After a day or so contemplating how I would spend my day off, I set my sights on three peaks between Speculator and Wells: Guideboard Hill, Speculator Mountain, and Cutknife Mountain. We had pretty much firmed up plans a week or so earlier for a much harder outing in the High Peaks Region - but recent weather and the call for pea soup humidity changed our focus. This 5-mile traverse would surely be enough for a day's outing where the call for rain was also on the plate of Mother Nature's offerings.
The start location for this hike was off Gilmantown Road which in relative location to my house might as well be on the other side of the world. It would require a 2.5 hour commitment to road travel to just reach our destination. With that being said we rose with the sun and hit the road at 6:00 am to insure that we would accomplish the meet up time of 9:00 am.
These three summits, as with many others, have been an eyesore for me on the map, in a good way. I think it was planned two other times to hook up for this hike, but something always came up where we changed those plans for other locations. Our plan was to traverse from north to south, so we would meet up at the south end of the traverse to drop off a car. The plan was to spot a car at the Dunning Pond Trail, which we never really located; maybe it is no longer maintained and had been overcome by nature's ability, when left alone, to heal itself. We found a nice spot at the crossing of Dunning Creek.
We started with Guideboard Hill which was located a short 0.3 miles or so off the road and only a couple hundred feet higher than where we were at. There was a nice parking spot along the highpoint of the road which got most of the elevation out of the way. The forest was open hardwoods mixed with areas of laced viburnum. The forest was also dripping wet from the prior evening's rain. The capture of the water on the leaves and pine needles was no less of a storm than if the skies had opened up upon us. We were soaked before we topped this peak. Quickly we stood upon this wooded summit amongst the low-lying clouds and maples in an eerie kind of landscape. With Speculator Mountain next up in our day's list of mountains, we had to stop to get our bearings. Usually we would be able to see a peak that stood so much higher, but the humidity was superseding history. Our GPS would be our only guide with a bit of help from the trusty map and compass.
The descent was minor and swift as we approached the slightly moist col between the two summits. A small rise would be in front of us marking the start of the ridge, but a false summit none-the-less. Its climb was a bit steep but easy to overcome as the rise was limited. It didn't appear that much of a descent would be required on the opposite side, and it rang true. Now we would really need to climb. On a moderate slope we approached the mountain closer. The terrain got steeper and steeper the closer we came. Then a wall was before us, like a castle under a veil of white. It spanned both directions along the face of Speculator Mountain, which way to go?
I scoped out to the right, but it appeared to block a bit more than to the left; so left it would be. The wall continued but the ground seemed to gain elevation as the wall shortened. We looked for a dike to follow to the top, maybe a tree-lined crack, a higher shelf of solid ground, anything to aid travel. Eventually the cliff separated for a bit and we had a very steep and slippery course to gain us the top of the cliffs. We used trees to leverage ourselves onto and pull ourselves up where needed, but mostly it was all fours clenching for and small root or solid ground for support. The mosses and wet top soil gave way under us as we inched higher and higher. Atop the steeps we were a bit disappointed in the lack of visibility as surely the views would have been a fine sight. We were now faced with another small cliff band, this one easier to navigate, but the forest had become much more compact and the trees were forming a barrier. The dead balsam branches slapped us about a bit until we were clearly back into the hardwood forest.
Soon the summit area would welcome us, but the mountain's fairly flat composition would cause us to meander about looking for that highest point. We settled up a spot that was slightly open but deeply in the trees, but it just didn't feel right. I poked around a bit, and then a bit more, and spotted a small rise that seemed to outshine the location we thought was the top. This was it for sure. It had the feel of a summit, and it also had an eye bolt driven into the rock. This eye bolt was one left behind by surveyor Verplank Colvin of the Adirondack Survey which ran for 26 years from the late 1800s to the early 1900s until President Theodore Roosevelt ended the project. A "feeling" I had in the pit of my stomach, aside from the need for lunch, had been the need to walk through the thick balsams on the summit. Odd I know, since thick balsams are often avoided, but upon doing this I came across a geocache/summit canister. It was an old pasta sauce jar with a few coins and a slip of paper with a few signed names and a list of the Colvin Crew members on their Colvin bolt recovery mission. The Colvin Crew is a group of, mostly, surveyors who get together once a year to seek out Colvin survey bolts and markers at locations Colvin cataloged in his survey project. That solidified Corenne's assumption that it was indeed a Colvin bolt, this made her day, and ours if for no other reason than that.
Off we would go now to Cutknife Mountain, a much smaller summit, and the final destination of the day. But, along the way we would visit a pond at the base of these two peaks and have a refueling lunch. The descent was steep, we were sure that cliffs would have to be negotiated and trees once again relied upon for support, but that was never the case. My route finding, and search for the path of the least resistance, awarded us the clear travel. Upon reaching the pond we were surprised by its beauty and splendor, we did not expect it to be so grand. The break in the haze and clouds might have also played a small role in our feeling of satisfaction. We sat amongst the small rock outcroppings and the sun dews, now blooming in the brilliance of their home. After Abby took her bath in the cooling mud along the shore, we set off to the south to cross the outlet atop a small beaver dam, now old and rotted from time.
More outcroppings welcomed us to additional viewing platforms along the shore, and small fields of snowberries gave us a sweet minty snack before we reentered the forest. The forest, now mostly hardwoods, was lined with the thickest chin hobble that I have witnessed in quite some time. It took much added energy and effort to not trip and fall on their entwined branches and the dead fall buried beneath. It wouldn't last all that long, but trying it was. Now just under 200 feet from the summit of this small mountain we gained momentum and finished off the climb to the obscured summit. We poked around for additional views atop this flat pinnacle and discovered a couple. As we overlooked Charley Lake and further across into the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest, we dreamed of climbing those mountains too, but right now we had to focus on the task at hand and get back to our car.
The descent was as steep, if not steeper than, that of Speculator Mountain. But, we managed to complete it without the need for circumnavigating the top of steep cliffs or hanging for dear life from a half uprooted yellow birch tree. We would seek out Dunning Creek as our next point of interest. What awaited us there was a deep blue wetland where you couldn't tell where the water stopped and dry land started. The reflection was as beautiful as the sky itself, but much clearer, the trees inverted upon themselves gave us a mirror image of the surroundings. The second beaver dam, this one much more precarious, would deliver us across. With careful footing I avoided the small surges of water that were let through. Like a large black bear atop a set of pickup sticks I was across; Jim and Corenne had a slightly wetter passage.
We were now on a straight course to the car and only a wide meandering of the creek and wetlands would deviate us from that direct line. The open hemlock forest welcomed us through with land bridges easing travel. Then and there, Corenne saw it first, the white gleaming from the side of our ride home, we were out.
A quick stop for ice cream on the way home was all we really wanted and there was nothing that would stop us... except quick side trip to Auger Falls, Christine Falls, and Gilman Lake. Then we would get a soft serve, I promised.