Friends along the way make easy work of thru-hiking
By Betsy Kepes
We huddled under a flapping tarp, but our flimsy shelter at Mud Lake wasn’t keeping out the rain. Heads bowed, Teresa, Clare and I gulped down a few bites of lunch while the wild, wet northern edge of Hurricane Isaias swirled around us. We had planned to hike at least 12 miles on this first day of a Northville-Placid thru-hike and we were only at mile 5. Our afternoon would be a soggy forced march.
As we walked after lunch, I kept up a cheerful, spirit-boosting chatter and tried to ignore the unrelenting rain that flowed down my rain gear onto my boots. When we reached the ford at West Stony Creek, the broad stretch of water surprised me. Shouldn’t this be called a river?
“Let’s head straight across,” I said after we peered through the rain but couldn’t spot the trail on the other side of the wide drainage.
This was Clare’s first backpacking trip and neither she nor Teresa (her mother) had forded a river. I gave instructions—undo your hip belt, face upstream, use a pole to assist, keep two points in contact with the bottom of the river at all times, and don’t panic if you slip and fall.
The rain pinged on the water as we focused on our feet, careful not to wedge a foot between big rocks. On the other side we found a steep bank and heaved ourselves back onto land. Teresa walked downstream to look for the trail. She came back with good news. “I found it,” she said, “And a sign for a lean-to.”
Lean-to?! My map didn’t show a lean-to on this section of trail. We rushed to the sign and followed a faint path through the woods to a lean-to so new that the logs glowed yellow and smelled like resin. As the rain continued to bucket down (later we heard it rained 3 inches that afternoon), we took off our packs and set up camp in our miracle shelter. By morning the creek had risen a couple of feet and churned in a muddy surge of water too dangerous to cross.
After our dramatic first day the rain stopped, the streams all had bridges and at the end of each day we found a pond or river where we voluntarily soaked our tired and sweaty bodies. The trail took us past lakes and wetlands and ridges rich with old trees. We talked as we walked, counted the cute and abundant red eft newts, and left behind the noise of the outside world.
On the afternoon of our third day, we encountered other human beings for the first time, SOBO (southbound) backpackers almost done with their journey. And on Day 4 we walked through the pretty hamlet of Piseco to meet Nancy Bernstein, my next hiking companion. She brought fresh tomatoes, a rare trail treat, and my pre-packed food resupply. After lunch Teresa and Clare, now veteran backpackers, said goodbye, though they were already talking about doing another section of the Northville-Placid Trail.
When the Adirondack Mountain Club organized in 1922, its first project was the planning and construction of a long hiking trail. For inspiration the ADKers looked at the Green Mountain Club’s Long Trail, started in 1910 and stretching the length of Vermont. The ADK chose Northville and Lake Placid as their beginning and ending points, as both towns were accessible by passenger train. (I like to imagine those early thru-hikers with their canvas rucksacks and wool pants, stepping on and off the Adirondack trains. No shuttle services needed for them.)
The original route of the Northville-Placid Trail included many miles of road walking, miles that have been re-routed over the years onto new trails. In 1970, the Schenectady chapter of the ADK created a patch for end-to-enders, and since then has mailed out more than 2,500. The 2020 hiking season set a new record for a single year with over 150 patches requested.
The Northville-Placid Trail is a lowland trail that for almost 140 miles winds through the forested acres of four wilderness areas and three wild forests. The vistas are subtle—a view across a lake or a glimpse of the sky over wetlands. I grew to appreciate all those miles of walking among the trees and decided my favorite NPT tree was the yellow birch, beautiful with its curly golden bark. On the side of Blue Mountain, the highest point on the NPT at 3,000 feet, the yellow birch held up their branches in wide circles as if they were dancing, twirling so slowly we couldn’t see them move.
As Nancy and I hiked north, we usually had the trail to ourselves. Once we met a man leaving the trail. He’d given himself the gift of a long solo hike for his 40th birthday, but after a few days decided he’d rather be with his wife and kids. A young man from Northville hiked the trail in honor of his recently deceased mother. A speedy hiker from Delaware caught up with us and bragged about his ultra-light gear while a couple from New Jersey backpacked with their Pekinese, a surprisingly calm and clean dog. Each brief trailside chat gave us a glimpse of someone else’s adventure.
Our days had a rhythm: wake up early, break camp, walk for hours, stop for lunch, walk more, find a place to camp. We each carried a paperback but fell asleep at night before we could read more than a page or two. The concerns of the outside world, even fictional ones, seemed too far away to be of interest.
By allowing almost two weeks to complete the trip we had the luxury of time. At the Cedar River Flow we had a few hours at the end of the day to climb Wakely Mountain where we admired the wild, green view from the fire tower. And at spectacular Tirrell Pond we lingered for hours at the sandy beach, swimming and eating and draping our rinsed clothes on bushes to dry in the hot sunshine.
Of course not everything went as planned. I broke a hiking pole on the third day and my headlamp never quite recovered from the hurricane’s deluge. If I had been hiking alone I would have been limping along in the dark, but my hiking companions stepped in to help. My trip was infinitely richer with friends as part of it.
On our 12th day, we picked up our pace like horses getting near the barn. We ate a quick lunch at the wide bridge over the rocky spill of Moose Creek, and at Duck Hole we marveled at the ruptured dam, imagining the wall of water that destroyed it. From there the roughest piece of trail in the whole 140 miles slowed us down as we hiked toward Moose Pond, our last camping spot of the trip.
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This article first appeared in the July/Aug 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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When we finally reached the lean-to, we got an exuberant greeting from friends who had hiked in to meet us. Teresa, back to celebrate the finish, carried in homemade pesto and cookies, while Megan brought in cans of hard cider and fresh vegetables from her farm. We sat in the lean-to, told stories and shared a decadent dinner. After the Miracle lean-to on the first day, we had avoided camping at lean-tos because of their inquisitive rodents, but I put my sleeping bag down on the wooden floor that night, too full and lazy to bother with a tent.
On our final day of hiking we admired the long, elegant cascade at Wanika Falls before jumping into its icy waters. Friend after friend hiked in to join us, and by the last miles of the trail we had become a happy parade.
There is nothing difficult about the terrain of the Northville-Placid Trail, and it is a puny distance compared to most of North America’s long trails. But when we hiked out to Averyville Road and walked the last couple of miles to the old train depot in Lake Placid, I couldn’t stop smiling. With the help of friends, I had traveled the length of the Adirondacks to the finish line.
Why hike the trail south to north? Lake Placid has far more restaurants than Northville when it’s time to choose a place for the celebration dinner.