For those who crave off-trail adventure, the Adirondacks offer exceptional challenges
By Tim Rowland
Some take the road less traveled.
The truly adventurous don’t even need a road.
In the Adirondacks this translates into bushwhacking, an eye-poking, pack-snagging, boot-sucking, map-and-compass romp into the wilds, boldly going where no person has gone before—or if they have, it’s easy to convince yourself otherwise.
In an age when everything explorable has been explored, bushwhacking satisfies modern souls that channel Magellan, Drake and de León. At its most hard-core, it’s a game of wits, determination, stamina and sheer cussedness. It also satisfies that most basic of human instincts, curiosity.
For all the millions of acres of state land in the Adirondack Park, the number who willingly prowl off-trail in the backcountry is miniscule. “There really is no bushwhacking community,” said Spencer Morrissey, an outdoor author and Adirondack bushwhacking legend, who has climbed 1,000 peaks without the aid of trails. “I can count on two hands the people who are really into it. It’s a love-it-or-leave-it kind of thing, and only a select few come back for more.”
Bushwhacking in the Adirondacks is different and more challenging than in most other parts of the country, said Jack Drury, who as an instructor at North Country Community College would take students in his wilderness recreation course on bushwhacks that would last for weeks at a time. There are great swaths of unbroken wilderness, uncut by roads or other calling cards of civilization, and unlike the American West with its long sightlines, visibility in spots can be limited to a few feet. And the topography has a lot more tricks up its sleeve, with myriad crags and cliffs, bumps and humps and dips and doodles. “If you can use your map and compass in the Adirondacks, you can use them anywhere,” Drury said.
Further, the stubby, tightly woven limbs of spruce and fir at the higher elevations impede progress and give the black flies a good, clean shot. What looks on the map as if it should be a straightforward pitch can be blockaded by a swamp or a high tangle of blowdown. On a bushwhack from Little Ampersand to Ampersand, Drury hit spruce, fir, bugs and blowdown so thick “I wondered what I had gotten myself into. I would go 20 feet or more and never put a foot on the ground.”
But the rewards can be spectacular as well. Bushwhackers have a better chance of seeing rare wildlife that shies away from well-traveled trails. It’s not unusual to stumble upon old woodstoves, buckets, machinery and basins, rusting vestiges of a time when the mountains rang with the sound of axes and steam engines.
But mainly, hard-core bushwhackers speak with satisfaction of the solitude and the sense of laying eyes on terrain that no one has seen before, at least in its post-logging incarnation.
“Honestly, I got sick of the hiking trails and seeing the same old thing that everybody else had seen and posted on Facebook,” Morrissey said. So he traded in the signposts and trail markers for a world invisible to the traditional hiking public—remote slides, unphotographed views, abandoned hunting cabins, dark caves, wilderness wetlands, metal remains of century-old logging camps, and, in the Pelkey Basin on the north side of Phelps, a knee-high women’s boot from the days when adventurous females were still required to hike the mountains in long, billowing skirts.
Not just a hike
Bushwhacking is not for everyone, but in an era of overcrowded trailheads and social distancing, it has an appeal worthy of exploration. “It’s about having fun,” Drury said. “If you’re not having fun, try something else.”
Bushwhacking and hiking are in a sense two different sports, with bushwhacking requiring training and an understanding of the inherent pratfalls. “I wouldn’t send anyone off the trail until they have the proper expertise,” said Tyler Socash, outdoor education coordinator for the Adirondack Mountain Club.
Still, limited bushwhacking at lower elevations where the hardwood forests are open and inviting can be fun and rewarding, with some basic training and a healthy dose of precautions. Socash, a veteran adventurer who has hiked the world around, teaches basic instruction in the art of using a map and compass, along with advanced classes that get people out into the woods to put their skills to the test.
GPS devices and even cellphone apps have mapping technology that keep track of the hiker’s route, but a physical topographical map and compass and the knowledge to use them are still considered required gear by seasoned bushwhackers.
Part of this is practical. Electronics can fail, and batteries can run down. But a part is also aesthetic, being one with the forest and developing a feel for the terrain without reliance on the modern age. “It’s so much easier now with the technology,” said Department of Environmental Conservation Ranger Scott van Laer, who has three decades of bushwhacking under his belt. “But there used to be a bit of an art to it. You could read the land and see how the map and the land went together. I understand the use of GPS and I’m not opposed to it, but I need to have my old-school map and compass.”
Attention to detail
Beyond the knowledge of a map and compass, Socash said bushwhackers should have a knowledge of wilderness first aid and leave-no-trace principles, to make sure that unspoiled lands stay that way. Going off the trail makes it all the more important to have the “10 essentials of wilderness survivability” in your backpack—or, as Drury said, pack as if you’re just kind of assuming that you are going to be out overnight.
