Thursday, August 22, 2013

To Live and Die in the Adirondacks

Pleasant Last Resting PlaceThere are plenty of reasons people enjoy spending time in the Adirondack wilderness. The reasons include the mental, spiritual and physical benefits of being surrounded by and immersed in the diversity of life. Few think about the flip side of life, as the backcountry is full of dangers, many of which can easily lead to, gulp, death.

For the grim reaper often wears hiking boots.

This struck me after reading about an incident where a hiker passed away in the High Peaks Wilderness recently. A 63-year old man, apparently in good health, collapsed and died a mile below the summit of Mt. Marcy just over a week ago. Unfortunately, this is not the first time such an incident occurred, as deaths often occur in the Adirondack backcountry. Whether these deaths come from over exertion or just some accident, thankfully, they do not happen too often.

Some might say that older people or others at risk should not be out enjoying the backcountry, where available emergency services are much more than a phone call away. As if at-risk individuals must cease experiencing the backcountry on its own terms, instead sentenced to spending the rest of their years cruising through a pseudo-wilderness on a dirt road somewhere in the Adirondacks. This is how Wild Forest proponents of the former Finch Pruyn properties are born!

Death in the backcountry does not merely lurk for those at risk though; death is waiting everywhere in the backcountry. It is there under each widowmaker, which can come crashing down on your shelter during a late-night thunderstorm. It is lying beneath every bog mat, whose maw could open and engulf you in the muck below. It could come in the form of a moose or bear that sees you as a threat (or worse, a mate), so it charges. Or maybe it is a beaver spike obscured by foliage that breaks your fall as you trip on a tree root.

Based on these perceived risks and so many more, I am surprised anyone EVER ventures into the wilderness for recreational purposes. Is it worth almost certain death to venture out into the backcountry? In actuality, the frontcountry holds just as much (if not more) risk than those in the backcountry. In fact, the most dangerous part of a backcountry adventure is probably the car ride to the trailhead.

But in a way, those few people who pass away in the backcountry are the lucky ones.

What the?!? Are you daft, man? Dying in the backcountry? Possibly alone, with wild animals waiting to gnaw on leg or arm. Are you some kind of moron?!? I can hear the long list of incriminations already.

I am certainly not suggesting anyone brought down by the reapers scythe is lucky, regardless of his or her location, and especially at such an early age as the most recent backcountry casualty. It is a sad thing when anyone dies; leaving trails unexplored, mountains unclimbed and many life experiences unlived.

The ugly fact is we are all going to die eventually (although I plan on building a robotic body and transferring my life essence into it, but that is a different blog post entirely). When it is time to shove off this mortal coil, it is difficult to think of a better place than near a mountaintop in the Adirondacks in which to do so.

Just think of the alternative: a long drawn out illness in a hospital bed, half-conscious, with tubes sticking out of every orifice, desperately clinging to each tortured breath, surrounded by morose relatives. Near a mountain top, with a clear sky above or within a dense forest surrounded by the essence of life does not sound so bad after all now, does it?

So where would you choose to spend your last moments? Near a mountaintop? In a dense forest? Along a well-traveled trail? Or in some uncomfortable hospital bed? It is a pretty easy choice for me.

I just hope the animals wait until I truly expire before they snack on me. Or, perhaps I will perfect that essence transferal thing soon and will not have to worry. Though I am concerned, I might see the backcountry in a completely different light with large robotic eyes.

Photo: A pleasant possible last resting place between Upper and Middle South Ponds in the 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.

27 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    I would prefer to die in the woods doing what I love doing. But the ideal thing would be to die with a family member of close friend near by to have someone to say good bye to. Dying alone is less appealing to me. I thought about this when a fellow deer hunter of mine died at our hunting camp from natural causes many years ago. He was able to say good bye to his three sons that morning as they left him at camp when he said he was tired for the previous days hunt and wanted to sleep in. But I felt bad that perhaps his wife might have wanted to have had the same chance to see him before he died. (maybe she was overjoyed at the news, I did not know the man too well!)

    Not exactly the same as expiring on the stump but pretty close!

