Vleis are marshy clearings often crisscrossed by streams and are commonly found throughout the Adirondacks. Ever since I first traversed this region, I have developed a healthy respect for these wetlands. They were the most similar thing to quicksand that I had encountered, and I had developed the not-altogether-unreasonable fear of crossing one in the dark and finding myself plunged deep into the muck, never to be heard from again. Now I found myself off-trail in the Adirondacks, balanced on a tussock in one of these vleis with a dozen braided, muddy river channels directly in my path.
This was not the adventure I had planned. THAT adventure had been a week-long traverse of the Adirondacks by packraft, incorporating some of the best whitewater the region had to offer. I had planned the route months in advance and then modified it over and over as river flow data became available causing me to cross off some of the smaller waterways. Finally, with one week to go, it became clear that I’d have to abandon the route completely. The Adirondack rivers were at all time lows, and local observers were reporting that even the Hudson River was a rock garden.
Unwilling to scrap the trip altogether, I hastily put together a new itinerary. The idea would be a fast and light traverse on foot, linking snowmobile routes, ski trails, established trails, and any other “lines” on the map to see the area in a different way. The total distance was 161 miles, approximately a marathon a day for six consecutive days. I knew that there would be some challenges related to this plan. Some trails might not exist anymore and others might not be publicly accessible. I’d be modifying my route on the fly if needed, and that would be part of the fun.
My trip began in the southern foothills of the Adirondacks at Glasgow Mills, a name on a map with no place associated with it, just a two-track disappearing into the woods. I took off on a snowmobile trail and was soon pleasantly surprised by the scenery.
The route was extremely wet and I was immediately thankful for the lightweight, quick-draining shoes I favored on these trips. Trying to avoid the often knee-deep puddles, streams, and boggy stretches of trail was an exercise in futility. Were the trails to improve, my shoes would dry quickly. Otherwise, I had a pair of designated sleep socks to warm and dry my feet at night.
It was hard to find streams in these areas that didn’t have evidence of beaver activity, and I idly wondered if a beaver had created the vleis by damming the streams and flooding the plains, or if the vleis had created the beaver through adaptation to this type of environment. It is probably a combination of both, I supposed.
I ran into my first problem in this area, attempting to follow a foot trail that appeared on CalTopo, but not on any other map. I could figure out where the trail might once have been, but attempting to follow it turned into a game of guessing and bushwhacking. I held to my compass course, kept a lake on either side of me as handrails and eventually connected with a snowmobile trail further north. I would have many similar experiences in the next week, and the cycles of tension and relief resulting from route uncertainty added a depth to the experience that I rarely experienced on established trails. It did cost dearly though in time spent on navigation and in picking my way through, over, and around obstacles such as bogs, vleis, underbrush, and deadfall.
I hiked until well after dark, finally stopping when I couldn’t find my route anymore. I had been somewhere on an abandoned and overgrown snowmobile trail and would have to find it again in daylight. I threw down my bivy in the first flat spot I found, grateful to not have anything more to do to set up camp. I rewarded myself with a dry pair of socks and a steaming bowl of home-cooked baked ziti made with my sister-in-law, Caroline’s famous meat sauce. This was the ultimate camp comfort food. Today had been a good day, and I was soon down for the count.
Day two began with more route problems. The trail around Kennel’s Pond had been posted private property, and I paused for a while, wondering how to access the Clockmill Corners trail beyond it. I could either take a 10-mile road walk along route 10 to work around this area, or get a little more creative. Seeing more of route 10 was not real high on my bucket list, so I decided to backtrack a little and get on the snowmobile trail again. Maybe there would be an unmapped branch heading in the right direction. A quarter mile up the road, I noted faint evidence of a small, footpath disappearing into the brush and with nothing to lose, I decided to see where it went. Almost too fortuitously, it accessed a heavily overgrown two-track that was not on my maps but appeared to parallel the route I had planned.
The two-track was overgrown and thick with deadfall, but I was able to follow it without too much difficulty up and over the foothills west of Kennel’s Pond, consulting the compass around my neck frequently to make sure I wasn’t getting too far off route. When I was roughly parallel with the end of Kennels Pond, I bushwhacked east and sighed in relief as I found a DEC snowmobile trail there. This seemed like as good a time as any for breakfast, so I made some burritos with sausage, egg, mashed potato, and cheese and ate them contentedly on a large rock by the pond. I washed them down with a mug of coffee, feeling the tension leaving my shoulders as I sipped at the steaming beverage and listened to the sounds of the wetlands.
