Friday, June 19, 2009

Remembering my First Backpacking Trip

With Fathers’ Day approaching, I thought I would write, in part to remember my Dad, a very short story about my first backpacking trip. It was in August 1969 in the Adirondacks. Now technically, my first real backpacking trip, to mystical Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, would not occur for two more years after that point. My grand and unforgettable misadventure to Isle Royale was precipitated when three seemingly unrelated things - an ex-girlfriend, a car magazine, and a football - somehow came together and colluded to send me on my way to Lake Superior. But that is much too long of a story to tell here. So I will tell this one instead, and will include a “few trips down memory lane” at the very end.

So, then, my first “sort of backpacking” trip was this camping trip with one night of “backpacking” in the Adirondacks with my father. I say “backpacking” in quotes because my Dad had a real backpack and carried most of our gear – I should say his gear. His pack had an external frame and the big padded hip belt, and I had never seen such a thing before. It was an amazing piece of equipment! I had the old style canvas “Army – Navy” surplus rucksack, and carried my clothes and some personal gear. Who knows, maybe I had my heavy hatchet and knife along for that trip, too – something sure kept digging into my back despite the relatively light weight of my pack! At the time, I felt like a true outdoorsman when I carried those two objects around with me while camping out! Hey, cut me a little slack! I had turned 18 just weeks before, on the exact date that Apollo 11 lifted off for mankinds's giant leap to the lunar surface.

My parents were a few months away from finalizing a most bitter divorce, and I had the chance to spend a week with my Dad. When he asked me where I wanted to go with him, I immediately said that I wanted to camp in the mountains somewhere. My little brother, two years my junior, had picked the Woodstock Festival of Rock and Roll lore and legend, and I could have done that with them. But I wanted to camp out. So we headed out to the Adirondacks, a good drive from where my Dad lived in North-coastal Jersey, and an even longer trip from my home in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

I can’t remember a whole lot about the specifics about what we did each day of the trip, other than these four (1) we hiked up Mt. Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York; (2) we camped in campgrounds around the Adirondacks most of the time (3) one night we hiked up Mt. Whiteface and camped out on its side; and (4) it was the last time I ever went camping with my Dad. After that point, college, grad school, job, family, distance, and life always seemed to conspire to get in the way of a camping trip together. So I am really glad that I had this opportunity, and that I took it.

The “backpacking” part of the trip was the most memorable. We had hiked only a couple of miles up to a lean-to on Whiteface Mountain, where we cut some spruce branches and made a comfortable bed in the lean-to. From there, we had hiked another mile or so, sans packs, to the summit of Whiteface. An auto road allowed cars to drive up, and there was of course a decent restaurant, where my Dad bought us dinner. Such luxury! So there was no need to carry a stove or a lot of food on that trip, or eat deviled ham out of a can. The other nights in the Adirondacks were based on driving to a campground and setting up my dad’s 500 pound canvas umbrella tent. I’m exaggerating, of course – it only weighed 487 pounds – but my purpose is to show how clueless I was about backpacking in general and going light in particular. That lack of knowledge and skill came back to bite me in the butt many times when I encountered the triumvirate of the football, the car magazine, and the ex-girlfriend that propelled me on a truly serious backpacking trip in 1971!

Now cut me some more slack! I know that today, unless one was desperate and freezing, one would never make a bed of spruce branches high on a mountain. But we did then, 40 years ago this summer, and I still remember how good those boughs smelled as I was falling asleep that night. I remember the quiet and stillness of being alone, just the two of us, on the side of the mountain. The silvery crescent of the moon hung like a beautiful pendent of God's over the side of the mountain. Even though I have only managed to go backpacking perhaps a dozen times or so since then, it was at that moment that the difference between a noisy, car choked campground and being away from all that, carrying what you need with you, and exploring the outdoors on foot first truly crystallized as a concept in me. For that moment of revelation, and for this one last trip to the outdoors with my father, I am grateful.

Here are few old photos that I scanned in from the past...

Me at 18 in our lean-to on the side of Mt. Whiteface

My Dad on the summit of Mount Whiteface

Me on some rocks in the Adirondacks, two months out of high school and a month away from college


  1. Some nice memories you have of your dad.
    Thanks for sharing them.
    We must be the same age! 40 years ago I was 18 too.
    I'm from northern NJ - where did your dad live?

  2. Yep, that is a good memory.

    Where did those 40 years go, eh? It is like the blink of an eye sometimes, which is why we need to try to live each day, HappyOne!

    My Dad lived over towards the coast, like Monmouth Beach, that area. We often would sail his small sailboat out to Sandy Hook, if you know where that is. Once we sailed the boat into Manhattan and back - what a trip! Hey I should write about that one some time. Enjoy the day. Art

  3. I know Sandy Hook and have been there. I grew up in Bergen County. My dad had a boat too (motor boat) that he kept in the Hudson River and we had many happy times on it.

    You enjoy your day too Art. :-)

  4. I enjoyed reading this post, sounds like they are valuable memories to you. Although I never went backpacking with my father, I do thank him for my love of camping and hiking and for my appreciation of the natural world. He is an avid hunter and he would take us tromping through the woods to mark trails in the off season, scout new locations and to search for missing dogs. I guess the hunting gene skipped a generation, but we share a love of the outdoors.

  5. Hi Les - yeah, the hunting gene pretty much skipped a generation with us as well, although my dad was not a huge hunter. Definitely that trip is a good memory, and a lot of my love for the outdoors came from my dad. Camping trips were always a big deal for all of us kids, as well as tromps in the woods. Actually it is my Dad's birthday today, so it is a good day for me to remember him. Art