Youth, inexperience and ignorance were in abundance when I first started backpacking in the Adirondacks many years ago. My knowledge of the proper gear and foods was seriously lacking, not to mention the total ignorance of how to pack effectively all that stuff for a multi-day backpacking adventure. I was not completely clueless though, as I could hike and identify birds. So there was that.
In those early days, my pack weighed in at nearly one-half my meager weight. The pack was too big for me, and it was overflowing with overweight gear. Its weight made my first trip an arduous struggle, with my feet blistered and bloodied by its end. Despite all the difficulties with the heavy gear, it took many years for me to replace it with lighter weight alternatives, which hopefully prolonged my hiking career.
Lightening my load required a lot of reexamination of my gear choices. Some items were abandoned as unnecessary, while lighter weight alternatives replaced others. One of the many items screaming for a lighter option was my knife. I originally carried one of several long hunting knives that I owned at the time. They were long, sharp and impressive looking, not to mention quite heavy.
Did I use these impressive knives to fend off wild beasts, gut fish or whittle wood into impressive furniture? I did not. Primarily, I used them to open the plastic packaging on small food items, clean the dirt under my nails and cut an occasional piece of tape. Did I need to carry such a large knife for that? The more I thought about it, and was ridiculed by companions for it, the more I realized the answer was no, a resounding no.
What did I replace my lethal-looking hunting knife with? A katana sword? No, way too long. A machete? Weighed too much. A Leatherman or other similar multi-use tool? Still too heavy. A jackknife? That sounded just about right. But, what kind of jackknife?
Opening small food packages was always the most common backcountry application for my knife, so it need not be a very large one. My proclivity for lightweight gear at the time made the decision an easy one. Although being microscopic was not one of the criteria, I searched for the smallest one that would meet my needs.
The Victorinox Swiss Army Classic SD pocket knife was my final selection, which is more keychain than anything else. It has only a small knife blade, tiny scissors and a miniature nail file with a flat screwdriver blade on the end. In addition, it comes with a toothpick and tweezers, just the kind of things one might need in the backcountry. The whole package is only 2-1/4 inches long, and weighs just a fraction of an ounce; a lightweight backpacker’s dream indeed.
This cute little jackknife has been my constant companion since. It ventured through the High Peaks numerous times, traveled from Wanakena to Stillwater Reservoir, bushwhacked to Oven Lake and beyond before returning via the Robinson River, and traipsed through the Carpet Spruce Swamp along the West Branch of the Oswegatchie River, in what is some of the most remote parts of the Five Ponds Wilderness. It even traveled outside the Adirondacks, through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across Isle Royale being two of the most noteworthy examples.
On none of those occasions did I feel it was not enough knife for me. That is, until recently. Despite visiting such remote and wild places, and encountering all types of situations, recent events in the news started me thinking that in some situations, an inch and a half long blade just might not cut it.
My new thinking started last year after reading about the young woman attacked on the Northville-Placid Trail by a trio of rogue black bears. Then, this year, a young man was killed by a bear in New Jersey. Another story soon followed, this time in California, where an elderly woman was attacked by a black bear. It left her seriously wounded, but alive.
Black bears rarely attack people, especially in the lower 48 states. So what gives? Have black bears finally gotten fed up with humans encroaching on the few token acres of forestland we have set aside for them and their ilk? Or are they sick and tired of global climate change screwing with their environment?
It is impossible to say why these attacks are occurring. Who can fully understand what goes on in the mind of a black bear, or any other wild animal? I often find it difficult to understand what goes on in my own mind, let alone in an animal’s. Although the reason for these attacks is unknowable, the idea of taking some modest steps to prepare for such a situation keeps floating to the top of my consciousness, especially when I am out bushwhacking through the Adirondack backcountry all by my lonesome.
Did I go too far with lightening my load? Do I need to reevaluate my choice in knives? What should I replace my trusty little jackknife with? A katana sword? Effective against bears and zombies, but still too long. A machete? It is illegal to hack through vegetation on Forest Preserve land, and it still weighs too much. A Leatherman or other multi-use tool contraption? A small one is a possible option. A jackknife? Is it just me or is anyone else feeling a sense of deja vu?
What does everyone else carry into the Adirondack backcountry in the knife department? Do you feel safe with it? Have you ever had to defend yourself against bear, human or undead? What is too much knife (or too little)? Feel free to share your knife experiences below in the comments.
Photo: Victorinox Swiss Army Classic SD pocket Knife by Dan Crane.