Monday, May 25, 2009

How Shane Huggins Saved my Life...

As a lover of wide open spaces, and the great outdoors I have grown to understand it's seductive effect on me. The almost instantaneous hyperventilation that comes with the taste of clean, fresh air and the involuntary skip in my step that comes with crunching pine needles and cones under-foot has always been a part of who I am. Sometimes, as per this weekend, I forget about the dangers and obvious risks of the outdoors and allow myself to be lured in by nature's intoxicating smells, visuals and overall fresh feeling.

But, I guess everyone needs a reminder about our real order in the food chain (clearly, we are floating somewhere in the middle - not at the top, as so many like to believe). Through a fairly ordinary list of circumstances, I learned a very real, and scary lesson this weekend.

Camping in the Adirondacks with Erick and Belinda had been in the plans for a few weeks, so the excitement was built-up to a crescendo by Friday afternoon, when we departed for our 5 hour drive north. After a fairly relaxing drive, we entered our campsite at Putnam Pond around 9 p.m. and set up camp a safe distance from our neighbors. After building up a fire and pouring a drink we sat back and relaxed for the night.

The next morning we rose a couple hours after the sun did, and Jerome and I took the opportunity to check out the campgrounds a bit. The serene Putnam Pond, which was actually much more lake sized, was walled in by peaked mountains and pine trees. The area we were staying in offered campers the chance to rent rowboats or canoes for the day, which we decided would be a great Sunday activity. Saturday, we thought, was a perfect day for camping, with the slightly overcast sky and cool air, it seemed like a perfect day to work up a sweat. So, we strolled over to the front office to gather trail maps and trekking ideas and went back to camp to lace-up and head out. Erick, Belinda, Jerome and I picked a 7-mile loop-path that would bring us back to camp in a few short hours. We packed a single backpack, with a few pieces of fruit, two small bags of trail mix, raincoats, and swimsuits (just-in-case the mood stuck). We each carried our nalgene bottles of fresh water with us.

The path started off smooth, and took us past several small, quite lakes, and very few people. The further we ventured on the more remote the terrain became and the more enthusiastic we all became (isn't this the reason we leave the city!). We had all begun to work up a serious sweat and become expert trail-runners by the time we decided to take a second look at the map. We faced an interesting decision. It was already 4 p.m. and we could turn-back to return to camp in the next 2 hours, or we could press on and try to finish up our original loop which had somehow grown to another 6-miles. All eager to continue our hike, we decided to press on, and pick-up the pace so we could cover 2-3 miles per hour.

We began trail-running, up hills, and showing off our NYC walking techniques through heavily wooded areas and steep cliffs. At 6 p.m. we began seriously rationing our water, just in case we had more than an hour of hiking left. Around 7 p.m. we started wondering which corner our campsite would pop around, and we vaguely discussed how we were beginning to loose the sunlight. We had run our of water, but still had a few pieces of fruit which we were sure we wouldn't need.

At 8 p.m. all gathered around the map, and discovered that we had made a serious, wrong turn a few hours earlier and had simply been circling a single lake for the last 2 hours (not a series of lakes, as it appeared from the trail). In order to keep our energy up for the hike back, we decided to make a dent in our fruit, and left ourselves a single apple. By 8:30 we were loosing almost all our our sunlight and we decided to head back to the last place we saw a person (in a Lean-To next to the lake) about an hour and a half back. At 9:30, after a walk/jog at breakneck speed we made it to Shane Huggin's Lean-To who was sleeping with two of his friends for the night. His dog, Getereck, gave us a solid growl and backed down after Shane popped up to ask what was up. We told him where we were trying to hike to, and showed him our map. Once he realized we were going to try the 8-mile journey back, in the dark, without a light he pulled his boots on and told us he'd show us the way.

The two small lights and heavily wooded path we took made the journey difficult to say the least. And, after hiking and running for over 9 hours, we did our best to keep up with Shane and Getereck. We followed Shane, into the deep woods, past marshes, through rivers, over hilltops (which did not show our campground), fallen trees, and boulders for an hour and a half before he turned to us to offer another option. Unsure of how much further the rugged path was going to take, before leading us to our campground he offered a single blanket and the safety of his Lead-to to our group, knowing nothing about us. Going on 11 hours and 20 miles of hiking we had all gone into survival mode and safety sounded like the best available option. So, we desperately searched for drinkable water (stream water, which looked much better than the heavily mossed lake water) and turned back towards Shane's camp. At least 20 times, we lost the path, slammed into trees, tripped over boulders, or sunk into marshy swamps, and slowly felt our bodies break down. For his kindness and easy-going woodsy-nature I did my best to keep the conversation going with Shane. Growing up 30 minutes away, he knew these woods well but didn't take risks on hypothermia, bears or traveling without clean water....all of which he was concerned about now. His youth rarely showed through, as his curls began to recoil, soaking through with sweat from our intense night-hike.

Our concern began to grown again around 11 p.m. in the pitch-black of night as we tried to find our way back. We all shouted out obstacles in the path before our our next trail-mate was set to hit in and turned to check on eachoter as much as possible. We finally arrived back at Shane's Lean-to around midnight and took his offer for clean socks. Our water supply had diminished again and we each took a handful of trail mix with our last sips. Shane pushed his two sleeping friend over to the corner and offered us his dog's blanket to share for the night. We took off our shoes to survey the damage, including blood blisters, numb toes, and bleeding toe-nails The four of us huddled together, keeping all our clothing and coats on for warmth. We slept about 30 minutes each, regularly adjusting on the logs to relive the pain on our hips, back or butt, depending on our position. Unsurprisingly, we all woke very early and took a look at Shane's real trail map to find our way back. Getereck, who forgot who we were overnight, began growling at us again and reclaimed his blanket. The rain began to fall as we squeezed our feet and aching legs back into our shoes.

The night before, while discussing how far the closest roads were, Shane mentioned the 4.5 mile hike he had back to his car. This morning, we were not to bold to ask if he could drive us back to our camp from his car. After iimpossing on his entire trip to Pharaoh Lake, he happily agreed, offering us more of his diminishing water supply. We painfully hiked the last 4.5 miles out to the car, happy we were had an ending point. Once we were in Shane's fairly new Volvo we breathed a big sigh of relief as he told us stories about the hundreds of hikers who go missing every summer - due to poor maps, weather or supplies. As calm as each of us were, we all knew we could have had a much harsher night, and had to deal with wounds far worse than blisters and torn muscles.

We paid Shane with all the cash we had on us when we arrived back at our campground around noon on Sunday. Sunday afternoon consisted of around 100 steps (primarily to and from the bathroom and shower), three full meals, beer and a few photos of the pond. Feeling lucky for being able to enjoy it all the while....thanks to Shane from Saratoga.


Traveling into Florence was like traveling back in time, with a little less patience for small sidewalks, a little more money for luxury meals and wines, and a lot more time to enjoy the view. It was an amazing experience to feel like I was re-experiencing a new culture without feeling lost or confused about my surroundings. It felt empowering to take on a city that felt new around ever corner, without ever feeling lost. As much as I am in love with Firenze, I'm in love with the time I spent there and falling in love...