Thursday, April 22, 2010

Adirondacks Forest Ranger Report (April 2010)

What follows is the Forest Ranger Activity Report for April 6 through April 18 for DEC Region 5, which includes most of the Adirondack region. These reports are issued periodically by the DEC and printed here at the Almanack in their entirety. They are organized by county, and date.

Clinton County

Town of Beekmantown, Private Lands

On Monday, April 5, 2010, at 6:40 AM, DEC Dispatch received a call from New York State Police Plattsburgh requesting assistance locating Kim McDonald, 56, of West Chazy, NY. The State Police had information that led them to believe that Mr. McDonald may have intended to harm himself. DEC Forest Rangers responded and along with NY State Troopers began a search of the area. At approximately 9:00 AM, the Mr. McDonald was located in a swamp behind his house. He was missing his shoes, suffering from exposure, and had superficial wounds to his face, feet and hands. He was carried out of the woods and transported to CVPH Medical Center. » Continue Reading.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

DEC Adopts New Fishing Regulations

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has announced that changes to the state’s freshwater fishing regulations will become effective on October 1, 2010.

Among the most important changes to local anglers is the elimination of the special allowance for five extra brook trout less than eight inches. With the exception of certain water body-specific regulations, the daily limit is now five trout of any size.

Changes locally also include the elimination of special regulations for pickerel in several local waters, for northern pike in Adirondack Lake (Hamilton County), and for yellow perch and sunfish in Clinton, Essex, Franklin and Hamilton Counties (including Schroon Lake); statewide regulations will now apply. The open season for trout in Glen Lake (Warren County) has been extended for ice fishing, and the minimum size limit for lake trout in Lake Bonaparte (Lewis County) has been reduced to 18 inches.

The changes to the freshwater regulations are the result of a two-year process during which DEC solicited public feedback during the development of the proposals, and also provided a comment period for public input on the draft rules.

The full text of the new 2010-2012 regulations can be viewed on the DEC website.

The DEC is encouraging outdoor enthusiasts to consider purchasing a Habitat/Access Stamp, an optional stamp that helps support the DEC’s efforts to conserve habitat and increase public access for fish and wildlife-related recreation. Buying the $5 stamp is a way to help conserve New York’s wildlife heritage. More information about purchasing a Habitat Stamp is available at http://www.dec.ny.gov/permits/329.html


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Northern Forest Paddlers Film Festival Friday

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) will bring its Northern Forest Paddlers Film Festival to Lake Placid on Friday, April 16 at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. Doors open at 6:00 p.m. and screenings begin at 7:00 p.m.

Four documentary films and a clay-animated short will cover a range of themes on recreational canoeing and kayaking from exploring the Antarctic peninsula and Inside Passage, to finding record whitewater kayak waterfall runs and building a traditional birch bark canoe.

The lineup of films:

– Selections from Terra Antarctica: Rediscovering the Seventh Continent (20 min) An up-close look at the iceberg and turquoise blue water landscape of the Antarctic Peninsula by sea kayak.

– Selections from Dream Result (30 min). A group of extreme whitewater kayakers explore wild rivers and monster waterfalls in Canada, Chile, and Scandinavia, and one dares the world record descent of 186-foot Palouse Falls in Washington.

– Earl’s Canoe (30 min). Follow Ojibwe Nation member Earl Nyholm as he builds an Ojibwe birch bark canoe on Madeleine Island, Wisconsin, using traditional tools and methods.

– Paddle to Seattle (50 min). This independent documentary chronicles the journey of two intrepid adventurers paddling handmade wooden Pygmy kayaks from Alaska to Seattle via the 1,300-mile Inside Passage.

– Kayaking is Not a Crime (7 min). A clay-animated short with a fun pro-kayaking message created by young New York filmmaker Ben Doran.

All proceeds from the festival will benefit NFCT programs and stewardship activities along the canoe and kayak waterway that begins in Old Forge and stretches for 740 miles to northern Maine. There will be paddling-related door prizes and a silent auction.

Tickets are $8 for students and $10 in advance or $12 at the door for adults. Tickets can be reserved by calling the Lake Placid Center for the Arts at .


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Alan Wechsler: Suggested Hikes For Mud Season

It was T.S. Eliot who wrote “April is the cruellest month.” He also wrote, in his epic poem “The Waste Lands”: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

Substitute “mud” for “dust,” and Eliot might have been talking about the Adirondacks after the snow melts (although, you want to talk about cruel, let’s talk black flies …but that’s a subject for another post).

