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Weighing assumed risk during adventurous travel

February 8, 2017
By JOE HACKETT - Outdoors Columnist ( , Lake Placid News

It was bound to happen sooner or later. It is an occupational nuisance that continues to linger in the back of my mind whenever I take to the woods or waters.

Although I've always managed to heed its call, I've never allowed it to scare me off. It is a notion known as "assumed risk," and it is an omnipresent component of any type of outdoor travel. In fact, adventure travel wouldn't be considered adventurous if it didn't present a reasonable measure of asumed risk.

As a result of such factors, the process of assessing the acceptable degree of risk has always remained a bit of a balancing act. An activity that may be considered risky to one traveler may be just a simple walk in the park to others.

Driving a vehicle is a risky activity that is often amplified while driving on icy, snow-covered roads. The level of risk is often compounded by matters such as darkness, traffic patterns, the driver's level of experience, equipment maintenance and a host of other intangibles such as animal crossings, equipment failure and the driver's physical and mental capabilities.

Similarly, outdoor travelers must expect and be prepared for a broad set of hazards. In the course of their outings, they will regularly be exposed to the dangers of driving on the highway or over backroads that may include rutted, muddy and poorly marked conditions.

Although I've experienced all of the above, my worst case occurred while returning from a remote camp on a rutted old logging road that was littered with downed trees. The incident was the result of a severe storm that had delivered heavy rain, hail and gale force winds.

At the time, I had a young guest in tow, and fortunately, I also had an ax, a saw and a long hank of rope. Together, we lopped up the trees and dragged the logs off to the side to get through.

It was an arduous effort, but we made it back to camp for dinner. The incident occurred well before the advent of cell phones, which likely wouldn't have been of use due to the remoteness of the location.

A more recent incident provided me with a heightened degree of awareness, and it was an eye opener.

Although I've pursued a wide range of winter travel opportunities over the years, it's apparent the old standards of ice safety can no longer be considered standard.

I recently learned my lesson the hard way while skiing through the St. Regis Canoe Area with an old friend. We had planned to enjoy a pond-hopping excursion from the Upper St. Regis Lake to Fish Pond. The proposed route offered an equal portion of travel on the trail and across the ice.

It was planned as a marathon effort, but it turned out to be much more. It also served as a valuable reminder of the vagaries of of the natural world.

Although I had traveled the entire route of the Seven Carries earlier this season, I was forced to skate across the ponds and walk the carries most of the way because the snowpack was just too sparse to ski. That journey occurred well before the establishment of a decent snow pack, and as a result I walked over the carries.

I thought the table was firmly in our favor as I set off across the Upper St. Regis Lake. It only took a few strides to realize the lake ice was covered with slush that clung to our skis. We were forced to clear the ice off our skis repeatedly in order to achieve any semblance of glide.

Although we managed to cross the big lake and pass through Bog Pond and Bear Pond, it was an arduous task to clear the slush from our skis. Conditions were simply not conducive to skiing, but we decided to carry on and soon we were on the way across Little Long Pond.

After crossing the first leg of the pond, we stepped off the ice onto a bog mat and the bottom fell out. The ice surrounding the little island had collapsed, and we were stranded, staring at a patch of open water.

It was only a few inches deep, and it was surrounded by the bog mat of leatherleaf. But my left boot was full of water and my wool pants were wet.

After considering the options, we agreed the best route was to retrace our tracks back to the near shore. After making it back to shore, we returned to St. Regis Lake via the Shore Owners Road.

Even though the lake had been tracked with snowmobile routes, the return trip to camp was more of slog than a ski. We were fortunate, and our situation could have been far worse.

It has become increasingly obvious that our longheld "typical Adirondack winter" is no more. Times have changed rapidly since the days when I skated on the lakes and ponds, and often the rivers as well.

The changing climate has expedited the regularity of such anomalies to the extent they are now considered normal. For evidence, one has only to review the recent spat of ice rescues, and the number of near misses that have occurred in recent days. As the climate continues to warm, such issues will increasingly be impacted.

While considering such matters, it is interesting to recognize that all creatures are subject to the irregularities of the natural world. They have also been forced to deal with high winds, downed trees, predators and the availability of basics such as food, shelter and water.


Arctic vagrant in Tupper

Recently, a rare vagrant from Siberia turned up on Tupper Lake. According to local birding enthusiasts, the lone Arctic gull may have been lost while looking for food, or blown off course by severe storms. Whatever the case, this Ross's gull wasn't lonely for long as the news of its arrival prompted a mass migration of birders to travel to the sleepy little community of Tupper Lake.

I traveled over that way with local guide and naturalist Ed Kanze to see what we could see. Apparently, after news of the bird's arrival hit the birding sites on the internet, a mass migration of birding enthusiasts immediately flocked to the North Country.

I spoke with birders from Maryland, West Virginia, Long Island, Quebec and Ontario. The influx of birders provided local tourism officials with eye-opening evidence into the world of birders.

They are obviously an affluent group,with $2,000 binoculars and $20,000 Swaroski Spotting Scopes. They are dedicated to their chosen pursuit, and they hunt their prey with a passion equal to the most passionate turkey enthusiast, grouse hunter or goose caller. The only difference between the various factions appears to be the fact that birders like to watch the birds, while hunters prefer to eat them.

Either way, the recent mass migration of birders provided Tupper Lake tourist officials with a significant influx of off-season tourism opportunities. Maybe the officials should consider inviting a similar group of such vagrants during the off-season.



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