Escape the Leaf-Peeping Crowds by Boat and Boot at Indian Lake

Autumn is upon us, and the vast hardwood forests of the Northeast are putting on their annual show that rivals any natural spectacle in the world. While the fall season has always been a popular time for hikers and roadside tourists alike to get out and explore, larger crowds than usual are expected this fall due to COVID-19 and the fact that being outside is one of the safest ways to get away from home during these tough times. The Adirondack Mountains have long been a haven for stressed and overworked city dwellers to get back to nature, and unsurprisingly the ever-popular High Peaks region has been experiencing record visitation throughout the summer and early fall. Hoping to avoid the maddening crowds while simultaneously exploring a part of the Adirondacks that we had yet to properly experience, my wife, dog and I recently went on a canoe camping trip to Indian Lake that quickly became our all-time favorite camping trip.

Credit: Joey Priola

The Island Campground

Located in the Southern Adirondacks, approximately a 70-mile or 90-minute drive southwest from Lake Placid, Indian Lake is a 12-mile-long reservoir that runs southwest from the tiny town of Indian Lake. While not quite as wild (the west shore has some development) as some of the more remote ponds and lakes of the Adirondacks, Indian Lake still has a relatively remote feel to it, especially on the eastern shore which is largely Forest Preserve land. The lake is peppered with several rocky islands, ranging in size from nothing more than a few boulders to over 1,000 feet in length. The best thing about Indian Lake is that it possesses the Indian Lake Islands Campground, which consists of 55 campsites (each with a picnic table, an outhouse, and firepit) spread along the lakeshore and islands that can only be accessed via boat. Sites can be booked up to 9 months in advance, and while they’re incredibly popular during the summer, as the temperature begins to drop in the fall, so does the visitation.

Note: Due to COVID-19, the DEC and New York State Parks has temporarily lifted the 9-month reservation window restriction for camping at New York State Parks, including Indian Lake Islands, and bookings for 2021 are currently being accepted.

Credit: Joey Priola

Exploring Kirpens Island

While all of the campsites offer privacy and outstanding views, nothing can beat the experience of camping on your very own private island. Of the 55 campsites at Indian Lake, five of them are on an island with no other campsites. Of this handful of select sites, the most outstanding site might be campsite 2 on Kirpens Island, which offers several advantages compared to the other sites.

Situated due east from Indian Lake Marina, the campsite on Kirpens Island can be quickly accessed via a 20 to 30 minute, mile-long paddle if launching from the marina, as compared to the 8-mile-long paddle if starting from the access point and campground check-in center on the south end of the lake. Kirpens Island is also one of the largest islands on Indian Lake, with countless nooks and crannies along the shore to explore, as well as some informal trails that lead to the far reaches of the island from the camping area on the north side of the island. A number of smaller islands surround Kirpens and make interesting photography subjects, especially in the fall when the berry bushes, maples, and birches that are prevalent on the islands show off their fall colors.

The view from Baldface Mountain’s summit. | Credit: Joey Priola

Multi-Sport Adventure

What really sets Kirpens Island apart from the other sites at Indian Lake, though, is its proximity to the Baldface Mountain Trailhead. The trailhead is a quick five-minute paddle east from camp into a quiet bay and is only accessible by boat. This difficulty of access greatly minimizes the crowds, and on a beautiful Saturday with near-peak foliage conditions, we had the trail and summit all to ourselves. After beaching your boat on the shore near a large boulder marked with white paint, an easy 0.8-mile-long trail with red trail markers and 550 feet of elevation gain weaves through the forest before breaking out on a rocky ledge perched just above the treetops, with the long blue swath of Indian Lake and its islands spreading out in the distance. Fall views don’t get any better than this, as the predominantly hardwood forest that surrounds Indian Lake bursts with a vibrant array of red, orange, yellow, and purple in late September to early October. After enjoying the view from Baldface, head back down to the lake and explore the islands near Kirpens, marveling at the banded metamorphic bedrock that the islands consist of, which makes for fantastic photo opportunities.

Once back at camp, cap off a spectacular day of autumn exploration in complete solitude by watching the sun set over Indian Lake and Snowy Mountain from an open ledge high above the lake on the west side of the island, and perhaps raise a glass of your favorite beverage to toast your own private piece of autumn heaven.

Credit: Joey Priola

Level-Up Your Fall Photography at the Adirondacks' Heart Lake

With all due respect to the other seasons, there isn’t a more exciting time of year for wilderness exploration and photography than fall, and there’s no better place to be this time of year than the Eastern United States. Blessed with a variety of hardwood species like sugar maple and birch that turn practically every shade of color imaginable during the autumn season, there’s no shortage of fantastic foliage destinations in this part of the country. That said, there are some locations that stand out from the rest, such as the Heart Lake area in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

Located south of Lake Placid in the High Peaks Region, Heart Lake is a perfect fall hiking and photography destination. While the main sights can be seen in just a daytrip, to truly appreciate this special area, nothing beats spending a few nights in a classic Adirondack lean-to, several of which pepper the lakeshore and surrounding forest. Or if camping isn’t your style, the charming and cozy Adirondack Loj is also near the lake and offers the weary hiker heated rooms and home-cooked meals.

Another big advantage of staying at Heart Lake is that some of the best fall photography imaginable is right at your doorstep. The following tips will help you make the most of a fall trip to Heart Lake and to take your fall photos to the next level. While this article is focused on the Heart Lake area, most of the photography tips can be applied to any locale.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Time it Right

The first consideration when planning a fall photography trip to Heart Lake or elsewhere is timing. While difficult to predict and variable from year to year, peak fall foliage in this part of New York typically arrives in the last week of September and lasts through the first week of October. Peak fall color at Heart Lake the past two years has been right around October 5th. Once September arrives and preparation for fall kicks into high gear, the Adirondack Mountain Club posts a weekly Heart Lake foliage report on their social media pages that is an incredibly useful resource for monitoring the color progression remotely. If looking to explore other areas in the Adirondacks or New York State, I Love New York posts a weekly foliage report for the entire state on their website and social media pages.

Even if you miss peak color, there can be advantages to being a little on the early or late side. In the days leading up to peak color, the prominence of some trees with green leaves that have yet to change color can make the ones that have changed pop even more. Post-peak when the leaves begin to fall is a great opportunity to experiment with detailed macro shots of freshly fallen leaves and can provide the opportunity to catch the first snow of the season as autumn color hangs on before succumbing to the white of winter.

Scout It Out

One of the best ways to get to know an area and to take the best photos possible is to get out and explore and scout out different compositions upon arrival, especially if never having been to the location before. Spending at least a couple days in an area is also advantageous as it provides more time to study weather patterns and to get a better understanding of how the light interacts with the landscape at different times of the day. Scouting is rather easy to do in the Heart Lake vicinity, but there are a few classic spots where photography is worthwhile:

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Heart Lake

The lake itself offers a bounty of photo opportunities, and a hiking trail leads around the eastern half of it and provides several access points to the lake. Even better, snag one of the lakefront lean-tos, which can be reserved up to a year in advance, and your own slice of private lakefront will be just steps away. A sandy beach on the north side of the lake is an excellent spot to photograph mountain reflections or a canoe beached on the sandy shore with a background of colorful foliage.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Mount Jo

Rising above the north shore of Heart Lake, 2,876-foot Mount Jo provides one of the most phenomenal fall views and is one of the best bang-for the-buck hikes in all the Adirondacks. A typical rugged and steep Adirondack trail leads from the campground to the rocky summit ledges. Partway up the Mount Jo trail, the trail forks into the 1.1-mile “Short” Trail and the 1.3-mile “Long” Trail, both of which ultimately meet below the summit after a 700-foot climb. It takes roughly 45 minutes to get to the top, where a glorious view of mountains and fall foliage spreads out below. The opportunities for landscape shots with a wide-angle lens are endless, and since the view looks to the south, great sidelight can be had at both sunrise and sunset. While views from the official summit are nice, some open ledges below the summit provide an even more panoramic view with a clear perspective of Heart Lake surrounded by colorful autumn foliage with Algonquin and other High Peaks rising from the valley further to the south.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Heart Lake Campground

