Backpacking: Day 3

Day three was the day were supposed to exit the woods, sweaty but exultant, and appropriately “beat up”–as per our expressed wish, told to the gentleman at the start of our trek.

Be careful what you…well, you know.

Our 5:30 AM wake-up call came in the form of a monster thunderstorm. Fortunately we were safe inside our lean-to and could enjoy the cracks of lightning that raised the hairs on our arms and the deafening thunder that shook the lean-to and echoed around in our chests. It was exhilarating, truly.

We rose as the worst of the storm passed and cooked breakfast under the shelter then walked down to the stream to filter water for the hike out. Yesterday’s sandy beach was now under water. And the water in the creek was getting muddier by the minute. Ah, runoff, we thought. Of course. From the storm. Well, we’ll just have to filter somewhere along the trail.

Over the next twenty minutes, the stream rose at an alarming rate and its flow increased in speed. Muddy whitecaps were forming and the roar began to approach deafening. During one of my tentative approaches, a huge tree trunk came barreling downstream crashing into rocks as it was propelled forward. This was when my morning grits began to roll around uneasily in my stomach.

Still, we hit the trail, retracing our steps and telling ourselves we just might have to leave our boots on to cross Calahan Brook, which would surely also be higher than normal.

Optimism can be a friend on the trail. It can also be your worst enemy.

We broke camp at 8:30 and I braced myself for another trip through the insanity of Mosquito Alley which was, if anything, even worse than the day before: the added humidity fogged up my glasses and blurred my vision as I quickened my pace and swung my arms and cursed the gods that made mosquitoes.

About a quarter of a mile shy of Calahan Brook my stomach made another lurch. I was in front, having not relinquished my Mosquito Alley pace, but I slowed down as I sensed what lay around the bend. Was the ground actually shuddering beneath my boots? Was that continuously rolling thunder I was hearing? I stopped, turned, gave my husband a meaningful look and rounded the bend in the trail that would reveal Calahan Brook.

The small beach of rocks where we had sat to reapply our boots the day before was under a good two or three feet of raging water. The brook was an angry, rushing, twelve foot wide torrent of mud and debris. For ten full minutes we entertained denial and insane optimism as we tried to figure out how we might yet get across. We hiked upstream to see if there were boulders high enough, or a downed tree that we could shimmy along to reach the other side. Reason soon took hold, though, and we realized that even if we made it across this one, there was another creek to cross, and no guarantee that the water was not still rising. Visions of that careening tree trunk I had witnessed morphed into a full-blown fantasy of destruction as I pictured one of us falling in or getting caught mid-stream and crushed before we could get out of the way.

Finally, we did the only thing we could do. We hiked back through Mosquito Alley, back to our starting point, and arrived at noon to reassess our options. I stripped off my wet gear and laid everything out to dry while we consulted the map. Should we wait for the waters to recede, spend another night and hike out the next day? We had an extra day’s worth of food, but a quick listen to our weather radio told us more thunderstorms were forecasted. No, we could not wait this one out. The map showed that the trail we were on continued west and eventually met up with a road after about twelve or so miles (we had already hiked three-and-a-half). We could go that route and hitchhike back to the car…except that trail also crossed a number of creeks…should we head that way only to possibly have to turn back again?

As we studied our options, a helicopter flew low and nearby, hovering for several minutes. It was an ominous, out-of-place sound and we searched the sky but could not spot it. Later we learned that a young teenaged boy had drowned nearby. Were we hearing the sound of a body retrieval?

We realized that if we were to get out that day we would have to think of other, less obvious options. The map showed that the trail we eventually hoped to hook up with could be reached by an old logging trail that went halfway around Moose Pond (I would have called it a lake–it was very large, but what do I know about the nomenclature of bodies of water?). And Moose Pond Stream–which had the only bridge on the whole trail right there at our lean-to–emptied from Moose Pond, flowing north. Consequently, no creeks emptied into it from the west. If we were to cross the bridge over Moose Pond Stream and stay to the west of it (not a problem–there was no crossing that bad boy), hug the stream and bushwhack, we would eventually reach Moose Pond, yes? Then we could hug Moose Pond until we reached the old logging trail. It could work.

Old Optimism (ever our pal) took a look at that map and said, “It looks to be about three miles to the lake. The contour lines show it’s pretty flat. Let’s do it!”

So we did. We redressed and launched off feeling very clever and proud of ourselves and we started to bushwhack. I’d tell you all about that experience, but the thing is, it’s pretty murky. And troubling to remember. I can tell you that it was more like seven miles than three, not counting all the swamps and blowdowns and inlets we had to hike around. It was hot, and buggier than I can describe, and the forests were so thick with undergrowth we had to literally fight our way through.

Each small rise or clearing visible through the trees gave us giddy, unreasonable hope. Was it the lake? Upon reaching the rise or the clearing we were invariably faced with but a different obstacle. Two that made our hearts drop into our boots and utter the mother of all expletives, swearing to sit down and quit forever were the immense stands of hobblebush (long, intertwining shrubs that cling fiercely to one another, making passage nearly impossible) and the areas of six-foot high pines so thick that we scratched our faces and arms as we pushed desperately through them.

We took turns giving up and then bolstering each other back to the non-existent trail. We broke out the Tylenol and the ginseng energy packets. We cursed and stumbled and lost our way. The shadows began to lengthen and we did not know exactly where we were. Had we reached Moose Pond–the beacon that would set us to rights? We thought we had, but where was it? Then we lost sight of the stream and could not determine our location even with the compass and map.