Anyway, as we reach the spring mud season, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation issues its annual “please don’t hike on muddy High Peaks trails” request, may we suggest a few dryer alternatives?

For starters, cast your eyes southward. The Lake George region, which gets much less snowfall than other areas in the park, is also one of the first places to warm up in the spring. There’s enough hikes there to last a full season, but we can easily recommend a few: » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Long-Time Hiking Advocate Fred Schroeder Remembered

More than 200 people came to an Albany church April 1 to pay homage to Fred Schroeder, an avid hiker who introduced the Adirondacks to hundreds of underprivileged boys.

Schroeder, who lived in an assisted living center in Bethlehem (Albany County) with his wife Martha, died March 18 at the age of 85.

Schroeder, a long-time director at several branches of the Albany Boys Club, also directed the group’s Camp Thacher in the nearby Helderbergs every summer until it closed a few years ago. Part of that work included introducing the boys to hikes and camping trips around the nearby woods. And those who excelled at woodscraft were later invited to the Adirondacks.

One of those boys was John Antonio, now a retired music teacher living in the Albany suburb of Colonie.

“For many of us it was our first encounter with the forest,” said Antonio, who spoke at Schroeder’s memorial service.

Antonio’s first Adirondack mountain was Noonmark. The popular peak in Keene Valley, with its 360-degree view of the Great Range and beyond, was Schroeder’s favorite. Antonio grew up to be a counselor at the camp, and began to lead his own trips to Noonmark and other peaks.

“Every hike I go on from now on, his name will probably be mentioned,” Antonio said. “He introduced so many people (to the mountains), it’s amazing.”

Schroeder had very personal reasons for working with city children: he grew up in orphanages in New York City until graduating high school. He also served in Europe during World War II.

He was a member of the Adirondack 46ers, the Catskill 3500 Club, the New England 111 Club (whose members must climb all peaks over 4,000 feet in New York and New England). He was active with the Adirondack Mountain Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Taconic Hiking Club, the New York New Jersey Trail Conference, and the Long Path North Hiking Club. He also designed and organized the development and maintenance of miles of hiking trails.

In 1998, Fred and his wife provided the funds to build and endow the Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center on the grounds of the former Camp Thacher.

For the past 30 years, he was an active member of the Albany chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, leading weekly hikes to the Adirondacks and every other mountain range within a two-hour drive of Albany. Even later in life , his hiking pace astounded his friends.

“When I met him he was in his 60s, and he could hike anything,” said friend Karen Ross.

To read more about Schroeder, click here.


Monday, April 5, 2010

DEC Region 5 Forest Ranger Report (Feb – Mar 2010)

What follows is the Forest Ranger Activity Report for February 6 through March 21 for DEC Region 5, which includes most of the Adirondack region. These reports are issued periodically by the DEC and printed here at the Almanack in their entirety. They are organized by county, and date.

Essex County

Town of North Elba, High Peaks Wilderness Area

At noon on Saturday February 27, 2010, an avalanche occurred on a slide on the northeast side of Wright Peak. The two skiers that triggered the slide were partially buried in the avalanche but were able to rescue themselves. » Continue Reading.


Sunday, April 4, 2010

Don Morris: Paddling Spring Snowmelt is ‘Snow Big Deal’

It’s springtime! While it’s still a bit early to be paddling lakes, the rivers have opened up and have been ready to paddle for a few weeks now. Let’s discuss the extent to which snowmelt contributes to being able to paddle rivers in the spring.

Every year friends and co-workers who know that I’m a paddler ask if I’m excited about this year’s snowmelt and I always give the same answer – Yes, but for the most part it’s not the snowmelt as much as it is the saturated ground and the rainfall.

In my years of springtime paddling, it seems to me that most of our snowpack has come and gone before the rivers get high enough to paddle. This is almost certainly the case for the lower elevation rivers and those that have large expanses of wetlands and lakes (think the St. Regis and Saranac). My experience is that snowmelt does relatively little to bring these rivers up. Most of my runs on these rivers occur after decent rainfalls. The snowmelt saturates the lands around the rivers and the trees do not yet have their leaves. This results in a lot more of the rain winding up in the river itself. It’s not uncommon for a relatively small amount of rain (say a half-inch) to bring up a river in April. However, if you’re paddling the same river in mid-May, after the ground has dried and the leaves are out, it may take double or triple the amount of rain to result in a paddleable level.