Spending the night camping at Heart Lake opens up additional photo opportunities. Campers by a crackling fire and tents or lean-tos nestled in the forest are great additions to any fall photography portfolio and help to fully paint the picture of what fall in the mountains is all about. Lean-tos, tent campsites, and bunks in the Loj can be reserved onlineat the Adirondack Mountain Club’s. Lean-tos and tent sites cost $40 to $45 per night, and Loj rooms range from $70 to $160. For all Heart Lake accommodations, Adirondack Mountain Club members receive a 10% discount.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Mornings are Magic

As difficult as it can be to crawl out of a toasty sleeping bag to feel the cold slap of predawn air, there’s no better time of day for fall photography than early morning. Winds at Heart Lake are typically calmest at dawn, better facilitating the reflection of colorful foliage and clouds in the lake. Fog rising from the lake on crisp autumn mornings is a common occurrence and provides some of the most dreamy and mystical photography conditions imaginable, whether photographed from the shore of the lake itself or from a higher vantage point up on Mount Jo. On especially cold mornings, frost might even coat the flora, adding a special touch to an already extraordinary time of year.

Look Beyond the Grand Landscape

When color is at its peak, the most obvious way to capture the beauty is to use a wide-angle lens to capture grand landscape photos. To create a more diverse portfolio and to truly capture the full essence of fall, though, it’s important to look beyond the landscape and find the subtle beauty of fall. One of the best ways to do this is to use other lenses besides a wide-angle. Utilizing a telephoto lens is a great way to isolate smaller sections of a landscape, and it can be a fun exercise in creativity to start with photographing the landscape using a wide-angle lens and then switch over to a telephoto to pick out different compositions from within the wider shot. From the shore of Heart Lake, use a telephoto lens to create a frame-filling shot of the most colorful group of trees, or a lone red maple amid a group of evergreens. From the summit of Mount Jo, hone in on morning fog floating over the top of the forest canopy, or a canoe on Heart Lake dwarfed by the immense scale of the Adirondack wilderness.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from an expansive landscape photo, macro photography can reveal an intimate and abstract side of fall that often goes unnoticed. With macro photography, a small section of a single leaf can be as beautiful and profound as a grand vista filled with millions of leaves.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Pack a Tripod and Polarizer

Two of the most useful accessories for fall photography not only at Heart Lake but in general are a tripod and polarizing filter. Unless intentionally blurring some or all of a photo for creative reasons, it’s typically desirable for a photo to be in sharp focus from front to back. A tripod is often necessary to stabilize the camera and facilitate a sharp photo, especially at dawn and dusk when there’s less light and longer exposure times are required. A polarizer comes in handy throughout the year but is especially useful in fall. Much like the polarized sunglasses that you might own, putting a polarizing filter on a camera lens helps to decrease glare and haze. Using one helps to make fall colors really pop, especially when the leaves are wet. A polarizer also helps to deepen the color of a blue sky, although care should be taken not to overdo it and end up with an unnatural polarization gradient in the sky. To avoid this, twist the polarizer back and forth until the most pleasing effect is achieved, especially when photographing at a 90-degree angle to the sun, at which the polarization effect is most prominent.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Get Out and Explore

While there are enough interesting photography subjects at Heart Lake to keep a photographer entertained for days on end, there are also several other nearby locations that can all be reached on foot that are worth investigating if on an extended stay in the area. About a mile up the road from the Heart Lake Campground, a trail to Mount Van Hoevenberg begins off South Meadows Road and leads to another short mountain with an open, rocky summit that provides a different perspective than Mount Jo. En-route to the summit, pass a beaver pond that provides an excellent view of Mount Van Hoevenberg to the north. For a less strenuous diversion from Heart Lake, continue to the end of South Meadows Road by foot or car to photograph pretty meadows complete with a babbling brook.

Heart Lake also provides easy access to hiking some of the most popular High Peaks, such as Algonquin, Marcy, and Phelps. It should be noted though that while the tundra of these peaks can sport pretty autumn alpine grasses, the best fall colors will be well below these lofty summits.

For a more secluded leg-stretcher than hitting a High Peak, loop around the north side of Heart Lake to connect with the Indian Pass Trail. Reach beautiful Rocky Falls in a little over two miles, with the option to continue on approximately three more miles to rugged and seldom-visited Indian Pass.

On the drive to and from Heart Lake on Adirondack Loj Road, several open meadows are passed that make for perfect photography or picnic spots, just be sure not to encroach on any private land.

 

Whether spending just an afternoon or an entire week, Heart Lake is a perfect destination for fall photography. With the tips outlined in this article and an open, creative mind, you’ll be sure to come away from your visit with the best fall photos possible.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

4 Tips for Finding Wintertime Solitude in the Adirondacks

Finding peace, solitude, and quiet in our day-to-day lives gets harder every day. Sometimes I head into the woods looking for a more social natural experience. I like to see other people on the trail or at a campground. It makes me feel even more comfortable if I am alone, or it is getting dark. In some circumstances, I’m expecting to see other friendly dogs for my dog to meet, other hikers to chat with on the summit, and the trail to be worn from other snowshoers so my walk will be a bit easier.

But other times, I am seeking solitude. I want to experience the quiet, untrammeled parts of wilderness. I want to experience the natural world as many people have before me, for hundreds of years. I want to hear birds, and water rushing. I want to have a chance to see wildlife. I want to find an overlook to enjoy the view in seclusion where I can fully let my body relax, look over valleys, rivers and marvel at nature’s wonders.

The reality is that we must share our wildlands; They belong to all of us. However, there are a few things you can do to find a little more solitude if that is the experience you’re seeking when planning your next outing in the Adirondacks this winter.

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Venture into the wilderness outside the High Peaks.

The High Peaks Wilderness area gets a lot of attention for being home to the tallest peaks in the Park. But there are many other Wilderness areas that offer unique outdoor recreation opportunities. There are many mountains, lakes, rivers, and ponds that have trails that connect and offer opportunities to explore the Adirondacks. 

Avoid using apps to find your hikes.

These apps can be helpful, but especially in the Adirondacks, there are so many trails that are not listed on them. You can find more reliable and comprehensive information (and quieter places to visit!) listed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), town websites, regional land trusts, or the Champlain Area Trails. If there is a trail listed on apps or on a review site with many recent reviews, consider picking another location.  

Explore summer destinations.

Snowshoe/ski into popular paddling areas and primitive campgrounds that would be otherwise busy in warmer seasons. Make sure to call the land manager (many times the DEC) beforehand for permission to use the closed seasonal roads first.  

Start from a quieter town.

Whether you’re a local or coming from far away, consider planning your outing in a town that is a bit sleepier during the winter season. You will be much more likely to step out of your car and into solitude. Plan ahead if you’re hoping to make it an overnight trip, as some businesses may be shut down for the season. This may mean bringing your own provisions and cooking a cozy meal in your AirBnB. For locals it may mean bringing dry clothes and a thermos of something hot to keep in your car for a comfortable ride home. 

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It’s our responsibility when we get to any natural place, to leave it better than we find it. Even if we are the only person that visits a place, the next person will feel like they have just discovered a place for the first time too. That also means thinking about how you share your experience on social media after your trip.  

It’s also worth mentioning, that if you’re going to take the responsibility of venturing into more remote, less populated destinations, you should especially be prepared for the conditions for the outing. Understanding the safety implications of where you are going, what you’re doing, and if there is cell service where you are. Even if you’re only planning to be out for a day, have enough gear to survive overnight in case you get stranded. 

