Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Dan Crane: Where Have All The Good Campsites Gone?

Not a good campsite along Crooked LakeWoolgathering is a frequent activity while I bushwhack through the Adirondack backcountry. My recent trip exploring between the South Ponds and Crooked Lake was no exception in this regard. My thoughts often revolved around how this area may be the loneliest part of the Five Ponds Wilderness, as evidence of recent visitors was scarce to non-existent. Instead of enjoying the seclusion, some nagging concern kept intruding upon my thoughts; I could not quite put my finger on its exact nature other than it involved an absence of some feature in the backcountry.

On the morning of the fourth day, it finally dawned on me.

As I trudged through witchhobble along the western shoreline of Crooked Lake, under towering hemlocks and white pine, I stumbled on a couple large cast iron stoves. These old stoves were well rusted, yet still heavy and nearly immovable, possibly explaining their being left behind. The old relics stood as landmarks of an era gone by, obviously abandoned long ago, probably either after the purchase of this area by New York State or its classification as a wilderness area.

Do not get me wrong, I like well-crafted cast iron stoves as much as the next person does. Yet, it was not the lack of stoves or my desire to partake in an occasional culinary delicacy in the backcountry that intruded on my thoughts earlier (although I was bummed several years ago when I failed to find the eponym of Oven Lake). Nor was I longing for the days when discarded junk littered the backcountry, though there is still plenty out there covered by blowdown, leaf litter and other natural debris. Instead, these castaway stoves provided a catalyst for my previous concerns to coalesce in my consciousness, forming a single cogent thought.

Where have all the good campsites gone?

When I started backpacking back in the early 1990’s, I could not swing a dead beaver by the tail without coming into contact with a good campsite. They seemed to be everywhere back then. They were typically located on an exposed peninsula of some backcountry water body, where the wind would keep the ubiquitous bloodthirsty insects at bay. Such sites, characterized by an abundance of flat and bare ground, and a lack of low-lying branches and widow makers, provided ample places for numerous tents or even a nice hammock or two. And, of course, no good campsite would be complete without an obligatory fire-ring.

Stove at Crooked LakeAh, the comforts of home. How I miss thee in the remote backcountry.

At this point, you might be wondering why a bushwhacking adventurer, who explores areas well off the beaten path, would want to stay in an over-used and sometimes creepy campsite, complete with constant reminders that civilization in one form or another is less than five miles away.

A fair question, indeed.

Despite my typical solo adventures in some of the most remote places of the Adirondacks, there are many good reasons for seeking out these campsites. The lack of blood-sucking insect pests is only one attractive feature at these sites. Some other worthwhile reasons include the lack of vegetation (and the concomitant guilt from trampling it), level ground (speaking from experience, sleeping in a contorted pretzel-like position between several tree roots does not make for a restful night) and the lack of dangerous low-lying limbs just waiting to put out an eye during a late-night pee run.

There is a less practical reason for seeking out a well-used campsite too. Although I often find the seclusion provided by remote areas soothing and regenerative, there is something reassuring about staying at a site with a little human history behind it. A good campsite often provides that same feeling as does listening to the familiar voices of NPR at the end of a day after bushwhacking through seemingly unending forest, gingerly tip-toeing over open bogs and balancing while crossing an undulating beaver dam. Sometimes a smidgen of civilization is good for the soul, even when actively trying to escape it.

Nowadays, these types of campsites appear as rare as a moose sighting; no matter how hard I search for one, I nearly always come up empty. How can this be?

Perhaps the nature of my backcountry forays is to blame.

In my early days exploring the backcountry, I never wandered too far from a marked trail. In those days, I was a hiker, not an intrepid off-trail explorer. My bushwhacking then entailed straying a short distance from the trail, such as visiting the two more remote Five Ponds or traversing the short distance between Nick’s Pond trail and the Oswegatchie River Canoe Carry. A multi-day bushwhacking trip, where a marked trail is never crossed, let alone hiked, was simply unheard of.

