BENSON - "Look to yourselves, ye polished gentlemen! No city airs or arts pass current here."
So wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson upon his visit to the Adirondacks in August 1858. About 60 years later, a foot trail was established from Northville to Lake Placid, beckoning travelers to exchange the comforts of civilization for a few hours, days or weeks of roughing it in the wilderness. Today it remains a popular route for hikers of all stripes -from day-hikers to weekend warriors to serious through-hikers intent on completing the whole trail.
"When you hike the N-P Trail, whether all in one shot or piecemeal, you're walking across much of the Adirondacks. Up to 132 miles' worth. You really are seeing a cross-section of all that it has to offer," according to Jeffrey and Donna Case, editors of the Adirondack Mountain Club's guidebook to the trail.
John Mautner of New Jersey pauses on his way from Upper Benson to Rock Lake on Aug. 12. He had just begun a solo hike and planned to tackle the whole trail. (Photo by Bill Ackerbauer/The Leader-Herald)
Work to create the Northville-Placid Trail - NPT for short - was begun 100 years ago. Built by connecting existing logging roads and other paths, it was completed in 1924.
The trail can be accessed from several points along its 132-mile stretch. Technically, the southern terminus is at the Northville bridge on Route 30, but few hikers choose to begin the adventure with a three-mile walk along the paved highway. Most people hiking from south to north start at the trailhead at the end of dirt road in the woods of Upper Benson.
The ADK guide suggests the trek can be finished in one to two weeks, though some highly motivated folks have completed it in just a few days. In 2005, a man from Vermont ran from end to end in less than 38 hours, according to a report in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
Last weekend, John Mautner, a hiker from New Jersey, hit the trail in Benson, beginning what he intended to be solo through-hike of the entire route. He said he wasn't out to break any records.
"I don't have a schedule," he said. "I can take my time."
For those interested in a shorter one-day hike, the southern section of the trail offers stunning woodland views along West Stony Creek and Goldmine Creek. A reasonably fit hiker can go from the trailhead to Rock Lake and back, a 9-mile round trip, in half a day.
Hikers can enter the woods at Benson and hike for two or three days northwest to exit at Whitehouse or Piseco. Wooden lean-to shelters are available for camping at a few points along the way, but one of them - at Mud Lake, 13 miles up from Benson - recently was crushed by a falling tree.
Tom Wemett, chairman of the newly formed Northville-Placid Trail Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said state Department of Environmental Conservation employees and ADK volunteers will soon get to work fixing it.
Wemett first through-hiked the trail in 2005, and he continues to spend a lot of time on sections of the trail. Last year, he decided to create an ADK chapter dedicated specifically to the trail to keep it well-maintained and help hikers have good experiences on it.
"I felt that it needed some direction and some oversight," he said.
The new chapter is small, with about 35 members, but it has help from the DEC and the rest of the ADK organization, including its Schenectady Chapter, which recognizes those who complete the trail from end to end. The Foothills ADK chapter, based in Fulton County, was formed two years ago and also gets involved.
The entire length of the NPT is maintained by trail stewards, Wemett said, though some major repair and maintenance projects need more help than what a few individuals can provide.
He said the NPT Chapter hopes to help DEC reroute part of the southernmost section of the trail, moving it off the Route 30 highway and into the woods between Northville and Benson.
Another goal is to establish a summer internship program to get some young people working on the trail as guides and stewards, he said.
For many outdoors enthusiasts, the 46 High Peaks are the Adirondack Park's star attraction. Wemett said he was drawn to the Northville-Placid Trail precisely because much of its terrain is not as physically challenging.
"I was on my way to becoming a 46'er, but my knees gave out," he said. "I can go up, but I can't go down."
The NPT is a fairly flat trail, cutting through mountain valleys rather than straddling their summits, Wemett said. It's also a soft trail, meaning the surface of the footpath itself is not all hard-packed earth but mostly is covered with a cushioning layer of fallen leaves and duff. That makes the miles less grueling.
Wemett said the southern section of the trail has several points of interest. He said two suspension bridges in that section are memorable landmarks. One of them spans the West Branch of the Sacandaga River at Whitehouse, a spot that can be reached in the summer by a road stretching from Wells. The building that gave the spot its name no longer stands.
"Before the bridge was there, there was a white house," Wemett said. "You'd yell over to the house, and a guy would row over and pick you up."
Though the Northville-Placid Trail is more forgiving than the high peaks and accessible to trekkers of varying experience and fitness, it's no simple walk in the park.
The Canary Pond area, about 9 miles up from the Upper Benson trailhead, has been a soggy mess in recent years. Wemett said hikers have reported that corduroys - flat-topped logs laid out to help people cross swampy terrain - are buried in waist-deep mud.
"That area is very, very hard to traverse," he said.
Rob Garren of Glen hiked sections of the NPT during the summers of 2009, 2010 and 2011, and he advises hikers new to the trail to think carefully about their equipment before attempting any overnight hikes on the trail.
"I'd say rain gear is critical. Gore-Tex boots are necessary. Try to go ultralight as soon as possible," he said. "Buy the best gear, bring half of what you plan, and swim every chance you get. Being clean makes the adventure so much more enjoyable."
A memorable trip
Sally Olsen and her husband Ralph English are members of the local Foothills Chapter of ADK. Olsen said she hiked the trail 20 years ago and still remembers dealing with two major perils of the Adirondack wilderness: wicked weather and winged pests.
"I did the NPT in 12 days in August 1992," Olsen said. "You remember - the year without a summer? It never got above 72 degrees, rained eight of the days [and] was a long slog through mud and bugs with almost no views. The creeks were all freezing, but I had to at least try to rinse off some of the mud before crawling into my sleeping bag each night."
Running into other humans on the trail can make for interesting situations, as well.
"I saw a tent set up inside a lean-to, an old man with a sidearm peeling bark from a live birch tree for firestarter, and was chased away from a nearly empty lean-to by an amorous couple determined to have it all for themselves," Olsen said.
Still, Olsen said, not all her memories of the adventure are unpleasant.
"The overnight and resupply at a cabin in Blue Mountain Lake was wonderful, and I got my patch," she said, referring to an award presented to ADK members who complete the hike from Northville to Lake Placid or vice-versa.
"At the southern end, I was still blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. I did get really good at snatching deer flies out of the air, shaking them up in my fist, throwing them on the ground, and stomping on them."
For hikers who want to tackle the NPT for the first time, either in sections or in its entirety, the ADK guidebook covers all the bases, offering maps and tips about how to prepare and what gear to bring.
Several NPT veterans offer advice to newcomers online.
For example, Saranac Lake-based outdoor guides Doug Fitzgerald and Jack Drury have posted a journal detailing their June through-hike at their website, www.broadwingadventures.com.
The ADK's Wemett maintains a website, www.nptrail.org, which offers a wealth of authoritative information about trip-planning and the latest trail conditions.
He said hikers are welcome to contact him through the website for personalized guidance.
"I get one or two emails a day from people who are seeking advice," he said, and he's happy to give it.
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.