After breakfast, I continued on along the trail past vleis and backcountry lakes until I hit Clockmill Corners, another name on the map with no place. I had some concerns about the viability of my route from Clockmill Corners to Piseco (a trail was noted on CalTopo again, but not on any other map) but found an abandoned snowmobile route and decided to give it a try. The route was easy to follow at first but became progressively harder until it ultimately vanished and I found myself off trail again, face to face with a large vlei.
I consulted my map, which showed a trail crossing a stream and then running between Sheriff and Meco Lakes, so I decided to locate the trail.
The reality was less promising. Where the map showed the trail crossing the forked stream was actually the dead center of a vlei. Braided, silty river channels crisscrossed it, and the route apparently went straight across these into the trees on the far side. I could not see any break in the forest to suggest a trail had ever been there, nor could I find any obvious route through the swamp. I crept forward cautiously, closer to the main river channel. I was walking on a floating raft of spongy vegetation, and the closer I got to the river channel, the less stable it felt. Any minute now, my foot was going to break through. I looked toward the main channel. Who knew how deep the mud lay there? I envisioned the option where I made it to the channel and managed to swim across. Best-case scenario saw me crawling out the far side covered in muck like a drowned swamp rat. More realistically, I’d lose a shoe in three feet of mud, or get myself stuck. There was no option I could imagine where I came out smelling like a rose, literally.
Discretion being the better part of valor (and sanity), I ultimately decided to bushwhack around the foot of the mountain that bordered the swamp to the east. At times, I pushed through the thick forest underbrush, hopping from one faint deer trail to another to ease my passage. Where the forest was too thick, I’d move closer to the swamp, wading through mud, but avoiding the deeper channels.
Finally, to the north of the unnamed mountain, I connected with the snowmobile track seen on the map and took this into the town of Piseco. I had fantasized about celebrating my escape from the swamp with a giant burger and beer, but with tourist season at an end, the town was closed and I walked in silence along seven miles of Country Road 24 around Piseco Lake, my longest road walk of the trip. With their never-ending sameness of tread, road walks beat up my feet more than any other type of hiking, and halfway through, I was ready for a break.
After lunch, I continued along toward the “airport”, planning to hook up with a northbound backcountry ski trail. There were many unkempt apple trees along the way, and I picked one every now and again to munch on. The apples were green, stunted, and splotchy, like a cross between a golden delicious and a crabapple. They looked like they’d be buggy, but I carved them with my knife as I walked and found them refreshingly tart, juicy, and delicious. Finally back on the trail, my feet felt rejuvenated and I walked on well past dark.
A few hours later, my feet were plotting a mutiny and I was having trouble remembering why I liked to do stuff like this in the first place. I found a well used clearing a couple hundred yards off trail lit my stove, and threw down my bedroll. Viola, camp was made before my water had even boiled. I took off my shoes and sat on a stump, savoring the unfamiliar but enjoyable feeling of not walking. Dinner tonight was an experiment I called Cowboy Pasta. It was roughly equal parts tomato sauce and salsa, both from my garden, spiced heavily with cilantro, cumin, and red pepper flakes. I had thrown in a can of great northern beans and some pastured pork sausage, cooked it down a little and then dehydrated the whole mess. It was served over a giant heap of pasta shells. Well seasoned with hunger and dosed liberally with some Jamaican Jonkanoo hot sauce, it was passably good, though warmth and volume were probably its two best traits. The Jonkanoo was a gift from a pre-veterinary student I had worked with this summer. I’d had her class over for potluck dinner one night and they had crowded into the kitchen, jostling, joking, and getting in each other’s way as they each cooked their dishes. Every time I used the hot sauce, I remembered how the little house had filled with laughter that night. Still smiling at the memory, I retired contentedly to my bivy.
