I've been wanting to spend time on the NPT (Northville-Placid Trail) for a while now, it's 140 miles in the Adirondack Mountains, through much of its dedicated wilderness areas. My friend Matt and I had been talking on and off for years, and our spouses, finally frustrated with us, forced us to set a date. It then came down to making plans. After many false starts and discussed variations of wild diversity in complexity, we opted for a loop I found staring at the map that started at Pilsbury Mountain (outside of Speculator), climbed to the French Louis Trail, which we would then follow to the NPT. Hike along it until Cedar Lake Trail, which we could use as a cut off to get us back to the start. No need for stationing two cards, or additional support, and still get us on a piece of the trail. There was a large variety of lean-to options along the way and side trails we could take to lengthen our stay. I hadn't hiked in a long time, and the opening hill looked intimidating; which combined with a late start set us up for a short Friday, a full Saturday, and another short Sunday, getting us back home to resume our week activities. Weather showed to be perfect narrow window with rain Thursday, rain Sunday afternoon.
Life, of course, intervened; and family responsibilities kept me hoping on my toes the final week, allowing me to blithely procrastinate packing again and again; culminating with a wonderful date with my love to see my favorite band They Might Be Giants the night before I was to depart.
After a panicked morning of getting kids to Seminary, school, putting out fires at work, and finally packing (always a good way to not forget anything), we got on the road around 9:30, making it to the trail head around p.m. I had just said I expected to see at most one car in the lot, as we turn the corner and see 10.
This clearly wasn't going to be the isolated experience I had expected. Shouldering packs, grabbing a PB&J and peach, we started up the trail. And we felt great. The climb wasn't as horrible as I had imagined in my mind, the weather wasn't as cold as I expected, and we were making good time. At the top of the hill, there were two gentlemen finishing their loop going the opposite direction I had planned, and they warned us of snow the night before and a desperately bad water patch near West Canada Lake. We looked at them in wonder at their huge hiking boots, puffy coats, rain parkas, wondering how they weren't melting in their own sweat (with me in t-shirt and shorts, Matt itching to be barefoot).
As I said, we had been unsure of ourselves, and knew we only had a half day of hiking, and so the plan was to make for Pilsbury or Sampson Lean-to (3.4 and 6.5 miles respectively). We blew by Pilsbury with barely a second look. We encountered a couple and their dogs that the trail register had said was just doing a day hike roundtripping to Sampson, and after pleasantries, pushed on. My left heel has been damanged and hurting deep inside since an unfortunate encounter with a rock while white water rafting the Salmon River earlier in the year, and as we approached the Sampson Lean-to, I began to anticipate the idea of stopping, soaking the foot in the lake, and relaxing for the day. My companion (Matt Webster) pointed out that it was still early in the day (we'd been making excellent time), and we had hours to go before sleep. We could easily make the next set of lean-tos (10, 10.25, 10.75 ish) before dark.
On we went. Once on top of the plateau, we had been running in to occasional mud that had caused Matt to shed his shoes (to reduce sliding) and me to add several pounds to my shoes in caked on wet dirt. Eventually, we each took a fall, me bouncing soft parts off a couple rocks before coming to a stop. Tired and now in pain, I assured him that I didn't need evac, and we stumbled on, with miles to go before we slept. We came upon our first lean-to, and met one of two people we named, and that we talked about the most.
We never shared names with anybody on the trails this weekend (what is this, the AT?), but in our hearts, this is "CDT Guy". Every single word that came out his mouth made me fear for him. He wasn't quite sure where he was, told us he was a through hiker, that his book had the wrong start for the NPT and that he had started much sooner than he should have (how many years ago did the start change, but he said he started at Woods Lake, which is after the first section), and wanted to know how far it was to Blue Mountain (28ish), that he had taken two zeros in Piseco, and his resupply hadn't appeared, that he had tried the AT, but it was too steep and had bailed at around 100 miles because he had bad knees. That he now wanted to do the CDT, because of the nice flat desert at the beginning, but his wife insisted he prove himself on the NPT first. While we got his life story, a lady blew by (probably glad we were keeping his attention). On we went.
My adductors/abductors were not doing a great job at keeping my feet on the straight and narrow, and so was really looking forward to South Lake lean-to, to rest my wearly body. Of course, the nice woman was there, talking about her awesome lollypop plans (looping starting at Piseco), and making it clear that sharing the area wasn't even her third choice. We silently agreed, and added on more miles before we slept.
