Up Mount Marcy and back before dark

We heard about the floating logs from a man wearing an Adirondack 46er baseball cap, so he clearly knew what he was talking about. The hat indicated that he had climbed all 46 high peaks, or mountains over 4,000 feet, in the Adirondacks. He was wiry and spry, as so many peak baggers are, although not as chatty as some. But, he helped us identify the three mountains in the foreground from picturesque Indian Falls (Iroquois, Algonquin, and Wright) when I asked, and when we shared our itinerary for the day, he told us that the trail we were planning on taking back to camp was flooded out, with waist-deep water and floating logs.

He said it's possible to bushwhack around the impasse, or that we could take a longer loop back via Avalanche Pass, "but you'd be in for a late dinner."

The four members of our party had some things to mull over. But first, we had to get back on the trail and up Mount Marcy, at 5,344 feet, the tallest mountain in New York State, and my second state high point, after Mount Mansfield in Vermont. Mount Marcy had been on my somewhat arbitrary hiking to-do list for several years, and I was excited to finally climb it.

The day was clear, and warm, but not too warm. The trail was wet and sometimes muddy, but my trail runners were drying out quickly after every misstep. And the air had that spicy sweet pine smell that's like catnip to me.

We had gotten off to a somewhat rough start that morning, or perhaps the night before. Our campsite was at Marcy Dam, a popular spot to stay before climbing Marcy and other nearby peaks because it's an easy two mile hike in from the parking lot. But it also has a reputation for being a party spot, and unfortunately, negligent behavior on the part of campers (cooking at tent sites; not storing food and other smellables in bear canisters) has attracted unwanted bear activity. Earlier this summer, a state agency actually caught and euthanized a bear that had been harassing campers for food in that same area.

Knowing all this, I could not sleep for hours on Thursday night. I tossed and I turned in our tent, my eyes went wide at the slightest rustle, paranoid that we hadn't properly stored the bear canister and a bear was going to find it and rip into it and then we would be out of food and would have to go home and we would be responsible for feeding a bear and maybe eventually its death. Anxiety coursed through my veins and made my heart pound in my ears. It wasn't until I went out at 2 am to check on the two canisters, saw they were absolutely fine and untouched (as the internet suggested, our cooking pots were on top as a sort of bear alarm), that I was able to fall asleep.

So, I was less well-rested than I normally am in the woods—I generally sleep fairly well outside—and we were slow out of the gate that morning. We wanted to be on trail by 8 am for a ~15 mile day, and didn't get out of camp until 9 am. Not a big deal for some, but I can be a really pokey hiker, especially on downhills when my knees often give me trouble.

Still, we were up on Marcy by noon and feeling strong. After lunching, I went to find a steward and double check on the trail conditions. It was the changing of the guard so there were two. Both women confirmed that the Feldspar Trail was underwater up to the hips, and that there were floating logs. They also said that, while normally they would always tell people to stay on the established trails, that bushwhacking was an option, if that was something we would be comfortable with. It made us wonder if maybe so many people had bushwhacked that there might be an easy-to-follow path.

We had the green light from the stewards, there was really no reason we couldn't continue our day as planned, up and over Marcy towards Skylight, past Lake Tear of the Clouds, the highest source of the Hudson River. Loops are almost always superior to out-and-back hikes, allowing you to cover the most new territory. The pull was strong, and for a while we teetered towards it. "Let's just go for it," E said. Longtime readers of Pinch of Dirt might expect that of us.

But J reminded the group that we're always slower on the descent (which was definitely about me, although he didn't single me out, which was nice) and E said he wanted to be back at camp in time to eat dinner and clean up and store the food before dark, and I recalled promising myself (and E) to take it easy after a grueling 40-mile trip the previous weekend (that story is for another time, and another publication; stay tuned for more). So we just…turned around and went back the way we came.

It was freeing. It felt mature. I like to think—in fact I know—that I could have managed either the bushwhack or the long loop back via Avalanche Pass. My knees might have burned and my feet might have swollen and ached, and we definitely would not have made it back to camp before dark, but we—my extremely athletic friends certainly, but even I—could have done it. But we—I—didn't have to. And that was nice.

E and I (mostly I) doddled all the way back, taking lengthy breaks at picturesque spots so I could play with my new camera, or wade into a freezing brook up to my knees (which hurt a little even on this short, easy day!) and we still managed to stomp into camp long before sunset.


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