I am a firm believer in the celebrated “Ten Essentials” that every hiker should carry in his pack when he sallies forth into the bush — which for me generally amounts to a map, a compass and eight Advil. Of course the list of essentials includes a lot of other stuff, as well, and is readily searchable online.
It’s good to be aware of the list because you never know about weather, you never know about a bad step on a rock, you never know when you are going to need a little extra gas in the tank and, well, you just never know. It’s amazing to me how just a few steps off a well-beaten path can leave you feeling just as lost as Fred Noonan over the South Pacific.
But we all backslide a bit. I frequently fail to carry Essential #10, Emergency Shelter on a two-mile out-and- back to Baker Mountain. But within reason I’m pretty good about it, partly out of prudence, partly because I don’t want to get “that look” from other hikers on the trail, the one that says “Look Carol, he is wearing COTTON. To the STAKE with him.”
Backwoods dictum also requires you leave a detailed itinerary with someone, should, God forbid, you roll an ankle six miles from the trailhead. This one is harder for me because some of my favorite hikes have been ones where I just wandered from trail junction to trail junction with no particular agenda.
I suppose this was in the neighborhood of what Old Mountain Phelps called “random scoots” — either that, or it was his term for a quick trip to Stewarts for a half gallon of maple walnut that he proceeded to eat right out of the carton not that I’ve ever done that.
So on Fourth of July, the pups Pete and Addie and myself girded ourselves for an assault on the feared summit of Owl’s Head, the one near Elizabethtown. I’ve gotten on this jag to climb every Owl’s Head, Haystack and Rattlesnake mountain in the Park, which I calculate will make me something of a Cliché 46er.
The E-town bird is quite a pleasant hike that follows a picturesque brook for much of the way. It is not steep, save for a little scramble to the top. The views extend from Lake Champlain to the sneaky big Rocky Peak Ridge to mighty Giant, to Hurricane and its signature tower.
There were two other parties on the summit, totaling seven other people and one other dog, surprisingly light traffic for a sunny holiday. I texted home that the trail wasn’t much of a challenge, but had a rich payout with its impressive views. Then we headed back down to the junction with the trail that continues on to Giant, where the signpost advised that in another 1.7 miles it would encounter a feature called High Bank.
I’d never heard of High Bank before, but I assumed it must be some kind of high bank. Since it was early and I’d barely taken the edge off the dogs, I opted for the High Bank gambit, and even briefly wondered if there were a way to go over Giant down to Route 73 and then find a ride back to the Owl’s Head parking lot. But not knowing whether or not the area was served by Uber (I’ve often wanted to form a rural, ride-sharing service for hillbillies, just so I could name it Guber) I dismissed that idea.
No one else hiking Owl’s Head that day had any intention of continuing on, which meant that in the space of 10 minutes I had gone from a popular, chatter-filled waypoint that reeked of sunscreen and DEET, to a feeling of intense solitude in a vast green wilderness.
The trail bisects a majestic open hardwood forest of maple and beech, but also slogs through some wet and brushy lowlands whose primary features were mud and raspberry vines. The trail is lightly used to begin with, and frequent rains had bent the undergrowth over the path in places in a way that was a bit disorienting and disconcerting to a person who was light in the Ten Essentials.
I could just see the smirking Rangers writing in their trail reports that, just prior to his corpse being dragged from the black ooze, his last text had stated that “the trail wasn’t much of a challenge.”
Nevertheless, I soldiered on to High Bank, which turned out to be one of those singular, unheralded Adirondack gems that catches you totally by surprise. Below an open outcropping of scree is a roaring torrent, more audible than visible, and towering above, hands seemingly on their hips, peering inquisitively down into the gorge on this little flea of a hiker, are the impossibly imposing visages of Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge. I know I was less than two miles from virtual civilization, but I felt like Zebulon Freaking Pike, alone in total wilderness, making rare discoveries and having persevered where others turned back.
And that’s when a hiker named Laura popped out of the woods, having just traversed both aforementioned peaks and on her way to the Owl’s Head parking lot where she had left her bicycle to ride back to New Russia.
I didn’t feel like quite the incomparable, heroic adventurer after that. But I did find my way back out, which has to count for something.
Photos from above: Views of Giant from High Bank, and Owl’s Head, courtesy the author.