Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lost Brook Tract in April: Adirondack Rite of Spring

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn September of 1911 the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky began work on music for a ballet that we now know as the Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s score, with its polytonality, its violent, dissonant upheavals, its ritualistic, pagan pulses and its raw, almost vulgar power, changed the face of music.  It also vividly recreated an ancient, primeval interpretation of spring that swept away the bucolic, peaceful, benevolent image of spring depicted by the impressionists.   In Stravinsky’s conception spring is not peaceful; rather it is a primitive and powerful eruption of nature, savage and dynamic, evoking the deepest and most prehistoric human notions of fertility and mortality.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Stravinsky composed most of The Rite of Spring in Switzerland; where more than mountains does spring evince such characteristics?  For that matter he might as well have written it while experiencing spring in the Adirondacks, the full ritual force of which was on display this week at Lost Brook Tract.

Our April visit to Lost Brook Tract proved two back country adages I have been heard to utter more than once: expect anything in the Adirondacks and by far the most important gear you carry is your boots.  The first I always live by: we were well prepared for what turned out to be a Rite of Spring-level upheaval.  To the second I inadvertently and foolishly gave a short stick, as I had grabbed a pair of winter boots from our supply without inspecting them.  They were warm enough – at first – but in terms of protection from water they were sieve-like, with open seams and cracks.

My next error was one of ambition.  We had lots of gear to haul in, including a chainsaw, oil  and two gallons of gas we would be carrying in our arms.  I always view our initial bushwhack in as a toil (and a welcome one at that – I love the effort of this route and the immersion it thrusts upon me).  So if it is going to be a toil anyway, why not just go ahead and load it up?  I am no novice to spring hiking but apparently I forgot that breaking trail in a deep, dissolving snow pack with lots of ice underneath and lots of vertical ahead while having both hands full of equipment is, well, stupid.

We began the trip in at eleven-thirty and finally made the four miles in to our lean-to a little after six PM.  That’s a world record for slow pace.  In between we stashed the gear we were hand-carrying plus some weighty food items from our packs under a large boulder a little more than half way in and just before the really steep section; it would have been close to impossible to ascend with everything in the prevailing conditions. We planned to return for our discarded burden the next day.  The packs were still prodigious but Amy transmuted into some kind of animal, relentlessly breaking trail up the hardest section as I grunted and labored and leaned against trees behind her.  We barely found enough energy to make camp.  Amy got sick from the exertion, I started to cramp up and we had a lovely night, largely dead to the world.

The hike in had been in typical spring conditions: highs in the 50’s and plenty of melting.  The next day was something else.  We enjoyed breakfast and then hiked down to our stowed gear in the warmest weather I’ve ever felt that high in elevation in April.  From the waste down I was dressed in standard winter clothing.  From the waist up I wore a skimpy running shirt.  The dueling sensations of warm breezes, feeling easily in the upper 70’s, followed by bracing down-slope runs of snow-cooled air, were not unlike a land-bound version of swimming through warm and cool zones of an Adirondack Lake.

Even with lighter loads the climb back up was as hard as the day before, with an even more unsupportive snow pack.  Amy’s maximum post hole – with a snowshoe – was up to her hip in slush.  Lost Brook was getting louder.  A few of the sections of the route that passed over outwash were beginning to approach impassable conditions.

We arrived at camp and saw that the snow pack was down about a third just from the warm morning.  Everything was dripping, running, sloughing, giving way.  I slogged down to Lost Brook which looked gorgeous: pure aqua water running over a bed of sheeted, smoothed ice, bracketed by a narrow cleft in the bright white snow pack.  I returned to the lean-to and removed my snowshoes.  My socks were soaked and my feet were sore from being waterlogged for the better part of two days so I shed the boots, propped them up to dry a little and stood on a sleeping pad in summer temperatures.

The day grew late and we turned our thoughts to dinner. Then the rain started.  Darkness fell, then bed, then morning rise, oatmeal, bacon and coffee, all accompanied by a steady patter that never let up.  As the morning progressed the rain got harder.  The sound of running water was everywhere.  The snow pack was down a good 80%.  Lost Brook, two hundred feet away, was issuing an aural threat, a low growl such as I had not heard at that elevation before.  Either side of the lean-to became a river.  I grew concerned for our friends in the valley far below, still recovering from damage wrought by Irene.  Stravinsky was entering full thrall.

It wasn’t just the volume of water that caused the effect – it was the velocity.  In my boyhood home of Northeast Ohio there are some wonderful streams rushing between the steep ravines.  Ohio has a lot of shale, so in many places these streams run wide and thin over smooth rock, in sparkling, glassy sheets.  Even a large stream can be crossed by a car in these places as the depth is only a few inches.  But the water, narrowed vertically, moves strikingly fast.  This was the effect all around us.  The exceedingly warm weather had flattened the snow but the ground, still permeated with a deep layer of frost, was unyielding.  So water ran like quicksilver over extended sheets of ice, the soil taking nothing, all of it cascading down Burton’s Peak.

