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.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

4 Responses

  1. Dan Crane says:

    An excellent adventure! I have never bushwhacked in the dark before; though it probably is not as bad in the winter.

    Were you wearing snowshoes?

    The description of the cold and misery associated with backcountry exploration brought back so many memories. I don’t do much winter camping anymore but the description of your experience actually made my feet numb. Outstanding!

  2. Pete Nelson says:

    Sadly there was not enough snow for snowshoes until we got over 3,000 feet. Even then it was marginal…

  3. RossHWilliams says:

    Great Story! It makes me hope that someday I can have my own Adirondack hideaway.

  4. maxjames says:


    Not only a great story but very well written. As an aspiring author I look for tell tale signs of talent. It is there.