At the end of the day, no matter what, even if you’re sharing your experience with many other people, a day spent in the Adirondacks is a good day. However, there are many places in the Adirondacks where you can go and have a quiet winter day. There is a certain magic when we have a moment in winter solitude to experience the gifts of Mother Nature and realize why it is all worth protecting for everyone. 

How do you find solitude, and when do you enjoy a more social nature experience?


Support the Mountains of the Northeast With Your Purchase

At EMS stores this holiday season, customers making a purchase will have the option of donating to one of three outstanding outdoor-focused organizations: the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), and the Mount Washington Observatory (MWOBS). Vital to outdoor recreation in the Northeast, these organizations are making it much easier for all of us to get outside. So while you’re getting a great gift this holiday season, here are some reasons to consider making a small donation to one of these awesome orgs.

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Adirondack Mountain Club

The Adirondack Mountain Club has its roots in a store not all that different from EMS, at least at the time. In 1921, the club was conceived in the log cabin atop New York City’s Abercrombie & Fitch to improve the accessibility of remote areas of the Adirondacks through the construction of trails and shelters. From the first 40-person meeting at A&F in 1921 to the 75 (out of 208 certified charter members) attending the formal meeting a year later in 1922, the group has grown significantly. Today, the ADK boasts 28,000 members across its 27 chapters. However, one thing that has remained the same is the group’s mission to maintain trails, construct and maintain campsites, preserve a bureau of information about the Adirondacks, publish maps and guidebooks, and educate the public regarding the conservation of natural resources and prevention of forest fires.

Appalachian Mountain Club

From overnighting at a hut or tent site to maintaining the region’s historic trails to protecting wilderness in New Hampshire, the AMC has been providing assistance to hikers, climbers, and skiers in the White Mountains for generations. Born to encourage adventure and exploration in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the Appalachian Mountain Club predates the formation of the White Mountain National Forest by more than 40 years. Founded in 1876, the AMC is the oldest nonprofit conservation and recreation organization in the US. The AMC has grown up a lot over the last century and a half, swelling to more than a quarter-million members in its 12 chapters between Washington, D.C., and Maine. With age, the AMC’s mission has also morphed; in addition to adventure and exploration, the organization now supports conservation advocacy and research, runs youth programs, maintains 1,800 miles of trails, and provides hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours.

Mount Washington Observatory

Whether you’re a hiker, skier, or climber, the MWOBS’ Higher Summits forecast is a must read before any day in the Whites. Operating on the summit since 1932, MWOBS recorded the world’s fastest surface wind speed ever observed by man: 231 mph. Although the instruments and technology employed by the observatory have changed over the years, the goal remains the same: to observe and maintain a record of weather data, perform weather and climate research, foster public understanding of the mountain and its environment, and provide excellent forecasts for the public recreating in the White Mountains.

 

Edward Abbey famously said, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” So, this holiday season, give a little extra to help preserve the places we all love by supporting these indispensable mountain services.


11 Tips to Coexist with Bears in the Adirondacks and Elsewhere

Across the Northeast, black bear populations and encounters are on the rise. In fact, the number of bears has more than doubled in New England since the turn of the century. As a result, conflicts between people and bears are becoming more commonplace, especially when humans head into the bear’s environment: The woods.

While black bears get a bad rap from their interactions from humans, they are typically only in search of food, and tend to be solitary, shy creatures more afraid of humans than we are of them. So how do we limit our interactions with, keep ourselves safe, and keep the bears safe?

Courtesy: Eric Kilby
Courtesy: Eric Kilby

1. Take a Bear Canister

Erin Hanczyk of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recommends taking a bear canister on your next backpacking or camping trip. “Bear hangs aren’t working like they used to,” she says. Hanczyk recommends canisters similar to the COUNTER ASSAULT Bear Resistant Food Keg as other models have been ineffective against bears, particularly in the High Peaks.

Bears have a powerful nose and are motivated by food, so any products with a strong scent, including food, toiletries, bug spray, garbage, food waste, and more should be kept in the canister. In order to fit everything in, minimize the food you’re bringing, remove extra packaging material when possible, and leave space for waste and garbage. Pack the canister ahead of time to assure it all fits and you know how it properly locks!

2. A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear

Don’t feed bears, intentionally or inadvertently. For one, intentional feeding of black bears is illegal. But bears are quick learners and have strong memory; Males will often travel dozens of miles to past feeding areas and they will repeat maneuvers that have led to food in the past (i.e., if people feed them). Don’t help them habituate to easily preventable behavior, because euthanasia is a dramatic last resort.

3. Know the Lay of the Land

A little research and preparation will go a long way as you plan for your trip. Just as you seek trail conditions for your destination, knowing whether there are bear advisories or bear-proof food storage lockers at the campsite is important information. The visitors center of the park or the state wildlife department (which generally is responsible for bear management) will often have the details you are looking for.

4. Consider the Bear’s Calendar

Bears will travel further and take bolder actions when food is sparser, such as in early spring, or in late summer and fall, particularly during years of poor berry and nut yields and during draughts.

Bears tend to arouse from a long slumber between March and April, and during their hibernation they lose between 20 and 40 percent of their weight, so you can imagine they are quite hungry at this time of year. Pay particular caution to newborn cubs around May as the highly protective (and hungry) mother is likely close by. Mating season typically occurs between mid-June and mid-July, when males can be more aggressive.

5. Hike During Daylight Hours

Bears are most active at dawn and dusk. They may be around during the daylight hours too, though they are rarely active at night (except during breeding season, between mid-June and mid-July). Take this into account as you come around bends in the sidelong light or greet the first rays of the day.

6. Cook Earlier in the Evening

For the same reason as above, you don’t want all those lovely dinner smells wafting in the air just as bears are rousing into their most active time of day. Hanczyk urges campers to cook between 4 or 5 p.m. and to be cleaned up before dark.

“We’ve had examples of bears circling campers while they are cooking [later in the evening],” notes Hanczyk.

7. Use the Camp Triangle

The idea is to keep a distance of at least 100 feet between the three points of your camp: the sleeping area, cooking site, and where you store your bear canister overnight. This will help separate those savory smells and drippings, as well as your food stores, from your sleepy bed head. Hanczyk recommends putting the bear canister behind the bathroom facility, which reduces visibility for a passing bear.

8. Cook Only What You Need

Be conservative with your ingredients so as to avoid leftovers, only take out the food you plan on cooking with, and keep everything else in your bear canister. Make sure not to leave your meal unattended as a watching bear may use that as an uninvited opening to steal your meal.

9. Keep a Clean Campsite

Again, bears are attracted to the scent of food, so you want to keep your sleeping area clean of smelly smells. Don’t keep food or scented items (such as toiletry products) in your tent and avoid wearing the clothing you prepared your meals in to bed. After cooking, clean your pots and pans, and strain your water to filter out food particles—Put the bits in your trash bag to be kept in your bear canister. Disperse the leftover waste water away from your cooking station. If you are at a campground, take all garbage and recyclables to on-site receptacles each evening. Lastly, don’t put grease, food scraps, garbage, or other refuse into the fireplace as the items will not properly burn and may attract bears with their odor.

Courtesy: NYSDEC
Courtesy: NYSDEC

10. Keep an Eye Out

While you hike, pay attention to bear signs such as tracks and prints, tree markings, and scat. Bears have broad footprints about 4 to 7 inches wide with all 5 toes and claws typically showing. Claw marks can be found on tree trunks with parallel lines that gouge the bark or look for saplings that are broken partway up the trunk. Their scat is typically dark brown, tubular, and contains seeds or grass.

11. Don’t Leave Packs Unattended

Want to check out that vista 0.3 miles down the side trail? You will want to think twice about leaving your pack behind if you do, and no, it’s not because humans might get to it. Bears have been known to take stashed packs. Easy pickings.

