A stinky day on the trail

Last week, I received a call from a former client, who was a regular guest more than 30 years ago. We traveled together often when he was just a budding young dentist and a self-described adventure hound.

However, he was extraordinarily clumsy, and cursed with a terribly dangerous set of outdoor skills.

I hadn’t heard from him in years and honestly was rather surprised he had managed to survive.

Our first outing was the summer of 1977. It was the same year I learned to never trust the wildlife identification skills of a rookie camper.

After his parents Edna and Irving hired me, Andy called to explain his ambition to see a black bear in the wild.

“Do you really think it’s possible?” he asked plaintively.

I explained the Adirondack High Peaks region likely offered the best opportunity, and a week later we met at the bus stop in Keene Valley.

Our trip from the Upper Works trailhead near Tahawus passed through Lake Colden, before heading off to Skylight, Marcy and a few of the other surrounding peaks.

I planned to complete the journey via Johns Brook valley, where bears were also frequent visitors. It would also make it easy for Andy to connect with the bus back to NYC.

Unfortunately, the big adventure got off to a rough start when Andy sheepishly admitted he had lost the suggested equipment list.

“Please don’t tell my parents,” he begged. They arranged the trip as a surprise before sending him off the dental school.

After securing the necessary gear, I drove to the trailhead near Tahawus, and we set off on the Calamity Brook trail to the Flowed Lands.

Almost immediately, parts and pieces of his backpack began dropping so quickly I could hardly collect them. It was like Pig-Pen with a backpack.

As a result, I decided to camp a short distance from the trailhead, and after a quick meal, we crawled into the tent to crash.

To my wonderment, it was soon apparent that Andy, at the ripe age of 24, had never spent a single night in the woods. He was terrified!

I did my best to assure him we’d be comfortable in a four-man tent, and nothing was going to bother us.

However, despite my best efforts to calm him, Andy continued to shiver with fear and he babbled incessantly throughout the night.

After a full breakfast, we set off on the Calamity Brook trail with plans to reach Flowed Lands before dark.

Unfortunately, Andy was an impossibly slow traveler who stopped often to examine everything, including a pile of bear scat full of berry seeds.

With less than a mile left to Flowed Lands, I decided to hurry ahead to secure a lean-to and then hustle back for him.

Andy was nervous about splitting up, but we agreed to use whistles to keep in touch. I exchanged a few whistles that were returned, and soon Flowed Lands was at hand.

Before setting off to Livingston Pond lean-to, I heard Andy hollering in the distance. I whistled and waited, but there was no response I hollered, and still no answer, even though Andy was just a couple hundred yards back down the trail.

I tried the whistle again, but my patience was wearing thin. The only thing on my mind was “lean-to time,” so I shed my pack and set off down the trail.

Within a few minutes travel, I found Andy sitting in the middle of the trail. He was choking and coughing and crying as he struggled to explain the situation.

However, it was apparent what had happened. I had smelled it before I even saw him.

While gulping air, Andy explained, “I saw, I saw it cross the trail back over there,” he gestured over his shoulder, “and it looked like a little bear cub, so I followed it and then it began hugging that tree just like a bear.”

He sobbed and continued to suck air.

“You were still just up ahead, right in sight, and I was going to call you but I didn’t want to scare it off,” he coughed, “because I really wanted to get a picture.”

After wiping his eyes with a wet cloth, he continued, “Then, I realized it was too small to be a bear, and it looked like a badger, a real badger, with stripes and all.

“And I couldn’t believe it, but it was right there, a real badger trying to climb a tree.”

Then, with a look of desperation in his eyes, he finally revealed, “But when it started hissing, I knew, I just knew it wasn’t a badger, but it was too late, it was a damn skunk, and I was just too late!”

The sour, skunky air already had me choking, which helped disguise my laughter.

When I finally got Andy back on his feet, we gathered his gear and got over to Flowed Lands in no time to find the lean-to unoccupied. I got water warming over a roaring fire, and as Andy began cleaning up and de-scenting, I began fixing dinner.

The rain let up and we kept a steady blaze going for most of the evening. The stink was simply unbearable, so we burned the skunky clothes, and even his socks.

I was glad the shelter was available. It would have been real unpleasant sleeping inside a tent.

The following morning, I heated up more pots of water to help Andy wash up. Fortunately, while searching for a camera to take photos of “the badger,” Andy had left his pack back on the trail. Conveniently, his extra clothes, sleeping bag and the pack were spared.

Our journey back to Keene Valley was uneventful, but as Andy boarded the bus, it was evident to his fellow passengers that something was up.

Even after a week of swimming in the lakes and streams, and spending evenings around a smoky fire, Andy still had an air about him, with ample evidence of skunk.

Or maybe it was a badger! I didn’t stick around long enough to listen to his explanations.