Monday, February 13, 2017

At Avalanche Lake The ‘Hitch-Up Matildas’ Have A Long History

Two spans of catwalks, known as “Hitch-Up Matildas,” are anchored along the cliff walls of Avalanche Mountain to allow hikers to safely traverse the edge of Avalanche Lake.  They offer dry footing, a breathtaking view of the Trap Dyke, and of the expanse of water sandwiched between Mount Colden and Avalanche Mountain.

The “Hitch-Up Matildas” got their name from a story about Bill Nye  – for whom Mount Nye is named – guiding a hike for Matilda Fielding, her husband, and their niece, back in 1868. The story was first published by Seneca Ray Stoddard in The Adirondacks Illustrated (1874), which I encourage folks to read here.

In 1868, the Hitch-Up Matildas were not in place, and since he didn’t mention them, it appears they were not in place when Stoddard’s book came out six years later.  In 1921, The Adirondack Record-Elizabethtown Post ran a story that referenced the trail through Avalanche Pass to Lake Colden and on to the Flowed Lands, but did not mention the Hitch-Up Matildas.

The earliest account I could find is in a 1926 article on Nye Mountain in High Spots magazine by noted Adirondack trail and mountain historian Russell Carson, in which he describes them as a floating raft of logs chained to Avalanche Mountain. In 1928, Carson said they were “long, narrow rafes of logs, fastened to the shore at each end, carrying the trail.”

According to Keene Resident and Adirondack Mountain Club High Peaks trail guide author and editor Tony Goodwin, the floating raft Matildas were replaced in the 1960s by bridges on rock-filled cribs. These apparently suffered from fluctuations in the water level of Avalanche Lake which occasionally made them impassable.

In the mid-1970s, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation replaced the Matildas with the current design. They drilled about a foot into the rock face of Avalanche Mountain and anchored a metal beam with a facade of wood in thirty-six places. Wooden planks were then laid across the metal beams to form a bridge about four feet above the water line.

Although some of the wooden planks to become dislodged during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, they have since been repaired.

Photos of Hitch-up Matildas on Avalanche Mountain courtesy John Sasso.


John Sasso

John Sasso is an avid hiker of the Adirondacks, member of a search and rescue team, and self-taught Adirondack historian.  Outside of his day-job as a computer systems engineer, John manages a Facebook group "History and Legends of the Adirondacks." He is also a correspondent for the Adirondack Forty-Sixers.




17 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    Another example of the adirondack wilderness hypocrisy.

    • Balian the Cat says:

      Designated wilderness has a capital W, Sunshine.

    • Cristine Meixner says:

      I agree with Scott. Manmade structures are A OK with environmentalists if they are something they want. I still mourn the loss of the ranger cabin at West Canada Lake.

      • Boreas says:

        Scott/Christine,

        I am not sure of your point(s). Are you proposing no structures in HPW? No Wilderness? No hikers? What would be your solution?

        • Scott says:

          I like wilderness, lots of wilderness. I don’t like the hypocrisy. Sometimes I like to point that out. I agree with how our SLMP suggests we should have no non conforming man made features in wilderness. I don’t like the exceptions. Bridges, boardwalks, catwalks, cables, dams, and leantos should have been removed, not accepted. And for the hypocrisy, if a road is accepted as wilderness, fine, but then you can’t say riding a bicycle on that road is so horrible.

          • Boreas says:

            Scott,

            OK, I think I get the idea. But I guess my question is what does that have to do with ‘environmentalists’? Some environmentalists prefer those exceptions, some do not. So does the hypocrisy lie with environmentalists, or the DEC, ADK, APA, SLMP?

            Personally, I feel most of the current structure serve a purpose – enabling safer hiking and less trail damage. The important thing to remember is the vast majority of HPW trails were cut nearly a century ago when hiking was a sport of the leisure class and not as popular as it became in the 60s. These old trails were cut before the SLMP was even thought of. Many were routed up, over, and around obstacles and “structures” were employed to make things safer and much later, to reduce erosion.

            The heart of the problem lies in maintaining these historic trails instead of closing or rerouting troublesome routes. That isn’t within the power of environmentalists. It lies with NYS and the agencies promoting the HPW.

            • Scott says:

              I didnt mention environmentalists. That was a subsequent comment by Christine. In my opinion the hypocrisy is not with those who want to keep the non conforming structures but with those who argue for staunch strict absolute wilderness protection yet pick and choose exceptions like accepting a road in a wilderness area but not accepting bicycles using that road.

              • Balian the Cat says:

                I remember a particularly epic (over/misused word) backpack in the Wind Rivers where I was decrying all of the facilities in a Wilderness area – signs, trail improvements, etc. On the last day we came to a section of the Green River and never has anyone been happier to see a bridge than I was! I take your point, Scott and apologize for my initial snark.

              • Boreas says:

                Scott,

                Sorry, I confused the comments.

