Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Planning an Adirondack Bushwhack

Crooked LakeHaving a plan is always a good idea. From managing finances for retirement to baking a cake, a plan brings structure and allows for measuring progress. Journeying into the Adirondack backcountry is no different. A plan or itinerary is even more crucial when venturing off trail and into the remote wilderness. It often means the difference between a fantastic experience and a miserable nightmare.

The similarities between planning for a bushwhacking and traditional trail hiking trip are surprisingly many. Both require getting past the anxiety of an empty backpack and selecting the proper gear for the trip. Putting together an itinerary is essential, regardless of the nature of the trip, since it allows for notifying others of the planned destinations and provides a deadline for when others can expect your exodus from the backcountry.

There are differences, as well. Bushwhacking has some unique gear requirements that are either unnecessary, or at least optional on a trail adventure, such as safety glasses, hiking poles, or a handheld GPS device. Since bushwhacking takes one off the beaten path, bringing a personal locator beacon is a wise move in the unlikely event an emergency occurs. Extensive navigational equipment may be necessary as well, including more topographic maps, a field compass, etc.

One definitive difference between a traditional trail-hiking trip and an off-trail adventure is the need to plan a detailed itinerary. Getting lost in the remote backcountry is much more likely off-trail, with a corresponding higher likelihood of having a very unwelcome outcome if anything possibly goes wrong. The chances of someone coming along to rescue a poorly prepared individual in the remote backcountry is roughly about the same chance as seeing a panther or gray wolf in the Adirondacks, that is, almost nil. A well thought out itinerary can reduce the likelihood of a negative outcome in the backcountry.

Producing a bushwhacking trip itinerary is not just an imperative for safety reasons, but it provides the necessary structure for determining campsite locations, amount of food necessary, water access and thus ensuring that you get where you want to go, when you want to get there. Unfortunately, there are numerous factors that affect this timing, including determining destinations, weather conditions, aggressiveness of the terrain, stream crossings and blowdowns.

Where the trails offers limited choices of destinations, bushwhacking allows for limitless opportunities for adventure. In fact, that is the whole point! Just as a well-stocked grocery isle, such as one chock full of a mind-numbing assortment of breakfast cereals, may elicit a great deal of indecision, the near-infinite possibilities of an off-trail backcountry adventure often makes determining an itinerary difficult. This makes the necessity of producing a detailed one all the more important.

Combating this indecision requires finding features of the landscape that stimulate one’s imagination, such as a weird looking pond, an obscurely named mountain or a historical artifact. In the past, my destinations included oddly shaped water bodies (e.g. Oven Lake), remote and strangely named features (e.g. Carpet Spruce Swamp) and sites of old fire towers (e.g. the Pepperbox Wilderness). Often selecting more than one is necessary, especially where lengthy trips are involved.

Beaver meadow along Sitz CreekWith one or more principal places of interest selected, stitching them together on a single route is all that remains. Typically, I plan out a vague path between the main features, leaving the exact route open to conditions on the ground. This usually consists of trekking from feature to feature, affectionately referred to as pond-hopping when those features happen to be bodies of water. Other features, such as meadows, streams (significant ones), bogs, etc. work just as well, but unfortunately no clever terminology has been christened for these, though I often refer to traveling between meadows as vly-vaulting, but only to myself when no one can hear me.

The weather can prove another challenge while planning a bushwhacking trip. Although any type of precipitation can easily turn a nice hike through the backcountry into a figurative death march, rain can transform bushwhacking into a literal one. A heavy rain can turn the forest floor into a literal slip’n slid, where a tumble could easily produce a twisted ankle, a bruised butt or something much worse. Any person passing by a beaver spike in the backcountry without enduring a cold shiver has more steely resolve than I, or just completely lacks any imagination.

The terrain provides its own challenges while hiking during a bushwhacking trip. Steep climbs and descents are the most obvious aspects of the terrain that require some planning. Avoiding areas of densely congregated contours is probably a wise idea; instead plan your route through more easily traversed places. Do not overlook descending either, since climbing over a high ridge is only half the battle.

Stream crossings are another aspect of the terrain when planning a bushwhacking trip. Wadding, or rock-hopping across smaller streams is easy enough, but larger ones can pose a serious impediment for making progress. Crossing any stream requires caution; wearing hiking boots in the stream to provide traction and avoid stubbing toes, using hiking poles to maintain balance and releasing the sternum strap on your backpack just in case you have to ditch it in an emergency are just some of the standard precautions long suggested for stream crossing.

Despite these prescribed stream-crossing precautions, I must admit, I never wear my hiking boots while wadding across streams, instead I change into my Crocs, tying my boots, stuffed with their accompanying socks, around my neck while crossing. Foot blisters suck, so reducing the chance of enduring one throughout an entire trip is much more important than avoiding the occasional stubbed toe.

