Posts Tagged ‘Bushwhacking’

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Lightweight Backpacking: Sweat the Big Stuff

Reducing the weight of one’s backpack is essential for journeying into the depth of the Adirondack backcountry, where trails are nonexistent and obstacles plentiful. This is especially true as time passes and endurance of youth gives way to the slower plodding of middle age and beyond. Shouldering less of a burden reduces the stress on the legs resulting in more comfortable hiking, healthier joints and blister-free feet.

Although endlessly counting ounces may be tedious, there is no other way to effectively reduce the weight of a backpack. The simplest solution is carry less stuff. Discard the superfluous, such as a large bowie knife, a cast iron frying pan, or a square egg maker (this is no jest, I witnessed all of these articles packed into the backcountry during my backpacking career). Think small when it comes to those essential items.

When going lightweight is in its nascent stage, initially concentrate on the biggest and bulkiest items. A shelter (e.g. tent), sleeping bag and backpack form a triumvirate of heavy equipment typically carried into the backcountry. Therefore, these big boys are where one should start to shave off the pounds.

Making the switch to lightweight is easier today since most manufacturers appear to be making equipment out of lighter material. Unfortunately, many of them are simply playing lip service to this effort. The majority of their products continue to contain numerous unnecessary “bells and whistles.” Keeping the ounces off one’s back requires jettisoning all but the essential amenities.

The best method for getting exactly what one desires in a piece of backpacking equipment is to make it yourself. Although this notion seems unthinkable to some (at least that’s what the major manufacturers are counting on), it is not as difficult as first imagined. Unfortunately, not everyone has the skills or patience to make their own homemade equipment.

The best alternative for those without the skills or inclination to make their own is to modify manufactured equipment after purchasing it. Since it requires steely nerves to start ripping apart a brand new product to remove unwanted bells and whistles, this option may be just as unrealistic as producing equipment from scratch.

For those unwilling to make their own and unable to disassemble newly purchased manufactured products, the only viable alternative remaining is carefully shopping around to find manufactured equipment that comes as closely to meeting ones needs as possible. Just think small and keep it simple.

The shelter is a great place to start reducing the weight of a fully packed backcountry backpack. The bountiful options available makes it easier than ever to lug around more shelter than absolutely necessary. The tent is the most conventional choice in a portable shelter but often other options (e.g. tarp) weigh less and offer better ventilation.

Avoid carrying more shelter than necessary, if possible. Carrying a three-person tent for a single person results in a heavier burden and a lot of unoccupied and thus unnecessary space at the end of the day. The smaller the shelter, the less weight on one’s back. Think small and save potentially a few pounds.

Any shelter with optional poles is an excellent choice for a lightweight shelter. The backcountry has an almost infinite variety of poles, ripe for the using, if one knows where to find them. Standing trees and their fallen limbs make outstanding poles, and they add nothing to the weight of a backpack. Just take care not to damage any living trees in the process.

My shelter preference is for a modular tarp system; I have not seen the inside of a tent in a decade. The tarp system was manufactured by Golite using Ray Jardine’s designs. The system consists of a tarp (the Cave) and a hanging insect netting interior (the Nest). Trees or sticks function as poles, though sometimes in a pinch I will use my hiking poles. Unfortunately, Golite no longer offers this product (although a tarp kit is available directly from Ray Jardine’s website), though they do have many other lightweight tents currently available.

The sleeping bag is another one of the more weighty backpacking essentials. Its bulk and weight is mostly due to the insulating material that keeps one comfortable and warm on a chilly Adirondack night. Enough insulation is necessary for the lowest potential temperature encountered on a trip but going overboard in this regard can be costly weight-wise. If it gets colder than anticipated long underwear, coats and rain gear may be worn as pajamas.

Choosing down over synthetic insulation is the best way to reduce the weight of a sleeping bag. Down insulates better, is more compressible and weighs much less than the synthetic alternatives. Some may find such a notion complete lunacy in the temperate rainforest known as the Adirondacks, since wet down offers little insulating ability. A waterproof stuff sack, backpack liner and/or pack cover insures a dry down sleeping bag, even in the Adirondacks.

For the last half dozen years, I have almost exclusively slept in the Western Mountaineering’s Highlite sleeping bag during the warmer months of the Adirondacks. It is engineered to be as lightweight as possible, with such features as down insulation, lightweight fabrics and a reduced sized half zipper. Unfortunately, it is offered in only a few sizes and I had to settle for the 6 feet length option. At around 5’8” (and that is with my boots on), this sleeping bag is much too long but I lack the nerves of steel required to do something about it.

Shaving off weight by replacing the backpack with a lighter equivalent is best saved for last. Since the backpack must offer enough support to comfortably carry all the equipment, it is best to pare down the weight of its contents before making the leap to a lightweight equivalent.

Some features to avoid in a backpack are a top pocket, side pockets, metal or plastic stays and even a highly cushioned hip-belt. Although these features might appear essential, they are easily abandoned with some planning. The extra support provided by the stays and highly cushioned hip-belt is unnecessary when the weight of the contents of the backpack is reduced sufficiently.

Golite’s Pinnacle is my primary backpack during the summer months in the Adirondacks. It is extremely lightweight but roomy enough to carry over a week’s worth of supplies and is highly durable. Over the years mine has traveled from Cranberry Lake to Stillwater Reservoir (and back), through some horrendous recovering blowdown along Oven Lake, and deep into the interior of the Pepperbox Wilderness.

Reducing the weight of one’s backpack allows for more comfortable hiking and a more enjoyable backcountry experience. Concentrating the initial effort on the larger equipment lays the groundwork for reducing the weight on the less substantial gear. Think small, keep it simple and enjoy a renewed spring in the step on the trail.

Photos: Cave/Nest tarp at Moshier Reservoir, Highlite sleeping bag on Cat Mountain and Pinnacle backpack at Streeter Fishpond by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Cold Rain and Snow

Amy and I had tarried too long in town, visiting friends, getting a tour of a local art collection, enjoying a leisurely holiday pace. We did not start the long climb up to Lost Brook Tract until after 2 PM with a scant two hours of daylight remaining. It was an icy climb and even with trekking poles to help lever the ascent our progress was halting. By the time we were three miles in and two thousand feet up, nearing the junction where the way to Lost Brook Tract leaves any hiking trail altogether, it was close to pitch black with spotty freezing rain. We didn’t mind as hiking in the dark is fun. But we were about to be stupid… well, not so much “we” as me.

We started our bushwhack south in the misty darkness, sliding and stumbling down the steep ridge toward Lost Brook three hundred feet below us. The snow had deepened. My first mistake was to leave my compass in the pack, confident in my many previous descents: “straight down, make the brook, look for the blazed tree…” But of course “straight down” is never straight down in the Adirondacks, and even the best off-trail hiker cannot rely upon their sense of direction when they are in darkness. Indeed, the rhythm of the topography, the feel for the cant of the land that is more important to a bushwhacker than any compass bearing, seemed awkward and skewed. My sense of direction, usually reliable, became confused and my confidence wavered.

Still, going down in some direction was sure to lead to the brook, the only question being where. I started to cheat to the left as we descended, attempting to correct for what I guessed had been an initial descent angled too far right. This was the second mistake: making that kind of correction in the darkness is always unwise. Amy knew something was wrong: “We’re taking too long to get down,” she said.

At last the steepness became acute, heralding the final approach to the brook. Lost Brook inhabits a severe gash in the narrow valley down which it courses. A climb directly up it, working the shelves between the carved walls, comes up against more than one section that is technical. Sure enough, our approach from above, randomized by the errant night-time descent, brought us to an edge that was beyond us. Amy was remarkably patient with this development. We worked further down parallel to the brook, looking for a doable scramble. The tumbled masses of wood and rock in the deep cleft made for a hard struggle.

We found a spot, slid down to the water’s edge and crossed with care to the other side. Amy knew we were lost, as did I – to our right Lost Brook was flowing over a massive boulder that we were quite sure we’d never seen before. With only a few feet of visibility available to us it was impossible to have a sense of whether we were too far upstream or downstream, but the unfamiliarity of that boulder led me to guess that we had missed our blazed tree by plenty. Somewhere on this side of Lost Brook lay our remote acreage and a recently repaired lean-to, a destination that seemed almost a requirement given the conditions. The descent in wet snow had taken its toll on our dryness; now it was raining and we were quite damp. I shed my pack and went to scout, leaving Amy with our gear.

