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Memories from an Alumnus: Getting Lost in the Woods

Frank Barick '40 shares a tale about getting a job done against all odds

Back in the 1930's, Professor Nelson Brown frequently pontificated: "Who knows, boys? Some day you might spend the rest of your life in the woods." I suppose he had a right to pontificate because he was private forester for Franklin Delano Roosevelt and took care of the forests on Roosevelt's estate, Springwood, on the Hudson River. But this is the story of when I nearly fulfilled that pontification.

On Saturday, Jan. 14, 1939 we were on our way from Syracuse to the Huntington Wildlife Forest to do the monthly grouse census. It was snowing on the way up and it kept snowing all night long. When we got up the next morning there was five feet of powdered snow on the ground.

Bill Webb was in charge and other members were Al Miller, Frank Casanova and one or two others that I cannot remember. We drew lots for lines to run and mine was the farthest out. We put on our snowshoes and it was decided that since I had never used these contraptions the others would break trail and I would be the last in line. This turned out to be easy walking since the snow was well packed for me. We walked across Arbutus Lake and when we got to the 16 line, the others started to peel off. But at line 11 I was on my own. I was to walk west to a certain point, offset north to line 12 and back eastward to the Truck Trail.

Breaking my own trail was a new experience: step, sink about a foot, over and over again. It was much more difficult than walking on the hard-packed trail but not impossible. It was cold, at or below freezing, and I had to beat my legs with my ski poles to keep them warm. On the way out to my designated point, north of Wolf Lake, I made my only two wildlife observations: One was a grouse flushing out from under the snow, and the other was a mature doe floundering through the snow, jumping a few times and then stopping to rest.

It was 2 p.m. when I got to my designated spot. I knew it would be dark by the time I got to the Truck Trail but this did not bother me because I was familiar with the area. I had done fieldwork on the topographic map of the area. What did bother me was the cold and fatigue. Going over Catlin Mountain, the boulders — big as small houses, but completely covered with snow — was a challenge. Stepping off the edge of a boulder, I would fall with my head down and my snowshoe-clad feet above. By this time it was getting dark. I would walk 50 steps and lean against a tree to rest, then squat down, where it actually felt warm and even comfortable. But I knew that if I did not get up soon I would stay there and spend the rest of my life in the woods.

So I kept up the 50-step routine until I finally got to the Truck Trail. By this time it was 7 p.m. I hadn't gotten very far down the Truck Trail when I was met by the rest of the crew, pulling a toboggan. Bill told me to get on and wrapped me in a blanket. Then he handed me a small flask of whiskey. Just as I was about to get a sip, he snatched it out of my hands saying, "Don't drink it all, it will make you sick." So much for that phase of resuscitation.

We soon got to the dormitory and the roaring hot fire in the living room stove. Thawing my feet was the most painful part but it did not last long. Then, after a big bowl of beef stew, I went upstairs to bed.

The next morning, at the breakfast table, I learned that the "expert snowshoers," who had broken trail for me, came to the conclusion that with that much snow on the ground the census could not be done. But I, not being an expert snowshoer and not privy to the impossibility of the task, was the only one to finish my line.

—Submitted by Frank B. Barick '40
Archival photos from the 1930s show a cabin at Huntington Wildlife Forest and Rich Lake against a backdrop of forested land.