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Improvising to the top of Haystack

March 21, 2018
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

RAY BROOK - The tiny hamlet of Ray Brook has a few houses, some businesses and is home to several state agencies. But it's mostly just a drive-through area between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. However, Ray Brook is also home to half of the Saranac Lake 6er mountains, and also hosts a long stretch of the famed Jackrabbit Ski Trail.

My friend Jason Labonte and I had talked about doing a ski trip on the Jackrabbit back in February, but a warm spell sapped the area of most of the snow and it looked like our trip would have to wait until next winter. But the snow gods provided in March, so with the sun blazing overhead, we set out from the McKenzie Pond Road trailhead and made our way into the woods.

As we skied in, we came across several other people. Some were no doubt skiing out to McKenzie Pond or just taking the Jackrabbit for a quick mid-day trip. We soon began a steady climb which Jason said was called "Misery Mile," and while not quite miserable, it was a tough slog.

Article Photos

Jason Labonte, of Saranac Lake, takes in the view of the High Peaks and Ray Brook from the summit of Haystack Mountain in Ray Brook.
News photo — Justin A. Levine

It looked like only one other person had gone up the roughly mile-long hill before us, and several people had skied down coming the opposite direction, so the ski track was in good shape. I put climbing skins on my skis and made pretty steady progress, but Jason wasn't quite as lucky and ended up duck-walking large parts of the hill. By the top, between the climb and still-high sun, we were both plenty warm.

As the ground started to level out, we could clearly see the snow-covered ridge of McKenzie Mountain on our left, and we stopped to have a snack and some water.

Continuing on our way across the flat portion at the height of land, we noticed a few random sets of tracks heading into the woods on our right. It looked like a couple of skiers, a couple of snowshoers and a few folks bare-booting it into the woods, and we wondered what could be through the stand of hardwoods that drew so many people off the trail.

Just a few hundred feet later, we came across a serious herd path and we stopped to investigate. Perhaps we should have done a little more research before setting out, but Jason and I looked at the GPS and realized the summit of Haystack Mountain was just over a third of a mile away. We looked at each other and smiled, realizing that our rather pedestrian ski trip had just gotten more interesting.

This particular Haystack Mountain shouldn't be confused with Mount Haystack in the High Peaks, which is about 2,000 feet higher in elevation. Haystack in Ray Brook is a popular destination, made even more so by its inclusion in the Saranac Lake 6er hiking challenge.

Since it was still early afternoon and our wives weren't expecting us for a few more hours, we turned our skis uphill (again) and began to follow the main herd path, which was pretty heavily traveled and well-packed. There were some ski trails but most of the traffic seemed to come from snowshoers.

Although previous people had taken a variety of routes (no doubt some of the tracks we saw were people descending from the summit), the main path was easy to follow. I eyeballed the route on my GPS to make sure we didn't get lost, and within 20 minutes we were close to the summit.

Stepping out of the woods to the half-open summit of Haystack, we were pretty happy with our unplanned side trip. There wasn't a single cloud in the sky, and the High Peaks, Ray Brook and glimpses of the village of Lake Placid were all easily seen. With no wind and the sun going full blaze, it was the kind of winter moment that calls for bare arms and no winter hats.

Neither of us had been to this particular summit before, and with time on our side and the sun on our faces, we lingered at the top before putting the skis back on and heading down to the Jackrabbit Trail.

Gaining the ski trail again, we pretty easily cruised the last two miles or so. Some snowmobile tracks on the trail made the skiing a little hairy, but the packed surface made for a quick exit from the woods (the snowmobile tracks, in a Wilderness area, were likely from a forest ranger rescue of an injured hiker on McKenzie Mountain a few days earlier).

We stopped at the Placid lean-to about halfway to the road for another quick snack, then continued on our way. We crossed the road and then stuck to the marked path for the Jackrabbit Trail across the Whiteface Club golf course, eventually joining the network of paths at the Peninsula Trails.

The sun was dipping and the temperature had dropped pretty significantly since we had departed Haystack, but since we were working (kind of) hard skiing it was still pretty nice out.

And while the ski on the Jackrabbit was pleasant, we agreed that the trip to the summit turned what would have been an ok ski into a great trip. It was a reminder that the best-laid plans can become even better with a little extra effort.



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