The steepness of Lost Brook in this cleft is challenge enough already. But it is also cloaked in virgin forest, so rather than the skin-scratching blowdown typical of this altitude, one encounters obstacles of a different scale, massive trunks of downed and stooped spruces and birches that form a formidable natural breastwork. On this night it was a dim, icy, frost-rimmed confusion of trees all akimbo, rocks, ledges and snow traps. Navigating its unfamiliar edge in search a blazed spruce in the darkness was a futile undertaking. The temperature was dropping in defiance of the rain and the wind was on the rise. Things were not quite so much fun now; they were becoming dangerous.

One of the personal adages by which I manage to maintain my well-being in the Adirondack wilderness is that it is essential to reverse the conventional thinking on body comfort. Casual hikers with money can spend a lot of it on gear to stay dry when hiking in the summer. In the winter they equip themselves to stay warm. But while the basic ideas for proper clothing are obvious (no cotton!), those overall goals are backwards. Every serious backpacker with experience knows that it is impossible to stay dry in the summer in the Adirondacks. Rather, it is imperative to be able to stay warm in the summer no matter how many days of wetness you face, lest hypothermia surprise you. On the other hand it is impossible (and quite frankly potentially dangerous) to try to always be warm and cozy on a serious winter trip. Cold feet and hands, a shiver here and there, are par for the course and actually quite helpful. However it is crucial to stay as dry as possible. Wet clothing in the Adirondack back country in winter can be injurious or even fatal in a multitude of ways, and with stunning rapidity.

Feeling something like a sopping sponge, I returned to Amy and made a snap decision to bivouac then and there. We found a tiny patch of reasonably level ground, cleared it of snow and branches with haste and pitched the tent. I was starting to shiver violently, so I wrestled out of my waterlogged gear and plunged into our sleeping bags, downing water and granola on the way. Amy and Henderson, our commiserating dog, crawled in with me and our equilibrium was restored in a few minutes.

Amy and I spent the night warm and restless, the patter of rain counterpointed with percussive crashes of wet snow sliding off balsam boughs and onto our fly. The temperature plummeted, the rain turned to ice and then snow. We waited for daylight.

I know many people who will tolerate the discomforts of back country camping in order to gain the benefits: a magnificent view, the experience of solitude, the magic beauty of a secret spot. I appreciate all of those benefits and more, but quite frankly I go for the discomforts. I go for the wrong turns, the sudden bad weather, the challenges that rise up and the overwhelming power of nature that suddenly bears down. This is not some macho exercise on my part, a chance to prove or pretend toughness. Rather it is an incredible intimacy, a coming to terms with nature in her wildest sense. It is humbling and affirming and uncompromising all at once.

And if it so, it is so tenfold on primeval land. Lost Brook Tract is just that, primeval, completely untouched by the hand of man. It is palpably different than recovered wilderness, it possess a power that one can feel to the depths. Having experienced that feeling, were it not easily available to me I would pay any price to experience it again, to once more be another kind of human being for a little while. It is my great fortune that the cost to me is small: a four mile hike, a bushwhack, a weighted pack.

So it was that Amy and I huddled through a cold winter night somewhere on the edge of Lost Brook. It was exhilarating and bracing to know that despite years of back country experience, and here in the twenty-first century, we could be lost in a virgin wilderness, stripped to the level of survival, perched on a steep valley wall where but a handful of people have ever been.

Morning broke clear and cold. Our outerwear was frozen solid. I thawed my boots, scraped on my gear and surveyed the scene, my feel for the land somewhat restored. The forest was magnificent, virgin growth to be sure, but the location was indeed unfamiliar. I played a hunch that the steepness indicated we were below our land. My hunch paid off and fifteen minutes later I came to our property line with its telltale blazes. The lean-to, a fire ring and five days of glorious winter camping awaited us, by which to ring in the New Year. We were home.

Pete Nelson is a teacher, performer and writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. He is also a lifelong explorer of the Adirondacks who recently purchased unspoiled acreage deep in the back country. This is one of an ongoing series of dispatches for Adirondack Almanack chronicling his adventures with Lost Brook Tract.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dan Crane: Solo Backcountry Exploration

One of the central tenets of backcountry exploration is never venture out on your own. The conventional thinking is hiking/backpacking is a group activity, where individual achievement must take a backseat to safety. This remains a well-held belief, but is it valid? Do the risks of solo backcountry travel outweigh the benefits?

There are many reasons for traveling through the backcountry in a group. Communal meals, sharing equipment, division of camp duties and basic human companionship are just a few advantages of trekking through forests and over mountains with other individuals.

Although there are many advantages of companionship in the backcountry, the main reason for its popularity as a backcountry rule is safety. The thinking is hiking in groups is much safer than traveling alone. What if you break a leg? Or get sick? In case of injury or severe illness, some in the group can stay with the injured/ill, while the rest seek assistance.

Fortunately, some of the increased risk of traveling alone in the backcountry can be ameliorated with the help of modern day technology. A personal locator beacon (PLB) can be used in case of emergency, and in some cases may be more effective than sending members of a group for assistance. A PLB is especially important for those exploring little used trails or bushwhacking off-trail through the backcountry solo.

Although hiking alone may be more risky than doing so in a group, it also contains many unique rewards impossible to enjoy in the company of others.

Going at one’s own pace is one of the most rewarding aspects of journeying through the backcountry solo. There is no worrying about holding someone up while taking pictures of wildflowers, identifying an uncommon bird or sketching a pretty landscape. Being alone allows for traveling at one’s own pace without inconveniencing anyone else in the process.

Peace and quiet is another benefit of hiking without any companions. When traveling with others discussions are inevitable; typically including topics such as current events, artfully done television shows hardly anyone is watching and endless recitations of classic Monty Python skits. These conversations often obscure the natural sounds of birds, insects, etc.

The resulting quiet of traveling solo allows for being alone with one’s thoughts. This notion is increasingly difficult in the modern world where the constant din of automobiles, music from one’s iPod and the ever-present ring-tone of a cellphone are ubiquitous.

Unfortunately, hiking or backpacking solo has some disadvantages too.

When traveling alone there is no one in which to share the experiences. Many people take pleasure in sharing the sights and sounds discovered in the backcountry and this is not possible when exploring solo. Solo backcountry experiences can be shared with others by taking notes and using the notes to produce reports or a blog of the adventures.

With no one to talk to there is the risk of loneliness. This often manifests itself at first in having conversations with one self. This can evolve into talking to animals, plants (specifically trees) and in extreme examples one’s own equipment. For example, I have had many a conversation with a cleaning sponge before (affectionately called Mr. Sponge). A small radio can often alleviate any possible pangs of loneliness in the backcountry, but bring a sponge that is a good listener, just in case.

Is exploring the backcountry alone fraught with too much risk? Is the standard convention about only hiking in groups still applicable? Or is a combination of skills and technology enough to ameliorate such risk?

Solo backcountry exploration can be a highly rewarding activity, where self-discovery and communing with nature are the norm. The proper skills and current technology can help ameliorate much of the added risk of being alone and far off the beaten path.

Photos: Robinson River by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Mysterious Northwestern Adirondacks Noise

The Adirondack backcountry can generate some very peculiar sounds. A bobcat crying, a coyote howling and a pine sawyer chewing are just a few of the strange natural sounds of the remote wilderness. These sounds are often easily identifiable as having a natural source. Unfortunately, the sources of many others remain a mystery.

I heard one of these mysterious sounds several times in different locations in the backcountry of the northwestern Adirondacks over the years. This strange sound turned up again this summer at Cracker Pond, located in the remote part of the Five Ponds Wilderness.

The unexplained sound is a soft modulated hum. It is a subtle sound; often it is difficult to tell whether it is a sound or just a feeling deep down in the pit of the stomach. It is sometimes muffled, as if in the background, and therefore easily overlooked. The nature of the sound is hard to describe, but it is similar to the noise made by a boat crashing through a wave or wake of another boat.

This is not the first time I have heard such a sound. Similar sounds intruded upon several different backcountry trips over the last few years in the northwestern Adirondacks. The sound is not constant, as I have returned to the same locations multiple times without hearing it.

I heard this sound for the first time while visiting the Threemile Beaver Meadow in the western part of the Pepperbox Wilderness. At this time, I presumed the sound was from the turbines at one of the dams to the south along the Beaver River.

Unfortunately, my turbine theory appeared incorrect as I heard the sound at the top of Cat Mountain last year in the northern portion of the Five Ponds Wilderness. This mountain is way too far from the Threemile Beaver Meadow for such a sound to carry that far.

What could this sound be? Where is it coming from? Is it just in my head? If not, is it from a man-made source or a natural one? Does anyone have any theories about this sound? Unidentified flying objects? Clandestine hydrofracking operations? Any explanation from the absurd to the practical would be appreciated.

