ALONE IN THE “DACKS”
Some animals – daddy bears, for example – spend most of their adult lives alone. We humans are not like that. No matter how much we may say we want peace and space, being truly separated from others of our species for any length of time runs deeply against the grain of our makeup. Last month, I took a hike in a New York wilderness that became two days and two nights of uninterrupted solitude. I am not claiming a Robinson Crusoe-like experience, but it was a revealing outing nonetheless.
Silver Lake Wilderness occupies 106,770 acres in the southern part of Adirondack Park. If these acres formed a neat square, its sides would be 13 miles long. Even before I set foot in the Wilderness, the map revealed what it would contain – mountains of modest stature, creeks, lakes, bogs. The map also showed a solitary trail winding through the wilds, a section of the 138-mile Northville-Placid Trail (NPT), which traverses the “Dacks” south to north.
I did not set off up the NPT in search of solitude; a little distance from the world perhaps, that’s all. I’d have welcomed a hiker’s chat or a text from home. But as I hiked into the woods from the hamlet of Upper Benson, isolation came quickly. The first mile – not strictly the NPT yet – followed what looked like an old vehicle track, ending at a clearing where there was a gate and a privy. I followed the banks of cascading West Stony Creek a short distance, crossed it by footbridge, and met the NPT proper. Thereafter, signs of humankind were scarce.
Progress that day was measured by lakes. First, around noon, came Rock Lake, a stiff, chill wind blowing off its quarter-mile of water. I turned on my phone to see if I could send a message home, but there was no signal. Two miles later came Meko Lake, more swamp than lake. These lakes were bounded by conifers, but much of the trekking between them ran through hardwood forest not unlike that of home. But here, 150 miles north and 2,000 feet up, the foliage was new and thin even in mid-May.
I stopped for lunch at the lean-to by Silver Lake, thinking how I would spend the night here tomorrow, on my return trek. After Silver Lake, civilization seemed ever more distant. I saw moose scat and circumnavigated a beaver pond. In places, the trail became indistinct, often cut by blowdowns. Now and again, the woods yielded. Mid-afternoon, I reached a stream fringed by grassy marsh. My guidebook called this feature a vlei, a Dutch word from the days of New Netherland. I liked both word and feature. Soon I was resting beside Canary Pond, where a long-cold fishermen’s fire pit emphasized the absence of people.
I reached the lean-to at Mud Lake, my home for the night, two hours before sunset, time enough to pump water, eat, and hang my food out of reach of bears (I hoped) before bedtime. I went down to the lake several times, getting as close to it as its soggy margins would allow. It was an exquisite place. Loons swam in silver ripples, the forested slope behind them painted in evening sun and shadow. I was in bed by 8:30, but in the middle of the night I woke, and briefly thought that dawn had come, so suddenly bright was the world. The moon had risen over Mud Lake and cast a silver streak across its surface. I wanted company now. “Look,” I wanted to say to my wife, “look at that!”
Despite the magic Mud Lake had made for me, among my first thoughts in the morning was that I could head straight back to my car at Upper Benson, instead of hiking north, turning around, then spending another night in the wilds, as I had planned. There was no good reason for me to do this, except that the wilds were not my home, and civilization, which was, tugged at me. Get back in touch, it said, be comfortable, and – oddest of all – be safe.
But civilization didn’t tug hard enough. “You’d be crazy,” I told myself, and hiked north toward the West Branch Sacandaga River. I had met the river yesterday, soon after Rock Lake. Back there, it had been a brook, easily crossed on stones. This morning, when I met it again around 8:15 at an uninhabited spot called Whitehouse, the Sacandaga flowed broad and fast. I crossed it on a bouncy footbridge and, since this was my turnaround point, took a rest and a photo on the north bank before heading back toward Upper Benson. (More photos from my hike can be seen here.)
My return progress was marked by now familiar features; over the low pass to Mud Lake, around the beaver dam to Canary Pond. The day quickly grew hot, and pausing to catch breath was to be assailed by little flies. I looked forward to a breeze at Canary Pond, but when it came it proved of limited effect against the bugs. Even so, I rested in the sunshine and cooled my feet in the pond’s chill water – at least, I did so until I saw a leech swimming toward my toes.
I spent the night at Silver Lake, and rose early to hit the trail. Meko Lake, Rock Lake; and then, with a few miles to go, I heard a disturbance close behind. I had seen nobody in 48 hours, and as I turned I expected to see a large critter of some description. Instead, I saw two young women running-walking the NPT. We didn’t talk for long; they had miles to cover! But the spell was broken. I wasn’t alone anymore.