That’s what happened to me. I’d been studying the 1953 USGS map of the High Peaks and the pass between Seward and Seymour mountains had intrigued me. I loved the name Ouluska, the idea of a remote pass where few people traveled, and the fact that an old logging road went up through it.
I didn’t know much about the area other than twenty-three years earlier one of the Adirondacks most destructive storms had occurred there. What was known as the Big Blowdown brought heavy rains and winds in excess of 100 mph. In a single day, November 25th, 1950, more than 800,000 acres of timber were heavily damaged.
In my quest to expand my Adirondack backcountry experience, I just had to hike through Ouluska Pass.
I planned a trip from Corey’s Road along Ward Brook, then off-trail up Ouluska Pass, down to the Cold River to Noah Rondeau’s famed hermitage. The idea was to take seven days and work my way across the High Peaks and finish in Keene Valley, a total of nearly forty miles.
I even found a partner in crime. I was on the ski patrol at Mount Whitney, the Lake Placid Club’s private ski area, when I met a kid my age Robbie Stott who was the mechanic keeping the Thiokol Snowcat Groomer up and running. It didn’t take much to convince him, and that fall his mother dropped us off at the trailhead, took our photo and we headed off. I may have mentioned the distance to Robbie but am not sure I mentioned that five miles of it would be a bushwhack through one of the most rugged and remote parts of the Adirondacks.
After Robbie’s mom left, we hoisted our packs weighed down with a week's worth of food, and in Robbie’s case, a ten pound “portable” CB radio which was all the rage at the time. I thought he was crazy to bring it, but he was insistent. He said, “Up on the mountain tops we might be able to talk to folks in different states.” I was skeptical.
Not being much of a hunter at the time, I didn’t realize it was deer season. That explained all the cars in the parking lot and the men we encountered along the way. When we mentioned to two of them that we were going to bushwhack up through Ouluska Pass they thought we were crazy.
The trail hunters couldn’t imagine leaving the safety of the trail to shoot a deer, much less understand why someone would want to hike off trail just for fun.
We made good time over the five miles into the Ward Brook lean-to, where we had a simple one-pot stew for dinner topped off with a cup of hot chocolate. We then settled in for the night, anticipating the five and a half mile bushwhack through the pass down to the Cold River.
Many believe the blowdown of 1950 was particularly disastrous because the forest, whose trees had grown their root systems their entire lives fighting the prevailing winds from the west, collapsed from hurricane force winds from the opposite direction. Ouluska Pass was one of the most heavily damaged areas in the region. Most of the trees lay in disarray like giant pick-up sticks. Some were hanging on nearby trees, piled one atop the other.
As we worked our way up the pass, the forest got thicker and thicker. Branches had died, bark had rotted off, but it looked more like six months after the blowdown rather than twenty-three years. It took us five hours of climbing over, crawling under, and navigating through the most challenging terrain I’d ever experienced just to get two miles into the saddle of the pass.
Hot, sweating, with evergreen needles wedged into well-hidden areas of our body, we forged through the pass and finally started down the other side, nearly three miles from the nearest trail. The forest was just beginning to open up, that is, thicker instead of thickest, when Rob howled, “OWWW, my knee!” He’d stepped in just the wrong way to cause his knee to hyper-extend. He flopped down in obvious pain and took off his pack. With the pack off his back, he tried getting up, but could put no weight on his leg. It was late afternoon, and we knew it would be getting dark within a couple of hours. We had no choice but to set up camp, get a good night’s rest, and see what we might be able to do in the morning.
We woke early after a restless night.
“Jack, why don’t we use the CB radio to call in a helicopter?” he said.
“Are you kidding? Look at the tree canopy, a helicopter could never get in here. What we’re going to do is make you some crutches and I’ll take most of the weight out of your pack and put it in mine. We’ll be fine.”
With that I pulled out my folding saw and started to cut down the first of two young yellow birch trees. They each had a natural Y which I lined with wool sweaters, making a reasonably comfortable crutch. Rob tried them out and I ended up trimming the bottoms a bit for a perfect fit. Then I took all the food and Rob’s CB radio, which lightened his pack considerably.
With Rob leading, we started down. We worked our way through the thick forest down the steep terrain. The forest slowly transitioned from spruce/fir to northern hardwood forest composed of maple, yellow birch, beech, ash, and black cherry trees. It was an easier forest to travel through and while the fall colors were past their peak, it was still beautiful.
