Thursday, March 5, 2015

Hiking: Stop and Smell the Bunchberries

Old logging roadEveryone 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.

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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.

12 Responses

  1. Matt says:

    Dan. I have a confession. :::::sigh:::::
    I am a mountain biker.
    I am also a backcountry skier.
    ::::more hesitation::::
    Clearly I am a lost soul, Dan. I confess, I have found joy in crusing through the woods more quickly than I could walk… I am sorry to admit it, becasue now I know it is just so utterly wrong. What am I to do? I am not experiencing the purity of the Adirondack backcountry experience you have described so eloquently. Now I know, it has all been nothing but a big lie! You have shown us all the only true and pure way to visit the woods, Dan. How can we be more pure, like you? How do I escape this un-natural love of pedalling on trails and gliding on fresh snow??? My God, what have I done all these years??? All those times I stopped in the woods to listen closely, feel the ground, smell the forest air, BE in the woods- alone- at peace- with my bike or my skis- IT WAS ALL JUST A LIE!!! I was not having the one true experience you describe because I wasn’t…..I wasn’t….WALKING!!! ::::sniffle::: Oh Dan, please, save us from our evil ways!!!

    Tongue is firmly in cheek.

    Look, its not all Red Bull and backflips Dan. Your characterization of the advocacy efforts going on in the park adds little of substance, and actually does more to insult many people who could otherwise appreciate the worthwhile message you are trying to convey here. Fortunuately I’m going skiing now so its no going to bother me that much.

    • Jim S. says:

      Matt you are not a lost soul you are an adrenaline junkie! There are wonderful opportunities for speed in the wild forest areas all over the Adirondacks. Have a blast. Please don’t spoil the serenity in the wilderness.

  2. Bill Joplin says:

    I’m with you, Dan. I have always hiked slowly enough to savor our beautiful trails, brooks, and views. When I was young, in the 1950s, and I stayed at a camp where lots of families went, I used to go on hikes with folks of all ages from 7 to 70. We’d go as slowly as the slowest person, and no one minded, because the grownups might point out neat stuff on the trail or we’d have an interesting conversation. But then 46ing started, and, as a teenager, I saw my friends dashing off to try to do all the “Little Dixes” in a single day (which was indeed difficult back then). I didn’t enjoy rushing; I refused to climb in the rain (duh — no views!); and, to be truthful, I didn’t have that kind of stamina. And so I found myself hiking alone more often than I liked, which was a bit sad. Fortunately, as an adult I made many friends who felt as I did. And when my children were little, I took them on gentle, relaxed hikes. I also made sure that one of the books I read to them was “Ferdinand the Bull” — about the young bull who didn’t want to fight in the ring but just sit under a cork tree, smelling flowers. I won’t argue that my way is better: if 46ing hadn’t come along, I doubt that the camp I continue to go to would have enough guest days to stay afloat. But I feel uncomfortable when hiking becomes something like a track event and people measure themselves by how many of the 46 they have climbed. I just wish that more often what they told me at dinner was how sublime Avalanche Pass was rather than how quickly they “did” Colden, or how they love walking up Gill Brook almost every year, to climb Indian Head, even though it “doesn’t count” as a 46er. –Bill J.

  3. T Myers says:

    Wise words! I hike with a fractured spine & hip dysplasia so I have to go slow so. And I take lots of photos as I don’t know when or if I will go hiking again. So I sense all you mention. And notice everyone breezing past me!! Great advice.

  4. Hope says:

    The more people enjoy the outdoors in their own way the better. Some like it fast, some like it slow, most all will stop at some point in their excursion to enjoy a view, see some wildlife, sniff the fresh air or stop for a snack. To each his own with respect to the terrain, it’s residents and visitors.