Crossed the second jankiest bridge I've ever seen, swaying dangerously under my bulk and stopping shy of a mudpit it was meant to help bypass, hauled ourselves through some more mud, we finally came upon a place to stay the night on the east shore of the West Canada Lake. We were about a half hour before sunset and the wind picked up off the lake (which appeared to be significantly down from it's usual shoreline, even with all the water soaked dirt we'd pushed through), so we tried to sling our hammocks and prepare our meals. Matt's hammock was in full kite mode even with his sleep system inside.
The temperature had dropped precipitously, and I was slow to recognize what was happening, reluctantly individually pulling on a jacket, knit hat, and gloves. Looking at my body and the temperature and the deepness of the dark, I made my excuses and crawled in to bed at 7:30 p.m. That's when I discovered the depths of my silliness. I almost immediately started violently shivering (not having noticed how cold I'd allowed my body to get), clamping my teeth shut so they didn't rattle, and periodically the shivers cut short by fierce leg cramps. I shook the covers off my feet, and sitting up to replace them would start another round of cramping. After about an hour of this, my body decided it had warmed up enough, and I slept cosily in my coccoon in the woods. My sleep system had been more than adequate for the weather (low 30s before wind), but I hadn't handled the transition from hiking to camping properly.
I hid from the still strong winds and cold in my hammock, toasty, but aware of the temperature just beyond the edge of my hammock. Eventually, a fresh pair of socks, a great breakfast, a ten hour sleep (I have been averaging 6 at home), and I was ready for our only whole day of hiking.
I nonchalantly asked “how long do you think I'll keep my socks clean today?”, and not a quarter mile later discovered the answer. First a deep stream crossing (up to my knees) followed by several repeated deep swamp crossings (again up to my knees).
In one of the deep swamp crossings, I fell, bruised my other hip, my ego, and got water in to the camera, fingerprint, and touchscreen modules of my phone (that has survived snow, rain, sweat, rafting, and much much worse), but you aren't getting any more pictures.
By time I reached mile 2 (approximately the end of the swamp), I was done. Toast. Ready to fight to stop at the first lean-to (4.2 miles). We warned three people going the opposite direction of what they were in for (they had been in the register). CDT guy blew by us, terrifying us yet again with his talk of “I can't decide if today's going to be a six mile day or eleven”, given that he had at least seventeen before he could get help from his spouse. “I couldn't find my rope to hang my bear bag, so I decided the safest thing was to sleep with it in my bag”. I'm not even relaying half of the beauties he laid on us, just the best.
I was falling in to the classic ultra runner trap of not having any interest in water or food, lying that slowing or stopping to get it would kill my momentum, that I was doing fine. I could feel my body falling apart, but was unwilling to do anything about it. I told Matt we'd probably stop at the 4.7 and reassess. My mind kept running the song “One More Pull” by The Long Johns through my head, and my hike horizon was always just a mile ahead to whatever I had decided our destination was.
Lady from night before bopped by, cheery, but explaining she had't slept as well as us, we warned her CDT guy was up ahead as she blew by us, clearly chipper. Matt convinced me to push to the 5.7 lean to, and reassess. We completely missed the 5.7, and came across a beautiful bridge spanning the outlet from Beaver Dam Lake to Cedar Lake, where we plopped down, down out of the wind, and forced food down our gullets and chatted. He was pretty gassed too, and we decided to take the first lean-to we saw (three ahead in the next mile or so), refill on water, and at most drop packs and day hike some, at least camp the day away.
The scenery had been beautiful, with the colors just starting to change, and maples giving way to pines to birch and beech and back as we passed through different successions and climates. The views were wonderful, the company and conversation brilliant, but our bodies were not up to it. And so, One More Pull.
People were everywhere, passing by the other way, filling every potential campsite that we saw, all with glares that made it clear they had claimed that land for their king. And so, finally, at the side of the trail, I plopped down, exhausted, grumpy, to look at the map for options to end my day. An insane plan presented itself from the map. If we pushed hard, four miles ahead, was a summit, where we might be able to catch a cell signal. We could call down to one of the state campsites, see if they had spots, and then hike an additional 1.7 to our car, drive to the site, and crash there. If not, 1.7 miles back to the first lean-to on day one. One More Pull.
The trail decided to treat us with every single type of mud-traversal option we had seen this hike within the space of a mile. We saw meh-whatever, rotted-away planks that only presented spikes on which to impale our feet, rock gardens, half-buried courduroy, plank boardwalks, stump rounds, slightly flattened raised logs, and the jankiest bridge I've ever seen (but that one bizarrely was steady). We're talking Bridge of Blades from Ninja Warrior level of jank, except not on purpose, and made of old rotten wood.
