Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Backcountry Fears: Being Crushed By A Tree

Paper birch blowdownLike 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.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

27 Responses

  1. Brian Mann says:

    The closest I’ve ever come to dying in the Adirondacks was being caught in a microburst near middle Saranac Lake (with my very young son) while trees and big branches were coming down all around me. SO…not an irrational fear.

    Also, one of the great scenes in American literature is in Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes A Great Notion,” where one of the characters is trapped under a tree (he’s a logger…)

    -Brian Mann

  2. Tim Rowland says:

    This is going to be an increasingly serious issue because of the Emerald Ash Borer. Here in the Mid Atlantic the ash trees (as much as 10 percent of the forest) are now all dead, and when ash trees die they become brittle and snap at the drop of a hat. Thanks Dan for the message of vigilance — it’s quite timely.

    • Dan Crane says:

      Ashes are not a large component of most Adirondack forests, especially those in the northwestern region where I spend the majority of my time. I don’t think the Emerald Ash Borer will have as great an impact there as it will in the central NY region. I did my masters thesis research in that area, and in places ash (particularly white ash) was a large component of the forest. It will be like the American chestnut all over again!

  3. Mac MacKenzie says:

    Quite a few years ago we got a storm during the night with wind & went down to the flume in Wilmington from parking area above it. 2 campers were just taking down their camp. During the storm a VERY large pine had come down they were camped next to. The tree Fell the other way but I talked to a couple of terrorized campers. Just seeing how close it came to them was a wake up call.

  4. Marisa Muratori says:

    Just how often are people crushed by trees?….enough so that many ADKers have a story or know of an incident. The Lake George Islands are particularly susceptible. I have often thought that I am safer on the water than in the woods.

  5. I hiked Street and Nye in November of 2004 during a violent windstorm. I was naive at that point. The trail was clear on the way in. Perhaps a dozen mature pines and maples as well as a variety of large limbs crossed the path on the way out. Point taken!

  6. Bruce says:

    Dan, you make some good points. Just recently, a hiker on the Appalachian Trail in NC died when a tree fell on him.

    I can’t say I spent my whole life in the woods, but I learned to keep an ear and eye out for what the trees and my surroundings were telling me. Branches and tree trunks rubbing together would make a squealing or creaking sound in the wind. I never witnessed a tree falling close to me, except the one which nearly hit my house in a bad thunderstorm, but I have heard the crack of trees or limbs breaking further into the woods. I’ve seen groups of folks on trails going along, constantly talking and totally oblivious to their surroundings.

    Paying attention, besides alerting one of danger, can have its rewards. I’ve seen wildlife and rare plants that my companions totally missed. Just the other day, it was an otter (my first), the entire episode lasting about 4 seconds, and a couple years ago, a white coyote.

  7. Randy says:

    Many, MANY years ago when I was a Boy Scout I heard the term “Widow Maker” for the first time from an old grizzled leader, aptly nicknamed “Timber” Woods (his real last name). This was in western CT and we were hiking a small portion of the Appalchian Trail near Kent, CT. Timber was a former lumberjack from Maine and knew trees and their murderous ways. Even now, in my early 70s, when I’m in the woods I always give any leaning/broken/hanging tree a wide berth. Makes no difference if it’s in the ADKs or the small stand behind my backyard, those demented trees are out there waiting to get me if I’m not careful!

    • Dan Crane says:

      It was a major oversight on my part to leave out the term widow-maker from my article. Thanks for bringing it up in the comments!

    • Michael Ludovici says:

      Cutting down a dead tree is many times more dangerous than cutting down a live one.

  8. Dan Ling says:

    Dan, I can’t imagine what you must have gone through at Sand Lake, being so deeply into that huge wilderness of giant trees. It must have been an adventure getting out of the woods on that trip.

