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Old 12-28-2021, 10:29 PM   #1
DSettahr
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Russian Lake, Upper Gull Lake, and Andy's Creek (Pigeon Lake WA) 7/11 - 7/14/21


The Pigeon Lake Wilderness is somewhat unique among individual state land units of the Adirondack Park in that it has 4 lean-tos that can only be reached via a combination of a boat ride followed by a hike: Russian Lake, Upper Gull Lake, Andy's Creek, and Lower Sister Lake. That is, apart from a lengthy and complicated bushwhack.

Needless to say, the area has attracted my attention ever since I first laid eyes on a trail map covering this region of the Adirondack Park. I often wondered whether the complexities of accessing each of these lean-tos might in turn lend themselves well to fostering solitude. In 2013, I had the first oppotunity to visit the area when a friend and I spent a single night at Lower Sister Lake, the most remote of these 4 lean-tos by far. We did indeed find it to be a destination with no shortage of solitude, that clearly receives relatively little use.

My slow but steady progression on the lean-to challenge (as well as my desire to see as much of everything the Adirondack Park has to offer as possible) meant that I would inevitably return to camp at each of the remaining three lean-tos in turn. This past summer I finally found the time (and inclination) to make it happen in a single 4 day/3 night trip.

And so a late afternoon this past July saw me loading up my canoe at the Big Moose Lake hand launch at the end of Higby Road. A steady but light rain was falling as I set out across the lake.


I selected Russian Lake as my destination for the first night as it was already late once I'd set out, and that lean-to was the closest. Russian Lake is accessed via a trail that leads east from East Bay of Big Moose, and it didn't take long for me to paddle up the lake, find the dock at the trailhead, and set off on foot. Less than an hour after leaving the Higby Road hand launch, I was arriving at the lean-to as evening gloom settled into the backcountry.




Since it was late and I'd already eaten dinner prior to setting out, I was quick to set up my bug bivy inside the lean-to and turn in for the evening.

The morning dawned with mostly cloudy skies, but hear and there I could see gaps of blue sky between the clouds.


Once I was up and had breakfast in my belly, I took a few minutes to poke around and explore the vicinity of the lean-to. Russian Lake clearly defied my expectations of "little use" somewhat- the lean-to site was well impacted, there were a number of discarded odds and ends lying about, and it's very evidentially a place that is at least occasionally targeted by bigger groups looking for more of a social backcountry experience. I'd surmise this is probably due to this being the most accessible (least remote) of these 4 lean-tos, plus also the only one whose Big Moose Lake shoreline trailhead is readily accessible by motorboat. (Shallow waters on the way to the other two trailheads presumably are quite limiting to those attempting to approach via motorboat.)

In any case, it was still a beautifully situated lean-to on the shore of Russian Lake.




My next destination, the Upper Gull Lake Lean-to, was some fair distance away and I wanted to arrive early so that I could move on elsewhere if it were still occupied, so it wasn't long before I'd packed up, returned to Big Moose Lake, retrieved my canoe from where I'd hidden and locked it in the woods, and set out again across Big Moose.


The other three lean-tos are all accessed via trailheads off of the Inlet area of Big Moose Lake. Here, Andy's Creek and the outlet of Lower Sister Lake combine and flow into a broad, shallow bay that is connected to the main portion of Big Moose via a shallow channel. Motorboat traffic is permitted here, but the shallow waters keep it to a fairly minimal level. As I paddled up into the bay I was already experiencing solitude.


The trailhead for Upper Gull Lake is at the northwest end of the bay. I arrived to find no sign of any canoes stashed in the woods nearby, nor any entries in the register book at the trailhead, so I figured my chances of the lean-to being unoccupied were pretty good- it would be rough to hike the mile and change to get there only to find the lean-to full.


About two-thirds of the way to Upper Gull Lake, the trail crosses the outlet of Lower Gull Lake, where some nice views of that body of water can be found not far off the trail.


I'd heard horror stories bout the trail between Lower and Upper Gull Lakes being overgrown and disappearing into beaver swamps, but when I hiked through I found instead a nice, relatively new re-route that sticks to higher (and drier) ground. I'd been prepared for the worst but it turned out my fears were misplaced.

Just as the first glimpses of Upper Gull Lake were starting to come into view through the trees, I hiked through what appeared to have been the site of an old camp- possibly a lumber camp. A number of discarded metal odds and ends were lying about, including sled runners, barrel hoops, and more.






There was even an old horseshoe lying amidst the junk. So perhaps at least one horse has made the epic journey to Upper Gull Lake?


