Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Extreme Adirondacks: Surviving the 1995 Microburst

During a recent adventure into the heart of the Five Ponds Wilderness in the northwestern Adirondacks I found myself struggling through some blow downs and thinking about the 1995 Microburst. This devastating storm occurred on July 15, 1995 but its impact on the northeastern Adirondacks is still evident today and will remain so for a very long time.

But the storm’s impact is not on the land alone but on the people who experienced the storm as well. Since I was one of those individuals trapped in the backcountry on that day, I thought I would share my memory of the experience on the storm’s sixteenth anniversary.

Sixteen years ago, I was on a week-long adventure in the Five Ponds Wilderness. My first backpacking experience occurred two years prior but in two short year’s time I metamorphosized from a backcountry novice to a somewhat seasoned backpacker brave enough to venture alone into the heart of one of the most remote areas in the Adirondacks.

After a few days hiking I ended up at Sand Lake on July 14th where I intended to stay in the lean-to for the night. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes were so horrendous that they forced me into setting up my tent for the night maybe ten feet away underneath the towering white pines.

The morning bird chorus woke me early around 5 AM. Instead of getting up and immediately starting my day, I just laid in my tent listening to the birds singing until in the distance I could hear a sound resembling that of a freight train bearing down on me out of the west.

And then there was nothing.

The next thing I remember is hearing a splash in the lake. The memory of the freight train did not even cross my mind as I scrambled to get out of my sleeping bag and down to the lake shore to see what I imagined to be a bear frolicking in the water.

At that time I assumed I must have drifted back asleep as the storm was approaching but as time passed I concluded the more likely explanation was that my mind blocked out the traumatizing event from my memory. To this day I remember nothing about the actual storm even though the events that followed remain as clear as the day I experienced them.

As I exited my tent the smell of pine was heavy in the air. Numerous pine boughs were scattered around on the ground but I ignored them in my haste to reach the sandy shoreline. There was no bear though; just one of the white pine trees from the esker between Sand and Rock Lakes that had fallen into the lake. Today the remains of this tree can be found along the sandy beach to the south of the trail leading to the natural sandy shoreline.

After investigating the several downed trees along the esker I dried off my equipment and set about moving northward still thinking the blow down was a rather isolated event. As I started northeast along the trail there were numerous narrow swaths of trees uprooted crossing the trail. As I navigated around each obstacle I continuously heard trees falling in the distance.

Even with the numerous impediments in the trail I was able to make the 3-mile journey to the Wolf Pond lean-to by early evening. As I approached the lean-to I found myself cut off from it by a wide swath of downed white pine trees. Just days before these trees had provided a park-like setting with almost no understory but now they lay on the forest floor downed all in the same direction. The swath of downed trees resembled an electrical wire right-of-way sans the trellises.

On the edge of the opposite side of the swath I could still glimpse the roof of the lean-to. Before I could make my way across the swath to the lean-to, which miraculously still stood despite many of the trees downed all around it, there was the sound of a helicopter flying low.

As a military-style helicopter passed over I stood and watched, waving casually so as not to give the impression I was in immediate need of assistance. After several passes it moved on leaving me uncertain at whether they had spotted me or not. At this point I still did not realize the enormity of the scale of the storm and merely thought it might take me an extra day or so to make my way back to Wanakena.

After removing some small logs from the roof of the lean-to and breaking the limbs off the top of a red maple whose canopy had ended up inside the lean-to, I settled down for my first night post-storm. The night was very silent and dark as if nature itself were still in shock from the early morning storm.

The next morning I continued to make my way back toward Wanakena where my vehicle was parked. Big Shallow lean-to was a reasonable day’s journey through the blow downs so I headed for there. Keep in mind this occurred prior to my fascination with lightening my backpacking load and therefore I was probably carrying a 60-lbs pack, which at the time was nearly 50 percent of my wiry 130 lbs frame.

Although there was the occasional swath of blow down along the trail there was nothing really significant until just before reaching the Little Shallow lean-to. At this point there was nearly 100% percent blow down forcing me to climb over, on, and through the mishmash of stems. At one point, while on top of a downed tree, I looked down perhaps 10 feet to see a path engraved in the forest floor indicating I was still on the trail despite having absolutely no markers to follow.