The exceptions to this rule of thumb are the rivers that drain high, steep mountainsides—think the Ausable. For one, the high mountain snowpack is more substantial than that at lower elevations, so it extends later into the season. Also, there is more of a tendency for the meltwater to course down over rocky shelves, which don’t soak up water. Streams draining the higher mountains are sometimes not paddleable early in the morning but can become so later in the day, especially when it’s warm and sunny. You can often see this on graphs of gauge readings.

I planned on writing on this topic a while ago. However, I’ve noticed that this spring I’m paddling more on snowmelt than in most other years — that’s the problem with generalizations. I guess the river gods just wanted to make their point.

Photo: Wadhams Falls on the Bouquet River on March 31, 2010 Courtesy of Kathryn Cramer


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Alan Wechsler: Why I’ll Never Be A Winter 46-er

I was driving over Cascade Pass with a friend recently when we noticed all the cars parked near the trailhead to Cascade and Porter mountains, the two easiest of the 46 High Peaks.

Was there a party going on? There must have been hundreds of people climbing that peak on this warm Saturday in mid-March.

Then my friend hit upon it: it was the last day of winter. Anybody wanting to gain the honor of “Winter Forty-Sixer” needed to climb these peaks by the end of today, or have to wait another season. » Continue Reading.


Monday, March 29, 2010

After 30 Years, Some Adirondack Rivers Are Still in Limbo

Peruse the colorful Adirondack Park Agency land-use map and you’ll notice that many of the region’s rivers are overlain by strings of big black circles, small black circles, or open triangles. These rivers are part of the state’s Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System (WSR).

And then there are the eight rivers overlain by open circles. These are “study” rivers, candidates for the WSR system.

The legislature first asked the APA to study these rivers in the 1970s—more than thirty years ago—and the APA did recommend that all eight be added to the system, but apparently for political reasons, they never were.

The rivers are the Osgood, North Branch of the Saranac, North Branch of the Boquet, part of the Oswegatchie, Main Branch of the Grass, Pleasant Lake Stream, East Stony Creek, and the Branch.

In addition, the APA identified in the 1970s at least eight other waterways as potential study rivers: the Chubb, Little, Jessup, and Miami rivers, Hays Brook, Otter Creek, and Fall Stream.

WSR rivers receive an additional measure of protection from development—something that doesn’t always sit well with local politicians and landowners. This, no doubt, is the reason that no river has been added to the system since the late eighties.

The Adirondack Explorer brought attention to this issue in a series of articles five years ago. The articles inspired the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) to deploy a team of volunteers to paddle a number of rivers in the Park to ascertain whether they should be added to the system.

ADK Executive Director Neil Woodworth told me he hasn’t given up on the WSR initiative. As a matter of fact, the club has drafted a bill to declare the Chubb—a lovely stream that winds through the High Peaks Wilderness—a Wild river. This is the most protective designation.

Yet Woodworth said this isn’t the right time to introduce the legislation, not with environmentalists fighting to restore cash to the Environmental Protection Fund and waging other battles as well. “The bill is certainly important, but we have other issues and other priorities right now,” he said.

Although WSR provides some protection against development, critics say the restrictions need to be strengthened.

Consider the Chubb. The proposed Wild stretch passes through one parcel of private land where there used to be a small hunting cabin. Several years ago, the cabin was replaced by a large house. Even if the Chubb had been in the system, that would not have prevented the construction of the house. APA regulations allow landowners to replace an existing structure with another. The new structure can be bigger, taller, and more obtrusive, as long as it’s not closer to the water.

As of today, all or parts of fifty-one rivers in the Park—totaling more than 1,200 miles—belong to the system. It looks like we’ll have to wait till next year, or longer, to see if the Chubb becomes the fifty-second.

Photo by Phil Brown: a paddler on the Osgood River.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ice Climbing: Reflections on the Season’s End

A few days after we had climbed the Chiller Pillar, a one-pitch ice route near Whiteface Mountain, my ice-climbing partner Steve Goldstein of Latham called me up.

“If I had seen this article in Rock and Ice, I might not have led that route,” he told me.

“What article?”

“A climber was critically injured in Colorado. He was climbing an ice pillar and it collapsed under him.”