What To Do If You Encounter A Black Bear

Black bears may react aggressively if they feel threatened, so avoid startling, approaching or surrounding them. In an area with known encounters, make noise such as clapping or talking loudly as you hike to try and alert bears of your presence. If hiking in a group, stay together.

If you do encounter a bear don’t run. Running can trigger their predator instinct, and they can reach speeds up to 32 miles an hour. That is not a footrace you will win. If the bear doesn’t see you, slowly back away, keeping your eyes on the bear.

Bears tend to be more curious than aggressive so if a bear does see you, your first action should be to stop, stay composed, raise your arms to make yourself look bigger, speak in a loud and calm voice, then slowly back away. If a bear stands on its hind legs, it is most likely trying to get a better view, it is not typically a combative posture. If the bear approaches you, again, don’t run, and avoid throwing your backpack or food at an approaching bear. That may condition bears to approach future hikers in the hopes of acquiring food.

If a bear charges you, stand your ground and dispense bear spray if you have it. If the bear makes contact with you, your best bet is to fight back with whatever you have at hand. But, especially in the East, those situations are exceedingly rare and it’s easiest to try and avoid that situation in the first place.


Alpha Guide: Hiking Hurricane Mountain

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

With a breathtaking trail and 360-degree views from the summit, this fire tower hike and sub-4,000-footer can rival any other peak in the Adirondacks.

With a moderately short hiking distance and elevation gain, and a trail that traverses various diverse ecosystems, you’ll be in awe nearly every step of the way up Hurricane Mountain’s southern access trail. While the summit itself only offers roughly a 180-degree view, a quick climb up the steps into the cab of the firetower will reward you with an unparalleled 360-degree view of the surrounding Keene Valley area, the nearby Adirondack High Peaks, the countless other mountains and valleys in the vicinity.

*NOTICE: Currently, it is considered mud season in the Adirondack park and the DEC is asking people to refrain from hiking anything above 2,500 feet in elevation. This mud season typically comes around in mid to late April, and can last a few weeks or more as the snow begins to melt and rainfall mixes with the soil, creating muddy conditions. If you do choose to hike during mud season, it is important to remember that it is better for the trail to walk directly through the mud, rather than around it to avoid trail widening and furthering human impact on the wilderness.

Quick Facts

Distance: 6.2 miles, out-and-back
Time to Complete: Half day
Difficulty: ★★★
Scenery: ★★★★★


Season: Year-round*
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: https://on.ny.gov/2ZSMwKs 

Download file: Hurricane_Mountain.gpx

Turn-By-Turn

Take Route 73 north (from I87) or south (from Lake Placid) into Keene and then head east on Route 9N at a fork with views of the MacIntyre Range. Stay in 9N for 3.5 miles looking for a pullout (44.21141, -73.72289) on the left (north) side of the road.

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

The Journey Begins

The red-blazed trail starts off with a steady, gentle climb from the trailhead towards the mountains. There isn’t a whole lot to see for the first half mile or so, but after .4 miles and 300 feet of elevation gain, you’ll find yourself looking south from the first viewpoint of the day (44.213516, -73.718133), with unobstructed views of Knob Lock, Green, and Tripod Mountains. Once you snap a few photos, you’ll move forward on the wooded trail, fairly straightforward for another half-mile and 100 feet of elevation gain. At this point, you’ll find yourself on the outskirts of the marshy area that the Spruce Hill Brook runs into, and you will have various planks and floating log bridges to cross.

The First View of the Fire Tower

Once you leave the marshy area, the true climbing of the hike begins. While traditional open viewpoints are mostly missing from this section of trail, be prepared to find yourself in awe of its wooded beauty. Although this is a mostly wooded section of trail, the variety of trees you’ll pass create a sort of natural rainbow; From the white bark of the birch trees to the dark gray, mossy bark of the elm tree and the multicolored hues of leaves, both alive and dead, mix together beautifully with a blue sky to create a peaceful scene. All at once, after climbing a total of 1700’ feet near mile 2.5, you’ll find yourself temporarily breaking out of the treeline, with an unexpected view of the 46ers Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge to the south (44.234019, -73.716460), and catching your first glimpse of the actual fire tower on the summit to the northeast.

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

The Final Push to the Fire Tower

After the brief glimpse you get of the tower, you will reenter the woods for approximately 0.4 miles, at which point you will reach the junction (44.235908, -73.713253) between the Hurricane Mountain Trail you have been on for nearly 2.9 miles, and the North Hurricane Trail which comes from the Crow Clearing/Nun-Da-Ga-O Ridge Trailhead on O’Toole Road in Keene. Now you’re in the home stretch, with just a tenth of a mile to go before you break the treeline and can begin taking in unobstructed views. Be wary and cautious, for Hurricane often has strong winds that embody its name. Once you’re all geared up, take those final steps and reach the summit (44.235327, -73.710605) after 3.1 miles and 2,000 feet of climbing. Make sure to head up and into the fire tower itself for an incredible 360-degree view of the Adirondacks, with High Peaks, lakes, and wild forests all available with just a turn of your head.

When you’re done, retrace your steps back down to the trailhead.


Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

The Kit

  • Make sure to have Microspikes or even crampons for this peak, even into the later spring months, as the weather in the Adirondacks in unpredictable and there will often still be snow and ice on trails and summits well into May.
  • There are many sources of water and mud along this trail, including floating log bridges in the marshy area of Spruce Hill Brook (which can often be underwater), so having a reliable pair of waterproof boots or shoes will make the difference in keeping you comfortable.
  • This mountain is great at any time of day, but we highly recommend making a trip up for both sunrise and sunset, for which carrying a good headlamp will be important. That being said, make sure you have a headlamp and extra batteries even if your plan isn’t to stay the night—you never know.
  • No matter what time of year you find yourself hiking Hurricane, the chance of rain and wind are always there, so you’ll want to make sure you’re protected from the elements with a good rain shell!
  • A small blanket or chair, like the Helinox Chair One, is a perfect thing to carry on a hike up Hurricane. If the weather is nice on the summit, you’ll want to sit and stay awhile. The openness of the summit, combined with the essentially flat summit rocks makes this a perfect mountaintop to hang out on, taking in the beauty of the surrounding landscape while you soak up the sun’s rays.

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

Keys to the Trip

  • Arrive early, as allotted parking spaces tend to fill up quick, and parking alongside the road can be dangerous to yourself and others. If you arrive late and parking is filled up, you can try to head to the Crow Clearing trailhead located on O’Toole Road in Keene, and hike Hurricane that way. Otherwise, you may have to settle for another small mountain nearby!
  • Since Hurricane isn’t an all-day trek, it’s a great idea to add in another nearby mountain or two to extend your hiking day. Some shorter hikes nearby that offer excellent views are Baxter Mountain (whose trailhead is located on the same stretch of Route 9N), and Big Crow Mountain (whose trailhead is located on O’Toole Road in Keene).
  • Bring friends and dogs to share in the beauty of this amazing hike! With a short, moderate distance and elevation gain, beginner and experienced hikers (and your four-legged friends) will have a great time on this trek. If you do bring along a hiking pup, make sure to be prepared with bags, a leash (and often a harness), as well as water and food to keep them as happy as you are!
  • Be sure to fuel up before and/or after your hike! Local hotspots (depending on your direction of travel) include the Stewart’s in Keene, and Noonmark Diner in Keene Valley. If you’re heading even further north, consider Big Slide Brewery and The ‘dack Shack for a delicious lunch or dinner!

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Current Conditions

Have you been up Hurricane Mountain recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!


Alpha Guide: Great Range Traverse

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

With eight high peaks and 10 summits overall, breathtaking views, and rugged mountain trails, the Great Range Traverse is one of the toughest, yet most rewarding hikes in the Northeast.