Strange sounds are a part of the backcountry experience in the Adirondacks. Usually these mysterious sounds have a natural source. Occasionally, an eerie noise is difficult to attribute to a natural phenomenon. Most of these remain a mystery; let us hope this is not one of them.

Photos: Cracker Pond, Threemile Beaver Meadow and View from Cat Mountain by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dan Crane: Adirondack Backcountry Hygiene

Exploring the backcountry of the Adirondacks is hard work. Regardless of whether it is exclusively done on well-worn trails or way off the beaten path, hiking generates a lot of sweat and stirs up plenty of dirt. When the stench emerging from a sleeping bag in the morning instantly brings tears to the eyes, there can be no doubt; some backcountry hygiene is now a dire necessity.

Adding some backcountry laundry to the usual camp chores can mitigate this smell to some degree, but often more extreme measures are necessary. Although everyone’s tolerance to intense body odor, sticky skin and slimy hair may wildly vary; it is inevitable that at some point the sickening smorgasbord of filth will exceed even the hardiest individual’s ability to ignore it.

Although personal hygiene may be optional for the solo backcountry enthusiast, it becomes a downright necessity for those traveling in groups. One of the few things worse than smelling one’s own overpowering body odor is enduring the stench of someone else’s natural aroma.

Some people prefer the simplest solution to a dire body odor situation. Just a dip in a nearby lake or stream does the trick for these trepid souls. Unfortunately, finding a rocky-bottomed water body in the Adirondacks is not always an easy task. Plus, there is the threat of leeches, snapping turtles, overly enthusiastic fish and a whole menagerie of other creepy organisms to deal with.

For those looking for a more traditional bathing experience, only a little planning and a few pieces of extra equipment are required. The ultimate goal of backcountry hygiene is to deal with the stench and other associated issues without over burdening the weight of the backpack.

Soap is an important component of any backcountry adventurer’s personal hygiene system. Simple biodegradable soaps work best as they have less impact on the environment than the more aggressive, heavily marketed alternatives made by the major manufactures.

Using soap with insect-repellent properties, like Sallye Ander No-Bite-Me, allows for added protection against all blood-craving insects. Having a single piece of equipment satisfy two purposes, such as these repellent soaps, is a weight-conscious backcountry explorer’s dream.

A small sponge comes in handy for rinsing off the soapy residue or engaging in a sponge bath. Currently, I use an ecotools™ cellulose facial sponge. These sponges come in threes, are made of cellulose, contain no petroleum by-products, are minimally packaged and the limited packaging is printed on recycled paper.

Use some type of basin filled with water to wet and rinse the sponge. Backpacker’s Pantry’s collapsible pack bowl works extremely well. It is lightweight, flexible, and extremely packable as it folds down completely flat. Just make sure to dispose of the waste water 150 feet away from any stream, lake or pond.

After cleaning with soap it is important to hold off the inevitable stink as long as possible. Typically, deodorant sticks are used back in civilization to accomplish this task. Deodorant sticks are typically too bulky for backpacking into the backcountry.

An alternative I use is a deodorant powder, such as Thai Crystal & Cornstarch Deodorant Powder. It claims to be free of aluminum chlorohydrate, controls wetness, offers 24-hour protection and is unscented. I typically pack it in a small plastic film container (you do remember film, right?). Since it is a very fine powder I usually place the film container in a small plastic bag, just in case.

Nothing spurs the desire to take a shower more than the slimy feeling of greasy hair in the backcountry. This is especially true at night when it is often no longer possible to cover it up with a convenient hat. Unfortunately, this feeling cannot be fully alleviated by just wetting your hair in a convenient lake or pond; only a thorough shampooing can alleviate this situation.

Despite their utility back in civilization, liquid shampoos are inconvenient in the backcountry. They are not lightweight, require a sturdy container (which often seems to leak despite all attempts to the contrary) and are often heavily scented (which attracts all types of insects, including the biting and stinging kinds).

An alternative to liquid shampoos are solid shampoo bars. Although they typically come in large sizes, they can be cut to a convenient small size for an extended backcountry adventure. They do not leak, can be easily placed in a plastic re-sealable bag and tend to have subtle scents. My favorite is J.R.Liggett’s Shampoo Bar, which I like so much I use it at home fulltime.

The dirty water reservoir of an inline water filter system can be helpful for rinsing shampoo from hair. The reservoir, with the inline filter removed and the hose tied off in a loose knot, when filled with water makes an effective shower. Just be sure not to tie the knot too tight since undoing it with eyes closed is a daunting task.

I use an old Platypus 3L Big Zip Reservoir with some surgical tubing for my inline filter system. The surgical tubing is supple enough to be easily tied and untied regardless of whether my eyes are open or not. Three liters is more than enough to rinse the shampoo from my hair with enough left over to rinse my back and arms. Make sure the water is not too cold or risk having an intense headache after the shower.

Do not forget to have a lightweight and highly absorbent pack towel handy for all of the above activities. They are not only handy for drying but become an effective defensive weapon when wet against crafty biting flies that have discovered the sweet spot on the back where few people can reach. I currently carry a MSR Ultralite Pack Towel for just such occasions.

Spending many days in the wilderness often requires taking steps to perform some backcountry hygiene. Fortunately, personal hygiene in the backcountry does not have to be another tedious chore and can deliver sizable dividends when exploring the backcountry in groups. Otherwise be prepared to spend much of the trip alone with a stench of your own making.

Photos: A perfect place for a late summer bath on Moshier Reservoir by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Dave Gibson: Solitude on Eleventh ‘Cataract’ Mountain

There’s a great deal weighing on people’s minds this early November, starting with how they’ll get through another Adirondack winter, keep their family healthy, and earn a living. Some are wondering if they’ll be elected on Tuesday, others confused about who they’re going to vote for. One town supervisor I spoke with in July informed me that four of his town’s five rural post offices would be shuttered in 2012, and asked me if the fate of local post offices concerned me. I said it did.

My Adirondack Wild colleague Dan Plumley and his neighbors lost their Keene Valley local post office this year. I do recall a citizen campaign waged decades ago to keep the only small post office in Hallowell, Maine – near where I was born. It succeeded. Hope is always a crucial part of any early November day.

Some lose their immediate November worries and thoughts in the fall hunt, or adventure. My conservation mentor Paul Schaefer was in hunting camp this time of the year, beginning in 1931 when as a 23-year old he first guided the Cataract Club into the Siamese wilderness until the mid 1980s when his bad knee finally gave out on him. Often, Paul and other members of the Cataract Club would climb Cataract Mountain which stretches for miles above the East Branch of the Sacandaga River valley in Bakers Mills. That’s not the mountain’s designated name. On maps it is Eleventh Mountain.

Paul wrote in his book Adirondack Cabin Country (Syracuse University Press, 1993) that “Half a century ago a number of us who hunted that mountain and were enthralled by its magnificence, decided to give it a more fitting name. ‘Cataract Mountain’ it has been, and it is for us, U.S. Geological Survey maps notwithstanding. Five crystal streams tumble off the thickly forested peak that stretches 3, 249 feet in elevation. Some of the cataracts that form are spectacular.”

This past weekend I bushwacked up Cataract Mountain with my friend Herb. I think we were going to find something, not to lose our thoughts or troubles, relatively light as those may be – perhaps to find a coyote standing tall on that peak, yipping and yelping and looking out on their wild domain. Despite the slow, tough climb around boulders, birch, beech and balsam thickets, Herb said he was determined to summit.

When we finally reached one of the mountain’s five summits, we rested and looked out at the valley of the East Branch of the Sacandaga glimmering 900 feet below us, Rt. 8 winding to its left. We gazed on Black, Harrington and other mountains in the blue distance. Suddenly Herb exclaimed, jumped up and found coyote scat not 20 feet from where we were eating our lunch. Look, Herb said, a coyote did survey his domain from this very spot! As had Paul Schaefer, many times.

Paul writes in Adirondack Cabin Country: “There are numerous spots where I can stand on a rocky ledge above the precipitous forested slopes dropping off to the valley far below and experience a solitude so wonderful that it causes emotions I can not describe…Here on Cataract Mountain – protected by the ‘forever wild’ covenant – the work of the Divine Artist is all about us, from the lichens clinging to the bare rocks to the hawk wheeling in the sky far above.”

It was true. The rock, lichen, ferns, shining, soaking moss had a luminous intensity during Herb’s and my adventure. We checked our watch. Fleeting thoughts of home and of gathering darkness found its crevice and latched on. We’d better go. Picking our way down the steep slope, we reached the trail in good shape as the sun was setting, pleased with ourselves. A mile away on the other side of the mountain, the Cataract Club was settling into their camp, now in its 80th fall season. As for their quarry, the sagacious white-tailed deer, it was long gone – like that coyote.

