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Into Thin Error

Close calls, calamities and days of blunder in the backcountry

Illustration by Mark Wilson

If you’re a hiker or paddler, climber, skier, adventure racer, weekend warrior—fill in the blank—and have never had a close call twenty miles from nowhere, you’re not trying. Talk to any experienced outdoorsperson long enough and eventually they’ll confess they’ve barely gotten by when disaster seemed imminent. Some Adirondack guides might even admit as much. (If they claim a spotless record, they’re probably lying.)

But some good can come of these clumsy fumblings in the great outdoors. There are countless platitudes about learning from your mistakes; everyone from F.D.R. to Aretha Franklin has weighed in on the matter, and they all sound a similar theme: That which does not kill you (or your dog) makes you stronger. And while neither of those two, as far as we know, ever pitched a tent on an island in Middle Saranac Lake, attempted to bag the Santanonis in an afternoon or went trail running in bear country, the wisdom rings genuine in this beautiful six-million-acre paradise called the Adirondacks.

Herewith, a selection of cautionary tales. All true.

ALL FIRED UP
Autumn is far and away the best season for hiking. I’ve never heard anyone say other­wise. And so it was, one fall a dozen years ago, when I set aside a seemingly pleasant day to hike the trailless Santanoni Range. I enlisted a Forty-Sixer to come along as a primitive insurance policy. My buddy Wolfe and I would make a quick strike, fast and light with day packs; in, out and home by dark.

If you’ve explored the Santanonis, you know the plan: park near Ta­hawus Upper Works and take the Bradley Pond trail toward Duck Hole. Near the pond there’s a drainage on the east face of the Santanoni Range, which you climb to a four-way junction on a high plateau. From this hub, called Times Square, it’s three out-and-back treks on unmarked herd paths: a quarter-mile north to Panther, a mile-plus south to Santanoni and 1.5 miles west to Couchsachraga. The guidebook noted that a moderately strong party should allow at least three hours for the round-trip to Couchie, and straight-line bushwhacking between peaks wasn’t an option. There are no shortcuts, it read. Wolfe told me in no uncertain terms that he had no interest in moving beyond Times Square, that I was on my own out there. This was fine with me.

The weather was seasonable at the trailhead—it always is—but partway up the drainage, at maybe thirty-five hundred feet, we hit the cloud ceiling and snow line. It was still September, but the stuff was stubbornly sticking to everything. A few hundred feet higher, we reached Times Square, where a winter storm was afoot. The wind roared, and there were several inches of snow. Visibility was a claustrophobic twenty feet.

Intending to knock off the worst first, I an­nounced I was heading for Couchie. Not far down the herd path, for some reason the terrain went up—I was expecting a long, gradual hike down to a col, then a brief rise to Couchie’s summit, which I’d read was well below Times Square’s elevation. I was getting thwacked and poked with wet snowy branches and be­coming increasingly soaked and cold.

After a much-too-significant climb, I reached a metal summit register. My heart sank. “Santanoni,” it read. I was off by a longshot, apparently taking a left at Times Square where I thought I’d gone straight. At least hypo­thermia was setting in.

I thrashed my way through the storm and back to Times Square, where Wolfe was occupying himself trying to stay warm. He looked up. “How was Santanoni?” Fine, thanks.

I briefly entertained ideas of abandoning the whole enterprise but lit out for Couchie instead—for real this time—soaked to the bone and shaking. More than two hours of pushing through sodden branches, after signing the register on Couchie, making an about-face and climbing back up into the snow and clouds and cold, I emerged in the clearing where Wolfe was waiting. He’d been busy. In his increasing desperation to stay warm, he’d taken a generous helping of white gas (we’d brought a cookstove for some reason) and attempted to make a fire. It seems, though, that when he put match to fuel, the re­sulting mushroom cloud was somehow attached to his arm and not the hopeless pile of wet sticks he’d gathered. He squelched the flames, but he’d had a good scare; worse, he wasn’t getting any warmer, and neither was I. With the wind swirling overhead and no relief in sight, we decided to do one more stupid thing for good measure: We scrambled up Panther and signed the register, naturally. —Galen Crane

BEAR WITH ME
Twelve years ago in June I was running down an abandoned road in Keene, and my two dogs were running ahead of me. They dashed into the woods. There was rustling, and one dog bounded

Illustration by Mark Wilson

out, a second dog bounded out, then a third animal came out, and it was a bear. A big bear. They were about fifty yards ahead of me.

