#tbt Trip Report: The Northville-Placid Trail

Enjoy our #tbt trip reports from the DC UL archives! This trip report was written by Evan McCarthy, and originally published in September 2015.

“Effing North*,” we muttered as the thirtieth car passed us on the rural highway heading to Blue Mountain Lake, New York. I was trying to hitchhike. Mountain Slayer (Mark) and Hang Glider (Andrew) watched but didn’t join in my hand gestures, which included a prayer clasp in addition to the classic thumb. I was in a kilt no less. This act of road desperation came after we tried to convince a couple folks at the Durant Campground to drive us the 2.5 miles to town to get our resupply done at the post office and general store. Though we had actually just showered and changed clothing for the first time in four days, the drivers speeding by didn’t know this. We were just three dudes on the side of the road. Still, we felt convinced that someone in a southern U.S. trail area would have picked us up. Effing North. (*I am a Northerner, born in Massachusetts, most recently lived in Rhode Island. I love my area of the United States. But it is not the kindest to unknown strangers. Particularly hitchhikers.)

We walked the whole way to the general store in the blazing sun and hard asphalt. The miles weren’t a big deal. Heck, we covered about 75 miles in three and a half days up that point. But it was supposed to be our down day afternoon, full of leisure, cleanliness, and beer. While grumpily milling about the rather well-provisioned general store (beer, pizza, ice cream, shakes, subs, etc.), I jumped on the surprising Wi-Fi connection available and in an act of desperation resorted to a prayer of sorts to the god of our times: Facebook. I posted on the Northville-Placid Trail Facebook page and pleaded for a ride back to the campground. Our moods would have been darkened by that pointless road walk back, particularly laden down with our next three days of food (and beer). Lo and behold! Within minutes, Gary and Sylvia, locals who also maintained a section of the Northville-Placid Trail, came through for us and rescued us from our plight. All was now right in the world and we could happily continue on to merrily complete our 130 mile thru-hike of the Northville-Placid Trail in six days and a morning (yeah, yeah, that counts as seven). I’m guessing our splits were roughly 23, 17, 21, 16, 23, 21, and 9+. We did not use a GPS or other devise to track our distance.

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This is a moment we had each and every morning on the trail. Deep woods. Soft light. Peace.

The Northville-Placid Trail, a well-loved and maintained ~130 mile (more on this later) footpath through some of the most remote territory in the Eastern United States, is a special trail. Lovingly envisioned and created in 1922-1923 by the Adirondack Mountain Club, it has been a jewel and backbone of New York’s Adirondack Park — 6.1 million acres that include more than 10,000 lakes, 30,000 rivers and streams, and wetlands and old-growth forests. While not as famous or epic as the High Peaks themselves and the 46ers, its deep valleys, lost lakes, and sweeping woods signify something special that any backpacker should experience. What struck me the most was the true sense of trail identity that was so pronounced and embodied by the shelters, trail registers, and thru-hikers that make the trail part of their habitat. Not every trail has this. The Northville-Placid Trail does. Taking part in it makes you part of a shared community.

We gathered late on Thursday evening, assembling at what we thought was the trail head we were supposed to start from off of Benson Road. I had come up from New York City after arriving from Latvia only a couple days before. Mark and Andrew drove up from the DC area and we had our happy reunion with a few beers and the pitch black of an Adirondack night. We hit the trail a little after midnight and put up our shelters in the woods after hiking a mile or so. In the morning we realized that something wasn’t totally right but not totally wrong either. One look at our maps and trail guide revealed that we didn’t start at the parking lot we thought we did, but rather at a newer lot that connected a recently created section of trail to save backpackers from road-walking. We weren’t quite sure how long this part would be, but we were happy we discovered it. After all, it was now part of the trail. [Note: from Benson Rd. to Northville itself is road walking not generally considered an official part of a complete thru-hike. There are plans in place to link the trail to Northville proper through the woods. Before the new section had been completed, most thru-hikers started farther up on Godfrey Rd/Upper Benson.] I had a brief moment of panic that first morning when the trail seemed to take a funny turn and I thought we were actually ON the newly rumored path to Northville. This, while wonderful for the trail, would have had us literally heading the wrong way. My fears proved to be unfounded, as we eventually met up with the older section of the trail, albeit with a bonus 5 miles added to our morning. No bother, 23 miles it was.

