Tuesday, August 18, 2020

When the secret’s out

People who spend a lot of time in the woods often develop favorite spots. I’ve had plenty of these over the years, and one of my chosen ones was a swimming hole in the Catskill Park.

I developed an affinity for this spot while living and working as a landscaper and dry-stone mason just outside of Woodstock after college. I loved doing this work because it was physically demanding and job sites were in scenic locations. Many days after work, my co-worker and I would be completely exhausted and overheated, so we’d take a drive to a place called the Blue Hole, a little-known swimming hole he’d discovered by word of mouth that was an easy walk from the road.

It was pristine and perfect habitat for brook trout. I recall sticking my head into the water and watching the fish swimming along the bottom where the water rolled into the hole. We would jump in the frigid water but quickly return to the shorelines. The water must have been spring fed because it was too cold to tolerate for very long. When we visited the Blue Hole, we hardly ever saw anyone else. So it was the perfect place to rejuvenate after a long, hard day of work.

After moving from the Catskills, I forgot about the Blue Hole. But then it started popping up in the news and in media releases because it had become overrun with people. Hundreds of visitors were showing up on weekends. It got so out of control that the state Department of Environmental Conservation felt it was necessary to require people to get permits. Photos on the DEC website showed people and garbage all along the shoreline. I looked into why this was happening and found that the Blue Hole had been listed as the top swimming hole in New York state by one online publication and promoted by many other outlets. One story that promoted it had more than a 100,000 Facebook shares. Being less than two hours from New York City, it wasn’t long before the crowds started showing up.

As an outdoors writer and photographer, this is the type of situation I think about often, especially when it comes to photos on social media. Part of our job at the Explorer is to draw people outdoors and introduce them to wild places. But we also write about aesthetically beautiful and environmentally sensitive places and make sure they are being properly protected. The two aspects of the job can sometimes be in conflict with one another because overcrowding of backcountry destinations has become so prevalent in recent years.

This is something I try to think about as I post an image on Instagram or write a trip story. How does the potential for overcrowding impact what I write about or which photos I post on social media? I don’t have the answer to this problem and I’ve made mistakes along the way that I’ve learned from. Mainly, I try to consider the setting and circumstances in each photo and trip. When I write a trip story, I choose places I believe aren’t prone to overcrowding. For instance, I wrote a trip story about snowshoeing to Sawyer Mountain near Indian Lake. I don’t believe this mountain will ever been overrun because of its distance from highways and population centers. It’s also a good hike and incredibly enjoyable but doesn’t have the “wow factor” of some of the more crowded spots.

But, if you’ve followed my work, you’ll notice I do post some photos from High Peaks like Mount Marcy, which do have the “wow factor” on Instagram. I do that when there is some news value related to the post or something to say beyond Mount Marcy being a destination. Its my job to keep up with the issues in the High Peaks region and there’s no avoiding Mount Marcy, which has been promoted as the state’s highest peak for years. But places like Mount Marcy do have vulnerable ecosystems, such as the alpine vegetation atop the mountain. This is something I consider when writing or posting an image on social media.

Recently, the Explorer has been publishing a series of articles about the Sable Highlands by Phil Brown. Many of these spots are indeed not well known and could be considered secret or hidden. However, Phil isn’t writing about the lands with the intention of drawing hundreds of people there, and I doubt they ever would. He is writing about them because it’s a place that has a recreation plan that wasn’t implemented and it’s another place that has potential to draw some people, which could lessen the impacts on popular destinations.

I could go on, but I’d like to hear from you. What is your philosophy about posting images from your trips on social media? Do you keep your secret spots to yourself or do you share them? There is a dialogue on the subject of sharing secret spots on the Adirondack Almanack right now. I encourage you to post your thoughts about that subject there by following this link.

Photo of Blue Hole courtesy of the Catskills Center.

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Mike’s weekly “Backcountry Journal” newsletter. Click here to subscribe.