The Great Range Traverse (or GRT) is undoubtedly part of the conversation around the toughest (and most rewarding) hikes in the Northeast. With a substantial hiking distance, a very solid elevation gain of over 9,000 feet, and covering miles of trail that take you through a variety of landscapes, this line along one of the ‘Daks most picturesque and rugged ranges is a life list item equal to the Presidential Traverse or Katahdin’s Knife Edge. Only one summit that you’ll cover doesn’t offer a view, and when you bag eight 4,000-footers and a shorter mountain with gorgeous viewpoints for most of the hike, you’ll quickly and easily lose yourself further into nature with every step. From dirt and roots to wet rocks, ladders, and cable routes, this hike truly has it all.

Quick Facts

Distance: 21.3 miles, point-to-point thru-hike
Time to Complete: 1-3 days
Difficulty: ★★★★★
Scenery:★★★★★


Season: Year-round (Snow November through May)
Fees/Permits: $10 shuttle from the Marcy Field Parking Lot
Contact: http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/5265.html

Download file: Great_Range_Traverse.gpx

Turn-By-Turn

Start from the Roostercomb Trailhead (44.185454, -73.786723), on route 73 in Keene Valley. From Exit 30 on the Northway, you will head west on 73 for approximately 10 miles, and the parking lot will be on your left. Arrive early, as parking spaces tend to fill up quick, and parking alongside the road can be dangerous to yourself and others and result in a ticket. Also, arriving early is important because this hike will most likely take at least 12 hours to complete. The earlier you start, the earlier you will finish!

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

Starting off climbing.

Even the beginning section of the GRT isn’t all that easy, with a very steady elevation gain (1,750 feet in total) from the parking lot to the summit of the Roostercomb. You’ll begin on the Roostercomb Trail, a nice trail that skirts the edge of a small, picturesque pond before you begin to climb. Around 1.9 miles in, you will reach a junction with the Flume Brook and Hedgehog Trails. To reach the summit, you’ll take a right at this junction and continue the last 0.3 miles along the Roostercomb Trail. This is a short and step climb at first, before leveling out and rewarding you with one or two fairly good viewpoints until you reach the fairly open and exposed summit at 2.2 miles (44.172718, -73.811523). The view here is a great start to the day, showing you multiple High peaks, including Giant of the Valley, Big Slide, and the beginnings of the Great Range with Lower and Upper Wolfjaw. 

After the fantastic views on Roostercomb, it’s time to continue on your way. You’ll descend that final stretch of the Roostercomb Trail, and after 0.3 miles, you’ll reach the Hedgehog/Flume Brook Trails junction again. This time, you will turn right and begin heading up the Hedgehog Trail. Similar to the Roostercomb trail, there are essentially no lookouts or viewpoints, even as you approach the summit at mile 3.6 (44.159313, -73.810786) This mountain is the only one you’ll reach all day that has no view. 

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

The first High Peaks.

After taking a brief rest on the summit of Hedgehog, it’s time to head over to your first official High Peak of the day. After about 0.4 miles along the Hedgehog trail heading towards LWJ, you’ll find yourself at an intersection with the W.A. White trail. You’ll continue ahead, but the W.A. White trail takes over for the Hedgehog Trail as you move towards Lower Wolfjaw. After another 1.1 miles or so, you’ll find an unobstructed lookout, giving you an great view of Lower Wolfjaw. A few moments later, and you’ll find yourself on your first 4,000 footer of the day, Lower Wolfjaw at mile 5.2(44.148090, -73.833092). 

After taking in the scenery, it’s time to head over to Lower Wolfjaw’s big brother, Upper Wolfjaw. You’ll begin with a short but steep descent along the W.A. White trail to the Wedge Brook Trail junction. You’ll continue with some small descents and ascents for a few minutes until you reach another junction, this time with the Wolf Jaws Notch Cutoff Trail. At this point, the W.A. White Trail turns into the Range Trail, as you’re now on the Great Range and not leaving it any time soon! Soon after leaving this junction, you’ll begin a fairly steep climb up to the northeastern shoulder of Upper Wolfjaw. After this, the trail becomes less severe, but still has moderate gain as you come closer to your second 46er of the day. Finally, you’ll reach another junction. To your right you’ll see a (very) short spur trail to the summit (44.140386, -73.845249) at mile 6.3, which offers great, underrated views, including some of your next two high peaks. This is a good spot to drop your pack, eat some food, and let your legs dangle for a bit as you take in the scenery, since you’ve now covered over half of your elevation gain for the day! 

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

The easiest peak of the day.

After a breather on UWJ, it’s time for your shortest section of the day, continuing along the Range Trail over to Armstrong. Although this is overall a fairly easy section of trail, there are a few spots that involve ladders, steep rockfaces, and roots that require your full attention when climbing. While there are not many viewpoints along this section, the trail itself offers some gorgeous sections of blowdown, serene woods, and a peaceful setting. After barely a half of a mile (at mile 7.0), you’ll step out onto a large ledge (44.134526, -73.849768), looking west towards Big Slide, Phelps, Tabletop, and more. 

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

A top view.

Begin to descend from Armstrong and head towards Gothics. The Range Trail between Armstrong and Gothics has some moderate descent, and moderate elevation gain, but in no time at all you’ll find yourself in a col between the two, in an area that is filled with blowdown, and gives a good view looking back towards Armstrong. You’ll continue along through this col and begin the short ascent to the summit, which offers multiple viewpoints along the way. After playing hide and seek with the treeline a few times, you’ll break out one final time and find yourself on the summit (44.127805, -73.857417) at mile 7.8. Often chosen as the best view out of all High Peaks, Gothics offers incredible 360-degree views that allow you to look back at where you’ve come from, ahead to where you’re going, and everywhere in between. This is a good spot to take a long break, as you’ve completed roughly two thirds of your elevation gain for the day, halfway through the high peaks of the hike, and you’ve got the biggest mountains coming up next!

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

Down the cables.

After a lunch break on Gothics, it’s time to keep pressing onwards. In what some may argue is either the most or least fun part of the day, as you continue towards Saddleback from Gothics, you’ll soon find yourself at the top of the Gothics cable route. This section of exposed rock face is very steep, so years ago metal bolts were installed, with a rubber-coated steel cable running through the bolts to allow hikers something to hold on to while they are ascending/descending this tricky section of trail. There are incredible views for a good portion of this trail, so although it is important to keep your eyes on the ground to pick your steps carefully, it is also advisable to take a break here and there and enjoy the scenery.

After taking yourself roughly 0.6 miles from the summit of Gothics, you will find yourself at a junction with the Orebed Brook Trail, in the col between Gothics and Saddleback. After continuing straight ahead at this junction, you’ll start climbing towards your next High Peak. This is a shorter, and fairly steep section of trail that offers limited views until you reach the summit. Around a mile of hiking from Gothics, you’ll break out from the trees and find yourself on a large, wide, exposed area of rock (44.126294, -73.875139) at mile 8.8. The view on Saddleback is fantastic, allowing you to look back at Armstrong and Gothics, as well as look ahead to Basin and Haystack.

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

The Saddleback Cliffs.

As you leave the summit of Saddleback, you’ll have to navigate the trail carefully, as it follows along a gradual cliff edge for a few minutes. Following the yellow paint blazes on the exposed rock, you will then see that the trail takes a sharp left, heading down the infamous Saddleback cliffs. These cliffs can prove difficult to even the strongest, most experienced hikers, especially when you need to downclimb. It is very important to pick your hand holds and footholds carefully, keeping three points of contact at all times. Once you are at the bottom of the cliffs, you can look back at what you just descended, and feel proud, for it is no easy feat.

