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Feral on the Northville/Placid Trail by Walt McLaughlin

West Lake Lean-to
West Lake Lean-to

The drizzle that let up temporarily at the sign-in register became a downpour four miles down the trail. I didn’t care. I was glad to be on the move again with a pack on my back, looking at a two-week trek through deep woods. Rain or no, I was going to enjoy being immersed in some of the wildest country east of the Mississippi.

The Northville/Placid Trail is a 125-mile arc through upstate New York, stretching from the southernmost corner of the Adirondack Park to Lake Placid. It traverses four sprawling wilderness areas and a wild forest along the way. The NPT is a lowland trail, skirting ponds, crossing bogs, and meandering for miles on end through mature forests. Most of the thousands of hikers who flock to the Adirondack’s High Peaks Region don’t even know that the NPT exists, so traffic on it is light. That’s what makes it so attractive to guys like me. Yeah, traffic on the trail is very light, especially on the cool side of Labor Day, making a bona fide wilderness experience a sure thing.

Bog Crossing on the NPT
Bog Crossing on the NPT

Deep in the Silver Lakes Wilderness on the second day, I was reluctant to cross the partially submerged boardwalk spanning a bog. I probed the bog’s dark water with my trekking pole but couldn’t feel bottom. On the other side of it, though, I spotted a northern pitcher plant. That was the first of many wild surprises.

Third day out, I reached the town of Piseco. At the post office there I retrieved the supply parcel that I had mailed to myself “general delivery.” Then I stepped fully loaded into the West Canada Lakes Wilderness. Good thing I was. It’s a 35-mile trek across that wilderness, and another 25 miles to the next convenient place to provision.

Bridge in the Woods
Bridge in the Woods

I reached West Lake on the fifth day, after crossing a stream below a washed-out bridge and several other watery challenges. Loons and owls kept me company while I hung out there for a day. West Lake was once the home of a hermit named French Louie. It’s obvious why he chose live there. Except for the contrails overhead, there is no indication at West Lake that the outside world even exists.

Back on the trail again, I hiked to Cedar Lakes and beyond. I spent a cold night in a shelter at Stephens Pond, basked in sunshine while approaching Blue Mountain, and enjoyed the company of a fellow thru-hiker, Limps-a-Little, at another shelter the following night. Like me, Limps gravitates to wild places. Together we pondered the importance of wildness. The wilderness movement, which can be traced back to the Adirondack adventures of avid outdoorsmen like Bob and George Marshall, was foremost in my thoughts at the time.

NPT to Blue Mtn
NPT to Blue Mtn

I awoke to steady rain my eleventh day out and road-walked to the town of Long Lake for my second supply parcel. While soaked and sipping coffee in a convenience store, I came close to cutting my trip short. But I was in Catlin Bay lean-to that night, and deep into High Peaks Wilderness the following day. Had I surrendered to convenience store comfort, I would have missed out on the Cold River.

The Cold River, which begins and ends in wilderness, is another one of those places like West Lake that can’t easily be reached. A hermit named Noah John Rondeau lived alongside it for many years. I stopped for lunch in the small clearing where his makeshift camp once stood. I fished the river for brook trout, and walked in the tracks of bear and deer as he once had. I encountered plenty of other hikers at either end of the High Peaks Wilderness, but along Cold River it was just me and the ghost of Rondeau A lucky break to be sure.

Duck Hole is a small lake nestled in the mountains that a lot of backpackers visit during the warm season. I reached it just before a light rain fell. Only a beaver occupied the place when I arrived. Another lucky break. The rain stopped shortly after dusk. The black canvas overhead filled with stars when I went out to relieve myself in the middle of the night. I’ve rarely seen the Milky Way so clearly, before or since.

Millers Falls, Cold River
Millers Falls, Cold River

Just north of Duck Hole, the NPT crosses heavy beaver country. I was worried at first, but reveled in the wild chaos of flooded sections of trail, ribboned detours through the brush, and tenuous beaver dam crossings. Clearly, after two weeks in deep woods, I had gone feral.

My last night on the trail was a grunge fest. By then most of my clothes were wet, muddy, and stinking. My boots hadn’t had a chance to dry out since I had started. I was tired, bug-bitten, unwashed, and feeling every bit of my fifty years. Yet I hiked out the next day feeling utterly alive. It’s like that when you run wild for a while. The countless comforts of modern living are grossly overrated. The creature that stirs within us all needs so much more.

