Bushwhacking 101. A Three Day Field Trip.

Continuing Education. Backpacking 101 – a 3-day course.

Full picture set.


Wallface from Indian Pass

I’m still a newcomer to the combination peakbagging/back-packing game but gradually I’m figuring it out. I’ve often found that big days of hard bushwhacking and peakbagging don’t lend themselves well to backpacking. I’ve mostly done day-hikes with a light pack and I don’t worry about taking care of “business” since I usually head back to a car, clean clothes and hot food from a convenience store.

In preparing for Project Full Deck I’m realizing the logistical significance of hiking all day, camping, then hiking all the next day. Also, I noticed that people who backpack hike in and set up at low elevation, day-hike a peak or two then return to camp early and hike out the next day. Project Full Deck has the potential to turn into an unrelenting suffer-fest so to make it an enjoyable experience and not have my body and my will slowly break down there are some simple principles that absolutely need to be respected.

The first one is to recognize that no matter how tough you are, how hard you train, how well you eat, no matter how fit you are your body has a limit to what it can withstand before breakdown exceeds recovery. Exceed that limit and it’s game over after a few days. Also, the weather and how you deal with is almost half the ball game.

So, with that in mind here’s my progress report of last weekend’s 3-day “test drive” for PFD.

Day One


The plan on Day one was to leave the Loj before 8 and carry my 27-pound pack (including food and water but still too heavy IMO) over the Macintyre Range and Indian Pass and set up camp for two nights at a Lean-to. Since I would be doing a lot of hiking over the next 3 days I decided to go very slowly and to focus on every foot placement. I kept my center of gravity very tight to an imaginary straight line for minimal energy expenditure. I dropped the pack for Wright and Marshall and got a taste of bushwhacking from Iroquois via Shepherd’s Tooth to Cold Brook Pass (after changing into protective garb).


Shepherd’s Tooth with Mt. Marshall behind.

That’s a steep and gnarly 1000-foot descent and even if a path is being scuffed out of the duff it was an excellent example of what to expect on a whack with the pack. I’ve already decided to not use the Black Diamond Speed 40 because no matter how tight I cinched all the straps it still flopped around too much. I found the herd path up and down Marshall to be unpleasant in shorts and short-sleeves due to the coniferous branches constantly scratching my exposed and tender flesh.

After Marshall I put the pack back on and descended the Cold Brook Pass trail towards Indian Pass Brook. The first 15 minutes were directly in the drainage, rock-hopping, which is a major energy sink and ankle tendon stressor. Again, the key was to go very slowly, focus and make each step as economical as possible.

When the trail left the drainage it became a lot easier. The views across to Iroquois were jaw-dropping due to the extensive bulging cliffs and extreme gnarliness of the cripplebush above them. I lost the trail at the end and creek-whacked until a final short off-trail spell through flat terrain and open woods. The drop from Iroquois to Indian Pass Brook was about 2300 feet.

Next up was a short 400-foot ascent of Indian Pass and this was a major highlight of the day, with the views of the humongous wall of Wallface in my face for at least an hour. Also, with tired legs I found the ascent of this extremely rugged trail to be a bit arduous up the boulder strewn drainage. The temperature dropped 10 degrees in the pass due to the presence of un-melted snow and ice. Boulders as big as houses lay where they stopped after falling from the cliffs on either Wallface or Marshall. This was incredibly rugged terrain and I felt very fortunate to be hiking through it.

Once you drop a steep 500 feet out of the pass the valley widens and flattens and I gently strolled to the empty Henderson Lean-to, sat down and undid my pack. It was 5:45 and the sun was about an hour above what I took for a piece of Henderson Mountain. I took a sponge bath, vigorously rubbing down my crusted skin and soaking my head and proceeded to get organized for the night and for the next day. But first, after rinsing my disgusting t-shirt and hanging it in the sun, I sat in clean shorts and soaked up the late afternoon sun while it lasted and stared blankly into the woods listening to the murmur of the brook. How often does one get to do that? There were no bugs. Then I organized and ate my dinner, planned the morrow’s food, stashed the bear can, sorted gear, got the next day’s food and water ready, set up my sleep system and was in the sack before 8pm. I was meeting Glen at Upper Works the next morning at 6am so I set my watch alarm for 4:10 and with belly full of fat and protein slept hard. A good night’s sleep with a stomach packed full of food seems to be the key to recovery.

Day Two


View from Santanoni’s “Direct” trail.

I opened my eyes and knew right away I had missed the alarm. Sure enough it was 4:20 so I immediately got up and dressed, got my bear can from up the hill behind the LT ate muesli, made coffee, packed my pack (which did double duty as my pillow) and at 5 was on the trail. That was too quick a start for my liking – I missed out on my quiet time sipping the coffee with an empty mind.