“Oh. Would that have kept you from climbing the route?”

“I dunno,” he said. “Maybe.”

It’s easy to ponder the transitory nature of ice when you’re climbing it. Rock-climbing routes rarely change. You can climb a face once, come back ten years later and the holds will still be the same. In fact, a critical hold breaking off a popular route often makes news in climbing circles.

Ice routes change not only year to year but week to week. In fact, ice can change even as you’re on it, turning softer and wetter from the sun. And it’s quite common for large pieces of ice to fall off as you ascend, hacking and skewering your way up the face.

Ice climbing is surely more dangerous than rock, and never more than when the temperature goes up. In February, 2002 a climber was killed at Pok-O-Moonshine while climbing the Adirondack classic testpiece Positive Thinking. The route detached from the wall when the climber about a hundred feet off the ground.

The first pitch is thin to begin with. It’s more of a veneer of ice, pasted to a featureless rock slab for a hundred feet. It also faces east. “A few hours of strong sunshine causes the ice to detach from the smooth, crackles rock,” reports Don Mellor in the book Blue Lines, the region’s ice-climbing guidebook. Even in the best weather, he adds, “the first pitch is often a frightening, crackless shell.”

As the weather warms, ice routes disappear. At this point, there’s only a few routes left – thick, protected from sunshine and at higher elevations, according to Rock and River’s climbing site. We climbed at Pitchoff Mountain’s North Face last Saturday, in fact, and Central Pillar was in fine condition, albeit soaking wet.

Warm-weather ice climbing has its advantages. Pick placements are easy to make in the soft ice, and you don’t risk frostbite while belaying. On the down side, you get sponge-wet gloves from dripping routes. And routes tend to disappear quickly.

Yet with an end to the season well in sight, it’s hard to say no to one more trip.

Which brings me back to Steve and the article he saw in Rock and Ice, a popular climbing magazine. The article told of a severe injury on The Fang, a freestanding pillar of ice near Vail, Co. A climber, who had spent 15 years preparing to ascend this Rocky Mountain jewel, fell a hundred feet when the six-foot-wide ice formation collapsed beneath him.

It was a dangerous route, but very different from Chiller Pillar. Still, it was just as well Steve hadn’t read the story yet. And we approached our route with caution.

The Pillar had a strange look to it – more like white frosting than blue water ice. And there was a horizontal crack only a few feet from the top, which meant the climb had settled at some point, detaching from the final few feet.

Yet is was a cool day, with no sunshine to cause undue melting. The route was thick, and tapered from the bottom to the top. The wall around it looked dry, and the ice itself held the test-screws we placed at the base.

“You can top-rope it,” I told Steve. That meant we could scramble up an easier way and set up a rope on the top, which would hold him in case the ice collapsed.

“I should be OK,” he said, and began to tie into the rope to prepare to lead.

Safe ice climbing is about knowing the conditions, and making judgment calls. At the end of the day, though, there’s a bit of faith involved. You believe you are strong enough to climb to the top, and you believe the ice is strong enough to hold you up.

In this case, both climber and ice rose to the occasion. But I stood far back from the route as I belayed him. Just in case.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Phil Brown: Wider Backcountry Ski Trails?

At a recent public hearing in Keene, more than a dozen people spoke in favor of keeping the fire tower on Hurricane Mountain. Several others spoke in favor of keeping the lean-to along Gulf Brook. And one person spoke in favor of improving trails for backcountry skiing.

That would be Ron Konowitz.

Konowitz, a Keene schoolteacher, has long been one of the region’s most passionate and adventurous backcountry skiers. He is the only person to have skied all forty-six of the High Peaks. In a typical year, he skis more than 150 days.

Whenever I ski with Ron, he fills my ear with complaints about how backcountry skiers are getting a raw deal in the Adirondacks. I heard them again one afternoon last weekend when we skied the first five miles of the Mount Marcy trail from Adirondak Loj.

Since I’m a backcountry skier, you might say I’m biased, but I think he has a point.

One problem is that the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan—the document that guides management of the Forest Preserve—fails to recognize Ron’s sport. This is not surprising, because few people pursued this sport back in the early 1970s, when the plan was written.

I’m referring to down-mountain backcountry skiing—climbing and descending a peak, slide path, or steep glade.