Have you ever seen a dog tuck its rear end in so no­body catches it? The bear jumped out right behind the dogs and could’ve bitten them. But they tucked their bottoms under and then they just scooted right out of there. Flabbergasted, I turned around and started running home. The dogs started running toward me, and the bear started chasing the dogs.

The dogs blew by me, but the bear kept coming. I kept looking over my shoulder and this lumbering an­imal was running to­ward me. I was sprinting full speed, and the bear came within three or four feet of me and just halted in its tracks, almost skidding to a stop. I was screaming and I raced all the way home. She might have been a mother bear defending her cubs.

I’ve never run there since.

About a week later I was running up a dirt road near Owls Head in Keene. I happened to look up into the forest, and simultaneously these misplaced goats that were feeding looked down. As soon as we made eye contact, they bounded out of the woods and started charging. Again, I turned and ran hysterically, contemplating whether goats butt, bite or worse, but they wouldn’t stop chasing me full speed. This time I got caught. My relief was profound; they just wanted to sniff at me. But I pretty much stopped running there too.

I haven’t been chased since, but in February I was cross-country skiing and saw a mountain lion jump from my path at John Brown Farm, in Lake Placid. I turned around, fast. I don’t ski there anymore. These things happen. I know that if there’s a giraffe in the Adirondack woods, I’ll find it. —Sandy Izzo

BLOWN AWAY
On a Sunday afternoon in May, our second day on the island, the storm hit.

My girlfriend, Tessa, and I were camped on Norway Island, a tiny spit of land a quarter-mile from shore on Middle Saranac Lake. After a day of paddling and hiking, I pulled the rented canoe completely out of the water, onto a flat rock a few inches above the lake. Then we retreated to Tessa’s drum-tight tent as the rain came down. Wind scoured the hilltops. As fat raindrops thrummed against the rain fly, we kept ourselves occupied within the confines of our nest.

When the storm subsided we emerged and cooked dinner. I brought the pots down to the shore to rinse. The canoe was gone.

It was as if it had never been there—no paddles, no life jackets, nothing. I im­me­diately realized my mistake. With the strong winds, waves must have splashed into the upright canoe, spinning it around and easing it into the water. I should have tied it to a tree, or at least turned it upside-down. It would be clear across the lake by now.

I stood there in shock, not sure what to do. We had only another day’s worth of food. Could I swim for help? The water was early-spring cold, and we were a long way from shore. No one was nearby. How long until the boat rental office declared us missing? How long until a ranger came to look for us?

Most important, what was I going to tell Tessa?

Before I raised the alarm I decided to walk around the island, thinking I might see it floating in the distance, perhaps close enough to swim to. After walking no more than fifty feet, I saw it bobbing in the calm on the lee side of the island. It was ten feet from shore, and it moved toward me, as if in greeting, as I ran closer. The water was only knee-deep as I rushed out and all but embraced it.

I pulled that canoe so far onto dry land that a tidal wave wouldn’t have dislodged it. —Alan Wechsler

HOOK ‘EM DAN-O
Maybe it was the fact our fishing adventures hadn’t yielded a single specimen in years. Maybe it was that Titan, our white-faced and nearly toothless golden retriever, loved to sleep in the boat after dinner. Maybe we had forgotten all the stories of fishhooks stuck in the wrong places, like the guy whose son got one prong of a giant Pikey Minnow in his arm. Dad saw the kid fiddling with the lure as he drove to the health center and darned if his hand didn’t get caught on treble set number two. Angry at himself, he reached to the offending object and nailed his other palm, so he drove the rest of the way with hands two inches apart and his son’s arm mimicking every turn of the steering wheel.

