Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Mythical Backcountry Adventures

View from Cat MountainSome backpacking trips go beyond the ordinary backcountry adventure. Whether due to a single outstanding wildlife sighting, a series of unlikely events, a special chemistry between participants, a scenic location or any combination of these, some trips become legendary, recounted time and time again. These legendary trips eventually develop their own mythology, combining equal amounts of actual events and fictitious hyperbole.

These legendary backcountry trips are not common, but almost anyone who spends enough time in the Adirondack backcountry can expect to experience at least a few during their backpacking career. Typically, these trips involve groups, the dynamics between the participants contributing not only to the memorable trip activities, but also to the numerous retellings where the events morph into the mythological.

This is how tall tales are born.

These tall tales are not unique to the backpacking and hiking crowd. Almost everyone is familiar with fishing stories about the one that got away, where its size gets increases with each retelling. By no means are anglers the only outdoors enthusiasts that exaggerate their past adventures though, as hunters do as well. There is no reason to think that hikers and backpackers would be any different.

Last summer marked my 20-year anniversary of my very first overnight backpacking trip in the Adirondacks. Recently, I have been reflecting on this, since my initial adventure was one of these legendary backpacking trips, whose numerous retellings have escalated it to mythical proportions.

Yeah, I got lucky on the first draw! At least there were no falling trees or helicopter rescues on this trip!

This first backpacking trip contains all the mythos one would want during their initial experience in the Adirondack backcountry. Being a backcountry virgin at the time, I had absolutely no clue about what I was getting myself into. Luckily, of the four of us participating, two were seasoned backpackers, one being familiar with the area, which just happened to eventually become a place near and dear to my heart, the Five Ponds Wilderness.

The three-day trip started at Wanakena, with the first night’s destination being High Falls via the Leary Trail. The second day took us to Cat Mountain, while the third day found us hiking out back to Wanakena. This was a very different Five Ponds Wilderness from what exists today, the beaver flooding more limited, the crowds more excessive, and the downed trees few and far between. This trip had everything one would wish for on a backpacking trip, amusing co-workers, ample alcohol and the right amount of foolishness (or perhaps an excessive amount depending on one’s tolerance level for such antics).

Top of High Falls May 2009

My cluelessness knew no bounds on that first backpacking trip. My backpack was too big for my very narrow hips; I constantly kept pulling the hip belt up like a fat man’s pants in need of suspenders. The contents were too heavy, including such unnecessary items like an insulated flannel shirt, a huge hunting knife and enough dried beans to feed a small army, things I would not dream of bringing on a backcountry trip today. On my feet were Timberland work boots, way before they were a fashion statement, and much to my feet’s dismay, as the blisters were fierce and plentiful.

After such a less than stellar beginning, it is amazing that this trip led to backcountry career that continues until today.

Not to be outdone, the other virgin backpacker on the trip brought accoutrements that were even more outlandish. Wanting to win a fictional award for bringing the most useless piece of gear, he produced a square egg maker at High Falls. The fact that he failed to bring any eggs, merely increased the absurdity of the device. However, to make up for the lack of eggs, he did bring cans of raw oysters and carrots. I can still recall following carrot shavings along the trail as we hiked, as if someone ran out of breadcrumbs to mark their way.

Hanging the food at High Falls proved one of the most amusing parts of the adventure. Unlike any reasonable backpackers, we waited until near dusk before finally attempting to hang our food rope, and only after some of us sampling a good amount of alcohol. Instead of searching for a rock in the nearby river, we used just about anything we could find to throw the rope up into a very dark canopy, including one guy’s boot and a can of tuna fish. The tuna can flew through the canopy many times, wildly missing the target branch, and once landing nearly a foot away from two unsuspecting hikers coming up the trail in search of a vacant campsite.

The fun times did not cease at High Falls though. Although I remember little about the hike there, my first view of the Five Ponds from Cat Mountain can never be forgotten. Looking out over the landscape unfolding to the south, it was unimaginable at the time that two years in the future I would be precariously balancing on downed trees ten feet off the ground in an attempt to follow trails a day after the microburst of 1995, an event that changed the area forever.

Change was not on anyone’s mind that afternoon over two decades ago. Instead, it was all about the eating. And eat we did. My reputation as the camping garbage disposal was well established that day. My food stores were highly invested in dry beans, thus lacking the diversity for an easy meal or a quick snack. Even though I carried those beans all the way from High Falls soaking in a Nalgene bottle filled with water, they still required an inordinate amount of cooking, initially started by myself, and later taken over by one of my companion. Unfortunately, by the time they were fully cooked, I had eaten everyone’s extra food, so after an approving taste or two, off the Cat Mountain’s cliffs they went, well cooked and overly spiced. The remains of a giant round loaf of bread followed the next morning, feeding the wild scavengers near the base of the cliffs well that morning. We had much to learn about leave no trace in those days.

Now, in an article about mythic backcountry adventures, one might conclude that much of this recounting is merely exaggeration of a much more mundane trip taken over 20 years ago. This would be a mistake. Over the years of retellings, only the state of inebriation during the food hanging fiasco and the distance between the tuna can and the hikers’ heads changes, one increasing and the other decreasing.

At least, that is the way I am telling it, ask me in a week, and you might get another retelling entirely. That is nature of myth, even in the Adirondack backcountry.

Photos: View from Cat Mountain in July 2010 and top of High Falls in May 2009 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.

3 Responses

  1. Bob Meyer says:

    My trip to Sand & Rock lakes with my 1st wife in the early 70’s was very boring in comparison…. except for the utter beauty of it and that we saw no one else during most of the hike and absolutely no one for the 3 days we spent at the lakes. 🙂

  2. Brad says:

    Well, finally! After 20 years, we have identified one of the miscreants launching tuna cans down the trail at us!

  3. Paul says:

    In a beautiful spot like that easting oysters and drinking what ever kind of “alcohol” you had sounds like a pretty veteran move for a beginner!

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