    • LISA says:

      This is why we should always leave those we love with a loving message. My father taught me as a young girl that you don’t leave the house angry or at least not without saying I am angry but I still love you. He and losses along the way have also taught me not to be afraid of telling people that I love them. Too many people don’t know how we feel and in a world that is moving faster around us we often believe we will get a chance to tell them later. Sometimes later doesn’t come.

      I also choose the woods vs. confined to a bed somewhere but I will not get the chance to choose where or how, so I will instead choose to be doing things I love, with those I love whenever possible, remembering that perspective matters.

      “It is not doing the things we like to do but liking the things we have to do that makes life blessed.” Submitted to Guideposts by Frances L. Willis of TX City, TX

  2. adirondack joe says:

    oh boy, what a happy subject.

  3. Loggerhead says:

    “pseudo-wilderness” ..!!!… Exactly what you will have if the Essex Chain, former Finch Paper – Resource Management lands are classified as the wilderness only zealots wish.

  4. Dee says:

    I saw this article, and the first thing I said was “there are worse ways to die”- glad I’m not the only one who thinks that way!

    I ride horses, and I always say that I want to die on my horse. (Preferably while riding at Otter Creek, and when I am very old 😉

  5. Neal E says:

    I have always believed in order to fully experience life you need to occasionally expose yourself to the potential for death. I am not saying one needs to be reckless but some calculated risk is good for the sole.
    There have been several times I have narrowly escaped my demise ( close encounter with a grizzly…falling head-first with a full pack in a raging glacial river…almost flipping a plane over while landing)to name a few. Each episode is imprinted in my brain- I appreciate life so my more having nearly experienced death.
    As a father I am much more aware of these potential risks and have limited my exposure to possibly “meeting my maker” prematurely.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    You can collapse and die anyplace. Some die in their sleep. Many die in hospitals. A few are murdered.
    Such is life.

  7. S Bennette says:

    Personally, I can’t think of a better way to go!! I am estranged from my adopted family so I have no ties. My dog is my family & best friend & she goes kayaking, camping, & hiking with me – so I would have my family with me if I went in this way. Now that’s what I call heaven. Only thing I would worry about is what would happen to her. But I’d be waiting for her at her journey’s end & she knows that.

  8. Brad says:

    Dan, interesting little musing to start the weekend off with… and some interesting and thought provoking replies to your post.

    The woods or a hospital bed?

  9. Timely piece. After a 30 year hiatus (working for retirement), I just hiked Esther-Whiteface at 61 yrs. old. I must admit mortality crept into my mind.
    My journey began back in the 50’s while camping & hiking with my Dad.
    43-46 are on my bucket list to hopefully finish what was started way back when -we will see—-.
    Oh yeah, I decided a nice bed is good by me!

  10. laurie says:

    My uncle died of a heart attack at the age of 37 while hunting in the Catskills. There isn’t a hike I set out on that I don’t think of him. It doesn’t stop me from going, but it’s an ever-present thought. My father was with him and hasn’t set foot in the woods since.

    • Avon says:

      My experience sounds a bit like yours – except in the last dozen years my daughters got me going again a couple of times a year. I finished the 46 last year, 45.9+ years after climbing my first, and it was lovely.

      But, S Bennette, had I not survived a recent trip, I’d have had a pretty traumatized hiking companion. Even my late lamented spaniel would’ve been pretty disoriented and upset (I doubt she actually understood the other side).
      I’m thinking that Laurie’s father was unfortunate in such an un-deserved way, and it’s never so easy – even if we do get to pick our death – to pick one that’s as gentle for others as it is for ourself.

  11. Charlie says:

    There is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about death at least a handful of times.My favorite line has been “When I die I hope it’s quick,a bolt of lightning,or dropping dead from a heart attack,or dying in my sleep….” The latter would be preferable,but nonetheless I hope it’s quick.I’m not sure I would like to die in the woods but it is a nice thought,especially if,like Paul says,I die with a family member of close friend near by to have someone to say good bye to.
    Most people would think it morbid,or depressing,to always think about death,but no it’s not….. my thinking makes me appreciate every moment of my life and I sure as heck try to make the most of my everyday life without fail because of my thinking.Life is so beautiful to me and the list is endless of all the new discoveries just waiting for me to happen upon.

  12. Charlie says:

    Loggerhead says: “pseudo-wilderness” ..!!!… Exactly what you will have if the Essex Chain, former Finch Paper – Resource Management lands are classified as the wilderness only zealots wish.

