Monday, March 10, 2014

A Day in the Life of a Bushwhacker

Blowdown near Confluence of Middle Branch Oswegatchie RiverPeople often ask me what exactly I do in the Adirondack backcountry during a bushwhacking trip, as if it involves engaging in some arcane art from long ago. I always find this line of questioning a little befuddling, and to this day, I still find myself lacking an adequate response. For the most part, my day remains much the same as any commuter’s, except for the excessive effort involved in struggling through blowdown, hobblebush or other natural impediments, instead of navigating traffic.

A day in the life of a bushwhacker is an interesting one indeed, but not that different from a typical commuter’s. We sleep, eat, defecate and work much like other people, but a bushwhacker’s commute is shorter and a lot more pleasant. Of course, any description of a typical day in the Adirondack backcountry fails to include a rain delay, a trail hike, or other out of the ordinary conditions, despite these happening much more often than we care to admit.

The bushwhacker’s day, just like a commuter’s, is broken  into general time periods – early morning (VERY early), dawn, mid-morning, noonish (lunch!), mid-afternoon and evening – each containing activities that change little in purpose from day to day. Fortunately for the bushwhacker, each day takes place in a different location, and not the same cramped and sterile cubicle of the commuter.

Early Morning

Early morning starts after midnight, when any sane bushwhacker is fast asleep, capturing enough shuteye to wake rested and refreshed enough for another day of struggling through an often-unfriendly backcountry. Unfortunately, sleep is not always uninterrupted, and an early-morning pee can require a journey into the night.

I often contemplate using a pee bottle instead of leaving the safety of my shelter, as others have done. This avoids the danger of leaving shelter into the pitch-dark blackness, as well as losing the heat trapped in my cozy sleeping bag. The fear of a catastrophe with the bottle, urine, and sleeping bag has always prevented from using the pee bottle.

Leaving the shelter and entering the darkness is always tricky. The flashlight is obvious (I prefer a headlight, leaving my hands free for other purposes), but taking a compass or GPS is also advised, in case the path lacks reflective or obvious landmarks. Since struggling to find my shelter after staying out too late without a flashlight in the Pepperbox Wilderness, I always drape some Kelty Triptease over my shelter, making it glaringly stand out when the slightest bit of light strikes it.

While relieving yourself, take the time to enjoy your surroundings – look for the moon or appreciate the near-infinite stars, just be careful to insure you are in a steady enough state to do two things at once. Also, try engaging in some owl imitations while taking the early-morning pee. But be careful not to call one in too closely while vulnerable parts are exposed.

Dawn

At dawn, either the ruckus of the morning bird chorus (in spring and early summer) rouses one from a sound sleep, or the urge of a full bladder compels action. Either way, the day usually starts early, there is no snooze button on the rising sun or ambitious bird life.

The early morning hours is one of the more interesting times in the backcountry. The soft morning light provides some of the finest photographic moments. The crepuscular denizens of the backcountry are active, when dark-preferring creatures are scurrying to return to their shelter before the Sun’s rays become too bright, while those that slept through the night are ready for breakfast. Most importantly, the mornings are typically cooler, which subdues the hordes of biting insects and provides some of the most pleasant moments.

Forest near Upper South PondAlthough breaking camp occurs during the very early hours, exactly when often depends on my mood. Sometimes my sleeping gear is rolled, squished and stuffed into my backpack before crawling out from under my shelter, while other times I may immediately journey forth to meet the new day, packing chores be damned.

Regardless of when I pack my gear, the only articles not squirreled away in my bulging backpack before breakfast are either those carried on my body or necessary for breakfast preparation. The only exception is during mornings when there is a threat of rain. Then, the shelter may stay up until the last minute, in case of a sudden deluge. It appears leaving a shelter up has a  magical ability to prevent rainfall, just like wearing one’s rain gear does.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, especially for someone traveling arduous terrain.  I keep the core of breakfast fairly simple – either cold cereal (usually my own concoction of two or more commercial cereals), or hot oatmeal, each mixed with powdered milk (and water), dried fruits and nuts. Alternating the two is the general rule, though on really cool mornings the oatmeal takes precedence over the cold alternative.

The early morning ends with some final packing and campsite clean-up before departure. A sweep of the entire area ensures nothing is left behind, since coming back is never an easy proposition. My last chore before departing involves laying down a breadcrumb, a short message, printed in random downed sticks, spelling out the date, my initials, and direction of travel. This backcountry art decorates the site of my shelter, serving as a record of my progress, as well as an indicator of the general location of my body, if I don’t make it home.

Mid-Morning

Mid-morning hours are reserved for moderate bushwhacking, with the goal of finishing about half of the day’s desired miles before lunch time. Often the pace is slower and plodding, as I am without my bushwhacking legs at this point, making me more prone to tripping, falling, and swearing.

My interest in wildlife contributes to my slack pace as well. The birds enthusiastically sing their territorial songs during these hours, warning competitors and wooing mates, but for me they provide a welcome reminder of why I enjoy the backcountry. Their beauty often seduces me to stop, linger, listen and look too, causing me to put less distance behind me than is often necessary.