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Mike Lynch is a staff writer and photographer for the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly news magazine with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues. Mike’s favorite outdoor activities include paddling, hiking, fishing and backcountry skiing. In 2011, he paddled the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine. From 2007 until 2014, Mike worked as an outdoors writer and photographer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake. Mike welcomes story ideas and can be reached at mike@adirondackexplorer.org.

19 Responses

  1. Gene McGloin says:

    The internet blew up the place I used to go sledding in winter as a child during the 70’s. That golf course got listed on some web site as being one of the best places to go downhill snow sledding on flat Long Island. The neighborhood bordering that golf course became so overwhelmed with illegally parked cars blocking driveways, tourists relieving themselves and leaving trash on residents’ lawns that the Town posted the entire area surrounding that golf course and people are now arrested for trespassing if they go on that course. I understand that the police now patrol that area regularly after snowstorms. Sad. What kind of “progress” is that?

  2. SNAPPER PETTA says:

    I think “finding” these special locations has become too easy. Part of that is social media, which didn’t exist in the past, but also the ability to write in a search engine and have pop up exactly what you’re looking for. I realize I sound like the old man yelling get off my lawn but when I was younger, you had to actually go out and explore to find special spots. You might be able to get a small amount of information from someone but usually you didn’t get much. It was up to you to do your own boots on the ground investigation. Another issue I think adds to the issue, at least in the Catskills, is all the new signage that’s been posted. It’s amazing to me how many NYS signs have been posted to hiking trails and other outdoor places that were ever rarely visited. Maybe the explanation is to spread out the use but I’m not so sure. Bottom line, it’s become way too easy for people to find out about a place they never would have heard of in the past because they wouldn’t be willing to do the work to discover it. Just my opinion. Take it for what it’s worth…

  3. Marlena kuhn says:

    I can’t help but share my favorite places in the Adirondack Mountains it’s way to beautiful to be kept to myself.

    • Sula says:

      When you “share” your favourite places with thousands on Facebook, those places won’t be beautiful much longer. Have you read Mike Lynch’s post about the Blue Hole?

  4. LeRoy Hogan says:

    The Hudson Highlands and the Catskills now have a garbage problem. Sad.

  5. Ron Turbide says:

    I agree completely that folks who post about their adventures should do so with some reservations so that the fate of the “Blue Hole” doesn’t befall other great areas. I am very familiar with the Sable Highlands and have posted some pictures of my outings there but have judiciously avoided being specific when someone asks “Where is that?” At the risk of being labelled an elitist I will continue to avoid giving out detailed locations – just enjoy the pictures.

  6. CK1 says:

    Social media and the outdoor industrial complex are ruining wild places, plain and simple. As opposed to 20-30 years ago when outdoor recreation was a relatively fringe activity, it is now mainstream. I believe this is happening on a global scale as well (photos from Everest last year, blown secret surf spots in SE Asia, extreme competition for backcountry permits and campsites, etc.). There are fewer and fewer secret spots left and the search for those remaining “pristine” places has intensified.

    I grew up on the Hudson Highlands and saw this change first hand. When I was young Breakneck and and Bull Hill were nothing more than places to drink beer and smoke pot. Any “trails” were typically created by wild game and the hunters pursuing them. Was this better than the current condition? Depends who you ask and what specific question you are asking.

    Unfortunately I see this all getting worse as human populations grow, the “outdoors” become increasingly popular, Covid-19 inspires another round of white flight and normalizes remote work.

  7. Boreas says:

    It is one thing to spread out Park usage by promoting areas with good trails, parking, and no risk of damaging a pristine, remote area. It is another to actively promote pristine, “off the map” remote areas that can’t handle the traffic. When in doubt, keep it zipped.

  8. Alan says:

    As someone who grew up in the Hudson Valley (Kingston area), and has spent a considerable amount of time in the Catskills, Gunks, and even further north, the Adirondacks. I can say this to be true.

    Social media, especially the last 10 years, and things like YouTube have ruined people’s ability to keep a peaceful, beautiful place in nature secret. Far too many people who wouldn’t otherwise make the effort to find these places on their own are going out and seeing these places written about, or blogged about, or plastered all over social media. People who wouldn’t otherwise be hiking or camping are out there, and you can spot them from a mile away because they stick out like a sore thumb. Either not dressed properly for the activity, or over dressed, looking like an LL Bean catalog. With gear so new the price tags were probably taken off in the car on the way to that location.

