“Looming over the northern section of the St. Regis Canoe Area and visible from many of the ponds in the area, stands the impressive presence of its namesake mountain, crowned by the manned fire tower,” wrote Barbara McMartin in the 1988 version of Discover the Northern Adirondacks. “The hiker who reaches the summit is also rewarded with a magnificent panorama of forested, rolling hills and sparkling waters that unfurls below and fades into the distant blue of the higher mountains in the High Peaks regions.”
Although the views are still there, the fire tower was closed in 1990 by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, two years after McMartin’s guidebook came out. In recent years, the fire tower has been the subject of a debate about whether it should remain or not. The state proposed to remove it because the tower has become dilapidated and no longer serves the function it was built for in 1926, among other reasons. But after public hearings in which the public adamantly opposed the removal, state officials said it could remain. For many people, the tower is a symbol of wilderness protection and a key part of Adirondack culture, so they want it repaired and in use again.
I didn’t pay much attention to the tower other than to notice there was a sign on it stating that it was closed to the public. I also noticed the tower needed serious repair. Being winter, it wasn’t the season to stand around for long and ponder the arguments surrounding the future of the fire tower.
On this particular mid-February day, I chose to ski St. Regis Mountain because I could do it in half a day. The forecast called for rain in the afternoon, and I didn’t want to get caught in a downpour. I figured I could sneak this trip in while the skies were still blue.
So, after a few minutes on the peak, my attention wasn’t drawn to the gray tower, but to the gray clouds moving in fast behind it. After seeing the clouds, I knew it was time to turn around and head downhill.
The temperatures were in the 40s, and the deep, mashed-potato snow was already difficult to push around. An early rain would make the second half of my trip slower going than I desired. Plus, getting wet in the winter is never a good thing.
The trip was already far from perfect. Normally, if there was powder, it wouldn’t have been very difficult at all. At 2,874 feet, St. Regis is a moderately sized mountain. The 3.5-mile trail is gradual, except for near the peak, and even that isn’t too bad.
But the trip was dragging because the heavy, wet snow kept collecting on top of my skis, and at times, clumping to the bottom. It was a bit of a slog. It would have been much worse if I hadn’t had a pocket-sized scraper and some special wax to prevent build up of wet snow on the bottom of my skins.
Still, I was determined to make the best of the trip. That’s often part of skiing in the Adirondacks. Yes, this winter had seen its fair share of powder days since mid-January, and especially in February, but often you are forced to simply make do with what Mother Nature feels like serving up that particular day, or moment.
So, with the gray clouds closing in on St. Regis Mountain, I ripped the climbing skins off my skis, slipped my boots back into my telemark bindings and slid across the summit past the fire tower. Here, the packed trail had been covered over by windblown snow, so I followed my tracks out, even though they meandered a bit from the most direct route.
Normally, I would have considered skiing some birch glades as I headed downhill. But this day I decided there would be no leaving the trail. Instead, I vowed to return when the snow was lighter.
Heading into the deep snow off trail would be a disaster in these conditions. Getting through it would be exhausting. In the woods around me, clumps of snow fell from the trees, exploding as they hit the ground. The snow that remained in the crotches of tree branches dripped water, interrupting the normal silence of the winter woods.
Heading downhill, I slid past some large boulders on the left and a tight section next to a small cliff on the right. It was here that I had once taken shelter in a lightning storm a few summers back.
Before long, I finished skiing the steeper section of the mountain. From here, instead of using wax on my ski bottoms to get out, I put my skins back on for the remainder of the trip. There were some moderate downhills ahead, but I was sliding backward on even the gentlest uphills. The kick wax I had was for colder weather. Skins would allow me to move at a consistent pace. I wanted to keep moving and not waste my energy struggling on the wet, slick snow.
This was my first time skiing St. Regis and next time I might consider using a lighter set-up than I had that day, if I were to ski just the trail again. My telemark skis are relatively beefy and better suited for steeper sections, I thought as I moved through hardwood forest. One option would be to use lightweight backcountry skis for the longish approach, with snowshoes in my pack (though I never really like carrying them) for the last stretch of the summit.
Pondering this on the last mile out, I passed two pairs of college-aged people, who were trailed by a cloud of perfume. With the rain clouds overhead, they were headed into the woods for a mid- to late-afternoon hike. I was kind of surprised. It didn’t seem like a good move considering the impending rain. On the other hand, I was happy to be getting out of the woods and looking forward to returning on a colder, more traditional winter day.
Mike Lynch/Lake Placid News
Views from the top of St. Regis Mountain include numerous lakes, ponds and mountains, as well as the controversial fire tower.
Fact BoxSt. Regis Mountain
ACTIVITY: Skiing, snowshoeing, hiking
DISTANCE: About 7 miles round trip
ELEVATION: 2,874 feet
DIFFICULTY: Skiing — more difficult; snowshoeing and hiking — intermediate
DIRECTIONS: St. Regis Mountain is located 2.6 miles up Keese Mills Road, if you enter the road near the Paul Smith’s College entrance. Keese Mills Road is just a couple hundred yards north of Paul Smith’s College on state Route 30.