You will now have a fairly flat section of trail for a little while before you begin the ascent to Basin. First, you will have a climb up the shoulder of Basin, before you have a relatively level section before the final push to the summit. The trail in these sections is easy to navigate usually fairly dry, and easy on the legs. After the final climb at mile 8.4, you’ll find yourself on an open summit (44.121236, -73.886480), with incredible views of your final two peaks of the day, Haystack and Marcy.

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

A worthy subpeak.

After leaving the summit of Basin, you’ll descend along the Range Trail until you find yourself in a col. You’ll have some fairly flat trail for a little while as you navigate the area between Basin and Haystack. At approximately mile 9.5, you will reach a junction with the Haystack Brook Trail (44.115188, -73.896464). This is a very important spot to remember, as it is your only definite water source for the entire trip until you are done with all of the ascent of the hike. Here at the junction, the Haystack Brook runs across the trail, and typically is flowing quite well year-round until it freezes over for the winter months. There is also a designated campsite in this area, if you decide to turn this into a 2 day trip!

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

After using a filter or purifier to replenish your water stores, you will begin heading up the shoulder of Haystack, called Little Haystack. Here you will reach a junction, with the Range Trail continuing to the right, towards Marcy, but before you head that way you have to hit your seventh High Peak of the day. Little Haystack is a fairly big, completely exposed “hill” that you have to cover in order to continue towards the summit of Haystack. Little Haystack is only 0.5 miles from Haystack, but you do have a fair amount of elevation gain during that stretch of trail. From the second you begin climbing Little Haystack, to the moment you reach the summit of Haystack, you will have incredible views all around you. To your right is a breathtaking landscape that consists of Marcy looming over Panther Gorge, and to your left is a staggering panorama of jagged peaks jutting out of the sky, showing you what you’ve had to cover so far in the day to get where you are. Finally at mile 11.2, you will reach the Haystack summit (44.105761, -73.900672), the third highest peak in the state. This is a great spot to kick back and relax for a bit, because the views are just incredible, and you still have a fairly hard section of trail in front of you before you reach your final summit of the day.

The high point.

Your final test of the day also leads you to the highest point in the entire state, Mount Marcy. Descend the 0.5 miles from Haystack to Little Haystack, which tends to go by fairly quickly. Once you go up and over Little Haystack, you’ll find yourself back at the junction with the Range Trail at mile 11.6. This stretch of trail goes between the Haystack Trail and the Phelps Trail, and can be difficult to navigate at times. It is technical, rocky, muddy, and has its fair share of ups and downs, so be careful during this time. After you reach the junction with the Van Hoevenberg Trail at mile 12.7, you’ll start to begin your final ascent towards Mount Marcy. This final half-mile of trail is moderately steep, but mostly exposed, with views to both sides of you as you make your final climb of the day.

Finally, after 13.2 miles and ~9,000’ of elevation gain on the day, you’ll reach your final summit (44.112781, -73.923694). Mount Marcy’s Native American name was Tahawus, meaning “cloud-splitter.” This beauty of a peak certainly lives up to that name, as at any point in the day you may have blue skies down low but find yourself in the clouds on the summit. I highly recommend you take a good, long break here at the summit (weather permitting), as the hardest parts of your day are done. Eat a snack, have some water, and enjoy the views of every other mountain within visible viewing distance.

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

Down and out.

Now all that’s left to do it hike the last 8.3 miles down and out, to the Garden Trailhead. Leaving the summit, you’ll spend half of a mile on the Van Hoevenberg Trail before reaching the Phelps Trail junction. At this point, you will turn onto your final trail of the day, back onto the Phelps Trail. As stated before, the Phelps trail at this point is narrow, rocky, covered with roots, running water, and is highly technical. You will need to pay attention and plan every step in order to navigate some of the trickier stretches of trail safely. The next few miles will most likely have you cursing under your breath as you inevitably trip, catch your feet on roots, and stumble down the trail, but after roughly 3 miles of this, the trail becomes your best friend. Wide, flat, and well maintained, the remainder of the Phelps Trail is probably the easiest part of your day. With virtually no elevation gain, and a very gradual descent, you will usually find another little bit of energy to help push through to the parking lot. Finally, you will pop back out into the Garden Parking Lot at mile 21.5 (44.188896, -73.816312).

Pro tip: A shuttle runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the spring, summer and fall months (check the Keene Valley website for more information<<Can we include a link? And does this go directly back to Rooster Comb or just to the airfield?))). If the day looks like it might take longer than expected, be prepared for an additional 2-mile road walk to the Roostercomb Trailhead.


Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

The Kit

  • Covering 20-plus miles with 9,000 feet or more of elevation is no easy feat, and regardless of how long such a trek can take you, you’ll need to make sure you are hydrated, but the longer day means you might need to carry along a water filter like the MSR Hyperflow to fill up along the way. This small, compact and lightweight filter can filter up to 3 liters of water per minute.
  • As is the case with most trails in the Adirondacks year-round, there are many sections of standing water and mud along this trail, including between summits and descending from Marcy along the Phelps trail (which can often be flowing with water). In order to help conserve the environment and follow LNT practices, it is always best to go through the mud than try to find a drier way around, and waterproof footwear, like the Oboz Sawtooth II Mid hiking boots will definitely be your friend!
  • The top trail runners in the world can do this traverse in just over five hours, but for most people out there, this trip will inevitably include a portion in the dark. As you should do every time you set out on a hike, make sure you have a headlamp like the Black Diamond Spot and extra batteries to make the trip safe!
  • No one ever wants to have to spend an unexpected night in the woods, but especially with bigger, tougher hikes like the GRT, accidents and unfortunate events do occur. If something happens, you need to be able to survive a night in the woods, and an emergency bivy sack like the SOL Thermal Bivy goes a long way towards backcountry survival.

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

Keys to the Trip

  • This hike will test even the most in-shape hikers, trail runners and backpackers, so it is vitally important to plan and be well prepared before you set out. If backpacking, make sure you have approved tent sites, with backups in case they are taken, chosen and marked on your map before you go. A good option that follows all DEC regulations regarding elevation and location is the Sno-Bird camping spot, located in the col between Basin and Haystack (44.115334, -73.895874).
  • While it is common hiking knowledge to plan ahead for weather and various conditions, another thing to remember is that this hike is limited in comparison in the Northeast. It is a good idea to have hiked all or most of the mountains and trails beforehand to get the best idea of what conditions may be like, and how stringing them all together in one big day can affect you! It is also important to make sure you are physically fit enough to successfully complete such an endeavor, and a good strategy is to build up your mileage and elevations during hikes leading up to the big day!
  • Be sure to fuel up before and/or after your hike! Depending on which direction you are coming from, the Old Mountain Coffee Company in Keene Valley is a great coffee spot, and is right across the road from Noonmark Diner. Other great options for post-hike eats are Big Slide Brewery and Wiseguys in Lake Placid. Of course, Stewart’s in Keene is always a great option both before and after a hike!

Credit: Joshua Myers
Credit: Joshua Myers

Current Conditions

Have you hiked the GRT, or even a piece of it, recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!


Popular Adirondack Trailhead Parking Lot Closing for Spring and Summer 2019

Starting this spring and continuing through the summer, a popular trailhead from Keene Valley, New York, into the Adirondack High Peaks will be closed to public traffic.

The Garden Parking Lot will be closed to vehicles during to the replacement of a bridge over Johns Brook on the road leading to the parking area. The Garden is one of the primary access points for hikers entering the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, including the Johns Brook Valley, the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Johns Brook Lodge, Big Slide Mountain, northern access to the Great Range, as well as the Phelps Trail up the north side of Mount Marcy, among other trails.

Construction work on the bridge will begin as early as road conditions and weather permit, according to Keene town officials, and is expected to continue through the summer.

