Silence is golden

Views from the top of Weston Mountain. (Photo provided — Jack Drury)

In the fall of 1977, at the tender age of 28 and struggling to convince NCCC to start a wilderness program, I was asked by the associate dean, Art Clark, to teach a hiking class in Blue Mountain Lake. I jumped at the opportunity.

I drove down to Blue Mountain Lake to meet the students, to go over clothing and equipment needs, and to plan where we might go for our three hikes. It was a diverse group of 12 students with a range of interests, ages and occupations. We went on three-day hikes without incident and agreed we had fun and valuable learning experiences.

The course would culminate with an overnight trip, and we met to determine where we’d go. I was shocked when the oldest person in the group, a woman in her late 40s, said, “My son suggested we hike up over Algonquin Mountain down to Lake Colden and spend the night. Then we could hike out through Avalanche Pass on Sunday.”

I’d never hiked over Algonquin Mountain with a full pack, and for good reason: It was a strenuous four-mile hike to the summit, with a 3,000-foot gain in elevation. Add two miles and a 2,300-foot descent to Lake Colden, followed by a six-mile hike back to our cars the following day? With this group, it would have been akin to Hannibal crossing the Alps — minus the elephants.

Using discretion, I didn’t say what was on my mind which was, “Are you kidding? Thirteen miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain with a full pack? You gotta be crazy.”

Instead, I said, “I tell you what. We’ll plan it, but leave an option to do something easier if, as we get closer, it looks too ambitious.” They seemed good with that, and we completed the pre-trip planning.

Early October, the day of the trip, Saranac Lake woke up to 10 inches of fresh snow.

Nowadays a 10-inch snowstorm in October is as rare as rocking-horse manure, but in the 1970s, you could always count on one or two such storms. As I headed out the door, I told my wife that, depending on how well dressed and equipped the students were, I might cancel the trip. Then I added,

“We definitely will not be hiking up over Algonquin Mountain.” I told her that if we go, we’d go up East Hill in Keene and camp on Gulf Brook. We’d hike the Nun-Da-Ga-O Ridge Loop Trail.

So instead of the ambitious trip they’d planned, we’d hike a relatively easy eight miles, only two of which would be with a full pack. I was confident that would be an ideal trip.

I met the students in the Ames Plaza. Everyone was well dressed in “woolies” and seemed extremely well prepared. I told them, “Look folks, the trip you planned is way too ambitious, especially given the snow. I have an alternative hike that’ll be much easier and safer.” They looked at the map as I described the route to them. They all appeared to be on board, so we headed from Saranac Lake to Keene.

At the trailhead, we put our packs on and headed up the trail one mile to the Gulf Brook Lean-to. Upon arriving I told the students, “Get your tents set up and pack up your lunch. We’ll head out for an all-day hike as soon as everyone’s ready. Make sure you have what you need for the rest of the day.” In short order we were on the trail heading up Weston Mountain, a small peak with rewarding views.

If you’ve hiked this trail, you’ve probably found it a straightforward six-mile-long trek that takes a leisurely five-and-a-half hours. In 1975, however, it was much more primitive. From Weston Mountain it followed an infrequently-blazed trail requiring careful route finding and nearly eight hours to complete. But in spite of that I was enjoying the challenge of finding the trail and working with the students to navigate our way. We found ourselves on open ridges with views of the highest peaks in the distance and then wound down through a mixed forest of spruce, balsam, mountain ash and white birch.

The group was doing fine. There were no apparent stragglers or strugglers. I was impressed … that is until the woman who suggested we hike over Algonquin Mountain said, “You clearly don’t know where you’re going.”

At first, I thought she was being funny because she didn’t appear tired and she was near the front of the group, but it became apparent she didn’t think it was funny at all.

“How long is this going to take?” she said. “Why didn’t we bring food?”

After an hour of this it became obvious, she was dead serious. I finally stopped the group and said to her, “Look, I understand you aren’t happy, but all your complaining isn’t going to get us back any quicker. We’ll be back at camp in time for dinner.” I didn’t tell her that compared to the trip she’d planned, this would be a walk in the park. Everyone else was fine and we continued along — and she continued complaining, about me and my incompetence.

When we finally came to the parking lot where we started, which was a mile from our campsite, the woman saw her car in the parking lot and said, “I’m going home.” Then she realized she didn’t have enough gas. “Here,” I said, as I handed her $10. “Don’t worry, we’ll bring your backpack out tomorrow.”

With her gone, spirits rose, and we quickly made it back to our camp where we had a pleasant and uneventful evening. We hiked out the next day without incident and agreed to meet at the end of the week to wrap up the course with a potluck dinner. I went home feeling that, despite the one student and her attitude, the weekend was successful and provided a positive learning experience.

The next day I stopped by the college and ran into the dean. I told him about the hike and the student. This turned out to be a good thing, because a couple of days later, he got a two-page typed and single-spaced letter from her. It said what a terrible outdoor instructor I was, and how I took them on a heinous hike, got them lost, and we only found our way out because of the skill of one of the students.

Dean Clark said, “It sounds like you did everything right. I’ll respond to her letter and let her know that if she wants her physical education credit, she better attend the last session.”

She did. She was cool but not hostile, and even paid me back the gas money. We wrapped up the course and went our separate ways.

End of story? Not so fast, cowboy.

About five weeks later I wrote a letter to the Lake Placid News about the controversial decision to remove wilderness ranger stations. Two weeks later, they published a letter from that woman under the heading, “Student Challenges Drury on Cabin Removal.” She never addressed the issue of cabin removal; instead, she wrote a diatribe on how bad an outdoor leader I was. I was hurt, angry and worried. I had tried to make decisions that were in the best interest of everyone and worried that this incident might derail my fledgling career.

After a day and night of agonizing, college President Peter Cayan called me into his office.

“Don’t get into a battle of egos,” he said. “The only winner is the newspaper, so let it die.”

I listened to his advice, ignored her, and the issue faded into history … where it belonged.


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