Early morning on south branch of Crooked Lake

Could it be that all the good campsites were close enough to the trail system that the occasional visitor prevented the witchhobble and other vegetation from reclaiming them?

Most of my current Adirondack adventures involve long excursions into the backcountry far from any trails, like bushwhacking from Stillwater Reservoir to Cranberry Lake or exploring the area around Oven Lake. Since these jaunts require long arduous treks far from any trails, few people have any reason to visit, leaving the surrounding wilderness to reclaim any forgotten campsites.

Perhaps all the good campsites have merely grown over from the lack of use.

These wilderness areas are merely recovering from their historical overuse, with the popular campsites slowly receding with time. As the years past, I may just need to get use to the fact that the chance of coming upon an awesome campsite is increasingly remote, as they become casualties of time and proper management.

Whatever the reason, good campsites appear as rare as the spruce grouse in the Adirondack backcountry, and that is not going to change anytime soon. So, when I discover a nice flat area on a peninsula that is devoid of vegetation, I will do my very best to savor it, because it may not be there much longer.

From now on, my back may have to get used to sleeping on an occasional root or old stump, or maybe, I just need to bone-up on my stealth campsite locating skills.

Photos: A not-so-good campsite, an old stove along Crooked Lake and early morning fog on Crooked Lake’s southern branch (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.

21 Responses

  1. Marco says:

    I agree Dan. Many of the old campsites have been removed, too. In the St. Regis Area, for example, mony of the ones on St. Regis Pond have been relocated. Some of the nicest have been closed. Good, in the sense that fewer sites means fewer people, but the new ones are badly positioned. The in the woods and the middle of an island is NOT the place to be in bug season.

    Reclaiming the lands? Well, I have found many old campsites that have been reclaimed…naturally for the most part. Old wood stoves can last a long time. Good luck with your adventures!

  2. Larry McGory says:

    I agree with Marco (we’re straying a bit from Dan’s subject of truly backcountry sites onto the subject of lakeside sites). There has been a trend in recent years to “hide” campsites on lakes, presumably because some people at the DEC have the idea that a tent visible from the water might be somehow be an aesthetic disturbance to paddlers. Ironically, the vast majority of those paddlers who supposedly may be offended, are the ones who are camping on the lake. And I don’t of a single paddler who would prefer to be hiking 50 or a 100 yards back into the woods to set up camp in a spot that has little to no feel of being on a lake. People go canoe camping because they enjoy being on and near the water. The removal of the most aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable campsites is ruining the activity. If the goal is just to get everyone to stay home so that there is no human disturbance of the lakes, then the DEC has found the answer.

  3. Tim says:

    I too am disturbed about the amount of reclaimed or relocated, designated, campsites. It seems the person that is making these decisions doesn’t do any camping or hates the water. I can look at trees in my backyard and the view never changes. However when one looks over water it’s like watching a campfire in the respect that there is change and movement. A campsite is overused because people love that spot. Come on DEC, wake up.

  4. John Warren says:

    I’ll just leave this here:

  5. Dan Ling says:

    Just wanted to voice my support of relocating sites away from the water. Yes, I sympathize with the previous posts, and surely during bug season we would all like to be in the wind. But I don’t think such concerns justify the degradation of the shoreline and water that we have seen in the past 50 years I’ve been hiking and canoeing the backcountry.

  6. Paul says:

    “Some of the nicest have been closed. Good, in the sense that fewer sites means fewer people,” Wait, this doesn’t make any sense? These Wilderness areas are the real draw and economic kick that these areas need. This idea that they are attracting fewer people doesn’t fit with the arguments that I have heard lately??

