The Allure of Deep Woods Backpacking the Northville-Placid Trail

The Allure of Deep Woods Backpacking the Northville-Placid Trail By Walt McLaughlin North Country Books, 2013 Softcover, 152 pages, $17.95
The Allure of Deep Woods
Backpacking the Northville-Placid Trail
By Walt McLaughlin
North Country Books, 2013
Softcover, 152 pages, $17.95

AMERICANS like a challenge, and that includes our hiking trails. We’ve got the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast and the Pacific Crest Trail on the West Coast and hikers who walk them end to end. Fortunately there are also shorter through trails to explore, and one of them runs north to south in the Adirondacks.

Walt McLaughlin hoped his fifty-year-old body could walk the 122-mile Northville-Lake Placid Trail (NPT) during a two-week stretch in September. “I want to prove to myself that I can still do it. I want to stop the steady erosion of my physical options. I’m not ready to retire my expedition backpack, thus settling for day hikes or overnighters. Not just yet.”

Being of the same age as McLaughlin, I was with him from page one. Would he make the whole distance or would something happen to sideline him? He did meet a hiker, a middle-aged man with the trail name Limps-a-Little, who had to cut his journey short. Infected blisters or a turned ankle, even a bear getting into the food bag, any little incident can turn a pleasant adventure into a grim slog to the nearest trailhead.

McLaughlin began on the southern end of the trail, and his timing was excellent as the woods had emptied out after Labor Day. On many days he saw no one at all. In the late afternoon he’d often hike to a lean-to, find it empty, and spread out his gear. He was alone to revel in the quiet of the wilderness. Evenings were sometimes magical with loon calls and bright stars.

Map by Nancy Bernstein
Map by Nancy Bernstein

His account of the trip, The Allure of the Deep Woods, marches forward chronologically, with short chapters that often end with the sunset and a sleeping bag. McLaughlin adds bits of history and philosophy to make his book more than a daily trail journal. I didn’t realize that the origin of the Northville-Lake Placid Trail corresponded with the beginning of the Adirondack Mountain Club in 1922. The new club apparently needed a big project to showcase the hiking opportunities in the area. Originally called the Long Trail, the name was changed so as to not cause confusion with the Long Trail that runs the length of Vermont.

One map is included at the beginning of the book, but it is very general and includes little more than road crossings and the big lakes. I would have enjoyed a map with more detail, perhaps with each of McLaughlin’s campsites marked.

McLaughlin’s writing is strongest when he tries to understand why the wilderness is so important to him and to other “woodswalkers.” He quotes Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and has an excellent short section on the history of the Wilderness Act. Here he is trying to describe “the wild”:

It smells like ozone, wet moss, wildflowers and something decaying. It excites all my senses and yet remains imperceptible, ever elusive, mystical. It’s something raw and unfettered. It’s what motivate speople like me to come out here time and again, despite the mud, bugs, rain and countless other hardships.

McLaughlin’s journey did have its difficulties. After a wet summer the trail was often wide with mud and rocks. In several places beaver had flooded the direct route, forcing him to walk around. He got blisters on his second day and had to baby them for the rest of the trip. It rained, and his feet and clothes were often wet, grimy, and stinky. Also, he realized that perhaps he was being a bit of a safety geek with his heavy pack, but as a former Adirondack guide, he couldn’t quite throw out the emergency gear. With a topographical map always in his pants pocket and a compass on a string around his neck he knew he’d be able to find his way if he ever completely lost the trail.

Once, for no particular reason, McLaughlin found himself deeply sad.

Show me a solitary woods wanderer and I’ll show you a bluesman. So much time alone gives one too much time to think, I suppose. … The wild is eternal but life is fleeting, as everything in the forest attests. … How can I live in a way that cuts deep, that goes beyond all the pat slogans and facile credos that stink up the lowlands?

The major tone of this book, however, is one of joy. McLaughlin knows what a gift it was to take two weeks to himself on a wild route through the woods. As he ascended the trail to a high point, a notch north of Duck Hole, McLaughlin stopped and let out “a gut-busting howl of delight, exhilarated by a profound sense of connectedness.” His days in the woods had finally allowed him access to “the wild.”

This short book never proselytizes. McLaughlin realizes a two-week solo trip through boggy terrain won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but when he finished his journey and walked the last road miles into Lake Placid I was sorry his trip was over. He was good company in the woods. Though I’ve walked parts of the Northville-Lake Placid Trail I’ve never hiked the whole route, that tempting A-to-B journey. McLaughlin’s book is great for the armchair traveler, but it also had me dreaming of my own journey along that north-south dotted line on the map.