A previous version of this article appeared on the Adirondack Almanack on July 13, 2011.
Today is the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Microburst. Twenty years ago today, this devastating storm blew through northern and eastern New York State, severely damaging over one hundred thousand acres of forest land in the Adirondacks, killing 5 people, injuring 11 and causing over a half billion in damages.
Helicopters rescued 31 hikers/backpackers stuck in the backcountry of the Adirondacks that day. Many of these were in the Five Ponds Wilderness, where downed trees completely obliterated some trails, leaving few other options. I was one of them.
Although twenty years is a long time, the storm’s impact on the northeastern Adirondacks is still evident today in places like the Five Ponds Wilderness, where it will remain so for a very long time.
However, the storm’s impact is not only on the land, but on the people who experienced the storm as well. Since I was one of the poor souls trapped in the backcountry on that fateful day, I thought this anniversary would a perfect time to revisit that day and share my memory of the experience.
Twenty years ago, I was in the middle of a weeklong adventure in the Five Ponds Wilderness. My first backpacking experience occurred only two years prior, but in that short period, I metamorphosed from a backcountry novice to a somewhat seasoned backpacker. At least seasoned enough that I planned an extended solo adventure into one of the most remote areas in the Adirondacks.
After a few days hiking, I ended up at Sand Lake on July 14, where I intended to stay in the lean-to for the night. Unfortunately, the mosquitoes proved so horrendous that they forced me into setting up my tent instead, maybe ten feet away from the shelter, underneath some towering white pines that surrounded the site.
The morning bird chorus woke me early, around five o’clock that fateful morning. Instead of getting up and immediately starting my day, I laid in my tent listening to the birds singing around me, until in the distance I heard a sound resembling that of a freight train bearing down on me out of the west.
Then there was nothing.
The next thing I remember is hearing a splash in the nearby lake. The memory of the freight train was gone as I scrambled to extricate myself from sleeping bag and tent, and scramble down to the lakeshore to see what I imagined was a bear frolicking in the water.
My assumption at the time was that I must have drifted back asleep as the storm approached and missed the entire spectacle. Although in the months afterward, as time passed and I reflected more on my experience, I concluded the more likely explanation was that my mind blocked out the traumatizing event from my memory. To this day, I remember nothing about the actual storm, even though the events that followed remain as clear as the day I experienced them.
As I exited my tent, the smell of pine was heavy in the air. Numerous boughs lie scattered about on the ground, but I ignored them in my haste to reach the sandy shoreline. There was no bear though; just a single white pine tree from the esker between Sand and Rock Lakes that fell into the lake. This tree’s remains are still lying on the sandy beach today, or at least was the last time I was there a few years ago.
After investigating the downed trees along the esker, I dried off my equipment and set about moving northward along the trail, still thinking the blowdown was a rather isolated event. As I started northeast, there were numerous narrow swaths of uprooted trees crossing the trail. As I navigated around each obstacle, I continuously heard trees falling in the distance.
Even with the numerous impediments in the trail, I made the 3-mile journey to the Wolf Pond lean-to by early evening. As I approached the lean-to, I found myself cut off from it by a wide swath of downed white pine trees. Just days before these trees provided a park-like setting, with almost no understory, but now they lay on the forest floor, downed all in the same direction. The swath resembled an electrical wire right-of-way sans all the trellises.
On the edge of the opposite side of the swath, I could still glimpse the roof of the lean-to. Before I could make my way across the swath to the lean-to, which miraculously still stood despite all the trees downed surrounding it, the sound of a helicopter flying low broke the late afternoon silence.
As a military-style helicopter passed over, I stood and watched, waving casually so as not to give the impression I was in immediate need of assistance. After several passes, it moved on, leaving me uncertain to whether they had spotted me or not. At this point, I still did not realize the enormity of the storm and merely thought it might take me an extra day or so to make my way back to my car in Wanakena.
After removing some small logs from the roof of the lean-to and breaking limbs off the top of a red maple whose canopy ended up inside the shelter, I settled down for my first night post-storm. The night was eerily silent and dark, as if nature itself were still in shock from the early morning catastrophe.
The next morning, I continued toward Wanakena along the trail. Big Shallow lean-to was a reasonable day’s journey through the blowdowns, so I headed there as my goal for the day. Although this was only a several mile jaunt via trail, keep in mind this adventure occurred years prior to my fascination with lightening my backpacking load, so I was probably carrying a 60-lbs pack, which at the time was nearly 50 percent of my wiry 130-pound frame.
Although an occasional swath of blow down crossed the trail, there was nothing significant until just before reaching the Little Shallow lean-to. At this point, the blowdown was nearly 100% percent, forcing me to climb over, on, and through the mishmash of stems. At one point, while on top of a downed tree, I looked down perhaps 10 feet to see a path engraved in the forest floor, indicating my skill at following a trail despite not a single marker in sight.
Upon reaching the Little Shallow lean-to, another fully unscathed shelter greeted to me, standing amid the wreckage that was once a mature forest. What kind of witchcraft does the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation use to protect these shelters, I wondered at the time.