Given the option, I’d much rather sleep outside than confine myself to a tent. I love being able to see the stars at night, feel the breeze on my cheeks, wake to the crunch of autumn leaves as a bear pads through the forest… oops, did I just dream that? That was going to keep me up for a while. Anyway, I do enjoy the freedom that a lightweight bivy gives on these kinds of trips. There is not any real weight savings over the newer shelters on the market and they’re not much fun in a storm, but the convenience of being able to quickly throw down anywhere and sleep that much closer to nature made it my “go to” option if weather was likely to be halfway decent.
I woke early, stuffed my quilt into my pack, and within 10 minutes was on my way to the biggest mistake of my trip. Today’s itinerary took me on ski and snowmobile trails to Jessup Road. There I’d connect with a trail to Otter Lake. CalTopo had suggested a foot trail that ran north of Otter Lake all the way up toward Pillsbury Lake where I would hopefully connect with the French Louie Trail and then complete a big loop through the West Canada Lakes Wilderness. Unfortunately again, this trail appeared on no other map, and the past two days had taught me to be very leery of what I might find. The hike to Otter Lake was uneventful, but no amount of effort could turn up any shred of evidence of a trail north of the lake. I bushwhacked for some time, cutting east and west where the trail should have been but could find no breaks in the dense undergrowth, not even a game trail. Finally, I looked back at the map and calculated the time it would take at my current snail’s pace to travel cross-country to Pillsbury Lake. It wasn’t going to happen in the time I had available. I sadly headed back to Otter Lake, and the time it took me to get there through the dense jungle of brush validated my decision.
It was time for an attitude adjustment. I boiled some water for coffee and pulled out all the stops on breakfast. I assembled some bacon, egg, and cheese bagels, with a sweet red cheddar made from pastured cows milk. As I side dish, I rehydrated some hash browns. I held back a handful of the crispy potato strings to be added back in at the end. This would give my dish the crunch of real hash browns.
My mind once again clear, I headed back down to Jessup Road and connected with a trail to Spruce Lake. I was finally making forward progress again, but had lost most of the day. It was now 2 pm.
I continued onward to join the French Louie Trail from the west, hiking late into the night once again to make up for the morning’s error. When I finally reached Pillsbury Lake, I felt like I had done enough for one day and gratefully stopped, or collapsed; whatever you want to call it.
I’m embarrassed to admit it but one of my favorite dinners on trail right now is a Thai inspired noodle dish that incorporates ramen noodles, peanut butter, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, chili sauce, crushed peanuts, cilantro, and some freeze dried chicken into a 1,000 calorie mess of steaming goodness. I had made the seasoning packets with my foodsaver to keep the liquid ingredients from leaking. I always saved it for a night when I knew I’d need a little pick-me-up and tonight was that night. Sitting in an Adirondack style lean-to slurping hot noodles, everything was all right with the world again.
Having been expecting a week of packrafting, I had not conditioned myself for this type of trip, and my body was starting to break down. I was bone-weary, bruised, and scraped, and was starting to develop some repetitive use injuries. The next two days of travel would be on familiar trails, and I suddenly found myself relieved of the responsibility of knowing exactly where I was at all times, of making navigating decisions, of having to work my way through whatever obstacle I was facing. My mind began to wander; distancing itself from the physical suffering I was experiencing.
I met her through a friend. She had wild red hair that matched her adventurous spirit, piercing green eyes, and a great laugh. She was refreshingly direct but could be intuitive and subtle when called for, like when relating to my older daughter. We hit it off almost immediately. I cooked her dinner one night, my signature ahi tuna parfait, rack of lamb with rosemary and port wine reduction, celery-root mashed potatoes, and a flourless chocolate cake that was just this side of orgasmic. We ate in a pool of warm light at the kitchen island, the rest of the house dark and quiet around us. “I’d like you to stay,” I said. She stayed.
A few weeks later, I surprised her with a quick getaway to the Caribbean. We explored the island, ate at beachside stands, swam with turtles in the bay, and slept beneath a mosquito-netting canopy overlooking the ocean. I loved to watch her laugh with the locals. She had a way of making people feel immediately comfortable. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was already in love.
We were married at our little farmhouse, in the field by the barn and garden, surrounded by close friends and family. I had been secretly taking dance lessons and she let out a squeal of delight after we were announced as husband and wife and she realized what I had done. We danced through the evening, until our friends gave each other knowing glances and left us to ourselves.