The State Land Master Plan does recognize ski touring, or cross-country skiing, but this isn’t the same thing. The plan requires that cross-country trails must have “the same dimensions and character” as foot trails. Generally, skiers are sharing hiking trails, but in any case, a ski or foot trail is supposed to be only six feet wide. That’s okay if you’re skiing over gently rolling terrain, but for safety’s sake you need more room to make turns and control your speed when descending steep slopes. That’s just common sense.

Down-mountain skiing in the backcountry has grown greatly in popularity over the past twenty years, thanks to improvements in backcountry equipment: wider, shaped skis, plastic boots, and beefier bindings. At the same time, snowshoeing also has grown in popularity. So we now have more skiers and more winter hikers sharing the same narrow trails.

One solution would be to widen, only where necessary, those trails commonly used by down-mountain skiers. This is not a new idea: a 1952 state brochure titled “Lake Placid Trails” notes that “in 1936 the original Van Hoevenberg Trail was conditioned for skiing.” This was in the era before lift-service resorts lured skiers out of the woods. Over the decades, the trail has been allowed to grow back in to its current dimensions.

As Ron and I ascended the Van Hoevenberg Trail along Phelps Brook the other day, he pointed out the older trees off to the sides that once marked the boundaries of the trail. Clearly, the older trail was several feet wider.

What’s more, Ron said this section of trail was once reserved for skiing. Since the 1970s, it has been used by hikers as well and has been eroded as a result of heavy foot traffic in summer. A similar thing happened to the old Wright Peak Ski Trail. Hikers once used a different trail, but when that trail became eroded, DEC closed it and moved hikers to the lower section of the ski trail. Since then, this part of the ski trail has become eroded and grown in. Skiers now dodge rocks, trees, and snowshoers on the descent.

In an earlier post, I noted that Tony Goodwin of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council has proposed an easy fix for the Wright situation: reopening the old hiking trail as a ski trail, deploying volunteer labor. It shouldn’t cost the state a dime, but DEC isn’t interested. Nor does DEC seem inclined to widen trails to accommodate down-mountain skiers.

In contrast, DEC spent a great deal of time and money on writing new guidelines for snowmobile trails in response to complaints from the snowmobiling community. The guidelines were approved by the Adirondack Park Agency last year.

Like ski trails, snowmobile trails are required by the State Land Master Plan to retain the character of a foot trail. Yet DEC’s new guidelines allow snowmobile trails to be up to twelve feet wide in places.

Proponents say the snowmobile guidelines are needed for safety. They note that snowmobiling has changed: today’s snow sleds are bigger and faster than those of yesteryear.

Well, backcountry skiing has changed, too. We need to talk about that.

Photo by Phil Brown: Ron Konowitz at Indian Falls. Video taken along Phelps Brook.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Skiing the Top of New York — Badly

Mount Marcy, you are a fickle temptress.

Every year I skin up and ski down this mountain, at 5,344 feet the highest in the state. Sometimes twice. The 14-mile route is considered by many to be one of the finest backcountry tours on the East Coast.

All these trips, and I still can’t help feeling on the way down that I’m about to die.

Mind you, my ski gear has improved significantly from the first time nearly 20 years ago, when I used cross-country skis and boots so floppy that when I sat down and held my legs out in front of me the skis ticked back and forth like a metronome.

Today, I use telemark skis and plastic boots. I wear safety goggles. But I still can’t shake the feeling that around every curve is sure to be a fatal collision with a blue spruce tree or an overweight snowshoer.

Fear is my undoing, because it’s not my terrible skiing that turns a ski down Mt. Marcy to a fall down Mt. Marcy. It’s the speed, which makes me want to stop, which then causes me to fall. The only good side of this is that there’s not a chairlift in sight, so at least no one’s watching.

Marcy, being New York’s highest mountain, has always attracted visitors. And the extra bonus is that the trail was made for skiing. Unfortunately, it was made for skiers who clearly don’t mind shooting pell-mell down a tobaggan-run of a trail so curvy you never know what’s 20 feet ahead until you’ve risked becoming intimately acquainted with it.

I’ve always been envious of those who can ski down this trail with grace and poise. A few years ago, I was doing my usual ass-over-teakettle descent when I passed Tony Goodwin, the local trail guru. He was calmly and methodically descending the mountain on his old leather boots and cross-country skis, carving out a perfect snowplow in the spring powder as I blundered by. How did he do it?

