Spring hiking in the mountains has lots of surprises. Dangerous surprises. This doesn’t include the hungry bears emerging from hibernations, nor the swarms of thirsty black-flies in the hunt for their first taste of blood. Likely the most deadly of mountain dangers are the cold, fast and unpredictable rivers.
Several decades ago while on my first spring backpacking trip in the high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains, I learned this truth the hard way.
It was mid-April and the green was replacing the brown. The roads and trails in the city were dry so it was time.
Dave, Gord and I packed our gear and headed south to the mountains. Upon arriving at the parking lot trailhead, we strapped on our backpacks and laced up our boots. Eager, enthusiastic, and filled with the arrogance of youth, we began trekking on the dry paths toward the mountains.
The first day was an easy five (5) hours of damp trails, simple river crossings, and green valleys. We set up camp, wolfed down dinner, and then with the darkness came whiskey, cards and an early night. We needed our energy for the mountain tomorrow.
The morning was warm and sunny. We chowed down our porridge and berries, bounced into our hikers and started our trek. We had 1000 vertical meters and 20 kilometres of trail. No problem we thought!
As we ascended the mountain, the trails would get wetter, then more and more mud and muck, then the snow and ice. We crossed several rivers with some difficulty, but no big deal. By the time we were at the summit, we were hiking on 2 meters of hard-packed snow. If you stepped off the trail, you would post-hole up to our pits into the soft damp white stuff.
The climb was harder than we anticipated and we were now 2 hours behind schedule when we began our descent.
It was 2 pm, 15ºc and sunny. We were unaware that the rivers between us had been filling with water from the melting snow all day. We never accounted for this.
We hiked down on the same trail as our accent. However, everything looked different. The rivers were so gorged from the spring melt, that the previously exposed river rocks were now a full meter or more underwater. The rivers and creeks were now wider, faster and traitorous… DEADLY dangerous!
Each river crossing became laborious and dangerous work.
Just after dusk, we arrived at the camp cold, exhausted and humbled. We didn’t die, so we chalked it up to another learning experience.
A small bit of whiskey, one game of cards and another early night.
NOTE: The ADK now urges hikers to avoid the high peaks during spring to reduce trail erosion.