    Ever since I was a wee lad, my whole family was aware of the dangers of what we called “widowmakers,” since my great-great-great grandfather Abraham Ling was killed by a fallen tree in St. Armand in 1848. Anybody who has spent much time in the woods has heard a giant or three fall with a great thud, but in the mid-70’s I experienced an historic blow down of white pines in the Saratoga Spa State Park during what must have been some sort of dericho or microburst. As we ran away from falling pines, others would begin to fall toward us and we’d change direction again. It was that bad. After Hurricane Hugo, my brother and I were canoeing with friends in Congaree Swamp of Congaree National Park, among virgin cypress trees. While we were eating lunch in our solo canoes, I heard a “snap” above me and noticed what looked like the entire canopy moving in one direction. I paddled backwards, in the opposite direction and “splash” the large tree fell no more than a few feet in front of the bow of my Sawyer Summersong (a boat beloved by my boyhood hero Harry Roberts). A shower of leaves fell, and when they subsided, I could see my friends, on the other side of it, staring in disbelief.

    But perhaps my best wind story is the one where a bunch of us were climbing Cathedral Rocks above Blue Mountain Lake one windy day. We had stopped for a little rest, and I noticed my daughter was sitting beneath a leaning dead tree. I would guess my friends thought I was being too cautious (a trait developed over years of leading students and adults through wild places) when I asked her to please move out from under that tree. She complied, and within no more than a few seconds that tree came crashing down precisely where she had been sitting.

    Fear of falling trees and limbs is not irrational. It is uncommon sense!

  9. Hawthorn says:

    Probably the most dangerous part of any trip to the backcountry is the drive to the trailhead. More than a quarter of a million people are injured in their bathrooms each year. Falling trees are way down the list of things to worry about.

  10. Dan Ling says:

    Hawthorne, that likely depends on how much time one spends in the woods, particularly whether the trees are old and there’s a lot of wind / ice / etc. My own experience taught me three times, that I needed to avoid the danger in order to survive. It’s hard for me to think that’s mere coincidence…three times. On the other hand, in over 400,000 miles of driving, I have probably had a lot more incidences where I had to avoid an accident, and did. Windthrow is likely less of a danger to those who ride in vehicles, but that doesn’t mean there is none. I would wager the danger is greater than that of harm coming from a wild animal in the Adirondacks. So of course, your point is obvious and well taken, but I am living proof that if you spend a lot of time in the woods, it is likely unwise to discount the risks that trees can present. Now I feel like researching occurrences of deadfall injury!

    • Hawthorn says:

      I was curious about how many people die annually from falling trees in the USA and couldn’t find any reliable stats. Even thought there are lots of trees in the Adks, and lots fall all the time, there are very few people, and even less who happen to be in the woods at the same instant the tree falls. I would guess that lightning is a bigger concern. I can vividly recall standing atop Cat Mountain looking across Lake George when out of a cloudy but not particularly stormy looking sky came an enormous jagged bolt of lightning. It struck something on the side of Buck Mountain, raising a big cloud of smoke. I suspect anyone in the vicinity of that would have been in trouble. I think of that every time I stand on the top of a peak.

  11. dave says:

    This is something that is always on my mind when sleeping in the back country. A recent trip on the Northville Placid trail being the latest example. For whatever reason, the trees were seemed awfully “creaky” one night and I was convinced one was about ready to come down!

    I never knew if it was a rational fear or not, and I am still not convinced it is. I know it can happen… as in, “anything can happen”… but how likely really is it? Do we have any idea how many people have been killed or injured from falling trees?

    Those numbers would certainly be interesting, especially when compared to data for other things, like bear attack fatalities or hunting accidents.

  12. Smitty says:

    You remind me of Ginger my golden retriever, who is deathly afraid of thunderstorms. When we’re backpacking in the woods and a thunderstorm comes along, she digs a depression and hides in it, or tries to find some other protected place to hide. So I guess this makes some sense in order to avoid being crushed by a falling branch. Perhaps it’s an adaptive behavior left over from her wolf ancestry.

