Regular Almanack readers are used to hearing me stress the importance of perspectives from outside the Adirondack Park. Today I’ve got one from way outside the Adirondack Park, specifically Norway, where my wife Amy and I are traveling for two weeks. While here I have enjoyed the geologic kinship Norway shares with the Adirondacks. I have also enjoyed the fact that my experiences so far have reinforced the sentiments I expressed in my last Almanack column, namely that we should not overreact to busy trails in the High Peaks. If you think we have a problem in the Adirondacks, you should see the hiking traffic here. And if you think that pervasive cultural experiences of pristine, wild places can’t place their fragile value at the heart of an entire society, you should see this country.
Yesterday Amy and I climbed Preikestolen, one of Norway’s most popular hiking destinations and a national icon. In some ways Preikestolen is Norway’s answer to Indian Head: a massive, open rock slab with a spectacular view, positioned far above a narrow body of water that is set between mountain ridges. However the scale is far greater: Priekestolen’s height above the water is three times that of Indian Head and the body of water is a sizeable fjord, not a small lake. For the purposes of this article, a better comparison is our own infamous Cascade Mountain. Cascade’s trail involves several hundred feet more vertical ascent than Preikestolen, but both routes are 2.4 miles and, more important, both trails are crammed with people who want an accessible but authentic regional mountain experience. Like Cascade, Preikestolen is a challenge that a neophyte hiker or ambitious family might take, an intimidating but doable workout with major parking problems down below and a show-stopper payoff on top. The difference, once again, is scale: Preikestolen’s foot traffic makes Cascade look like Allen Mountain.
Amy and I climbed Preikestolen late in the day on a Tuesday, when the hiking traffic was starting to wind down, and nowhere near weekend peak activity. For a considerable portion of the ascent we passed a steady stream of descending hikers who took up the six-foot-width of the trail. A conservative estimate is that we passed somewhere on the order of 2,100 hikers in the seventy minutes it took to us to reach the summit. Adding in people on the summit or that we passed on our descent and we’re talking around 3,000 visitors on part of a Tuesday afternoon. Yet, while the hardened trail was no wilderness hike, the surroundings were pristine, clearly respected and worth every step.
It is important to describe the context of these hikes. After all, the Cascade hike is in a Wilderness and the view takes in one of the world’s great wild areas, something which needs to factor into my claims. Preikestolen is not a wilderness like that, however it is not far off. The trail has signage and two permanent restroom huts, and it is completely hardened with rock work. But on either side of the trail the land is undisturbed, natural and quite Adirondack-like, with woods, meadows, wetlands crossed by boardwalks, open rock and Alpine ponds. The view from the top, while not wild, shows miles of forest and rocky ridges fading into the distance, with some settlement along the edges of Lysefjord, below. The nearest town, Jorpeland, is physically about the size of Saranac Lake and about the same distance from the trail head as Lake Placid is from Cascade. The rest of the area is largely unpopulated, dotted with protected lands here and there and a few minor roads. The one campground in the area is modest in size. Adjacent trails are much less visited and invite inexperienced hikers to get good and lost. The campground folks, who suggested a neighboring trail they told us no one might be on, said that the local search and rescue teams are busy all the time. Added up, the surrounding environment is not substantially different from Cascade.
So here we have a marquee mountain hike that based upon trail head numbers sees at least ten times the traffic Cascade does. Like Cascade, Preikestolen and other popular hikes in Norway have seen huge spikes in usage, mostly reflecting younger generations’ desires to have dramatic nature experiences. In Preikestolen’s case the increase is fivefold in the last decade, a much higher rate than Cascade, and it has generated similar debates about limiting overuse. Yet Preikestolen and its surroundings retain their natural beauty. Even on the trail itself there was very little litter compared to the number of visitors, no signs of human waste or toilet paper and a only few places with modest trail erosion. There is a clearly understood hiking etiquette at work, combined with a national ethic that values cleanliness and respect for nature: these things help to ensure that first experiences on Preikestolen are good experiences, despite the crowd. Can we not work for the same experience at Cascade, with only a fraction of the traffic?
As I wrote about a crowded hike up Ampersand a few weeks ago, I wanted every one of the hikers we met at Preikestolen right there, inconveniencing my path, sweating their way up the rock stairs and water bars. I know they were learning to appreciate, value and protect the mountains, forests and waters of Norway. I’m certain they were reinforcing a national cultural norm that has made Norway an international version of the Adirondacks: an extremely rare example of people living in relative harmony with wild, forested places. Norway has a centuries-long tradition of doing this, borne of people’s living experiences with nature. It is evident in every aspect of their interaction with the natural world, from how roads are built to how trees roots are left intact to minimize erosion, to how water is protected, to how they graze their sheep.
Being in Norway has reinforced a calculus I already trusted: the value of each person who has a positive experience on Cascade, crowds and all, is immeasurably more important to environmental protection than the value of each person we keep off the trail. We should accept Cascade’s use and make it a positive, protecting the wilderness as best we can, teaching visitors of every description and helping to build a collective environmental ethic that protects a nation. Norway did it. So can we.
Top photo: Preikestolen’s wall, towering over Lysefjord, Norway