Backpacking stories


On our first day in the woods, we set out, about 8AM, shiny and fresh with full packs and glad hearts. (Okay, you know right now that this isn’t going to end well…) We drove to the parking lot and donned our packs after a quick trip to the outhouse for a luxurious last-minute sit-down pee (well, for me, anyway). Boots, check. Matches, check. Food, check. Bear canister, check. Water filter, check. Rain gear, check. Certainly, we had everything we would need. At the start of the trail we met a generously white-haired, big-moustached fellow in rubber boots and red suspenders manning a team of white draft horses pulling a hay trailer with seats. “Want a ride?” the fellow asked. “I’ll take you both as far as Camp Santanoni for ten bucks.” “Nah,” we said, smiling. “Thanks anyway. We’re going to walk.” “How long you going in for?” he asked. “Three days.” “A ride now’d shave five miles off those three days.” “True, but we want to walk it all.” “Well, I’ll take your packs for free, then. Load ’em up in here. No charge.” “Wow, that’s very generous, but we really want to walk it, packs and all.” “You sure?” “Yeah.” [foreshadowing alert!] “Part of the experience is to really beat ourselves up. We like that.” Oh, how our words can come back to haunt us. So…we walked to Camp Santanoni, five miles, no biggie. The camp was amazing. Huge, built all of native wood harvested from the surrounding forest. It was built on Newcomb Lake in the 1800’s by a wealthy family as a retreat, and no expense was spared. On the way we passed the Santanoni Farm ruins which had a barn, a creamery, a piggery, a smokehouse, an icehouse, a chicken coop, a turkey run, and lots of cleared land for vegetables. The farm operations stocked the Camp during its heyday. All of these buildings are within the area designated as “Wild Adirondacks” by NY state, and so they are no longer allowed to be privately owned. But the camp is being restored by the town of Newcomb and it’s an amazing job they’re doing. It’s been placed on the National Historic Register and so will not be torn down. We also got an excellent tour by a young docent who is living there this summer and helping with the restorations. There were plenty of interesting old photographs, too, something Len and I both love. After the tour, we ate lunch and continued on our way. After consulting with the docent (“wet summer, soggy north trail”) we decided to take the south trail around the...

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Day two dawned bright and lovely. Newcomb Lake was still and flat and the surrounding mountains were so perfectly reflected that had you taken a picture (which we did) it would be impossible to discern which were the real mountains and which the reflected. We ate our respective breakfasts. Len likes sweet in the morning and so had oatmeal with raisins. I prefer savory and ate my homemade concoction of grits, garlic salt, parmesan cheese and pumpkin seeds. (When I premade the mixture at home I discovered we were out of sunflower seeds and so used pumpkin instead–not nearly as good–but hey–on the trail? You eat it.) We donned our nearly dry boots and I debated whether or not to break out my backup pair of thick, dry socks. The previous day’s walking had given me a blister which I tried to pop using Len’s hunting knife, but couldn’t. The skin was still too supple and the corresponding pressure of the blister didn’t offer enough resistance. Another troubling development involved my second toe, specifically the toenail. (I know, I know, TMI, but backpacking really is all about the feet.) My boots have been my faithful companions for hundreds of miles in the Adirondacks, the Grand Canyon and elsewhere. They fit well and don’t give me problems. But thanks to the combination of that sucking mud and the wetness that finally made it through the seams, my socks were being pushed down into my boots and congregating painfully against the toes. I also wasn’t crazy about the way that second toenail floated around when I pressed on it, but we had a lot of ground to cover so I rolled my fresh, dry socks down to the ankle to create a rim that would keep them up, repositioned my gaiters, and pressed on. Again, the trail was unbelievably wet, often with no way to go around the water; I immediately regretted wasting my dry socks. To cope, we became trail automatons, trudging straight through whatever we encountered. Running water? Meh. Splash, splash, splash. A blowdown across the trail? Psh. Crackle, snap, scrape. Our end point was a pair of lean-tos located on Moose Pond Stream. (So named because it is a stream that empties from Moose Pond and flows north. This tiny bit of information would prove to be very important on Day 3.) As I said before, this trail was so remote that we not only saw no other hikers, we saw no footprints. No signs of human activity. And the trail crossed two good-sized creeks. At the first creek, Len used his poles and stepped from rock to...

