I just returned from an impromptu March visit to Lost Brook Tract, having had a reason to come to New York State on business. Short but sweet, the visit began in winter and ended in spring. Given the winter weather the Adirondacks have had I was happy to encounter any significant snow at all.
Accompanying me was my brother Michael. Michael is roughly my age and is actually my nephew but we call each other brothers; that’s the kind of relationship we have. .. and despite the tough slog in, still have, thankfully.
We began the trip on a property owned by a friend where we are allowed to park our cars. We strapped our snowshoes to our packs as there was little more than a dusting. It was sunny and crystal clear but cool and crisp; the forecast had promised winter temperatures that day and night.
The first quarter mile in to Lost Brook Tract follows a DEC trail. Here the snow was worn to dirt or slicked into glare ice in many places. There was no sign of any other hiker. After ten minutes of walking we left the trail and turned into the woods following the curve of the massive ridge I have come to incorporate into my internal compass. By the time we had gone a few hundred yards more and perhaps another hundred feet in elevation the snow deepened enough to warrant snowshoes. We donned them and continued on.
For nearly two miles the elevation gain was moderate over a fairly gradual slope. Most of the hard work was the constant up and down resulting from crossing the numerous little rills and streams that came down off the ridge. We felt good and relaxed and though the snow was not deep enough to glide with the shoes, we had an even, natural cadence.
The ridge continued curving up towards Lost Brook, the other side of the valley now getting closer. The air cooled, the sun having a harder angle to light the floor, the snow deepened and the work got harder. This was my sixth time traversing this route, so naturally even though the big ticket items – the two flanking ridges, the curve, the elevation gain, the general direction – were familiar, none of the details seemed right. All the smaller rises and dips looked different than before. I had to pause and reconnoiter at one point to be sure that we were meeting Lost Brook and not some secondary stream inflated by the previous week’s thaw. The snow had deepened enough so that my steep pitch down to the stream bed had me floundering.
I got our situation cleared up and we continued without incident to the crossing point of Lost Brook, near two huge boulders. This is also the site of an old lumber camp; a few rusted artifacts still poked through winter’s blanket. They reminded me to pay more attention this time to where the forest changed to virgin. After we traversed a short flat stretch it was show time. The hard work began.
The first two miles had taken about an hour. The next two miles took three hours. The grade became entertainingly steep… two sections of the ascent are comparable to the famous route up Haystack from Panther Gorge. The leveraging of trekking poles and the clinging of arms to tree trunks became important.
The conditions were not helpful. The snow was now a good three to five feet deep and it was nasty. The night before there had been a light snowfall that had deposited a powdery layer of about three inches. But it was apparent that there had been a lot of rain a few days prior to our ascent. As a result our snowshoes sank through the powder and met hard crust which promptly broke, plunging us into the better part of the snowpack underneath which was rotten from the rain and still wet enough to clump to the shoes. Experienced snowshoers will recognize this specific combination of layers as a perfect recipe for exhaustion.
In between sinking, sliding, tumbling, climbing, groping and punching myself in the eye hard enough to knock myself over (this courtesy of equal parts rotted tree trunk and personal stupidity) I made the plateau that defines the lower part of Lost Brook Tract. But where was our property line? It was nowhere to be found. My bushwhacking alert mode elevated and I decided to scout ahead. Michael, slightly tired and in the midst of an off-color soliloquy, was content to await my wisdom. I found the blaze line in short order but not in a familiar setting. A few more minutes of wandering around was sufficient to determine that I had been seduced by the exact same ridgeline bifurcation I wrote of several dispatches ago. That’s why I wrote about it, you see: these things are trouble! Had I missed by, oh say, another two hundred feet to the right we would have been given the chance to have a wonderful evening of extra credit exploration in some seriously unfamiliar territory.
As it is we made our way to the left and came to our camp area, in perfectly beautiful winter conditions. Night fell and it got good and cold. Lost Brook was frozen more thoroughly than I expected and I had to chop through nearly a foot of ice to get water. Michael made a wonderful fire. We had hauled in quite a bit of cooking gear the previous summer and made a rule that backpack food is verboten, so my brother and I had hauled in proper rations. I prepared a gemelli pasta with capers, olives, tomatoes and enough garlic to damage the pot. Michael prepared a knockout bottle of wine. Some things are worth the weight, you know.
The second night was better than the first. After a day spent exploring our summit, which Michael had not seen and which has views to the High Peaks and Vermont, and with a thaw in full gear, we cracked open a four-grain bourbon, consumed a salmon farfalle with a bourbon cream sauce, bravely finished the bourbon (so that our packs would be much lighter on the way out) and watched a starscape emerge to blaze the heavens, one of those unbelievable nights so sharply clear that you can feel the edge in the air.
At one point I wandered to a little break in the canopy, well away from the dying fire, and looked upward. There was Orion, my favorite constellation, framed perfectly by the branches of the rounded opening. His distinctive belt was unmistakable but his arms and legs were so immersed in a riot of rarely visible stars that their animated lines were almost lost. Orion always looks to me like he is dancing. This night it was a Brazilian dance, during Carnival, with lights and globes and orbs and streams of fabric and fireworks and other dancers everywhere. I felt tears welling up. How could I possibly not have?
The next morning we left Lost Brook Tract. We had arrived in winter but we departed in spring, sliding and tumbling down the crumbling, yielding snow pack, the warm sun reddening our faces. On the way out I took a new angle down the first steep section and while still not too far from our property line I came upon a sight that brought me to my second bout with tears. I had wandered into a red spruce grove and they were absolute giants. One in particular was the biggest red spruce I have ever seen, anywhere. I am dying to get my protractor out there and do some calculating, but to my observation it was well over a hundred feet in height, more like a mature white pine in dimension. I have never seen anything more magnificent. It was a monarch, a three hundred year old prince surrounded by a number of nearly as impressive siblings.
The rest of the trip out was genial and sociable but my thoughts never left the spruce and all that it stands for to me. It’s still in my head as I write this, waiting for my return.
Private note to Timothy Smith, Esquire: I don’t know if you read these dispatches, but if you do I thank you again for the old photograph.
I found your grove, friend.
Photo Caption: Nearing the summit