My first backpacking trip without adult supervision

This adventure took place the summer after I graduated from High School. It’s written here, years after it happened, before I forget.

My father, brother, and I used to travel to the Adirondacks once or twice a summer and hike a few peaks, slowly making progress towards our 46er patches11 They finished in 2016. I had moved to Maryland and then Oregon, which made it difficult to drive to the Adirondacks for a weekend.. After graduating high school, my friend Carrie and I decided to celebrate by getting out of town and heading to the North Country. Since I had never planned a trip on my own, we decided to do a trip I’d already done. Carrie’s first trip to the Adirondacks would be to climb Mt Marcy, the highest peak in the state.

As former high school students no longer bound to an early schedule, we left late, arriving at the Adirondak Loj mid afternoon. We parked the car and did an easy, two mile hike on the Van Hoevenberg trail into Marcy Dam2.2 Currently being removed. We set up camp, ate a cold dinner, and hung our bear bag.

Bears are a problem in the Adirondacks. When we did our hike, rules for handling scented items varied by camp site.33 Yow now need to use a canister everywhere. At Marcy Dam, a steel cable was strung in front of the dam over the brook. To hang your food, you’d throw your rope over the wire and tie an end to your food bag along the bank of the brook. You, or your partner, would pull the line up from the top of the dam and tie it off. Your food bag was then high enough bears couldn’t reach it.44 Bears now know to cut the ropes, and have even figured out canisters. With enough rope and a carabiner, it’s even easier.

Not only had I neglected to bring a carabiner, I also hadn’t brought much rope. We threw our rope over the wire and found it didn’t reach the ground. Improvising, we did things backwards. From the bank of the brook, we tied our food to the rope, threw the rope over the wire, and walked the other end to the top of the dam. I walked the rope out along the dam as little as I dared, pulling our food bag along the wire toward the middle. If I went too far, there’d be dozens of other bags in the way in the morning, and we’d have a late and awkward start. But if I didn’t go far enough, a bear could reach the bag from the bank and we’d go hungry.

We went to bed not long after seven. Fires aren’t allowed in the Eastern High Peaks, so there’s not much incentive to stay up late. Getting to sleep was difficult, especially on ancient foam pads, but the afternoon’s drive and a teenager’s perpetual lack of sleep helped.

Not long after drifting off, we awoke to a woman yelling, “BEAR! BEAR!”

We sat bolt upright in our tents, ready to respond to a bear mauling campers. But all we heard was silence. Maybe the woman had already been eaten.

CLANG! CLANG! “Shoo Bear!”

Apparently not.

One of the best ways to keep bears away is to make lots of noise. The couple at that site excelled. Immediately, they began a loud, animated conversation about the steaks the woman’s partner was trying to cook for dinner. Why they had steaks two miles from the nearest road, how they were cooking steaks in an area with a fire ban, and why they were cooking steaks at hiker midnight55 Approximately 9pm were never explained.

Banging pots together wasn’t enough to permanently deter this bear, and he sauntered back several times. In some ways, the clanging and yelling were a relief—we knew the bear was at their site. In between, he wandered between all the sites. He stopped at our tent for a heart stopping minute before moving on to harass the boy scouts at the next site over, but he always returned to the steak campsite. Late that night, steaks long gone, the bear gave up, and ambled back into the forest.

In the morning, we returned to the dam to retrieve the day’s food from our bear bag. The line was full, and the last person in had hung their bag a little too close to the edge. During the night, an enterprising bear had pulled that bag down and thrown its contents across the ground. While it hadn’t been able to open cans, it had tried, puncturing the can walls with its teeth.

With one bag conveniently removed by the bear, we only needed to temporarily remove one bag to slide our bag to the bank. Clearly the man who had hung it was a knot expert, as I couldn’t untie the rope from the dam. As I worked and Carrie watched, a man approached. I hoped as hard as I could he was there to get one of the other bags.

A little less than half of the people who live in Quebec speak fluent English in addition to French. This man was in the other half. And he was very concerned as to why we were untying his bag, perhaps worried it was our bag the bear had raided, and we were seeking to replace what we’d lost. Carrie, having taken the absolute minimum number of French classes required to graduate, butchered the French language while pantomiming what we were trying to do. We let the man remove his bag, visibly frustrated that I’d messed up his knot. 66 In retrospect, he may have just been amazed at the mess the bear had made and been making conversation. We had no idea what he was saying.

With our bag down, we saw it hadn’t completely escaped the destruction. But the damage to our bag was small and surgical. Just enough to make a little hole and steal all of Carrie’s trail mix. We’d survived the night with the bear, only to lose to a squirrel. With Pop-Tarts and snacks in hand, we rehung our bag and started up the trail. Round trip to the peak would be about nine miles, over a variety of terrain, including a number of granite scrambles.

Not even a mile later, Carrie’s foot slipped off a rock and her ankle bent in a way it shouldn’t have. This wasn’t her first time having trouble with that ankle, and she didn’t want it to be the reason we turned around. She wrapped it in an ace bandage, popped a couple Advil, and insisted we continue on. We went a little slower, but arrived at the summit without further issue. After snacking a bit, with views clear to Vermont, we started back down.

Me, on top of Mt Marcy
Me, atop Mt Marcy. Picture courtesy Carrie

We returned to camp, retrieved our bear bag from a mercifully empty line, and made dinner. Uncomfortable from walking on it all day, Carrie took her boots off, taking pressure off her ankle. Before we were done eating, her ankle had grown to the size of a grapefruit. She iced it in Marcy Pond while we talked over options. Her opinion was that things would be worse in the morning and she’d be lucky to get the boot back on at all; my opinion was that the bear was going to give us another sleepless night. I packed up the campsite and reallocated our gear. Though it was only two flat miles to get back to the car, it took us two full hours, with plenty of rest along the way. Five long hours after that we were back home.

Carrie hobbled around work for a while, but it wasn’t long before we started making plans for a second trip. And this time, we’d plan to camp where bears weren’t as familiar with humans.

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