  7. Albert J. Haberle, DVM says:

    Camp sites:
    Older people of plus 55 like convenience.
    The majority rules in this country,(we can only hope, therefore people have to want to preserve something and that requires more than someone else saying it, preservation, is a ‘good idea’.
    The Adirondack park was not created and expanded by people who were not allowed or did not choose to ‘be there’ or to ‘go there’.
    For better, or often worse, if humans do not know or care about something it is destroyed eventually. So get them there, and this does not mean by ATVs or aircraft (the elite) but get them there and they will help preserve it.

  8. Penn Hoyt says:

    I agree with you completely. This is what happens when the people are pushed out of the park. The destruction of lean-to’s, the non replacement/up-keep of current lean-to’s, the relocation of campsites, the tons of new rules and regulations are doing just what certain groups (“councils”) wanted – keep people out of the Adirondacks, and destroy the economic communities so those people will be forced to leave.

    • John Warren says:


      People are not being pushed out of the park. The Park has grown faster than New York State as a whole since the early 1970s. More roads, more facilities, more residents, more tourists, and more summer residents.

      People have greater access to more of the park than ever before in history. Millions of acres are now open to recreational opportunities of all kinds, including dozens of new snowmobile trails, ATV trails, and roads newly opened to the public.

      Don’t demonize those you disagree with. It’s inappropriate, unnecessary, and unwanted. If you have a legitimate argument to make, with evidence of your claims, by all means, let’s hear it.

      John Warren

  9. Mike says:

    Heh Heh… My first experience with that was about 35 years ago, we were setting up camp at a great spot near the bottom of the Trap Dyke on Avalanche Lake. The DEC guy came paddeling across the lake and said “Um, we have sort of a rule about…” So we packed up and moved.

    I love sleeping near the water. Backcountry I’ll set up near a gurgling brook every time- if for no other reason then to lull me to sleep and drown out the noise of the scurrying critters that keep me awake at night. Is it any more or less Wilderness Area 50 feet from the water?

    Hey Dan- I hiked into Cowhorn Pond during our annual stay near Wanakena last month. My first look at REAL blowdown on the esker!

    • Paul says:

      Mike, the DEC guys was probably a good friend of mine. You know he then went back to his cabin in there right? What a great job!!

    • David D says:

      I believe the rule is 150 feet from trails and water. This rule was put in place to limit the human impact on the environment, and is one of the things that the DEC has been doing a wonderful job at. It is applying 21st century land management practices, much better than some groups do *cough* National Parks Service *cough*

  10. Mike says:

    You make an excellent point Paul. He comes from his CABIN on Lake Colden to tell me I have to move my tent away from Avalanche Lake…. hmmmmm…. 😉

    • David D says:

      I think that is the last (or one of the last) interior outposts left, the DEC has razed a few of their older interior outposts.

    • Paul says:

      My point was that he had a great job! I wonder if the air lift the beer in there with the other supplies? Did you ever see the helicopter bringing supplies into John Brook Lodge? That is another sweet deal.

  11. Dan Crane says:

    How were the comments on my article sidetracked into a discussion of the pros/cons of the DEC moving official campsites? I was not referring to official (and marked) campsites is this article, but to those unofficial ones located in out of the way places in the remote backcountry.

    It appears that the majority of those who comment at the Adirondack Almanack just cannot resist making a political statement. Either that, or my articles are just confusing people.


  12. Bill Ott says:

    Dan, You are not confusing people. You are just talking to confused people. And remember, almost anybody (including me) can comment on these posts.

    As per the area in your article, I have not been there, around Crooked Lake, since the fall of 1994, when I did a round trip from Cranberry to Stillwater with my canoe. I left a nice pair of binoculars up there, sitting on a log as nice as can be. I am sure the log is gone by now, but by any chance did you find the last thing I have ever lost in the woods?

    I’ll be going back soon, probably for longer than my usual 2 week stints.

    Bill Ott
    Lakewood, Ohio

    • Dan Crane says:


      I wish you had told me earlier that you left a pair of binoculars at Crooked Lake, since I would have kept my eyes open for them.

      Have fun on your trek into the area. Be safe!


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