Family Adventures in the Adirondacks

by Todd Gutmann, SUNY Cortland, March 14, 2008

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Growing up in Lake Placid, in a region of New York State generally known as the North Country, my family was surrounded by nature – dusty trails, squishy bogs, twisting rivers, tranquil lakes, tall pine trees – at least until I saw the trees of Muir Woods in California in 2002, and the 46 notable “High Peaks” of the surrounding Adirondack Mountains.

With this natural beauty surrounding us, each family member had his or her own way of enjoying it. Mom napped in the sun while she read a good book. My older brother and sister escaped the everyday stresses of family life to spend a couple-days’ outing in tents under the stars. Dad gathered the family for a hike, which was a rare bonding occasion, when he could spare the time from his job. Like my mom, I appreciated the surrounding beauty just as it was. When “lassoed” into an outdoor adventure, however, usually by my dad or brother, I ended up rather enjoying these outings.

The first time I ever camped in the woods one-on-one was with my older brother. It had been another weekend devoted to firewood, and we had worked all morning in the sun piling big pieces of wood as my dad cut them with the chain saw, or split them with the ax, maul, and wedge. This type of work is okay for limited periods of time - such as only in the morning - but gets tiring when it’s an all day activity.

Mid day, my brother decided to go for a short hike and camp overnight. I wanted to go on the hike with him, and since my dad thought it would be a good experience for a 15 year old, my brother later agreed to bring me along. After he figured me into his plans, we went into the house and found appropriate camping gear. For me, this consisted of various items, some of which were extra camping supplies of my brother’s.

After packing, we said goodbye to my parents and headed up the steep road past my house. While my brother and I were looking into the distance, we saw the sky became cloudy and rain form on the horizon. Within minutes, the wind turned chilly and began to lightly gust. Arriving on the plateau of farmland at the top of the hill, we took a right turn and crossed a neighbor’s yard to a trail near their house. Entering the woods and climbing a few hundred feet to a suitable camping site at the small base of, small, Seymour Mountain, we set down our backpacks.

The setup process mostly consisted of my watching my brother assemble the tent and complete other tasks, since I was a newcomer to camping. While setting up the campsite, my brother would involve me in some of the decision making. His intentions were both that I would feel good about having a role to play and also that I would learn a little bit about camping. Thus, our discussions would include reasons behind setting up camp in a certain way, among other topics. Occasionally, my brother would ask for my assistance and I would try to help.

After setting up camp, when the sky was nearly dark, my brother cooked fried eggs over a small cook stove. Although this style of eggs was not my particular favorite, I did not complain. I was on “survival mode,” and my brother provided the meals. After finishing dinner, as the sky grew darker, my brother tied a rope to our bag of food, threw the loose end of the rope over a branch, and pulled the bag of food above the reach of a bear.

Awakening in the middle of the night, I heard the steady pitter-patter of rain on the tent roof. Some hours later, I awoke again in the early morning light, climbed out of the tent, and got dressed. My brother was a late sleeper, and, so, I walked around the campsite a little bit and then sat on a fallen tree until my brother woke up. While sitting on the tree, I observed my surroundings: the brown, soggy, leaves on the ground; the birds taking their morning flights from tree to tree; and a squirrel frantically scurrying about.

With some tosses, turns, and stretches, my brother finally climbed out of the tent. After getting dressed, he lowered the food bag from the tree and lit the cook stove once again. Breakfast was the same as supper the night before, and I ate the eggs without complaint. Following our meal, we packed up our campsite and headed down the trail to the field, at which point we turned left and continued down the steep road toward our house.

Unlike my brother, my dad would gather nearly everyone in the family together to go hiking. One hike that my dad took us on was up Mt. Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York State. This hike consisted of three overnights in the woods, for my dad, older brother, older sister, and me.

Taken before I turned 10 years old, this hike was referred to by my dad, in a recent phone conversation, as “one of the greatest times of my life.” Several years prior to this hike, both my mom and I were sick and in the hospital. My mom was eventually treated for cancer and survived. I also survived, following hospital stays which spanned many months, after being born 12 weeks prematurely at a weight of two pounds and three ounces.

Our first night was spent near Marcy Dam, at the base of Mt. Marcy. The second night, we slept to the left of a slightly steep trail, approximately one-third of the way up the mountain. Here, we strung our hammocks in between birch trees and slept in sleeping bags. Above our hammocks were “space blankets,” or thin, silvery, polyester sheets, whose purpose was to keep precipitation off us during the night. After my second day of hiking, my legs became achy, and, so, my dad rubbed my legs to warm them up. Once I was inside my sleeping bag, my family delivered dinner to me from the camp fire. Both the food and the sleeping bag warmed me up. From the campsite, a small river could be heard gurgling alongside the trail.

The next day, we climbed all the way to the top of the 5,344 foot mountain. Along the way, my dad, who had studied forestry while at Syracuse University, quizzed me about tree names, based on the trees’ bark and leaf appearance. I was never good at identifying trees, and, so, my dad helped me along by suggesting rhyming words, such as “goose” and “spruce,” to help me remember and avoid causing me to feel bad.
In a recent phone conversation, my dad recalled what the doctors had told him regarding my physical condition at the time of my infancy – “that he may be sickly all his life with countless doctors’ visits.” Thus, my dad was filled with joy when I set my small feet on the top of Mt. Marcy. My dad recalled his reaction to that moment, when I reached the summit: “This is great. Not the mountain. Not the view. You.”

After roaming the snowy top of the mountain on that cool late fall day, we descended from the peak a good distance before setting up camp for our third night. On our last day, my brother, sister, and I packed up our backpacks and put them on, which was easy for us. However, we had to help my dad, who was seated on a small boulder, get his heavy wooden pack basket on before he could stand up. As we headed toward our car, located in a parking lot some miles down the steep trail, my short legs carried me faster than I wanted them to. With each step, my feet balanced on rocks, until we reached level ground. Signing out on the visitor’s pad and re-latching the brown wooden door, we ambled toward the car, anticipating the drive home.

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