Photos: Above, Paul Schaefer at his Adirondack cabin below Cataract Mountain; Below, Herb at the summit of Cataract, or Eleventh Mountain.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dan Crane: Backcountry Laundry

Backcountry exploration is an extremely dirty business. Hiking long distances with a heavy pack takes a lot of effort and generates a lot of sweat. Frequently scrambling under downed trees, climbing over logs, trudging across beaver dams and pushing through dense thickets just exacerbates the problem. Mix in insect repellent and sunscreen residues, and hiking clothes are typically filthy, clammy and all-around disgusting after just a single day.

Unfortunately, the nearest washing machine is many miles away. Although laundry is often a forgotten chore out in the backcountry, it does not have to be that way. Backcountry laundry can be almost as convenient as at home with the proper planning and equipment. In fact, I perform the following laundry procedure frequently during my backcountry adventures, most recently at Cracker Pond during a bushwhacking trip through the deep interior of the Five Ponds Wilderness this past summer.

Proper planning starts well before ever hitting the trail or entering the forest. In fact, it starts while shopping for hiking clothes. This is especially true for the clothing worn while hiking as these will likely be in the greatest need of cleaning during any trip.

Lightweight clothing made of synthetic fabrics work best. The synthetic fabrics tend to hold water less and therefore dry quicker. Quick drying is important since only the sun and the wind will be available for any drying. Do not attempt to use a fire for drying except in the most extreme situations, as the risk of melting is too great.

Very little specialized equipment is required for laundry in the backcountry. The necessary equipment is relatively inexpensive or typically carried already for other purposes. Forget about hauling an old-fashioned washboard, all that is needed is a re-sealable, plastic zipper storage bag (Ziploc bags for those not brand name averse), some detergent, a water basin, a super-absorbent towel and a clothes line. Do not forget the filthy clothing too.

The zipper storage bag should be a heavy duty bag, such as a freezer bag. A gallon-sized bag works well unless you plan on cleaning only small articles such as socks and/or underwear. The bag thickness is especially important if it is to be used multiple times on a single trip since small holes can develop easily.

Select a biodegradable and environmentally-friendly detergent for use in the backcountry. Powdered detergents work best as they weigh less than the liquid alternatives. If the temperatures are forecast to be high during your trip then consider supplementing the powdered with a small amount of liquid scent destroying detergent.

My favorite liquid scent-destroying detergent is Sport-Wash. Only a half-ounce is necessary per gallon of water. The label indicates it rinses completely, leaving absolutely no residue or scent. Plus, they claim it restores loft and effectiveness to down and synthetic insulation, improves wicking of fibers and maintains breathability of waterproof fabrics. The only downside is the instructions indicate to let clothes soak for thirty minutes prior to agitation.

When selecting water for washing laundry, try to find the cleanest source available. This may pose a difficult task in some places within the Adirondacks, especially in those ponds with mucky bottoms and indistinct shorelines. Streams often provide the easiest access to relatively clean water.

The water should be scooped up carefully from its source if the plastic bag has had prior use since getting detergent (or any other cleansing agent) into the water can have adverse consequences for aquatic life. Pouring water into the bag from some other receptacle sometimes works well, though at some point you will wish you were an octopus; the extra arms come in handy!

The detergent should be added after the water is in the plastic bag. It is best to place the cleaning agent in first before the clothes since it is easier to get it to mix uniformly. Take care not to use too much; it only takes a little to get the job done.

After adding the clothes, seal the bag and either soak the contents for a while or shake to simulate agitation. Feel free to use your imagination here, alternating between soaking and shaking as time allows. Although it is tempting to open the bag and agitate with one’s hands, be careful not to puncture the bag when doing so.

Depending on how dirty are the clothes, multiple loads can be washed using a single batch of water and detergent. But be warned, the water may be so dark and dirty after just washing a single article of clothing that you may feel a little ill. When the dirty water is finally ready for disposal make sure you are at least 150 feet from any water source, if such a thing is possible in the Adirondacks.

After washing is completed, the rinsing can commence. Although the plastic page could be used for rinsing, I typically use a self-standing water basin for that purpose. The water basin allows for more vigorous ringing and more frequent water changes.

My rinsing basin of choice is a Backpacker’s Pantry collapsible pack bowl. This pack bowl is extremely lightweight, flexible and very packable; it folds down completely flat. This bowl could double as a washing bucket but I only carry one and I prefer washing and rinsing simultaneously.

Dispose of the rinse water in the same manner as the wash water; at least 150 feet from any water source. Try not to dispose of all the water in a single location; spread out any possible impact.

After the clothes are completely laundered, they need to be dried. Although a majority of drying is performed by the sun and wind, there are several procedures that can minimize the amount of time required.

A clothes line is essential for drying laundry in the backcountry. The food bag rope used to foil hungry bears, rodents, etc. can easily double as a clothes line. The only complication of this duel use is it is not possible to dry laundry AND hang food simultaneously.

The clothes line should be tied between two trees where the rope gets as much sunshine exposure as possible. If available place the rope in an area where it takes advantage of any cross-breezes. If you want to avoid your rope getting sticky from sap residue make sure to tie it off to hardwood trees only.

Although throwing the clothes right on the line and waiting for the sun and wind to do all the drying is an option, a super-absorbent pack towel can cut the amount of drying time down significantly. One of these towels should already be in every hiker’s backpack for drying after fording streams, swimming and personal hygiene purposes.

I carry a couple MSR Ultralite pack towels of different sizes for personal hygiene purposes. The larger of these towels doubles for laundry duty when necessary.

Just lay out the wet (and presumably now clean) article of clothing on top of towel and roll the two up together. When completely rolled up, just give a couple gentle twists to transfer the moisture from the clothes to the towel. Unroll and ring out the towel into the rinse bucket or at the proper distance from any water body. Repeat until the clothing is merely damp and then hang it out in the sun to finish the job.

The next time you slip on that hiking shirt and the stench makes you dizzy just be thankful you have the necessary equipment to do your laundry out in the backcountry. Afterwards you will be delighted at how clean are your hiking clothes. Just do not get used to it; after an hour carrying a heavy pack over who-knows-what you will be smelling your own body odor all over again.

Photos: Drying laundry at Cracker Pond by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dan Crane: Leaving Bushwhacking Breadcrumbs

Solitude and isolation are two reasons for journeying into the backcountry of the Adirondacks. Getting away from the hustle and bustle of modern life to spend some time in nature has a soothing and regenerative power unmatched by the likes of books, movies or video games. Unfortunately, the remoteness can prove a challenge if for some reason a backcountry enthusiast must be located in a timely fashion.

Although rare, situations may arise that require locating an individual in the backcountry. An emergency at home, failure to return on a given date or some other reason may require initiating a search with little information to go on. Such a search may be difficult to perform within the confines of a trail system; it may require a Herculean effort in a bushwhacking situation.

Leaving an itinerary with a trust-worthy individual is one way to prepare for such a contingency. Unfortunately, an itinerary is only helpful when it is faithfully followed and this may not always be possible in remote areas subject to blow downs, beaver-induced flooding and other natural disturbances.

Technology offers some solutions to this problem, although they may be expensive and/or impractical in a wilderness setting. Most personal locator beacons (PLBs) provide a tracking are self-activated; they are only effective when a button is pushed in response to a crisis. Some PLBs offer a tracking function (e.g. SPOT Tracker) but require a clear view of the sky and wearing the device on your back or head. Satellite phones could be used to check in with someone back in civilization but these are very expensive and intrusive to the wilderness experience.

Physically leaving some sort of trail behind is one time-tested strategy of allowing others to locate you in case of an emergency. This is called breadcrumbing, not to be confused with the same term’s use with respect to cooking, Internet navigation, GPS tracking or texting flirtatious messages to the opposite sex. All of these terms have obvious roots in the popular Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, where the siblings attempt to use small pieces of bread to mark a trail back home.

Breadcrumbing does not involve leaving a trail of literal breadcrumbs as you bushwhack through forests, around ponds and over beaver dams. The weight of all the bread alone would make such a feat totally unworkable for a multi-day trip. Plus, the temptation to devour the bread after a long day of fighting through dense forest would be overwhelming and impossible to ignore.

If it were possible to exercise enough self-control to use the bread as intended, there is still no guarantee something or someone else would not eat it. A menagerie of animals may devour the starchy morsels and thus obliterate the trail. This same predicament almost led to Hansel and Gretel’s untimely demise. Or worse, these animal beggars might follow the trail through the backcountry, turning you into a Pied Piper of sorts. This would be unhealthy for the animals and may lead you to running afoul of the law since feeding wild animals is illegal.

