Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Trailblazing

Of all the deep, wild urges rooting around in my head (god knows there is a subject that could turn away scores of readers), said urges being imbued in every way with the powerful, primeval pull of the Adirondack landscape, the strongest has always been trailblazing.

The fantasy of traveling on foot into parts unknown, marking a path like a scout of lore, has been the adventure that has most fired my imagination and passion. It is simply the most romantic thing of which I can conceive.
I have always been a trail maker. When I was a boy growing up in suburban Cleveland I spent the majority of my summer vacation in narrow, private spaces behind garages, little wooded areas in other people’s back yards, or best of all in the large ravine three blocks down the street, with its steep, leaf-covered sides and massive Northeast Ohio beech trees, playing at explorer.

Somewhere amidst these wanderings I hit upon an idea for a game which turned out to be a great success with my friends. It went as follows: one person would take a turn as trailblazer and be given a supply of chalk. The others would gather with the trailblazer at a selected starting point. The timer would start and the trailblazer would race off, making a course through alleyways, gardens, wooded lots and whatever other various and sundry avenues could be exploited.

The trailblazer was required to mark the route as he went by (honestly ) drawing directional arrows with the chalk on whatever surface might be available: pavement, rocks, stone walls, or – somewhat ineffectively – tree trunks. The followers would wait exactly five minutes and then take off in pursuit. The object of the game for the trailblazer was to blaze the trail at a high enough rate of speed and a challenging enough variety of routes so that the time it took for the followers to catch him was as long as possible, and ultimately longer than the turns of other trailblazers.

There was a beautiful aesthetic to this game which was quite superior to the blunt, vulgar win/lose of other games. When deciding where to place his arrows the trailblazer had to balance his desire to make the path difficult to follow with his guilty conscience over deliberately drawing an arrow that was impossible to find or interpret. Having only his sense of fairness and his youthful standards for what kind of path a “real” explorer might make, the trailblazer lived a delicious dilemma on the run.

This youthful love of trailblazing was entirely due to spending summers in the Adirondacks from birth onward. I have no doubt that it stemmed directly from my experiences trying to follow four different trails in the Blue Mountain Lake area. One was from Hemlock Hall to Minnow Pond. An unofficial trail, it was slight in places and required a good bit of arrow-following. The four mile trail to Upper Sargent Pond with its trail markers was a different kind of experience. On the one hand the colored disks were a real comfort while at the same time being a little too easy to spot to make them game sport. On the other hand the length and remoteness of the trail was overly imposing for a little boy, so for the most part I left that trail alone.

However it was the two trails up Castle Rock that really fired my imagination, one up the front and one up the back. The trails were short enough for an enterprising boy to do alone but long enough to allow the distinct possibility of getting lost. Their coincident location with the woods and trail that led to the Sargent Ponds elevated the possibility of getting lost from the routine level to the elite level of “you’ll be lost forever and never found”, “you might sink in the swampy area around Chubb Pond,” ”I think you are being tracked by a bear who wants to eat you,” and other assorted imaginings. Not only that, they led to huge cliffs, a cave and an unforgettable view at the top. At the time these trails went through private land and were blazed with faded paint marks. The one up the front took a little attention and afforded multiple routes, making it a boy’s trailblazing heaven.

I must digress for a paragraph. The trail up the front of Castle Rock is now an official DEC trail and has been rerouted to make it easier and to reduce any possible trail erosion (which despite lighter use back in the day was quite evident on the steep, straight-line route). The trail still features a visit to the cave. But it’s the view that makes this trail one-in-a-million. If you don’t know it, go as soon as you can. I hold with the not-uncommon opinion that Blue Mountain Lake is the most beautiful lake in the Adirondacks.

The view from Castle Rock, with Blue Mountain’s distinctive, massive ridge full-on, the lake and its wonderful islands below, the Fulton chain all the way to Raquette Lake and the wild mystery of Blue Ridge well opposite with Snowy Mountain peeking up behind it, wins my vote for best bang-for-the-buck view in the park.

When I reached adulthood and began to deepen my adventures in the Adirondacks my interest in existing trails showed, if you will excused the pun, a marked decrease. More and more I sought time off the trail, away from the trail markers I now dislike. Much of my trailblazing back then occurred in the Tahawus Tract, particularly the remains of the McIntyre Mine and the Town of Adirondac. I fell completely in love with the history of that enterprise and spent years and years learning all I could of it. Future dispatches will cover that topic, which I find endlessly fascinating and which forms one of the cornerstones of Adirondack history. The extent of the works was far beyond what is evident today and my twenty years of bushwhacks and backcountry blazes found remnants for literally miles in every direction.

All of these experiences added together, comprising nearly fifty years of Adirondack traipsing, pale in comparison to the experience of the last year: blazing my own trail on my own wild land, no pretending this time. When we first visited Lost Brook Tract in the winter we had only time to reconnoiter the immediate surroundings of the lean-to and brook, perhaps two acres. Knowing that the land went high I was dying to explore and see what cliffs, bluffs, views and other discoveries there might be, but that had to wait for our long summer visit.

All winter and spring I dreamed of making my own trail, winding across the slope of the land, snaking past the most beautiful spots, curving upward to the promised vistas. At times, perhaps sitting quietly while my students took an exam or waiting at a coffee shop for a friend, I could think of nothing else.

