Like most people, I began my Adirondack backcountry career wide-eyed and naive, almost completely ignorant of the dangers. My ignorance was largely irrelevant in those early days, as I mostly hiked with others and we rarely strayed from marked trails. That innocence was quickly shattered however, as a single traumatic event infused me with a backcountry anxiety that remains to this day.
Unlike common backcountry fears such as isolation, aggressive wild animals, or bloodthirsty insect hordes, mine is both rational and reasonable. Being crushed by a falling tree is the fear that plagues my mind.
At first glance, it may seem odd, if not mildly insane, especially for someone who spends a lot of time in the backcountry. Just how often are people crushed by trees anyway? Not very often, but that hardly diminishes my nagging fear, or the good reasons for it.
Once, many years ago while I hiked a snowmobile trail in the Ferris Lake Wild Forest, a large snag fell with a resounding thud just a few feet from me, nearly costing me a good pair of hiking underwear. There have been several instances where tree limbs fell from the sky, missing me by only a few feet as I stood motionless nearby.
Of all the incidents of what might be termed forest violence, none compare with the storm that rumbled through the Five Ponds Wilderness Area like a freight train on the morning of July 15, 1995. The Microburst of 1995 brought thousands of acres of trees crashing down, with my campsite on Sand Lake being uncomfortably close to ground zero for many of them. Falling trees killed several people that fateful day, but I was fortunately not one of them.
Where my anxiety before the microburst was tempered, it afterward blossomed into a full-blown anxiety disorder. Now the low rumble of thunder starts my heart palpitating, armpits sweating and gets my hackles up.
Managing this fear is an essential component of my outdoor experience now. Checking the weather forecast during the trip-planning process is as much a part of my routine as organizing a daily menu, selecting the right gear, and mapping-out a route. Any possibility of violent storms results in an instant postponement, which I have done more than a few times. Dealing with violent weather is just not worth it.
Of course, avoiding forecast storms is easy enough, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid the run-of-the-mill thunderstorms that are common in the Adirondacks during the summer. On any night where thunderstorms are likely, I usually head to bed early. If I can’t control the storms, at least I can be sure I’m sleeping before they arrive. If my fate lies beneath a fallen tree, I’d rather it happens while I sleep.
Picking a good campsite can reduce the probability of a tree putting an early end to a backcountry adventure. Since I can’t make camp on a bog mat, in a beaver vly, or on the water in a makeshift boat, trees are going to outnumber me.
Before rigging my tarp, I usually scan the canopy. Leaning, dead, old or excessively tall trees are best avoided as they are more likely to have murder in their hearts, or are at least most susceptible to gravity. I always check for large limbs too, as trees are often not above sacrificing an appendage in the pursuit of their homicidal desires. It often appears as though at least one dead tree guards every camp site.
Regardless, I never knock down dead trees, as they function as apartment complexes for a variety of forest inhabitants, not to mention that it violates the leave no trace ethic and the Department of Environmental Conservation rules and regulations. The only thing worse than having a tree crush you, is getting a citation from a Forest Ranger.
For this reason alone, I mostly control my fears and I’ll continue to find enjoyment and tranquility in the wilderness. At least until I encounter that fateful tree with my name on it.
Photos: Paper birch blowdown in the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area by Dan Crane.