About Walt McLaughlin

Walt McLaughlin writes from Saint Albans, Vermont. His narrative about hiking the Northville/Placid Trail, The Allure of Deep Woods, will be released by North Country Books in the end of May. You can also follow him at his blog Woods Wanderer.

This article was sponsored by RailRiders Adventure Clothing, The Toughest Clothes on the Planet. Hikers, backpackers, and professional guides swear by their adventure apparel because it is lightweight, super-tough, fast-drying and ventilated. For more information or to sign up for a free catalog, visit RailRiders.com.

20 comments

  1. I love these Adirondack Posts! The NPT is a goal of mine.

  2. The NPT can be buggy in early summer, Paula. Consider hiking it late summer or early fall.

    • Walt, you are right about the bugs. I covered the 33 mile stretch from Piseco to Wakely Dam one day in July 2011. The deer flies were unrelenting.

  3. I’m looking forward to your book. I’ll put a link to it on the NPTrail website. I’m the webmaster for http://www.nptrail.org. I put together the website to furnish hike planning help, latest trail conditions, a way to report trail conditions, community resources, and more. I’m also the founder and chapter chair for the NPTrail Chapter of ADK. More about the chapter and its mission and vision can be found on the website. There is also a facebook page for the Northville Placid Trail. Check it out. Tom W.

  4. Walt, excellent and vivid posting. Thank you for the slice of wild life on the NPT. I was there last November and came across the same half-submerged boardwalk across the broad bog in the southern portion of the trail. How did you make your crossing? My boots were soaked the entire trail.
    But you’re right about the exhilaration of the wildness of place. I didn’t mind the wet, because my soul was happy with the peace,

    • How did I cross the bogs? I slogged along, Dan. My boots were wet the entire trip, lending to my general funkiness towards the end. But, as you know, it’s worth it for a healthy serving of the wild

  5. You’re so right that hiking in the wild, as you beautifully illuminate in your post, makes us feel “utterly alive.” The most soaked and muddy I’ve ever been was crossing a boggy stretch in Maine rain on the Appalachian Trail. And trying not to fall into mucky beaver dams! My husband and I find that on the first day of wet hiking, we can stay dry, on the second everything is damp, but by the third, we and our gear are soaked, no matter how hi-tech our raingear. Have you got suggestions about staying dry for as long as possible?

    • I use trash compactor bags to keep my gear dry, Gail. You can get them in any supermarket. They’re the heaviest plastic bags you can buy. You get 4 or 5 to a box. I spent two weeks in SE Alaska and it rained all but 2 days. I still had a set of dry clothes towards the end, thanks to those bags. Only wore them at night.

      I hiked the 100 Mile Wilderness a few years back, so I know exactly what you’re talking about when you say “a boggy stretch in Maine.” That’s an understatement! Yeah, sometimes you just have to grin and bear it.

  6. Wonderful account, Walt! I would trade all the cleanliness in the world for the grunginess of a wilderness hike like the NPT.

  7. It’s funny, every day I pick up on another trail that I haven’t heard of. It excites the mind, the prospect of more trails than we could ever experience in a lifetime but hell, you have to try!
    Nice post, enjoyed.
    ~ Keith Foskett (Fozzie)

  8. My wife and I spent an anniversary in West Canada Lakes some years ago. Spent a week back in there taking lots of pictures. Didn’t see one other person the whole time. She can’t hike anymore, but to this day it’s the one place we talk about the most in 30+ years together.

  9. Judy McLaughlin

    Hey folks! Walt headed out for a night in the woods with Matika (our dog). He will reply when he gets back tomorrow afternoon. Judy

  10. Did the NPT, September of 2009. ‘Best hike I’ve ever done. Thoroughly enjoyed the adventure!

  11. Every hike is a good one, I think. But the NPT is pretty special, isn’t it?

  12. I did the NPT in 2012, my first hike in North America. Lovely trail, thankfully it was a very dry early May, so the trail was not as boggy as usual. Also got my trail name “beauty legs” there for my white legs (first hike in the season, so no time for getting a tan… Thanks Javaman!)

  13. Excellent post, Walt. Reading this and The Allure of Deep Woods has inspired me to put the NPT on my list of Adirondack things to do! -Zach (North Country Books)

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