Woolgathering 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.
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.
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).