She called me one day in a panic, as I was getting ready for my annual fall adventure. “My car broke down. I’m stranded in the middle of nowhere. I’ll never make it to my meeting tomorrow. “ “Don’t worry,” I said. “Just find someplace comfortable to hole up. I can be there in four hours. “ “But, your trip,” she said. “You’ve been training for weeks. I’m sure I can find another option.” “I don’t want another option,” I replied, “I like the option where you need help and I drop everything and come running. I’m grateful for this chance to show you that you are more important to me than anything.”
The years passed. We traveled the world, we tended our little farm, and we watched the girls grow up. We did things together and apart, but mostly we enjoyed spending time together. Adventuring or gardening, it didn’t matter.
I got cancer when I was 73. By the time they found it, it had spread through my abdomen. The doctors talked about chemotherapy but they weren’t sounding optimistic. This wasn’t for me, the hospitals, treatments, sickness, and loss of dignity. I had lived a good life and was ready to let go. “I need you to stay,” she said. “Please. For me.” I stayed.
Another hospital room. I held her hand as she rested, and we laughed about old memories. “You don’t need to stay here with me all day,” she urged. “Go see the kids.” “I’m grateful for the chance…” I started. She finished the sentence for me and laughed quietly. “Why do you always say that? You proved it years ago.” “I’ll never take you for granted,” I answered.
She slipped away that afternoon and I sat by her bedside, holding her hand and weeping silently. I followed her later that week, my vows finally fulfilled.
I was climbing Blue Mountain in the rain, wracked by loss and scrubbing tears from my eyes. Somewhere else in my head, my rational self was laughing at me. “You’ve been pushing too hard. Too little sleep, not enough food. You’re totally coming unhinged, dude!” I was barely crawling up the mountain at this point. I had always prided myself on mental toughness, the ability to keep moving forward no matter what, but it was one thing to keep plodding along and another thing to keep MOVING. It was time to focus. I charged the mountain with renewed purpose, trash-talking for motivation. I guess I was trading one form of crazy for another. “Come-on Blue Ridge, Is that all you got? IS THAT ALL YOU GOT? I’m gonna walk all over you, Blue! I hope you got another pitch in you cause I can do this all day long. You hear me? ALL DAY LONG, Blue!” My tiredness forgotten, I was soon up and over; hoping the trip down wouldn’t be too bad. “ALL DAY LONG,” I told myself again, and this time I believed it.
Yesterday I had walked along the Cedar River, past the brilliant colors of the Cedar River Flow. I remembered the fall colors and the meals, but little else. I had eaten biscuits and gravy for breakfast and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Still hungry, I also devoured a bacon cheddar wrap made with the leftovers from the other day’s breakfast. So simple, yet so good- I’d have to remember this trick for next time.
I met her online through a popular backpacking website. She was quiet but playful with dark hair and eyes. She worked with autistic kids. We had developed a long-distance friendship over time and eventually decided to meet up for a hiking trip. We were exploring the Superior Shoreline in 3 feet of snow. The weather was brisk but clear, and the sunlight sparkled off the ice formations on the lake. Conversation flowed easily and the day passed pleasantly. Later, as we huddled in a snow trench beneath our quilts, she whispered mock plaintively, “I’m so cold. Would you share your warmth with me?” Her eyes were twinkling.
I had spent the night on Cascade Pond. Dinner was my old backpacking standby, a giant bowl of pasta with a spicy homemade tomato sauce and sausage. Over the years, I had found my appetite increasing on trips like this, and nowadays I made most meals with at least 6 oz dry pasta and as much protein as I could stuff in the bag.
By Tirrell Pond, I ran into a couple sharing time together in the backcountry. They seemed content. They were packing up camp and offered me a bratwurst, “Fresh from the fire”, the man said. I wolfed it down unhesitatingly, wiped the grease from my chin, and looked around desperately for another. They asked me questions about my route and I chatted with them for a while, secretly hoping they’d remember some other treats they wanted to get rid of. When it became clear that no more food was forthcoming, I wished them well and continued on my way.
That night, I stopped early and watched the sun set over Long Lake. It had been an emotional day. I boiled water over a small campfire in a dirty soup can I had found so that I could drink my ethanol stove fuel. Don’t judge me. You weren’t there.