After leaving the lean-to at Little Shallow Pond, I attempted to follow the trail along the esker separating Washbowl Pond from Big Shallow, but found the going so difficult I quickly abandoned that foolish effort.
Instead, I decided to follow the Little Shallow outlet to Big Shallow Pond, but before doing so, I dropped my pack and climbed up onto the esker between Little Shallow and Washbowl Ponds. I wanted to get a better perspective of the extent of the devastation caused by the storm, and the elevation of the esker would best place to do so.
Upon reaching the top of the esker, still perched on top of the jumble of stems beneath me, I was shocked at the scene that unfolded before me. As far as I could see to the east, every tree was blown down, or at least it so appeared. The conifers once lining Washbowl Pond were all down, their root masses now standing up vertically, facing me. It was at this point that the extent of the storm’s damage finally dawned on me.
I might just be in more trouble than I can handle, I thought at the time.
Not far from my location stood a single snag, its entire canopy completely snapped off. From near the top of the snag, there was a single limb still attached, although stripped of all its foliage. At the limb’s end, perched a single white-throated sparrow, singing its heart out.
“Oh-Sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada” the little sparrow sang. After each chorus, it looked at me, as if accusing me of some complicity in causing the carnage surrounding us.
“Don’t look at me!” I responded aloud, part in jest. The bird apparently did not believe me, as it flew off, disappearing within a cluster of downed trees. Life continues on, even after something like this.
Before descending the esker to reunite with my backpack, I took a few minutes to practice hand waving in case of another opportunity for an airlift out of the area. I would not let such an opportunity pass me by again, especially in the very hot mid-day temperatures with an increasingly clogging water filter.
When I finally returned to my pack, I consulted the map in preparation for abandoning the trail in an attempt to reach the Big Shallow lean-to. It was at this point I heard the loud swishing sound of a helicopter flying low. The helicopter soon shocked me with its sudden appearance, as it flew over the esker to the north and circled around my location. This gave me an opportunity to use some of my waving down skills practiced just moments before.
After circling, the helicopter flew off to the north, leaving me feeling somewhat abandoned. However, in a few very long minutes, the helicopter returned and landed on Little Shallow Pond near its northern shore. Due to dry conditions, it was easy enough for me to walk out through the shrubbery and reach the helicopter, as it floated on the water. I did not even get my feet wet.
I was quickly ushered onto the helicopter by the three-person crew. After some quick instructions on the use of the radio microphone, I was able to answer the questions of the crew. They were able to use my on-the-ground intel to abandon their search around Sand Lake and therefore concentrate elsewhere.
When they asked me for some personal information, I hesitated, and then enquired whether it was for billing purposes. At least my humor remained unscathed by the storm.
As we flew over the area, I was able to get a better understanding of the scale of the destruction from the storm. The storm had done its most extensive damage in concentrated areas, which appeared as if a giant ran through the forest leaving footprints of smashed trees. Apparently, the giant had been intoxicated and occasionally fell, producing long swaths of downed trees where his body had struck the ground.
After a flight over the area, the helicopter took me back to Wanakena, where it landed in a large elevated area close to the parking lot. Soon after leaving me off, it returned to the sky, and flew off in search for my stranded backpackers.
Upon exiting the helicopter, I waded through a small crowd of Wanakenians gathered nearby. For a few moments, I learned what it meant to be a celebrity as the residents persistently questioned me about the storm and the conditions of the backcountry. Mingled within the questions were offers of free food, necessitated by the continued lack of electricity resulting from the storm. Obviously, celebrity has its privileges.
While I continued to answer all their questions, the helicopter returned to let off two additional backcountry explorers who experienced the storm in the Big Shallow lean-to, as mammoth white pines fell down around them. The two recent arrivals soon became the center of attention, as my 15 minutes of minor fame quickly receded. With the spotlight off me, I returned to my car for the long drive back to the Syracuse area.
This experience continues to have indelible influence over me to this day. In a negative way, the mere distant rumble of thunder in the backcountry raises my hackles and gets my pulse racing. However, in a positive fashion, I continue to enjoy a bond with the Five Ponds Wilderness area that I feel with no other area in the Adirondacks.
Because of this bond, I continue to return to the Five Ponds Wilderness Area to investigate and explore the impact the 1995 Microburst even after twenty years, despite the arduous effort and concomitant cursing necessary to bushwhack through its backcountry.
Although, to be honest, I do my best to avoid bushwhacking through the more extensive blowdown areas, as I got my fill of struggling through impenetrable walls of wood those twenty year ago. Though I might just live to see those areas once again after these fallen trees have fully decayed, though it had better be before another twenty years goes by.
Affiliate Disclaimer: Some links within this blog post may send you to a retailer’s website. If you chose to purchase any product on that site, this author may receive a small commission at no extra cost you. These commissions provide compensation for the author’s time and effort necessary to provide the content at the Bushwhacking Fool.