Typically, one commences as a mere hiker, transitions to a backpacker as the desire to travel farther afield gains hold, and, if the skills, temperament and desire form the correct concoction, finally becomes a bushwhacker. At least, that is how I got started.
I was not always a bushwhacker. Long before leaving the trail behind, I was just another trail-hiking backpacker, a slave tethered by a leash of meandering bare dirt along the forest floor. It took a combination of hiking the same trails repeatedly, a love of maps and an imagination that never quits to finally nudge me off the trail. And despite the many cuts, bruises and plentiful swearing bushwhacking provides, I would not have it any other way.
Although the evolution of a bushwhacker takes place upon the landscape of early adulthood, one aspect typically begins early in life. Some motivating factor is necessary to drive an individual to perform the Herculean effort of traversing through the often-arduous conditions of the backcountry. Without this innate desire, there is no reason to be out in the backcountry in the first place, let alone providing the motivation compelling one forward through the wildest places of the Adirondacks.
This motivating factor could be a love of nature, a sense of adventure or an explorer’s restlessness, sometimes a combination of these and many other different factors. For me the primary motivation started with a fascination with nature, particularly birds, when I was very young.
Being an avid birder, I spent many hours running through the forests of central New York in my youth. While most kids were out participating in little league or some other organized sport, I was chasing down hermit thrushes, scarlet tanagers and pileated woodpeckers. This remained primarily a daytime pursuit; thoughts of staying out overnight rarely crossed my mind, except for an occasional owl watch.
My initiation to spending time outdoors overnight came in the form of car camping, reserved for family outings within Adirondack state campgrounds. Growing up without a surfeit of finances, the Adirondacks were the primary destination of my family’s summer vacations, where others might have visited Disney World, a National Park or beachside along the ocean. These trips were crucial in developing an acceptance of sleeping on the ground, playing in a fire, and going days without a shower. Fortunately, none of these behaviors carried on after the trip’s conclusion, or at least not excessively so.
Backpacking is a crucial step in the process of becoming a bushwhacker. This is where most of the skills necessary to have an enjoyable and safe bushwhacking experience begin. Hiking along a trail deep within the backcountry, map reading, some limited compass use and pooping in the woods are just a few of the skills acquired during this phase of a bushwhacker’s evolution.
My backpacking career started in earnest back in the early nineties, with a trip into the Five Ponds Wilderness with four co-workers. With this trip, despite the poor fitting equipment, blistering feet and poorly chosen foodstuffs, I caught the backcountry-backpacking bug, and there was no going back after that.
Unfortunately, I learned herding cats is often easier than getting late twenty and early thirty somethings to commit to backcountry adventures on a regular basis. There was no other choice but to strike out on my own if I wanted to quench my thirst for wilderness adventures.
Although impatient waiting for others, I was deliberate in my thinking and preparations. Identifying the essential gear, I started on a campaign to be totally self-sufficient. Testing out the equipment before my maiden voyage required returning to the state campgrounds of my youth. After a single stay at Brown Tract Pond campground, with others and my vehicle acting as an umbilical cord, I discovered what equipment worked well, and what did not.
After gaining some confidence in my equipment and myself, I finally stepped out into the backcountry on my own. My first solo backpacking adventures began in the Black River Wild Forest. This wild forest offered a substantial backcountry area, while remaining close enough to civilization that bailing out was always a viable option. After thoroughly exhausting the majority of trails there, I branched out into the Ha-De-Ron-Dah Wilderness. Soon I was backpacking into the Five Ponds Wilderness, where a violent derecho failed to detour me from exploring the most remote trails within the Adirondacks backcountry.
Navigation is the primary skill necessary to leave the security of the trail. Being “rescued” a half mile from a trail while hiking in a circle looks pretty embarrassing on any bushwhacker’s resume. Mastering the map and compass is a necessity. While a handheld GPS can often substitute for these basic tools, it is still best to learn the classics first.
My mastery of the map and compass came during the late 90’s. For three summers, I performed biological fieldwork in north-central Minnesota, the Adirondacks and Maine on projects concentrating on nesting birds, effects of damage from a windstorm on biological diversity and modeling diversity in an industrial forest, respectively. Navigating to areas far from the road necessitated compass use. Either that or forget about dinner at night.
With the equipment, skills and experience in place, only the opportunity to bushwhack need present itself. For me this started while working on New York State’s Breeding Bird Atlas during the early 2000’s. This position required bushwhacking into areas far from any roads in search of birds, forcing a partner and me off the trail and out into the relatively untrammeled backcountry.
It took me several more years before I developed the confidence (or foolhardiness) to journey out into the trailless backcountry on my own. The primary instigation for my first solo bushwhacking trip occurred while reading about the Pepperbox Wilderness’ Threemile Beaver Meadow in Barbara McMartin and Bill Ingersoll’s Discover the Northwestern Adirondacks. This book led to my first solo multiple day bushwhacking adventure, although due to a plentiful number of hunting trails it turned out less of a trailless event than I originally anticipated.
From then on, the majority of my solo backcountry adventures take me off the established trails to explore areas seldom seen by others except on a sheet of paper or a computer screen. And despite all the misadventures befallen me over the years, I would not have it any other way.
For any aspiring bushwhackers, daydreaming about visiting some remote pond, lake or stream, my journey from a hiker to a bushwhacking fool may act as inspiration for finally stepping off the trail and onto the wild side of backcountry adventure. Just remember, develop the necessary skills first before going too far from the trail, or at the very least, take someone with you who already has.
Photo: Forest near Walker Lake in Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.