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Directions lead followers far off course

December 27, 2001

Directions lead followers far off course



I don't like to follow instructions, not because I am stubborn, or ornery, or have any other undesirable personality flaw, but because instructions are dependent on the instructor having some clue about that which he is instructing.

In my stalker-like pursuit of conquering the 46 highest peaks in New York's Adirondack Mountains, I have unfortunately become more and more dependent on wilderness guidebooks and "hearsay evidence" from climbers past.

I've long since finished all the peaks that have clear, maintained trails to the summits. For the rest, climbers have to rely on maps, compasses and "herd paths," (which are rather sketchy outlines of where hikers-past have beaten down the brush) and "bushwhacking" (plunging straight into the forest where presumably no hiker has gone before).

Bushwhacking, like reading classic literature, is something every climber wants to have done, but no one wants to do. If you're lucky, you can just get lost. If you're unlucky, you can get trapped like a gnat in a spiderweb amid dense, prickly, all but impenetrable stands of balsam scrub.

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Anyway, I had two more peaks in the bag this month, bringing my total to 36. I figured on picking up two more named East Dix and Hough with an unconventional, back-door assault up the Boquet River to a small tributary that petered out at the base of an old avalanche that offered a sure-fire route to the summit.

Although seldom traveled, the printed information said the route was relatively straightforward. I could have put more stock in these accounts, except for the fact that the guidebooks couldn't even agree on which side of the Boquet the route was supposed to follow, something I took as a bad sign.

The right and left banks of a river are determined by facing downstream, but not all purveyors of instructional material know this. On a guess, I chose the left bank, which was really the right bank and turned out to be the wrong bank.

The river was beautiful, its chutes, falls and glistening pools framed by the vivid autumn leaves of yellow poplar and red/orange maple. But pretty wasn't getting me up the hill. In fact, colored leaves can be hard to swallow. Especially when they are so thick you get one or two in your mouth every yard and a half.

Finally, I found a relatively good path. The guidebook helpfully advised against taking a wrong turn on a path to Cranberry Pond. It unhelpfully didn't say HOW to avoid this detour.

I wound up at Cranberry Pond.

Finally, relying on the compass to steer me generally southwest to the foot of the peak, I stumbled across the real trail. 'Course that didn't last. The book said to watch for a tributary coming into the south branch of the Boquet from the left (right) and not to follow it.

Fine. It pointed out a couple of other tributaries not to follow, but somehow never got around to describing the correct stream in any detail. I was busy not following one of the right (left) tributaries which I guess was actually the left (right) tributary that I should have been following.

I climbed up this right (wrong) stream up over snow- and ice-covered ledges, through a narrow, wooded canyon, up and up, until I didn't come to the slide. Snow squalls were whiting out the topography to the northwest, the temperature was plummeting, a boulder the size of a breadbox dislodged and bounced off my knee and I was starting to get really annoyed.

Needless to say, my peak total didn't increase that day. As I was hiking out, I happened to glance up to my left (right) to see the massive East Dix, sitting right there, smiling at me with the glistening sun off its face as if to say "Oh, hi there. Looking for me?"

So close; but I'd hiked right past it. So you can understand why the next time I purchase a product that says "Some assembly required," I'm throwing away the instructions.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. You can phone him at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or e-mail him at timr@herald-mail.com.

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