Dinner was a home-dehydrated beef stew. I’ve always found that dehydrating beef-based foods really takes something out of them and the best tasting stews at home can be bland and mealy on the trail. My strategy for dealing with this is to add seasonings and ingredients after dehydrating. In this case, I had added freeze dried peas for sweetness and “pop”, dried mushrooms for earthiness and texture, and a whole lot of minced onion and garlic from the spice rack. For good measure, I added a couple ounces of dried pasta too. For whatever reason, I really enjoy spicy foods on the trail, so I doused the stew with more Jonkanoo, and I could feel my face flush as I ate it.
I fueled up with one of my favorite breakfasts, a casserole of artisanal bread, eggs, mushrooms, cheese, and sausage. People worry about dehydrating eggs, but it works really well when they are cooked into a dish. Made with eggs from our own free-range chickens, it was a beautiful gold color, sweet and earthy and savory all at the same time. I gave it a good squirt of extra-virgin olive oil for flavor, but in winter, it’s even better with butter. I’d spend the morning along Long Lake, before hooking up with a horse trail at Shattuck Clearing. I was looking forward to escaping the monotony of the familiar trail and seeing something new again.
I was treating her dog, Mya, a Shih Tzu who had developed a blood disorder. Mya had been in the hospital for 5 days and was now on the road to recovery. In the months that followed, I’d see her every couple of weeks for rechecks and came to look forward to these visits. Apparently, she did too. She had noted the lack of a ring on my finger and asked one of the receptionists about it. She stopped by the next day with coffee and treats for the staff. She was wearing a blue pea coat and a white wool hat that barely contained her dark curls. She looked like autumn. “I think she likes you,” Nyssa whispered. Amy smiled and nodded quietly in agreement.
Over and over, the story repeated itself. They had different features, different interests, and different personalities, but the theme was always the same; someone worth sharing a life with. By the third day, I finally had to admit that my subconscious might be trying to tell me something, and the intensity of the message was altogether unexpected. I would have to explore these feelings a little more once I got home.
The horse trails along Moose Creek started out wide and clear, and I strolled along easily. There was little in the way of scenery, just a green tunnel through the forest. Past the Moose Creek lean-to, all evidence of trail maintenance vanished. The trail filled in with brush, saplings, and deadfall and I found myself practically bushwhacking once again. There were also many sections that were loaded with what I had come to call skank-pits.
Skank (definition): any substance that is particularly foul, unhygienic, or unpleasant. Alternate: to cheat or deceive.
These are areas of the leaf-covered trail that conceal knee-deep mud pits. I was cursing under my breath as I plowed through yet another 100-yard stretch of the stuff. I felt like I was missing out on some of the great scenery of this region in exchange for the chance to wade through mud and get torn apart by spiky plants. I decided that I wouldn’t recommend this trail to anyone who didn’t actually own a horse, but I was glad that I had seen it for myself just this once.
I stayed on the horse trail well past dark, hoping to find Duck Hole before making camp. The trail was unmarked and difficult to follow at night, and I ended up losing it briefly after going around a particularly large deadfall. I’m always amazed at just how quickly this can happen in the dark, particularly when the trail is pretty sketchy to begin with. You take a few steps in one direction then another trying to find what should be right there, directions seem to reverse themselves, and the next thing you know, you are alone in the blackness with no trail to be found. At least I had my pack with me.
This had happened to me years ago on another trail when I had gone to hang my bear bag away from camp as the sun was setting. In the minutes that it took, the sun had gone down, and I walked back in the direction of the trail in the dark. It wasn’t there. I tried again. It still wasn’t there. Now I couldn’t find my bear bag either. I was alone in the dark without any of my gear, just my knife, the compass around my neck, and a really small headlamp that couldn’t illuminate more than 10 feet in front of me. That was the last time I had ever let myself go off in the woods with an “ultralight” headlamp.
Now, as I had done back then, I paused and let the panic subside. I knew which direction I had left the trail. I took a bearing that should allow me to intercept it perpendicularly. I marked my current path to avoid compounding my mistake should I fail to find the trail. And then, there it was. It had hung a sneaky right turn at the deadfall and I had gone straight. With tangible relief, I continued on carefully until I finally made it to the Cold River. Grrr. I stared across 100 yards of river toward the darkness of the opposite bank; one final inconvenience before stopping for the night. With no changes of clothing to be had, wet crossings were not my favorite pre-bedtime activity. With barely a pause, I pulled off my pants and waded in.
