I was in so much pain. I could feel my boots grind the raw skin on the back of my heel with every step forward. While on level terrain it was at least tolerable but any miniscule incline was excruciating. Luckily, I was about to stop for the day but I was worried about what I would find when I took off my boots. I was close to 50 miles into a thru-hike of the Northville-Placid Trail (N-P Trail), a 135 mile, north-south foot path that traverses the heart of the Adirondacks, from Northville, NY to Lake Placid, NY. I was taking 8 days to thru-hike it with a friend Tyler Socash, a former Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) guide and native of Old Forge, NY. I had heard stories about the N-P Trail for years but had never taken the time to hike it. Now, with blister-ridden feet, I was worried if I would be able to make it the entire distance but that idea kept being pushed to the back of my head. Despite my issues, I was really enjoying the trail and was determined to complete it. With 2014 marking the 90th anniversary of its completion, I felt that this would be a perfect opportunity to discover a piece the Adirondack’s past and to see if this trail still held any value 90 years later.
|“Blazing the Northville-Placid Trail, 1924”|
The N-P Trail was the first major project that ADK sponsored in 1922. One of the objectives as a newly formed organization was “to open, develop, extend and maintain trails for walkers and mountain climbers in the Adirondack Mountains,” as stated in the certificate of incorporation. What better way to do that than to build a trail that runs the length of the Adirondacks? The decision to make Northville and Lake Placid the termini of this trail was probably a matter of trailhead transportation and convenience. When the trail was envisioned the automobile was not yet a household staple and Northville and Lake Placid had regular train service. Many of the areas between Northville and Lake Placid had also been heavily logged by the 1920’s so the network of logging roads helped in the ease of laying out such a trail. Only about 25 percent of the trail was over new terrain. Even today, to the trained eye, it is apparent that many sections of the N-P Trail are on old logging roads. The forest is really taking back the land and making the trail even wilder as the years go on.
When Tyler and I finally stopped for the day we found ourselves at the Cedar River Lean-to, a spectacular spot along the Cedar River just south of Wakely Dam. While Tyler was prepping the stove to heat up water for our dehydrated meals I took inventory on my feet. As I removed my socks, half-dollar size flabs of skin peeled away leaving raw, red patches of worn skin on the back of my heals. Sh@%t, I thought. Even more worry some were the hives — itchy, tiny red bumps now surrounding my lower leg. What is a guy supposed to do? Clean them and duct tape them up I guess.
The temperature was starting to drop so I was glad that I was holding a hot bowl of food in my lap. I was barely giving myself time to breath between each spoonful; hiking over 17 miles a day will do that. Tyler and I soon turned our attention to the river; we had just heard a slap in the water just feet in front of us. It was a beaver, out on an evening forage for food. Tyler and I froze, observing the scene for over 20 minutes, watching the beaver’s brown, stocky body as it gracefully swam around and slid in and out of the water. We sat there listening to every intonation of the beaver chewing on a good sapling as we continued to eat ourselves. In that moment I felt that I was no longer separate from the natural world around us but a part of it.
The N-P Trail was full of those moments, which is one of the reasons why I think the N-P Trail 90 years later still has value and is worth experiencing. We weren’t using pack baskets to carry our gear or cooking over a fire like those who walked this path in the 1920’s, but the presence of a wild place was there; the rhythm of getting away from societal norms was there; and the focus on our basic needs was there. Most of all, the experience of being not separate from, but a part of the natural world was still there.
I decided to leave the trail in Long Lake because the blisters and hives weren’t getting any better. Since I make a living from having good feet I decided to play it safe and leave the trail before I had even more serious issues. I hope to get back on the trail and finish the remaining 30 miles or so sometime soon. I highly recommend this path to anyone and hope it will continue to be there for 90 more years. Who knows what specialty gear we will have by then or what the rest of our world will look like but I hope the Northville-Placid Trail will still be a path for reconnecting, for reflection and for experiencing the natural world.
Photo: Blazing the Northville-Placid Trail, 1924 by Bob Hughes