Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Kuma’s View

The lowest point of Lost Brook Tract is about 3,300 feet above sea level.  From there it rises along a steep ridge to a summit which tops out at 3,631 feet according to the United States Geological Survey which recently approved our proposal to formally name it.  I have previously written about my exploration of the land leading to the summit and of eventually cutting a modest trail to it from the low point of our land where the lean-to is located.

The trail I created winds along and across the glacial ridges that define our land, past outcroppings and rills and mossy glades to a flat rock protruding out from the top of the headwall.  This spot has a jaw-dropping sixty mile vista we have named Amy’s Lookout.  It is a few dozen feet below the true summit.

Between the lean-to and Amy’s Lookout the going is mostly open forest.  The presence of the trail disturbs very little.  In fact without being told where the trail began and also guided through a few of the sections higher up it would be quite difficult for the average hiker to follow.  However from Amy’s Lookout up it is a different story.  Within thirty yards or so one enters a zone of scrub balsam so dense that movement is nearly impossible.  The true summit is open and grassy for a span of about twenty feet but it is viewless and ringed on all sides by a thicket of immature balsam, interspersed with the occasional stunted birch or small spruce.   Tony Goodwin, who was up there some months ago, pegged the top of our mountain as having been scoured thoroughly by the Big Blowdown of 1950.  Indeed the rotting trunks of larger trees litter the promontory.

Amy’s Lookout faces east.  On the south side of the summit there is a true cliff, maybe thirty feet in height, from the edge of which is a lovely view looking out over a sea of completely wild forest and Adirondack peaks.  We discovered this cliff on a bushwhack during our first summer exploration of our land.  To get to the top of it was a leg-scratching, face-stabbing , twig-busting shove familiar to any high-elevation Adirondack bushwhacker.

Now the going is a little easier for there is a narrow, serpentine trail hacked through the scrub.  It leads from Amy’s Lookout to the cliff and then along the partially open ridge to a second cliff of slightly larger height facing southwest with an even better view.  From there the trail plunges back into the balsam thicket and emerges some thirty yards later, toward the north side of the summit, back into open woods.

The portion of the trail from Amy’s Lookout past the first cliff and along the ridge to the second cliff is not much of a trail, yet it took hours of work with a bow saw and hatchet just to clear enough away for a narrow body to pass through.  However the equally narrow and challenging path leading from the second cliff to the northern side of the summit was constructed using an entirely different method.  The view from the second cliff we have designated “Kuma’s View.”  How that name came to be and how the trail from Kuma’s View was made requires some background explanation.

My oldest son is a young man named Alex.  Alex is a senior in college who will graduate in a year with a degree in history and a minor in French.  Alex is one of those guys who is very good at whatever he puts his mind to, including possessing a natural capacity for picking up languages.  French has been no problem for Alex, but before he settled on French as his second language of choice it appeared he would pick Japanese.

When Alex was a young teenager he read Shogun, James Clavell’s wonderful page turner set in Japan in 1600.  He was utterly captivated.  I myself was swept up by its narrative power when I read it and was certainly not surprised to see its effect upon my son.  After Alex read Shogun our household started to acquire a flavor of things Japanese, thanks also to our youngest son Adam who developed his own fascination with that great and mysterious country.  Amy and I had long planned to take the family overseas when the boys were teenagers.  As much as I love Europe and wanted to share some of my favorite places with my kids it became apparent that Japan was the place to go.  I found some cheap tickets, plans were made and during spring break of 2006 we all went to Osaka, Ise and Kyoto.

We had a marvelous time, although I spent part of the trip with a nasty stomach ailment.  Now Alex is not only bright, he is also gregarious and funny.  And he is big.  He is very big.  I’m not small, standing 6’3”, but back in 2006 when he was a junior in high school playing offensive line Alex had already left me behind by a good inch and eighty-or-so pounds .  The two of us walking down the streets of Osaka, parting the crowd in front of us as though it were the Red Sea, apparently made for an unusual sight for the somewhat smaller locals.  At one point, a woman evidently less reticent than the typical Japanese pedestrian eyed Alex and actually spoke.  She said, simply, “Sumo.”

After our trip to Japan we had a houseful of confirmed Japanophiles.  Alex started making noise about majoring in Japanese culture and languages in college and began studying on his own, then with a private teacher, picking up hiragana rapidly and a good dose of kanji symbols as well.  Adam and Zach learned some of the language too.  Amy and I had talked in previous years about someday taking a foreign exchange student for a school year.   Now was clearly the time and the nationality we desired was a no-brainer.  We applied, went through the process and accepted a student from Japan, a young woman.

On the appointed day we went to the orientation and faced a line of students from around the globe.  When our family’s name was called a beautiful girl of seventeen shyly raised her hand.

That is how we met Chieri Sawada.

Chieri hails from a small town in Japan that is renowned for its pottery.  Like all Japanese students she had studied English and understood it somewhat on paper, but like most Japanese students she could not speak or understand it so well in person, having not heard native English speakers.  Chieri was traditional, polite, and laughed easily.  She was already a fish out of water in the United States but to come into our crazy household with three teenage boys and a family lifestyle far from normal or routine must have been an incredible challenge.  Yet with nary a complaint she met it.

