Saturday, October 11, 2014

What’s The Most Difficult Bushwhack in the Adirondacks?

Bushwhack Fallen Spruce and DuffIt 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, 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?

Comment away!

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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.

24 Responses

  1. George L says:

    Bushwhack to Wanakena from Stillwater via Toad Pond

  2. I’ll nominate the Allen to Redfield ‘whack as one of the harder ones as well. It took almost 5 hours from Allen Brook to the slide’s base our first time there. We skirted the tarn to the east…big mistake due to the hellish deadfall you mentioned. This was a bit early in my bushwhacking ‘career’. I did just about everything incorrectly including misreading conditions which compounded the bushwhacking issues…think rotten snow (4 feet on summit), lightening, hail followed by a 3 hour deluge. Flash flooding while on the summit forced us to bushwhack down the other side of Redfield to the Opalescent. The herdpath, once we found it, was a minefield of rotten snow bridges over several feet of fast moving water. All an incredible learning experience! Pics and the account of the day are here:

    The whack from Sentinel to Kilburn (not following the ridge) is also a strong contender for the nomination!

    • Pete Nelson says:


      For fun I went and read your account. It is fabulous how closely – almost exactly, really – it mirrors mine. The above was a short account, but our details match yours almost to the letter (except the weather, of course). We too tried the sphagnum on the tarn until it was no longer doable, then we too skirted east. Oops! The slide was as you describe, great until the headwall, then dicey.

      Thanks for the account and the commiseration. It was an awesome, withered, wild, lonely place to get to – really a privilege to reach the northern inlet stream, a terrific spot.

      I hear there was a trail of sorts through the area in the 1920’s that summitted Skylight. I’ll have research where it went. Tony Goodwin, do you know?


      • That is really cool, Pete. We descended the Slide and whacked over to Allen the next year by following the slide drainage to the tarn then going through it…got caught in a heinous area of blowdown following along the right-hand side (descending) of the drainage to Skylight brook. Tough area.

        On another adventure we ‘whacked Skylight by continuing up Skylight Brook ( ). It’s an interesting area, but no obvious signs of best route due to an early spring snow pack, drizzle, snow and fog. I’m planning a return next year to bushwhack Skylight via the Spire–in good weather. Let me know any details you find on the ‘trail’; it could be interesting to try scout where it might have been.

  3. David Thomas-Train says:

    Almost anywhere long distance and up high in the spruces-fir zone would qualify. I’m sure if I went in in straight line (ha!) from my house in Keene Valley, to New Russia, it would be god-awful.
    The canister on Allen once had this from one who had climbed from the northeast: “Doctor Kevorkian, where are you??” I had attempted that terrain as one of a teen-age hiking group, and we gave up in one of the many swamps and turned tail at 7 pm.
    Or there is the route of the Five Passes (Hunters, Elk, Ausable, Panther Gorge,Lake Arnold, and Indian) that Rocky Rockwell did many, many years back and wrote up in Adirondac.
    My spouse would say that any bushwhack at all is the worst.

  4. David says:

    Almost any route long and up high in the Spruce-fire zone would qualify. If I went in a straight line(ha!) from my house i Keene Valley to new Russia, I’m sure it would be god-awful.
    Then there’s Allen from the northeast. The canister on top once had this from one who had done that route: “Doctor Kevorkian, where are you??”
    I was part of a teenage group that attempted that way, ad put our tails bet brought on the darkween our legs in one of many swamps, and retreated as 7pm.
    Or the Six Passes ( Hunters, Elk, Ausable, Panther Gorge, Opalescent-Lake Arnold, Lake Colden, Indian) that Rocky Rockwell did many, many years back and wrote up in Adirondac.
    My spouse says that any bushwhack at all is the worst of all.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      I wonder if you’ve read my three-part account of Charles Brodhead’s incredible 1797 survey (search and you’ll easily find it here). He began with a segment opposite of your imagined one – New Russia to Keene Valley via Giant’s summit, which is why I thought of it. He then proceeded across the valley and up, high on the side of the Wolfjaws, over Tabletop’s cousin ridge, down very near Avalanche pass, up Boundary and – this is the kicker – down from there into the southern floor of Indian Pass, skirting Wallface before proceeding over MacNaughton’s ridge to the Preston Ponds. How incredible was that?

