Sean Adler: Mountain Man


Sean Adler

Sean Adler, a senior at Johnson State College, has been a mountain man and nomad of sorts for the past few years, but has now settled down to major in outdoor education, focusing on adventure, education and wilderness leadership. Originally from Long Island, New York, Adler has traveled widely throughout the United States, working a wide range of hands-on wilderness jobs. These include forestry technician work in Arkansas, trail work in Idaho, timber cruising in Oregon and dog sledding in New Hampshire. “Basement Medicine” sat down with Adler to talk about some of his favorite past adventures, his love of nature, his future goals, why you shouldn’t do drugs, kids, and how he hopes to die.

Where did you go for your forestry degree?
There is a little school called The Ranger School in New York. It’s an attachment to Syracuse University, but instead of being in the city of Syracuse it takes place in the Adirondacks and it’s very small. It has about 62 students. It’s a one-year program. It’s very technical. Basically, the idea is that when you come out of the program you can instantly get a job, and that’s what I did. But then I decided I didn’t want to do forestry work, I wanted to do something more people related.

Where did you do forestry work?
The forestry degree got me a job working for Parks and Recreation in Oregon. I lived there for four months. I then wanted to change it up, did dog mushing for a little bit, then I was a forestry technician. I was a timber cruiser, which is basically where I run around the forest for eight to ten hours, with no trail, [with] a two-gallon canister of paint on my back, and what I do is I mark trees based on a prescription that is given to me by my contractor. I either paint trees not to be cut or paint trees to be cut. I traveled all over the country doing that.

What did you enjoy most about forestry work?
What I enjoyed most was that I was running through the woods and using my tree identification abilities, which felt great to put to use. There was a real connection between the people I worked with. My crew got to know each other really well — we lived together and we worked together. We worked whenever it didn’t rain. The only thing I didn’t like was, since it was timber cruising by the end of the day, I was orange. I was painted completely orange, blue, or yellow. It would take me a 15-minute shower every single day to wash it off. We rented an apartment at one point and the bathtub was no longer white by the end.

What is the craziest thing that has ever happened to you?
I was working in Oregon and I was sleeping on the floor. Because I had chosen to. That’s a whole other story. So my sister’s boyfriend at the time, who was also named Sean, we had no idea that he was addicted to meth, and had been for the past six months. We had known him our entire lives — he’s a childhood friend. He’s also a musician, so he was kind of in the coke scene, and he also smoked a lot of pot. Safe to say, he did all three on the same night. So I woke up at 5 a.m., with him lying next to me with no shirt on and it looked like he was having a seizure. He was freaking out. He was like, “Sean, Sean, Sean, you gotta help me, Sean.” He was scratching at his chest where his heart is and the whole area of his chest was red. I thought he was trying to rip his heart out or something. He jumped in the shower with his pajama pants on, he was knocking over everything. It was insane how fast he was moving. I woke up my sister and we took him to the hospital. On the car ride we found out what he was on. He was so hypnotized by what meth had done to him. He didn’t think the cocaine was a problem. He was like, “It’s because I smoked weed at the same time.” And I was like, “No, dude, it’s because you’re taking meth and you’re doing cocaine, that’s the problem.”

Where did you grow up?
I spent 17 years on Long Island, since I was born. There is no nature and that’s how I got into where I am now. There was something wrong, there was something missing. I would go to this shitty little pond in my hometown and would think, “I know this is as bad as nature can be, but even this is better than what the city is.” That’s why I decided I needed to be in more woods and that’s when I left. I lived with my mom — my parents were divorced — and it was a big poverty situation. I went to college for one year on Long Island, lived alone, and then went to the Ranger School. I slowly took all my stuff out of Long Island, then began to get rid of it and began to live out of my backpack.

How would you describe yourself?
I think that I am someone who is just trying to explore and just keep learning. And I don’t want to stop, ever. I want to try everything, see everywhere. I probably won’t accomplish that my whole life, but I’m gonna keep going at it.

What is your greatest weakness?
My greatest weakness is that I want to try everything, but sometimes my fear gets the better of me. Sometimes I’m just too scared to do some things even though I know I will be safe, I just can’t, I just can’t do it. Like skydiving. I would love to skydive. But I’m so scared, I can’t even convince myself to do it. Currently, I am overcoming that fear every day as I rock climb higher. I am terrified of heights. Every day I expose myself, trying to top rope climbs, and it’s helping, it’s working. Before I couldn’t do crazy climbing moves if it was 10 feet up because I was just so scared of heights.

What are your plans for the summer?
Right after finals week, I’m going to be working at a summer camp called Camp Abnaki, a volunteer learning situation. It’s right on Lake Champlain. Right after that I get a three-day break and then I go to Ecuador for a wilderness leadership techniques class, the senior capstone of the outdoor education program. We are still finalizing the itinerary, but it looks like we are going to go climb a 19,000-foot mountain called Antisana and we are going to do a glacier school day, learning how to put anchors in snow and all that. We are going to try to do a lot of cultural days [and] really get immersed in Ecuadorian life. As a group, we will then separate and I will live with a host family for a couple nights. We are going to do some bikepacking, some downhill mountain biking, some rock climbing and backpacking, of course. After Ecuador, literally the day I arrive back in Burlington, I am going to drive to Lake George and work at another summer camp called Camp Adirondack. I will be leading kids on five-day backpacking trips in the Adirondack high peaks, the five highest peaks around Lake George, and the Northville Lake Placid Trail.

How did you get into dog sledding?
I went from Oregon to New Hampshire and there were a lot of crazy situations going on right there, but I arrived just before the Christmas work week and that is the busiest week of the year. We worked seven days a week. They normally train people for a month . . . I got trained for one week before I was put to touring. An average day of dog mushing, you wake up, you poop scoop for 96 dogs, and no matter where you are on the ladder, you poop scoop. It’s just the way of the game. We fed the dogs with one bucket of hot water, because it was really cold outside, and one bucket of kibble. The hot water is usually mixed with meat to give them extra protein, and we kind of made them a soup, which most of the dogs ate, but some of the dogs were super picky and would spill their bowl over. We gave people tours around the kennel and taught them about the dog life, and gave them a safety talk about the sled, and then we went on the tour. I did this one thing called “Musher for a Minute Tour,” where I actually got to teach people how to drive the sled. It was the most interactive experience between me and the people and the dogs, because they really got to learn every tiny little thing, and then they got to drive the sleds themselves. They loved it.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully I will be guiding for the American Alpine Institute and I will be leading trips in Nepal. That’s my dream. If I had a little home base, I hope that’s in Israel by then. I plan on exploring a lot of the Americas by then.

What is one of your favorite locations you’ve worked?
I worked trail crew with Payette National Forest in Idaho right after the ranger school. I flew in on a little buzzard plane on a dirt airstrip about an hour from civilization. I spent about three or four months out there. The only way to contact people was through very slow mail. I have never been happier. It was so nice. I was just hiking as my job, chopping trees out of the way of the trails, got to see a bunch of horses, had a face to face encounter with a wolf. I was alone for that encounter, so that was pretty spiritual. It was an amazing experience.

How do you want to die?
Hopefully I get hypothermia or asphyxiation on top of one of the highest mountains in the world and I become part of the Rainbow Trail on Everest or something like that. I want to die doing something awesome.