Everyone seems to be in a hurry these days and the Adirondack backcountry is not immune to the hustle and bustle of modern life. Outdoor enthusiasts set a premium on their time, often racing to their destination, and trying to squeeze every ounce of excitement from their experience in the wild.
Drivers speed along Wild Forest access roads, late for an appointment with who knows what. Snowmobilers fly down forested trails in what seems an unquenchable thirst for speed. Even hikers often dash (or actually run) down trails in a hurry to occupy their favorite campsites or make the best time as wildlife scurries out of the way.
With proponents of backcountry skiing, mountain biking and ATVing all looking more access, it looks like the need for speed is bound to accelerate in the backcountry. What ever happened to a nice short walk through the forest? Is it no longer exciting enough? Has the bar for adventure been raised too high to accommodate such a passive pursuit? Has it become old fashioned?
The need to slow down in the backcountry goes beyond just taking an occasional rest break. In my view a trip into the backcountry should be slow, focusing on the journey, at least as much as the destination.
Many years ago, when I was still primarily a trail hiker, I found myself racing from campsite to campsite. Despite my haste, an uncommon bird song, a pretty flowering plant, or a massive tree, stopped me in my tracks along the trail. Still, I cannot recall a significant interesting encounter that occurred while I was flying down the trail with my head down and my mind on my destination. On many of those trips my companions would hustle to get hiking early so we could cover more miles. Often, the obsession with reaching a certain place at a certain time became more important than stopping to enjoy the scenery.
Of all the hasty Adirondack companions I tolerated over the years, the poster child for speeding through the backcountry was a field technician I worked with many years ago on a project studying the effects of the 1995 microburst on the biological diversity of the northwestern Adirondacks. Tall and gangly, he was something of a backcountry Flash, though he appeared in both temperament and gait, more like an outdoor Shaggy from Scooby-Doo fame. He flew down the trails as if he were outrunning a horde of flesh-eating zombies (blackflies and mosquitoes are more vampires). He often boasted of his speed on the trail, as well as his uncanny observational ability at such high speeds.
Bushwhacking forced me to slow down. The extra time spent navigating with a map and compass, detouring around blowdowns and crossing beaver dams, required an entirely new way of thinking; a mindset that savored the journey as much, if not more, than the destination. By slowing down, I became less of an intrusion in the wilderness and more a part of it, which allowed me to experience its wonders in a different and I think more fulfilling way.
Despite my slow down, I’ve found that turning on the speed is not always a bad thing in the backcountry. Impending darkness, darkening clouds of inclement weather, or the need to answer nature’s call are all good reasons to shift into high gear on the trail. There are appropriate times to pick up the pace, but they are the exception, not the rule.
Next time you find yourself racing down the trail, in desperation to claim your favorite campsite or lean-to, stop and take the time to smell some bunchberries, listen to some bird song, or run your hands over the bark of a tree.
It doesn’t need to be a lengthy stop, but it just may change the way you experience the Adirondacks and there will still be plenty of time to get back to the race.
Photo: Old logging road in the southern Five Ponds Wilderness by Dan Crane.