Saturday, May 4, 2013

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Survey of Lost Brook Tract

Lost Brook Tract SurveyToday I bring to a close my long series on surveying.  In doing so I have the pleasure of returning to Lost Brook Tract and its abiding magic.

As I described four weeks ago, in 1812 Judge John Richards determined the northern boundary line of Lost Brook Tract as part of his survey of the Old Military Tract, when it and all its surroundings were unexplored wilderness.  Here’s the romantic part for me: history shows definitively that after Richards’ survey no one else mapped or explored any part of the tract for another hundred and thirty-six years.  That’s all the way until 1948.

It was in that year that journalist, founding member of the Tenth Mountain Division, pioneering American downhill skier and expert rock climber Hal Burton, looking for a remote swatch of private land on which to be able get as far away from civilization as possible, discovered Lost Brook Tract on a Conservation Department map (a story I told in detail in a Dispatch written a year ago).  The map having been prepared with the aid of local property records, Lost Brook Tract was a different color than the State land surrounding it and was situated along the Old Military Tract border that Richards had surveyed well over a century before.  However its exact location was, according to the Conservation Department, unknown.

Hal Burton himself bushwhacked to the tract and discovered the summit we recently named after him.  His is the first known ascent, made almost one hundred and fifty years after Charles Brodhead climbed Giant (and unknowingly gazed upon Burton’s Peak, visible in the far distance).  Hal’s hand drawn map of the area is charming and is a special keepsake for me.  Amazingly it is also chronologically the first map I have seen that situates Lost Brook in the right place, further proof that this territory was as yet unsurveyed when he made his sketches.

But Hal did not formally survey Lost Brook Tract.  That fell to Albert T. Davis, New York State Forest Surveyor, who toiled for many days as a result of Burton’s request to the Conservation Department.  Davis and crew struggled through thick forest, following Richards’ lines on the northern and eastern sides and laying out new lines on the other two sides, these in territory previously unknown.  He marked the boundaries with yellow paint, sinking iron posts in the corners and producing a map, a portion of which is reproduced above.  Being that it was the middle of the twentieth century Davis was far removed from working with a Gunter’s chain or a magnetic compass (the use of which in surveying was discontinued just before 1900 due to its consistent inaccuracies and false readings).  Instead he had an astronomical compass, a transit and a measuring tape.  Yet he still measured in chains, which you can clearly see on the map.  Thus he continued a legacy going back to the Saxons in medieval England and the oxen who drove their plows.

When Amy and I purchased Lost Brook Tract in December of 2010 I could hardly wait to explore it.  In particular I was itching to to see if I could run its boundary lines myself.  I was excited by the fact that Davis had found some of Richards’ original marks.  I was full of anticipation to discover for myself the ledges that Davis had noted on his map, promising as they did extraordinary views.  I was romantically enthralled to think about being, with my wife Amy, the first party since 1948 to follow the boundary lines of the tract, and the third party in history after Richards.  Most of all I was excited to try to rediscover the four corner posts.  One, the southeast post, was known to Hal Burton’s son and his friends, one of whom guided us in to Lost Brook Tract for the first time.  The other three, situated in wilderness unvisited and untraveled save for a stray hunter here and there, were completely unknown to anyone, even DEC, which had sent no Forest Ranger or other employee to visit the tract since Davis had finished his work.  Those three remaining posts likely had seen no human presence in decades.  Their call to me was powerful.

First we had to locate the “known” post so as to have a starting point.  Its location had been generally described by Vinny McClelland, the man who had led us in.   The location of Lost Brook on the survey map, crossing as it did the southeast corner of the tract, also narrowed the area where the post could be.  But as anyone knows who has searched for artifacts in the Adirondack wilderness, a slender pipe protruding from the ground in the midst of rocky, terribly uneven terrain, with sixty years of blowdown, growing trees, underbrush, faded paint and accumulated rust obscuring its presence, is a proverbial needle in a haystack to try for, even if the search is limited to a hundred-yard radius.

I made two informal attempts with no luck, followed by a more serious endeavor with Vinny who worked from his youthful memories, but still to no avail.  The scale of the challenge, with all the downed trees and tumbled rock, with the endless square feet of undulating ground, made it seem hopeless.

Fortunately I’m a math guy.  I wised up and called upon the basic principles of surveying instead of trying to wing it.  In so doing I gave myself a refresher course in the magical power of mathematics to command distance and dimension in the physical world.   Using the survey map and stream course for an estimate I triangulated the probable location of the post, using techniques not terribly different than those I described at the beginning of this series.  Since I was not working with actual lines but only guesses on the ground from a map in hand, attempting to use any one line would have been futile.  But triangulating with two, thus creating an intersection, forced a locus that could not be too far off.  With Amy’s help I had the locus in a few minutes.  It was then no more than two minutes before Amy, sharp-eyed as always and continuing a long family tradition of finding things before anyone else does, spotted the southeast post projecting from a pile of rocks.  We let out whoops of excitement.

Now I had a fixed position with which to start our search for my next target, the mysterious northeast post.  Knowing that this post marked a corner first determined by Richards in 1812 and then long forgotten fed my imagination in a way I cannot put into words.

