn’t know the history when I suggested to Nebra we might give it try.  We were staying in Saranac Lake at the time, and considered other destinations from the same trailhead.  Marcy, Algonquin, Colden.   But time was short, and Marcy, for instance, is a 15-mile trek up and back.  So Jo it was.

The trouble with these mountains in the eastern part of the U.S. is that trail-makers don’t understand the concept of switchbacks.  The trails go straight up.  They are steep and if a boulder field gets in the way, like on Jo, you just go on a bee-line over them.

It was 2:30 when we started, a pleasant 58 F.  I gave Nebra her choice of trails to Jo’s summit.  The long trail or the short.  When she chose “short” I winced, knowing it would be steeper than the long.  And I was right.   Not only was it steep.  Huge boulders had rolled down near the stream we were following.  Tree roots too.  It was not your normal Arizona trail.

In one place you needed a ladder.
In one place you needed a ladder.

It took us 38 minutes to cover the trail of 9/10 of a mile and attain the relatively flat summit of gray rock.  From there the highest peaks in the Adirondacks open up.  Marcy dead ahead.  Algonquin to the right.  A worthy destination, Avalanche Pass, in the middle and beyond and out sight a lake that harbors the headwaters of the mighty Hudson River.

About a dozen other hikers were lounging on top.  A party of young women sang “Happy Birthday” to someone they called up on a cellphone.  A man arrived at the top with a black Lab and soon headed back down.

Another group milled around on the far side.  One member, a young man, spread out a map on the rock trying to identify all the peaks.  I don’t think he ever figured it out precisely.  In the meantime, Nebra and I fell into a conversation with the others, and they proved what I’ve always felt.  There is no more friendly people on earth than hikers, particularly in wildernesses like this.

You can be fooled by Mount Jo's false summit.
You can be fooled by Mount Jo’s false summit.

We took the “long” route back.  It was 2/10 of a mile longer than the “short” route but lacking the boulders.  Had I to do it over, I would avoid the short route altogether, coming and going.

We stopped at a lookout over Heart Lake.  Around the bend, I saw two people swimming and shuddered.  The temps stood at 55.

It was nearing 6:30 when we reached the parking lot, not quite sunset.  The day use fee of $5 had been well worth it.

I don’t know that I would call this “the finest square mile” but it was a pretty good one.  And, if there is a better place than the summit of Mount Jo, come a month, to take in the autumn foliage, you’ll have to show me.

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2 thoughts on “‘The finest square mile’

  1. Sue September 13, 2013 / 4:37 AM

    Happy Birthday Walt!!

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