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Jay Mountain Wilderness 2014: A Wet Summit on the Mountain

Jay Mountain summit

The sound of pitter-pater on my tarp greets my awakening. At first, before the shroud of sleep lifts completely from my mind, my thoughts turn toward early morning insects. As my awakening progresses, the insects give way to the true culprit, raindrops ricocheting off the tarp instead.

It is going to be a wet day, buddy!

Immediately, the memory of bailing out my shelter as thunderstorms roared overhead on the western side of Jay Mountain last night returns to me. With the awareness of my current circumstances, where I came up way short on my plan to camp at Hale Brook, I realize I have a long day in front of me. From what I hearing, there is little chance of the weather cooperating, at least for now.

With it raining off and on, as it did most of the night, I am in no hurry to vacate my damp tarp and start trudging down soaking wet trails, which will eventually be abandoned for even wetter bushwhacking. The cooler temperatures, especially noticeable after yesterday’s heat and humidity, do little to inspire me either. Instead, I take my sweet time, allowing myself to enjoy my semi-dry conditions; none of my wet gear from last night’s catastrophe is going to dry in this weather.

Section Stats:
Date: June 18, 2014
Length: 3.1 miles (3.1 total daily miles; 8.2 total trip miles)
Difficulty: Easy

I am not the only one keeping a low profile this morning. The birds remain mostly quiet, with only a few common species such as ovenbird, black-throated green warbler and black-throated blue warbler audible from my campsite. Whether the rain is masking all the other birds, or these other species have decided to sleep in too, it is difficult to say.

Something larger than a bird is up and about early however. While lying in my sleeping bag and contemplating my long and wet day, I hear the sound of some creature moving around in the wet leaf litter. By the sound of it, it appears to be larger than a songbird, a deer perhaps, or some other mammal, like a mouse with increased stature due to my vivid imagination.

It is around eight in the morning before I marshal the motivation necessary to extract myself from my damp sleeping bag, don my rain gear, and exit the tarp to begin my day. The sky appears socked in with clouds from what I can see through the forest canopy, with the surrounding area alternating between light and dark depending on the particular thickness of the clouds at that very moment.

The wet and cooler temperatures must be keeping the scourge of the north woods at bay as well. Although mosquitoes and no-see-ums are present, they seem to lack their usual ferocity and numbers that I would expect for this time of the year. Or perhaps, they are just less plentiful up this far on the mountain.

Keeping busy, I focus on making breakfast and breaking camp, since eventually I will have to start my long day, or Lot 8 will never get any closer. With the wet and cool conditions, I waste little time and within a couple hours of exiting the tarp, I am a well fed, packed and ready to go adventurer.

Given the wet conditions, both my pack and I are appropriately dressed. Let us hope that my rain gear magic keeps any more rain from falling today, as I do not need anything to make the day even longer than it already most likely will be. As I make my way back to the trail from my now defunct campsite, dark clouds move in again, making the surrounding forest appear much as it did when I arrived last night. Rain gear, do not fail me now!

Intersection sign

Back at the trail, I proceed to retrace my steps by climbing back up onto the ridge that I descended the previous night. The climb seems more arduous with the wet pack, and soon the sweat is pouring off my body again, soaking the very jacket I wear to stay dry in. With discomfort mounting, I finally shed my rain jacket and don my insect proof jacket that I typically wear during fairer weather. If I am going to be wet, I might as well be more comfortable.

It takes about an hour to reach the intersection on the ridge. The climb is relatively uneventful, although a flushed ruffed grouse startles me at one point and I observe deer tracks on the trail. It seems likely that this might be the culprit meandering around my campsite earlier. Perhaps it is going to Lot 8 too.

The intersection remains much as I remembered it from yesterday, except much wetter. With the added moisture and cooler temperatures, fog continually rolls in on the ridge, only to disappear minutes later. The fog gives the whole area an eerie feel, with an understated danger, as if I could walk off the edge of a cliff at any moment without even knowing I was doing so.

