Peaceful silence is one of the many reasons people explore the Adirondack backcountry. The quiet stillness, interrupted only by natural sounds, provides an ideal opportunity for recharging spiritual batteries, something increasingly crucial in the modern world where haste and expediency rule. This tranquility is fragile however, easily shattered by a jet flying overhead, the revving of a motor engine, a gun discharging or any other incongruent sound.
Another man-made and unnatural sound, although quite rare, completely shatters the illusion of solitude and remoteness, leaving any wilderness enthusiast shaken to their very core. This unwelcome intrusion does not come from an aggressive motor enthusiast, logger or other wilderness antagonist, but frequently courtesy of a fellow adventurer. It is a backcountry breakdown, and it can happen to anyone, at anytime, anywhere.
A backcountry breakdown is just a nice term for a grown-up version of a temper tantrum in the wilderness. These youthful regressions are common where exhaustion and frustration combine with a sense of remoteness, which is crucial for weakening the usual behavioral dam constructed by maturity and societal norms.
Exhaustion is pretty common in the backcountry, where long, arduous days of hiking are often commonplace. Hiking over rolling topography, balancing on uneven ground (or a log or beaver dam), dodging wetlands and climbing over blowdowns is enough to exhaust even the most physical fit. The accompanying damp clothing and malodorous stench after a long day most likely contribute to the proper conditions for a breakdown too. Since these circumstances usually peak during the afternoon hours, breakdowns typically occur late in the day during campsite preparations.
A lack of restful sleep that often accompanies backcountry trips only exacerbates a sense of exhaustion. An unfamiliar nighttime environment, with its unusual associated outdoor sounds and smells, combine with harder surfaces (such as those found in lean-tos and frequently used campsites) to deprive even the most experienced outdoor enthusiast of blissful sleep, especially during the initial days of a long hiking trip. Do not discount those irritating companions snoring throughout the night; nothing ruins a peaceful night’s rest faster than a raucous bout of sawing wood in an enclosed space.
Although not as common as exhaustion, frustration occurs frequently in the backcountry. Common frustrating situations include searching for an adequate campsite (especially in off-trail adventures), locating suitable trees for hanging food bags (my personal favorite) and major gear malfunctions (i.e. something breaks). Damaged gear has the rare distinction of being either the cause or consequence of a breakdown. Plagues of blackflies, mosquitoes, and other biting pests increase frustration astronomically in any circumstance, sending the probability of a breakdown skyrocketing.
The telltale signs of a backcountry breakdown are screaming, swearing and violent displays of emotions, typically the kind of stuff reserved for R-rated movies or HBO television shows. Cursing is a key characteristic, usually directed at inanimate objects (e.g. rocks, gear, etc.) or non-ambulatory organisms (e.g. trees). These breakdowns are usually quite brief, lasting at the most a minute or two, quickly followed by sheepishness and a profound sense of embarrassment.
No one is immune to backcountry breakdowns, including myself. Two examples that come readily to mind occurred under very similar situations. A long day of bushwhacking followed by a late campsite set-up brought about the ideal conditions for losing my cool and having a “moment”. Luckily for me, no one was anywhere nearby, so I managed to avoid any embarrassment and resulting collateral damage to my backcountry reputation.
One of these memorable incidences occurred at Toad Pond, a small pond adjacent to the Robinson River in a secluded portion of the Five Ponds Wilderness Area. After a freak afternoon rain shower forced me to make camp along the northern shore of Toad Pond, I attempted to hang a food line in a tree under a hodge-podge of downed trees, limbs and various rocks of different sizes (the kind of conditions that remind me why people do not live in the backcountry).
With everything saturated from the recent downpour, I struggled to throw my rope over a distant limb on a large hemlock tree. A small spruce tree had the grave misfortune of growing on the top of a rock that was at the perfect angle to toss the rope. The poor little thing kept getting entangled underfoot (and in my rope), making my feeble attempts at accuracy even feebler, until finally the flood gates opened and a whole lot of whoop-ass was administered.
I felt quite guilty and embarrassed afterwards. Many apologies followed, as well as a good deal of effort to prop the unfortunate specimen up as well as possible. It was no Charlie Brown Christmas tree by the time I departed, but I did my best.
My second exceptional backcountry breakdown happened at Hidden Lake, in the southern Five Ponds Wilderness, just north of Stillwater Reservoir. Like its predecessor, this one also involved hanging my food from a nearby tree limb while setting up camp late in the day.
Tired from a long bushwhack from the Trout Pond lean-to on the Red Horse Trail, which entailed fording a couple ragging streams, I was near the point of exhaustion by the time I arrived at Hidden Lake. The forest along the lake’s northern shore had been heavily cutover in the past, leaving good food-hanging trees in short supply.
