Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.
When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.
Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.
The wonderful thing about entering the primeval forest is that you feel it before you really see it. This has been my experience in old growth forests in other places but it is heightened at Lost Brook Tract because of the elevation gain and the remoteness, both having their own attendant sensations that add to the overall effect. Or perhaps it is heightened because I love the Adirondacks more than any place I’ve ever been. Whatever the underlying reasons, it is a powerful feeling.
I haven’t noted exactly where it happens, but somewhere on the way up the bushwhack route the forest changes as one moves beyond the territory that was logged in the early part of the twentieth century. Continuing on into the virgin forest a completely immersive feeling descends. I can’t put it into words very well but I want to say that it is a weight, an immensity, some combination of sight, sound and smell that presses in. Every time I come into the area of Lost Brook Tract I experience a sense of awe, of hushed breathing, even a tiny spark of fear. This is followed by a distinct and exquisite sense of beauty. My wife Amy describes it as being swallowed up. » Continue Reading.
It was New Year’s Eve 2010, our first visit to Lost Brook Tract, just two days after we had closed on the property. I was standing in four feet of snow, contemplating potential trouble. I had bushwhacked down from the small plateau that marks the low point of our land, trying to get a feel for the ridge upon which it lay so that I could solidify the route in my mind.
My family and I had been guided in by Vinny McClelland the first time and on the way I had a noted couple of tricky spots. I was glad for the deep snow that provided sure tracks back to camp for at that moment I stood at one of those locations that raises the pulses of off-trail adventurers. » Continue Reading.
It was Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, 2010. I had driven through the night to make it to the Adirondacks from my home in Madison. I had to see for myself the amazing opportunity I had stumbled upon while browsing around on the web. I was already tired, unknown territory lay ahead, and there I was, face to face with one of the most imposing natural wonders in all the Adirondacks: Vinny McClelland.
No doubt many Almanack readers are familiar with Vinny, but if you don’t know him he is the owner of The Mountaineer in Keene Valley among other vocations and he is intimately involved in the community in a plethora of ways. Amy and I have come to have great affection for Vinny. He is a “salt of the Earth” kind of guy: capable, authentic, generous of spirit. We also find Vinny to be – and I can’t think of a better way to say this – hard core. Vinny has this way of looking at you, a certain sort of sizing-up. It is not egotistical and it isn’t judgmental of your worth as a human being, but it is as if to decide whether you know what you are doing. Either you do or you don’t, either you make the cut or not. Vinny knows what he is doing. I don’t really know how many things he is expert at: mountaineering, skiing, building, guiding, landscape engineering, exploring… it’s a long list. Vinny knows the Adirondacks; for example he knows that if you are going on a day hike four miles into the wilderness on no sleep, off trail, in new territory, in winter conditions, with two hours of daylight, two thousand feet of climbing and a lot of ice… well, either you know what you are doing or you don’t. Probably you don’t.
At the moment Vinny was looking at me with what I would describe as a level of skepticism. From what he had to go on at that point I didn’t blame him.
Amy and I had been daydreaming, searching on real estate sites for small houses we might buy on the cheap and fix up over several years before eventually fulfilling our long-held plan of moving to the Adirondacks. One such MLS search produced a list that included a sixty acre parcel with a picture that showed a beautiful, densely forested mountain view. These are the sorts of listings I have learned to ignore seeing as I am not a multi-millionaire. But the asking price of this acreage was unbelievably low, far less than any other listing I’d seen except for those that turned out to be poor or recently cut-over land. The picture sure didn’t make it look like it was poor land. How was this possible?
Incredulous, I called the realtor whose site I had been using and asked her to contact the listing agent with a few basic questions. When she called back to tell me that the parcel held mature timber and views and was embedded in State Wilderness I was stunned. Apparently the price was low because the tract was inaccessible, with no road or trail to it and no possibility for development. In other words it was perfect! It was the embodiment of my life-long dream to own wild land in the heart of the Adirondacks, a dream I had never once considered could become reality.
I was seized with the kind of fear one gets when a miraculous opportunity seems too good to be true. In the unlikely event that the land was anything like it was being represented, then to a value system such as mine it was priceless. Surely there were like-minded people who would covet such a piece of wilderness and be all over this offering. I was sure it was already gone. The realtor called me back: no, it wasn’t sold but an offer was imminent.
Time was of the essence. I decided to be rash. It was Thanksgiving week and my college classes were not in session. I consulted with Amy, she agreed and I headed for the driveway with a pair of boots and a sleeping bag.
On my way through Illinois the realtor called to discourage me from coming out as the offer was expected at any moment. Besides, she said, the listing agent told her that the land was “difficult to get to” and that the last potential buyer he had sent back to look at it “got lost” and never made it. This sounded better and better by the moment. “Too late,” I said, “I’m already in the car and on my way.”
We arranged to meet at 1 PM at a café in the nearest town after which I would hike to the land. In the meantime the listing agent continued to express his concerns. He provided her with a map containing GPS points on the route in. “I hope he has a GPS,” he said. “There is snow up there,” he warned, “It’s off trail.” I assured her that I was experienced.