                I agree with you that picking and choosing exceptions is problematic. But even in Wild Forest areas, certain activities are allowed and others are not. Snowmobiles yes, ATVs no. Cars OK on some backcountry ‘roads’, but not others. I think overall the regulations are reasonable and well thought out, but there are certainly exceptions in both classification types.

          • Taras says:

            Most of the footbridges and other installations are there to protect the resource from hiker-induced erosion. Hiker safety is secondary.

            For example, the cables on Gothics were installed to keep hikers on the bare rock and off the flanking krummholz. Without them, hikers are highly likely to walk on the scrub for better traction in slippery/icy conditions.

            Most boardwalks are located in boggy areas and, again, designed to protect the environment from (wayward) hikers.

            The dams in the High Peaks Wilderness Area were “inherited’ and left to fall apart (as most have). The roads were left to the same fate (i.e. revert to a natural state).

            Canisters on traditionally “trail-less” peaks were removed.

            Most new privies are low-profile “thunderboxes” as opposed to the traditional closet.

            You have a point with the lean-tos. The ones above 3500 feet were removed long ago but many remain in the valleys. They are a symbol of the Adirondacks, rooted deep in its history, and no one wants to undertake the unpopular battle of removing them. Look at how much public resistance there was to removing Hurricane’s fire-tower.

  2. Lorraine Duvall Lorraine Duvall says:

    “Hitch-up Matilda’ is instantiated in song by Adirondack folksinger Peggy Lynn.

  3. James Marco says:

    Good article, John. Please excuse the following.

    Scott, yes.Yes, we need to keep the bikes, motorized vehicles, and limit wilderness to above 5800 feet. There is no such thing as wilderness. With my broken back, I can’t see the beauty of the peaks, I need my car. I am way too old to hike the peaks anymore. I need a place to park on Mt Marcy. We need to have a road for everyone to drive to the peaks, and camp at the peak of the best mountains, along with 200 car parking lots on every one. We don’t need to bother with ecological concerns at all, just people. Lets all make the NY wilderness go away. Lets allow campfires in the peaks and allow tree chopping when we need wood. Clear the forests for people and kill off all the game animals. Who ever thought of protecting a Pine Martin or Eagle, they never did me no good. Hell, lets reintroduce paper & pulp so all people can have their jobs back and kill the fresh water of the ADK’s. It ain’t in my back yard. Lets do away from the litter and trash laws of NY, they don’t stop it anyway and it makes good income for the damned homeless and layabouts. And it ain’t on my land, anyway. People can take care of things just fine. We can make clean water other ways. Lets start up heavy manufacturing and industry in the peaks, and make sure our rivers are dammed for power to support it. Let’s scrape the mountains clear while we dig for stone, minerals and ore. Lets industrialize the Adirondacks, now! No one needs to plan for the future, there ain’t one. Adirondack wilderness hypocrisy is not about a simple walk in the woods, it is all about ME! All that bloody work when I could just drive. Put all the old folks, in institutions, they don’t deserve to eat well, they don’t do anything productive, and, they don’t contribute to society. (Not me, of course.) We should set up large concentration camps for anyone that doesn’t think like Good Americans (maybe, quietly get rid of them, we don’t want a big noise about that with those damn bleeding hearts.) We surely do not need anti-pollution laws restricting industry and other nonsense laws like the anti-FRACKING ones! We can make MONEY. NY can be a world leader! We will export our hate to the world and create it in MY image as we make them pay for it. Then they too can enjoy the benefits of a wilderness hypocrisy.Together we can make our country Great, again! HAIL NY! HAIL USA! HIEL!

    BTW, I have some magic beans I would like to sell along with fresh gold bricks I accept ALL reasonable offers…

  4. Taras says:

    Hey John! Where’s the explanation for the name “Hitch-up Matilda”? 🙂

    Here’s my understanding of its origin story:

    Matilda is either on Bill’s shoulders or back as he wades through the water. That position places certain parts of her in close contact with him. Discomfited by the close proximity and “familiarity”, she slides down his back. This puts him off-balance and makes it more of a chore to carry her. The rest of the group sees Bill’s predicament and advises her to “Hitch-up Matilda!”

    That may be complete BS but it makes for a good story! 🙂

    Or something like that.

    • John Sasso Mountain Man John says:

      Taras, in the second paragraph, I give a link to the story which explains the origin of the name. The story has been oft-repeated in many places, so I did not want to concentrate much on the origin of the name. But Nye’s recount does make for a good story!

      • Taras says:

        Thanks! Page 125 confirms my recollection of the events are on the money. He uses the euphemism of “a matter of delicacy” to describe her position on his shoulders.

        Thanks for the link. I’ve got to set some time aside to read it all (flowery 19th century prose and all).

  5. […] and included awesome hitch-up Matildas (which are being replaced in August, and are named for a story about a woman named Matilda Fielding back in 1868), giant boulders to climb over and between, and […]

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