Wherever the northeast post lay it was well over a thousand feet distant and no intersecting line was going to even be estimable.  That meant it was going to be a much more severe challenge.  I would have to conduct an actual survey if I was going to have a chance.  I rigged a primitive telescopic sight using PVC pipe to which I affixed my compass.  I then wound twine around a “survey board” I had cut to dimensions that would unwind the twine in two-foot increments, thus allowing me to crudely measure distance without having to continually position and reposition a measuring tape.  Amy and I waited for a slightly cool, clear day and off we went to face thick undergrowth, dead trees, rock outcroppings, marshy ground and decaying forest trunks.

We began at the southeast post.  I took bearings as carefully as I could and we ran twine, taking care to consider that survey distances are always calculated on the level.  This was not easy to do on terrain that exceeded thirty degrees of slope in some places.  My thoughts turned more than once to Richards and especially to Charles Brodhead and his ridiculous 1797 survey right through the High Peaks.

The first day ended with us getting to what I thought was  about the right distance, but with no discovery of a post.  A second day was given over to returning to that end spot and searching in an ever-widening circle.  This proved fruitless.  I even tried running a cross line though I had no way to know  if it was remotely in the right latitudinal position.  This dubious strategy came up empty.  Our time was running out; we were due to leave the land in two days.  All I had to show for the attempt so far was a frustrated appreciation for the professional skill involved in actual surveying.  There’s a reason it is an esteemed line of work.

Luckily, for all I was factoring into the attempt, bearings and sightings and calculations and search grids and so forth, I was forgetting my ace in the hole: Amy.  Sure enough, we had quit for the day and were walking back along the line I had run but somewhat inside of it as I had a hunch that if my bearings were wrong it was because they had erred too far east.  We had stopped on a small hump on the side of the main ridge of Burton’s Peak for no reason other than to chat for a moment and sip a little water.  We were in the midst of a conversation about nothing important when Amy began shouting.  Shocked at first, thinking that perhaps an enraged moose was bearing down upon us, I followed her gaze.  She was standing five feet from the northeast post.    Mathematics is magical; so is dumb luck, some times.

I measured the distance to our twine; we had missed the correct bearing by thirty feet, which translated to about one degree.  By modern surveying standards that is pathetic. However the next morning I discovered an inadvertent mistake I had made in the very first bearing I had taken from the southeast post.  I corrected it, reran the line and came out three feet away, or about a tenth of a degree of error.  I was pretty proud of that result until Les Eggleton, Surveyor and Real Property Supervisor for DEC, told me that the current standard in surveying is to have an error of no more than a hundredth of an inch or so.  For the mathematically inclined that is three-thousand-six-hundred time more accurate than I was.  Oh well!

Having two posts in hand I had the remaining two dead to rights, in theory if not in effort, since with two starting points I would be able to triangulate for real.  As it turns out Les and his crew beat me to the other posts when they performed a resurvey of most of Lost Brook Tract later in the fall in order to properly mark the boundaries to State Wilderness.  I have followed their lines to both remaining posts.  The southwest post in particular feels so remote, so isolated, so nestled in lonely territory that I am sure no one but Amy or I will ever see it unless we take them there.

At the end of the last day on Lost Brook Tract that summer, the same day I corrected the eastern line I’d run, I indulged in something I’d been dreaming about since I first saw Albert T. Davis’ 1948 map.  I turned west from the northeast corner post and flagged part of Richards’ northern line.  I was alone with my compass and my thoughts as I scrambled up the ridge and tied flagging tape every few dozen yards.  I thought of Davis, marking and noting this route sixty four years earlier.  I climbed the ledges he had described and circled back to the summit, then down our still-new summit trail to Amy and camp.

But in the middle of my flagging, having come over one ledge but not yet having reached the next, I stumbled and pushed my way into a thick, otherworldly glen with glimpses of a long vista to the north and a view to a wild valley far below me.  Here my thoughts went not to Davis but to John Richards who had traveled through this very spot exactly two hundred years before me, likely the first visit by any human being.  I stopped at a good tree upon which to place the next flag.  But I could not do it, could not post a garish yellow strip of plastic in this place.  Not here.  This glen I would have to navigate again in its natural state.  It was not a place for flags; it was a place for me to feel a kinship with the primeval and with all the surveyors of old who first penetrated the magnificent Adirondack wilderness.

I sat there in the glen as the afternoon faded, sat with my compass and my mathematics and my profound sense that to be able to have a feeling of such a place in the twenty-first century was a gratification beyond any measure, surveying or otherwise.

Photo: A portion of Albert Davis’ 1948 Survey of Lost Brook Tract, showing the same north line surveyed by Judge John Richards in 1812.  Davis found some of Richards’ old marks on this line.  Note the references to measurements in chains.

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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.

2 Responses

  1. Steve Sehnert says:

    Great series of articles. Thanks

    Steve Sehnert
    Land Surveyor

  2. RC says:

    thank you for this. Here’s hoping that a strong steady wind keeps the black flies at bay the next time you’re out!