Upon reaching the Little Shallow lean-to I was surprised to once again find a fully unscathed shelter amid the wreckage that was once a mature forest. What kind of witchcraft does the Department of Environmental Conservation use to protect these shelters I wondered at the time.

After leaving the lean-to at Little Shallow Pond I attempted to follow the trail along the esker separating Washbowl Pond from Big Shallow but found the going so difficult I quickly abandoned the effort. Instead I decided to follow the Little Shallow outlet to Big Shallow Pond but before doing so I dropped my pack and climbed up onto the esker between Little Shallow and Washbowl Ponds. I wanted to get a better perspective of the extent of the devastation caused by the storm and the elevation of the esker would give me a much better view.

Upon reaching the top of the esker, still perched on top of the jumble of stems beneath me, I was shocked at the scene unfolding before me. As far as I could see to the east every tree appeared to have been blow down. The conifers lining Washbowl Pond were all down with their root masses now standing up vertically, facing me. It was at this point that the extent of the storm’s damage finally became evident to me.

Not far from my location stood a single snag, its entire canopy completely snapped off. From near the top of the snag there was a single limb still attached, although stripped of all its foliage. At the end of this limb was a single white-throated sparrow singing its heart out.

“Oh-Sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada” the little sparrow sang. After each chorus it looked at me as if to accuse me of some complicity in causing the catastrophe surrounding us.

“Don’t look at me!” I remember responding out loud.

Before descending the esker to reunite with my backpack I took a few minutes to practice my hand waving action in case of another opportunity for an airlift out of the area. I would not let such an opportunity pass again especially in the very hot mid-day temperatures with an increasingly clogging water filter.

When I returned to my backpack I consulted the map in preparation for abandoning the trail in an attempt to reach the Big Shallow lean-to. It was at this point I heard the loud swishing sound of a helicopter flying low. Soon the helicopter shocked me with its sudden appearance as it flew over the esker to the north and circled around my location. This gave me an opportunity to use some of my waving down skills practiced just moments before.

After circling the helicopter flew off to the north leaving me feeling somewhat abandoned. But in a few very long minutes the helicopter returned and landed in Little Shallow Pond near its northern shore. Due to dry conditions I was able to walk out through the shrubbery and reach the helicopter as it floated on the water without even getting my feet wet.

I was quickly ushered onto the helicopter by the three person crew. After some quick instructions on the use of the radio microphone I was able to answer the questions of the crew. By notifying them of my presence at Sand Lake during the storm and not seeing another soul on my way to this point they were able to concentrate their search elsewhere.

When they asked me for some personal information I enquired whether it was for billing purposes. At least my humor remained intact.

As we flew over the area I was able to get a better understanding of the scale of the damage from the storm. The storm had done its most extensive damage in concentrated areas appearing as if a giant ran through the forest leaving footprints of smashed trees. Apparently the giant occasionally fell, producing a long swath of downed trees where his body had struck the ground.

After a flight over the area the helicopter took me to Wanakena where it landed in a large elevated flat area close to the parking lot where my car was parked. Upon exiting the helicopter I waded through the small crowd of Wanakenians gathered nearby. For a few moments I learned what it meant to be a celebrity as the residents of Wanakena persistently questioned me about the storm and the conditions of the backcountry. Mingled within the questions were offers of free food necessitated by the continued lack of electricity. Obviously, celebrity has its privileges.

While I continued to answer all their questions the helicopter returned to let off two additional backcountry explorers who experienced the storm in the Big Shallow lean-to as mammoth white pines fell down around them. Soon the two recent arrivals became the center of attention as my 15 minutes of minor fame quickly receded. With the spotlight off me I returned to my car for the long drive back to the Syracuse area.

This experience continues to have indelible influence over me to this day. In a negative way, the mere distant rumble of thunder in the backcountry raises my hackles and gets my pulse racing. But in a positive fashion, I continue to enjoy a bond with the Five Ponds Wilderness area that I feel with no other area in the Adirondacks.

Because of this bond I continue to return to the Five Ponds area to investigate and explore the impact the 1995 Microburst despite the arduous effort and concomitant cursing necessary to bushwhack through its backcountry.

Photos: Blow down near Washbowl Pond in 1997, blow down near Wolf Pond lean-to in 1997 and blow down near Wolf Pond lean-to in 2011 by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Dan Crane

Dan Crane

Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.


