Backpacking: the sequel

This adventure took place the summer after my freshman year of college, and is a sequel to the one the previous summer. It’s written down here before I forget it all.

Despite a dozen trips to the Adirondacks, I’d never been with David, my closest friend. In fact, we’d never been backpacking together anywhere. He’d missed the trip the previous summer. Just days after graduation, he’d traveled to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma for Basic Training, and then straight to Florida for college, arriving the day after classes started. After seeing each other almost daily for ten years, we’d spent the last year apart. It was time to catch up, and it was time to finally get a backpacking trip in.11 Tragically, despite twenty years of friendship, this remains our only backpacking adventure.

Meanwhile, Carrie and I were looking for vindication. Though our previous trip had culminated in us summiting a mountain, it had ended a failure, with us retreating a day early, tired and broken. Carrie, David, and I made plans, and invited two more friends. Natasha, David’s girlfriend at the time, had more backpacking experience than the rest of us combined, and was happy to go. Solenne, a French exchange student we’d gone to high school with, had no experience whatsoever. Being several thousand miles from home, she had almost no gear. We cobbled together what we could, borrowing a sleeping bag, a pack, and even boots for her, though borrowed boots made us nervous.

We’d learned a few lessons last time. There’s too many bears at Marcy Dam. Brace weak ankles before they start to hurt. Bring enough rope. Bring someone who speaks French. Our plan was to backpack to Lake Colden via Avalanche Pass and set up camp. As a more remote site, fewer people used it, and those who did knew enough to be careful with their food. On the second day, we’d see the headwaters of the Hudson River and summit Mt Skylight, the fourth highest mountain in the state. We’d return to camp, spend a second night, and then backpack over Mt Colden on the way out.

Before dawn, I drove house to house, picking people up in my ‘91 Buick Century. With all our gear, it was a tight squeeze for the five hour drive to the Adirondak Loj from our homes outside Binghamton, NY. We arrived before noon, secured a parking space, filled out the trail register, and started south along the Van Hoevenberg trail. At Marcy Dam we refilled water and stopped for pictures.

Natsaha, David, me, and Solenne at Marcy Dam

From Marcy Dam we followed a different trail along Marcy Brook until turning west at Avalance Camp. From here the trail turned uphill and we started to struggle. But soon enough, granite cliffs on either side of us appeared and we were at Avalanche Pass, separating the Hudson River from the Lake Champlain watersheds. The first quarter mile of the pass included a number of scrambles over granite blocks the size of cars. But once we were through that, we had absolutely breathtaking views of Avalanche Lake. We took our time on the Hitch-up Matilda’s before heading back downhill to Lake Colden. We set up camp near the Southwest corner, at Beaver Point.

In my previous trips to the North Country, we’d tended to either eat snacks for dinner, or if we did bring a stove, maybe heat up some chili and eat it out of the can.22 Or spill it all over me. But that was a different adventure. With five of us, we thought we’d try cooking. We’d decided to make pasta.

Pasta has a lot of things going for it. It’s fairly calorie dense (~90 calories/ounce dry), shelf stable, and only requires boiling water. And most importantly, it’s cheap. But we hadn’t considered how hard it is to simmer water in the woods. Nor had we thought about how long it was going to take to make enough pasta for everyone, one single serving pot at a time.

When the first serving took twice as long as the package described six minutes to al dente, we realized we were going to run out of gas. Since the majority of the time was spent bringing water to boil, we decided to keep reusing the water. By our fifth serving, we were essentially cooking in starch syrup. The pasta tasted funny, and more than one of us augmented dinner with trail mix.

With “dinner” done, David, Natasha, and I hiked a suitable distance from camp and hung our bear bag over a branch. It was more difficult than we’d expected, as the combined food and scented items the five of us were carrying was appreciably hard to lift. We returned to camp and went to bed as it got dark, David and Natasha in one tent, Carrie, Solenne, and me in the other. David, recently trained to sleep anywhere, was rapidly asleep. The rest of us drifted off over the next hour or two.

Except Natasha. Well aware of the bear problem in the High Peaks region, and with previous experiences of her own, Natasha was the only one of us still awake when she heard a bear breathing outside the tent. Since it didn’t seem to be bothering the tent at all, she waited quietly for it to go away, ready to jump out of her sleeping bag at any moment. It’d fade away for a little while, then come back, each time staying just long enough for her to completely wake. It was some hours before she realized it was simply David, snoring in his sleep.

In the morning, a well rested David and I retrieved the food bag, got snacks and breakfast for the group and rehung the bag. After making sure everyone knew to bring enough water, we left our tents and backpacks behind and started the hike.

David was drinking what I thought to be a surprising amount of water. After he’d finished his first canteen, I asked him how he was planning to have enough water for the rest of the day, since we’d left the water filter at the camp site. And here our memories differ. I was certain I’d explained that everyone should bring two liters of water. He was certain I’d said I was bringing the filter.33 In retrospect, he was probably right.

But he wasn’t the worst off of us. We hadn’t been able to find a day pack for Solenne, and she was carrying only a single Nalgene.

We inventoried our water and pressed on, reasoning that everyone carried some iodine tablets44 Except us, and certainly we’d come across someone who could loan us some. David and I traveled ahead to the Four Corners Junction, where we hoped we’d see more people. But it didn’t make a difference. No one had a way to purify water. When the rest of the group arrived not long later, we decided to turn around, knowing we’d rapidly run out of water if we continued uphill.

