Into the Wilderness: Donaldson, Emmons and Seward

Seward summit

Seward summit

The Seward Range is the westernmost hikes in the High Peaks. Known for its wilderness and all four peaks are trail-less. Being a day hiker I’d only get to three of the four – Seward, Donaldson, Emmons – and Seymour will have to wait for another day.

Originally, I planned to hike up Calkins herdpath and down via Ward (so I didn’t have to basically reclimb Dondaldson) but luckily I had my Counsin’s Dave trail notes from his hike. In all capital letters and bold there was a note: “DO NOT ATTEMP THE WARD BROOK ROUTE AS IT IS EVEN STEEPER!!!”. Ok. Gotcha. Scratch that idea. Reports of some campers confirmed his thoughts. They described it as climbing up on all fours. Thanks but no thanks.

I’ve heard that this is one very, very long hike and reports of 14 hours+. I’m always fighting daylight on those trailess paths. It is one thing to be using a headlight on a marked maintained flat trail and a different story off-trail. 4am wake up call it is!

My first hike from the Corey’s Rd Trailhead and the drive was beautiful – timed the sun rise perfectly. Prepared for potentially a 14 hour hike I was on my way by 6:30am.

I happened to notice the solo hiker signed in just before me had a 406 phone number too – for Montana. Enjoyed some nice conversation with this solo backpacker who is stationed at Ft. Drum in NY and using some leave time to work on all 46 straight through. This was the first of his hikes. He was an impressive 6’7” and handled the scrambles far better but when it came to blown down trees, being lower to the ground, I had the advantage:)

Seward, Donaldson and EmmonsThe hike begins via the Duckhole Trail (#129) and is easy – wide, relatively flat with a couple rolling ascents/descents and some rocky footing. After about 1.2 miles from the register you’ll descend a small hill and come to a four-way junction and take the right (Trail #130) toward the Calkins Brook herd path. Continue for another 2-3 miles of decent trekking. It was far to easy to slow your pace to enjoy beautiful tall trees with the early morning light sparkling through the water coated leaves. You still have to watch your footing with the usual ADK water, some mud, rocks but compared to the ascent it’s a walk in the park…er I mean woods.

You’ll come to a junction, marked with a carin, taking the left to start venturing off the maintained trail. In short order you cross Calkins Brook, with low water, was easily passible with some rock hops and boy was I happy – or I should say my feet were.

For the next few miles you’re hiking in a hardwood forest – ground is soft and a nice break from the usual ADK footing. It alternates between mostly level, a few smaller cascade crossings (quite pretty), mud, blowdown trees, more mud… Joining an old lumber road that climbs more moderately yet steady. Then on to ridges with switchbacks and moss covered trees. Then the blowdown gets pretty intense, gets steeper, and steeper yet and more and more mud. A few larger rocks to climb up (8-12 feet – but nothing that I’d call I full scramble). All in all not too extreme – will get the heart pumping and sweat streaming but nothing to write about (though it appears I’m writing about it here).

When the ascents levels off a bit you’re getting close to the junction with Donaldson/Emmons and Seward. Before I knew it (approx. 4 hours) I was there. I headed to Donaldson first – arriving at the summit in under 15 minutes. The view at Donaldson was the best of the day and much better than I excepted.

Emmons - Donaldson

Emmons – Donaldson

On to Emmons where much is on the ridge. You descend via wet scrambles, level through mud, moss covered trees, more mud and then ascent once again with a few more wet scrambles. Emmons view is somewhere – if you can see over the trees. I was there in just about an hour from leaving Donaldson.

And then back to Donaldson. There is a nice viewing ledge if you take the trail left (instead of straight down to the split with Seward). Glad my curiosity got the best of me. Offers some beautiful views to the west. It was one of those days with blue skies, the ADK wilderness spread before you with the shadows of the clouds mimicking the shadow bellow. Yep, all kinds of perfection.

Viewing ledge off the Donaldson trail

Viewing ledge off the Donaldson trail

At the junction with Seward trail I felt like Seward is so close but yet so, so far away. It only took an hour but felt much longer. Definitely the “hardest” part of the day. It declines sharply (and begin wet I took my sweet time on the scrambles ), levels, and climbs very steeply. Where you think you’re there but really it is just a false summit (WTF!).

Then declines again (with all my being I hate giving up elevation gain) and then climbs even more steeply. Pretty bad footing, with big rocks, lose gravel, wetness all around, and one section of a scramble that was the most challenging of the day. I don’t want to overstate it – compared to Saddleback cliffs was cake.

Trail to Seward

Trail to Seward

I was red in the face and dripping in sweating but an hour between peaks is not too shabby. At the top there is one last rock scramble and you see your best (and only) view from Seward. In a few muddy minutes you are at Seward’s summit surrounded by trees, with a sign and lots of bugs. So after my summit pics I went off to take my break atop the last scramble and soak in the view.

Then back to the junction where you basically reclimb Donaldson (again). I forgot about the one last slippery/steep scramble and let out “Are you kidding me?!” To which, a bird squawked at me – very loudly. I guess she (or he) was not.

A quick break and on to the 6-7 miles to the trailhead. It gets progressively easier and after the summit climbs always feels easy. The experience is relative. What’s hard in the beginning, by the end of the day is a welcome relief. Plus the difference with ‘trail’ footing vs. slippery rock can’t be under estimated in terms of how I feel.

Duck Hole Trail

Duck Hole Trail

It is hard to completely plan by reports for how long a hike will take. Weather is always a big factor and strengths as a hiker can vary (scrambles, inclines, distance, etc. )– but it feels awesome when you rock it faster than you thought. I finished in 11:45 hours when reports were more in the 14+ hr range.

I had a great chat with a group of three dudes who where preparing their packs heading in, as I was de-muddying myself. I always love the comradery of fellow ADK 46ers (aspiring or completed). The swapping of stories, trail advice, etc. And when they ask if I’m doing them all solo. Yes. Yes I am. These dudes were more impressed than the “fatherly” advice I sometimes get – that I roll my eyes at. Sending good ADK karma vibes to those dudes. Hope to see you on the trial. Ditto to the Montana dude and his epic 14 day trek for his 46.

Pro Tip – having a cooler with ice and cold beer is the best thing ever. Especially when you soak your feet in said cooler while you enjoy your beer and have soft moccasin slippers. It is about as close to heaven as I can imagine.

Dry feet make happy feet. Not being water logged do wonders for how they look afterward. Though I do enjoy texting my sister my “gross” feet pictures after a hike. Especially when it is the first thing she sees the next day. (Insert evil sister laughter)

New Favorite – Snickers. Even when you need fuel but don’t feel hungry because you just want to climb a snickers bar is my new best friend. I can always eat chocolate for on-the-go munching.

On Deck: As I write this I’ve completed three more –  Hough, Grace (formerly East Dix) and South Dix.

Donaldson, Emmons and Seward: Completed 6/26, total distance ~16.8, hike time 11:45, elevation gain 3,490.

Donaldson -4,140 – order of height 33
Emmons – 4,040- order of height 40
Seward -4,361 – order of height 24

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