      His field notes contain nary a complaint about the forest density, but do mention 2 feet of snow up top in June.

  5. I don’t think anyone can top Pete or Mudrat ^^, but my first climb in the Santanonis (nearly 30 years ago, 1986) involved some ugly bush thwacking. The route around Bradley Pond was new and I got suckered by a false herd path leading up the ridge. Of course instead of doing the smart thing and backtracking, I foolishly pressed on through, under and over the dense growth and blowdown. Needless to say, the going was painfully slow. I kept angling to the left, hoping to intersect the proper herd path up Santanoni Brook, but instead emerged just below Times Square. I lost so much time on the ‘shwhack that I only had enough time left to climb Panther before heading down – I had hoped to also get Santanoni. I returned a month later to get Santanoni, and a month after that to get Coochie. So 3 separate hikes to finish the Santanonis, but at least I nailed the correct herd path on the second 2 trips.

  6. Charlie S says:

    “…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.”

    How coincident! I have never bushwhacked but have been having a strong desire to do so for a number of years now.I will not do it alone as I am not an off-trail sorta guy.If I know where I am sure,but the trail and me stay close to one another if I can help it.

    I say coincident because just yesterday I was again thinking about the Blue Ridge just outside of Blue Mountain Lake.There is this longing in adventurous me to go up on that ridge and be a part of it for a day,or maybe even a night.Whenever I drive up that ways I always look past Durant Lake to get a view of that rise in the land and am impressed and curious about what kind of enlightenment can be had by being a part of it,even if but for half a day.

    The same thoughts came over me when I was up on Castle Rock this past July as the Blue Ridge is a beeline across from that precipice.You got me going Pete. I believe I am truly destined to have this experience. If Dan Crane is a guide I suppose I should contact him and start making arrangements…that is if he’ll have me along.

    I know somebody who has been on the Blue Ridge and who told me there are some very impressive white pines up there.I believe there are some old growth forest on that hill.

    • Pete Nelson says:


      By all means go. From the BML side the forest is not bad, even open for a good chunk. And yes, there is old growth. It’s a long swath of very wild land. There aren’t a lot of great views – not that I have found – but the forest is its own reward.

      From Route 28 to the top of the ridge is not dangerous in terms of getting lost. Set your compass SSE and go. Just be ready for it to be a lot further than you think it is. On the return you literally can’t miss Route 28, though you surely will not hit it anywhere near where you left it.

      Or ask Dan. Dan seems like a great guy to inaugurate a world of bushwhacking. Past the Blue Ridge towards Cedar River is extremely remote, a great place for a multi-day guided trip.


  7. Charlie S says:

    Thanks for the encouragement Pete. When you say from the Blue Mountain Lake side do you mean from off the trail that goes into Cascade Pond,or somewhere else? I suppose you can head up from somewhere along the road to Old Forge also.
    It seems cut and dry bushwhacking does….carry a map and compass,know,north,south,east and west and know where the road is.Is it that simple or are there other things to consider? A few things I have been thinking about for a long time and have not read anything about are bogs and/or quicksand. Is there a concern here with these things when in the woods generally?
    I know Verplanck Colvin sunk into quicksand once and the way he described the experience he barely got out of it. There has been rumors that that is what might have happened to the Legg boy back in the 70’s,that he was swallowed up by quicksand. What are your thoughts on this?

    • Pete Nelson says:

      I would definitely not describe Bushwhacking as cut and dried. There’s a lot to think of, enough to make this comment 30 pages. Don’ take it lightly and accept that you will get lost.

      However in this case Blue Ridge is hard to miss coming from Route 28, being as long as it is. Route 28 is impossible to miss going back the other way. So you can get by without compass expertise, as long as you keep your nerve. The orientation of land, the false ridges and the inevitable detours will make you feel like you screwed up, but stay steady on a rough S or SSE bearing and you can’t miss; eventually you’ll climb high up that ridge.

      Keeping your nerve is critical. That gets easy with experience but at first it’s the big challenge.