Instead of leaving actual breadcrumbs, just find other opportunities to temporarily mark the environment with your passing. It is important these figurative breadcrumbs be temporary in nature. Do not engrave trees, leave flagging or paint signs; these are examples of permanent markings and are generally illegal on public property.

Breadcrumbs can come in many forms, from as simple as footprints to as complicated as a message spelled out using natural materials. One characteristic they all should have in common is a form of personal identification and indication of the direction of travel. It is best to leave them in a conspicuous location where they stand out amongst their surroundings.

Footprints in mud or loose soil make ideal breadcrumbs. A dense mud or sand is preferable since these will resist erosion for a longer period of time and show greater detail. These footprints must last for the duration of your trip or they are useless in locating your position in an emergency.

My favorite form of breadcrumbs is a message constructed out of twigs, pebbles or conifer cones. A great place to leave these messages is on rock slabs located near lakes, ponds and streams as these water bodies are often used as landmarks while bushwhacking through the backcountry.

Typically, I leave the majority of my messages at my campsite just before I leave on the next leg of my trip. Even though I place my shelter in a location as devoid of vegetation as possible, there is always some impact whether it be crushed vegetation, compressed leaves or sticks vertically embedded in the forest floor (as tarp poles or stakes). This shelter footprint may capture the eye of anyone following my trail and thus draw attention to my breadcrumb message.

Any message left should include some unique identifier and a time stamp. I use my initials (which unfortunately are also the abbreviation for the last month of the year and the acronym of the New York State agency responsible for management of state-owned land) and the current date. If I am on a long trip I often leave an indication of the direction I am heading when I departed (e.g. N for north, SW for southwest, etc.).

This is enough information to identify myself (or perhaps fool them into thinking it is personally addressed to the Department of Environmental Conversation), the day I was last at the location and the direction I was heading.

The next time you venture out into the backcountry consider leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to mark your passing. This trail could be a tremendous assistance to anyone searching for you in case of an emergency, or at the very worst, retrieve your body. Also, it should allow all involved to avoid any cottages made of confectionaries and any old women living there.

Photos: Breadcrumb message at Oven Lake by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Five Ponds Wilderness: Cracker, Gal and West Ponds

The Adirondacks are dotted with many small lakes and ponds. Many of these are remote wilderness water bodies lacking any roads or trails to them. Since these water bodies have no obvious attractions, few people ever visit. Recently, I visited three such ponds: Cracker, Gal and West Ponds.

These three ponds are located in the Five Ponds Wilderness, south of the Robinson River and west of the upper East Branch Oswegatchie River. The nearest trail lies at least two and a half miles through dense forest to the west. The only way to reach these ponds is via bushwhacking through some of the most challenging terrain in the Adirondacks due to the extensive blow downs from the 1995 Microburst.

Although there are no trails near these ponds, this was not always the case. A trail once existed just east of Cracker Pond and eventually crossed Gal Pond’s outlet before climbing over Greenfield Mountain on its way to High Falls along the Oswegatchie River. After a cursory search during my recent trip, I found no sign of this trail remaining along the outlet. The trail has most likely been reclaimed by the surrounding forest. A historical topographic map of the area can be found here.

Cracker Pond is the southernmost and largest of the three ponds. It is irregularly shaped, with an island connected to the shore by a thick strip of vegetation. Snags and small shrub-covered islands are scattered near shore while many stately white pines tower over the pond along its perimeter. A series of several smaller beaver ponds lie off to the southwest.

Gal and West Ponds are in close proximity to each other about a half mile north of their southern neighbor. They are similarly shaped and connected to each other via a swampy stream. Unlike Cracker, these two ponds have a significant amount of open water with no snags or shrub-covered islands. They both have open rocks along the shore and at least one protruding from the water’s surface.

Gal Pond is unlike the other two ponds with respect to its aquatic vegetation. Pickerel weed and yellow-flowered water lilies are plentiful along its northwestern shoreline.

These lakes are reported to have low pHs due to acidification from acid rain. They are reported to be devoid of fish. However, this condition has not limited hooded mergansers from raising their young. Two different merganser families with multiple young were observed on Cracker and West Ponds. Hooded merganser’s primary diet consists of small fish, although they also eat aquatic invertebrates and amphibians.

Apparently the low pH has not impacted all aquatic life. Whirlygig beetles were common along the northern shoreline of West Pond. Based on the prodigious presence of the blood-sucking adults, the ponds are hospitable to the aquatic larvae of mosquitoes, black flies and deer flies. Amphibians were well represented as well, with green frogs, mink frogs, bullfrogs and spring peepers commonly heard calling during all hours of the day.

Evidence of beaver is plentiful at all three of the ponds. Several remnant dams were present at Cracker Pond, while both Gal and West had obvious beaver lodges. Gal Pond was reported to once have a 654-feet long and 4 feet wide beaver canal leading from the pond to a grove of yellow birchs and other hardwoods. But during my recent visit I observed no recent sign of any beaver activity in at the ponds.

Moose find the area favorable as well. An abundance of moose scat was present between Cracker Pond and its northern neighbors as well as along the northern shores of Gal and West Ponds.

These three ponds represent the very best wilderness experience the Adirondacks have to offer. Their remoteness ensures a peaceful respite from hustle and bustle of the modern world if one has the fortitude to reach them.

Photos: Peninsula at West Pond, Cracker Pond and Gal Pond by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Five Ponds Wilderness: Oven Lake

There are many places well off the beaten path in the Adirondacks. But there are few as remote or as difficult to get to as Oven Lake in the Five Ponds Wilderness. But for those willing to put the effort in, Oven Lake can be well worth the trouble.

Oven Lake is a highly remote wilderness lake located near the eastern edge of the Five Ponds Wilderness in the northwestern Adirondacks. The lake is nearly a mile long, oriented roughly southwest to northeast and has a unique shape. An undulating shoreline partitions the lake into several different parts. The lake’s inlet is a half mile long, straight channel connecting it to its southeastern neighbor Grassy Pond.

Oven Lake’s wild character is greatly enhances by its remoteness. The lake is located several miles from the nearest trail in the Five Ponds Wilderness. It is approximately two miles north of the terminus of the Red Horse Trail and over three miles east of the Sand Lake Trail. The lake’s distance from any marked trail is a significant reason for its lack of human visitors.

Oven Lake’s remoteness is not the only reason for its lack of visitation. The lake is nearly surrounded by significant blow down from the 1995 Microburst. The forests along both the lake’s eastern and western shores were highly impacted by the intense wind of the 16-year old storm.

The impact of this storm along the shoreline of Oven Lake can clearly be seen from aerial photographs available via Bing or Google maps. These blow downs make a nearly impenetrable barrier keeping all but the most ambitious or insane backcountry adventurer from visiting its shore.

The lake’s many unusual features make it ideal for exploring with a kayak or canoe. Unfortunately, its remoteness and surrounding aggressive terrain are difficult hurdles to overcome in getting a boat onto this wilderness lake.

I made the effort to bushwhack through some of the most arduous backcountry conditions to camp near Oven Lake for two nights this past summer. This trek required hiking into the Five Ponds Wilderness using a network of herd paths, and unmarked and marked trails before bushwhacking several miles through the vast interior. The off-trail portion involved bushwhacking through hardwood, conifer and mixed forests, over hills and around cliffs, avoiding thick blow down, crossing the Robinson River on an abandoned beaver dam and following along a series of stygian beaver swales.

On this trip I gained access following a series of beaver swales from the Robinson River located between Toad Pond and Crooked Lake. The beaver swales were fed by a boggy wetland located just a short distance from the southern portion of Oven Lake. This route allowed me to avoid most of the worst of the blow down along the eastern and western shoes of Oven Lake. My exit from the lake was via the northern end of the lake as I headed northeast toward Cracker Pond.

I spent two nights in the Oven Lake area; one night near the southern portion of the lake and the other near its northern terminus. The remoteness of the lake was accentuated by the presence of common loons, beaver, several river otters and a prodigious amount of moose droppings. The only evidence of human activity in the area was the remnants of a Mylar balloon found near its shore to the southwest.

Oven Lake is a perfect place to explore for a backcountry enthusiast looking for a true wilderness experience unlikely to be disturbed by the presence of other people. With its remote location and difficult surrounding terrain there is little chance of seeing another soul at Oven Lake except for the truly dedicated bushwhacker.