We now had a purpose and a mental timeline, we needed to get to the summit to make a call to then fast hike out to get to a site before dark. Push push push, top of the hill, we get the answer of yes, they have sites, they're open until six p.m., and that the closest site they have is a two hour paddle. I do the simple math, sunset is 6:53 p.m., we get there at 6 p.m, that's an hour of paddling in the dark, trying to wayfind with our headlamps.
So, we crank up the speed another notch. We bust down the hill that had me terrified the day before, beating the daylights out of our knees in the knowledge that each minute saved is another minute of sunlight for paddling. Seeing the parking lot appar, and we've One More Pulled our way ten more miles than when I first decided to quit. We collapse in to the car, get GPS, and discover that even through our exhaustion, unknown to us backroads could get us to Indian Lake by 4:30 p.m., and suddenly, our sprint was a two hour paddle to beat the sun by fifteen-ish minutes. Much better.
Sitting isn't good for muscle movement, As we drive, I find I can't lift my left arm more than 45 degrees, turn my head to the right more than about 15, the adductors periodically cramping, and everything hurts. We joke with the ranger about how stupid our plan is. He looks terrified to be renting us anything, but we're insistent and it's his job. Down to the lake with a canoe, PFT, paddle, and pack. 5km to our site on water. One More Pull. Five mph tailwind, gorgeous water. Shocked to discover that the muscles in my shoulders that were broken were not the muscles necessary to paddle. The body tired, the soul exultant, we worked as a team, and pushed through the water to our site at the point of a hill, 5 km away, one hour on the water, plenty of time before dusk. As we paddled, we noted that the lake was clearly designed for 4 more feet of water.
The site is beautiful, we quickly find trees, sling our hammocks, set up our dinners, repack everything, and crash in to our hammocks at 7:30 again, this time just due to exhaustion, not cold.
A glorious day morns, no sun to be seen due to cloud cover, but pleasant temperature, no wind, and surrounded by water. We lazily pack things up, I decide to go for a swim, and mixed stroke my way across a narrow strait and back. Refill our water, and load up the canoe for the last stretch.
5 km out, on perfectly calm water, surrounded by water and birds and trees that seem to have changed color over night. A sea-plane swoops low overhead and lands just beyond our sight over in the lake. Light sprinkles that looks more like bugs on the water than any precipitation. We know our landmarks now, and cut the corners, beelining our way back to the ranger's station; who is clearly relieved to see us alive. Us, energized by the beauty of the morning.
Somehow, behind us, another 4 canoes full of people and four motor boats began to arrive and break the silence and solitude. Loudly talking about the horrible cold of the night (that I missed coming out of the water after a swim). Again, we noted how wildly different everybody's clothing expectations were than ours.
Matt has a running/hiking streak on, and so we needed to sneak in one more adventure. I had just happened to catch a signal and enough of a functioning keyboard to determine that there was a mile round-trip hike just outside of Speculator to a waterfall called "Auger". We drive over, and find yet another filled lot. Apparently, as part of a 100 year celebration of the ADK club, we happened on to one of their guided hikes. We chatted and walked with a diverse group of people to see one of the many impressive and wonderful waterfalls that populate our state. This one was extra ordinary in its beauty. The ADK Club guide said that the water was significantly down from the usual. It was stunning.
Upon our return to the parking lot, we saw a lady that was clearly lost, and so we escorted her down the trail again until she found her husband. Loop back to the car. Where another group of hikers are looking around lost. We point them at the trail head and describe their route, and then take off before any other lost souls need our help.
I have to figure out food and water. I didn't come close to eating the amount I packed, which was still less than the calorie count people say you need, and there wasn't a moment that I wasn't clearly dehydrated and under-salted. My clothing experiments went well, and my sleep system held up well under trying circumstances.
The hike was glorious, beautiful, refreshing, fun, joyful. Some of that was the companionship, some was the scenery and terrain. My body did so well, I haven't backpacked more than 5-6 miles in a stretch since high school, and we did 23ish miles of backpacking through mud then tacked on 6 miles of canoeing. I'm back home, no chafing, no blisters, some bruises, but no identifyable longer-term damage. I'd go back in a heartbeat.
One more thing. As I read this, it sounds like my adventure was type 2 fun; but it wasn't. This was a pure joy from beginning to end. The moments that were hard were always in the present, and the instant they were over, the joy remained.