By the time we’d returned to the camp site, Carrie and Solenne were in bad shape. Minor injuries from the previous day were now significant issues. Solenne’s feet and Carrie’s knees were going to keep us from hiking out via Mt Colden the next day. Since we’d skipped the the summit of Mt Skylight, we were back in camp hours early, at only mid afternoon. That left us with quite a bit of time. We discussed options, and decided to break camp and head back to Marcy Dam, so we’d at least camp the second night someplace new.

But I really, really wanted to grab a peak. After studying the map some, I realized that if we hustled, we could summit Mt Colden and then return to Marcy Dam, while Solenne and Carrie returned to Marcy Dam via the comparatively flat Avalanche Pass. Natasha agreed to go with Carrie and Solenne, despite her desire to summit a mountain during the trip, so that their group would have someone with significant back country experience. We split the gear, making sure each group had enough to operate independently, and agreed to meet at Marcy Dam. David and I left for Mt Colden, traveling as quickly as we could, knowing it’d be tight to make camp before dark.

Though it wasn’t far from the lake to the summit, the trail was the steepest I’d ever done. We moved quickly, not even taking the time for a picture on the summit. By the time we came to Lake Arnold on the East side of the mountain, daylight was clearly limited. With loaded packs, and eventually by flash light, we ran the rest of the way to Marcy Dam, singing old Billy Joel songs. By luck, we found the rest of our group at the first campsite we saw.

But they had just arrived as well. Injuries had hobbled the group through the pass, and they’d traveled less than half as fast as we had. We made canned chili for dinner. Though it was thankfully simpler and less starchy than our pasta attempt55 And possibly colder. We may have been out of gas., we spilled some all over the ground in front of our tents.

The five of us considered our options. We weren’t optimistic for the injuries being any better in the morning, and with food all over the ground we were afraid of what the night might bring. Though hiking out with limited light on the trail felt impractical, the dam had an access road. Since it was navigable by truck, we assumed it’d be largely free of rocks and roots, making it safe to hike at night. The only catch was the distance. Our route would be two full miles longer, following a circuitous route that would take us around to the far side of the Loj, where we’d follow a different road back to the parking lot.

But everyone in the group was done with the woods, and just wanted to get home. We packed up and headed out. Once back on the Northway, we planned to stop at the first hotel we found.

Not far down the road, we discovered our old surplus flashlights had gone dead during our hike and while packing. Naturally, we’d failed to bring spare batteries. I had a spare flashlight, a Mag Mini. To turn it on, you twist the lens. But mine had twisted itself on during our run and now was completely dry. Again, we had no spare batteries. Natasha, being an actual experienced backpacker, and never having envisioned an circumstance where she’d hike out in the middle of the night, had only a tiny key chain light to navigate camp in the dark. Perfect for what she’d planned to use it for, but no good for a group of five.

But Carrie pulled through. Somewhere from the bottom of her bag, she pulled out a gigantic 6v floating light. The five of us formed into a little tiny box, and using Carrie’s light hiked back the cars, continually wondering if the noises we heard in the weeds were bears. Natasha sacrificed herself again, serving as bear bait, by packing out the group’s trash lashed to her pack.

When we arrived at pavement, having not seen any bears66 And ignoring every lesson from every horror movie ever, David and I split from the rest of the group again, running in the dark back to the car. Again, we sang, David starting with the opening lines of Tribute, about him and his buddy Kyle, hitchhiking down a long and lonesome road. By the time we returned to my car, we’d traveled more than twenty miles.

We threw our bags in the trunk and drove back to pick up the rest of the group before returning once again to the Loj77 You can thank Dewey for his “reformed” spelling. to let everyone change and use the bathroom. At nearly midnight we started south, with me at the wheel and Natasha in the passenger seat — she’d argued rightly that she deserved it, having not summited a peak, despite being fully able. Once on the Northway, we stopped at the first exit with a hotel sign.

But there were no rooms. We were driving near Saratoga Springs during Traver’s Week, their biggest event of the year. Again, and again, and again, we asked about rooms, only to be told they were out. To keep awake, Natasha and I bought coffee and donuts at Dunkin Donuts, while the rest of the group desperately tried to sleep in the back of the car. David, in particular, was now in a lot of pain, and desperate for a place to sleep. But Natasha and I wondered if we were just wasting time, recognizing that we’d be at least an hour further down the road and within reach of home if we’d not stopped at all.

At three am, at Coccoa’s hotel in Colonie, we finally found a room. The five of us fit into the hotel room as best we could, with Carrie volunteering for the floor on top a number of camping pads. Having been desperate for sleep in a cramped back of the car, David, Solenne, and Carrie were asleep before long.

But Natasha and I, wired from coffee, donuts, and driving, laid on opposite beds, staring at each other, wide awake. We agreed we’d have been better off if we’d just kept driving, since only one or two exits further down the highway was the Thruway. Once on the Thruway there’d be no hotels until almost Oneonta, which was close enough to home no one would have asked us to stop. But now, still awake as dawn approached, all we could do was remark that David, snoring, sounded exactly like a bear.

We checked out as late as we could and drove home.

Back home after the trip

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