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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...

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I think I’ve put off writing about this day simply because in the grand scheme of the trip, it was fairly uneventful. It was the culmination of the trip, and yet there are no mighty struggles to recount, no hallucinations that I couldn’t escape, no extreme obstacles to overcome. Unless of course you count our battered feet as obstacles. Did you know that enough moleskin can actually keep a floating toenail in place for seven miles of hiking? And that not enough moleskin (never be stingy!) can actually be worse than none at all? As we dressed for the day, I was able to finally pop the ever-growing blister on my second toe with the hunting knife. (Note to self: add a safety pin to the first-aid kit for ease of blister popping.) Len’s left heel had developed a nasty maw of a thing–formed by a hot spot that became a blister that relinquished its skin to the repeated abuse and turned into what became affectionately known as the “gaping pus-hole.” (Len’s note to self: apply moleskin before the hot spot becomes a blister, and be sure to apply enough moleskin that it doesn’t come loose and abrade the area even more.) Our carrot-on-the-stick, our main reason for wanting desperately to get out of the woods and into civilization is a magical place called the Keene Valley Lodge, a place we go every year to recharge and reboot (literally). The owners, George and Laurie Daniels are hikers themselves and their Bed and Breakfast is as cozy and relaxing as home, without the need to cook and pick up after yourself, and their breakfasts are…is “legendary” too grand a word? Trust me when I say, if there was any way we could have gotten there on Tuesday, as our reservations stipulated, we would have. The Keene Valley Lodge was one of the enticements that helped get us through the woods, and even after we found the campsite on Day 3 at dusk, exhausted and hungry and beaten sore, we briefly contemplated donning our headlamps and hiking the last seven miles in the dark, just to get to the Lodge in time for breakfast Wednesday morning. As it would turn out, those last seven miles were covered in record time. Later in the week we calculated our total rough mileage (35 miles–a conservative estimate if you ask me, given all the walk-arounds we had to do) and time spent hiking (17 hours) and arrived at an average rate of 2mph. When bushwhacking, we were probably doing good at .5 mph, but on that last day we hiked seven miles in just...

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Our trip to the Grand Canyon was amazing. Backpacking in the canyon is a completely different experience from standing at the edge and snapping pictures. As grand as it is from the rim, you still can’t imagine the true vastness of the place until you have hiked down inside it…spent the night under an equally vast sky, filled with stars…and then hiked back up and out. Our trip started as we hiked down the Grand View Trail (carrying far too much stuff–we’ll go lighter next trip, promise) to Horseshoe Mesa, which was itself a daunting, 2,000-foot, downhill hike for two winter-pale northerners fresh out of their cocoons. But from Horseshoe Mesa we still had to hike down another 2,000 feet to Cottonwood Creek where we had been told we could find water and several flat places to pitch a tent (yes, we had a permit). But somehow we missed the turn-off for the shortcut to Cottonwood Creek. (In the continuing saga of dumb-luck-stories that is my life, this turned out to be a good thing, as a “shortcut” that involves a 2,000 foot altitude change with a 40 pound pack on one’s back down a steep gravel path is not a happy shortcut.) But this meant we had to drop three miles down the back side of the Mesa without another human in sight. (How quickly “no one around” can go from inducing a calm, peaceful state to causing out-and-out panic really would be an amazing timeline. Someone should do a study.) Our water supply was quickly dwindling. Hikers in the canyon must diligently replace body fluids lost from the sweat of exertion, the heat, and even from the low humidity. It is possible to become dangerously dehydrated in the Grand Canyon, even without sweating, and not sweating wasn’t an option for us. The canyon’s 7% average humidity was responsible for preserving the body of a hapless hiker whose mummified corpse became a tourist stop for more than sixty years before the body suddenly disappeared in the 1970’s. And we passed several conspicuous piles of tin cans left over from miners and prospectors who had tried to conquer the canyon in the 1800’s (an era when man’s dominion over nature was believed to be a biblical imperative). The cans were rusted, but completely intact, with the method of opening obvious to the point of being able to picture the miner cranking away at his stubborn tin with a pocket knife. Contrary to what most people believe, the temperature at the bottom of the canyon is much hotter than the temperature at the rim. About 40 degrees hotter, on any...

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