Photos: Southern portion of Oven Lake, hardwood regeneration along eastern shore of Oven Lake and River otters near northern terminus of Oven Lake by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Five Ponds Wilderness: A Moose Paradise

Moose have been swiftly returning to the Adirondacks in recent decades. These large ungulates were extirpated from New York State around the time of the Civil War. In the early 1980’s, moose started making a return to the state with an estimated population of 15 to 20 individuals. Their numbers have mushroomed to a population of over 800 today.

Moose are the largest living member of the deer family. Unlike most other members of the deer family, male moose have palmate antlers, which are used during the mating season to fight for the right to mate with females. Moose habitat consists of either boreal or mixed deciduous forests, where their diet consists of both terrestrial and aquatic vegetation. » Continue Reading.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bushwacking the 46 High Peaks

A short while ago Spencer Morrissey completed a decade long quest of bushwhacking to or from every one of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks. Although when he got started he had not heard of John Winkler, he eventually met him at book signings and had the rare privilege on several occasions of exchanging hiking stories.

John E ‘Bushwhack’ Winkler (1941-2007), who received a Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam, preferred bushwhacking to trail hiking and over a span of 30 years climbed just about every bump, scaled most of the slides and visited many of the ponds and bogs of his ‘Cherished Wilderness’, the Adirondacks. Nevertheless his most famous accomplishment is climbing all of the 46 (over a 5 year span during the late 70s early 80s), from one direction or the other following a set of rules he had established himself but bushwhacking in at least one direction between each mountain base and its summit. A talented photographer, he came back with two volumes of extraordinary pictures. The volumes sport little text but one can guess many of his routes easily since every picture is worth a 1000 words. » Continue Reading.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dan Crane: The Year of the Mosquito

Biting insects are the price of admission for playing in the backcountry of the Adirondacks. But this year these pests seem to be more plentiful and ferocious than in years past. This is particularly true for the blood-sucking scourge known worldwide as the pesky mosquito.

Last month I experienced the large number and ferocity of mosquitoes first hand during an eight-day trek within the remote interior of the Five Ponds Wilderness in the northwestern Adirondacks. Saying mosquitoes were plentiful would be a vast understatement given the near-Biblical proportions of the blood-suckers encountered there.

In addition to the vast numbers, the mosquitoes also displayed a greater bloodthirstiness than I have witnessed in many years. Even places usually light in mosquito activity had more than their fair share of the vicious blood-suckers this year. And they were literally out for blood.

There are at least two possible explanations for this near-historical level of mosquitoes. One explanation involves the record level of precipitation during the spring and early summer, while another revolves around the precipitous decline of one of their chief predators.

Few residents of the Adirondacks will soon forget the record amount of rainfall this spring and early summer, with its concomitant flooding causing numerous road closures, some of which continue to this day. All this extra water accumulated in the backcountry resulting in overflowing water bodies, bloated streams and soggy wetlands.

The plentiful water provided a boom for mosquitoes and other blood-sucking pests, providing numerous opportunities to lay their eggs and ample habitat for their larval young.

The reduction in the bat population may be another possible explanation for the proliferation of mosquitoes in the Adirondacks this year.

Bats are flying mammals with webbed forelimbs that have evolved into wings used in flight. Bats are unique among mammals as they are the only members of this class capable of sustained flight.

There are nine different species of bats present within the Adirondacks and all of these consume insects, including mosquitoes, as their main source of food.

Although bats are not exclusive predators of mosquitoes there is evidence they consume prodigious levels of mosquitoes as well as other flying insects. Typically an individual bat can devour up to one third of its own weight in insects each night. That could potentially add up to a whole lot of mosquitoes.

Unfortunately, bat populations along the eastern United States have been devastated by the white-nose syndrome. This syndrome has been associated with the death of over a million bats in the northeastern United States.

The white-nose syndrome is named after the white fungus found on affected bat’s nose, ears and wings. Mortality rates of 90 to 100% have been observed in some caves leaving the long-term viability of some species survival in doubt. The Adirondack bat populations have not been immune to this devastating condition.

Over the last couple of years I have witnessed the reduction in the bat populations first hand. Areas in the northwestern Adirondacks where I observed bats in the early hours of the evening now appear to be devoid of these flying mammals.

Recently, while exploring remote areas south of the Robinson River in the Five Ponds Wilderness I made a concentrated effort to observe some bats early in the evening. Unfortunately the numbers and ferocity of the mosquito horde limited my time viewing the early evening skies without putting both my physical and mental health at risk.

However during the early evening hours of six of the days where weather permitted I failed to see a single bat flying through the darkening skies. The mosquitoes took full advantage of the lack of these flying mammals by feasting on me until I was near the point of insanity.

An abundant mosquito population coupled with an increased bloodthirstiness may be the result of the prodigious amount of rainfall or the depletion of a natural predator — it is difficult to say. When you are in the backcountry surrounded by a swarm of these blood-suckers, reasons are not as important as the sweet relief that insect netting or a good bottle of bug repellent can provide.

Do not fret though; these blood-suckers will get their comeuppance with winter just a few short months away.

Photos: Mosquito by Joaquim Alves Gaspar, high water at Sand Lake by Dan Crane, and bat with white-nose syndrome by US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Gear: The Smallest Personal Locator Beacon Available

Outdoor electronic equipment is not immune to the trend toward smaller and lighter electronics, which was apparent with the official unveiling of ACR Electronics’ newest personal locator beacon (PLB), the ResQLink™.

On July 21, 2011, the FCC gave its final approval for ACR’s ResQLink, the smallest and lightest PLB currently on the market. Consequently, the ACR ResQLink went on sale soon after the announcement. The ACR ResQLink is now the smallest, full-powered, GPS-enabled rescue beacon specifically designed for anglers, pilots and, especially, back country enthusiasts.

Personal locator beacons are electronic devices used to notify search and rescue personnel of an individual in distress who is far away from normal emergency services such as 911 (e.g. bushwhacking somewhere deep in the Adirondack backcountry). These devices interface with the COSPAS-SARSAT, the international satellite system for search-and-rescue (SAR), and can often be individually identified and precisely located when GPS equipped.

Personal locator beacons have saved numerous people’s lives in the back country and should be carried on any adventure off the beaten path, especially by solo explorers. By giving a precise location of an injured person these devices save time, money and reduce the risk to SAR personnel.

The ACR ResQLink is now the smallest and lightest PLB currently on the market (a distinction previous held by the McMurdo FastFind 210). The ResQLink measures at 1.3 inches by 1.9 inches by 3.9 inches, making it comparable to the size of a cell-phone. In addition, it weighs a mere 4.6 ounces. This makes it smaller and lighter than most people’s wallets!

At this size and weight, the ResQLink can easily be stowed almost anywhere in a backpack. Just make sure it is placed somewhere accessible and not at the very bottom of an overly-stuffed backpack. It could even be carried in a shirt or pant pocket!

Although small in size, the ResQLink has the full capability of a serious PLB. With the ResQLink, ACR has packaged GPS positioning, a 406 MHz signal and 121.5 MHz homing capability into a little package that can rapidly and accurately relay your position to the search and rescue satellite system in case of an emergency. The 66-channel GPS can even guide rescuers to within 100 meters or less of your position. In addition, an integrated strobe light provides greater visibility in the case of a nighttime rescue.

Like most ACR PLBs, the ResQLink is extremely easy to use. Just deploy the antenna and press the exposed ON button, preferably somewhere with a clear view of the sky. When not in use the metal blade antenna lies wrapped around the case and the ON button is hidden behind the plastic base of the antenna. This device is so easy to use that it can even be operated with a single hand.

The ResQLink provides two built-in tests to verify the device is functioning properly. With just a push of a button either the internal electronics or the GPS functionality can be tested before heading into the backcountry. These tests can reduce the anxiety regarding the device functioning properly after an entire winter in storage.

Unlike some other PLB products, the ResQLink requires no paid subscription but through ACR’s optional website it does have some limited messaging capability.

The ResQLink is made right here in the USA, comes with a 5-year limited warranty and has a suggested retail price of $325. But a cursory scan of the internet yielded typical prices as low as $279.

As a matter of full disclosure, I have not had the opportunity to use (or even touch) a ResQLink yet. The information for this article is a compilation of my experience with ACR’s MicroFix (a larger and older PLB), the literature provided by ACR on their website and some reviews on the Internet (including this excellent one).

The combined size and weight make the ACR ResQLink easier to carry than any other PLB on the market, especially compared to those previously offered by ACR. Since a PLB can mean the difference between life and death in an emergency, there is increasingly no excuse to avoid carrying one especially one as small and lightweight as the ResQLink.

Photos: ResQLink by ACR Electronics.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bushwhacking with Compact Binoculars

Imagine walking down a trail or bushwhacking through some dense underbrush. A flash of movement appears out of the corner of your eye that just might be a three-toed woodpecker (or any other bird, mammal, insect, plant or mineral of interest).

