There are plenty of reasons people enjoy spending time in the Adirondack wilderness. The reasons include the mental, spiritual and physical benefits of being surrounded by and immersed in the diversity of life. Few think about the flip side of life, as the backcountry is full of dangers, many of which can easily lead to, gulp, death.
For the grim reaper often wears hiking boots.
This struck me after reading about an incident where a hiker passed away in the High Peaks Wilderness recently. A 63-year old man, apparently in good health, collapsed and died a mile below the summit of Mt. Marcy just over a week ago. Unfortunately, this is not the first time such an incident occurred, as deaths often occur in the Adirondack backcountry. Whether these deaths come from over exertion or just some accident, thankfully, they do not happen too often.
Some might say that older people or others at risk should not be out enjoying the backcountry, where available emergency services are much more than a phone call away. As if at-risk individuals must cease experiencing the backcountry on its own terms, instead sentenced to spending the rest of their years cruising through a pseudo-wilderness on a dirt road somewhere in the Adirondacks. This is how Wild Forest proponents of the former Finch Pruyn properties are born!
Death in the backcountry does not merely lurk for those at risk though; death is waiting everywhere in the backcountry. It is there under each widowmaker, which can come crashing down on your shelter during a late-night thunderstorm. It is lying beneath every bog mat, whose maw could open and engulf you in the muck below. It could come in the form of a moose or bear that sees you as a threat (or worse, a mate), so it charges. Or maybe it is a beaver spike obscured by foliage that breaks your fall as you trip on a tree root.
Based on these perceived risks and so many more, I am surprised anyone EVER ventures into the wilderness for recreational purposes. Is it worth almost certain death to venture out into the backcountry? In actuality, the frontcountry holds just as much (if not more) risk than those in the backcountry. In fact, the most dangerous part of a backcountry adventure is probably the car ride to the trailhead.
But in a way, those few people who pass away in the backcountry are the lucky ones.
What the?!? Are you daft, man? Dying in the backcountry? Possibly alone, with wild animals waiting to gnaw on leg or arm. Are you some kind of moron?!? I can hear the long list of incriminations already.
I am certainly not suggesting anyone brought down by the reapers scythe is lucky, regardless of his or her location, and especially at such an early age as the most recent backcountry casualty. It is a sad thing when anyone dies; leaving trails unexplored, mountains unclimbed and many life experiences unlived.
The ugly fact is we are all going to die eventually (although I plan on building a robotic body and transferring my life essence into it, but that is a different blog post entirely). When it is time to shove off this mortal coil, it is difficult to think of a better place than near a mountaintop in the Adirondacks in which to do so.
Just think of the alternative: a long drawn out illness in a hospital bed, half-conscious, with tubes sticking out of every orifice, desperately clinging to each tortured breath, surrounded by morose relatives. Near a mountain top, with a clear sky above or within a dense forest surrounded by the essence of life does not sound so bad after all now, does it?
So where would you choose to spend your last moments? Near a mountaintop? In a dense forest? Along a well-traveled trail? Or in some uncomfortable hospital bed? It is a pretty easy choice for me.
I just hope the animals wait until I truly expire before they snack on me. Or, perhaps I will perfect that essence transferal thing soon and will not have to worry. Though I am concerned, I might see the backcountry in a completely different light with large robotic eyes.
Photo: A pleasant possible last resting place between Upper and Middle South Ponds in the Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.