We spent a lot of time hiking off trail, thus garnering me the moniker, Bushwhack Jack. One of my favorite bushwhacks was up through Ouluska Pass, a place, at the time, as wild as you can find in the Adirondacks.
Another challenging off-trail adventure was the route from the Shattuck Clearing horse trail, up Caulkins Brook, to the saddle between Seward and Donaldson Mountains. I first led a group up there in 1983 and it was epic.
We camped at an old logging clearing along Caulkins Brook, got up at 4:00AM and hiked up to the saddle through some of the gnarliest spruce/fir I’ve ever traveled. It was on this trip that we came up with the forest descriptors of Thick, Thicker, and Thickest. This hike was definitely thickest. We had to pry the small trees apart and slip through them before they snapped back hiding the person only two feet behind us. We fought our way up to the pass through this thick terrain until we hit the herd path to Seward, then took the path back down to the trail to camp. It was a jaunt of eleven miles. Only two and a half of them were truly trailless; the rest either herd path or maintained trail. Nonetheless it took us fourteen hours….and we didn’t even get to bag Donaldson and Emmons. That’s Thickest!
Notice I said it was epic. Unfortunately, it is no more. A decade ago, I hiked up what is now a well-worn herd path along Caulkins Brook, bagged all three summits, and was back in camp in time for an early dinner. No muss, no fuss – just a loss of wildness.
One consistent teachable moment on our trips came after bushwhacking through the forest when we finally came to a trail and the student leader had to turn either left or right. After they turned, I’d say, “Are you sure this is the way you want to go?” Even if they were turning in the right direction, the comment might cause them to question their decision. In any case it caused them to stop, reexamine their map, and see if they could confirm if they were correct.
There was one time we used a completely different tactic. We’d come down the Shattuck Clearing Horse Trail and were hoping to camp at a remote spot near the Cold River. We’d marked the campsite on the map. The student leader came to an intersection and instead of taking the rarely-used trail to our campsite, only a half mile away, started down the Northville - Placid Trail towards Long Lake Village, twelve miles in the wrong direction.
When students made a wrong turn I’d let them and have them eventually discover it on their own. However, my colleague Bruce Bonney was less enthusiastic about the idea we might end up in Long Lake Village, twenty-four miles out of our way. So, he came up with a creative alternative: After hiking the wrong way for about ten minutes he started limping and said to the student leader, “Hold on. I’ve got a blister that needs attention.”
The group stopped so Bruce could care for his blister. While the group was waiting, I asked the student leader, “You want to show me on the map where you think we are?” He pointed and then I said, “Are you sure?” That triggered a thorough review by all the students.
They turned their maps to the left, and then the right. They took out their compasses and oriented their maps. They had an animated discussion amongst themselves. Finally, one student said, “We’re on the trail to Long Lake!”
The student leader, realizing his mistake, took control and said, “Let’s turn around folks. Camp is on the other trail” as he got the group headed to our original destination.
That evening Bruce and I reviewed how the day went. I said, “That was fortunate you had to stop and care for your blister, cause it saved a lot of miles. Who knows how far the students would have gone down the wrong trail?”
I always knew Bruce was smart, but his response proved how smart. “Blister? What Blister?”