I’ve had some good descents, generally dependent on snow conditions. Powder slows you down a lot, and makes turning easier, as does wet spring snow. During my most recent descent, with Adirondack Explorer Editor Phil Brown, the snow was powdery but also quite fast. Phil fell once. I lost track of the times that I threw my hurling body to the ground. But I made it down unpunctured by errant tree branch and uncontusioned by face plants.

The record for descent from peak to trailhead, as I understand it, is about 43 minutes. That’s by local skimeister Pat Munn of the famed Ski to Die Club, who was accompanied by his dog Otis. The time includes the few minutes he used to chat with friends at Marcy Dam. Doubtless he stayed upright the entire time. My descent time was more like two hours, though Phil and I did stop to take pictures (and a video, which you can see here).

Why do I keep coming back? Mt. Marcy is the consummate backcountry ski experience: a long skin up, a treeless summit (sometimes with a bowl filled with powder just below the top) and 3,000 feet of vertical drop that is — well, no matter what your skill level — never boring.

You push your way up, with each step the view growing more and more impressive. And then, on a perfect day, the top is bathed in sunshine; the summit cone standing out like a tower amid the stunted forest below treeline; the High Peak’s most rugged peaks are your closest neighbors.

At the top, you fuel up on food and water, rip off your skins and prepare for the long descent. In Phil’s case, he brought a ski helmet. I just wore my fear. And some safety glasses.

Still, for all my sloppy schussing, I’ll keep coming back. The effort, the view (or the white-out, as was the case this year), and that exhausted feeling of satisfaction at the end makes it all worth it.

And the knowledge that with every trip I’m learning. Some day, I know, I’ll ski it clean.

* * *
Interested in skiing Marcy? Park at Adirondack Loj near Lake Placid (fee), and plan for five to seven hours for the round-trip. Backcountry ski gear is available for rent at The Mountaineer in Keene Valley and EMS in Lake Placid. The Visitor’s Center at the Loj parking lot also rents ski gear, but most skiers may find the equipment more suited to lower-angle trails than the steep slopes on Marcy. Remember not to go too fast!


Monday, March 15, 2010

Wright Peak Avalanche Survivor Tells His Story

The Adirondack Almanack is pleased to have the unique opportunity to present the first-hand experience of Ian Measeck of Glens Falls, who along with Jamie McNeill of Vergennes, Vermont was caught in an avalanche on Angel Slide, Wright Peak on February 27th. The potentially deadly avalanche occurred just a month after Phil Brown wrote A Short History of Adirondack Avalanches. Phil reported a week ago that Angel Slide was still unsafe. What follows is Measeck’s story in his own words:

The day had turned sunny with the slightest hint of spring. I pulled in to my driveway and saw my wife and two year old daughter standing in the picture window at the front of the house. My daughter, Charlotte, had nothing but her diaper on and judging by the look on her face it was Christmas morning. I was so happy; I couldn’t get inside fast enough. Earlier in the day, I had almost died in an avalanche. Those were not words that I considered myself likely to write or even think.

On Saturday February 27th, Jamie Mc Neill and I planned to ski the Angel Slide on Wright peak. I had been there before on several occasions and it seemed a reasonable choice this day in order to make as many turns as possible. There had been a significant snowfall earlier in the week but it was wet and heavy. Realizing the potential risk for avalanche, we brought transceivers, shovels, and probes. The day started overcast with scattered flurries but contained a slight promise of sun.

We both felt good so the ski in was brisk and proved a nice warm up for the day. We followed a broken ski track towards the base of the slide. When we were about level with the base of the slide, the ski track continued up and left. Here we turned right to access the slide. At the base I dug a test pit on a slope that I thought was fairly representative of the slide’s average slope. I saw no weak layer or unconsolidated snow that would lead me to believe there was high avy danger, so we headed up and right towards the right “skinny” side, with the intention of digging another pit part-way at a group of trees. We never got the chance. [Since the incident I’ve learned that there were several problems with my test pit. A sobering thought that sometimes we know just enough to get into trouble but not enough to keep out of it.]

A quarter of the way up the slide we heard an unsettling “whoomp” Recognizing its significance, we both said “I’m not too sure about this” nearly in unison. Since we were 30 -40 feet apart and halfway across the slide, the plan was to continue to the trees to dig another pit and reassess. Moments after we uttered the words a wisp of snow caught my eye as if the wind were beginning to blow it around. I glanced up in time to see a cloudy wall of snow speeding down the slide. I turned to try to ski down and left out of the avalanche path but I still had skins on so I was, in effect, immobilized.