No doubt harboring a healthy measure of reserve, the listing agent decided to attend the meeting too. I have since speculated on what his thought process must have been… “Here is some guy who lives in the Midwest. He’s driving through the night to look at a piece of land without having the slightest idea what he’s getting into. He’s probably a lunatic or an idiot; I’d better see for myself…”
By now you have guessed the name of the listing agent. Vinny McClelland is also a real estate professional. He typically represents marquee properties but as fate would have it he was selling this little forgotten swath because he had a personal connection to it going back years. He is one of the few people in the world who has actually been there.
It was nearly 1:30 PM before we got started with our meeting. Vinny had assembled an impressive packet on the parcel with a name on the cover: Lost Brook Tract. I asked some questions. Vinny seemed anxious for me to go. He reminded me that late-November days are short, that there was snow up high and a lot of ice. “Do you have gear?” he asked. I said that I did (I had boots, after all). I asked another question or two. “You need to get going,” Vinny urged. “Do you have GPS?” I replied that I never used GPS (I can’t stand the idea of it). At this point I could tell that the “idiot” assessment was prevailing. I decided to play an assurance card. “Vinny,” I told him, “My most recent bushwhack this summer was Allen to Redfield,” knowing full well that not a lot of people try that one. I wanted to think it helped a little but Vinny showed no outward sign that he was impressed. Now that I know him better I think that saying I’d just done the North face of Eiger might have helped more.
In any case, off I went. The way up was indeed icy and progress was slow. I did not get all the way there – at least I never saw his flagging – but I did bushwhack to a small outcropping on the way with a view of the parcel from a short distance. It looked beautifully forested, dark and dramatic, utterly wild. I was enchanted.
I returned to Madison. We made an offer, prevailed somehow and closed on the property two days after Christmas.
On the afternoon of December 29th Vinny took us up to Lost Brook Tract, following an old bushwhack route he first took as a child. For two miles it was easy, relatively open woods and a gradual climb. At the halfway point near a pair of huge boulders Vinny paused for a moment to inform us that the route got “gnarly” from there. The snow deepened, the forest thickened and the grade became formidable. Our snowshoes were subpar, our packs were heavy and we fell well behind. After an exhausting climb we came upon Vinny sitting at an old lean-to, contentedly enjoying a late lunch. He told us he admired our family for doing this, wished us a happy new year and bid us farewell.
We had arrived in a winter paradise. The first thing we all noticed was the snow-draped spruces towering overhead. Some looked to be more than eighty or ninety feet in height, something I’d never seen at this elevation in the Adirondacks. We were filled with wonder at the sight of them. “I think this is old-growth forest,” I whispered. We dug through four feet of snow, pitched our tents and make a fire pit. The temperature dropped to twenty below.
We spend two magnificent days. We explored the immediate area and the interior of the partially collapsed lean-to. We made our way down to Lost Brook, frozen and under a sea of snow. We uncovered part of an original fire ring and for a time got two fires going. Just before leaving I blazed a tree by the brook so as to be able to find the land again. We hiked out on our own, following the snow trail we had made going in. I thought of all the writers of old from my tattered copy of the Adirondack Reader. I recalled their reverent descriptions of the primeval and the wonder of discovery with a new understanding. This is what it is like.
One of the most romantic characteristics of Lost Brook Tract is that hardly anyone has ever been there. This is not a wishful abstraction; we know it to be true. Fascinated by having found it to be old growth forest when we first visited it, I plunged into a research project to find out everything I could about the land.
Remarkably, the record is complete enough to paint a fairly thorough picture of its history. I was able to assemble a detailed chronology that shows Lost Brook Tract was simply missed by the surprising volume of human activity that occurred in the park, to the point where it is likely only a handful of people have ever walked on it. I find this a very compelling idea. It is incredibly romantic to imagine that in wandering through it I might set foot on some part where no one has ever trod. But is this a characteristic I am justified in preserving? In last week’s post I offered my rationale for writing these dispatches. However I see now that what I presented was incomplete. Shortly after it posted one reader wrote a comment that this endeavor seemed self-serving, “praising the Park and its availability to all at the same time he is enjoying his secret hideaway with one of the few stands of old growth, no visitors allowed, thank you.” I think this is a valid criticism. I thought so before he wrote in. In fact I have been troubled by this very issue and it is one of the reasons I decided to write these dispatches.
It did not occur to us initially, but my family and I find ourselves deliberating a serious and difficult question about Lost Brook Tract that is an analog of the larger dispute over the Adirondack Park itself: how do we strike a balance between our interests, the interests of the public and the interests of the woods themselves? This is a challenging problem in ethics and aesthetics – that I used the term “primeval aesthetic” in my previous dispatch is no accident. Perhaps I should enlist the help of the Almanack’s resident Philosopher, Marianne Patinelli-Dubay, but in the absence of her input let me share a little bit about how we have tried to sort it out.