Chieri joined our family in August and plunged into our sarcasm, our improvisational tangents, our four sloppy, loud, messy men, our massive fall haunted house project, even Amy’s experimental cooking.  Together we progressed through the autumn months, learning a great deal about each other.  It was rough for her at times and while she was coping it didn’t always feel like she was flourishing.

Then came the holidays.  For several years we had done the same thing over winter break: we would celebrate Christmas at home after which we would pile into whatever car was available and drive to the Adirondacks.  There we would winter camp through New Year’s Eve as far from civilization as possible, then end-up in Lake Placid for a blow-out night of pizza, movies and general falderal.  Some of our best times as family came on these trips.  I actually love the Adirondacks best in winter – they’re wilder – and the kids became so experienced that our hard core winter sojourns were a breeze… though occasionally a bitterly cold breeze.

However Chieri was not experienced.  The nearest we could gather from her was that the extent of her camping experience had been a Japanese version of scouting at some organized camp, presumably in the summer.  Now she was about to backpack into an Adirondack winter.

The trip started out poorly.  Before we embarked upon the backpacking segment we did a day hike up Phelps.  There was plenty of snow but the weather was unseasonably warm with air temperatures in the upper forties.  We ascended with snowshoes on our feet and not much else on except for our under layers, enjoying an easy ascent.  Still it was a High Peaks climb, always an effort in winter, so I was impressed with how well Chieri was doing, especially considering it was her debut at this sort of thing.  She seemed a little overwhelmed but up she trudged, acclimating to her snowshoes.

Just past the junction of the Marcy trail with the trail to the summit of Phelps it clouded in good and began to rain.  At first the rain was light but the wind began to build and kept building until it was gale force, strong enough to require a little concentration in order to stay upright.   The rain remained moderate and warm but impelled by the heavy breeze it forced itself into every nook and cranny of our clothing.  Having a lot of experience in Adirondack hiking I recognized that a potentially dangerous situation was building.  Meanwhile Amy and the boys were having a great time, floundering upward through the exhilarating wind.  Like me they relish nature in all her force, fury and beauty, preferring such conditions to sun and still air.  Chieri looked bedraggled but gamely stayed with the program.

As we approached the summit the development I suspected and feared began to occur.  The storm started to rotate from a southwest wind to a north wind and the temperature began to drop.  At higher elevations in the Adirondacks on a late December day with forty-five-mile-per-hour straight line winds a temperature drop of, say, fifty or sixty degrees is not unusual.   As lightly clothed and wet as we were, we were definitely vulnerable to hypothermia.  If we kept moving or exerting we would be fine, but should someone hurt themselves racing up and down Phelps things could get very serious very quickly.  I once came close to purchasing the farm due to hypothermia so I never take it lightly.  I contemplated having us turn around but we were close to the top, so on we went.

A few minutes later a couple of boys reached Phelps’ summit rock, getting blown sideways as they tried to stand.  The rest of us huddled just below the summit.  Adam stood and leaned into the furious wind for a portrait, then we all turned around and headed back.  Down we went, Amy and Adam galloping ahead, or as close as one can get to galloping with snowshoes.  At first I loped ahead with them, but Alex, Zach and Chieri were lagging, Alex with a sore leg and Chieri with a neophyte’s pace.  I yelled for Amy and Adam to slow down but the wind snatched my voice away long before it reached them and they were having too much fun to look back.  The gap between us widened until they were well out of sight.

Alex’s struggles were concerning me.  The wind was starting to have a bitter edge.  I imagined Amy or Adam falling and getting injured.  If one group had a problem I could deal with it but if the other group had a problem I would have had a lot of trouble staving off disaster for both groups at the same time.  I think everyone else in our party saw our descent as a fun romp in the wind and rain but I now saw it as rapidly evolving into one of the more dangerous situations we had been in together.  I charged ahead at breakneck speed to catch Amy and Adam.  I screamed at them to stop, waited for Alex, Zach and Chieri to arrive and delivered an angry soliloquy about the potential danger and our need to stick together.  Chieri broke into tears.  To this day I regret losing my temper, but I was plenty concerned.  From there we made it down safely, in one group, dried off at our motel and had a good night of sleep.

The next day, Christmas Eve, we reentered the woods for the backpacking part of the trip under more typical winter conditions.  The primary events of this trip will be the subject of a Christmas Dispatch in December, but I do need to relate one part of it in order to finish the current story.

Our plan was to cross Henderson Lake on the ice to the far shore and make camp.  However I found the ice thickness to be sketchy near the outlet so we decided to try again from further up the lake.  For a while we followed the trail to Indian Pass.  At what I thought was a good point to make for the shore we left the trail and plunged into the fresh snow, bushwhacking roughly west.  My guess turned out to be a poor one for we found ourselves herded into a narrow valley between two unpleasantly steep ridges, funneled in a more southerly direction than we wanted.  The temperature became crisp and darkness began to envelope us.  The snow deepened to roughly four feet, with a light crust from the previous day’s rain making footing treacherous.  We were stumbling, falling, sinking, losing our headlamps and dumping scads of snow off of spruce branches, not entirely sure where we were going in the inky darkness.  It was glorious.  Amy, being a person who is not all that comfortable when completely lost, was not amused, but the grand fun of it was too much to resist.  We started singing Christmas carols as we struggled along the edge of the little valley.