Unlike hiking on trails, bushwhacking is not forgiving. There will not be someone coming along sooner or later to help you out of a bad spot. So, Socash said, that requires a lot more attention to detail. It’s always necessary to check the weather forecast, obviously, but bushwhackers also need to know what the weather has been. If there’s been rain or snowmelt in the past few days, small streams may be difficult to cross.
The day’s itinerary should consider, and be based on, the abilities of the least skilled member of the group. Know the time of sunrise and sunset and make a firm turnaround time at the midway point. Understand the hazards (ticks or, in some parts of the park, even rattlesnakes) and habitat, so as not to disturb, for example, nesting raptors. And finally, Socash said, know the rules and regulations of the lands you plan to traverse. Bushwhacking, for instance, is not permitted in the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, where hikers are required to stay on the trails.
With the fundamentals accounted for, it’s time to practice.
“You want a very easy, very safe choice,” Socash said. “Don’t start with a marathon. Find a place that’s flanked on all four sides with roads—that gives you a bit of a playground to work in. Pick an interesting feature in the middle and try to get there.” A short hike of perhaps a mile is best, because it will give you a chance to test your skills without undue risk.
Different seasons offer different advantages and disadvantages. Winter temperatures are more extreme, but it’s easier to follow your tracks back out. In summer, the weather is more forgiving, but with the leaves, sight lines aren’t as long. Socash said April and May are popular times, when the temperatures have moderated, but the trees have yet to fully leaf out.
Hours per mile
Perhaps the greatest difference, in a practical sense, between trail hiking and bushwhacking is the time it takes to cover the same distance of ground. “I have a friend who says you don’t measure your time in miles per hour,” Morrissey said, “you measure it in hours per mile.”
Decent progress toward a summit frequently slows to a (sometimes literal) crawl, where unyielding limbs of spruce and fir seemingly come alive with a joyful malevolence, grabbing at packs, stabbing at eyeballs, showering needles onto sweating skin and inspiring profanity so epic it seems a pity no one will ever hear it. “You look for seams in the trees and sometimes you just can’t find them,” Morrissey said. “So I’ll just tuck my head and go with the punches and push myself through.”
Even flat, relatively open terrain can present its own challenges, because there are no obvious features to relate to the map. “If the terrain is totally unrecognizable you have to stay calm and trust your compass, and staying calm is critical, even when the urge is to panic,” Drury said. “Of course it’s easier to say ‘stay calm’ than it is to do it.”
Crowded as they sometimes are, Adirondack trails are winsome scratches on a vast landscape, where bushwhacking opportunities are the rule, not the exception. From a safe, mile-long hop to Vanderwhacker Pond to a deep dive into the lonely Five Ponds Wilderness, bushwhacking is the ultimate escape, where solitude is all but guaranteed. And sometimes the most crowded and most isolated hikes are in close proximity.
Literally across the street from the trail to Cascade, the busiest of the Adirondack High Peaks, is the Sentinel Range Wilderness, which boasts an interior so uncivilized that Socash said he wouldn’t send anyone but a seasoned veteran in to attack its slopes.
Ascending the flanks of its summits requires heavy, long sleeves, goggles and other tools of war, and the DEC has intentionally left it largely trail-less for the benefit of those in search of sport and solitude. “It’s tough in there,” said Morrissey, who chooses his route by pulling out a topo map and looking where the lines are tightly stacked. “That’s where it’s steepest and that’s where the views are,” he said.
For the experienced, a topo map has valuable clues that transcend elevation. Dan Crane, who has participated in the sport for 20 years and produces the blog site Bushwhacking Fool, said that, for example, it can help with stream crossings. A severe change in elevation will generally indicate both a waterfall and better rock-hopping opportunities.
But maps don’t tell all, and even if they did, bushwhackers are not known for taking the easy way out. Crane said he was on the ridge of Jay Mountain several years back when, looking down off the mountain, he noticed his planned route was interrupted by a swath of downed birch. It didn’t look so bad from on high, but—“I wound up on my hands and knees climbing down the mountain,” Crane said. “My legs were all bruised and I vowed to get shin guards, but I never did.”
But the work has its payoffs. “To me, just going someplace you have never been is a reward,” Crane said. Along with hiking summits, bushwhackers frequently scan satellite imagery for a natural feature such as a remote pond or slide—then head into the bush to check it out.
Van Laer said the success of a bushwhack is often dictated by the unknown. One bushwhack became an instant favorite because of four moose that were browsing on a mountain. “There’s definitely a greater feeling of exploration,” he said. “You can feel like you’re the first person to see something.”
Drury agreed that surprises can make the hike. He recalled a bushwhack in the ’80s when he stumbled upon the wreckage of a plane. Other finds include evidence of human activity, artifacts of so long ago that they have become part of nature itself. “The neat thing is that when you’re off the trail you get the sense that you could be in a place no one has ever been before,” he said.