Saturday, August 4, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Life in the Wild

I noticed that guide and outdoor writer Joe Hackett had a column last week in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise asking whether there is any true wilderness in the Adirondacks. This is a question – entailing in turn the question of what we mean by wilderness – which I took up in several Dispatches some months ago.  I’ll not return to those arguments now except to restate that yes, I think there is unquestionably true wilderness in the park.  I know because I have lived there.

I am just settling into the experience of being on Lost Brook Tract with Amy for much of July, just feeling ready to write about it.  It has taken me some days: this was a deeply moving time in my life.  If there has been one over-arching theme in my reflections it has been that our stay there did not in any way feel like a vacation – indeed we did not intend it as a vacation.  We intended to just live there.  And so we did.  It could have been three weeks or three years for all I felt.

Describing what it is to live in the wild entails that one’s environs actually constitute wilderness, the very thing that Joe questions.  So first let me briefly describe the setting of our land.  I have shared many of these parameters before, but they bear a quick reiteration lest my point of view seem in any way unjustified.

Lost Brook Tract is a sixty acre inholding surrounded on all sides for miles by State Wilderness.  As such it is well protected in every direction from the incursions of human activity, for all time.  It is nearly four miles in distance and more than two thousand feet in elevation from the nearest road.   There is no trail of any kind to it and there never will be.  More important, it is simply off the beaten track, missed by recreational activity, missed by surveyors and mountain climbers, unreached by loggers and miners.  No current DEC Ranger has been there.  State surveyors measured the four boundary lines in 1948.  Before that the northern line was surveyed in 1812 and three sides were resurveyed by DEC last fall at our request, but there is no record of any formal survey or exploration of the interior.  The summit, with spectacular views, was not described by anyone until the previous owner did so in the late 1940’s.  The forest is unlogged and – at least in measurable modern history – unburned.  As an intact montane boreal forest residing above three thousand feet and growing since the ice age, it is very rare land.  You can feel this age, this primeval perfection in the quality of the vegetation, in the thick, bark-encrusted trees.

There is a lean-to, built in 1970 by the previous owner, in which we store our gear.  There is a privy, built by us last year. There is a very modest private trail which I have been constructing, connecting Lost Brook to our summit.  Other than that there is nothing, no sign whatsoever of humanity.  Besides our own voices and those of the few invited guests with who we have shared this jewel, we have not heard a single sound of human activity of any kind save for occasional aircraft.  I have hiked in many places across America but the rhythm of this land, the feel of it, the sound of it, the sight of it… all of these things are imbued with the strongest sense of wilderness that I have ever experienced.

I cannot adequately describe the emotions that come with inhabiting a place like this, of feeling all the unnecessary detritus of civilized life fall away, exposing a simplicity and harmony that heals the very heart and tired senses I bring with me into the woods.  My eyes clear, my hearing sharpens.  Sensations on my skin are stronger, better.

There is work to be done in living in these woods, sometimes hard work.  There is discomfort.  There is routine.  All of it feels vital.  All of it is a reminder of our ancient human lineage, of our ancestries unspoken and unknown, of our primitive selves.

Amy and I arrive at the trail head and begin our journey to Lost Brook Tract with heavy loads.  A few hikers are mulling about in the parking area, headed to different places.  No one is going anywhere near where we will be.  After just a few minutes along the trail we veer right into the forest and any sense of an organized park evaporates.  The contours of the land have become familiar to us; yet there are surprises in store, always.  Nearly four miles is a long way to go without a trail and despite my acclimation to the way in, parts of the hike will vary and inevitably stray into territory of which I recall no experience.

The work is steady as we carry the burden of our cargo step by step, faltering here and straining there, making our way over uneven ground, crossing multiple drainages on the downslope, traversing small ridges and eskers toward a course paralleling Lost Brook.  This is bushwhacking for the experienced only.  To tarry too far to the right is to invite a long, lost wander in a trail-less land of ponds, hemlocks and beaver works.

The first two miles make their way gradually upward through a mixed hardwood forest that was logged nearly ninety years ago.  Some of it previously burned in the fires of 1903.  The forest has recovered but it is not old.  The few small patches we encounter that are likely old growth are starkly different, little islands where the sizes of the white pines and basswoods are breathtaking.  For a while we pick up a faint hunting trail which makes the going easier.