The birds are hardly the only distraction. My digestive system demands some attention during the morning hours too. Although, taking a dump in the backcountry never comes at a good time, arriving at mid-morning is ideal, as it insures a good distance from my previous campsite, which is probably near water, yet still nowhere near the evening’s next temporary abode.

Snack time is a welcome distraction during the mid-morning, often in frequency and duration in direct proportion to the difficulty of the terrain. This gives me a little time to eat, drink some water, and take a few moments to rest my feet.

Noonish

Around noon, I engage in the same activity as people in the working world – lunch. Unlike the real world, around noon typically means anywhere between noon and two or so in the afternoon. What time depends on my hunger, the terrain, and the distance I’ve traveled. If my progress lacks in the morning a later lunch is inevitable, but ultimately  a gnawing hunger will trump all else.

Making the most of lunch is imperative, as it may be the last extended stop of the day. Before inhaling my lunch, the boots come off, followed by each layer of socks. Do not fret any though, as I disrobe no further, especially during bug season, since bare feet requires enough vigilance, as black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies find a pair of feet to be a perfect lunch, even if they are a little over done.

Mid-Afternoon

After resting for lunch, it is back to the grind of pushing forward through hobblebush, dense coniferous forest, blowdown or whatever else the Adirondacks decides to throw at me. The most serious bushwhacking occurs during mid-afternoon, where I finally pay for all the dawdling of the mid-morning hours. It’s time to haul-butt as daylight dwindles. If I haven’t made the distance to my final destination, I’ll need to plan a new trip itinerary.

Making camp by five o’clock keeps me motivated during the afternoon hours, though in late spring and early summer when daylight is reaching its zenith, it’s easy enough to extend the deadline for another hour or so (though I’m loathe to do so).  My anxiety level spikes when the sun is noticeably low and I’m still searching for a campsite.

Campsite near Cropsey PondOnce I reach my destination for the night, the arduous task of locating a suitable campsite begins. This is one of my least favorite backcountry activities, second only to hanging the food bag.

Finding a campsite in the remote backcountry is more art than science, as level places with little vegetation are at a premium, and often totally non-existent. The number of times my body has been contorted over a root, rock stump or other uncomfortable object is uncountable; it is no wonder that I don’t have a spinal abnormality.

After finding what passes as a proper place to locate my shelter for the night, many chores await before it’s time to relax.  Filtering water is first, since the Sawyer gravity filter takes time to work its magic, While I wait I set up my shelter and populate it with my sleeping gear.

My least favorite part of the backcountry comes next – hanging the food bag. Between finding a rock, locating an adequate tree limb, and throwing the rock attached to a rope over said limb, I’m often ready for a night’s rest. Especially, if I manage to do so without injuring myself.

Evening

With the evening comes the day’s last meal. This often the only meal requiring the firing of my homemade alcohol stove. Rarely very opulent, as my energy reserves are nearly exhausted, this is a quick high-calorie meal, followed by some sweet snacks. Brushing my teeth and rehanging the food bag finishes the camp chores for the day.

After dinner, the remaining daylight hours are for rest and relaxation. This usually means a little late day birding, journaling or just walking around the vicinity of my campsite, constantly swatting away the increasing number of desperate biting insects as the sun slowly sinks below the horizon.

The day ends with the last pee before entering my shelter in full retreat from the mosquito horde. Once inside, I change out of my bushwhacking clothes and into something fitting for the night’s temperatures.

The day ends as I finally lay down for a well-deserved night of rest, for tomorrow is another day of bushwhacking.

Photos: A blowdown near the Middle Branch of the Oswegatchie River in the Five Ponds Wilderness, forest near Upper South Pond in the Five Ponds Wilderness and a campsite near Cropsey Pond in the Pepperbox Wilderness by 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.




2 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Good article. Not surprisingly this is the same as a hunters schedule. With the hope that one day you are lucky enough to have a few extra things to take care of.

  2. John says:

    Dan, I always enjoy your articles! The way you articulate your experiences in the back country is awesome. I feel as though I have just finished backpacking right along beside you. You truly have a gift. I am often asked what it is that I enjoy about my solo escapes or what draws me to venture into the woods alone. I never seem to be able give a worthwhile explanation which is sad, given the magnitude of rejuvenation and excitement that I gain from my time spent in such amazing places of natural beauty and peaceful solitude. Therefore, my wilderness adventures give way to only one negative consequence; they always seem like such a selfish feat. I am the only benefactor of my endeavors. There is always an emptiness upon return to civilization. In order to explain this emotion to the average pop-culture saturated individual, I can only relate it to how they might feel after spending a week at Disney World by themselves. I am clearly envious of your writing talent in that you are able to bring all of us along on your outings. I will use your work as a guide to helping me to share my adventures. Perhaps then I will shed that little ounce of guilty burden.