Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dan Crane: Evolution of a Bushwhacking Fool

Bushwhacking, or off-trail hiking, requires many skills, acquired over many years. Few people begin their backcountry career as a bushwhacker, i.e. bushwhackers are not born, they evolve.

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.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

3 Responses

  1. Ed Reese says:

    The State took down the Walker Lake Leanto in 1957. Before there was Stillwater Reservoir, before 1922, there was a road that went west from the Brandreth area (some of it is still dirt road further east) and swung northwest at the north end of Trout pond (in real low water you can see the remains of a bridge at the outlet of Red Horse Creek. It skirt Walker Lake to Dismal Pond and then goes west to become the Bear Pond Club Road and eventually over the middle branch of the Oswetgatchie River. The bridge has been out for years. I suspect that there are Moose in the Pepperbox, because that burned. I saw a baby cow Moose in the village of Number four on the Stillwater Road on 08-10-12. The last time I saw a Moose, the only other one was near Chibougamau, Quebec in June of 1975. I tore a ligament in my left foot at the beginning of the Red Horse Creek Trail and had to leave. I was not happy. Have to now wait one more year. The other guys went up and explored Summit & Crooked Lake. They saw no Moose. We were thinking to spend a night along the Robinson River, near those big pines you photographed (my aerial photos seem to pinpoint those on the east end of the river 1/2 mile south of Toad Pond). But we are all scared of Moose. I have been warned that a Moose might stamp out a campsite and run off people. I am very spooked about these animals. It’s one more thing to make traveling in there more difficult, maybe not worth it. I am still trying to get in the Robinson. Mainly, because I will only go in in August and I prefer non-stormy weather. I have a bad back, so I use a micro survival pack about 20 pounds with everything. In your estimation, would you think it safe for our group to camp on the Robinson, with the amount of Moose in there?

    • Dan Crane says:


      Where was the Walker Lake Lean-to located? I visited that lake along with most of the others along the southern Five Ponds Wilderness several years ago, and I was wondering if I might have walked right past the old site without even knowing it. I always wondered what the structure in Red Horse Creek was all these years. Thanks for clearing that up!

      I suspect moose are in the Pepperbox Wilderness too, I just haven’t found definitive proof yet. One trip, I did find what seemed like a hoof print of a moose, but I wasn’t positive. One of these days, I’m going to go into the Pepperbox with the purpose of finding some proof.

      Check out my blog for some info on getting into the Robinson River. It really isn’t that hard, but you have to be flexible enough to avoid some of the blowdown spots.

      I wouldn’t worry too much about the moose. I have had numerous encounters with them in NY, MN and MI, and only one of them was a little nerve-racking, and that one was with a cow and a calf. From what I was told when I visited Isle Royale last year (which has a very high density of moose and people). moose generally avoid people. The only two times to be careful are male moose during the rut and cows with calves (especially when the calf is very young). Their advice was pretty simple, if a moose acts aggressive, the best thing is to hide behind a tree since they have notorious bad sight AND short term memory.

  2. Ed Reese says:

    Thanks for the reply. I read this in an article (of which I have saved all these over the years). The article does not state what area of the Lake it was. If I had to guess, I would say the west end. According to what I see on my various topo maps, a trail had to have shot off of the dirt road that went around the south end of Dismal Pond. The old maps are so old, the map that shows the road greatly pre-dates any leanto. I was 3 years old in 1957. There was also a leanto at Salmon Lake and I slept overnight in it one time. It burned down years ago. I will probably have to expand my time frame. The problem is my wife works every other week and I take her to work. So that cuts out possible weekends to go in. I like to go after the bugs subside, but before hunting season and winter. In winter, you would not catch me dead in there. It can go to 60 degrees below zero in that place! Next year- it will be Crooked Lake and Little Crooked. Two years Robinson River. After that Andy’s Creek to Terror Lake. Also, a small trip to Pigeon Lake via following the bottom of the ridge, rather than that unsucessful trail that meanders in and out of Beaver impoundments! I have a number of photos, but not too many in the interior. I also have some information on a mishap in the Five Ponds wilderness back in 1975. However, I will not discuss that one on the net. If you have a phone number or mailing address, I can give you a lot more information. I won’t be able to go to all those spots, between my time limitations and my old back injuries. It is nice to see those photos. I believe that the spot you went through between Reilly Ponds and the Robinson River and another spot I went through back in 1975 are the most remote and least traveled spots in the lower 48.