Saturday, June 29, 2013

Lost Brook Dispatches: Reverence for the Back Twenty

Lake Placid basin in the clouds, from Kuma's ViewIn mere days Amy and I will be be heading to Lost Brook Tract for an extended residence.  We will have many things on our agenda but the one to which I look forward the most is the exploration of the large part of our land that remains unknown to me.

As it always will be.

Lost Brook Tract is square in shape, encompassing an area of some forty acres.  Lost Brook itself cuts through the land for a few hundred feet near the lowest corner.  A short way up from this corner there is a patch of relatively level terrain where Hal Burton built his second lean-to, the one that constitutes our home base.  A half-mile from there and a good three hundred feet up a ridge sits Burton’s Peak, the high point of our land, positioned a little bit to the east of the opposite corner and quite close to the tract’s northern edge.  If you were to draw a diagonal line across the land starting at the southern boundary of Lost Brook Tract and far enough west of the lowest corner to encompass the stream and lean-to, then extended the line to the northern boundary far enough east of the opposite corner to just skirt the beginning of the promontory that defines Burton’s Peak, you would split the tract just about exactly in half.

The triangular half of Lost Brook Tract to the right of this diagonal is largely (though not completely) known to us.  We explored the area around Lost Brook and the lean-to during our first visit just after we bought the land two and a half years ago.  My first bushwhack to the summit of Burton’s Peak, which I reconnoitered during our second visit, roughly followed the mythical diagonal, skirting it mostly to the east.  The discovery of our first two corner posts and my amateur survey of the eastern property line and part of the northern line made during our fourth visit defined the other two sides of the triangle.  Various bushwhacks, traipses and scrambles have filled in most of the rest of it.

The other half of Lost Brook Tract is territory almost completely unknown to me – or to anyone I know, for that matter.  True, I have followed the northern boundary line of the tract to the northwest corner post and I have doubled the trail back in that direction for a few dozen feet with a plan to extend it down to the lean-to in a loop, but most of that side of Lost Brook Tract has not felt my footsteps.

The highest part of land on this other half is a lonely place, a ridge with relatively open woods that slopes downward to the west, thus facing steady breezes from the west which are funneled between loftier peaks in the Adirondack Range.  I have made few visits to this ridge but every time I have been there it has been inhabited by the unmistakable presence of alpine mountain wind, a distinctive and evocative sweep of feeling and sound that all denizens of the high country know.

From the height of the ridge the land descends into a wide basin with very thick forest and sections of wet, spongy soil.  This basin, visible in its full extent from a large rock face on Burton’s Peak, extends to a small cleft into which it disappears.  Our property then rises partway up the shoulder of the next ridge to end somewhere along a run of land that leads to the tallest summit in the system.  This triangular half is our back twenty.

The ridge, basin and mysterious cleft of our back twenty invite me with their remoteness.  I started down that way once but promptly got lost and had to bushwhack for Lost Brook over the better part of an hour before its crystalline cascades guided me home.  None of the stalwart Adirondack wilderness experts of my acquaintance, even those who knew of Lost Brook Tract before my time and have been to the lean-to, have explored it.

This summer my investigation of the back twenty will continue.  But it will not continue as I originally had planned.  Amy and I have been thinking a lot about what it means to have such a wild piece of land in the Adirondacks: a virgin boreal forest undiverted from its natural evolution since the ice age.  We recognize more and more that it is not for us to overly disturb this land, that we have a sacred responsibility to inhabit it as naturally and as gently as we can, with an effort to be compatible to its rhythms.  We see already the impact our few visits have had to the area around the lean-to and we have begun to work more diligently to minimize that.

I will complete our loop trail; the opportunity to have a two-mile circuit of such primeval beauty and solitude on our own property is too much to turn down.  But we will build the trail for another purpose as well: to minimize our impact on the rest of the land.  We have committed to staying on it and resisting the urge to explore every little twist and turn of our mossy, ridge-bound territory.

Here is what that means for the back twenty: save for a small part of the trail that will pass through the highest section o the far ridge, it will remain unexplored by us.  I intend never to know what that cleft holds, what the extent of the basin harbors.  This mystery of land unknown will outlive me as it should, at least as far as I am concerned.   It seems to me that it should be neither my purpose nor my right to answer all the questions about Lost Brook Tract, to play the explorer until every acre is exhausted.  It ought not be my place to disturb nature that has lain largely undisturbed for centuries by stumbling around in woods I have no imperative to see in their entirety.

Besides, the front twenty contains joys and discoveries to last a lifetime.  There is rock to climb and a wide swath of brush-choked runoff in which to spot wildlife.  There are massive trees to measure and serpentine trails of moss to parallel, shimmering perfect kelly green through the balsam branches.  Somewhere on the front twenty lies the remains of Hal Burton’s first lean-to, built of green logs in 1948, when Lost Brook Tract first had him in its primal thrall.  Amy swears she will weep if we come upon it.

Our completed trail looping up to Burton’s Peak will skirt the far windswept ridge of the back twenty for a short distance.  When I walk that section I will wonder at what there is below me, what wild beauties await.  From atop Burton’s Peak I will wonder at the cleft and its secrets.  That wondering – that wonderment – will be my companion for the remainder of my life.  I cannot imagine what greater feeling one could possibly have in the Adirondack wilderness.

Photo: The Northern Edge of the Back Twenty

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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. george says:

    There is a thrill to know that there are still places where no man has ever stepped. I applaud your reverance for primordial wildness. I get that feeling in Five Ponds. I hope we meet some day.

  2. LAP says:

    Reminiscent of Kangchenjunga in the Himalaya: “At least the first three parties to ascend the mountain never attempted the final few feet to the summit out of voluntary respect for the Sikkimese, who consider the summit sacred. The successful British expedition of 1955 set the standard by stopping a few feet short of the actual summit, in honor of the local religion. The next two ascents were teams led respectively by India’s Colonel N. Kumar in 1977, and by British climber Doug Scott in 1979. These parties also honored the tradition.”