Not far beyond the site of the old camp was the lean-to, beautifully situated on the south shore of Upper Gull Lake.






After settling in and setting up camp, I cracked open the lean-to log book. I knew I'd picked a little used lean-to when I saw the date of the very first entry in the book- May of 2008! Over 13 years prior! At most lean-tos, the log book is either filled with entries- or destroyed- within a few seasons.

Scrolling through the log book I also observed numerous gaps consisting of many months between entries. The longest gap between consecutive entries was nearly a year- 11 months!


I also happened to notice that Leif Erikson had paid visit to that very same lean-to- in 1492 no less! Impressive than his inscription has survived the tests of time.


I spent a nice afternoon reading and enjoying the solitude. A few times throughout the day sprinkles passed by but for the most part it remained partly cloudy with some occasional patches of sunshine.






Just about as I was thinking about starting to cook dinner, I heard splashing and a whole lot of commotion coming from down by the shore. I got to to investigate, and discovered a family of weasels- mom and 2 or 3 kittens- emerging from an afternoon swim upon the lake. Upon seeing me, mom was quick to dive into the entrance to their den and attempt to coax her kittens to join her- unsuccessfully at first.




Rather than being afraid of me, her kittens clearly felt like they could take me on in a fair fight, judging from their screams and reluctance to give me a wide berth.






Eventually mom was finally able to coax her kittens down into the den with her. I wouldn't hear a peep out of them for the remainder of my stay.

The rest of the evening passed uneventfully. In the morning I awoke to more gloomy weather- low clouds were even teasing the tree tops on the hillside across the lake.


I figured that my last lean-to destination for the trip, Andy's Creek, was even less likely to be occupied so I took a leisurely morning packing up and hiking back to Big Moose Lake. I again retrieved my canoe from another hiding spot and set out upon the water once again.


Continued in next post...

Last edited by DSettahr; 02-03-2022 at 08:50 AM..
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Old 12-28-2021, 10:30 PM   #2
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Continued from above...

Andy's Creek and Lower Sister Lake both share a single trailhead, and it's by far the most remote of the trailheads to access any of these lean-tos. First, one must paddle across the inlet bay to Andy's Creek.


And then one most start paddling up Andy's Creek, which at first follows a marshy, twisty, and winding course.


And finally, the trailhead is reached in a particularly marshy and swampy area. I believe that motor boats are technically permitted as far up the creek as the trailhead, but in reality only a small boat with a low HP outboard motor is ever going to succeed in making it this far.


The trail at first follows a somewhat dilapidated boardwalk through the remainder of the marsh until it reaches dry ground. Soon after, a junction is reached- left is the trail that leads a few tenths of a mile to the Andy's Creek Lean-to, where as right is the start of the 3 mile hike to Lower Sister Lake. Remote, indeed.


Even though we hadn't camped there, my friend and I undertook the short side trip to visit Andy's Creek during our 2013 overnight trip to Lower Sister Lake. Not far from the lean-to, the trail crosses Andy's Creek on an impressive bridge. In 2013, this bridge had been in rough shape- warped, twisted, and clearly on it's last legs. I was pleasantly surprised to see upon my return that it had been completely rebuilt, including even new cribbing on the river left shore.




Not far beyond the bridge, I arrived at the Andy's Creek Lean-to. Unlike the other three lean-tos, which are on lakes, Andy's Creek is on, well, a creek- and without the expansive views provided by a shoreline locale, it feels more wooded accordingly.




After setting up camp I walked down to check out the creek. In contrast to the wide, meandering marshy affair of the creek not even that far downstream, here it was more of a cascading mountain stream. It'd been fairly wet in the days leading up to my visit and the water was also visibly still running high.




I also noticed that the DEC sign inside the lean-to had an alternate spelling- "Andes Creek" rather than "Andy's Creek." No offense to whoever Andy is, but I think I like this spelling better.


I briefly contemplated spending the afternoon day hiking out to Lower Sister Lake and back to revisit that spot- but oppressive humidity and the obvious threat of rain convinced me instead to spend the afternoon relaxing at the lean-to, again reading and enjoying the solitude.

It didn't take long, though, for the mosquitoes to make their presence known to me... there'd been a few bugs out and about at Russian Lake, whereas Upper Gull Lake had hardly any, but the mosquitoes were definitely out in full force at Andy's Creek. It was soon apparent that a smudge fire was necessary for any time spent outside of my bug bivy.


Around dinner time, I was greeted by rumbles of thunder. The torrential downpours that followed not long after quickly extinguished my smudge fire. No matter, I was ready to turn in and dive back into my bug bivy anrways. I spent a warm, humid, and not entirely comfortable night sleeping on top of my sleeping bag. At least I was dry and out of the rain.