Past the halfway point we cross Lost Brook as its southern side is too steep to manage, tumbled with blowdown and boulders and studded with vertical swaths of anorthosite.  Here for a brief spell we are in a heavily forested basin at the base of a massive uplift.  We walk easily up a narrow spine of glacial outwash.

Now the route becomes very steep; after a few minutes of upward struggle a headwall comes into view.  It is unscalable so we circumnavigate it to the left, pulling ourselves with deliberate focus across a sharply angled slope that plunges straight down to Lost Brook.  Here a hard stumble or slip could be dangerous.  Our bulky, awkward packs, burdened with food and tools and miscellaneous supplies, tangle themselves repeatedly in the branches of the increasingly thick conifers through which we push.  Here and there a larger branch pushes back, threatening to yank us backwards and mercilessly pitch us down the steep traverse.  We pause for breath, sweat dripping and scratches mounting on our legs and arms.  I have forgotten my gaiters, an unfortunate omission when bushwhacking.  The stiff spike of a spruce needle, lodged in my right boot, troubles my ankle.   Amy grunts with effort.

At last we make the ridge above the cliffs.  The forest has changed dramatically; loggers never made it past this headwall.  Spruces begin to assert themselves.  There are now more yellow birches than white.  The ground is moister, mossier.  Our breathing changes here, I swear to all that is holy it does.  Our heads start to clear away the haze we carry with us in civilized life.  The musky smell of our perspiration is strong but the taste of salt in our mouths is good.  The work feels right; more than that, it feels necessary.  The scent of the forest is ten times richer than below, heavy, permeating the air.  We are approaching home.

The rest of the bushwhack is all up, though not as steep as was needed to make the headwall.  For what seems like too long a time we struggle through the ever-thickening primeval forest.  Now there is an opening in the canopy, laden with ferns, a single twisted, stooped, proud old yellow birch in the center.  Now we enter a balsam thicket, cursing and flailing.  Now we burst into a grove of spruces towering a hundred feet above us, all out of proportion to our experiences in the Adirondacks at this elevation.  Here among these monarchs the way is open, the dead branches of the smaller balsams our only impediment.

At last we come to our property line and its State blazes and then a few feet further the lean-to, rebuilt by our own hands.  We unburden ourselves of our packs, exhaling with relief.  This has been essential, this toil.  It has effected a transition into the primitive, a reconnection with our animal bodies and our need to sweat and strain and prevail.  We are home now, ready to take Lost Brook Tract as it will accept us.

It is time to get to work.  We must draw our own water from Lost Brook, two hundred feet down a narrow trail.  We have a bucket for that.   At first gathering water was an undesired chore especially after the work of getting to the land.  But no more; now it is a basic, deliberate pleasure.  The transport of this water, this pure, silky whole taken from such mossy, rushing beauty as would bring joy to any sane person, becomes an honorable and humbling simplicity. We will need many buckets.  Each call for water will require a reduction in pace, a time away from other tasks to slowly tread step-by-step uphill from Lost Brook, aware only of the swinging mass of the bucket and the crystal clarity of its contents, unfiltered because no one is here, no camp is above us on the stream and we are too high for beavers.

We fill our water bottles.  We fill the pitcher left here by our predecessor.  This pitcher is married with a wash basin, the two canonical in size and shape, the very type of pair that constituted a commode and bath for generations of pioneers.  I love these items and the history to which they hearken.

Our life here is not uncivilized.  Many loads of effort have given us a fairly complete kitchen, stored in the lean-to.  We have packed in food, wine and spices, trading weight for gastronomic indulgence.  Our larder includes fresh meats and vegetables that we store by submerging them in always-chilly Lost Brook using a dry bag.  We will eat well: mushrooms “Berkeley” (sautéed with a sauce of wine, Dijon, Worcestershire and brown sugar); raj mah made from scratch with fresh ginger and hot peppers;salmone al farfalle with capers in a cream sauce; Mexican garbanzos with chorizo; lentil soup creole.  I busy myself with erecting the screened shelter that acts as our kitchen, then placing our propane rig, table and our sizeable accumulation of spices and oils.

Meanwhile Amy establishes kitchen number two.  Dinners will be at my place but breakfasts are at hers, a fire ring by the lean-to with a grate she made herself with a welder, then a small tray of utensils and supplies for oatmeal and coffee.  Most important, mandatory at every breakfast, Amy has unearthed our cribbage packet from her pack.  In the packet we have cards, colored pens and a booklet containing all our games, hundreds of them played over the last few months (we “peg” using chit marks, color-coded and written in the booklet, rather than actual pegs on a board).  We are getting near the end of this booklet and will finish it out at Lost Brook Tract and start a new one.  For this to occur during our time in our paradise is an exemplary piece of unintended timing.