It was a splendid evening. The bass were nibbling off Blue Mountain Lake’s shoaly islands, bumping our Rapalas. Then one hit with conviction, and in a classic at­tempt to set the hook I launched the lure into the air, dropping a rock bass on the floor and the lure on the back seat, awakening Titan. He looked up, moved and snared his leg solidly. His initial response was embarrassment, then perplexity, then silent panic.

At that point all three of us transmitted our low-grade horror. I held the big dog, who wanted to shake off this thing. Tom tried to keep him calm as he navigated the boat through the rocks, and, predictably, all of us wound up overreacting. “Don’t move. DON’T MOVE!”

I had visions of trips to the vet after dark, maybe stuck to the dog myself. I was hugging him, not spread-eagled on a terrifed animal, but a casual observer might disagree.

We made the mile-plus trip to shore in record time, which in an electric boat seems like eternity. Getting Titan into the car without an­choring him to the upholstery was a challenge, as was keeping his nose away from his leg. By then he wanted to do plastic surgery himself.

Our household, because Tom is a physician assistant, has things like forceps and Novocaine. In practiced moves Tom injected the stuff, clipped the barbs, backed the hooks out and delivered a biscuit to the exhausted patient. —Elizabeth Folwell

STUPID PET TRIPS
There’s something quintessentially Adirondack about scaling peaks with dogs. You can find summit-bagging canines—some are even Forty-Sixers—lounging at local watering holes alongside their humans for a post-hike pint.

Just like bipeds, dogs get lost in the woods, though their downfalls aren’t so much overconfidence and poor planning, but scampering deer and stinky carcasses. And like hu­mans, they’ve been carried from mountaintops with dehydration and exhaustion. After all, every creature has a learning curve—which is precisely what I should have considered before dragging Gwen, my black Lab mix, to Catamount Mountain.

But it was an unbelievable day in early May: soft patches of green replaced crunchy, straw-colored meadows; the sky had streaks of violet—chance of a sprinkle; and everything smelled so good. There was no question: Gwen had to join me, my friends Nicole and Meg, and Nicole’s dog.

Gwen’s a veteran of easy sloping trails like those up Silver Lake, Baker, Owls Head and Jay Mountains. She’s seemingly earnest and conscientious—she’ll stop on the trail, head lowered, if you ask her to wait. She’s not particularly interested in wild turkeys or scrambling critters, but she’s nuts about sticks. And ap­parently—as of that afternoon on a rocky shoulder of Catamount, anyway— she’s acrophobic.

Trekking to the top wasn’t a problem: Nicole’s dog, Tupper, and Gwen barreled ahead, panting, tongues dangling. At the open rock summit we stretched out, assessed the lakes and ponds below, prominent Whiteface, and the Stephenson and Wilmington Ranges.

When we started back it was easy going. We climbed down the chimney, a steep, craggy chute that requires hands and feet, and continued on. But where was Gwen? From the base of the chimney I could see her at the top, pacing, circling the ledge for another route—the alternative being a sheer rock face. My friends waited patiently as I called and coaxed, even sent Tupper up to lure her to us, but he trotted back alone.

Gwen’s eyes bulged; she looked crazed, panicked. I was the anxious mom in the bleachers whose kid was frozen on the high dive. I imagined her leaping off the ledge, her floppy flying-nun ears flapping. So I returned to the top of the chimney and sweet-talked her, muscled her, begged her. She refused to budge. My friends were ready to move on, it was drizzling and my frustration soared. In an exasperated flash, I grabbed her ninety-pound body from behind, wrestled her onto my lap and launched us down the chimney, the heels of my boots digging in and the seat of my pants (and skin) scraping all the way.

It took Gwen about twenty seconds to recover; my post-hike pint was enjoyed standing up. —Annie Stoltie

NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTERS
As I was growing up I was fortunate to have a cousin and her husband who took me hiking. We started out with trails to places like Copperas and Cooper Kiln Ponds and moved on to Whiteface, which we climbed a few times.

I’ve always enjoyed hiking and wanted to pass it on to my girls. My husband, Robbie, on the other hand, has a job that is physically demanding and doesn’t really like hiking just for its own sake. So when a friend of his invited us to go hiking with his family and Robbie was inclined to go, I jumped on the idea without questioning where we were headed. The girls were two, six and ten. I assured Robbie that I could backpack Taylor since I did it all the time (on flat terrain), and it was her preferred mode of transportation anyway. We “prepared” for the hike, which involved donning sneakers (with the exception of Robbie, who actually had hiking boots) and packing sweatshirts, food and water.