The time for our summer trip came and we hiked into Lost Brook Tract. The brook was magical and the brooding forest all but pulled me upward along the mossy, rocky slopes, but I made myself wait. There was work to do: haul in six hundred pounds of tools and gear, clear blowdown, establish a permanent camp, build Shay’s privy and save the lean-to from total collapse.

After a hard week of work I was ready to indulge my burning desire to explore. Grabbing a compass and some flagging tape I set out to explore Lost Brook Tract to the summit. I set an angle that I thought might bisect the parcel and up I went. As I ascended the purity of the forest exhilarated me and the knowledge of how few had ever walked this rise amplified all of the life-long feelings that climbed with me.

I cut an angle across the topography, but even so it was very steep in places. Lost Brook Tract was proving to have a lot of vertical. I skirted a large outwash area, passing through a mossy glade and later a beautiful balsam glen. There were rock ridges paralleling me. I scrambled up over one little rise to a small plateau. To my surprise I was greeted with a very sizeable headwall, a vertical wall of rock of several stories framed by trees, moss and downed logs. A thrill rushed through me: this was more mountainous than I could have hoped! I had to scout a way up, finding a seam in the wall. Even so it required handholds. As I pulled myself up I got that lovely Adirondack feeling that is part of the air: the sound of the wind, the presence of height, that ineffable sense of nearing a summit.

I made my way up the headwall at a steep cross angle, scrambled over a duff-covered ledge and came to a little rock outcropping at the top of the headwall. The floor of the plateau on which I had been was fifty feet straight below me and I felt a view open before me. Tensed with anticipation I raised my head and took it in.

Oh my God. All of the valley from which the hike to Lost Brook Tract begins was opened before me. The mature Spruces on the land towered above the forest like sentinels, their crowns perfect. The angle down was steep, imposing , with cascades of ridges weaving from both sides in layers down to the valley floor. High Peaks rose on the other side. The massive bulk of Giant, lofty and girded with clouds, was unmistakable. Beyond, at least fifty miles in the distance, the Green Mountains were plainly visible. A blue brushstroke in the hazy lowland reaches was surely Lake Champlain. This was beyond imagination, beyond any trailblazing joy I had ever felt as a boy. My eyes filled with tears at the discovery. I could not believe it was our view.

The next day began a week of trailblazing that exceeded any experience I could ever have anticipated as a boy. I took my time, flagged everywhere, trying different routes, getting lost (once for more than an hour) and following any little meander that looked inviting. I adjusted and repositioned the flags to take advantage of the most beautiful places: an intermediate lookout I’d come upon, a steep-walled glade, dark and green and ancient, a watery glen, emerald with moss and slicked with constant crystal runoff, a long rock wall even and smooth as though built by an otherworldly mason, and the final dramatic climb upward through the headwall cleft.

Having settled upon an ideal route, varied and magical, Amy and I blazed it, hacking shrubs, cutting branches, clearing the floor, making rock steps. We didn’t disturb too much. I had to cut numerous branches and clear lots of downed wood, but I think I only cut down two or three trees, these small balsams. We cleared all the flagging tape. We placed no markers, not even chalk arrows.

Lost Brook Tract now had a modest but beautiful trail, passing through pristine boreal forest from base camp to Amy’s Lookout, the name I gave to the outcropping. Amy and I had pushed onward, bushwhacking the summit and finding a sizable cliff with a spectacular view in the opposite direction, a vista over very wild country. We vowed to extend the trail to and beyond these cliffs on a future visit.

As I write this more than half of Lost Brook Tract remains unexplored. I’m waiting for that further adventure, savoring it, trying to be patient. I am fifty one now. The dreams of the trailblazer have never been stronger.

Photo Caption: From Amy’s Lookout

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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.

6 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Another wonderful chapter. This series is so good — it’s the highlight of my week. Thank you for such vivid descriptions and for such an obvious love for the Adirondacks.

  2. roberts says:

    What the heck are you doing encouraging people to blaze trails in Forest Preserve?
    “We didn’t disturb too much. I had to cut numerous branches”, “hacking shrubs” is clearly illegal and extremely unethical.
    you have no right to blast a trail in wilderness, that is terrible. You should be arrested.
    shut the front door already.

  3. Bob says:

    It’s not Forest Preserve. It’s his land he owns it! It is interesting, however, that the author, while lamenting the untamed nature of his wilderness sets out to do just that, tame it.

  4. roberts says:

    His own land, my bad. Hack away to your heart’s content.
    May you pave a route to your private summit. Beware inspiring every pioneer with a hatchet.
    Your private glory is a ubiquitous public menace.

  5. Paul says:

    It is more environmentally friendly to have a well designed and built trail than to bush-wack around all over the place. Just look at all the “trailess” peaks on state land they are a disaster. This guys land, if he keeps the masses away, is better preserved than any 50 acres of “wilderness” in the Forest Preserve. Last time I checked most wilderness trails on FP land would probably be better off if they were paved! Some are a bottomless pit of erosion and runoff thanks to all the “ethical” hikers ruining them.

  6. h.frick says:

    Do not let any negative comments sadden you!

    For most of us who carry the Adirondacks around with us in our bloodstream, your essay each week is music to our ears. Not only is the content exquisite, but your writing talent/gift is pure joy. Wished I had your courage, your
    knowledge, experience and discipline to help my own “wilderness dreams” become reality.

    And as to your own Lost Brook Lands: How can people assume that someone with as profound a love of the Park and its wild lands – which is so obvious in your writings – would not go about making a trail as carefully and thoughtfully as one humanly can?

    May you have another most exciting summer at Lost Brook!!

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