The only access to The Garden Trailhead will for hikers who park at the Marcy Field Parking Lot, north of town, and taking a shuttle provided by the town which has been running for the last several years. The shuttle, which costs $10 round-trip per hiker, is expected to operate seven days a week during peak season, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m, but town officials note that a lack of bus drivers could cause alterations to that schedule.

“The town recognizes that this is a major disruption during the nicest hiking weather, but the bridge replacement is critical,” a news release from the Town reads. “The current bridge is in such poor shape that the town can’t run plow trucks over it safely.”

The Town will update this website with current information on the shuttle, as well as its schedule.


Lessons on Grace: Lost in the Dix Range

On August 19th at 9:30 a.m., I entered the Dix Range, solo, for an intended 18-mile traverse over its five High Peaks. I was running late. Many attempt the loop hike as a day trip, albeit a long one, so I had intended to start hours earlier than I actually did. Rather than change my plans, I would just have to hike faster. Simple.

My gear consisted of three liters of water in a CamelBak, three apples, two Clif bars, two lighters in a Ziploc bag, a Swiss army penknife on my keys, a great pair of Scarpa boots, and an athletic T-shirt and shorts. En route to the trailhead, I texted my father the GPS coordinates and told him that if he hasn’t heard back from me by 9:00 p.m., I have died and he should search for me there. It was a bad joke that would only get worse.

At this point, I had hiked primarily along the Appalachian Trail’s fully blazed trails, and climbed a half-dozen High Peaks before, all with clearly marked, easy-to-follow paths. I knew that some were marked less clearly, but I didn’t realize this route would be notoriously difficult to follow. The maps I had downloaded from AllTrails made it look like any other trail. At the same time, the GPS coordinates I was using as my starting point weren’t for the main trailhead, either.

Instead, I set out from the Route 73 entrance on an unmaintained herd path. However, High Peaks guidebooks dropped this route decades prior. Cairns placed across the river, sometimes hundreds of feet away and with no clear path of boulders to leapfrog across, indicated river crossings. At junctions, a large broken branch indicated the turn. For someone who frequently gets lost in his own hometown, this was like hiking blindfolded.

I lost a good hour and a half following this vague route and killed a large chunk of my phone’s battery while trying to follow the GPS track before I even touched a summit. Feeling the lost time, I started jogging.

After reconnecting with the Bouquet Forks Trail, I quickly summited Grace and South Dix. I arrived on the summit of my third peak—Macomb—at just shy of 4 p.m. At the summit, I met a quartet of women who were finishing their final peak. They graciously offered their map to cross-reference against my dying phone to figure out my route. The leader recognized the gravity of my situation: “Even if you ran the whole way, you couldn’t finish this five-peak loop before sunset.”

Then, my phone died in my hand. I put it back in my pocket, without saying a word.

The author meeting other hikers on top of tk. | Courtesy: Allison Kozel
The author meeting other hikers on top of Macomb. | Courtesy: Allison Kozel

Racing the Light

The quartet had entered the Dix Range from the Elk Lake Trailhead. At 4 p.m., they had just finished all five of their peaks, doing the loop clockwise and ending on Macomb. In retrospect, I should have abandoned my plan here and exited the wilderness with the group. That would have entailed descending the Macomb Slide with them to their car and bumming a ride back to my VW Beetle at the Route 73 entrance.

That is not what happened. I fully understood it was now impossible to complete the full loop with the dwindling daylight, but I felt I could haul at a clip and retrace my steps back to my car without relying on joining the group of women. I even congratulated myself for the compromise, believing abandoning my plan signaled maturity. Without realizing, I had simply downgraded from the impossible to the extremely difficult, sidestepping a surefire successful exit.

Giving up on completing all five peaks, I started running back down Macomb, retracing my steps over the three peaks I had summited earlier. After returning to Grace, I knew I had minimal light left, but knowing I was off the peaks and in the last several miles back to my car buoyed me forward.

But, the switchbacks on the river, already difficult to follow at a walk, were impossible at a jog. Ducking over and under boulders and waterfalls and navigating a route marked only by cairns, I lost my path, and doubled back. Was that pile of rocks a cairn? Was that branch intentionally broken to indicate direction? I found other herd paths that were not mine. I realized I was losing light fast, and was no longer sure I was even on the right river. Holding my hand to the sun, I had just fingers left of light before the horizon.

Running through my inventory, I realized I had almost no equipment at all: no jacket, tent, blanket, iodine tablets, or anything. My focus shifted immediately from getting out of the woods to surviving them. I decided I needed to get a fire going to keep warm when the temperatures would likely drop into the mid-40s.

There was no time for panic. I found a large downed birch near the bank of the river. It was perpendicular to its course and high enough off the ground to break the wind—perfect for me to lay back against. Then, I scrambled together firewood, until the last ray of light disappeared, and built a small fire in front of my improvised windbreak shelter. From 8 p.m. to 6 a.m., I fed the fire continuously, occasionally awakened by the cold whenever the fire began to ebb. I reached into the dark for my wood pile, fed, and adjusted the fire, before settling again into sleep.

The stars were infinitely clear. Any rustling heard throughout the night never felt threatening. I was never particularly uncomfortable. Though I never forgot the gravity of my situation, the solemnity and clarity of my home for the night filled me with a peace and awe that I have never experienced so intensely before. Though I had little with me, I had just enough for the night.

Credit: Lecco Morris
Credit: Lecco Morris

Searching for a Way Out

When I awakened again at dawn, the embers were down to nearly nothing. And, there was nothing left in my pile of dry wood.

So, I resolved to bushwhack to find my herd path and get out of the woods on my own steam. I began walking up and down one side of the river, spending several hours being torn apart by shrubs and overgrowth. I found dozens of other herd paths, following many of them until their ultimate conclusion: nowhere.

Sometime in the late morning, I realized it would be impossible for me to locate the path without more information, and that I was helplessly lost. While searching, I was wasting energy on a task I realized was fruitless. I cursed my lack of a map. I sat down and took stock.

Panic crept into my mind for a minute or two as I steadied myself on a rock. The sky above started to take the bruised color of filling clouds. Searching any longer for the path would be useless, but I needed to get out of the woods before I had to reckon with a storm.

In the early afternoon, I decided to stay put, hoping for rescue. In the river, a large sandbar mostly made of pebbles stood, flanked by a beaver dam on the downward side. I started making a signal fire from the driftwood. Remembering that birch bark burns oily and black, I leapt from the sandbar and scrambled up a mud wall. In those dozens of trips for birch bark, I cut long strips off a blowdown birch with my minuscule penknife.

I had less than a liter of water by this point, so I couldn’t risk lengthy sun exposure. Instead, if I heard rotors or saw a chopper, I would leap out from the shade to throw more birch onto the fire and would hope they saw the smoke in time.

For about three hours, I hoofed birch bark to the sandbar whenever I heard rotors up close, and threw pounds and armfuls onto the fire, trip after trip. Two or three times, I actually saw a chopper cresting the ridge. Eventually, I realized I needed to wrap my psyche around the idea that I might not be found for days, and thus would need to ration water for an unknown length of time. The deepening bruise in the sky also made me think the coming night would be a wet one. I couldn’t survive an unprotected windy night in the rain at sub-50 degrees, and had to make a lean-to.

By late afternoon, I was far from starving. However, in an effort to prepare myself for being stuck in the woods for an indeterminate length of time, I decided to find something to eat. If it came to killing an animal, I wanted to cross that line earlier rather than later. Although the frog lurking at the river’s muddy bank was too fast for me, I noticed many orange salamanders with black spots (later identified as Eastern red-spotted newts). I am aware that slow-moving, brightly colored animals are commonly toxic. However, in this case, I figured eating a few would be an okay way to test this rule.

I found two, said “I’m so sorry” aloud as I speared them with a stick, and cooked them over the signal fire. Because they were so unbelievably terrible, I presumed they were low-level toxic (I was right). Then, I attempted to figure out how to construct a lean-to.