Beavers are often a bushwhacker’s best friend when it comes to crossing larger and deeper streams. Without these large rodent’s industrious efforts to dam streams, some crossings would require long and exhausting detours, perhaps prohibitively so. Therefore, finding dam locations while planning a trip is paramount for being able to cross these larger streams.

But where to look?

Plan on crossing streams at contours on topographic maps, the more contours and closer together the better. Always try to arrive just upstream of the contours, there is less chance of overlooking the dam. Also, try to stick to where the stream is surrounded by forest, as trying to cross on a shoddily built and meandering beaver dam in the middle of a flood plain is never a fun task, especially with a stiff wind blowing, though it often provide some gorgeous photographic opportunities, as long as manage to maintain your balance.

Crucial Robinson River beaver damWhen crossing the Robinson River on my return from visiting Oven Lake in the Five Ponds Wilderness, the entire trip depended on the locating a beaver dam just northeast of West Pond. Without a dam, my hike back to the trail system far off to the west had the potential for a much more difficult route, the cause of much anxiety throughout the first two-thirds of the trip. Luckily, when I arrived at the vicinity of a contour right on the edge of the river’s retreat back the forest sat a nice sturdy beaver dam. My sigh of relief was likely heard all the way to the Oswegatchie River.

Streams are not the only water-related obstacles that often need planning around. Bogs, swamps and meadows offer their own challenges. During dry years, these open areas often give a bushwhacker a respite from the constant effort required to step over logs, evade eye-poking branches and otherwise fighting one’s way through the thick Adirondack forest. When planning a trip, it is best not to count on being able to cut through every open area on the map, instead accept it as a sweet treat to be savored when the conditions allow. Just makes sure to be careful with sinkholes, quicksand, hidden logs and all the other dangerous obstacles hidden within the vegetation of a meadow or bog.

Blowdowns are a common phenomenon in any backcountry situation, and provide their own challenges while bushwhacking. Whether brought down by wind, snow, ice, mortality or a combination thereof, trees fall down and go boom in the forest. In small numbers, these downed trees are nothing but a small annoyance to a bushwhacker, but in large numbers, they can become a serious impediment, sometimes producing a nearly impenetrable mish-mash of woody debris.

In most places in the Adirondacks, blowdowns rarely prove anything but an occasional irritant for bushwhacking. This is not the case in the northwestern Adirondacks, where I spend most of my time bushwhacking. Due to a violent storm that barreled through the area in 1995, blowing down thousands of acres in the process, left the area dotted with pockets of blowdowns that need either trudging through or detouring around. Your shins will appreciate the later, I assure you.

Fortunately, modern technology provides a plethora of ways to assist in the determination of the location of blowdowns. From Google Earth to Bing maps, the amount of aerial photography available today has been a boom for determining the conditions on the ground that bushwhackers of bygone days could never even imagine.

Although these data exists, at best they are imperfect for locating blowdowns. Time heals all wounds, including those perpetrated against forests by the forces of nature. Logs decompose, hung-up trees fall to the ground and new ingrowth takes root, changing the conditions reflected in all that online material. The only surefire way of knowing the conditions on the ground, is bushwhacking through the area, which often results in a very painful experience.

Planning an itinerary for a bushwhacking adventure in the Adirondack backcountry is essential before taking a single step off the trail. Leaving home without one is a reckless risk that one can hardly chance when traveling miles from the nearest trail, let alone road or house. Taking the time to properly determine the destinations and goals for each day makes it more likely the off-trail experience will be a pleasant one, rather than an unfortunate disaster.

Photos: A bay of Crooked Lake, crucial beaver dam along Robinson River and beaver meadow along Sitz Creek 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.

2 Responses

  1. Harold says:

    Great article Dan, while I was reading I could actually feel the rush of excitement, stress and determination I have felt during several past experiences of either forced or chosen bush whacking experiences. The idea of planning and engaging in one of these adventures sounds exhilarating. From my experience, what stands out is the crossing of the Oswegatchie above the falls on a perfectly sturdy beaver dam with a full pack in the pouring rain only to then find ourselves in the thickest stand of saplings, pine trees and underbrush forcing ourselves through and over every obstacle possible. At one point we were surrounded by what seemed like a jail cell door of trees and beaver spikes. When we finally reached the leanto on the south shore of the falls (the bridge was out) we marveled at the experience. Despite those memories, or maybe because of them, your article has inspired me to plan a bushwhacking trip this year. At the very least it should end up being an unforgettable one. Take care of yourself out there

  2. Ed Reese says:

    An excellent article. The photos drive home the point, that this type of forest is not your average walk through the hardwoods in a place like Virginia. The obstacles, without careful observation, can set you back hours and also increase the chance of injury.

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