Saturday, March 10, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Wilderness Experience

In these dispatches and in other Almanack posts over the last two weeks there has been quite debate going about wilderness. Is there really such a thing in the Adirondacks? It is only in the eye of the beholder? Has it been defined primarily by 19th-century aesthetic paradigms? Would a more substantial version of wilderness be “rescue-free?” These and other issues illustrate the complexity of how we experience our park.

In last week’s dispatch I suggested three different ways to frame the question: the ecological, the anecdotal and the experiential. I devoted most of that post to the anecdotal perspective, having as I do a predilection for good stories, of which there is no shortage in the Adirondacks. Whatever the truths about wilderness, our experience of it is deeply engaging, romantic in a broad sense. I think that’s why the anecdotal perspective is valuable. Stories of the wilderness feed our romantic notions, inspire us, remind us of our own stories and evoke memories and images that are part of our history, both real and imagined.

However the rubber meets the road with the experiential perspective. How do we experience wilderness in the Adirondacks? Can we experience it at all? Do we have to fantasize in order create a worthy version of wilderness?

Let’s grant right away that there are no absolutes here. I don’t even know what “absolute wilderness” would be. Given that caveat, there are still multiple factors that influence our experiences. There are certain influences we might describe as objective, or external to us. For example I think we would all agree that the bar area of Lisa G’s in Lake Placid is not wilderness (although after a certain hour I’ve seen it reasonably wild). The town beach at Blue Mountain Lake is not wilderness for similar reasons. Neither meets the “definition” of wilderness, whatever that might be. Then there are obviously subjective influences, or those that are internal to us. The prevailing sentiment in the Almanack commentaries seems to favor the primacy of subjective factors… wilderness is only a state of mind, most seem to say. For the most part I agree.

When I was a little boy I was constantly attuned to this issue, though my subjective perspective was far different than it is now. I spent most of my youthful summers in a camp on the northeastern shore of Blue Mountain Lake. The shoreline was wooded, with camps every hundred yards or so. Most of them were beautiful: older, rustic, quite magnificent. But they were part of civilization (in my early years the people who owned our camp and whose main lodge was next door even had servants in canonical attire). For a little boy the shoreline was woodsy but not wild.

However, right opposite our dock, maybe five hundred feet across the lake, was the long frontal stretch of Osprey Island. Uninhabited, it was cloaked in dense forest, dark and mysterious. It called to me from over the water, “Come here boy, wilderness is tugging at you, I dare you to enter…” and I would canoe to it with excitement and dread. If brave enough that day I would push the canoe into the branches and disembark.

When I was maybe eleven years old I built a little trail of sorts on Osprey and reveled in the short section that was far enough in the middle of the island so that one could not see the water. I found a decaying deer skeleton there; those bones lasted for years. At this spot my experience of wilderness was so profound you could not have topped it if you’d deposited me in the Brooks Range in Alaska.

Osprey would never pass wilderness muster with the adult version of me. DEC has a campsite and a small picnic beach on it. In summer the lake is quite busy, with tour boats, water skiers and a plethora of canoeists plying back and forth past the little island. The shoreline has signs. The profile of the shoreline even changes a little depending upon how Blue Mountain Lake’s dam is managed. I cannot fantasize Osprey as wilderness any more.

But surely the objective and subjective influences are intertwined. I am thinking now about Joe Hackett’s comment on my last Dispatch. For those who do not know him, Joe is an outdoorsman, writer and preeminent Adirondack guide. No one knows the back country better than he. In his comment he declared that the hand of man is stamped all over the park, that there is no real wilderness here because one cannot avoid these stamps, from blaze marks to abandoned utility lines.

His point is a strong one, and it speaks to this intertwining. He seems to be saying that no matter how you might perceive wilderness, that stamp of man is omnipresent; therefore the park is not wild by any objective standard no matter how much one might wish it so, as I once did Osprey.

I rather suspect that more than a few people do not realize how strong Joe’s point is, so allow me to illustrate.

As I grew into manhood I found that Blue Mountain Lake, beautiful as it was, fell more and more short of a wilderness experience for me. My longing for wilder places led me to the Upper Works trail head – the southern gateway to the High Peaks – and all manner of points beyond. The journey from Blue Mountain Lake to the trail head and up to Flowed Lands became my new canonical immersion into wilderness, with each marker on the journey of significance to me. Take a trip with me now along this route to my deeper wilderness experience and you will see that Joe Hackett’s point of view is overwhelming (I apologize for any inaccuracies: I have not been this way since Irene and do not know about trail reroutes and missing or rebuilt bridges).