At last, after a couple of hours of bumbling around in blowdown-choked snow, we came to the shore of the lake.  I had no idea where on the lake we were so I ventured onto it to try to get my bearings, the family following.  It was too dark to see anything and though I tried a couple of spots with an ice axe I could not determine whether the ice was safe enough for a night crossing.  So I called a halt and we retreated to the shoreline which was at that point a steep, heavily forested bluff.   “Let’s camp here.” I said, pointing to a smidgeon of flat ground on the bluff.  Everyone dropped their packs and went to work without another word of direction from me.  They stripped off their snowshoes and turned them into snow shovels, digging bivouacs like the seasoned winter campers they were.  I went to check on Chieri but she was just fine, cheerily scooping snow with Amy.  She had acclimated quickly, the teary climber of the day before long gone.  I was terribly proud of her for being so spirited and comfortable in the middle of nowhere, coping in snowy cold such as she had never before experienced.

The work went well but I noticed after a while that Amy and Chieri were not yet erecting their tent.  I went to see what the trouble was and learned that they had discovered an obstacle smack dab in the middle of their bivouac hole.  They had unearthed the top edge of a thick log, frozen under the snow, and had been unable to pry it loose so much as a millimeter.

This was a job for Alex.  I called him over from his own tent site and presented the log.  Alex grunted and kicked at it but it was unimpressed and remained fixed in place.  Alex carefully aimed his boot and gave it a real whack.  Nothing.  Alex again grunted impatiently and ground into it with his heel.  The log was immovable.

This made Alex angry.  He stepped down into the hole with an animal-like growl, bent down and wrapped his massive arms around the log.  What followed was a brief but intense physical contest between a large, heavy log buried under four feet of snow and thoroughly cemented to the forest floor with layers of frost and ice, and three hundred pounds of grunting, growling, hacking, wrestling all-conference-honorable-mention offensive lineman.

After a few moments of noisy struggle Alex stood up with the log as though he’d done nothing more than picked up a grocery bag.  He casually tossed it aside like it was a stick one might throw for a dog and stepped out of the snow hole.

Chieri had been watching Alex’s performance with a bemused, slightly amazed expression.  She pointed to him, paused a moment and said with a smile, “Kuma.”  Amy asked what that meant and after a short discussion of equal parts pantomime, sign language and broken English we determined that “Kuma” was the Japanese word for bear.  And so Alex gained a new name.

We finished bivouacking our tents as the temperature dropped through the single digits.  The mood was jovial.  Transformed by her experience, Chieri was as merry and spirited as the rest of us.  Much of her shyness seemed gone (and so it stayed for the remainder of her time with us).  We sang a couple of Christmas songs and retired in our tents, Kuma included.  That was how we spent our Christmas Eve in 2007.

Last August Alex came back to Madison to visit from college.  Having business out east anyhow I took him to see Lost Brook Tract, a wild paradise every bit as much his as mine.  We hiked in and spent three wonderful days.  Knowing that Alex would groove on the romance of trailblazing, I proposed that one of our activities could be extending the trail from the cliff view back through the balsam to the northern side of the summit.

For the first two days Alex was feeling a little under the weather and we mostly hung out around the lean-to.  The third morning broke misty and Alex, who does not like the sun much, felt better.  We decided to work on the trail.  With the threat of rain in the air we ascended with two hatchets and a saw.  About half-way up the trail the rain came.  By the time we reached the thick wall of scrub balsam by the cliff we were dripping wet.

We commenced work, in narrow confines, cutting a small trail away from the cliff.  For a while Alex watched my routine: pulling up smaller balsams, cutting larger ones at the base, trimming branches.  This did not prove satisfactory to him for long.  He moved in front of me and grabbed a diminutive balsam, dislodging it from the soil.  Then he lay his paws on a much larger one, more than an inch in diameter.  I was about to hand him the saw when he issued one of his Alex grunts and simply yanked it from the mountain, water droplets and needles raining down upon him.  Then he did another.  And another.  Inspired, I tried my hand at a similarly sized tree and nearly pulled my arms out of my sockets.  At that point I just let him go.  Thus was our little trail created from wholesale brute force, in the rain, with dirt, mud, soil and bits of tree flying.

I stood some distance away and observed the affair.  “Kuma,” I said under my breath.

That is how our view to the south became Kuma’s View.  Someday I hope to bring Chieri to see it.  It is her view too.  She is family.

First Photo: Kuma’s View emerges from the mist

Second Photo: Chieri, on the right

Related Stories


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.




One Response

  1. catharus says:

    How large an area is the dense balsam stand? When you say “scrub” how tall are the trees? I ask, just wondering if it might support breeding Bicknell’s thrush?