This week I am getting my mountain fix in the Pacific Northwest, where Amy and I are attending a school in wilderness woodcraft. That circumstance will make this week’s Dispatch mercifully short. It will have to serve as a prelude to a more substantial missive I have been working on for a few weeks, one which will offer suggestions – some of them certain to provoke disagreement – for improving the wilderness experience in the High Peaks, better protecting the Forest Preserve in general and sensitive high mountain terrain in particular.
Regular readers know that I am a proponent of expanding the State’s wilderness holdings. I have written a number of Dispatches on this topic, so will not repeat my justification for this position here. But equal to that desire is the desire to see existing wilderness holdings become wilder and healthier over time. It should be said right at the forefront that the people of the State of New York have done extremely well with that. Tony Goodwin, commenting to me this week on a number of topics that will be part of my coming Dispatch, gave me a useful and important perspective on this when he described the conditions when he first climbed Mount Marcy, in 1957:
When I first climbed Marcy, there were certainly many fewer hikers on the trail, but the place looked much worse than it does now. Every lean-to had a garbage pit, and animals had often strewn the contents around as they searched for leftovers, The trails were wide and very muddy, culminating in the 100 yd by 50 yd denuded bog at timberline that my father called “Nine yahds deep swamp” after the comment of an English client he guided (this is 1923, remember) who tried to cross that area and became hopelessly stuck. The summit of Marcy had an overflowing trash can, garbage in every crack in the rocks and the remains of a stone shelter that smelled like a latrine despite a sign that said, “This is not a latrine”. Compare that to the trail and summit today.
But there’s no getting around the fact that parts of the High Peaks can get pretty crowded, that trail erosion is a continuing severity, that campgrounds suffer from overuse, that herd paths proliferate on “unofficial” summits. Add the imminent dual threats of climate change and invasive species and the High Peaks Wilderness is, excuse the pun, hardly out of the woods. As the centerpiece of the Adirondacks and the park’s most popular wilderness destination, the region is owed all the attention we can give it.
One of the common assumptions one hears about the High Peaks is that usage is down. So what’s the big deal if the pressure is off? I’d heard that line of reasoning several times but when I went looking for usage data, no one actually had it. An inquiry to DEC and a little bit of patience resulted in a complete set of data from 1978 forward, courtesy of David Winchell, DEC Public Affairs Specialist for Region 5. I’m still analyzing it and will have more to say in the next Dispatch but I can tell you that while usage did dip briefly in the mid-2000s it has gone back up and the trend is surging.
Coming from the other direction another frequent comment I hear is that the High Peaks is so crowded and overrun with trails and wannabe mountaineers that it is not really wilderness. There’s more wilderness in most wild forest areas than in the High Peaks. So once again what’s the big deal? I find this to be a silly notion. Sure, hiking from the Loj to Marcy is a potentially depressing sight in the summer. So is trying to park anywhere near the Garden. But two of the three most remote parts of the Adirondacks as measured by the distance from the nearest road are in the High Peaks. The largest Wilderness area by size is the High Peaks. The dense flora and incredibly uneven terrain magnifies the effect of distance far more than most other areas of the park. Go off trail in any direction more than a few yards, from virtually any spot in the High Peaks and you will see no one, ever.
Yet the damage from overuse in the concentrated areas is obvious to anyone who sees it. So as I work on my proposals for improving the High Peaks region I will pose the question to Almanack readers: what new or revised initiatives, policies, programs or regulations do you see as good ideas for the High Peaks Wilderness? Are current policies good enough and should we leave things as they are?
In addition to asking your opinion, I’ll also leave you with a little quiz, just for fun. Over the last decade the most heavily-used trail head in the High Peaks is Adirondac Loj – no surprise – as it has been for decades. But do you know which one is second? Is it the John’s Brook trail head at the Garden? The Lake Road at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve? Elk Lake? Upper Works? Another? To the first correct answer in the comments I might just award a little prize.
Photo: Perusing the Great Range from the First Brother