We were standing in front of the trailhead sign-in post in pitch darkness. Just three cars were visible as we swung our headlamp beams across the dirt parking lot behind us. The nearest highway was a long 16 miles away and the nearest town further than that. It was a moonless October night as we headed out just past midnight on what would be a multi-peak, 21-mile trek to Redfield and Cliff peaks in the heart of the Adirondack wilderness. Night doesn’t get any darker or lonelier than this: alone in some of the thickest, deepest wilderness in the Eastern US.
The nearest sign of civilization was the long ago abandoned mining town of Tahawus, a collection of empty buildings, rusted machinery, and forgotten, cavernous mines sitting forlornly a few miles back down the dirt road we traveled to get here. As we headed down the dark trail, the notion of ghosts of old miners wandering those lifeless streets, and possibly these dark woods, did not comfort. The silence of the night was broken only by the occasional hooting of a far-away Barred Owl.
The mining town of Tahawus was the site where, back in 1902, then Vice-President Teddy Roosevelt first heard that President William McKinley had been shot (in Buffalo, NY). Roosevelt was later encouraged that McKinley was recovering nicely, so he decided to embark on a climb of the state’s highest peak, Mount Marcy. That hike was aborted when a ranger caught up to tell him that the President had taken a turn for the worse. Roosevelt quickly returned to Tahawus to catch a train to Buffalo. There, in my hometown, he would take the oath of the Presidency.
A few miles along this lonely trail, we could hear the black waters of the Opalescent River flowing by to our right on its way to form the mighty Hudson River. It was a wonder that those same cold waters would eventually flow past New York City and out into the Atlantic. That seemed so far away.
Our headlamps illuminated ghostly trees and bushes as we worked our way toward the Flowed Lands campsite about 5 miles in. That meant bears.
It was about 2:30 am, and we had encountered not a soul on the trail. We certainly did not want to encounter an angry mama bear scrounging for food, so we tried talking loudly (but not too loudly to disturb any sleeping campers).
We had passed the camping area without incident, and the trail narrowed. It was now the darkest time of night. Suddenly, a branch above my wife’s head jostled a little, and then there was an explosion of movement and sound: something big burst from the leaves right above her head and swooped past us both. I caught a flash of yellow eyes in a disk-shaped face staring me down before this ghostly creature veered off through the woods behind us. Total silence again.
We both just stood there shaking, our hearts pounding, as we tried to grasp what happened.
We reasurred ourselves with words: “It was an owl. Just an owl.”
Eventually, we gathered ourselves and continued on. When dawn did appear, we were grateful for the light. The woods around us slowly transformed from dark, dreaded weirwood to a bird-filled forest. We clicked off our headlamps and started the ascent toward Mount Redfield. With daylight came other hikers and welcome trail signs and a sense of calm confidence. We reached two very difficult peaks that day. But it was well into the afternoon before we staggered back to our car with an epic, but spooky, hike behind us.