The old trail was familiar. I walk it monthly. The loop meandering along the state and private land line was only two miles long. It showed some blazes on the trees left by the hunting parties and solo hunters who have hunted this section for generations. Less than a mile in, bordering state land, I walked confidently in an October afternoon because it was a familiar route. I wore a blaze orange vest because it was hunting season. Watching for the faded blazes on the trees was unnecessary. The past footfalls of others were easily followed. Someone had recently walked here. The beech leaves were beautiful this time of the year.
Then, a section of blowdown obscured the trail. No problem. I went around it, looked ahead and…no trace of the trail. How does it do that? Of course, I answered, the blowdown had thrown off my direction of travel, the trail was just a matter of a few feet away on either side. So, I searched. I went back to the blowdown to find where I and the trail had previously joined. This should be very easy, but it proved not to be.
I climbed onto a boulder to scan for the nearest tree blaze. A dark animal, probably fisher, moved in the distance. But no blaze. I moved in a short circle to rediscover the trail. No luck. This being a short and familiar route, I had left my map and compass at the cabin. I felt sheepish, momentarily lost on such seemingly familiar ground. Then I took a breath and realized I could just follow the nearest stream down. It would join another and eventually, in an hour or so, I would be back on private land. Then, I had my drive home. That I might be late for supper was all. But I did not want to be that late.
As I began to go downhill to follow the stream, I saw him, or his blaze orange vest, hat, rifle shouldered. A lone hunter. My heart lifted. I approached him. He was on the trail, just 30 yards away. I said howdy. He said it back. We shook. The trail behind him was as clear as daylight. I said my name, he did likewise. He was a local resident and had hunted this country all his life. He said he rarely saw anyone on this trail and was glad to pause and talk. Grateful he had led me back to the trail, I was more than happy to listen.
His story spanned where he had just been, and the prior year, as well as the years before; how few deer he had seen deeper in, the growing number of coyotes he had observed, coyotes who were on the deer’s trail, spooking them, making it harder to hunt. He spoke of the occasional black bear and the mange he had seen on a black bear cub, how badly he had felt to see that cub in distress. He has observed sign of moose rubs high on slender trees.
He spoke of the old beaver flow that had drained, where the deer once drank but could not be relied upon to drink now. He spoke of familiar hunting trails followed since his youth, now closing in due to disuse. He spoke of a hunting party he had seen that day with which he was unfamiliar. All this change in woods known since his teen years left him feeling uncomfortable – here, and with the world at large. But, at this moment and in these woods, we occupied that world. He spoke of appreciation that this country was still available to him, and I nodded.
He held a muzzle loader. He hunted with black powder. That season was ending. A day or two later, in similar circumstances, I would not have encountered him. We spoke of someone we both used to know, Paul Schaefer. Schaefer’s cabin was where I had started out. Schaefer’s hunting party began to hunt white-tailed deer in this country starting in 1933. The hunter’s father, a teamster, had taken them in and out of the woods by horse and wagon on the old, boulder strewn wagon trail, now rapidly closing in with witch hoppel.
We parted and moved in opposite directions. I realized, again, my good luck and an hour or more of time saved in meeting him. I easily completed the trail loop and was back at the cabin. “Great to be here,” I said out loud to myself. It was what Paul Schaefer frequently said and wrote in the cabin’s logbook. He had lost and found himself in those woods, far deeper in than I had just been, in all weather and on many occasions.
For more on Paul Schaefer (1908-1996), see adirondackwild.org, or find his books Defending the Wilderness – the Adirondack Writings of Paul Schaefer (1989) and Adirondack Cabin Country (1993), both published by Syracuse University Press.
Photo at top provided by David Gibson.