I don’t remember any pain when the avalanche struck me. The sensation is best described as almost instant acceleration in a river of wet cement. I was suddenly surrounded by this flowing snow bank. I have no idea how fast it was moving and I don’t remember much aside from the dark, the fear, and the thought that I had to try to stay on top of it somehow. I don’t think I tumbled, and maybe my skis helped to stabilize me. [Although, I’ve been told after that it’s better for the bindings to release because the skis can actually pull you under.] I was strangely cognizant of my surroundings and as I realized I couldn’t stop myself or get out, I tried to keep the area in front of my face clear. I remember the thought crossing my mind that I was most likely going to die, but it was brief and fleeting. Almost like an irrelevant thought that my mind didn’t have time for or was unwilling to process.

As quick as it began, everything stopped and my face was out of the snow. I was buried lying on my back. I couldn’t move my legs or arms…but I was alive! I could see the sun, the sky, and I could breathe! I was alive! Everything in me wanted out of that hole, but I was alive! Panic and fear had coursed instantly and fully through my body. It was then I remembered Jamie, and screamed his name. I heard no reply, only the mountain silence. I became frantic. I could move my left hand and after much struggle, managed to free it. My pack was holding me down and I had a difficult time loosening the straps.

What seemed like an eternity passed but was probably only a few minutes? I had snow packed in everywhere but I didn’t hurt. I screamed for Jamie again. At that moment my sole focus was on him. I switched my transceiver to receive and spastically tore at my pack to get the shovel and probe. No signal on the beacon so I started back up the slide. He started above me so I could only hope he had stopped above me. I screamed again and heard nothing, but I began to get a signal. As I scrambled up the slide I heard a call. I stopped, yelled, and listened. Jamie returned my call –he was ok- but stuck. The wave of relief was indescribable. Just over a small rise he had been stopped by a rotten stump. He was alive, and uninjured. Alive! I didn’t spend time thinking about what if he’d been buried. That thought passed as quickly as the death thought had earlier. We were alive.

I had slid more than the length of a football field, and I hadn’t hit anything. I stopped with my face above the snow. Jamie had stopped with his legs wrapped around a tree stump, yet no broken bones. All we had to show for this experience was a couple of nasty bruises and scrapes, a broken pole and one less ski. It was unbelievable considering what could have happened. And people say God doesn’t exist.

The following day, I spent the most of my waking hours playing with my daughter. The furthest away from the house I got was the corn field across the road. I couldn’t shake the flashbacks of getting swept away in the slide and the panic that ensued. That evening, I received my first phone call from a reporter. I was offended at first. I saw it as audacious to tell thousands of people about my intimate brush with death. I began to soften and the logical part of my brain took over to convince the crazy part that Adirondack avalanches are rare. Even more of a rarity are survivors that walk away to talk about it. People could learn from my experience and mistakes, and if that kept someone else alive then I was more than willing to let my ego take a hit.

Work was nice to return to, if only to occupy my mind with a sense of normalcy. I continued to have flashbacks of getting swept away followed by a wave of panic. The incident, as I now like to call it, only lasted a few moments but living with the memories and constant retellings has, perhaps, been the more difficult part. Everyone wants to talk about it, and I can understand that so I try to be patient. The trouble is I relive it slightly every time I tell the story. But more, it’s the shame. I feel ashamed that I got into a situation that I wasn’t smart enough, or I didn’t know better, to avoid. I almost died because I was wrong; because I was stupid.

Two weeks have passed now and I’ve stopped having flashbacks. The questions, comments, and jokes have subsided at work. Life seems to be back to normal, but I still remember. For most, the almost complete lack of physical injury diminishes the severity of my experience. Only I really know how close I came to death. I have noticed small changes in my psyche. I’m certainly content moving slower and certain things don’t really seem as important as they used to. But most importantly, my family is without a doubt the most beautiful thing in the world, and I am a blessed man to be here to see that.

Photo of Angel Slides on Wright Peak from Wikipedia.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Northern Forest Canoe Trail Improvements, New Guide Book

Kayakers and canoeists will find improved portage trails, new and rehabilitated campsites, and new information kiosks for the 2010 paddling season along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) between New York and Maine.