Morning brought with it more humidity and more obvious threats of rain- apparently this pattern was not likely to let up anytime soon. No matter, all I had left to do was pack up, hike back to the canoe, and then paddle back to Higby Road. It could rain all it wanted, as long as it wasn't thundering and lightning while I was on the water, I wouldn't complain.

And so late morning saw me paddling back down Andy's Creek...


Across the inlet bay...


And back towards Big Moose Lake proper...


As I entered the main body of the lake, I startled a family of mergansers hiding in the lilies. I was able to get a quick shot of them as they hurriedly paddled away from me.


The wind was up on Big Moose Lake- and paddling directly upwind quickly proved to be fairly tiresome. I chose instead to cut across the wind, to the south shore, and follow that back to Higby Road, rather than taking the direct route across the lake.


Of course, the skies absolutely opened up right as I was pulling up onto the sand beach at the end of Higby Road... I got absolutely drenched as I was loading the canoe onto my car. Naturally, the rain ceased just as I was finishing cinching down the last strap of webbing holding my canoe to my roof rack.

One final wildlife encounter to close out the trip with: Just as I was getting ready to climb into my car, I felt a nibble on one of my toes. I shrieked like a small child (I'd not been expecting any toe nibble that day), then glanced under the car- there was an entire family of ducks hiding out underneath, mom and 7 or 8 ducklings. One of them had clearly confused my toes for big, fat, juicy worms and had taken advantage of the holy nature of my crocs for a quick nibble. Or maybe they were used to getting fed by humans a lot.
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Old 12-28-2021, 11:11 PM   #3
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Regarding Russian: I'd guess it's the motorboat access and short hike as well.

I couldn't tell if you did, but you can paddle around Lower Gull and intersect the trail. There's a hellacious climb up and out of the pond though and onto the rerouted trail. I'm not sure if it was worth it, TBH. But getting out on the ponds is cool.

Those weasel family pics are priceless...
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Old 12-28-2021, 11:16 PM   #4
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I thought about bringing my canoe with me to Russian and/or Upper Gull, but chose to hike without it. Both times I just found a spot out of sight and decently well away from both the trail and the shore of Big Moose Lake and used a bike lock to secure it to a tree.

Yeah, the weasel encounter was neat. Don't know if I'd say it was "once in a lifetime," but I've been hiking/backpacking in the ADKs regularly for 16+ years now and it was my first such "up close and personal" encounter with weasels.
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Old 12-28-2021, 11:18 PM   #5
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OK - I couldn't tell, I thought I saw it, but I guess as I recall there are boats at both of the lean-tos.

You've been getting a lot of use out of that little boat in past few years, I see. Really opens up what you can get at.


And...

Oppressively mosquitoes and humidity, constant on/off thunderstorms... that's that area in a nutshell. Sometimes horridly wet in early summer.
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Old 12-28-2021, 11:22 PM   #6
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Yeah, Russian Lake and Upper Gull Lake each had an old boat lying around the lean-to site... but I would not trust either of them with my life. (And both lean-tos had entries in the lean-to log books from other groups indicating that their use of said boats was quickly aborted when they'd discovered how unseaworthy they were.)

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Old 12-28-2021, 11:38 PM   #7
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I went up to the Gulls with dT and we went mid-spring. I think it was pretty good timing, right before the black flies started biting. Temps were nice, no rain that I recall.

Winter is nice over here too, but I don't know what kind of access that north part has. Not sure what is plowed as I generally stick Moss Lake and Cascade lake parking areas, which are always plowed. They generally have a good amount of snow IME.

But anyway the snow can be preferable to move on rather than muddy trails, and of course there's no bugs, and if the sky opens up, it's usually snow (not always).
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Old 12-29-2021, 07:36 AM   #8
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I'd guess Russian Lake is easy to get to across the frozen surface of Big Moose in the winter.

The others I'd be a bit iffy on due to the shallow nature of the inlet part of Big Moose. I'd guess that you can get to Upper Gull somewhat often without issues, but Andy's Creek and/or Lower Sister would mean going up the frozen surface of Andy's Creek for a stretch (or finding your own way through the marsh). Might be doable at times (the creek there isn't exactly fast moving), but I don't know that I'd be enthusiastic about being in front of the group...
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Old 12-29-2021, 10:19 AM   #9
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I was thinking even simpler: might not be a place to park. I'd like to do some ski touring in the northern bits, but I wanted to start at Constable Creek - never made it up there to see if I could though.