Let us pick up the trip as one turns north off of the Blue Ridge Road onto the Tahawus Road, which leads to the Upper Works trailhead. It feels like you are really getting somewhere remote, traveling a little-used dead-end road into the heart of the High Peaks. But be careful, the abandoned railroad tracks paralleling you are very possibly to reopen, a plan in the works to freight millions of tons of tailings from the abandoned titanium mine ahead of you. Even if the plan does not come to fruition, the road you are on carries out more than 30,000 tons of tailings every year, loaded in NL Industries trucks.

After a few miles you proceed to the turn-off that continues on to the trail head. As you pass through the area of the former titanium mine you wince at the magnitude of the scar. Most of it is out of sight to your east but despite the rapidity with which the forest is growing up and obscuring the view it is still quite obvious how altered the landscape is. The road is lined with tailings; there are open fields and rusting structures to the west; to the east you can see what is left of Lake Sanford. It is impossible not to note the terraced, remade banks. Look quickly through a gate across a road to your right and you can catch a glimpse of Overburden Mountain, a 300-foot high human-made hill composed of tailings. This massive pile contains upwards of three million tons of material and is the reason that there is an effort to reopen the rail line. Even abandoned, this site is far removed from wilderness.

Shortly thereafter you return to forest, the road narrows and the sense of going deeper into wilderness retakes hold. The signs of the terraced and sculpted land lessen, then disappear. Three or four minutes later you come to the famous blast furnace. Ten years ago the sight of this massive relic, abandoned since 1858, did nothing to take away the sense of wilderness. Instead, cloaked in the woods, mysterious and long-forgotten like an ancient jungle ruin, it enhanced the romantic notion of wilderness triumphing over the long-forgotten men and women who toiled in the dim past of another era. No more: now the woods around it have been cleared, there are new signs up and a brand-new clear plastic enclosure that sits atop it to protect it from water damage. You are jolted into the present by the active stamp of men.

You proceed on to the trailhead, past the ruined buildings of the Tahawus Club and the Town of Adirondac. These are romantic enough, though not as old as you might like to think. Certainly you are not in wilderness yet. You must hit the trail for that. Your route is the Calamity Brook trail to Flowed Lands, geographically just about as deep in the heart of the High Peaks Wilderness as it is possible to get without bushwhacking.

As you start up the trail you walk on an old logging road smoothed and covered with crushed rock. It is still in use, to ferry boats to Henderson Lake among other things. You cross a bridge over the nascent Hudson River, marking the outlet of Henderson Lake. Perhaps you decide to take a side trip since Henderson Lake is one of the most beautiful lakes in the Adirondacks. Its shore is pristine; no motorized boats mar its surface. Yet despite appearances it is also artificial, a construction of humankind; the dam that holds it is one of the largest in the park.

The trail/road divides and you take the northeastern branch towards Calamity Pond. The woods are lovely but you long for the road to disappear down into trail so that your experience of wilderness can take hold. You are going to have to wait: summiting a small rise you come suddenly upon a massive area of clear-cut forest, still recovering though the cutting is now years in the past. The woods are reclaiming the land rapidly but the damage is immense. Your magnificent view of Mount Colden was not available fifteen years ago. Haphazard piles of withered branches and logs, cast-off from the logging operation, are everywhere to be seen. You cross drainage pipes and mud pools from rainwater run-off that cannot penetrate the injured, hard-packed ground. You can feel in your bones how dry the land is here. You proceed hastily through the logging area, anxious to finally enter real wilderness, needing the health of it.

Finally the road narrows to a foot trail, the woods close in, you come over another small rise and down into gorgeous forest. You hear the low roar of Calamity Brook and come to it in a few yards, at the site of a swinging bridge. Never mind the bridge, which is romantic in an Indiana Jones sort-of way. At last! You are in the very picture of wilderness, at the bank of a boulder-filled, crystal clear mountain stream as nature intended it. This spot has been a marker, a moment of relief, joy and refreshment for hikers for decades.

Calamity Brook at this point is artificial. The part crossed by the bridge is a new stream bed, creating when the engineers of the McIntyre Iron works rerouted it to send the water supply where they needed it, past their forges and furnaces. The original stream bed was instead some yards to the east of you, coursing down a different little valley. See for yourself: after you cross the swinging bridge and continue up the trail for about a minute, peer into the woods to your left. You will be able to see the long, massive earthworks that blocked the original route and made the one you now mark as the gateway to real wilderness.

Continuing another mile or so crossing another large bridge you come to the boundary between the former NL Lead lands and land designated State Wilderness. You breathe a sigh of relief: here the land is protected, no clear-cutting, no mines, no earthworks. Calamity Brook courses through the woods to your right, paralleling your route. But if you think it flows naturally, you are mistaken. It is artificial. It is also not pristine; there is rusting iron piping here and there. Calamity Brook was engineered to be an industrial water source more than a hundred and fifty years ago, transmuted from a trickle to a roaring stream by damming yet more than two miles distant.

