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June 2008

Many Happy Returns

Why one couple hikes the same 132-mile trail every spring

It was starting to get late. Late, as in “time to get out the headlamps” late. The temperature was dropping and we were getting a little clumsy. That was no surprise. After all, it was late April and we had been slogging along through wet corn snow for more than six miles. It was often up to our knees, and with about 60 pounds on our backs we were beginning to tire. At times like this we usually growl one of our mottos: “We eat snow for breakfast and clean our teeth with blowdown.” But in this case it was clear that we had been defeated. No matter. We pressed on to the lean-to at Silver Lake, had a nice supper, a glass of wine and turned in for the night. The next day we packed up and hiked out the way we came. The following week we started all over again, this time to success, as we didn’t encounter nearly as much snow. What a difference a week makes. So began another end-to-end trip, our 21st along the Northville-Placid Trail (NPT).

When people hear that my wife, Donna, and I have hiked the 132-mile NPT that many times they’re amazed. It’s a 14-day journey we make each spring from Upper Benson, at the bottom of the Adirondack Park, north to Lake Placid. The response is usually positive, as in, “Awesome. Man, I wish I could do it one time.” Sometimes it’s negative: “You’ve got to be kidding. Why would you want to hike the same trail 21 times?” Or, as one man gruffly said, “Get a life.” Well, hiking the NPT is something we do that makes life interesting—at least for us.

Hiking—backpacking, in particular—is one of those things that really makes us feel alive. It puts us in touch with our bodies. We feel muscles we haven’t felt in a while. Donna and I note new areas where the everyday wear and tear has taken its toll. Not only that, the journey whips us into shape. It’s really a two-week fitness program: Day after day we get an extended cardiovascular workout. Each spring we look forward to the opportunity to shed the extra pounds gained over the previous year as well as to tone and strengthen our muscles. When we get back we’re stronger, our clothes fit better, and we feel good about ourselves.

Donna and I hike the trail because it gives us a chance to live outside. Like most folks, we’re inside nearly all day, and the time we spend out of the house is usually not with the purpose of actually enjoying being outdoors. It’s either coming or going or shoveling the driveway, taking out the garbage or mowing the lawn. Hiking the NPT gives us two glorious weeks of doing everything outside: eating, walking, reading, cooking, cleaning, sleeping. Everything. In all kinds of weather. Heat waves, snowstorms, wicked winds. And, since we don’t know the forecast once we’re in the woods, we take it as it comes.

Our yearly journey puts us in touch with nature. For instance, we love trees. Our neighbors at home wonder how we find a spot to plant just one more tree in our small suburban Syracuse lot. On the trail we’ve got plenty of birch, maple and hemlock. But we also get to see groves of tamarack. Then there are the black cherries. Most of the year they’re pretty nondescript—mundane, actually—except during that two-week window in May when they bloom with a profusion of little pinkish-white blossoms. And what about the fragrant balsam? No candle company could ever capture that heavenly scent.

Several years ago we were nearing the end of a long day on a stretch before the Cedar River Flow that usually merits little interest. That was until we saw it in the distance: a moose feeding in the marsh. We’ve seen plenty of moose tracks before, and sometimes even scat on the ground or in the water. But this was our first live moose. (Second actually—we almost hit one in the road driving home one year.) So there we stopped to watch the moose clop through the muck—sinking down, pulling itself up, wading through it all. The delay got us caught in a rainstorm. But it was worth it.

Another time we came upon a pine marten waking from its afternoon nap. I’ve also had a long-tailed weasel scurry up and around my feet like a furry slinky. We’ve seen spawning trout, ob­served snap­p­­ing turtles the size of daypacks, rescued salamanders from footprints in the snow and a frog from the mouth of a snake. Snowshoe hares have joined us in the lean-to. We witnessed a bear chomping into a can of Coleman white gas even though it was wrapped in trash bags. And you haven’t really lived until you’ve had a mouse run across your face while you’re sleeping in a lean-to.

Some of our most enjoyable experiences in life have happened while on the NPT. But there are aspects that are less than enjoyable. Nobody we know likes to be out there in blackfly season. Although, unlike mosquitoes, blackflies give you a break at night so you can get some sleep. There’s the ridge along the side of Blue Mountain that is always a challenge and prompts the question, “Should we press on today to shorten tomorrow’s mileage, or do we make camp here and get an early start?” Also, the parts of the trail that still follow the pavement (soon to be rerouted into the woods) can turn perfectly good feet into painfully blistered stumps.

Through both pleasure and adversity, hiking the NPT helps our relationship. Donna and I, both 50, have been married for 32 years and we’re extraordinarily compatible. We have a system for packing, trekking and camping. “Those who fail to prepare, prepare to fail” is a motto of ours. We’re used to helping each other and working together as a team in all areas of life. This is another opportunity to support one another.

In the end we hike the NPT because it’s better than buying a camp. These days it seems like just about everyone wants a place in the Adirondacks and is willing to pay handsomely for it. Add to that the taxes, utilities and upkeep. Donna and I prefer to let our tax dollars pay for our camp. The way we figure, for two weeks each year we pretty much own 132 miles of Forest Preserve. We make our annual trek across the Adirondacks to inspect our property and see how it’s holding up.

People often ask, “Don’t you get tired of looking at the same old things?” But isn’t that what folks do when they return to their camp year after year? As we hike the trail we get to see each spot only for as long as it takes to hike through it. Then it’s gone until next year. No wonder we can’t wait to do it again.

Best places along the NPT for…

A great view:
» Bridge across the outlet of South Lake (West Canada Lakes)
» Carry lean-to on the Cedar River

Swimming:
» Waterfall and deep pool 5.7 miles from Benson on the West Branch of the Sacandaga River
» Sandy beach on the north end of Tirrell Pond

Thrills:
» Suspension bridges across Moose Creek and Cold River

Easy hiking:
» Stretch from Lake Durant to Stephens Pond

Challenging hiking:
» Up and over Fishing Brook Range from Tirrell Pond to Long Lake

For more information about hiking the NPT, see the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Guide to Adirondack Trails: North­ville-Placid Trail, edited by Jeffrey and Donna Case.