We play every day.  Amy is what you might call a casual player.  I, on the other hand, grew up playing cards in a family of very serious, very competitive gamers.  I count cards.  I figure odds.  Not to be immodest, but I could write a book on cribbage strategy.  I never take my focus off the game.  I play to win.

This summer Amy has been simply destroying me.

Someone will win the most games in the booklet and be crowned booklet champion.  Being the card player I am I know of course that this champion is supposed to be me.  Amy held a lead for too long a time but I have been making a run of late.  In fact just before going to our land I have pulled within two games.  But now here we are at Lost Brook Tract and Amy has won nine in a row and holds an insurmountable double-digit advantage.  I sit there with my coffee and oatmeal and camp fire and I fume.  I swear.  I curse.  I lose again.  Amy has a Mona Lisa smile.  This is life lived to perfection.  I miss it terribly as I write this.

We fill and string up our solar shower, a black bag from which hangs a tube with a showerhead nozzle.  We rest the bag upon the tin roof of our lean-to where even on a cloudy day it will heat and we will be ensured a supply of warm water.  Showering in the back country is an immense pleasure. We stay every bit as clean as if we were at our other, lesser home.

Amy pitches our tent.  We could sleep in the lean-to but we love our tent and we love having room in the lean-to for other things.  I hang her air-chair, a suspended canvass chair that is just the most comfortable thing one could ever wriggle one’s body into.  We open the privy.  Preparations are complete.

At dawn I typically rise before Amy according to the dictates of my body’s rhythm.  I might go up top, follow our trail to our summit and watch the morning unveil itself over ridges and mountain peaks that fall away from my perch in waves all the way to the Green Mountains.  Perhaps I will read there.  More likely I will explore the half of our land we have hardly seen yet, the half no one of record and no one we know has ever explored.  I might flag the route for our trail a little further, aiming for the far corner of the land past the summit and eventually circling home to the lean-to.  I might lose track of time and rudely arrive late for breakfast, to Amy’s consternation.

Every morning we have our coffee and cribbage and then we go to work.  There is much to do.  The lean-to needs further repairs; the overhanging log on one side of the roof line is deteriorating.  I scout around a little and find a small spruce of the right diameter.  I return to the wall of tools we have hauled up over time and gathered in the lean-to.  I select two items: an axe and our newest device, a magnificent Putsch timber saw.  We have no power tools; I want no power tools.  This Putsch is a sexy beast.  It goes through softwood like butter, it goes through hardwood with an even better feel, unrelentingly rasping and biting and spitting sawdust.

We have many huge spruces on Lost Brook Tract; we will never cut one of those.  Small and medium spruces are different, a utilitarian part of our forest bounty, but even so I feel a small pang of regret as I approach the selected tree.  I fell the spruce, trim it and strip the bark, which peels off of a fresh-cut spruce with close to the same effort as peeling the casing off of a summer sausage.  The smell of the revealed wood is heavenly.   I cut the three logs I need to size.  The longest is not much more than five feet but its weight, laden with water and sap, is prodigious.  Amy has found a broad, fat rock to act as a foundation stone and has hauled it up to the lean-to.  I dig the rock into the ground, then place the new log brace and secure it with smaller cross braces using my beloved auger.  Another log will shore up the roof peak which was mistakenly made of brittle, unsturdy balsam decades ago.  Repairs take half the day.

The remains of the felled spruce do not go to waste.  Amy gathers up the trimmed branches to rebuild the roof of a small fort she made last year for our niece and nephew.  She sets larger branches aside for her own purposes.  These will be stripped and trimmed as well.  We have no furniture to speak of at Lost Brook Tract and we will bring none in.  Amy will make it all, having learned from an expert how to make solid, comfortable, beautiful furniture from trees.  First up is a chair for me.  By the time we have to leave our home in the woods and go back to our other lives it is nearly complete.  The picture accompanying this Dispatch is of that magnificent work of art.