      At the western end of Utowana Lake Route 28 borders state land. From there the route to the ridge system, roughly SSE, avoids any large intervening ridges. I’d consider that. You also could definitely bushwhack from Cascade Pond as well, but you’re coming at Blue Ridge from an oblique angle and you’ll need to be more careful with your bearing. You can follow the stream that feeds Cascade pond from the south and it will loop you right to the front and up Blue Ridge. I’ve not done that but can tell you that the low section of land through which the stream travels to get to Cascade Pond is a real mess. Wear gaiters!

      Stories of quicksand are overdone. There are plenty of marshy, mucky places and some of them are deep enough to be dangerous. But in the Adks you don’t just happen upon them and suddenly sink to your death. You’ll know long before you get to that level of muck! Your feet will be good and soaked and the mire will be awful. The principle danger is as with everything kind of back country travel: exposure.

      All that said, try bushwhacking. It is incredibly connective to the wilderness and once you gain some confidence it is liberating. Plus you can get to incredible places few ever see.

  8. rdc says:

    I won’t say where it is, but there’s a certain valley of moss-covered blowdown, suspended about three-feet above a slippery hidden boulder field that is a bushwack I’ll avoid again like the plague! It teased us in and before we knew it we were in leg-break land. Got out safely. Won’t be going back!

    On second thought, might want to get a few photos…

  9. BushwhackJack says:

    My first serious bushwhack was up the northeast side of of Ampersand Mt. along Flag Brook in 1972. My friend and I camped at Little Ampersand Pond and after a miserable night of no-see-ums we got an early start up the mountain but didn’t arrive until dusk. We spent the night just below the summit and hiked out the next morning. It was an introduction to spruce/fir that I will always remember.

    A couple of years later another friend (I had to keep finding new adventurers that would follow me on such trips) and I hiked up through Oluska Pass. Given that it was still less than 25 years after the big blow down it was nasty. I’ve been up through there many times since and it has gotten much easier thanks to both mother nature and people clearing trails through there.

    I have had too many challenging bushwhacks to count but I’ll wrap up with one that I did twice in the mid 1980s. Up what is now the herd path up the Sewards. I took my students (I ran the Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program at NCCC) up that route or perhaps I should say they practiced their navigation and leadership skills leading themselves up to the herd path that runs to Donaldson and Emmons. We would hit the herd path and hike down the mountain to Ward Brook and back around to Calkins Brook. It was much quicker than bushwhacking back down. It is where we came up with the descriptors of “Thick, Thicker, and Thickest” to describe different stages of Adirondack bushwhacking. We would leave before sunrise and get back after sunset. They were long days but provided great learning experiences and vivid memories. I hiked the herd path from Calkins Brook last year and was amazed how easy it was.

  10. Neil says:

    Some of my most difficult whacks in no particular order have been:
    -final portion of Couch (directly from Little Santa).
    -some parts of Sawtooth 1 and 2.
    -between Tabletop East and Phelps but then I went back and stuck further to the NE of the ridgeline and it was wide open the whole way.
    -with Mudrat himself from half-way up the Rainbow Slide on Gothics to the summit. Took us 2 hours to go about .5 miles.
    -summit ridge of Santanoni from the Twin Slide
    -Marcy from the top of the Panther Gorge slide (Grand central?)to near the summit.
    -top part of Basin.
    -Haystack top third from Johanssen face.
    -just the other day I whacked Little Marcy from just above Slant Rock. The lower 2/3 were something else because of how steep it was and how everything you stepped on was so rotten you couldn’t get purchase. The trees were were dusted with wet snow just to add to the fun.

    I could go on and on.

    Funny, I did Skylight-McDonnel-Redfield and it was a piece of cake. Maybe it was the 5 feet of snow topped with April crust 🙂
    All the whacks in the S Central Dacks I’ve done (I haven’t done that many) have been pretty easy.

    • Yup, Neil. Gothics was fun especially given that we paralleled the ‘easy’ route. If only we’d been 200 feet south!

      PG-Grand Central Slide up to Marcy is a nice contender especially if you take the ridge and Johanssen Face on Haystack borders on ridiculous; I’d forgotten about that.