It was my last night on the trail and I had saved the best for last; Bowtie pasta with chicken and broccoli in a spicy tomato sauce. I poured in the last of my olive oil for flavor and calories and shaved some curls of parmesan with my knife. Finally, I sprinkled dried parsley on top to finish the dish. I wasn’t sure how much flavor it added, but it looked nice. You eat with your eyes first, after all.
It had gotten frigid overnight, and I had woken briefly to pull on my jacket before falling back asleep. The next morning, my fingers were numb with cold as I broke camp, and I gratefully clutched a hot bag of mashed potatoes with bacon, eggs, and cheese in both hands, finishing up my breakfast before heading out. All I had left now was a bag of trail mix, and I silently congratulated myself on this fact. The epitome of successful meal planning is finishing up the last of your food as you are walking out. I walked with my hands stuffed deep into my pockets, wondering why I was so cold. I’d get my answer soon enough. As I passed Duck Hole, I noted with wonder that it was snowing. I’d find out later that it had dropped overnight to 20 F.
This would be an easy day, I thought. Just 15 miles past Henderson Lake, over Indian Pass, and back to my car by Heart Lake. I’d be eating a celebratory burger by 4 pm.
I continued on past Henderson Lake thinking about food. Just 6 more miles to go. Suddenly the trail markers disappeared and I found myself in a rocky gorge: This was Indian Pass. The route to Indian Pass was a strenuous climb straight up a boulder field and I suspected that it was unmarked so that the DEC could disavow any responsibility should someone die out here (“Nope, that’s not one of OUR trails”). Every now and then, I’d find a stone cairn and feel reassured that I was heading in the right direction. And then, a bunch of time would pass where I didn’t see one and I’d start to doubt.
It was getting later in the afternoon, and I was still picking out my route, ever upward, starting to wonder if I’d be down before dark. This was not a route I’d want to attempt at night, but I’d be hard pressed to find a spot in this jumbled boulder field in which to bivy. All vestiges of fatigue and pain vanished and I climbed with purpose.
And suddenly the earth tilted and I was heading downward. Elated, I let gravity do some of the work and slip-slided my way toward Indian Pass Brook. After an eternity, the red markers re-appeared and I was back on trail. I still had a few hours before I’d reach my car, but I could already taste victory and ran onward, wings on my feet and my heart soaring. It’s funny – because if you asked me at any point in the past 3 days why I did this, I would have been hard-pressed to come up with a good answer. In fact, had a jeep pulled up in the backcountry right next to me and said, “Hey man, you need a lift?” I probably would have jumped in without hesitation. But suddenly the answer filled me. All the trials of the past week had come together to create this euphorically perfect moment, and I knew right then that I’d be doing it again soon.
I stopped briefly at a small stream to savor this feeling, taking my shoes off and dipping my swollen feet in the cool water, thinking about all that I had felt and experienced in the past week. In the end, I may not have gotten the adventure I had planned, but I did get the one I needed. Stripped of the responsibilities of work, home, and family, I had lived the past 7 days as my truest self, and in the process had learned something that I probably needed to hear right now. I had been injured, alone, hopeful, afraid, lost, found, dejected, determined, cold, and ecstatic. But through it all, I did what I have always done best; I put one foot in front of the other and kept moving forward. And in doing so, I had once again found myself worthy. I was me.
The house was quiet, dark, and comfortable. The kids wouldn’t be home until tomorrow, and I enjoyed the solitude. I put on Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”, opened a Guinness, and started a hot bath to soak away a week’s worth of accumulated grime. This was a 20-year-old ritual that had always helped to ease my reintroduction to civilization. Tomorrow, I would need to winterize the chicken coop, finish painting the barn trim, dig up the potatoes and onions, and pick the last of the cabbages. My heirloom pumpkins would also be ripening any day now. Thinking about these projects, I was content, self-contained once again. I liked the life I had created for myself. So what had happened this week? Was it real or just the product of an overstressed mind? Regardless, it was time to dip my toes back into that pool and find out. The possibilities were exciting.