By late afternoon we knock off our work and have “cocktail hour.”  This is a term I inherited from my parents but really it is just quiet time, often filled with writing or perhaps more cribbage.  Amy keeps a daily journal, twenty pages on this trip and growing.  I have been taking bearings, identifying peaks from our four summit views; perhaps I will take an hour to document that work.  Amy might sip a little vodka, I a swallow or two of bourbon.  We have wine planned for dinner for three nights; if it happens to be one of those nights we will open the bottle early and indulge before dinner.  Then I’ll cook.

For all but one day, a day of planned visits by our good friend Vinny and my brother who has come out to see the land for the first time, we are completely alone the entire stay with our stalwart dog Henderson.  The only regular sign of civilization is a helicopter, uncharacteristically.  It makes several passes over two days; I later learn it was fighting a small forest fire a few miles away.  Other than that we have nothing but the quiet of the woods and the sound of the wind.

We do not grow lonely.  We do not descend into ennui.  To the contrary every day is a richness beyond describing.  Our modest daily activities blend with and ultimately fade into the primeval that surrounds us.  The forest is patient with us and we with it.  I spend much of the time with little clothing on, feeling like a boy.  It occurs to me that perhaps if I just stay here I will live forever.

One morning I awake well before six, restless.  I grab flagging tape and hike up the trail.  At a certain point I turn west into virgin territory that has rarely if ever felt human footfalls.   I press on, exploring, following the feel and look of the uneven terrain, placing flags here and there, moving them, trying out the aesthetics of a trail route.  Before long I am lost: entering a thick section of forest dominated by moderately-sized balsam trees, my usually sure sense of direction falters.  The going is slow now as I push through the interlaced boughs, hardly able to see what lies ahead.  No one would go this way if they had no reason; there is no reason to believe anyone ever has.

Suddenly I burst into a small, dim clearing.  No more than twenty feet in extent, it is thickly ringed by conifers.  A solitary white birch rises modestly in the center.  There would be no way to know of this clearing save to stumble upon it.  It is otherworldly; near the top of the western ridge of our land it is sheltered by its ring of sentinel spruces and balsams, yet the peculiar and unmistakable sense of high mountain wind that all climbers know pervades it.  The clearing is at once resonant in my bones and profoundly lonely.  I am certain that I am the first human being ever to stand there.

Everything in my life except my body feels far away, beyond reaching, even Amy who is still sleeping somewhere below down the eastern ridge well behind me.  There is a small, tugging part of me that wants to sit down and never get up again.  My eyes well with tears.  I would rather give up my freedom than flatten a single fern here or mar any of the moss that snakes around the bases of the ancient trunks.  No trail will ever go into this place.  For a short, precious, irreplaceable time I lose all knowledge of how to live anywhere else.

This is my life in the wild.

Photo Caption: Above, Amy’s chair, nearly ready for me; below, or cribbage “board”.

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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.

8 Responses

  1. Mark says:

    Best one yet. Thank you for this vicarious thrill.

  2. Paul says:

    A great story of slowly taming the wilds of the Adirondacks.

  3. catharus says:

    ‘Just awesome!! What a secluded retreat! The virgin forest sounds breathtaking!

  4. Paul says:

    Is that a gutter on your lean-to? I don’t think I have ever seen that before!

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:

      Me neither, but you are correct. Good eyes. My wife Amy decided that the runoff going into the fire ring and the dripping all around the front were problems, and the steady stream of rainwater coming off a spout a water-gathering opportunity, so I was charged with doing a gutter. I must admit that the final effect is pretty nice, but it was a real pain in the ass, let me tell you. I recommend bushwhacking through stands of young birch, then spruce and balsam, with 5-foot gutter pieces strapped to your pack. It’s great fun! Actually installing it was harder because the front of the lean-to is bowed. It took me hours to get it to drain without horrible leaking. I put the odds and 50-50 that it survives the winter.

      • Paul says:

        As long as the roof doesn’t ice up and it probably doesn’t it will probably make it. If it doesn’t survive the winter, next year I would prefer that you hump in a copper gutter. That would look a little more rustic once it gets that nice patina!! Good luck!

  5. Sally says:

    I have been reading your posts since you began. They are my end-of-week treat. This one makes my heart ache for the perfection you describe, for the life most of us have lost. Thank you.

  6. Beth kehayes says:

    Just got back from adks today. I understand. Hard to get off the beaten path but once I did it was crazy beautiful. Rainstorms, sun, wind, bugs, lake, ponds; filled with loons and frogs; bass and iridescent wings. The loon my buddy amidst the pine and crispness of night air.
    I’ll be back.

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