The terrain became less steep and suddenly we came across a pulley nearly two feet in diameter, I found out later that it was from a Barienger Braking Device, used to keep horse-drawn logging sleds under control as they went downhill.
Then we came upon a rusty two-person saw blade (also known as a “misery whip”), then an old lantern hanging in a tree. Before long we saw an ancient pot and the sole of a boot. These artifacts were signs of the Santa Clara logging Company camp, one of the two biggest logging companies in the Adirondacks in the first half of the 20th century. Despite Rob’s knee problem, we felt we were walking through history.
We moved so slowly it took us all day to get the two and a half miles to the Ouluska Pass Brook lean-to. We were happy to get back on the trail and were hopeful we’d be able to pick up speed for the next four miles up to the Duck Hole truck trail, where we thought we could get help. We spent the night at the lean-to and headed out early the next morning. Rob was a warrior. He pushed through the pain and made steady progress. None-the-less it took us nearly eight hours to get up to the truck trail.
Truck trail? What’s a truck trail doing in the middle of the wilderness?
This network of roads was built for fire protection in the 1930s during the Civil Conservation Corps days. Many of the roads had been turned into horse trails and were favorites of Nelson Rockefeller NYS Governor from 1959 until 1973. We hit the truck trail by late afternoon, and we saw a Nash Rambler driving into the Wilderness towards Duck Hole. The driver, an older, rotund gentleman, saw Robbie on his crutches and asked what was up and we explained our situation.
“I’m the caretaker at the Duck Hole Ranger Station and heading into work for the week. I tell you what, why don’t you work your way to Duck Hole. I can’t do much for you, but you could camp there, and I’ll give a call to the Ranger and maybe he’ll come in and give you a ride out tomorrow.”
Since it was one and half miles to the Ranger Cabin or nine miles to the trailhead, we opted to go to Duck Hole and hope for a ride out in the morning. At Duck Hole the caretaker pointed out a lean-to we could camp in. Then he said that he’d contacted the Ranger but didn’t know for sure if he’d come in the following morning.
We woke up early and had our standard breakfast of oatmeal and a cup of hot chocolate. Around 9:00 AM a red pick-up truck readily identifiable as a Forest Ranger’s pulled up to the caretaker’s cabin. A young man only a few years older than us got out. He wasn’t much for conversation but checked in with the caretaker and then offered us a ride out. I was happy Robbie wouldn’t have to hike the nine miles to the trailhead and possibly the six miles from the trailhead to the Route 3 highway.
The truck trail was narrow, up, and down, and slow going. The Ranger drove us to Corey's road and then another six miles to Route 3.
Imagine our surprise when the Ranger stopped at the highway, and instead of giving us a ride to the hospital, he said, “Here you go. You can hitchhike back to Saranac Lake -- I’m heading to Tupper.” Much to our chagrin we got out and waved to the ranger as he headed away. We put out our thumbs and, with Robbie’s crutches as a sympathetic prop, soon got a ride back to Saranac Lake. Dropped off at the head of Lake Street, we hiked the last half-mile to my house where I got my truck and took Robbie to the hospital. Rob was diagnosed with a hyperextended knee and prescribed the traditional RICE treatment, rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
After I dropped Rob off at home, I pondered the lessons learned. Although we didn’t get very far on our planned trip, we gained some off-trail navigation experience. I also dealt with an emergency and successfully got my good friend out of some of the most remote country in the Adirondacks. And finally, Rob and I agreed that, apart from his knee injury, we had a great adventure.
Fast forward thirty years: Robbie calls me from Colorado where he now lives to tell me that he’s getting married and wants me to be his best man. Would I come out to join him and his fiancée at the Fairmont Resort in Jasper, Alberta, for his wedding? Phyliss and I were glad to oblige, and it wasn’t long before we joined Robbie, his fiancée, and many relatives and friends.
The night before the ceremony, Robbie addressed the crowd and told them a bit about me, then he asked me to come up to the front of the crowd of about a hundred people.
“Jack and I met at a little ski area in Lake Placid, but our friendship was cemented on a hiking trip where I injured my knee. He helped me get out from deep in the wilderness by making me crutches.”
There was a pregnant pause while he reached under the table. He pulled out something that took me a few seconds to recognize. Then with a grand gesture he handed me one of the crutches he’d kept all these years.
It still hangs in the entryway to my house as a reminder of our adventure.