Climbing upward on the wide, heavily eroded trail you finally come to one of the great views of the Adirondacks: Flowed Lands. Ahead of you is Mount Colden, its dramatic slides and unique profile demanding your attention. The crease containing Avalanche Pass, beyond Lake Colden, marks the dramatic center. The McIntyre Range towers above you to your left. It is by any measure a sublime scene, an archetypical Adirondack wilderness panorama.

It’s a human-made panorama. Flowed Lands is artificial. Lake Colden is artificial. The mighty shoulders of almost all the mountains you see were logged in the twentieth century. There was even a massive log flume built well up the side of Mount Colden, onto the slides, to bring the lumber down.

Clearly the more you know, as Joe does, the more difficult it is to suspend these influences. Yet in despairing over the loss of our innocence another post comment comes to mind, this one from author Pete Klein. He simply pointed out that whatever the labels for this land, or whatever our subjective experiences of it, you can get lost, die and have your body never found in these woods. Wild enough, he says. He has an awfully strong point too, doesn’t he?

Indeed, we are left with a question: does the stamp of man, seen or unseen, mean the Adirondack Park is not a wilderness? Is it really all subjective perception, all in the mind? I don’t think so.

Photo: Flowed Lands

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Pete Nelson

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.

6 Responses

  1. JSB says:

    Again, excellent and thought provoking.
    i have come to believe that wilderness is a state of mind. Every time I read your blog, I delve into “just what that state of mind is all about.”
    Thank you!

  2. mike j says:

    Well written and well intentioned, this cogent piece was a great way to start the morning, even if 300 miles from Tahawus. This is a great primer for my children in that it will inform them of the wide range of answers that define wilderness today. And I am reminded to reread my old notes on Leopold’s definition, commencing with his work in the Gila.

  3. Charlie Stehlin says:

    To me wilderness is an uninhabited region where majestic trees are as far as the eyes can see.A place where foot travel is the only travel,not cars or snowmobiles or whatever motorized noisy contraption man can come up with next.A place where you come across a body of water in the woods and know that only a few adventurous foot-travelers have been there. A place where a body of water in the woods does not have iridescent hues on its shorelines. A place in the woods where when you stop and pay attention you only hear the the wind whispering through the million trees,or hear nothing at all no matter how hard you strain your ears.A place where you can get away from the crazy ape man.

  4. brsacjab says:

    Great article, I often remind people that the Adirondacks are more “wild” today than they have been for a couple hundred years. Which why I call it manufactured wilderness. It’s only wild to those with no knowledge of areas history.

  5. Bill Ingersoll says:

    There is the dictionary definition of the word “wilderness” … which, by the way, in England actually means an untended part of a country garden. Jane Austen, of all people, included a wilderness scene in one of her novels, which really does not jive well at all with the American concept of wilderness.

    And then in the Adirondacks there is the SLMP definition of “wilderness,” which is modeled after the 1964 Wilderness Act. The assumption in the essay above is that when the SLMP describes a designated wilderness as a place that “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable,” what is being referred to is past human activity — that because an area of state land was used for non-wilderness purposes in the past, it precludes (or hampers) the possibility of managing it for wilderness now and in the future.

    To a degree, that could be true if those past uses so degraded an area that a natural recovery is nearly impossible. In the modern world, such an area would likely be considered either a brownfield at best, or a toxic waste site at worst. Either way, such a property would not be considered for state purchase to begin with. It is important to note that when the Tahawus property was recently added to the Forest Preserve, the mine and its industrial landscape were carefully excluded.

    However, the SLMP is not a description of past land uses, but a set of management guidelines for current uses. Regarding wilderness, what is being stated is a policy that now and going forward, such a unit of state land will be “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man–where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The master plan then enumerates, at a high level, the ways those goals will be accomplished.

    Therefore you can be a wilderness enthusiast and appreciate all the evidence of past human activities, such as the ruins of an old logging dam or the overgrown grade of an old wagon road. What the wilderness designation does is help ensure that my generation won’t be out there building new dams and grading new roads in these protected areas.

    And as one DEC forester pointed out to me 10 years ago, whenever you start to feel “crowded” in the High Peaks Wilderness, you can usually head perpendicularly off any trail for 500 feet and find yourself in a patch of woods where, for all you know, no one else has stood for more than a century.

  6. Paul says:

    For folks that like this discussion I highly recommend a book by Sydney Lee called “A Place in Mind”

    It doesn’t talk specifically about wilderness but it hints very much at the same concept. It’s a great book about a changing landscape and about how people see and react to these kinds of changes.

    Many parts of the Adirondacks are becoming more wild and other places are becoming less wild. On the whole the trend is toward the former. But if it is your “place” that is changing you care mostly about that and are most profoundly affected by that.