The backpack is carefully is removed, opened, and fished through in an attempt to find a full-sized pair of binoculars. After finally locating the binoculars, the case is opened and the binoculars are ready to be focused on this rare bird species (or mammal, insect, plant or mineral). Unfortunately, it is long gone and you are out of luck. » Continue Reading.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Bushwhacking Cowboy Beaver Meadow

There are many places in the Adirondacks where one can get away from the crowds but few as remote as the Cowboy Beaver Meadow in the northwestern corner of the Pepperbox Wilderness.

The Cowboy Beaver Meadow is a series of beaver swales along the Alder Creek. Nearby one can find a lovely unnamed pond and several beaver created wetlands. But if you expect to find any crowds then think again; this is a rarely visited place. Other than the occasional bushwhacker or hunters during the fall this place probably rarely gets many visitors.

The Cowboy Beaver Meadow is an ideal place for those contemplating exploring the backcountry beyond the trails and trying their hand at bushwhacking. Bordered on the east and south by the Alder Creek, north by a dirt road south of Spring Pond and west by the Herkimer/Lewis county line this area allows for testing one’s navigation skills while providing enough natural/man-made landmarks to remain oriented on a map.

The origin of the name for these beaver meadows along the Alder Creek remains unknown. According to a posting on the Adkforum website, the beaver meadow was named after a mysterious cowboy who made his residence in the area around the time of the Civil War.

Gaining access to the Cowboy Beaver Meadow is a challenge. The easiest access is from the west out of Croghan via Prentice Road, a gravel road that eventually turns south and becomes the Main Haul Road. This is a fairly decent dirt road suitable for most cars but caution is required due to the occasional ATV traffic.

Although the Main Haul Road continues to the Soft Maple Reservoir, the Cowboy Beaver Meadow parking area lies at the end of Sand Pond Road located just south of the Sand Pond parking lot. Do not expect a sign or register here, although an old “Parking Area” sign nailed on a tree is present, it is now mostly obscured by new growth.

Historical topographic maps show the area once had a more significant human presence than it does today. An unimproved road once followed along the Alder Creek through the beaver meadow on its way from Long Pond to Crooked Lake. In addition, another road left the beaver meadow and headed up along Pepperbox Creek. A winding, low rock ridge resembling a beaver dam made of boulders that crosses the Alder Creek between beaver ponds is probably the remnants of this old road.

In addition to the rare human artifact there are numerous natural landmarks to investigate in this area, including the many beaver ponds along the Alder Creek, an unnamed pond and a hill with steep forested cliffs.

The unnamed pond provides an attractive place for camping while visiting the area. Several islands exist within the pond although they are merely muddy, slightly raised areas covered with semi-aquatic grasses, sedges and other vegetation. Beavers and hooded mergansers frequent this pond and its islands.

Many dead trees choke the shoreline of the pond. Along the west shore sits a large, stick nest located at the top of one of these snags near the shoreline. This nest may belong to either a great blue heron or possibly an osprey but remained unoccupied during the late summer.

An elevated area between the pond and the beaver swales along Alder Creek provides an opportunity to gain some perspective on the area. The forested cliffs provide a destination but do not expect much in the way of views. Although the hills to the east beyond the Alder Creek can be seen through the tree canopy these minimal views are merely a tease since a clear view of the Cowboy Beaver Meadow remains elusive. A better view may be available during the autumn months after most of the leaves have descended from the canopy.

The Cowboy Beaver Meadow is the main attraction of the area. This meadow is a series of beaver swales following along the Alder Creek as it meanders toward the Beaver River to the south.

The meadows range from wide and relatively dry open, shrubby areas to just a narrow corridor surrounding the creek. Most of the creek is slow moving with many pools along its length but at some points, the tannin-rich water flows swiftly over bare rock with frequent small waterfalls. Opportunities for crossing the stream and exploring to the east of the creek are plentiful in late summer.

For those wanting to experiment with bushwhacking in a seemingly remote area should consider the Cowboy Beaver Meadow area within the northwestern Pepperbox Wilderness. The area provides a beaver pond, a series of beaver swales along the Alder Creek and human artifacts from bygone days. So, saddle up and enjoy!

Photos: Beaver pond within Cowboy Beaver Meadow, unnamed pond and rocky portion of Alder Creek by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Outdoor Gear: Bug Season Head Nets

A recent weekend in the northwestern Adirondacks during May gave me a new perspective on surviving black fly season in a year with a prodigious amount of rainfall. The size and intensity of the swarm continuously hovering around my head not only necessitated a plethora of insect repellent but the frequent use of a piece of equipment that rarely sees the light of day: the head net.

Although a good head net is a necessity during black fly season, it probably should be carried at all times during the warmer months. A head net can sometimes come in handy beyond black fly season when camping in a mosquito-frequented area or anytime no-see-ums congregant on your head in large numbers.

An effective head net should be black in color and have mesh small enough to keep away even the tinniest of blood sucking insects. An elasticized closure at the bottom of the head net is helpful to seal off the mesh around your neck. In addition, it should be compact and lightweight enough to easily and conveniently fit within an overstuffed backpack on a multi-day trip.

The dark color of the mesh has little to do with making a fashion statement. The dark color reduces the amount of glare from the sun when wearing the head net. This can be of critical importance if you plan on doing any birding while wearing the head net.

Despite their porous nature, head nets can be very hot when worn. Although this can be an advantage on cold days when a hat is not available, it is usually an added annoyance on warm days especially with a swarm of ravenous blood-sucking insects about your head.

On those days when the swarm is especially intense, drinking and eating can be done without taking off the head net. Drinking should be done right through the mesh but it is best to refrain from drinking anything other than water since any residue left behind may attract larger, and potentially more dangerous, wildlife.

Eating is also possible while wearing a head net. With the right type of head net, eating can be accomplished by placing the food inside the head net and then manipulating the food article with your hands from outside the head net. This is an excellent technique for keeping the swarm of insects from landing on and potentially ruining your meal as well. Take care not to attempt to eat anything sticky this way though, as any residue left behind will create the same problem as non-water drinks.

A lightweight head net will alleviate any associated anxiety of carrying a potentially extraneous piece of equipment for the extremely weight-conscious backcountry explorer. Compactness ensures the fine mesh does not get ripped during the packing process, preventing a potentially painful breach in your insect protection barrier (repairable with duct tape, if necessary).

Head nets tend to come in two different types. One resembles a mesh hood while the other tends to incorporate one or more rings into the mesh so as to keep the mesh away from one’s face. The hooded type should be avoided as the mesh tends to end up resting on one’s face more often giving the ingenious little buggers an opportunity to do some blood-sucking.

The head nets using rings are definitely superior to the hooded type. The rings, made of hard plastic, foam or metal, keep the mesh away from the face and therefore provide more effective protection. The rings’ material should not be too easily bent or anyone with even a moderate case of obsessive-compulsion disorder may spend many hours attempting to get them back into their original shape.

Two head nets made by popular outdoor manufacturers are the Sea to Summit Mosquito Head Net and the Outdoor Research Deluxe Spring Ring Headnet.

The Sea to Summit Mosquito Head Net is a perfect example of the hooded type of head net. It is a very lightweight head net with a true black mesh that packs up into its own very small stuff sack. This head net weighs only 1.3 ounces and the typical prices online range from $8 to $10.

Unfortunately, this head net has one crucial flaw. With 500 holes per square inch the head net is completely ineffectual for no-see-ums. This flaw became painfully apparent to me on a trip to Big Shallow Pond in the Five Ponds Wilderness several years ago. This flaw makes the Sea to Summit head net ineffectual for use in the Adirondack for all those who do not enjoy no-see-um bites.

In contrast, the Outdoor Research Deluxe Spring Ring Headnet is one of the better ring head nets available from the major outdoor equipment manufacturers. The mesh is very finely woven; not even the runt of a no-see-um litter could possibly penetrate it. This head net packs down to a small size and is very lightweight, weighing a mere 2.2 ounces. This head net has a manufacturers suggested retail price of $19.

An important feature of the OR Deluxe Spring Ring head net is the aluminum ring sewn within the mesh located about chin-level. This ring keeps the mesh away from your face and therefore keeps the little bloodsuckers from biting you where the mesh rests against your skin. Unfortunately, it needs to be worn with a hat otherwise the blood suckers can easily bite your scalp through the mesh (and your hair) on the top of your head. When twisted this aluminum ring collapses into a smaller size so it can be packed within the attached stuff sack and stowed away in your pack.