    The Thru-way makes it so simple for someone from NYC to be in the Catskills in 2 1/2 hrs. Checkout the Palenville Rd on a given summer day. Cars parked all alongside it, people blocking traffic as they try and get to the water. Hiking on slippery rocks in flip flops. All for what? For some post about how into nature they are, and how secluded this are is…they spend more time trying to take the perfect picture for Instagram than they do actually enjoying nature and being there. That’s what is ruining it. No respect for the place they are. And several hundred of people with the same ignorant mindset doing the same thing.

    I’m all for people being outdoors. But it has to be done with respect to nature, and respect for others who also want to enjoy it.

    • Boreas says:

      Sadly, I think respect for nature and solitude is dying off with old-timers such as myself. It is apparent there has been a failure in passing these traits on to our offspring. Some things are not instinctive – they need to be taught – or learned the hard way.

      We learned from the commercial showing a native Amercan paddling his canoe through trash which brought a tear to his eye. Maybe we need more of those commercials instead of Big Pharma’s non-stop barrage of advertisements for $1000/month lifetime maintenance meds. Anyone remember Edward Abbey?

      • Kathy says:

        Sorry to hear you believe this way but laziness,ignorance,trashiness and disregard for trespassing and regulations transcend all ages. People imitate their home outdoors and learn from their upbringing (or lack of it). It’s passed on from the “older” people in their circle.

        • Boreas says:

          Isn’t that what I said? It has to be learned.

        • Boreas says:

          Yes, respect for the environment and each other needs to be learned, but who is doing the teaching now? Anyone? I see more litter along the roads and in my lawn daily. We see what is happening in the HPW. Who is responsible for teaching common sense, LNT principals? Anti-littering? Anti-plastic? It seems to me somewhere along the line, the ball has been dropped. A new generation will need to pick it up and run with it.

  9. kurt says:

    Heyduke lives!!!

  10. Donna says:

    Thank you for your article on the blue hole.
    I live near it and grew up swimming there.
    I am now sickened by what has happened to that beautiful spot and a great many other around the area.
    The influx of people to this quiet community is mind blowing. The filth that is left behind is incredible.
    What ever happened to leave no trace.
    When you borrow something you give it back in the condition you borrowed it in or better.

  11. Brent says:

    I would be grateful to see a movement in the Adks against geotagging. Or, to put it more positively, a movement for undisclosed locations.

    When I first started to ski the BC, I asked an old fart tele-ripper about a couple hardly known spots I had caught wind of. His response was “I won’t tell you, but if you have time I will show you”. As a young kid, his response admittedly irked me a bit. But looking back, I so appreciate his approach and the philosophy behind it. In the ADKs, decent BC skiing is a thing of scarcity, as is solitude. You can’t just willy nilly expose your secret spots to the world. At the same time, they should be shared – along with a culture of respect for how special they are.

    Back to geotagging – I think there is value to spreading a culture of not telling but showing – i.e. sharing pictures but refusing to tell about or geotag specific locations. It is not exclusive but it makes you work a little – maybe even interact with a local – to discover the best of the best.

    Ideas: #undisclosedlocationsADK #endgeotagging #showdonttell

    • Brent says:

      One more though: LNT brought a paradigm shift to the ADKs. Maybe the next one is a culture shift toward holding special places closer by showing people but never tagging them on social media.

  12. wonky says:

    My 80 + year old parents drove several hours south to see the Blue Hole. I don’t think they left any trash or posted to Instagram. But the desire to explore and take part in special places is a force to be reckoned with.

  13. Kent says:

    TOPIC: Lake Placid new Hotel Opening.
    The Saranac Hotel got a very raw deal. The Saranac Hotel is just charming and deserves our patronage. I would not stay at the new hotel.
    Saranac Lake hung the hotel out to dry and spoiled the quaint old feeling of the town which I have cherished for 30 some years..

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