After four nights at Lost Brook Tract with Amy, two adult sons and our irrepressible dog Henderson, I’m raring to go for another year of Almanacking, though my contributions will be a little less frequent as I bear down with more purpose on the book I’m undertaking.
This stay at Lost Brook Tract was the best ever. The weather conditions and quality of light were the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced in the Adirondacks, to which the photo can attest. It was truly luminous. There was less snow than in past years but no less winter. The temperatures ranged from a positively balmy 35 degrees on the first afternoon to properly Adirondack zero-and-below readings the last two days. For New Year’s Eve I served a bottle of Prosecco we’d carried in. It was frozen. That’s cold. I can report that thawing Prosecco by positioning it next to a flaming birch log flattens it into tepid watery juice faster than any other method I know. Oh well, we had hot chocolate too. And the salmon pasta was “spiced” with a little rye, which thanks to its higher alcohol content resolutely maintained its golden liquidity to the bitter end.
Flat Prosecco or not, our New Year’s Eve celebration was perfect, though the run-up to dinner had its moments. Light snow dusted the backs of Amy and the boys as they chatted around the fire while just inside the lean-to I labored over the meal with zesty fervor and lusty language. The unrelenting cold snap had frozen all provisions solid so I first had to thaw a can of tomatoes, two packages of salmon, a bag of shallots, a jar of capers and a goddamned plastic bottle of olive oil in warm water over the stove.
My derisive description of the olive oil is revenge for its behavior that night, which was to feign an uneventful thawing but then erupt all over my already-cold fingers when I uncapped it. I learned several years ago that the coldest thing you can do in the winter woods is cover your hands in grease and then work in sub-zero temperatures. This is even more true when the work to be done is peeling and slicing shallots whose outer layers have thawed but whose insides are bitterly cold, rock hard nuggets. Dinner took a some time to prepare, what with me repeatedly dashing over to the fire to warm my fingers, whooping and cursing like a surly football fan. But the cream sauce came out perfectly so who cares.
More than usual, the theme of this winter visit to Lost Brook Tract was remoteness. Whenever we arrive for a stay I always check the log at our lean-to for any new entries (we post our land by requiring visitors to write in the log and abide some simple rules). In three years we’ve had but a single entry from someone who found Lost Brook Tract uninvited (a stalwart Almanack reader who followed our snowshoe tracks in). This time our log showed a second visitor, a hunter who kindly signed our journal and thanked us for allowing him through. That’s not a high rate of visitation. But having just completed the bushwhack in, with its serpentine upward loop, we were reminded that the lack of visitors is no surprise. This lean-to is hard to find unless you really know where to look and it is a long way in and up.
The remote feel of Lost Brook Tract, always stronger in winter, was enhanced this time by the increased independence of our two sons, now men. The first full day they left camp for a bushwhack down Lost Brook to its most vertical regions. Their report upon returning included some harrowing slips on the ice falls and a near-dousing Adam avoided with a cat-like leap.
Left to our own devices, Amy and I walked our entire trail loop for the first time ever. I have been working for three years on it: a meandering climb up the front southeastern ridge to the summit of Burton’s Peak and long, looping descent over the western ridge through the back twenty. A few sections are only flagged so far but the loop is complete at last and it is nothing short of magical. Coming to nearly two miles, it wanders through a variety of terrain and forest and finds wonderful rock and verdant groves of old growth spruces and birches. We proceeded slowly, reveling in each section, embracing our favorite yellow birch, taking in the views from various outlooks, crawling through the narrow rock cleft Amy calls the Hobbit Hole. The far sections of the trail felt so distant from any recognizable landmark that it seemed almost as though we would never find our way back to camp.
The day of New Year’s Eve sent us even further afield and further divided. Amy, Henderson and I made our way up a ridge adjacent to Burton’s Peak for a misty, snow-flecked vista of the Great Range. The Wolf Jaws and Armstrong were just barely visible, wraith-like through the vaporous curtains of fine, wind-driven snow crystals. Zach bushwhacked alone up Lost Brook and unexpectedly came upon a vast opening in the forest, an otherworldly, wide plateau scarred and flattened by wind blasts with young balsams and white birches just now pushing up through the jumbled mass of blow down.
Adam tramped off with the most ambition. With water, head lamp, compass and flagging tape in hand he followed the back twenty portion of our trail to its high point, then diverted off and up the steep ridge to its southwest, headed in the general direction of Big Slide, many intervening ridges away. This was a hard core bushwhack and I was a little worried because I know how difficult that kind of adventure can be. Many things can go wrong, they can come fast and they can multiply. Tracks in the snow can prove deceptive and can easily be obliterated, especially in steep terrain. Adam, though far more experienced with this sort of thing than most young men, was not experienced with a solo expedition of this magnitude. It was a risk to be sure, a gut check and a challenge. All the better for him and his spirit. But as a father a little bit of concern attended his voyage. It was, after all, in the single digits and darkness would come in late afternoon with no mercy.
Amy and I returned from our sojourn a little after two-o-clock. Zach was with us shortly thereafter with tales of the mysterious plateau. There was no sign of Adam. We made lunch and I took a trip to the privy, if only to surreptitiously check Adam’s tent to see if he had crawled in for a nap. Lunch was delicious but I ate it hastily. It was three-thirty: an hour of good daylight left. I was still not really worried for Adam; I trust him and am confident in his skills. But being a father I was in no mood to sit either. “I’m going for a walk,” I announced to Amy, though she knew exactly what I was up to.
I followed our trail loop to its apex on the back twenty and found Adam’s diverging tracks right where I had suggested he start the bushwhack. I called out to him knowing full well that in these snowy conditions in dense Adirondack forest my voice would be swallowed in mere yards. I contemplated waiting at this junction but I was too restless so I followed his tracks up and into deeper snow. I saw right away that he was not placing flags – he was relying upon his tracks and the compass. Good man, but watch those tracks. Sure enough, on some steeper parts they had already been covered over. Still they were not hard to follow and I went on for some distance. The sun was setting.
As I made my way up Adam’s route I felt a wonderful calmness – we know these woods, we see them as companions, we know how to inhabit them. Still, being one whose mind is never restful I was thinking about how I would proceed if darkness came and I had to return to camp, get serious supplies and gear and mount a search.
I determined to get atop the first high ridge where my voice would carry further, still feeling quite calm. I looked up the steepening climb to see if I could guess how far that might be and there he was, fifty feet above me, grinning with pride and satisfaction. He was returning with perfect timing. We exchanged some words, embraced warmly and return together to Lost Brook’s lean-to. Zach had bulked the fire up and it was time to make dinner. I set to it, cold hands and all and we shared the fruits of our adventures in the descending night.
So it was that we toasted the new year with a flat Prosecco, a delicious pasta and a lovely fire, rejuvenated by the exhilarating power of risk, reward and remote solitude in the deepest wilds of the Adirondacks.
Photo: Winter perfection from Burton’s Peak, Lost Brook Tract.