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10 Responses

  1. Mike Chevier says:

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  4. catharus says:

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  5. Dan Crane says:

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  6. Pete Klein says:

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  7. Ed Reese says:

    Dan,
    Even before the Microburst, the area to the south of Sand Lake is AWFUL to walk through. It will wear anybody down. The area to the south of Sand Lake also has smaller trees. I think the 1936 fire went up to almost Sand Lake. There was/is a Carpet Spruce Swamp (with blowdown and rocks) area down on the Middle Branch that literally almost killed me. Can you imagine- May 16, 1975. In the upper 80’s in temperature, black flies and mosquitos out, but along the river was almost 3 feet deep of snow in places! Where the River narrowed- I swear it was raging almost as bad as Great Falls down on the Potomac. The ground shaking under me. The River was so difficult to walk along, up on rocky ledges in a couple of places. I was also passing out from exhaustion (and Sodium depletion). After that I developed more conservative approach to wilderness exploration, starting with I go with others and tell people where we go, etc…

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  8. Dan Crane Dan Crane says:

    Ed,

    I was planning on making a journey into the area south of Sand Lake this spring, but unfortunately I am nursing a knee injury so I don’t know when I’ll finally get to make the trip.

    My plan includes entering at Upper South Pond, heading south and east to the Middle Branch, hitting all the unknown ponds as far east as Crooked Lake, before returning west via the Riley Ponds, Sitz Pond and Sand Lake.

    I read about this Carpet Spruce Swamp, but have been unable to find this term used anywhere other than Wikipedia. What does it mean?

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  9. Ed Reese says:

    Dan,

    The term ‘Carpet Spruce’ is a term the folks who live in the surrounding towns in that area taught me back in the 1970’s. I don’t know if anyone uses that term anymore. It is Boreal-Type small Spruce matted together, often next to wetlands and ponds. Often many rocks in it and blowdown, sometimes large White pines. Well there is a spot on the Middle Branch Oswegatchie River, the northside of the River, (1.5 or so miles north of Willy’s Lake and 3.0 miles southwest Crooked Lake, where one of the largest examples of this (I ever seen) exists. I got in a jam in it and sustained a minor injury, working back out of it. It shows up on Aerial photos also. There is an unnamed pond there, that it sort of adjuts, and the middle-branch sort of breaks up there. There is sort of a wide ‘Swale grass’ area that the middle-branch meanders through and it fills up with a lot of water in the Spring, after a heavy Winter of snow melt. This detail stunned me (being a novice in this particular type of woods, at the time). When I cut south from Sand Lake, I went straight south (in May of 1975)(thought eventually I would walk to Stillwater), it was morning and the sun was out (it was getting rather hot), I used the sun to keep my direction heading south, ending up a little southeast. The map I had was crappy. The first problem I encountered was the Reilly Ponds outlet. I tried to cut straight across the Beaver Marsh (all the things you never want to do in the woods). The ground was unstable and all of a sudden I sunk in mud almost to my chest. I barely got out of it and I did not feel any bottom near it. It might have gone down 5, 6 or 7 feet deep like that. I then went over two east-west running hills. This was the only easy spot. I have three black and white poor quality photos from here (I ran out of film at that point near Sitz Pond, later). I stayed East of Sitz Creek. After this is got difficult and more difficult to walk. Because I had been in here for 2 days already, and had done a lot of walking and brought too little food in (I had a lower back injury when I was a kid, and in those days nothing was lightweight and so I could only handle the bare minimum). By the time I got to the middle-branch, I was in moderate to severe exhaustion (even though I was a seasoned hiker at that point and used to ride many miles on a bicycle as a kid. I was not in the right shape, doing the right excercises for this. I was clueless. That is so important in your other article about getting in the right shape and bringing in the right equipment. Some of tips in your other article about First Aid, I wrote down myself. Anyway, I’m using up to much space here. Thank You.

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    • Dan Crane Dan Crane says:

      Ed,

      Sounds like you had an adventure you will never forget down there. And, isn’t that the whole point of these adventures. I plan to explore that area someday. Typically, I stay up on the drier areas, so I might just follow along the edge of this “carpet spruce” area. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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