Never leaving a man behind is a common motto in the military world; it is even incorporated into the U.S. Army’s Soldier’s Creed. The saying is equally apropos for Adirondack backcountry adventurers, whose hobby has some commonality with the military way of life, except for the lack of gravitas. Although the prospect of leaving behind a comrade is unmatched in seriousness, it is not the only situation where leaving something behind in the backcountry arouses feelings of loss and guilt.
Despite the appropriateness of the motto in the backcountry, it rarely has much bearing on most adventures. Although groups separate on occasion, sometimes with disastrous results, this is not a common occurrence for most people. At least, I hope it is not; otherwise, rescuers would be constantly crawling throughout the backcountry, and/or bodies would be more common than deflated Mylar balloons.
In my over twenty years of hiking, backpacking and bushwhacking trips, I never left anyone behind, at least not for any significant amount of time. Groups separated occasionally, but no ever turned up unaccounted for at a trailhead upon the conclusion of a trip. In the last few years, I mostly travel into the backcountry solo, as my bushwhacking trips require traits found only in the hardiest and most adventurous souls, or the criminally insane. On these trips, the only person I need concern myself with leaving behind is me.
Leaving someone behind in the backcountry may not be a frequent concern, but leaving something else there is another matter. Whether it is litter, footprints, or poorly located campsites, there are a plentiful supply of things available to leave behind in the wake of a backcountry adventure. One of the worst, other than coming up short during a headcount, is gear.
Obviously, everyone knows leaving behind gear in the backcountry is a bad thing. Backpacking gear costs good money, often an excessive amount, especially for those obsessed with name brands or ultra-lightweight equipment. Backcountry gear does not grow on trees after all, and neither does the stacks of cash it costs as my parents reminded me often when I was younger. Assuming one works hard for their money, and who of us is willing to admit they do not, there are many hours of toil invested in gear, so getting as many years of use from it is paramount.
In addition to the cost, leaving equipment behind is just another form of littering. Unfortunately, some events necessitate leaving stuff behind, as more than a few tangled food lines dangling from tree limbs around popular campsites can attest. In addition, accidents happen, where items leap from pockets or backpacks, especially for those hobo hikers who attach items on the outside of their packs.
In all my years of backpacking, I never found a lot of gear in the backcountry. Usually, these items were tent stakes at well-used campsites, apparently left behind in the hustle and bustle of an early morning departure. These peoples’ loss has been my gain, unfortunately, as now I am stuck with a shoebox of tent stakes cluttering up my closet.
The most significant piece of gear I ever recovered was during one of my first short solo bushwhacks during a backpacking trip through the Siamese Ponds Wilderness many years ago. My desire for a loop throughout the area forced me to bushwhack from the southern end of the Kings Flow East Trail southeast to the northwestern end of the Siamese Ponds.
Obviously, I was not the only person to get this bright idea, as in the middle of my bushwhack I discovered a black foam sleeping pad lying on the forest floor. Apparently, it had been there for quite some time, as the bungee cord that kept it rolled up had rusted, and the local rodents gnawed off several chunks along its outer edge in search of insulation. To this day, I still have the sleeping pad, although now cut into several pieces.
I cannot judge those who accidently left behind gear too harshly, as I have been guilty of it on occasion too. Most of the cases were somewhat out of my control, as a food line stuck in a tree or something torn off my person while climbing through blowdowns. I usually attempt to keep my gear on a short leash, which is required for keeping gear while bushwhacking. Despite doing my best to keep my equipment organized and within close contact at all times, I managed to lose a few items over the years, though nothing as large as that full-length black sleeping pad.
This past spring, I once again broke the “leave no gear behind” rule, although completely inadvertently. Following a day of prime bushwhacking through the Pepperbox Wilderness Area in a futile attempt to surpass last year’s Birdathon total, I ended the day at Sunshine Pond in the late afternoon. After birding the entire day from Cropsey Pond, I decided to enjoy a low-key evening of birding in the immediate area.
Once my usual campsite preparations were complete, I settled into the routine reserved for setting up my tarp. The Golite tarp is super lightweight, due in part because of its lack of poles. Instead of carrying the traditional aluminum ones, this tarp requires either two trees spaced a perfect distance apart, two limbs collected from the forest floor or a couple hiking poles, or some combination of the three options.
After unpacking the tarp and spreading it flat on the ground, I crammed the small stuff sack with my titanium stakes in my pocket and started the search for some adequate sticks to use as poles. The forest contained little understory in mid-May, the nascent bracken ferns were just emerging from the old decaying foliage, not yet concealing the rather scarce supply of sticks.
Scouring the area, I found two able-bodied sticks that could easily do the trick, so I returned to my tarp and started the process of putting it up. The darn thing requires 12 different stakes (although some are not completely required), which I pulled from the stuff sack as I needed them. When I got down to the last few, I noticed something so shocking, so terrifying, that at first I could not believe my eyes.
There were only 11 stakes total. One was missing!
After the shock and confusion wore off, I went about retracing my steps, scanning the forest floor as I went. After I spent an obsessive amount of time with the search, and with nothing but a few stake-like sticks to show for the effort, the lower light levels of early evening demanded I retire my quest until the next morning. When the next morning yielded the same results, I reluctantly concluded the stake must be elsewhere.
Since I never took the stakes out during the entire day of bushwhacking, the likely place was back at Cropsey Pond, where I packed up the tarp during the morning before. Unfortunately, I was on a schedule and had to be out of the backcountry to report my finding for the Birdathon by noon, leaving no time for a return trip to Cropsey Pond for a look-see. A conclusion to this story, for good or ill would have to wait for another day. The poor eleven stakes would continue to worry about their lost sibling until I had time to return to the area another day.
Fortunately, the traumatic wait was short. Within two weeks, I made a special trip back into the Pepperbox Wilderness on one of the most important trips of my illustrious career; a rescue mission if ever there was one. I was not about to give up until I eliminated every possible location, plus it gave me an excuse to return to the area, as if I needed one.
Upon my arrival at south shore of Cropsey Pond, I headed straight for the exact spot of my past encampment. It took less than a minute before I spotted the lost stake, as its silver sheen easily contrasted with the natural tans and browns of the leaf-covered forest floor. My relief was overwhelming, but nothing compared to the glee I imagined the other 11 stakes felt to have their sibling back.
Not all my leaving gear behind experiences have happy endings though. Some nylon twine hanging from a tree branch along the Sand Lake shoreline in the Five Ponds Wilderness, a length of parachute cord tangled in a tree east of Sampson Bog in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness and a nylon instep from my Shortie Gaiters somewhere between Crooked Lake and Sitz Pond can all attest to that. Unfortunately, retrieval of these items was largely impossible, at least not until the limbs fall from their trees or the forest opens up and spits out the lost instep.
Although leaving behind a fellow backcountry adventurer is by far one of the worst feelings possible, the despair of leaving gear behind is traumatic in its own right. Thinking and retracing your steps are crucial to retrieving the wayward equipment lost unintentionally, although rescue may not always be possible. In those cases, it is probably best to try to forget the emotional attachment to the gear and buy a replacement. That is why we toil away at dull day jobs instead of spending all the time in the Adirondack backcountry, is it not?
Photo: Tent stake left behind at Cropsey Pond, area around Sunshine Pond campsite and early evening at Cropsey Pond by Dan Crane.