It was a perfect fall day here in Madison last Monday, the kind of luminous afternoon where it seems nothing can possibly go wrong. I was at the park with my loyal dog Henderson, whose raison d’etre is to chase and catch flying discs (Frisbees, for those of you as old as me). There we were, surrounded by blazing fall colors and muted green grass, warmed by an Indian summer sun and refreshed by a delightful breeze. All was bucolic even as I, in a moment of excess enthusiasm, overthrew the disc, launching it into what seemed like the jet stream. It soared skyward, caught the prevailing westerlies and proceeded well down field like a fat, migrating goose until it shot past a fence and over a thick stand of trees and brush, depositing itself somewhere therein. “No worries,” I cheerily shouted to Henderson, who had brought himself up short at the fence and was peering beyond with concerned attention. “I’ll get it.”
I hopped the fence and jogged over to the thicket. The disc was lodged deep inside so I forged on in. It was quite dense and I had to bull my way through it. No matter – everything around me was erupting in fall beauty and my spirits were unassailable.
My scratching, scraping and shoving efforts immediately brought to mind memories of Adirondack bushwhacking, which did nothing but brighten my mood. I could almost imagine myself plundering along in some great Adirondack fastness, maybe a favorite place like the dense woods between Blue Mountain Lake and the Sargent Ponds. Oh revel!
But then, in an instant, my salutary spirits were wrenched away by a sudden and vividly potent vision, a terrifying and utterly unnerving Adirondack visage that evaporated my happy idyll in favor of trembling fear, as though suddenly I had come face to face with an angry wilderness god condemning me for my brazen, amateurish trespass.
There, perched in my imagination like a bizarre back country Necromancer, was the not unsubstantial image of Dan Crane.
I’m not sure it can be said of Dan that he is the Dean of Adirondack bushwhacking but if not that it can at least be said that he is on the Dean’s List of Adirondack bushwhacking. No doubt many of you have read his frequent missives on his back country adventures here at the Almanack, the latest of these appearing coincidentally to my writing of this column (what happy congress Dan and I enjoy!). Dan is bona fide – he is even a licensed guide – and, as if he needed any more credentialing, his own website is entitled bushwhackingfool.com, as hearty and true a name to commend him as could be imagined.
Having been overwhelmed by his arresting mental intrusion, I was well-motivated to proceed this week in the spirit of one Daniel Crane and propose a little discussion to see what you readers – and if I am honored enough, the great Dean himself – might nominate as the most difficult bushwhack in the Adirondack Park. Besides, if nothing else such a debate will surely cleanse my palate of the rank rot I tasted from last week’s comments. Of course there is no single worst bushwhack, that’s a silly notion. But there have to be some terrific nominees notwithstanding.
Knowing Adirondack hikers as I do, I can imagine a pleasurable three month debate over what is meant by the word “difficult.” I’m loathe to set any rules but would suggest that “ease of getting lost” not dominate the rankings. After all, it is easy to get lost virtually anywhere off trail in this Forest Preserve. My own rankings assume the destination can and will be reached; thus I focused my considerations on the skill, physical exertion, psychological effort and moral fortitude required to attain it.
I have to qualify my selections by admitting that there are large swaths of the Adirondacks I have not traversed on foot, in my case the northern part of the park especially, which is all but unknown to me. With that said I have a runner up and a champion.
My runner up, just ahead of a few experiences in the Western Adirondacks, was occasioned by an overriding fascination with the Central Adirondack’s Blue Ridge (one of two so-named, actually), it being majestically prominent when one comes down Route 30 past the Adirondack Museum. My childhood fascination with that looming remoteness called to me throughout my teenage years and led me as a young adult to execute an ill-advised, swampy slog-cum-hard-climb from Cedar River Road roughly north to Route 28, where I finally emerged near Utowana Lake. Deer flies, leeches, boot-sucking muck, miles of scrambling and crumbling vertical, horribly tangled blowdown, one ridge after another… this one had it all. Though it was twenty-eight years ago, the feel of those three days sticks with me, since much of the time I had absolutely no idea where I was. It certainly disabused me of any fear of being lost, which proved to be a valuable evolution to my back country acumen.
My champion is much more recent and much shorter, a hard day’s work is all… but oh baby, what a day. I’ve written tangentially about it in past columns but now can give it its full due. My nominee: Allen Mountain to the summit of Redfield. This a was a “coming of age” bushwhack I tried with my then soon-to-be-eighteen-year-old son Adam in 2010.
A bushwhack from Allen to Redfield is a tremendous affair. First of all, there is a big down and a big up, inviting a good, sweaty workout. In between is a valley that is as lonely a place as I’ve even been, inhabited by an otherworldly tarn that looks like something you might see in Scotland. But the tarn must be given a wide berth, lest one find the “ground” beneath one’s feet to be no more than a floating mini-island that gives way to a bottom with a consistency that just begs to suck you down (hyperbole aside, I do mean to suggest that it is dangerous). Sadly, carving a wide berth around the tarn is pure folly, as a good part of the surrounding forest was completely leveled by the 1995 derecho (the same that is most famous for its devastation of the Five Ponds Wilderness).
The first part of the bushwhack was relatively normal, as Adam and I made our way down Allen and followed an outlet stream to the edge of the tarn. The far end of the tarn, nestled near the base of Redfield, was perhaps a three hundred yards away at most but achieving it took two hours, during which we were often as much as a dozen feet above the ground, precariously balancing on various configurations of interlaced fall which were so viciously tangled that a way through on the floor of the forest was impossible. So over it was, though “over,” what with our repeated slips and collapses, might be a misleading term. We tattooed our skin but good that day.
Meanwhile the ridges of Redfield and neighbors loomed ahead. But which was the correct ridge? From the vantage point of the outlet of the tarn it’s not entirely obvious the first time you see it. Obviously, ascending the incorrect ridge would have been a real mood killer. Fortunately as we made our way around the tarn and centered the view the tallest ridge became more obvious. That and the prominent slide along its length identified Redfield pretty clearly.
We finally came to an inlet stream at the head of the tarn that had a grassy spot near the edge, a perfect place for a late lunch. All the remained was the ascent. No sweat.
Alas, the climb was a steep, blowdown-choked exertion as nasty as I’ve done (in terms of forest density and character it’s about like Cold Brook Pass to Shepherd’s Tooth, but without a herd path). Fortunately there is the slide, to which we worked as soon as we could. For a while that made a glorious route, but unfortunately it got very steep; near the headwall it was beyond us, equipped as we were with packs and boots. So we enjoyed a thoroughly unnerving lateral traverse along crack and ledge, followed by a happy crawl through scrub balsam so miserable that Adam finally sat down in protest, unwilling to proceed. Eventually logic won over frustration, he resumed and we achieved the ridge. It took some scouting to find the true summit which was on the far edge, but then we were united with the herd path, home free and headed for the Uphill Lean-to.
Naturally we now look back on this experience with fondness – like all such Adirondack adventures it grows in the heart and mind. But this is the last bushwhack I’d send anyone but an expert or a masochist to do.
Readers, what do you nominate for toughest bushwhack? And Dan, mighty Necromancer of the back country, what evil toil offer you?