Saturday, January 4, 2014

Lost Brook Dispatches: Remote New Year’s Perfection

From Burtons PeakAfter 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.

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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.




12 Responses

  1. laurie says:

    While I enjoy all the articles you’ve written here, it is the accounts of Lost Brook Tract and your family’s adventures there that are my favorite. May the New Year bring you many more!

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Laurie:

      Your kind comment is a motivation for me and a lovely feeling. Thank you.

      I have a lot invested in this region: politically, spiritually, practically, idealistically. I can’t leave the whole range of issues about which I write alone and much more is coming along those lines. But I love telling these stories best too. There will be many more of them as well.

      Happy New Year,

      Pete

  2. John Warren says:

    Great story!

    • Bill Joplin says:

      You got my blood racing, too, with that story. And it’s always interesting to me to hear more about Lost Brook Tract.

  3. Annette says:

    Beautiful writing and compelling story — loved it — thank you for a great read to kick off 2014!

  4. Stephen says:

    Excellent essay!
    I was thinking how much I would like to visit your remote tract. I promise I would follow the rules but more likely my visit will only extend to my imagination with the help of the details you provide.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Dear Stephen (and all readers):

      It’s been more than two years since I initially wrote about Lost Brook Tract so I figure my basic approach is worth repeating: readers are welcome to hike to Lost Brook Tract – I’m just not going to tell anyone how to get there.

      Some of the details about Lost Brook Tract contained in my first few posts those many months ago was deliberately misleading (and acknowledged to be so), as I did not know if I might be inciting a flood of ambitious searchers; since then the accumulation of information, clues and photos in subsequent Dispatches would make finding the true location of Lost Brook Tract relatively simple for experienced Adirondack hikers.

      That is, easy to find on paper: LBT is a challenging bushwhack and at one point in particular invites a miscalculation that could put the unaware hiker in the middle of nowhere with confusing water courses and ridges, a long way from help in any direction. If you try it, you had best be quite good at this sort of thing. As said in the Dispatch, only one reader has found it, that by following our winter tracks.

      My feeling is that anyone who would go to the trouble to search for it would be the sort of person with whom we would want to share its beauty anyhow. That, along with a personal ethical objection to exclusivity with regard to private land like this, is why we will never post it in traditional fashion.

      So, Stephen, search away if you desire! You’ll be welcome so long as you treat this virgin forest well. But for god’s sake be absolutely certain you have found it on a map first, bring a compass and watch those bifurcating ridges like a hawk.

      Regards,

      Pete

  5. Dean cook says:

    Pete. I think you have wonderfully described the reasons that many of us spend time,energy and Money protecting this place.

  6. Paul says:

    Pete,

    Yes finding it on paper was easy. I guessed the right town on my first guess. You could use the tax map to find it if you really wanted to visit. I prefer the story version.

    Your property appears to have a “conservation easement 50%” how does that work? Do you get a tax break for this? I would consider doing something similar.

    Good story.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Paul:

      Donated conservation easements do have tax benefits. I have not actually calculated the details of ours as we inherited the easement. I do not know what the 50% you mentioned refers to but 100% of our tract is under easement.

      Pete

      • Paul says:

        Thanks. The “50%” thing is just how it is described for the land you have on the tax roll? Probably just some tax term. It is neat to see a conservation easement for a smaller parcel. With it being an in-holding there is probably a good incentive for the state to have wanted to get this.

        Let’s just hope the assessor doesn’t read about that new outhouse you guys built and jack up your assessment!

        Happy New Year!