First, there are what I would describe as the two extremes. At the one extreme we simply deny access to anyone other than family and keep a shotgun handy to ward off any trespasser who ignores the signs that say “Posted.” This is easy enough to do. All it requires is a typical embrace of the centuries-old European cultural heritage of private property rights. Whatever one might think of this heritage (and it is a bloody one), it has prevailed in almost all the civilized world. From this view there is no debate at all: property ownership is sacred, especially land. This is the case with Lost Brook Tract: we have a deed, you cannot set foot on it without our permission, end of story.
I think most people would recognize this as the default condition (perhaps absent the threatening shotgun, but consider that this right is so sacrosanct as to give me the justification to shoot a trespasser to defend my property). If so, how can I characterize it as an extreme position? My answer to that has to do with context. It is fashionable to think in absolutes these days, especially with respect to political and social rights and morality. But absolutes are never universal. “Thou shalt not kill” seems about as defensible an absolute as there is. But it is beholden to context, lest we rule out war, the death penalty, self-defense, doctor-assisted suicide and even food consumption. As concerns property rights, absolutes are uncommon in practice. The average suburban homeowner makes multiple levels contextual distinction with hardly a thought. Consider a handsome stranger on your property without your permission. If he walks onto your front lawn will your authority as land owner engage at the same level as if he walks to your front door? Through the front door into your living room? Into your bedroom? At night?
Even if we have the force of law and cultural norms entirely on our side it seems to be a problem of context if we choose not to share Lost Brook Tract at all. Virgin forest is a precious and rare resource that is potentially of great importance to others. To hoard it while trumpeting wilderness values raises the damning specter of elitism.
At the other extreme we open the land to all. We go further: recognizing its unique value to the world at large and having preached about the importance of the primeval experience we invite all the readers of the Almanack to come up for a visit, describing its location and the route in, attaching a map and giving out GPS coordinates.
Obviously this is no balance either. For one thing we did not purchase Lost Brook Tract without a good share of self-interest on behalf of ourselves and our heirs. While we like to think we’re as altruistic as the next folks we’re not ready to entirely give up those interests, which include solitude among other things. But of course there is another competing interest in the mix, that of the land itself. Advertising it to several tens of thousands of Almanack readers risks what makes it valuable in the first place. Sixty acres is not a whole lot of land. If one percent of the Almanack’s readers came out to camp in a calendar year the land would be irrevocably damaged.
As always, that leaves the middle ground. How do we sort it out?
Our thinking has proceeded from the idea that Lost Brook Tract’s uniqueness and importance is directly due to its inaccessibility. The idea that a visit to such a place should be earned by effort and skill is not uncommon in the wilderness ethos. But this implies that it can and should be earnable. Therefore we decided to achieve our balance by allowing people to earn the experience of the land on the land’s terms. We’ll give up the romantic notion that no one should walk on it but we’re not going to make it any easier to get to.
Here’s how this has translated into practice.
First, we did not post Lost Brook Tract. Barring a disastrous series of incursions we never will. Instead we have a visitors log posted in our lean-to. The log welcomes hunters, hikers and campers. It has rules that we require visitors to follow; those rules are designed to protect the land. We allow use of the lean-to but not the gear we have stored there. We prohibit camping elsewhere. We allow fires in the fire ring, but only during hunting season and winter. Other rules are consistent with DEC wilderness regulations
Next, we have advertised Lost Brook Tract to important people in the political and environmental spectrum of the park who we think should know about the forest and see it. Several have already visited. We have invited an Adirondack-based ecologist who is currently doing research on old growth forests to come and conduct field work on the land.
Finally, we’re writing about it, for reasons already given. We do so knowing full well that makes it a potential destination for an enterprising reader. If someone really wants to find Lost Brook Tract they will. We have to trust that such an effort would be made with reverence for the land, for its wildness, and that the hike in, compass in hand, would earn it.
We welcome any comments or ideas on this balance.
Photo: Long Pond, in the Saint Regis Canoe Area (Courtesy Wikipedia).
Lost Brook Tract is a miracle both modern and ancient. Steeply situated on a high ridge in the central Adirondacks, miles from the nearest road and with no trail to it, it is a sixty-acre swath of Adirondack territory virtually unknown to all but a handful of people. That it exists today, an utterly unspoiled piece of high mountain boreal forest tracing unbroken lineage all the way to the ice age, can only be explained as a remarkable accident of fate.
As it turns out, that is indeed how it is explained. In future posts I’ll tell that story, how this little jewel came to be spared and saved from the debilitations that were suffered by most of the Adirondacks. For now it is simply there, a virgin forest never logged, never burned, largely spared even from the depredations of acid rain. Surrounded on all sides either by strict conservation easements or by New York State lands designated as Wilderness, it is in the fullest sense primeval. » Continue Reading.
Amy and I had tarried too long in town, visiting friends, getting a tour of a local art collection, enjoying a leisurely holiday pace. We did not start the long climb up to Lost Brook Tract until after 2 PM with a scant two hours of daylight remaining. It was an icy climb and even with trekking poles to help lever the ascent our progress was halting. By the time we were three miles in and two thousand feet up, nearing the junction where the way to Lost Brook Tract leaves any hiking trail altogether, it was close to pitch black with spotty freezing rain. We didn’t mind as hiking in the dark is fun. But we were about to be stupid… well, not so much “we” as me. » Continue Reading.
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