Instead of going up to the viewpoint for a pointless attempt to see something, I rest briefly at the intersection before taking up my pack and continuing east along the ridge following the trail, inching my way toward Jay Mountain. The trail initially remains under forest cover but then quickly enters a more open terrain, alternating between following cairns on open rock and a dirt trail weaving through low-lying alpine vegetation.

Jay Mountain ridge trail

Although the foggy conditions make views difficult, occasionally the fog lifts long enough for me to catch an interesting glimpse. At one point, I can see signs of human activity in the flat lands to the west, while other times the view is of the mountainous terrain to the east, sometimes I can even catch a glimpse of current destination, Jay Mountain.

Even Merriam Swamp, one of the few wetlands in the Jay Mountain Wilderness actually named on the map, makes an appearance to the south. The attractive wetland, with many snags standing in the open water, is on my itinerary for the last night of my trip, that is, if my plans do not require an extensive amount of modification. The symmetry of the idea of camping at the wetland before returning to the trail on my last day appeals to me, so I pick up the pace to make up for lost time, and distance.

Just uphill from Merriam, presumably along its inlet stream, is evidence of some major disturbance. My binoculars show that the paper birch trees lie in some disarray, with many down on the ground or nearly so. The damage looks recent, as the green foliage still clings to the downed trees’ branches. This bodes ill for me, as that is the exact route I planned to take down to the swamp. Something to look forward to, I guess.

View from ridge

The same views continually pop up as the trail weaves through open rock or meadow-like conditions, at least when the fog permits. Although similar, each is slightly different as both distance and direction continually change as I make my way across the ridge and toward the highest point on Jay Mountain. The continually swirling fog gives each view an eerie appearance and occasionally ruining a perfect photo opportunity. No big deal, I tell myself, most likely a similar view will show-up farther down the trail.

Occasionally, I stop for a moment either to enjoy the scenery or admire a plant, lichen or moss. My alpine vegetation identification skills are surely lacking, so the myriad types of flowering plants and their friends remain nameless, but my appreciation for their beauty endures.

Although the dark ribbon of dirt that passes as the trail is easy to follow, often it ends at open rock, forcing me to scan for a cairn to mark the way. This is no easy task when the fog gets thick however, but fortunately, within a few short moments, the fog thins to reveal a convenient stone pile to mark my way.

Merriam Swamp

The sky gets so dark at times, making it appear as if the sun is setting rather than near its apex at around noon. Like the early evening yesterday, my resolve starts to disintegrate with the waning light, leaving me questioning whether to continue with my trip or not. With no evidence of thunderstorms, I push on, more from momentum than anything else, deciding to at least summit of Jay Mountain before making a final decision.

The cloud ceiling seemingly hovers right over my head, cutting off the tops of many of the surrounding peaks. The weight of the diminishing views and the darkening sky forces my gaze downward in an attempt to avoid any claustrophobic feelings. A recent deer track lied in the mixture of mud and grit underfoot, giving me a sudden surge in confidence; if such a resourceful creature can makes it way along here, then so can I. I hope.

The cairns start becoming larger and more elaborate as I go, perhaps indicating that the summit is approaching. Many appear pyramid like, with large, and I suspect, heavy square blocks of stone, which leaves me wondering where they found all these rocks. Did they chisel out of solid rock nearby but out of sight, or did they just search high and low for them over many years of construction.


Jay Mountain’s summit lacks any definitive marking indicating its location. Without any certainty, I declare my success on a raised rock with a particularly high and skinny cairn. From there, cairns continue eastward but they are smaller and much less frequent, even the trail between them is not as well defined. Perhaps they go to another look-out, or perhaps mark the beginning of a bushwhacking route to either MacDonough (Slip on my USGS map, it was officially renamed back in 2014) or Saddleback Mountains.

Either way, with decisions to make about the fate of my trip, I avoid further exploration and officially designate climbing Jay Mountain a fait accompli. As I weigh my options, I take the time to scour the landscape for small rocks, putting together a bushwhacking breadcrumb before continuing toward Lot 8.

Well, so much for making decisions, huh?

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