Glen fed me fresh cantaloupe and we drove to the Santanoni trail head. 5 hours after starting we had gone up the Santanoni Direct trail, relaxed for 30 minutes on Santa and done Couch after dropping packs in the final col 300 feet below the top. The Santa Direct trail is turning to crap and it will be interesting to watch the developments over the next few years. Our main goal for the day was to bushwhack from Couch to the Cold River, “only” 2 miles distant and 1600 feet below. The woods were open, there was almost no blowdown and it was considerably easier than the bushwhack down off Iroquois. 2h30 minutes later we hit the beautiful and remote Cold River at a perfect crossing just a bit upstream of Seward Brook and the Ouluska Lean-to and crossed in bare feet. The deer flies feasted on us and it was good to get moving again. We had a 5 hour hike on the famous Northville Placid Trail, passing Rondeau’s Hermitage, Mountain Pond, Moose Creek, Duck Hole, the Preston Ponds junction and south to Henderson Lake. This trail was in perfect condition and we walked out fairly briskly. There are however, innumerable ups and downs of anywhere from 50 to 100 feet and we felt each one a little more than the previous one. The Preston Ponds trail is quite a bit more rugged than the NPT and we were definitely feeling the day in our tired quad muscles.

After crossing the bridge over Indian Pass Brook we put on headlamps and split up. Glen still had 3 miles to go , including a 1.5 mile road-walk from Upper Works to the Santanoni traihead. I had a 3 minute walk to the lean-to which was still empty. It took me an hour to scrub down, fetch the bear can, make a meal, eat it, put the can back and turn in. It was 9:30 and I realized I had spent 15 hours on the trail, which of course is way longer than anything I’ll do for PFD.

Day Three


Whiteface and stormy weather from Algonquin Peak.

I was able to sleep late and was on the trail with my lighter pack at 7:30. (I had less than one liter of water and a lot less food). The night before I told Glen I would simply hike back to the Loj over Indian Pass. I had initially planned on going back over the Macintyre Range, which would entail the 1000-foot bushwhack up to Iroquois and going up and over Algonquin. (Algonquin = 5100 feet and Indian Pass Brook below Indian Pass = 2500). I climbed up Indian pass (900 feet of elevation gain) at a very slow pace and decided I felt pretty good as long as I didn’t push it. When I got down the other side and came to the junction I decide to go upward instead of onward. It was a beautiful sunny day and as long as I went slowly I felt surprisingly good. When I got to the top and saw the rocks I had placed to mark the beginning of the route up to Shepherd’s Tooth I stopped and put my bushwhacking “armor” on.  I had no water left. I’d been trying to carry as little as possible and fill a collapsible soft bottle as I went. I would drink directly out of the drainage as I went up and take on a final liter half-way up.


It was a tough ascent with the pack and 3 days of exertions taken out of my legs but once again by going slowly enough I was making decent time. I turned around to check my elevation with Marshall and saw that the sky was overcast and very dark. I heard thunder and mused that I was heading up to one of the most exposed ranges in the Adirondacks in an electrical storm. Maybe I should go back down? But I could see a lot of fair colored sky behind the dark cloIMG_2258uds so decided to go to the Iro-Tooth col and sit and wait. The thunder was increasing but I saw no flashes. When I arrived I noted a very black band of cloud followed by brighter sky. There was still some sun so I was hopeful. After 30 minutes the black band had passed over and the thunder stopped so I booted it up as fast as my tired legs would go. With 200 vertical feet to go there was a lone thunder clap coming from the Santanoni Range and that spurred me on. I hit the summit and ran quickly across it and got down to lower ground. I was amazed to see a mother and son heading up. She said they were just going to touch the summit.IMG_2259 I still had the two Boundaries to scamper over and so I lurked in the trees and timed each one to lulls in the thunder, which came intermittently . I thought I was being over-paranoid when I saw a group calmly descending Algonquin right through it all. I met them at the Lake Colden junction and they said they had not observed any lightning flashes and headed to Iroquois. The sun was coming out and the White-Throated Sparrows were singing so I decided to go for it and hiked up as fast as I could. I got to the top and turned around to see black clouds moving in from the North River Range. Wallface also was engulfed by rain. I took a few pics and nearly ran down the mountain. Half-way to tree line a thunderclap resonated over the top of Algonquin and the sky behind was black. I looked IMG_2263over and saw two people standing on Wright and took their picture and hauled ass down to tree-line. There was thunder and gentle rain all the way out during my much slower hike out to the Loj.

And so ended my 3-day field course in Backpacking 101.


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