Exploring Lost Brook with owner/steward Pete Nelson
By Tim Rowland
When we go off-trail in the Adirondack wilderness we like to believe we are trodding upon ground that has never been trod upon with human feet, seeing things that have never been seen with human eyes.
It’s a lie of course, as many scolds are a little too fond of pointing out. Much of our “wilderness” was mown close as a putting green by loggers, and where they didn’t get to, the hunters did, as well as surveyors, prospectors and dopes like me who just enjoy wandering into the deep woods to get away from hourly updates of the Arizona ballot recount.
A dozen years ago, Pete and Amy Nelson stumbled upon a wondrous, 60-acre pinprick of private land amidst great public holdings that make up the High Peaks that, against all possible odds, had escaped the tortures of man.
It is as beautiful as it is secluded, accessed by way of a seam between soaring cliff walls leading to a forested citadel only a few hundred feet shy of the storied 4,000-foot mark. This is where God goes when she needs to get away.
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These 60 acres came oh-so-close to the destructive fates that reached most every other nook and cranny of what we today call the wilderness. Loggers were blocked by a nearly impenetrable headwall. The great fires of the early 20th century got to its doorstep before they burned out. Or else the wind changed, or it started to rain, or some unseen hand waved them away, saying no, not here.
This wilderness within a wilderness was on sale for the price of a midsized automobile, and yes, you had to hike three miles of murderously steep ground just to get to it, if you could find it at all. But to the Nelsons, living in Wisconsin and yearning for a permanent lifeline to the Adirondack backcountry, it was priceless.
Pete wrote about this tract for the Adirondack Almanack, in a series called the Lost Brook Dispatches. I’d eagerly read those pieces, which both tell an unbelievable story and raise important questions about wilderness philosophy.
Knowing we shared similar bushwhacking proclivities (we prefer to call ourselves Pro-Bushwhack, not Anti-Civilization, but, you know …), Pete and Amy graciously asked if I’d like to see this virgin territory, which has developed undisturbed, ever since the glaciers rearranged the deck chairs some 13 millenia ago.
The history of Lost Brook
Pete, a mathematician, survey nerd and skilled storyteller, goes into great detail in his Almanack writings, but the short version of the property’s history is this:
From the days when divots of howling wilderness were parceled out as “rewards” for Revolutionary War service, the Adirondacks has been overlaid with a crosshatch of lines, corners, metes and bounds that more or less accounted for every last one of the Park’s 6 million acres. Almost.
Veterans seldom saw their lands, but loggers did. The trees were destroyed in waves, for charcoal to fire iron furnaces, and for lumber to build a young nation. When the mighty old trees were gone, companies like J. and J. Rogers of Au Sable Forks pivoted to paper and pulp and once again sheared a forest that was just starting to regenerate.
Somehow, one little 60-acre square dodged all this calamity, and not just that, when Rogers sold all its spent holdings to the state, that very same square was not included, because no one could produce a clear title.
This hiccup was discovered by Adirondack legend Hal Burton, a journalist and alpine skier who helped found the Whiteface Ski Center and the storied 10th Mountain Division, back in the days when journalists had other uses. (So rigorous was his training regimen at Seneca Rocks, W.Va., performed amid exploding sticks of dynamite, that some soldiers remarked that by comparison, actual World War II combat was as calming as a lullaby.)
As we hiked in, the approach was dramatic enough to make the day for me. We clung, precariously at times, to an esker above a pristine mountain brook as towering cliffs rose on either side of the valley. Sunlight fired the rim of the canyon wall, but I suspected it would be much later in the day before it hit the deep valley floor, if it got there at all.
What had been a skiff of snow, after a couple miles, deepened to half a foot. After a couple of miles, Pete advised that we had “done the easy part,” and he was right about that. The great headwall was impervious to a frontal assault, and the workaround wasn’t much better, but after a series of scrambles the ground leveled in relative terms and the first of the giant spruce began to appear.
A small fallen log, Amy said, for her marked the unofficial boundary to a land of enchantment, where the cares of an over-amped and frequently too-angry world melted away. A music teacher and the tract’s designated furniture joiner, she’s named the biggest of the spruce, which exceed 100 feet in height and are hundreds of years old. It is a symbol of respect and awe that they feel for the forest, and the honor of being part of it.
When I think of old growth forests, my mind drifts to the redwoods, or some other bare landscape populated only by massive tree trunks. But what’s striking about Lost Brook’s untouched forest is the vibrancy of the understory. Yes, these ageless spruce emerge with frequency, like icebergs out of a fog, but they do so out of a joyful tapestry of evergreen boughs — it is more alive, more three-dimensional than you would typically see at a 3,500-foot elevation.
Maybe it is fruitless to romanticize, but this is ground worthy of romance. It is fun to imagine that this is a wood that has never known the fear of an approaching logger or sheet of flame; that, having never been treated poorly by mankind, it is bright and cheerful at our arrival, eager to show us around and trusting that we mean it no ill.
This is not to diminish other wilderness areas that have not been so fortunate. It’s all good. And time is a great healer. The Forest Preserve is going on 140 years now. In another 140, more places will look like this, and Lost Brook will be the rule, not the exception.
Pete and Amy spend as much time here as they can, in a small cabin, largely out of materials packed three miles in and 2,500 feet up. But despite the temptation to explore, Pete — gazing out from the high ridge over unbroken forest as far as the eye can see — says he has pledged never to set foot on a broad swath of Lost Brook Tract, allowing nature the same tranquility it has known from time immemorial. It is a peace offering of sorts, a widow’s mite with meaning that transcends scope. We have taken so much from these mountains, it is appropriate, each in our own way, to give a little back.
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