Monday, January 27, 2014

The Adirondack Park: Changes In The Air

Winter view from Marcy DamChange is inevitable, constantly working its influence on everything around us, including ourselves. Sometimes it unfolds slowly, like the lines on a person’s face as they age, other times it develops swiftly, like the devastation from a magnitude seven earthquake.

The Adirondack Park has never been immune to change. Whether natural, like the glaciers that once scoured its landscape, or human-induced, like the massive timber extraction of earlier times, the accumulation of these changes made the Adirondacks what we know and love today. This evolution continues today, evident in the gradual wearing down of the mountains, the successional transition of beaver pond to meadow and beyond, and forest flattened by intense windstorms.

Unfortunately, change often makes people uncomfortable. Some prefer to imagine the world as relatively static, where places remain mostly untouched since the first time they experienced them. As much as I may sympathize with such notions, this romantic view is not compatible with reality, whether inside or outside the Blue Line.

Numerous changes occurred within the Adirondack during my own lifetime. Old Forge has metamorphosed from a handsome little hamlet during my youth into the budding metropolis surrounded by forests as it is today. The number of acres within public ownership skyrocketed to new heights, exemplified by the recent Finch Pruyn purchase in the central Adirondacks. The Adirondack Park Agency came into existence, first gaining in influence, only to see its power wane in recent years.

Duck Hole circa 2006Nothing brought this constant state of change into focus more than the recent report of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) plan to remove Marcy Dam in stages over the next five years. This came on the heels of another transformational decision to not replace the dam at Duck Hole, another cherished artificial water body in the High Peaks Wilderness. Tropical Storm Irene irreparably damaged both dams back in the summer of 2011, much to the chagrin of many an Adirondack backcountry enthusiast.

Many lambaste the decisions to remove these dams, though I applaud them. Replacing the dams would be immensely expensive, so removing them saves resources desperately needed elsewhere. Although the loss of the two dams, and the corresponding wilderness ponds, deserves a great deal of lamentation, both always seemed out of place in an area designated as Wilderness. This is especially true for Marcy Dam (be the way, is Marcy Dam the name of the pond? the actual dam itself? or both?), whose large size and metal posts seemed more appropriate for the Jersey shore than the Adirondacks. Regardless, Marcy Dam and Duck Hole are two favorite Adirondack backcountry sites that will be getting a face lift in the years to come.

Some of my fondest memories of High Peaks Wilderness are of the Marcy Dam area. There was the time when several friends and I snowshoed across the ice at midnight in search of an unoccupied lean-to after coming in from Adirondack Loj with only a full moon lighting the way. And the wet crossing on the dam the day after hurricane Floyd came through and buried Avalanche Pass under the tangled contents of what was once a small forested mountain. Although it will be sad to say good-bye to the pond that spawned these memories, the meadow that replaces it shall create new memories, whether more or less memorable as those that came before, only time will tell.

Duck Hole generated its own memories, perhaps not as many, but equally as cherished. Two nights spent there on two different occasions while hiking the Northville Placid Trail, once solo, the other with friends, marked the near completion of these legendary treks. A canoe paddle across Duck Hole after a friend and I portaged in from Henderson Lake was a rare treat for a landlubber like me. Although, as far as full disclosure goes, I helped portage the Hornbeck canoe from the north end of Henderson Lake to Upper Preston Pond, while my friend took it from there, leaving me to hike around both ponds on one of the more wild trails in the Adirondacks.

Marcy Dam circa 1999As devastating as the changes from Tropical Storm Irene were, they are not the most dramatic ones I have seen over my twenty-some year backcountry career. Two others left a much more personal impact on me due to my close proximity at the time of the event, especially given I was racing away from Irene and toward Isle Royale National Park for one of my rare non-Adirondack sojourns back in the summer of 2011.

Although Hurricane Floyd greatest impact was felt downstate, it too left an impact on the Adirondacks. For some reason, friends and I planned a climb up Mount Colden that weekend via the Trap Dike, and we were bound and determined not to let something as insignificant as a little hurricane stand in our way. Nor did an Ichabod Crane lookalike’s soiled underwear hanging within our shared lean-to, a blocked Avalanche Pass, a trail closure or a whole host of other impediments that haunted us on that trip.

Even earlier in my backcountry career, I survived one of the most dramatic and sudden changes in the Adirondacks in the last few decades when the Blowdown of 1995 struck. This violent storm swept across the northwestern Adirondacks like a tidal wave, washing away more than a thousand acres of forest in its wake. Through sheer luck, I managed to avoid being swept away with the flotsam and jetsam, but the experience left me with a profound attraction to the area that I feel for few other places.

The Adirondack Park is constantly evolving as it reacts to a cornucopia of forces, some natural, others man-made. While this may hasten the demise of long cherished places, it also provides the opportunity to see areas in a new light. There is change in the Adirondack air, breath it in and enjoy it, there really is no other choice.

Photos: View from Marcy Dam and Duck Hole circa 2006 by Dan Crane, Marcy Dam soon after Hurricane Floyd by Dave Killius.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.




5 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Very well said.

  2. bill quinlivan says:

    Afterall, life is change. But we must be careful not to use an open heart to change as a means of lulling ourselves into accepting the ongoing climate change and as a result do nothing to fend it off. Our planet will become more and more hostile to the species inhabiting it and that includes ourselves. This is not the type of change that we should embrace.

    • Paul says:

      We can and must fix the part of climate change that we are responsible for. But we also have to adapt to deal with what may not get fixed and what we have no control over. Given that these dams were destroyed by a rather rare weather event. One that seems to be becoming less rare this “change” is a good example of what we will have to adapt to. In this case, luckily, the adaptation seems pretty easy. Other adaptations are going to be far more difficult. Other changes we have seen in the Adirondacks (the extensive logging that was described) is all our doing and nothing was out of our control. The establishment of the Forest Preserve was a good example of us taking control and stopping change that was not inevitable.

  3. Paul says:

    In memory of Pete Seegar, “to everything turn turn turn…”