  13. norcon says:

    A hiker was killed just recently on the Appalachian trail by a tree and last summer, a tree fell during the night within a few feet of one of our tents, fortunately off to the side. And if I may add to your anxiety, a few years ago while canoeing a tree fell right across the entire river about 20 yards downstream from us and it wasn’t even windy, etc. So your paranoia is entirely justified ;). Sleep well.

  14. Curt Austin says:

    I built a home on a lot that was leveled in 1995. I have good views.

    On the lawn of our previous home in Ohio, I was explaining to a kid I’d hired to mow the lawn that he should not dawdle under the big, old ashes, that they dropped branches at random … CRACK! BOOM! “See what I mean?”, I say.

    Met a guy from Cleveland at Johns Brook Lodge. He and his family survived the ’95 blowdown while camping at the campsite where people died (Limekiln?).

    A few weeks ago, walking along an old log road behind our house. Crack, boom. Hah! Nice try, I think, missed me by twenty feet.

    Driving down a seasonal dead end road, I forget where, I see a sign suggesting I should have a chainsaw in the car. A good idea, I think.

    Had to chainsaw a tree that fell across my driveway once, in order to get to a wedding I was photographing. I normally avoided doing risky things before wedding jobs.

    Casually watching TV news, back in the ’70s in Troy. “Big storm in the Adirondacks.” Huh, ears perk up. “Sacondaga Lake” What? “Moffit Beach area.” Uh oh. “This boat was crushed by several falling trees, and the cabin damaged”. Our boat, our cabin.

    Yup, trees are more dangerous than, say, unfiltered water (ducking).

  15. Hawthorn says:

    By the way, “widowmakers” are broken branches hanging in the treetops–not dead trees waiting to fall on you. From Wikipedia:

    “In forestry, the term widowmaker or fool killer describes a detached or broken limb or tree top and denotes the hazards that such features cause, being responsible for causing fatalities to forest workers. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration describes widowmakers as, “Broken off limbs that are hanging freely in the tree to be felled or in the trees close by.”[1]”

  16. Michael Ludovici says:

    My wife, two young kids and I were camping at the lean-to by the ranger school on Cranberry Lake when the microburst tore through early that Saturday morning.
    Luckily we were fine, but it was like a bear had torn up our camp. Soon all you heard was helicopters and chainsaws in the distance. We could not buy gas until we got to Boonville. Stewarts was giving away free ice cream because their freezers had no power. We wrote down our experience in the lean-to’s log book. Who has that book now?

  17. Wally Elton says:

    Reasonable fear is part of a wilderness experience. Unreasonable fear helps assure the continued availability of wilderness experiences for those with the former.

  18. Paul says:

    “Use only dead and down wood for fires.”

    If cutting standing tress is prohibited (like the regulations say) then why not say that you can only use “down” wood?

    I thought it was okay to cut down a standing dead tree for firewood. Guess not.

    It is pretty cool to hear a big tree come down on a perfectly quiet and windless night. As long as it doesn’t land on your head! Just have to be at the right place at just the right time. Must happen thousands of times per day in the Adirondacks but I think I have only seen it twice. Seen lots of trees fall in the wind. I just assume there is far more space where the trees don’t fall then where they do. So I just don’t worry about it. Did see a dead deer one time that was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  19. Bill Lenhart says:

    Dan thank you for this essay and all of it’s salient thoughts/considerations. Like yourself (and some others who commented), I had the very, very, real misfortune of being in the 5 Ponds area during the blow-down (we were on a hill just adjacent to the foot bridge crossing the Oswegatchie for the trail to Sand). During the storm, all the very large white pines that ringed our site came down – except for the one directly behind us. It effected me greatly and has ever since in terms of trip planning (site selection, going in later months, etc.). Still, and as you point out, things happen. To wit – last year, my brother and I finally made it to Squaw Lake in the MRP. One good day of weather, and it went to crap. The lake’s orientation had all the winds piling unto the site, so later in the evening we heard the sounds cracking of timber- needless to say it was a LONGGGG night.

    Thanks again for sharing!

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