      I loved that you rubbed the McDonnel-Redfield whack in a bit…you were the inspiration for that. “Open fields,” I remember you saying. You just left out the, “covering the derecho damage.”

      You’re the bushwhacking man!!!

  11. Rico says:

    I was with MudRat on that ill-fated day that we ascended Redfield from Allen Brook. That bushwhack can ruin a man’s soul. Other fun ones:

    – Direct ascent of Dial from the Bouquet (not Gravestone Brook). At one point I was 10′ behind MudRat, and asked him to wait 5 minutes until I caught up to him.
    – Ascent of Nippletop when you miss the slide. Marine crawl up 1,200′ of elevation to be greeted with cripplebrush-laced cliff bands.
    – Uphill LT to the base of Cliff Slide. Just plain gnarly. Also, the place is infested with pixies.
    – The trail to Bradley Pond
    – Santanoni ridge from Twin Slide to summit. I never thought it was possible to walk in a circle on a 30′ wide ridge.
    – The “Swearing Trees” when exiting the Trap Dike too late.
    – Any of MudRat’s shortcuts
    – Yard to Klondike Trail. God’s pick-up-stix.
    – Nippletop to Hunters Pass. Never did make it. Had to re-ascend to ridge trail.
    – Street to Moose Creek. Fir waves up high. Lower elevation woods are filled with sodholes. However, if water level allows, the whack down the tributary is beautiful.

  12. Rico says:

    There have also been some unanticipated beauties:

    – Street to Wanika Falls via tributary
    – Couchie to Cold River
    – Cliff slide
    – Redfield west drainage (though MudRat might disagree)
    – Dix north ridge
    – Porter’s southern flank
    – “Backside” of Phelps

  13. Charlie S says:

    Thanks Pete for the reply.I will consider your route when I do it which will hopefully be next year.

  14. NoTrace says:

    Any hike with MudRat qualifies.

  15. Paul says:

    There are certainly some places that move the needle from “difficult” to “impossible” as far as bushwhacks go. Some are not as high altitude or interesting as far as the destination. And I would include with some of the “deans” here many Adirondack hunters. Bushwhacking is their stock and trade. I have been is some areas that have been logged and then experience severe blowdown to follow that makes them pretty much a death trap especially on a nice snowy wet morning. Some of the evergreen swamp areas of places like the Santa Clara Easement lands are places where if you go in you may not come out!

  16. Dan Crane says:

    Necromancer? Dean? I am surely none of these. I am just a simple hiker who got sick of seeing seemingly interesting places on maps where no trails existed. Instead of dismissing the foolish notion of actually going to these places (as any sane individual would), I journeyed to them. And kept doing it.

    The most difficult bushwhack? Hmm, that is impossible to say. Typically, I try to avoid difficult ones if I can, after all, I am only a modest masochist. Without ranking them in any way, here are some of my thoughts:

    – Most of the area between Dead Creek Flow and Wanakena. I often describe the trail as a “tunnel through wood,” due to the devastation from the 1995 derecho. I have never bushwhacked in this area, and probably, never will.

    – Anywhere off of the trail to Cat Mountain in the Five Ponds Wilderness. Same reason as the “tunnel through wood.”

    – Along the shoreline of Oven Lake. The east shore looks especially nasty. The west shore is no walk in the park either, but if one keeps near the shoreline it isn’t too bad. Just west of the inlet is simply terrible. I was within 100 feet of the outlet but could only hear it as a wall of young spruces and firs blocked all vision. The downed logs underneath were no help; much swearing disturbed the quiet that day.

    – The inlet stream to Merriam Swamp in the Jay Mountain Wilderness. Trying to follow this stream down slope through a paper birch blowdown left my shins bloodied and bruised to the point of making them appear gangrenous. They took many months to heal, leaving behind what might very well be scars.

    – Anywhere on the eastern side of Moshier Ponds in the Pepperbox Wilderness. A north-south line of blowdown and young spruce make this area the only really painful part of the Pepperbox that I can recall.

    There are probably much worse (especially those in the High Peaks region), but these are the most recent ones that left a lasting impression on me.

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