Couple hikes 120 miles every year for vacation
By Rick Karlin
As Jeff and Donna Case hike toward Tirrell Pond on the Northville-Placid Trail, they seem to glide along without effort, despite their huge frame packs. “This is really what the Adirondacks are all about,’’ Jeff says with a sweeping gesture toward the dense wall of green before us.
He and Donna should know: They have hiked the 120-mile Northville-Placid Trail (NP) 20 times since 1985. Undoubtedly, they hold the record for the most end-to-end trips.
They’ve hiked in rain and sleet. They’ve trekked all day on an empty stomach after their food was stolen. They’ve put up with yahoos partying and firing guns in the wilderness. They’ve even encountered a man who was holed up in a lean-to in the midst of a cocaine binge.
But they keep coming back for more. For the Cases, hiking the NP is their annual vacation. Now 49, they hope to continue to make the trip for another 25 years or so.
Obviously, the good experiences far outweigh the bad. This past May, for instance, they came upon a moose grazing at the southern end of the Cedar River Flow. “It was the first time we had seen a moose in the Adirondacks,” Jeff says. “We watched it for about a half-hour. It was pretty exciting.”
The Cases know the trail as well as their backyard—the best lean-tos, the choice campsites, the ideal swimming spots, the most scenic views. It’s fitting that the Adirondack Mountain Club hired the couple to revise its authoritative guidebook Adirondack Trails: Northville-Placid Trail.
They always hike south to north, from Northville to Lake Placid, so the sun stays out of their eyes. Plus, as Donna notes, “all the good food is in Lake Placid.” After each trek, they dine out in Lake Placid and start regaining the 10 to 15 pounds that they lost.
The Cases aren’t speed walkers: They take a full two weeks to do the trip, averaging less than 10 miles a day. Once in a while they run into backpackers rushing to finish the trail in a week. To the Cases’ way of thinking, that defeats the purpose. “You can do it in less time, but we are enjoying it,” Donna says.
Nor are the Cases devotees of the ultralight movement. Both carry 60-pound packs crammed with just about every creature comfort you could imagine: wine and cheese, a portable shower, a hand-cranked radio, sandals and sneakers, and two cut-off Clorox bottles for washing dishes and their laundry.
People they encounter on the NP often comment on how clean and refreshed they look. “Other hikers notice that we don’t appear to have been out there for two weeks,” Jeff says.
Of course, they also bring the 10 (or maybe 20) essentials: stove, rain gear, extra socks, first-aid kit, etc. The first-aid kit now includes an ankle brace. They added that after Jeff twisted an ankle in 1987. They had to stay put for two days until the swelling let up, and then they got off the trail. That year and 2001, when Donna was recovering from surgery, were the only years since 1985 that the couple didn’t make the end-to-end trip.
One of their favorite sections is the first 22 miles through the Silver Lake Wilderness. “It’s not much visited,” Jeff notes. “The hardwood forest is just beautiful.” They also like the vista from South Lake in the West Canada Lake Wilderness. “You have quite an open view,” he says. “You see the lake and the marshland with a river winding through it, and in the distance are low hills.”
And the toughest part? The 1,200-foot climb from Tirrell Pond over a steep ridge in the Blue Mountain Wild Forest.
The Cases both grew up in the Syracuse area and developed a love for the North Woods at a young age. Both had visited the Adirondacks on car-camping trips with their parents. They met in high school, while enrolled in a program to train aspiring chefs. They got married, and after working in the restaurant industry, they started an office-cleaning business, which they still operate.
Jeff and Donna are Jehovah’s Witnesses who spend their days walking through neighborhoods, handing out religious tracts and offering Bible education. They do this seven days a week and work at night. All that walking helps keep them in shape for the NP. Aside from strolls around their own suburban neighborhood, the Cases don’t train for their annual vacation. Each year, it takes them about three days to get accustomed to hiking with heavy packs. After that, the aching calves, sore feet and blisters clear up (another advantage of spending two weeks on the trail).
Both of them carry credit-card-size voice recorders as they hike and note the time and distance between campsites, weather conditions, what they saw along the trail, even what they had to eat. Later they transfer the information to a spiral notebook.
They use aluminum-frame packs because they offer good ventilation and stand up easily, making them more accessible. If it rains, they cover the packs with waterproof covers.
Before their trips, they send boxes of supplies to post offices at the three towns near the trail’s road crossings: Piseco, Blue Mountain Lake and Long Lake. One time, they put the wrong ZIP code on the package destined for Piseco, and it failed to arrive on time. No problem: The postmaster lent the Cases her car so they could stock up at a grocery store.
Often they’ll eat at a restaurant and buy souvenirs during their stops in town. As a result, they have hiked with ceramic coffee mugs, books and newspapers. Once they bought a 2-by-3-foot tapestry that now hangs in their home.
Jeff also carries a pepper-spray canister—for people, not wildlife. In fact, the Cases rarely see bears or other large animals. They have spotted plenty of smaller wildlife including the reclusive marten. Two years ago, Jeff says, they came upon a snapping turtle “bigger than your day pack” at Wakely Dam.
The Cases have never had to use pepper spray on those pesky Homo sapiens, but they can recall a few disturbing encounters. There was the fellow at Duck Hole dressed in camouflage who refused to talk and who draped a tarp over his lean-to as if he were hiding something. The next day they discovered their food had been stolen, and they had to slog the final 13 miles to Lake Placid on empty bellies.
And then there was the time a party landed at Tirrell Pond in a floatplane and set up camp at a lean-to. They cut down more than a dozen trees for firewood and partied late into the night, sometimes shooting guns.
On occasion, they have met a stoned hiker at a lean-to or campsite, but so far they have had to deal with only one hard-drug user, a man in a lean-to who told them he had been snorting cocaine.
Generally, though, the Cases don’t encounter many people. Often they’ll hike all day without seeing a soul. In two weeks, they probably will run into fewer hikers than you would see on a trip up Mount Marcy on a summer day. The Cases have discerned no increase in traffic over the years. If a lean-to happens to be occupied, they move on and pitch a tent down the trail (it helps knowing all the best campsites).
Anyway, most of their encounters with fellow hikers have been pleasant. They even have a small following. Hikers often ask them to sign their guidebooks. Whenever the Cases sign in at a register along the way, they use green ink so others will know they’re out on the trail.
There’s no place they’d rather be. The NP offers them a physical challenge and spiritual inspiration. Looking across a clearing at Blue Mountain, Jeff remarks, “You can really appreciate the beauty of creation.”