Note: I wanted to start this blog on a high note, hence the back-to-back posts. There will be a special post on Wednesday that is of a more serious nature. Enjoy!
Back when I was in college, I organized and led many hiking trips to the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. This story is about an expedition to Santanoni, Panther, and Couchsachraga Mountains. Unfortunately, all my pictures were lost in a computer meltdown in 2005, so the images shown here are from other trips.
It was a Friday in early fall, 2005, after the humidity of summer dissipated but before the trees burst into color. Five of us left campus, when our classes were done, making it to the Upper Works parking lot by Newcomb, NY around sunset. Along this same road, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt made his ‘Midnight Ride’ to Buffalo, NY after hearing that President William McKinley had been shot (later to die). At the end of this road is the dilapidated ghost town of Tahawus, an old ironworks village that was finally abandoned in 1989.
Our trek began on part of the Northville-Placid Trail. This 138-mile path was built in 1922 by the Adirondack Mountain Club using many existing logging roads to aid the effort. Unfortunately, as one might expect of old logging roads, this trail is known for being muddy. This isn’t your garden variety ‘my cleats are wet’ kind of mud, but rather ‘my knees are wet’ and ‘I lost my boots’ kind of mud. However, our main concern that evening was of a hairier nature.
As most people who have been in the woods will attest to, the quickest way through a forest is on a trail. Other animals are pretty attuned to this wisdom as well, which can lead to unexpected encounters. Although mostly mundane, such as a deer or porcupine, the ever-present concern is that you will run across and annoy a bear. In the Adirondacks, that means nocturnal black bears who eat nearly everything they find (including camp food in backpacks) to get ready for the long winter. The most effective deterrent is to make noise so they know you are coming. Most of the time they have no more desire to meet you than you them. However, there are enough stories of maulings to make one wary.
Before we set out, I explained to the group the importance of making noise and what to do if we encountered a bear. First, don’t panic. Second, don’t make any sudden moves. Third, make noise so it knows you are human. Fourth, if the bear is still coming towards you, make yourself look big and slowly back away. Lastly, never run, especially at night when you are more likely to trip. By the way, don’t take my word for it; here is what the National Park Service recommends.
Into the woods we plunged. Leading the way was Big Ben, a man of considerable size who had offered to carry a fridge of food on a previous hike (and I do not doubt he could have). Even without noise, he would have been a formidable deterrent to any bear. Next was me, chatting away and reprimanding the group if things became too quiet. Third was a chap we called Lemming, so named because he seemingly followed me everywhere, even if I was going the wrong way. He had memorized the entire dialogue of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ which for a time was both a useful distraction and noisy. However, by the time he got to the scene with the anarcho-syndicalist commune (“Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government”), his voice and our interest had waned. Last were Derrick and Frosh (Freshman Josh).
By now, we had been hiking for hours. A great way to tell if someone is tired is if they are no longer avoiding puddles. All of us were carelessly plunging right through them. It was a dark, moonless night. The only illumination was from headlamps that reduced our vision to a circle on the ground. Only the trail existed, with one foot lurching in front of the other. A tired, timeless trek, not knowing how far we had gone or how much further to our campsite. In this mindless haze, our group had become quiet.
Suddenly a thunderous roar ripped through the silence! In unison, our headlamps swung to the right, frantically stabbing the dark. Down crashed an unknown beast, breaking branches and ripping leaves in its unstoppable stampede straight towards us. Frosh frantically threw off his pack and darted into the night. When the monster was nearly upon us, the noise so close that the attacker must have been an arms-length away, it suddenly stopped. After a stunned second, we finally let out a yell. Only silence replied. In spite of how close it surely was, we could not see the beast.
After our adrenaline had returned to normal, I sent Derrick to track down Frosh. Fortunately, after running a short distance he had stopped to assess the situation and had not hurt himself. The group reunited and nerves restored, we continued down the trail.
As soon as Big Ben turned his headlamp back to the path, we discovered the beast! A large, brown…tree had fallen and the top of it now lay across the trail. Had we been a few seconds faster, it would have landed ON us. With this discovery, you might think our minds were at ease. However, no more cajoling was necessary to keep the group noisy. We did such a good job that campers at our destination heard us about a mile away.
The next morning, I woke up the group (which had overslept by half an hour) by yelling ‘Bear!’ and shaking the tents. Among protests of ‘shut up’ and worse, Frosh somehow managed to dive through his tent, ending up stuck halfway out but wide awake.
The rest of the trip was your typical, pleasant Adirondack hike with beautiful views, lovely weather, and lots of mud. Although I still do not know if a tree falling in the forest makes a sound when no one is around to hear it, I am certain it makes noise even if you do not see it.
Take Rte 28N to east of Newcomb, NY, then turn north onto Blue Ridge Rd. Take your first left (north) onto Tahawus Rd. Park at the Santanoni Trailhead.
GPS Coordinates: 44.068781, -74.06105