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Aside: Bushwhacking Legs

Blowdown near Toad Pond

Sea legs is a term used to describe the ability to walk steadily on a boat or ship, especially on rough seas. In addition, the term is used often as a metaphor for adjusting to living at sea. A similar term applied to off-trail hiking is bushwhacking legs. Although not as commonly used as its sea-faring counterpart, it definitely should be.

Bushwhacking legs is the ability to move steadily and gracefully (or as much as possible) over terrain regardless of conditions without the aid of a marked trail or road. Like sea legs, bushwhacking legs can also be used as metaphor for adjusting to traveling through the backcountry without the aid of a trail. Also, the term can be expanded further to refer to a philosophy not only applicable to the bushwhacking lifestyle but to life in general.

Many factors influence the ability to find one’s bushwhacking legs and move gracefully and efficiently through the backcountry. Bushwhacking experience, physical ability, tiredness and mental focus are just some of the factors influencing one’s ability to bushwhack efficiently. Of these factors, tiredness is the major driving influence on the increase and decrease of one’s bushwhacking legs during the course of the day.

For example, it always takes a while in the morning before I obtain my bushwhacking legs, where initially I am tripping and stumbling like I had a great deal of Irish coffee with my breakfast. Gradually over time I move more gracefully and before long I am trekking relatively swiftly over moderately difficult terrain. Needless to say for this reason it is never a good idea to start out in the morning with some obstacle difficult to navigate through, such as blow-down, boulders, dense coniferous vegetation or thick hobblebush. This is often easier said then done though.

Blowdown south of Toad Pond

Unfortunately, obtaining one’s bushwhacking legs is not a permanent development during the day. As the day goes on and one’s energy reserves become depleted bushwhacking legs can be lost rather quickly. The exertion of the day eventually takes its toll on one’s dexterity and the stumbling of the morning returns by late afternoon. This is usually an indication to make camp soon before you fall and become impaled by a spruce branch in a blow-down.

The term bushwhacking legs is equally useful as a metaphor for adjusting to life navigating through the backcountry. In some aspects the bushwhacking lifestyle is more demanding than everyday living (e.g. more physically and mentally demanding) but in others it is simpler and more rewarding (e.g. focused goals and immediate positive feedback). Unlike the physical ability to navigate over rough terrain with its diurnal pattern, the adjustment to the bushwhacking lifestyle continues to increase with experience off-trail hiking in the backcountry.

Blowdown along eastern shore of Summit Pond

Bushwhacking is not an easy endeavor either physically or mentally. It takes a prodigious amount of physical exertion to trek though blow-downs, boulders, flooded beaver ponds, etc., as anyone who has attempted such feats will attest. The extra physical exertion required pales in comparison to the mental exertion involved in bushwhacking. Navigating over rough terrain without the assistance of a trail can be quite nerve-wracking at times as it requires constant vigilance to stay properly oriented even with the assistance of modern technology in the form of personal navigating devices. Adverse weather conditions (i.e. impending rain, thunderous downpours, etc.) can accentuate the stress levels associated with bushwhacking especially in an unfamiliar area.

In some ways the bushwhacking lifestyle is easier than everyday life. A bushwhacking trip often provides an opportunity to focus one’s efforts on a single task accomplishable within a short time period that is frequently missing from modern society. The typical day for a bushwhacker consists of a clear destination for the day, trekking through a varied terrain and frequent breaks for necessary bodily functions such as eating, drinking water, urinating and defecating. What could be easier or more rewarding than this?

Forest north of Crooked Lake

In addition to describing the ability to trek steadily through the backcountry without trail and a metaphor for the lifestyle arising from such trekking, bushwhacking legs can be used to describe a philosophy that stresses thinking outside tradition constraints, self-reliance, individuality and minimalism. This philosophy is not only applicable to bushwhacking but also for living a purposeful life that emphasizes useful and worth-while experiences over material gain and possessions.

Thinking “outside the box” is the very essence of bushwhacking where one eschews the use of marked trails and instead navigates via an individually determined route. Instead of following the herd down a path placed many years ago for a long-forgotten original purpose, the bushwhacker sets out on his/her own path for an experience full of surprises and discoveries that few others have experienced. This allows the bushwhacker to see the world as he wishes instead of through the lens of a trail.

Glacial erratic near unnamed pond northeast of Crooked Lake

Embracing bushwhacking requires a certain amount of individuality and self-reliance. Bushwhacking tends of be a solo sport since the number of people crazy enough to endure copious amounts of harsh vegetation, blow-downs and biting insects is in short supply. Being comfortable alone in a remote area where few will ever visit is an important quality for a bushwhacker where decisions of navigation need to be done on a continuous basis.

Bushwhacking requires a great deal of self-reliance, as one leaves behind the instant communication that has become our modern way of life and embraces a world dominated by forests, wetlands, vegetation and wildlife. In the remote backcountry a bushwhacker survives by his own mettle since any type of assistance is usually a great distance away in both time and space. This requires not only specialized knowledge of survival but carrying everything one might need for an extended period, including during a possible emergency.

Blowdown along north shore of Summit Pond

Minimalism is another important facet of the bushwhacking philosophy. The bushwhacker avoids carrying unnecessary equipment since every pound requires more effort and increases the chance of an injury. The utility, weight, size and ability to serve multi-purpose uses are the main criteria for carrying equipment while bushwhacking. Simple equipment is valued over the newest trends with the excess bells-and-whistles that do little to increase utility and increase weight and size.

The bushwhacking philosophy of nontraditional thinking, individuality, self-reliance and minimalism can be extended well-beyond that of the backcountry. These principles can be useful in one’s everyday life, especially in the age of instant communication, mass marketing, trash TV and cookie-cutter political thinking.

Forest between Trout Pond and Gun Harbor on Stillwater Reservoir

Bushwhacking legs refers to the ability to steadily travel over aggressive terrain without the aid of a trail, a metaphor for the lifestyle resulting from such travel and a philosophy for living. But none of these aspects of the term are restricted to bushwhacking within the remote backcountry alone but can be applicable to everyday life. By extending one’s bushwhacking legs beyond the backcountry it is possible to become a bushwhacker of life as well.

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2 comments on “Aside: Bushwhacking Legs

  • How well do you know Terry Perkins and John Scanlon? Other than they and myself, I haven’t run across many people who have been north of Summit into Toad Pond. Same for crossing interior of the Pepperbox. Great country, isn’t it. Excellent for proving true map and compass skills.

  • bushwhackingfool

    January 2, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I met Terry Perkins many years ago when I worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He (and his assistants) use to boat the field workers out to Trout Pond since we had several plots in that area. I doubt he would even remember me though. John Scanlon’s name sounds familar, perhaps I met him that summer as well.

    It’s beautiful country; that’s why I keep returning to that area. I am thinking about returning to the Toad Pond area again this coming summer since I want to check out the Oven Lake area and the 3 small ponds to the north near the Oswegatchie River.

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