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Wonderful snacks at Piseco’s General Store.

We rolled into our first shelter area, the Hamilton Lake Lean-To, after 23 beautiful miles of Adirondack woods. We met our first two trail citizens, a local man with a fine knife and camo collection who was southbound thru-hiking the trail between jobs, and an AmeriCorps intern assigned to work with the local ranger and looked in on the trail and everything else in the area. Fine conversation and a nice little fire was a fitting end to our first day on the trail. The next day, our most full and leisurely day on fresh legs and not so hurried miles (17 or so), got us to the absolutely gorgeous Third Spruce Lake Lean-To. Oh, and we passed a general store in Piseco that helped provision us with breakfast sandwiches, beer, subs, and other lovely treats.

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Mark fishes. But not really. He didn’t catch anything and we didn’t actually have bait. It was more about the meditation and casting motion.

As with the other lean-to, we enjoyed hanging out in the vicinity but we each put up our shelters in the woods nearby and enjoyed a bit of shelter solitude. While hanging out at the lean-to, we were surprised when an elderly hiker arrived later in the evening, seemed to ignore each of our greetings to him, and then immediately laid down and labored to breathe for 30 minutes. We were worried. You can imagine what thoughts we had as we looked wildly at each other and asked, without response, if he was okay. Magically and fortuitously, the older man perked up after a bit, gave us a big grin and noted that he was hard of hearing. He also told he was section hiking the Northville-Placid Trail — after section hiking the Appalachian Trail over 30 years! He was 82 years old. Mark and I were a little surprised when we attempted a naked swim of Spruce Lake later that evening and turned around to see him just as scantily clad in the water nearby. It was the thing to do that night – after Mark showed off his fishing skills with packed tackle and a beer can for reel.

Our third full day on the trail had a little twist based on a recommendation from the guys at the first shelter to push on a bit past the lean-to and stay the night in the camping area at Wakely Dam. This proved a great recommendation as we had a lovely campsite for the night with sunset views by the dam.

We also set ourselves up for a slightly shorter fourth morning which would put us at Durant Campground and our leisurely resupply day (see above). And indeed, after our arrival at Durant Campground and slightly uncomfortable re-supply saved by Gary and Sylvia, we had a great night of swimming and leisure. We were ready for our big final push and finish.

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Morning on Long Lake

Day five proved to be our roughest yet, though this was according to plan. With heat rising, feet swelling, and the terrain actually providing some tough climbs and descents, we toughed out 23 miles to Plumley Point Lean-To on Long Lake. This took us over the highest point of the trail and by many lean-tos along the way, including the infamous shelter where we read the chilling tale of Black Bart, Master of Penetration, as inscribed in several pages of psychopathic stream of conscious rant in one of the trail logs we peaked at during an afternoon break. We eventually made our way to Plumley Point, which should have been one of the most remote parts of the trail, and found it packed with families and boy scouts (some of whom screamed out “Allah O Akbar” as they went to bed in a teenage giggle; they did not seem to ascribe it the religious seriousness as befits a practicing member of Islam). We were on Long Lake, and the lean-tos were populated with folks who had been boat-dropped on the somewhat busy lake. We even saw Blackhawk helicopters overhead toward sunset. Nevertheless, we set up in the woods and enjoyed a gorgeous night with cigars.

We pushed through our final full day on the trail, enjoying everything we could on our final part. Mark’s foot was hurting a bit – and we’d later discover that his blister wound was serious enough that he needed a dose of antibiotics when he got home. But we ended up with Moose Pond Lean-To all to ourselves and settled in to deep woods for one last Adirondack evening.

In the morning, in what is one of the trail’s best features, we walked out of the woods and right into the heart of Lake Placid. Hopefully they don’t hate us too much there. We couldn’t check in (and shower!) right away, so went shopping and eating in our multi-day stink. Heck, we even got new outfits at Gap. Then we actually did manage to clean up and enjoyed the bars and restaurants of one of America’s best outdoors towns.

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