The lucky tree I finally selected was barely adequate for such an important role as guardian and protector for my food, but the forest conditions and my exhaustion left me little choice. After a few throws from a steep slope, the rock, with my rope in tow, whipped around a branch for what seemed like thirty times, and became impossibly entangled. No amount of cursing could untangle the mess, and I thought all was lost (especially a good deal of rope) until I realized I could pull the entire limb down far enough to work the tangle out while balancing on my tippy-toes.
Both of these incidents (and probably many other less memorable ones) could have been avoided if the proper steps were taken (and I had better hand-eye coordination). One way to prevent backcountry breakdowns is to avoid the backcountry altogether, but that is hardly a practical solution for those who feel a unique comfort from a week-long bout of forest bathing.
Thankfully, there are more realistic steps to avoid the occasional breakdown. Keep ambitions in check – avoid pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion. Avoid traveling alone; breakdowns rarely occur with others nearby as the sense of embarrassment keeps one from losing control. Most importantly (especially for myself), arrive at your designated campsite early, since the desperation of being rushed increases the chances of a breakdown.
Although an occasional backcountry breakdown is probably unavoidable, taking the proper steps can significantly reduce their likelihood. Regardless of how hard one tries, a backcountry breakdown is inevitable at some point. Just make sure it happens when no one else is around, or you are bound to find yourself the star in a rather embarrassing YouTube video.
Photos: Toad Pond and Hidden Lake in the Five Ponds Wilderness Area by Dan Crane.
Ah, yes, the joys of hanging bear bags. The best solution by far is bear-proof food vaults! While they’re only required in the High Peaks, they work well anywhere, and they put an end to the frustrations of finding a good throwing stone AND a good hanging limb, not to mention tangled lines. And if you’re canoe camping, you don’t even have to deal much with the extra weight. Been using them for years now.
You touched on a very important point. I don’t do much camping anymore, preferring a place with lights, a full kitchen and comfortable beds, but except possibly for the very young and fit, I know many folks who backpack but complain about not sleeping well. One of those thin, ultralight pads are not the way to a good night’s rest.
I learned long ago that a good night’s sleep in camp can set the tone for the next day. To that end, I invested in a camp-sized Therma-rest pad (some 25 years old now) and a sheet. Yeah, it’s heavier, but save weight elsewhere, not on sleeping. I generally sleep warm, so I seldom get into my bag in summer, using it as a quilt, with a twin-size sheet covering the pad.
My other rule (if you want to call it that) is try to make camp in daylight when I can see to pick out a good spot. Those who routinely keep at the trail until dark aren’t doing themselves any favors. A campfire, cooking and eating come AFTER tent and bed are set up, so I can relax for the rest of the evening, knowing I have a comfortable bed ready to fall into. One of my favorite camping shows is watching some guys spend the evening getting drunk, then realize the tent is not up and it’s dark or starting to rain.
Backpackers today need the same kinds of stuff we did 50 years ago, only today’s stuff is sooo much lighter and better designed. There’s no reason not to “rough it in comfort.”
Bear bagging can be quite the little pain. I remember one time of tossing up into a pine tree, over and over, and over as smaller branches kept snagging or deflecting each throw. With a mighty heave it finally went over the target limb raising my hopes that I was completed. Sailing into the tree beyond, it wrapped itself a couple times in the most despicable tangle of branches and line, instantly quashing all hope for a successful hang. I worked several minutes to free it, getting more and more frustrated. I brought out my pocket knife and yanking on the line, cut it at high as I could to salvage as much line as I could. It snapped back and wound it’s way back through, following the path of the tangle exactly. Down came the rock-sak and line at my feet. I had been there about an hour trying to get my bear line up, got it massively tangled, instead. Tried unsuccessfully and repeatedly to get it free. And here it was, at my feet and back to the beginning…simply by letting go. I picked it up and walked away to find a different tree (which I did and had the line spliced and up in less than 5 minutes.) I was quite embarrassed…nope, we do not talk about the level of goal fixation, nor, frustration, nor foul language directed at a totally unthinking tree…well, more at a totally unthinking me. Yup, I understand exhaustion.
I was coming down from Street (or was it Nye?) on a weekday in early April, 2012. I expected it to be a fully solitary experience. Snowshoe “spines” were still present, high enough to exacerbate the occasional overhead log. As I weaved through the dense and stunted growth, smarting from a few head bruises, I heard a thump, then a very loud “F” bomb.
I exchanged courtesies with the embarrassed woman, and we continued on. I saw no one else that day.