  5. Hawthorn says:

    Some of the snarky comments seem to assume that Dan has proclaimed his way the only way, while I read it more as an exploration of an alternative to the relentless speed most of experience in our lives. Those of you who only go fast now may grow to appreciate the alternative when inevitably age, health, and experience change you. I snowshoed up a small mountain recently with an old friend who I have hiked with since high school. I can vividly remember when we were young having to almost jog to keep up with him as he forged ahead with full pack up and down the High Peaks. However, due to a health problem he now has to pause frequently, take things a bit slower, and yet we both enjoyed the forest, the snow, the views just as much as ever–maybe more so. It is like fast food vs. great food. Savor the experience.

  6. Charlie S says:

    I appreciate your backwoods mentality Dan. I too like to go slow when I walk in the woods. I used to bike a seven-mile loop in a water management area where I used to live some years ago. I did that for a long time and then I started walking that loop and never rode my bike around it again.I saw more,heard more and smelt more when I walked…it was like night and day the difference. Plus i felt so much more enlivened after those seven-mile walks which I sometimes did twice a day.

    By reading some of these comments I was reminded of the year I first moved to upstate NY (2006). I went on a hike back to Siamese Ponds with an ADK group back then. I did not enjoy the hike and here’s why… they would not stop talking some of them in the group and their whole thing was generally just to do the hike and be done with it.When we finally got back at the pond (6.5 miles later) there was an elderly man there standing near the shore by his lonesome. He must have heard our group coming a mile away….yack yack yacking is all they did. Surely that elder man walked all the way back in those woods to feel the energy that comes with being so far away from the madness that comes with this society.He was there to free his spirit and there comes along that noisy ADK group.He probably still talks about that experience to this day.
    It was a new experience for me hiking with a group and I have hiked alone ever since.

  7. Wally Elton says:

    To me, it all seems to be part of a “conquer the wilderness” mentality, promoted by glossy outdoor magazines, rather than immersing yourself in the wild and taking in what it has to offer. Take a camera along and try to find some unusual shots that those in hurry inevitably miss. There always is something to discover.

  8. Bob Meyer says:

    Dan, your words & actions are right on the mark. too much peak bagging, not enough experiencing the wild.

  9. Pete Nelson says:

    One of our favorite things about hiking up into our little paradise is the graduated transition from woods to wilderness to virgin forest. Usually we are hauling in fifty to seventy pounds of gear and supplies, so there is no choice but to go slow. Every break is cherished, not because tired muscles get a rest but because we can, at one level or another, contemplate our surroundings. I must prefer it to racing along, even with the weight.

  10. Hawthorn says:

    Though some frown upon the practice as unsafe, solo hiking is a great way to be able to savor the experience. Eliminates excess noise, visual distraction, and the inevitable problem of trying to satisfy different paces on the trail. It can be great to just stop when you need to stop, whether to adjust your pack, have a drink of water, or to just enjoy a view or the sounds of the forest. When alone I find I don’t necessarily move any slower or faster as measured in miles covered in a day, but I find the entire process more relaxed and contemplative.

  11. Charlie S says:

    Amen Hawthorn! Solo hiking also induces what Pete says…a reflection of your surroundings,a sense of tranquility,of enchantment,of things that enrich the psyche.You cannot get that in this urban mess we call society with its endless shopping centers and crowded highways and everyone in a hurry to get to wherever it is they go. I feel so out of place myself,me who desires to move along at a snails pace.

    The Adirondacks are so unique in many ways,but most of all they are unique in their generally untamed wildness. It used to be that there were many places in this country where one could go and have this same experience,but there was no foresight back then just like there’s no foresight now as we continue on with this insatiable desire to take away more and more. Some of us have vision,but there are too few of us and our voices are small compared to those who can afford to shout out over us.

    And now there’s a to-do and proposals to open the Adirondacks to more motorized use because desecration is a state of mind for some….not preservation like it should be. Society is one big grouping of people whose desire it is to be heard. An awkwardness! An insecurity! An instability! A debility of the spirit!

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