For weeks I’d been anticipating it. Four days and nights on the trail, the great north woods – dozens of high peaks and deserted trails, alone.
The stress of the daily grind had been growing, until it was to become insurmountable and induce some sort of emotional collapse. Thus, hiking. My ideal vacation – a time to let the body work as God intended and the mind to wander freely until settling down into some sort of zen.
But those very stresses would not relent and they manifested themselves in forgetfulness. It was almost as if I couldn’t get anything right. An hour into the drive (leaving Manhattan in that crisp morning hour when the pigeons flock through the sidewalks and the sky is held buzzing electric) I realized I’d forgotten both my rain jacket and fleece. I had a poncho that could stand in for rain gear, but if the temperature dropped, all I had were t-shirts.
Thankfully, Wal-Mart to the rescue. The store amazes me even now. This one in Albany was clean and vast, with every niche item – even comparable backpacking stoves! And a sweatshirt for $7.
But there were other things I neglected – extra batteries, ziplock bags, any sort of cleaning paper, towel, etc. Small things, but they added up in the wilderness.
I arrived at Adirondack Loj about 11:30. Did the whole preparation bit where I compress, squeeze and shove the hundreds of assorted pieces of gear scattered around the trunk of the car into their respective compartments in my pack. The thing is weighty, owing primarily to the bear canister I’m required to carry.
In addition to the large backpack I have a camera bag with my new Canon SLR slung diagonally across my chest. It’s handy there for impromptu shots of butterflies landing on sun-lit flowers, but it swings against my hip while walking.
The first section of the trail is well groomed, plenty of helpful hewn-log bridges, their surface polished smooth by the tramping of a thousand boots. There’s a nature cabin, even benches surrounding Heart Lake, with a gentle lapping short of fine ground pebbles. Little kids in the bathing suits splash around as if it were the Atlantic, their parents cool in sunglasses, watching tiny clouds puff across a perfect blue sky.
And it is perfect: mid seventies, sunny and clear, the occasional breeze through the trees. After a good long tromp along the trail, my back is drenched.
The insects are out in force, mosquitoes and gnats and tiny red-eyed flies, occasionally nasty black flies. DEET, however, is a miracle spray, and keeps them off. I only have to suffer the smell and the sticky residue.
Four miles in there’s a prim lean-to – a nice clearing with views down the stream to the jagged cliffs of Indian Pass. There’s a convergence of waterways here – sun dappling the rocks peacefully. I check my map; figure I’ll take the shortcut through Iroquois and Marshall Mountain over to Lake Colden, my first camp of the night.
I hike uphill about a half mile, realize I’ve missed the turn off. Judging from the topo map it crosses a major stream and juts off into the hills. I backtrack, spot a few places where it looks like the trail would cross the rocky brook. But there are no blazes – little colored plastic discs nailed into trees.
I decide to follow the stream up a ways, hoping it will cross the tail in a few hundred meters. It doesn’t. I’m still rock hopping, avoiding the deep water, the downed deadwood that lie across the stream like natural gatekeepers.
Looking at the topo again, it appears the trail follows the stream right up into the low ridge, then connects with its sister tributary on the down slope – all the way to Lake Colden. It’s only two miles. I can rock hop that far, and it will save time, instead of the long trod looping miles south of Mount Marshall.
This decision turns out to be both the hardest and most foolish of anything I’ve done in the woods.
Climbing the stream to its source gradually begins to get more difficult as the creek bed narrows – faster channels of deep water, huge waterfall drop-offs. If something is too difficult to climb I have to go around, up into the underbrush. This wouldn’t be terrible in a deciduous forest of nice soft leaves.
But both banks of this creek are lined with dense evergreens, full of sharp needle and spines in the dead underbrush. The steep sides are caked with rotten wood, layers of it, and then covered over again in soft moss. I hear the dead wood crumble, my leg sinking to the knees, sometimes hips in soft fertile earth. Even more treacherous – when this false ground covers boulders and caves. Put your foot through one of these and you might never touch solid ground.
Foolishly, I push on, all in the hopes of reaching the ridge, spotting the cold blue lake just through the trees. Every new stretch of rocks and moss to be climbed brings hope of that elusive destination.
But also pain, and hardship. My legs are butchered from the slips and the crackling of dead pines and hemlocks. My arms, just as bad. Pushing through especially dense sections, I can do nothing but lower my head and drive through, dozens of fiery sharp twigs cracking off to nest on my sunbeaten neck, or worse, catch on my pack.
Before long I am drenched in sweat, filthy, streaked with cuts and scrapes, which now attract flies. I’m miserable, and no closer to my goal.
Granted, the scenery is beautiful, the light playing against tumbling waterfalls, reflected like a golden aura against a bold red cliff. The rivulets of pure mountain water channel through healthy growths of moss and algae, long fronds dangling over ledges.
Bu it is treacherous. At first I think myself like Bear Grylls on his harrowing climbs up ragged cliffs, cracking underbrush and quipping Briticisms. But after a few more hard and embarrassing falls, increasingly accompanied by cries of rage and pain – I began to see myself Aguirre, trekking through the Heart of Darkness in search of El Dorado. For him, a lost city of gold. For me, a fabled ridge and clear shot to Lake Colden.
But there is no end in sight to the rise of the brook. Boulders pile ever higher, thicker windfalls (which must have been a spectacular sight bombarding down the channel in the spring melt), more treacherous footing.
I decide to climb up the hill on the right slope to see what I can see. This is horrifically hard. It’s a forty-five degree incline through deep and decaying moss – a dozen jutting twigs that blind just as well as jab your leg. Very few solid living handholds.
I make it to a slope of naked rock, crusted with colorful red lichen, under the full glare of the late afternoon sun. I scramble up about halfway and am able to make out the bald head of Algonquin above the tree line.
I’ve gone wrong.
I’ve cut through the wrong peaks, followed the wrong stream to its painful source. I’ve wasted hours. Lake Colden is unattainable this direction.
It’s then I begin to despair. Then hemlocks close in, so tight I can barely gulp air without their dusty sap scent. I can’t rest. There are no cozy boulders or logs, only the steep slope continually sliding out from under me. My legs are coated with dirt and blood. My face – cobwebs and hemlock needles. I am beat, nearly exhausted. And I still have hours to bushwhack back to a proper trail.
I whisper a quick prayer. Not a common thing for me, and in a way – incredibly humbling. I admit the beauty of the place; realize the personification of the mountain, there to stomp down on my cockiness. I admit I have been foolish, and I’ve broken one of the primary rules (stay on the trail) out of arrogance.
It is time to turn around.
There is a brief respite. As the sun moves to the west it’s angle of light shines on the flats of the tumbling brook – the water reflecting gold. I find a deep pool with a waterfall overhead, strip my boots and clothes, and duck into that amber water. My legs and arms billow dust and moss and earth, but then I am clean, pushing out across the cold refreshing deep to let the water cascade on my head.
That’s my El Dorado for a day of backtracking and foolishness and Plan B. That’s my reward for admitting my pride.
I make it back to the camp closing on seven – nearly five hours after I’ve left it. I am thankful but beaten.
I cook dinner and strip off my wet socks, assemble the tent for the first time (it is quick, solid and roomy).
Down by the clearing I see a beaver in the shallow pool, chattering. I approach with my camera, crack a shot, and he dives, gliding through the creek bed like an otter. The half moon is rising, still huge and mystical in the lower atmosphere, and there’s a hint of purple in the sunset.
Then the breeze picks up, roaring through the tops of the trees and I’m off to bed.