    Zealot implies extreme or excessive devotion to a cause.
    By this definition the pro wild forest camp are zealots as much as the pro wilderness camp….except in the one camp you’ll find (I believe) more bigotry,more propagandists,more fanatics.

  13. adirondack joe says:

    i’m gonna stick around as long as i can.

  14. MJ says:

    I’d much prefer to drop over in the Adirondack Mts. Vs the other options out there…car accidents, terminal illness etc. How nice that the last thing you would see would be the beauty of the mountains, streams, and lakes as you transition to the next life. Going from God’s Country here on earth to God’s Country in the next life. What an appropriate transition.

  15. Randy says:

    I’m all set to die anytime, anywhere. Raised 4 kids, retired from a great job, have a wonderful loving wife, and we now have 8 wild and wacky grandkids. Not only that but I’ve been to heaven just about anytime I’m out in the woods or kayaking to a remote site. Last glimpse of the pearly gates was this week at Site 4 on Lake Lila for 3 days, rocking in my hammock by the shore watching 2 spiders builds their webs above my head with sunlight bouncing off the water. Ahhhhhhh.

  16. Bob Meyer says:

    Right on Dan! I hopw my end comes right here at Camp in the row boat [no motors here], in the water or in the woods around!

  17. Mike says:

    As a 63 year old 46r who’s climbed Marcy many times, when I read that story I thought “That’s how I want to go!”

    • Avon says:

      Yeah, Mike, me too – until I read about how rescuers were called in for some pretty excessive (in my opinion) overnight recovery work. (I’m not sure if that’s the emergency in which they got a helicopter to retrieve the person/body.) It’s a lot easier to “go” peacefully than to be left behind … depending on the responsibilities – real or perceived – of those left behind! And that, we’ll never be able to dictate when we die.

  18. DOCPEM says:

    Sooo: Great thoughts: just in case all with strong feelings don’t get their wish to pass in the wild, hope you have designated someone to keep the tubes and beds at bay in case you can’t. Just sayin’!!

  19. “Going out on your own terms” has such a nice sound to it, doesn’t it? Except when you look at it through the eyes of a ranger, like me. Take the case of Guy Waterman, one-time big-time wilderness advocate and author of both “Backwoods Ethics” and “Wilderness Ethics”. Battling deep depression over family tragedies, and possibly cancer, this man called “the conscience of the mountains, a beloved teacher and friend”, hiked to the top of his favorite peak in New Hampshire on the coldest day of the year and lay down died; basically suicide by hypothermia. His friends and local rescuers had to evacuate his body several days later, putting those doing the recovery in frigid conditions at great risk and no small expense.

    Granted, the man in this article probably had no idea that he was going to draw his last breath that day, on the highest mountain in New York State. Those incidents are unavoidable. I had a friend out here in WI who was in superb physical condition, 53 years old, a Master’s Class Nordic ski racer, who went out to train one day and never made it back; they found him 9 Km from his car, face down in the snow, the victim of a heart attack. It happens. I am just saying to think about the other side of the equation, those who are left to, or obligated to clean up after somebody “goes out on their own terms”.

  20. Doug says:

    My kids are adults now but we spent many happy times camping, hiking, fishing, kayaking and exploring the ADK, as they call it. They’re grown now but I still head up there and do all these things, alone. The standing order is to spread my ashes on Rich Lake. I wonder if that violates some environmental rules.
    If I have to die, (which I suppose I do), I’d like to kick the bucket in the ADK, hopefully not doing something too foolhardy. Wouldn’t want to get a Darwin award.
    Nice article! Great comments. Glad to find so many kindred spirits here.

  21. Amy says:

    Wow! A topic as serious as death needs at least one serious reply – hey folks, there are no do-overs…and reality isn’t whatever we want to make it. To quote a reliable source,(The Bible) “It is appointed unto men once to die, and then the judgment.” “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Put some effort into finding truth and receive the gift of eternal life that the God of the Bible offers – because you really will live forever, the question is…where?

    • Adam says:

      I am happy for you and your belief, but the bible is hardly a reliable source. It is more a compilation of myths that have been molested and reworked over time to fit the needs of whoever is preaching them.

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