Seems to me like the Upper Gull is the best of those lean-tos, maybe with exception of the Lower Sister - which I haven't been to, and I don't think I'll carry my canoe that far out when I go.

I also did notice on the new DEC maps that they spell it "Andes" Creek, as well. I just noticed a particularly egregious error on that map: the namesake pond of this area is mislabeled

The DEC map promises me with little ski guys on each of the trails, even Lower Sister, but sometimes they are optimistic with their claims.

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Old 12-29-2021, 10:21 PM   #10
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Thanks for posting the report, and the Valcour Island one, I always enjoy seeing the pictures and reading the narratives. The weasels are very cute, though I wouldn't have imagined that they would be.

What you said about "a lengthy and complicated bushwhack" reminded me of a couple of trips I made to that area in 2011 and 2012. In 2011 I was staying at Queer Lake for a wet 2 nights, and made a day trip on foot over to Russian. It was raining pretty hard off and on, so I made the trip with just swimsuit and sandals, and a compass. In retrospect this was foolish, as I would have been in serous trouble if I had broken my leg or something without any way to get dry and avoid hypothermia. I was fine as long as I kept moving, so I did. I took trails north and then followed the property line north up over Sugarloaf to East Bay, crossed the swamp and took the trail to Russian. There was no one at the lean to, and I got to try out the nice swimming rock before I headed back. Crossing the wetland surrounding Constable Creek was a bit challenging, but not too bad.

Encouraged by this initial success I went back in 2012 and hid my bike in the woods near Higby Rd. I took my backpack and all my camping stuff and my food and repeated my previous route except that when I got close to Russian Lake I headed north again. I made it through the woods all right and then got to the swampy area around Andy's Creek outlet. I spent more than an hour there as the sun was getting lower and the clouds were moving in, trying to find a way on foot across to where the trail began. There were islands of tussocks, and there were 3 foot deep channels between them that were hidden by branches, so I fell in a lot. Luckily my legs are nearly 4 feet long so my backpack stayed dry, mostly. When I finally got to the trail it was getting dusky and I headed for Andy's Creek lean to, getting there just before it rained. I was sad to discover that the water there was very dark and foam covered, so it didn't look very good to filter, and the bagels I had bought that afternoon at the Big M in Eagle Bay were a little moldy, but I ate them anyway.

On the next day I walked up to Lower Sister with my pack, meaning to spend a night there, but the lean-to was filled to overflowing with the gear of a large and noisy party who were out on the lake in various kinds of inflatable boat type things, and the woods were so thick that I couldn't find any place to set up my tent anywhere near the lake, so I decided to go back. On my way back along the Russian Lake trail I heard a big group coming in one of those hemlock corridors where there isn't much room to pass, so I found a gap and backed my backpack and myself into it as far as possible to let them go by. They were spread out and some folks were talking to other folks in front of or behind them, and most of them said hi as they passed me. One lady didn't see me till she was right in front of where I was standing, about 2 feet or less in front of me, and then screamed because she was startled by suddenly noticing me, and then was very apologetic for screaming. I guess because I was standing still I sort of blended into the background.

As I was approaching and crossing Constable Creek the rain came down very hard, and I had to take off my backpack and hold it up higher to keep it out of the water. I think that excursion was the low point of all my Adirondack experiences, and I remember loading my bike in the still-pouring rain and thinking "Why am I doing this to myself?" I still went back the next summer, though, and had a much better time.
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Old 12-29-2021, 10:32 PM   #11
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I think that excursion was the low point of all my Adirondack experiences, and I remember loading my bike in the still-pouring rain and thinking "Why am I doing this to myself?" I still went back the next summer, though, and had a much better time.


That was quite the story, Zach.

I've often thought of that being here in a particularly wet July, or even worse, June - probably the worst black flies I've ever experienced.

I like to think that I've become wiser and have chosen my trips better to suit the seasons, but I still find myself in this area around 4th of July.

I know people who call this area the "Adi-rain-dacks" and absolutely despise it.

I remember my dad would go into "bipolar" fits about it. He'd go on about how much he loved this area, and then it would rain for a week straight and he'd go right to hating and cursing it.
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Old 12-30-2021, 08:18 AM   #12
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Great report, thanks for posting. Photos were great, specially the kittens.
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Old 12-31-2021, 09:57 AM   #13
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Enjoyed this post. I've loved my times in PLW but haven't yet done these sections. Been on my to do list for a while.
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Old 12-31-2021, 07:22 PM   #14
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It is a cool area.
One I need to get back to.
Mont, that was a fun trip. Quite a few years have passed since.
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Old 12-31-2021, 07:24 PM   #15
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Yeah - it's a been a while. I've had kids for 5 years... so LOL... that kind of put a damper on things.