The author on Macomb. | Courtesy: Allison Kozel
The author on Macomb. | Courtesy: Allison Kozel

A Cloud of Fire

As I schemed how I would build a shelter and what I would use, I heard the sound of a chopper quickly getting closer and closer. Heart pounding, I ran back out to the sandbar, waving my hands and screaming, “HELLO! HELP!” At the very moment the chopper crested the ridge, a voice 30 feet to my left exclaimed, “Philip Morris?”

“Is that a human? Yes! It’s me!”

“Are you injured?”

“No. What’s your name?”

“Pat.”

Out of the shrubs appeared a tall, clean-faced young man—younger than me. He had been in the woods for some time.

10 seconds prior, I was alone, having not seen another human for 24 hours. Now it was me and Pat, on a sandbar. An enormous DEC helicopter kicked up dust and leaves in a cyclone over the water.

Pat leapt over the river to the sandbar and radioed to the chopper, now directly overhead. I had intentionally chosen a sandbar large enough for a chopper to land, but hadn’t anticipated the downdraft over the fire and the embers shooting into the sky. For a moment, it felt like a war rescue operation. Pat and I jumped back to pour countless Nalgenes of stream water onto fire. The chopper came down as a maelstrom of sticks, leaves, and dirt swirled around us.

They strapped me into one of the four seats. Just like that, it was over. The chopper was unbelievably loud, and no one spoke. During the entire flight back to Keene, I didn’t spot a single sign of human habitation in any direction. I had ended up taking a tributary off the main river. My car, meanwhile, still sat several miles away, along another branch. Waves of green rolled in every direction as far as the eye could see.

The author and his rescuers. | Courtesy: Kathleen Morris
The author and his rescuers. | Courtesy: Kathleen Morris

True Professionals

After my parents hugged me, the entire DEC team took turns giving me bear-hugs. My mother, of course, had already promised them that if they found me, I would perform piano pro bono at a DEC event. While I was sure the DEC would ream me out for my lack of knowledge, they were simply glad I came out unscathed.

The DEC team’s professionalism in the High Peaks cannot be overstated. From interviews with my parents, they had built a whole personality profile for me, had dispatched a chopper, and had teams on foot canvassing the area. The officer my parents had spoken to at midnight the prior night stayed on his shift and didn’t leave his post until I was found.

The world is a playground, yes, but comparatively requires a lot more respect and preparation. I have no illusions that a series of thoughtless, compounding errors built on cavalier overconfidence resulted in a huge mobilization of people, grey-hair inducing worry for my family, and a real risk to my life.

I hope that sharing this story makes similarly overconfident folks pause to prepare, and to recognize the humble station that humans occupy in the wilderness. I’ve resolved to never rely on my phone for a map. And, to prepare for only the most ideal outcome, I’ll no longer bring the absolute minimum of gear. To take off into the High Peaks at any point, whether you’re anticipating an overnight or not, it is essential to bring a print map, a good compass, multiple layers (even in summer), iodine tablets, a good knife, and more food than the bare minimum, and to arm myself each and every time with prior research. Physical capacity and good survival instincts are no substitute for preparation.

I survived the night and had a DEC Park Ranger find me. They choppered me out of the High Peaks from a fiery sandbar in the middle of a whitewater stream, framed by one of the Adirondacks’ most remote mountain ranges. While this enduring image humbles me, I’m still thankful for it. The knowledge I gained has put that much more of the wild world within reach.

Credit: Lecco Morris
Credit: Lecco Morris

The Rescue Report: A Broken Leg on Armstrong and Gothics

Accidents happen and plans go awry—That’s just part of what makes an adventure. But when they get really bad, oftentimes hikers need a little help. Thankfully, across the Northeast and the country, there are experienced professions in place to lend a hand when an adventure makes a bad turn. In New York State, that comes in the form of Forest Rangers from the Department of Environmental Conservation. But no matter how well they do their job, we would all probably prefer to not need their services and get out of the woods on our own. Luckily for us, the DEC is also a resource of information, regularly sharing the incidents that rangers respond to. Necessary reading for Adirondack explorers, we’re taking them a step further and adding commentary from experienced rescuers, emergency personnel, and backwoods folk, so that you might know what not do to the next time you’re outside, and how to avoid needing a rescue and being in the DEC report yourself.

Would you do something differently, have another suggestion for ways to avoid these situations, or a question about the best thing to do? Leave a comment!

View more incident reports from the DEC, here.

A Broken Leg on Armstrong and Gothics

Town of Keene, Essex County: On Sept. 17 at 1:50 p.m., Ray Brook Dispatch received a call from a hiker advising that her husband, a 68-year-old male from Hinesburg, Vt., had suffered a possible fracture to his femur while hiking between Armstrong and Gothics mountains. The male hiker’s injury was non-ambulatory. Phone coordinates obtained by Essex County 911 placed the pair near the summit of Armstrong Mountain. Forest Rangers were dispatched to coordinate the rescue effort. Three Rangers were picked up by a New York State Police Aviation helicopter and two Rangers were inserted on the summit of Armstrong Mountain. The Keene Valley Rescue Ambulance staged at Marcy Field with an Advanced Life Support crew. One Ranger was staged at Keene Valley Fire Department with a ATV in the event a hoist extraction could not be performed. The Rangers inserted on Armstrong Mountain hiked down to the injured hiker, stabilized his injury, and outfitted him with a rescue harness. He was then hoisted out by the helicopter and airlifted to Marcy Field, where he was turned over to Keene Valley Rescue for transport to Elizabethtown Community Hospital. The Rangers that were inserted assisted the remainder of the hiking group out of the woods six miles with their gear, and the incident concluded at 4:30 p.m.

Analysis: This is a great example of a well-coordinated rescue for a serious injury that went relatively quickly. A 6-mile carryout in rough terrain could easily take 12 hours or more and require many rescuers. A helicopter evacuation can often be much faster and safer for everyone involved in the rescue. Unfortunately, mountain weather and terrain can often prevent a helicopter from accessing an injured person in the mountains. It is important for recreationists to remember that access to a helicopter is not always possible and it should not be considered a reliable option in a backcountry emergency. Dealing with a broken leg in the backcountry is never an easy situation, but having a responsible hiking partner with some Wilderness First Aid training and supplies, reliable communications, and a thorough trip plan, can help greatly during a backcountry emergency.

Splitting-Up on Allen Mountain

Town of Newcomb, Essex County: At 5:03 a.m. on Sept. 17, DEC’s Central Dispatch received a call for Forest Ranger assistance from Essex County 911 for two hikers lost on Allen Mountain. The group of three from Rochester had planned to hike Marshall and Allen mountains, but one of the hikers suffered a minor knee injury while climbing Marshall. The subject stayed at the Calamity lean-to with his camping gear while the other two subjects decided to hike Allen Mountain. On the trail, the pair became lost and spent the night in the wilderness. The next morning, they hiked up Skylight Brook to try to obtain cell coverage and called 911 for help. Based on the coordinates provided, Rangers located the two hikers, who were cold but in good condition. They were escorted back to the Calamity Brook lean-to where they were reunited with their companion and hiked out. The incident concluded at 2:30 p.m.

Analysis: This situation is a near-miss after an unexpected injury changed the group’s travel plans. The hikers decision to split up, put two group members over 5 miles from from the injured member without communication resulted in an additional hiccup in the groups outing. The sum of unexpected outcomes and mishaps in the backcountry often lead to serious incidents with undesirable outcomes. Had the weather been worse, in this case, spending a cold, wet night in the mountains can lead to hypothermia or other injuries and the hikers could have faced a much worse outcome. When unexpected mishaps happen in the backcountry, it’s always best to default to conservative decision making and come up with a new plan.