It was the combination of my stubborn insistence that we go east–the sun was setting so we stepped on our shadows to ensure we went in a direction that would lead us either to the stream or the lake–and Len’s recognition of the characteristic slides of Santanoni Mountain that finally set us right. Oh, and the fact that when we did reach water, it was flowing north–Moose Pond Stream, we told ourselves. It had to be. But even with those landmarks, our optimism had betrayed us. We had thought we were farther along than we were. (We wondered briefly, had we missed the lake altogether?)

When you’re charting your own course, it’s the small things–the little setbacks that would be easily absorbed under normal circumstances–that prey on your psyche. When your whole body is under duress, and your mind is struggling to keep pace and think clearly through a haze of exhaustion, it’s the little things that get to you.

Especially the false hope. Each time we thought we had reached the lake–because we wanted to believe it more than anything, and because we had walked so terribly, terribly far–but found we hadn’t, the blow was especially crushing. It was like being dehydrated in the desert and seeing a mirage, running toward it gleefully and then being rewarded with handfuls of sand when you thought you were plunging your wrists into sparkling water.

And each time we had to stop and filter more water it was like admitting failure. We were still not where we needed to be and our punishment was to have to filter more water. Each pump of the handle was a swish of recrimination: Not there yet, not there yet, not there yet. It takes sixty pumps to fill a bottle.

As we struggled forward, our minds took hold of one simple fact: we needed to see the lake. Every other longing receded. Got to get to the lake. Got to see the lake. We must be almost there. We’ve got to be almost there.

When we finally topped yet another painful rise and saw the lake, it was an amazing feeling. Pick your metaphor, but be sure it includes a group of dirty, wandering outcasts standing on a ridge and viewing the promised land for the first time.

But even that gave us false hope, as we imagined that the rest of the way would be easy going. It wasn’t. We still had two hours of struggle ahead of us in waning daylight. A quick consultation of the map showed three inlets coming into the lake before we would reach the old logging road. Each one of those inlets (and there turned out to be four, not three, Mr. Mapmaker, but who’s counting?) represented a substantial rerouting that involved hiking downhill to the stream, walking upstream till we found a crossing point, hiking back downstream, and then hiking back up the other side…all while pushing through the aforementioned nasty hobblebushes and stands of aggressive young pines.

After passing the second inlet (or was it the third?) we spotted something bright red far ahead of us at the edge of the lake. “It’s a tent,” I said, wanting desperately for that to be true. “It’s got to be a tent.” It was not a naturally occurring red–not Cardinal Red or Wildflower Red, but Polyester Red or perhaps Ripstop-Nylon Red. And lo! We had a new set for our sights: Ripstop-Nylon Red, here we come!

But there were more moments of false hope to get through first. We came across herd trails or the remains of old wagon trails that would give us brief surges of elation, only to have them peter out or wind in hopelessly wrong directions. At one point we entered a clearing and found artifacts from an old Adirondack camp. A potter for ten years in my early life, making 18th century reproduction stoneware, I immediately spotted a shard from an old salt-fired crock, which I kept, adding to my pack weight, but hey, we were almost there! Then I spotted the door from an old wood-fired stove–Manufactured in Buffalo, NY, it proclaimed in a tidy cast-iron font. Suddenly my eyes could see everything that was old and man-made sticking out of the dirt. A tiny, cylindrical, handblown, green glass apothecary tube–intact–was the next treasure spotted. My husband collects small, old bottles; I handed it over with ceremonious pride.

In the previous century a law was passed pronouncing this portion of the high peaks Adirondacks “Wild New York” and any man-made structures were burned to allow the woods to return to their natural state. We had stumbled upon one such site. And there was a road that led away. We were there! We had made it! Visions of Dorothy and Toto flew to mind. Finally, a yellow brick road, and all we would have to do was follow it.

Only it died out, too. And we were dumped back into the woods, near the lake, at the end of another dead trail, some unknown distance from the campsite. It’s difficult to convey how literally spirit-crushing such hopes-proved-false can be. But they were. Are.

And summoning yet another round of we’re-almost-theres, we pushed on. And finally, finally, we found the real trail and the first campsite. I wanted to fall to the ground in the fading light and take this gift and set up camp, but unbelievably, Len said, “Let’s go a little farther. I’m not crazy about this one.”

My husband, the man with two heads who speaks in flaming tongues of fire. What had he just said? Keep going? No, no, surely not. Thankfully (for both of us), he was the one carrying the firearm in his pack and not me. I could be writing an obituary right now, instead of this epistle. But I walked on.

200 yards or so later we reached Ripstop-Nylon Red. And to my horror, it belonged to a life jacket bobbing far too ominously in the water at the front of a capsized canoe. I was sure there was a body underneath. As sure as I have been of anything. It was too creepy, too incongruous, too man-made a thing in the midst of our crazy survival adventure to be anything but a drowned human. I couldn’t look at it and couldn’t look away. Where were the arms? The bloated legs? The hair, floating above the submerged face? There wasn’t any. But I couldn’t seem to convince my mind of that no matter how I tried.

We set up camp, filtered water, shed our filthy, filthy clothes and boots and shared our last freeze-dried meal as the mosquitoes also feasted in the attractive glow of our headlamps. Then we fell into our bags–well, onto them, as it was still quite hot–and all this while trying not to hear the sounds of Ripstop-Nylon Red, dead in the water, lapping against the shore.

…Day 4 to follow.






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