One minor flaw of the OR head net is the color of the mesh. Although the mesh is dark in color, it is not quite black. It appears to be more charcoal in color and therefore does not provide all the reduction in glare possible. Unless the head net is going to be used in direct sunshine where glare can be an issue (e.g. birding), this should not be a major concern.

During the height of bug season it is important to use any means available to maintain your sanity when surrounded by hordes of blood-sucking insects such as black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies. A head net can be one of the best ways to protect your head and maintain your mental health during this time of the year. Just be sure to use one that is effective against all of the possible pesky blood-sucking insects present.

Photos: Outdoor Research Deluxe Spring Ring Headnet by Outdoor Research and Sea to Summit Mosquito Head Net by Sea to Summit.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Audubon Society’s Adirondack Birdathon

They say it is the most fun you can have outside with your clothes on. And, no it is not bushwhacking through an Adirondack wilderness. It is the Birdathon, the National Audubon Society’s largest annual fundraising event and the globe’s biggest birding competition. It is happening soon and it may be taking place in some parts of the Adirondacks.

The Birdathon is a 24-hour long marathon competition to find as many bird species as possible within a given region. Species can be identified by sight and/or sound and you are free to bird for as many or as few hours within the 24-hour duration as you desire. Most people participate in teams but if you are of the anti-social persuasion then it is perfectly fine to go solo. » Continue Reading.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Gear Review: Highlite Sleeping Bag

Having an effective sleeping system is crucial to any backcountry explorer. After a full day of hiking or bushwhacking it is essential to get a good night’s rest. The sleeping bag is the most important part of any sleeping system as it provides insulation from the cooler evening temperatures allowing for a restful night’s sleep.

A good backcountry sleeping bag should be light weight, compressible, insulating, and durable. Western Mountaineering’s Highlite down sleeping bag meets all those criteria and is an ideal bag for the Adirondacks from late spring to early fall. The Highlite is incredibly light-weight, compresses down to the size of a loaf of bread and is worthy of Western Mountaineering’s reputation for impeccable quality.

Everything about the Highlite has been designed with reducing weight in mind. In fact, this sleeping bag is the lightest one on the market. The Highlite comes in three different sizes based on a person’s height and weighs from 15 to 17 ounces depending on the size.

The sleeping bag is rated down to a temperature of 35 degrees Fahrenheit. It is insulated with 850+ goose down and has a total fill weight of 7 to 9 ounces (depending on the size).

The down is wrapped in a .9 ounce ExtremeLite™ shell fabric purported to be the lightest and densest (measured by threads per inch) on the market. This fabric appears to be dense enough to prevent the sleeping bag from losing any but a small amount of it precious down feathers. But with any light-weight fabric special care is necessary to avoid ware and tear.

The zipper is the weakest part of this sleeping bag. The one-way zipper is small and cut to half of the bag length to cut down on weight. Although the zipper works well but zips apart at the bottom, which can be irritating when it happens in the middle of the night and it becomes difficult to zip it up to avoid a mid-night chill.

The bag is cut in such a way as to reduce both excess weight and internal volume and thus increase the internal heating rate. This allows the bag to heat up more quickly, which can be greatly appreciated on a chilly evening.

The Highlite is purple on the outside and black on the inside. The dark colors make it easier to dry the sleeping bag in the sun on long trips.

As a bonus the Highlite is made in the good ole U.S. of A.

The Highlite is an awesome sleeping bag for the spring to fall seasons in the Adirondacks. This sleeping bag has been my go-to bag for many years. I have found it always comfortable and rarely needs any supplements like a silk liner or wearing extra clothing.

Although some people might hesitate using a down bag in the Adirondacks where the risk of rain is ever present but if one takes the required precautions (e.g. using a waterproof stuff sack, pack liner and/or pack cover) there should be no problem with the Highlite.

For a light-weight, warm, comfortable and well made sleeping bag for any backcountry adventure you cannot go wrong with Western Mountaineering’s Highlite sleeping bag. It will keep you comfortable on those chilly Adirondack evenings in most conditions but it will not weigh down your backpack or take up too much space.

Photos: Highlite sleeping bag by Western Mountaineering.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mud Season: Sloshing Through Wet Trails

April and May are traditionally considered the messiest part of mud season in the Adirondacks. This designation ignores the fact that any month in the Adirondacks without snow cover could be classified as such. Mud season offers significant challenges to any backcountry adventurer regardless of whether they stay on hiking trails or venture off-tail into areas less traveled.

Although April is considered the beginning of mud season, the actual season can shift significantly from year to year depending on the winter’s snow pack, and the average temperature and amount of liquid precipitation during the early spring. Elevation effects the arrival of mud season with it occurring earlier at low elevations and much later on mountaintops. But regardless of when it starts the results are eventually the same: wet and muddy trails, boots and legs.

There are many challenges for the backcountry explorer during this messy time of the year. These challenges require additional planning, preparation and in some cases caution. But there are a few benefits to being in the backcountry this time of the year as well. In addition, there are some important environmental impacts of hiking in mud season that need identification and management so as to ameliorate their negative impacts.

One challenge of hiking during mud season is the weather. The months of April and May often display the most variable weather both from day-to-day and year-to-year. This variability requires being prepared for almost any type of conditions imaginable from deep snow to driving rainfall. This often requires carrying a vast array of equipment for both the winter and summer seasons.

Depending on the situation crampons and/or snowshoes (see a review of perfect lightweight snowshoes here) may be necessary and an effective pair of gaiters is a must (see a review of a great pair of gaiters here). A good sturdy pair of hiking boots, preferably with a waterproof layer, will help keep your feet dry even in the muddiest of conditions especially in combination with gaiters.

I have some first-hand experience with the variability of the weather during spring conditions. Once while backpacking within the Five Ponds Wilderness during early-May I sloshed through a substantial snowfall. I was clearly unprepared for such weather conditions since I brought only my summer equipment for the most part.

Crossing streams in the early spring can be very challenging regardless of whether hiking on or off trails. In early spring, ice jams can cause extensive flooding while later in the spring streams can become swollen with runoff from the melting snow pack and the saturated soils. Look out for floating logs and flooded boardwalks as both can be frequent hazards on trails through wetlands during this time of the year.

There are some negative environmental impacts to hiking during mud season. The chief environmental damage from hiking in mud season is erosion. Although erosion can occur anywhere it is more extensive within the mountainous and heavy trafficked areas within the High Peaks. Soils tend to be more susceptible to erosion in the spring due to the alternating warmer temperatures during the day and colder temperatures in the evening.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation often issues a voluntary trail closure for areas above 3000 feet in the Eastern High Peaks. These closures are issued to protect trails from erosion as well as to protect fragile alpine vegetation during this time of the year. The effectiveness of these closures on trail use in this area is questionable.

When encountering muddy trails one should avoid walking around sloppy portions of a trail to avoid the muck. Typically, avoiding walking through ankle deep (or deeper!) mud just seems like common sense but it is best walk right through the mud to avoid trail creep and damaging nascent vegetation growing along the trail’s border. These fragile early-season shoots can be easily damaged by the aggressive tread of a hiker’s boot.

Because of all the negative issues of navigating through mud season I typically avoid any backcountry hiking in the month of April in the Adirondacks. Usually my own backcountry adventures start around mid-May although this is highly dependent on the prevalent weather conditions during mid to late spring.

Although there are many challenges and some negative environmental factors of hiking during mud season there are a couple of advantages to the adventurous backcountry enthusiast.

One advantage of exploring the backcountry during April is the lack of a certain plentiful Adirondack pest. Typically April is the last totally biting bug free month in the Adirondacks until the following autumn. At some point in late May the bane of the Adirondacks, the black fly will reemerge from the stream and rivers, and attack anything warm-blooded with a pulse. Soon other biting flies will join in on the fun and most will be present until the end of summer.

Another benefit of hiking in the early spring is the lack of foliage. Although many may see this as a disadvantage due to the lack of shade, the absence of the scent of fresh foliage and the comforting rustle of the wind through the leaves there is a real benefit to be enjoyed. Without leaves blocking one’s views some outstanding vistas once obscured now becomes visible. This is especially true on rolling hills where the trees often grow thickest.

Hiking through the backcountry during mud season offers the ambitious explorer some real challenges and a few advantages over some other seasons in the Adirondacks. It is important to be prepared for any and all weather conditions but the season offers some pleasant bug-free hiking with some seldom seen awesome views. But the more fastidious explorer should sit this season out and wait for the warm winds of summer to dry up the trails.

Photos: Muddy trail on Mt. Colden, muddy and wet Adirondack trail, flooded trail near Cranberry Lake by Dan Crane.

Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.

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