Trail staff and volunteers completed projects last year on the historic 740-mile waterway in New York, Vermont, Québec, Canada; New Hampshire and Maine. The first official guidebook to the trail will be released by the end of the month and will include 320 Pages, 100 black and white and 35 color photos, and six maps. Here are the improvements made for 2010 in New York:

Overgrowth was cleared from the Buttermilk Falls and Deerland portage trails. The trails were signed and a 25-foot stone causeway was built.

A 20-step stone staircase was built on the Permanent Rapids portage trail just south of Franklin Falls Pond. Eight campsites were rehabilitated in the Franklin Falls area, and 100 saplings were planted at locations of impact and erosion in the region.

A dilapidated cabin was removed and two new campsite areas were installed on Upper Saranac Lake.

A kiosk was installed at the Green Street boat launch on the Saranac River in Plattsburgh.

The NFCT now has more than 150 public access points in four states and Canada, and more than 470 individual campsites on public and private land. An interactive online map gives paddlers a detailed look at the 13 sections of the trail and nearby accommodations, services and attractions.

Other resources include the new Official Guidebook to the NFCT and water resistant trail section maps. These can be found on the NFCT Web site, at specialty outdoor retailers, outfitters along the trail, and at booksellers.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wilderness Travel: In Praise of Humanity’s Footprint

Yesterday, I climbed Allen Mountain.

At 4,340 feet high, Allen is the state’s 26th tallest peak (this is a view of Marcy and Haystack from the top). Its summit is wooded, though thin enough to afford a number of tantalizing views, especially in winter. But its reputation has been formed not by its height or its aesthetic qualities, but by its remoteness: it’s considered one of the hardest of the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks to reach.

To get there, you have to follow a trail for about five miles to Twin Brook, site of a former lean-to, from a parking lot near Upper Works. From there, you follow a herd path marked by occasional ribbons and homemade markers through the woods and up a steep slide to the top. By my reckoning, the round-trip distance is around 18 miles.

Allen appealed to me on this day because I had just read on the web site Views from the Top (a great place to learn about trail conditions) that a large group of peak-baggers had blazed a trail through deep snow to the summit, which would make things easier for me.

I could follow their route on cross-country skis for at least six miles, then bareboot the trail — now as firm as concrete — to the base of the slide without fear of postholing, and then slap on snowshoes for the final, steep ascent to the top. Which is what I did, making the summit after 5 1/2 hours of moderate exercise (and some huffing and puffing toward the end).

When I got to the top — this was the first “trailless” high peak I’ve climbed in many years — I saw the wooden sign that said “Allen.” And that got me thinking.

For decades, the summits of these trailless peaks (that is, no official trail, though most have herdpaths) were marked by metal canisters, eventually replaced by plastic ones. These canisters contained notebooks, which peak-baggers would sign. It was always fun to read the observations of those who passed before you, and add your own to the mix.

Then, nine years ago, the state demanded their removal. Canisters, the bureaucrats said, were a non-conforming structure. But a wooden sign was OK. The decision outraged dozens of hikers at the time, but the canisters were eventually removed.

So there I was on this beautiful day on this beautiful summit, contemplating the logic of this declaration. I had just traversed the woods, following the snowshoe prints of a dozen hikers, crossing two man-made bridges, along snow-covered dirt roads and trails cleared by man, following trail markers nailed to trees by man, past wooden signs pointing the way, up a route made by thousands of hikers over many decades, to a summit, where a wooden sign told me I had reached the top.

And according to the state, this was a wilderness experience because a canister had been removed.

Looking back a decade, it all seems rather silly. The notebook would have been fun for me to read — although, given the distance I had to traverse to get back to my car before sunset, I barely had time to eat lunch. But the summit was just as thrilling either way.

What can we learn from all this? Well, I’ve always found it silly to say what’s “conforming” and what isn’t in a wilderness. If we don’t want any signs of mankind in the woods, we should not have trails, bridges, markers or anything else.

But if we want to hike safely — and reach a remote site in a reasonable amount of time — we should accept the fact that wilderness can’t be entirely “pure.” We need trails and bridges, markers and arrows, so folks don’t get lost. And those who think such contrivances will ruin a wilderness experience? Go bushwhack something.

All I know is I would not have dared this hike if others had not stamped the route out for me. And I got back to my car by sunset, too. Where I remembered to sign the trailhead register before leaving.


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