By Carrie Scheick, Environmental Education Intern, and Phylicia Schwartz, Teacher Naturalist
The high schoolers involved in the Delaware Nature Society’s Teen Naturalist group, a group that meets once a month for various outdoor activities and gives their time volunteering at DNS events, look forward to a weeklong adventure each summer. Earlier this month the fearless Teen Naturalists and leaders (Joe Sebastiani, Dave Pro, and the two of us) headed to upstate New York to backpack in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. In preparation for the grueling, steep trails of the Adirondacks, we battled hills (and gnats) during our day training hikes at Woodlawn Trustees Preserve and French Creek State Park the week before. Top physical and mental conditions are essential for the intensity of the Adirondack backcountry. Being able to actually climb the mountains is one thing, mentally telling yourself to keep putting one foot in front of the other when you feel spent is the other half the battle.
Our group assembled early Monday morning to load our packs and gear into the trailer. We all piled into the van to commence our very long drive to upstate New York. Our first stop once we arrived in Keene Valley was at the Mountaineer store to pick up bear barrels. Bear barrels are small, cylindrical barrels that fit in a backpack and are used to store food and “smellables,” anything that could attracts bears to a campsite. These are required for any overnights in the Adirondacks because the area is smack in the middle of black bear country. After unloading, repacking, and reloading our backpacks, we drove up to the Garden parking lot where we would leave the van and trailer to hit the trail. Unfortunately, upon our arrival at the Garden, the lot was full! Disappointed but relatively unphased, we put Plan B into action and camped at a local campground adjacent to the beautiful Chapel Pond. We figured we would have better luck with the parking lot the next morning.
Tuesday morning we woke up with the sun, quickly packed up camp and drove back up to the Garden parking lot. After squeezing the van and trailer into open spaces, we laced up our hiking boots, hoisted our loaded packs on our backs, and eagerly set out following the yellow trail markers into the beautiful wilderness.
Our goal for the day was to establish a base camp; campsites were first come first serve, so we wanted to find the first available site and snatch it up. We knew that there were campsites near the Johns Brook Lodge (approximately 3.5 miles in) as well as other sites a couple miles past the lodge. We ended up hiking about 4.5 miles total from the Garden lot to what ended up being our home for the week; the boys commandeered the leanto (and quickly proceeded to spread out all their belongings) while the rest of us set up our tents.
It was too late in the day after we set up camp and ate lunch to go for a day-hike, so we spent the afternoon exploring and swimming in the stream near our campsite. The evening was low key with our dinner menu consisting of boil-in-bag brown rice and a freeze dried meal to share with a buddy. After dinner we secured all our food in the bear barrels and we hiked a little ways back up the trail to drop them off for the night. As previously mentioned, the Adirondacks is home to black bears so it is important that we store our bear barrels and brush our teeth far away from our tents. After spitting our toothpaste out in various directions, we hung out until the sun dipped below the treeline and darkness settled. We crawled into our respective tents and leanto shortly after, needing our rest if we were to climb and conquer the tallest peak in New York State the following day.
Wednesday morning we woke early, eager and ready to climb Mt. Marcy, at 5,344 feet. After about a mile and a half, we realized the water filter and the first aid kit were sitting back at camp instead of embarking on our adventure with us. Thankfully we had some swift hikers on our trip (Dave Pro and Joe Cirillo) who knew how to motor, so they turned back to acquire the missing gear while the rest of us moved forward, knowing it wouldn’t be too long before they eventually caught up to us. (Which they did quite quickly!)
The trek up to the summit of Mt. Marcy was an intense hike, scrambling (and occasionally slipping) on the steep, rugged trails of tree roots and slick rocks. We schlepped through mud that squished under our boots and in many places it seemed as if we were simply hiking in a stream bed. Safety on the trail is really important, so we stuck together and took lots of rests as we climbed in elevation and the air became thinner.
As we slowly rose in elevation, we saw changes in the vegetation as it shifted from the temperate deciduous forest we are used to in Delaware, to boreal forest, to the alpine zone. The boreal forest is characterized by coniferous forests and the dominant tree species shifted to spruce trees. We got to see a Boreal Chickadee which was really cool; this species has a brown head instead of the black head that distinguishes the Carolina Chickadees we usually see back home. The spruce trees slowly grew shorter as we neared the alpine zone, the high elevation habitat above the tree-line. The alpine zone is characterized by hard rock surfaces, small plants and a short growing season. It is extremely important to protect the alpine vegetation because it takes a long time to grow; it is imperative to only step on or place packs on hard, solid rock when you’re at these elevations (all you hikers reading this make a mental note!)
Once in the alpine zone, much of the trail became large, steep slabs of rock, requiring us to hone our rock climbing skills (little did we know we would need them even more the following day but more on that later…)
After what seemed like a long ascent, we finally reached the summit of Mt. Marcy, a whole 5,344ft high. It seemed like we were on top of the world, I mean we kind of were, just look at these views!
After spending what seemed like too short of a time on top the mountain, we began our descent. The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent similarly to the day before with some much needed stream time after hiking over 8 miles. Before bed that night we had story time with Joe, who read us excerpts from a book that discussed the right way to, ahem, go to the bathroom in the woods. A thoroughly entertaining piece of literature.
Thursday was our longest and most challenging day of hiking. We did a loop of 9.5 miles and two mountains. We climbed Basin Mountain, 4,827ft in elevation and Saddleback Mountain with an elevation of 4,515ft. These mountains may not have been as high as Mt. Marcy but the climb was much more steep and intense. At one point during our climb near the top of Saddleback Mountain, we were scaling up rocks with not too much to hold on to and a long ways to fall! Talk about exhilarating!
We enjoyed a bit of lunch after summiting our second mountain of the day and then began our descent back to base camp. As we descended down the mountain we walked through a year-old landslide brought on by heavy rains from Hurricane Irene. It was amazing to see how little soil is on the mountainside and how trees and plant life are able to grow with such little support.
Friday morning we broke camp early and made great time back to the van; we were ready to head home. After eating freeze dried dinners and granola for a week straight, our stomachs were eager to eat some “real food,” so naturally we stopped at Five Guys on our ride back. As we pulled into the familiar parking lot of Ashland, relief spread through the van, knowing that mattresses and showers were shortly into our future. We all parted with smiles, satisfied that we enjoyed the time together that week, and knowing that we all survived the challenging but rewarding experience of hiking in the Adirondacks.
If you know someone who is 13 to 17 years old who would likes to study nature, be adventuring outside, and might like a trip such as this, tell them about the Delaware Nature Society’s Teen Naturalist group. Find information here about registering for the 2012-2013 season.