When our friends arrived they told us that they wanted to try for the top of Algonquin Peak. Not wanting to discourage Robbie, I said, “Fine, no problem.”

When we arrived at the trailhead and were signing in, a forest ranger asked about our plans. We told him we were attempting Algonquin but would see how the kids held up. He looked a little skeptical. I was pretty determined we’d go the distance.

When we started I had Taylor on my back. The trail was extremely muddy, rocky and slippery. I probably carried her about a half-mile before I had Robbie take her. She seemed much heavier going uphill. I helped six-year-old Karly. We weren’t really keeping up the pace we needed to finish before it got too late. We eventually reached the point where you can either climb Wright Peak or the summit of Algonquin. We decided that Robbie and Brooke, ten, and Robbie’s friend would do Algonquin while I—with Taylor, Karly, our friend’s wife and five-year-old son— would climb Wright.

Karly and our friend’s son did really well. I got within sight of the summit but felt totally off-balance with Taylor on my back. I was going to give it up, but our friend’s wife offered to take Taylor, and we all made it to the top.

Meanwhile, the other party was having its own problems. With worn-down sneakers, Brooke couldn’t get her footing and Robbie had to help her. They made it to Al­gon­quin’s summit and we all met back where we had split up.

The hike down was un­eventful but challenging be­cause it was so slippery and dark.

By the time we reached the car, we were all mud­dy up to our knees. I tossed ev­eryone’s socks—forget trying to clean them—except, of course, Taylor’s, whose feet barely touched the ground. —Lisa Lincoln

BOTCH ON THE ROCKS
In the Adirondacks, when someone asks you to go hiking, the usual reply is, I’d love to. Just about everybody likes to walk in the woods. But sometimes, when a guy invites a girl, or vice-versa,

Illustration by Mark Wilson

you wonder, Is this just a hike, or is this, like, a date?

There’s really no urban equivalent. It’s not like going for a drink, which has definite wooing connotations. It’s more like coffee, something you wouldn’t think twice about doing with a friend.

The trek as protodate is actually a civilized if unspoken local practice. If two people go hiking and neither calls the other afterwards, feelings don’t get hurt, friends don’t ask questions, nothing happened, it was just a hike. If it works out well, you can hike again, maybe even see a movie. There’s no awkward goodbye at the door, but there could be gray areas if you want there to be.

So, many years ago, this guy I sort of know invites me hiking. “It’s going to be summer solstice,” he says. “I was thinking of climbing Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge.” I’ve always wanted to do this route. It’s eleven miles, almost half of it on open ridge, and it’s supposed to be just beautiful. So, despite the maybes, I think, The longest day of the year. I’ll take a day off work. It’ll be great.
We climb the short, steep trail up Giant, descend the col behind, and make the ascent to Rocky Peak Ridge. It’s stunning. We can see in every direction. We reach a high point that we think is Blueberry Cobbles, the last section of open ridge. And—surprise—he pulls out gin and tonic. That’s fine, that’s cool, I think. Summer’s here, we should drink gin-and-tonics. But I wonder, Now is this going for a drink?

We get a little tipsy, start walking again, and soon we figure out we hadn’t been on Blueberry Cobbles. We cover miles more of ridge. It’s dark.

Neither of us has a flashlight. My feet can usually feel where a trail is, but granite all feels the same, and we can’t see the cairns. “It looks like we’re going to have to spend the night,” he says. So we sit down and try to get used to the idea. So what? It isn’t raining, and there’s no danger of hypothermia or dehydration.

Then we start talking about whether anyone is going to ask the forest rangers to start a search. Then this outing might show up in the local paper’s police/fire/rescue report, the equivalent of the society page to some. I get up and make wider and wider circles until I find the edge of the rock and follow each opening into the woods until one leads all the way to the car.

The next time I went over Rocky Peak and Giant I took my brothers. —Mary Thill

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