I remember sitting and eating cheese and smoked ham on that rock with the yellow birch? on it next to the lake, it was a real nice spot. Wish I would have seen some weasels though...
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Old 01-01-2022, 01:10 PM   #16
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Awesome report & photos D, good stuff!
I’ve been wanting to check out this area for a while now.
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Old 01-01-2022, 08:14 PM   #17
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What you said about "a lengthy and complicated bushwhack" reminded me of a couple of trips I made to that area in 2011 and 2012.
I figured someone had made it into the area on foot at some point over the years. Sounds like a rugged and epic adventure.

As I've gotten older I've definitely found that I've become more of a fair-weather hiker. I think it's a combination of factors- I've less to prove (I've already been out in no shortage of gross weather conditions and know that I can keep myself safe), and I've built up so many outdoor experiences over the years that if I cancel a trip because of inclement weather at this point it is an inconsequentially small hit to my overall repertoire of outdoor experiences.

Interesting to hear about that group at Lower Sister. I figured that even that lean-to occasionally sees use by folks looking for a... more social backcountry experience, but I'd still maintain that it's an infrequent occurrence at Lower Sister and Upper Gull. I guess maybe your timing was just unlucky.

And yeah, I noticed the dense forest at Lower Sister also. I remember remaking to my friend while we were camped there "it would reallllllly suck to show up here and find the lean-to already occupied with a group unwilling/unable to share. There's literally zero tenting options anywhere."

But in a way the dense forest is itself proof of low levels of use. If that lean-to even saw moderate levels of use, a lot of those understory trees would've been cut down/ripped out of the ground for firewood.

Pigeon Lake itself is another spot in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness that I remember seeing dense forest. Which is a shame as it's a beautiful lake and there's spots that were clearly well-established tent sites once upon a time... but they've all grown in and languished from disuse over the decades.
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Old 01-02-2022, 12:07 PM   #18
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I hadn't thought about the dense forest being a sign of low use but that makes a lot of sense. I'd like to go back and visit there again, and go to the Gull Lakes, which I never reached. It seems like it would be a much better trip by water than land. When I was there I hadn't built my first canoe yet so I was doing everything on foot.

I do prefer fair weather, but for those years from 2009 to 2019 I was going up for a week each August by bicycle, and it took a whole day to travel each way, so once I was there I knew that I wouldn't get back again till the next year. My trip to Andy's Creek and Lower Sister was the tail end of a week after I had ridden up to Santanoni.

In 2010 I did bail out early, because on day 4 of my trip I saw the forecast on the door of the building by the park in Inlet and it called for heavy rain for the next 3 days, so I camped at Moss Lake and rode home on day 5. We had 3" of rain here that day, and I remember riding through puddles on the road on the way and noticing how much warmer the water in the puddles was as it splashed over my feet than the rain was as it fell on the rest of me.

My experience of forecasts is that the accuracy curve drops off fast after day 2, so I am looking forward to being able to make day trips and 1 to 3 night trips instead of going for a week at a time. This summer I'll be moving to Piercefield, but there'll be a lot of work to do on the house, so starting in 2023 I hope to be able to get out to the woods regularly on nice days. I haven't climbed a mountain or slept in a tent since 2019 so I am looking forward to being able to do a bit of that this year, I hope.
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Old 01-02-2022, 12:27 PM   #19
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My experience of forecasts is that the accuracy curve drops off fast after day 2,
That's because an accurate forecast relies on knowing the weather that existed previously. The further away you are from the known, the less you can know. It's a fundamental principle of chaos.
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Old 01-02-2022, 02:11 PM   #20
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Yeah, with longer trips especially you gotta go prepared for the worst and put up with it regardless of what the forecast says.

Group trips too. With our annual "Duck Hole" trip, the date is usually set months in advance, because folks need to take time off of work, make plans for childcare, etc. We'll absolutely modify the planned itinerary at the last moment based on the weather forecast, but come hell or high water we'll be in the woods that weekend (and even high water hasn't kept us out of the backcountry on some trips).

But it's also nice having the flexibility that allows you to grab your pack and undertake last minute trips on a whim with little advance planning when you see a particularly nice stretch of weather coming up. Also takes some experience to be able to do this without suffering the consequences of not strictly adhering to the "plan ahead and prepare" component of LNT, though.

But on the flip side of the coin, at this point I also spend so much time outside that sometimes I'll spend an entire nice day vegging out in front of a screen... and not feel the least bit guilty about it.
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