As we sat watching all this unleashed force, we felt the ground itself begin to tremble.  From dozens of yards away, Lost Brook was shaking the earth.  The crazy conditions notwithstanding I slid and stumbled my way down to take a look.  There is a ten foot waterfall on our land.  The flow had consumed it and the volume was overwhelming the stream basin.  Lost Brook looked like the Opalescent entering the flume.  Massive chunks of snow pack on the outside of the curve through which the water roiled were being torn away and consumed with loud “thwumps.” Water was drilling under the snow pack further down, which would resiliently hang on for a few minutes before dissolving in an instant.  Multiple flows into the brook, mere rills in the summer, were as big as the brook itself would typically be.  It was a stunning, magnificent display of power.  But my imagination of the condition of the Ausable four miles down frightened me.

I returned to the lean-to, where Amy and I watched the turmoil and shooed away the newly hatched – and poorly timed – mayflies.  The temperature was becoming noticeably colder.  In the course of a few minutes the rain started to change to sleet, then, remarkably, powder, as the thermometer plummeted.  By the time we awoke the next morning there were several inches of perfect powder, the ground was stilled and the thermometer showed low teens.  The air bit at us from beneath our bags.  We were greeted by a perfect winter day, indistinguishable from January.  There was no sign of the previous day’s eruption.

Those who know back country travel in such conditions will appreciate that our morning was the toughest one we’ve experienced since we acquired Lost Brook Tract.  All our gear and clothing was frozen solid.  My boots, my only footwear on the trip, were like rock, completely unwearable.  It took several hours of effort with temperatures hovering in the teens for us to reclaim a winter-worthy equilibrium.  The afternoon was a good one for work on the land and the evening was crisp and peaceful, a roaring fire and a brilliant star field our company.  Oh, the Adirondacks in spring!

We’re out now and civilization requires us.  I have to rejoin it, so I will.  But at first opportunity I have some Stravinsky to listen to and an Adirondack spring with which to commune, through the intersection of art, memory and awe.

Photo: Johns Brook during Irene.  Photo Courtesy Brendan Wiltse.

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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.

6 Responses

  1. Walter F. Wouk says:

    I enjoyed the article, and you’ve earned a commendation for the correct use of “adages.”

  2. Lakechamplain says:

    In many ways I enjoyed the article, the times when things go wrong usually are far more interesting to share than a mundane, ‘normal’ hike.
    BUT, Pete, you are an experienced outdoorsman and have spent many, many hours in a variety of wilderness conditions in the Adirondacks. That said, I must question why you weren’t better prepared for the conditions you encountered? Simply put, the weather forecasts were spot on, a wild swing of temperatures and precipitation that–correctly as it turned out–elicited flood warnings due to rapid snow melt and following heavy rain. Your experience makes for a compelling story of man and nature in the Adks. but I wonder if you were mentoring someone about what to take into consideration when you’re planning a trek under possibly what you would say to them if they acted like you did.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Dear Lake Champlain:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      In response to your question, we were well prepared, as I said in the article. We had full winter gear, multiple layers, dry clothing to change into, etc. I would tell a novice to do what we did, prepare for winter and for changing conditions.

      Where I failed, just as I said in the article, was in not being sure my boots were solid. No question, that is a serious error. It would be unforgivable on an extended back country trip, not so serious in my case where I had a destination, a base camp. It was an inconvenience to me, not a danger. But I hope it is a mistake I don’t repeat. Footwear is truly the number one piece of gear in importance in Adirondack conditions.

      All that said, to any novices reading this exchange, even experienced people make mistakes, more often than you’d think. Understand that risk, discomfort, unplanned challenges and potentially dangerous developments are always part of the game in an extended Adirondack back country adventure. Your human abilities – your capacity to remain calm, to adapt, to reason and solve problems, to have your priorities in order – are your most critical assets. Then good boots!

  3. Tom Thacher says:


    I really enjoy the vividness of your writing. It makes me feel the experience and also appreciate that much more how simple opening our cabin at Raquette is in comparison.

  4. Tim says:

    Loved the blog, as always. Tough conditions, hard work, extraordinary rewards.
    I would quibble, however, with your opinion that “footwear is truly the number one piece of gear in importance.” For me, #1 is a headlamp. #2 is a small roll of toilet paper!

  5. Marco says:

    Pete, well done!
    Boots? Well, you said it. You had a good destination/base camp. I believe that there is so much more to “necessary” gear. All gear becomes inseperable. It is only the damn item that is acting up that we remember, perhaps with a solemn vow never to repeat *that* mistake.

    It is rather amazing how a little 10 foot drip into a pool can become a monsterous flow shaking the ground. The rocks that seem so stable, that are unmoving, that are part of the mountain, can become rolling thunder in the grip of the flow’s power. Stravinski was correct. Spring is here.

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