“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line” – Archimedes
The early Greek mathematician posed this rule for flat surfaces, which the Adirondacks are anything but. Yet this was the scheme for our first mountain trails – hardly layouts, but ad hoc routes to get hikers and particularly Fire Observers, to the summits ASAP. After twisting past down trees, boulders, cliffs, or water, their lines would straighten right back out. Trails out West more gently curve along the contours and switchback to ease their ascents, but not those here. Most of our old direct goat paths are still in place.
Ampersand Mountain used to host a fire tower, prominent over Middle Saranac Lake, and has a gentle approach before hitting the thousand-foot wall that guards its summit dome. The original route went straight up, to let the Fire Observer commute post-haste. It was a rocky, rooty, muddy scramble.
But what goes up must come down – water as well as hikers: the straighter the line, the faster the descent. As Adirondack ramblers multiplied, further scouring trails, so did the H2o, craving the shortest distance. Overused, poorly built paths tend to become ditches, especially the linear steep ones; until the 1980s, there was barely any attempt to get water off our trails. Ampersand’s face had become a washed-out mess.
Its hugely popular route was thronged by literal busloads of hikers, and by the early ‘90s, something had to be done. Back then, the state’s M.O. was “rebuild in place”, so the Adirondack Mountain Club Pro Trail Crew set about building a super-long rock staircase – straight up the mountain wall. Back then, for this first major Adirondack trail re-build, there was no plan to make a longer, gentler, more erosion-proof path. This very tough project needed super-solid stone work; over the years, it’s held up well in parts, fallen apart in others. Its rock staircase has become a demo of what works and what doesn’t.
Willie Janeway hired and oriented that trail crew. He points to today’s giant backlog of needed work (over 100 miles in the High Peaks alone), the explosion in hiker use, and with these, the job-training prospect for professional trail design and construction as a vital part of the Adirondacks’ recreation-based economy. With price tags spread over many years of pounding by many hikers, the overall cost is not great, while the benefit to the local economy is. Now head of The Adirondack Council, Willie urges a major uptick in public and private trail funding.
Lyon Mountain’s solitary massif sits at the north end of the Park, within sight of Montreal. Its fire tower had been accessed by a direct trail, and it also was suffering the same heavy scouring on its steep upper reaches.
Wes Lampman was a novice on the Ampersand crew, who as ADK’s Trail Coordinator over a decade later, designed at Lyon, a very different solution to the same problem of a abrupt and washed-out route; by 2008, relocating trails had become part of the Adirondack toolkit.
The ADK Pro Crew put in at least 15 zigs and zags to switchback and ease the Lyon trail, fixing its washouts. The route grew from 2.3 miles to 4.1. What had moved like an arrow now goes more like an unhurried snake. Andrew Hamlin, now the club’s Trail Coordinator, but a newbie then, remembers a miserable rainy season of work that readily tested the new drainage designs – and the crew members.
Professional trail work boasts a seemingly hefty budget; it’s tough, painstaking, skilled and mostly manual labor that takes a long time to do well. $7000-$10,000 a week for a crew of about five is the ballpark price. At first glance this appears huge , but when you figure in meals, equipment, the skills involved, transport (lumber, tools, boulders, workers), and the long life of a well-built route, the cost dwindles. It’s an investment in an accomplished workforce and in environmental sustainability.
Adeline Clayton and Charlotte Staats, have a combined eight seasons growing from novices to leaders on the ADK Pro Crews. They both speak of a safe and comprehensive teaching environment which novices are brought to increasing skill and working independence. “It is very common for people to return for a second, third, forth, even fifth season on our crew”, Charlotte tells me. She and Adeline know trail construction as a viable and valuable career path. The quality of their work proves the point.
Jay Mountain, at the northeast fringe of the High Peaks, had long been an afterthought for hikers, reached by a sparsely travelled linear herd path. But by the late 1990s, its long open ridge and 360-view-summits with had caught on. The impact on the route was predictable, with the path draining away. DEC designed a new trail, adding in big wide curves; whose upper switchbacks are so long and mellow that you forget you’re snaking your way up. This handiwork of two crews, one from ADK and another from the Student Conservation Association (SCA), added half a mile to the hiking distance.
The SCA is a nationwide non-profit, partnering with Americorps to train 4000 student interns each year, in hands-on conservation work, including 15-20 with trail crews here. Building bridges or leantos, and repairing trails, they annually complete about 25 assignments all over the Park, often part of larger route reconstruction projects, under DEC oversight.
The SCA’s work is a vital piece of the Adirondack trail repair mosaic, and for its interns, it’s a primary lead-in to environmental careers, in all their variety. Jeremy Burns, the program’s Conservation Manager, proudly says, “Many of the interns describe their season with us as personally transformative by way of the confidence they’ve gained and their drive to apply their new skills to the conservation and environmental field”.
Hurricane’s windswept pinnacle and fire tower gaze at the High Peaks and the Champlain Valley. Its much-favored south trail suffered the same destructive beating, until it was redesigned and newly laid-out in 2014.
Again came ADK and SCA crews, with DEC design and oversight, adding a new twist to the new route: with gentler meanderings, they took it to new places of interest – a pair of striking lookouts it had previously bypassed. Its length has grown by three quarters of a mile, but it’s a far more interesting ramble, and much less of a scramble.
Poke-O-Moonshine, a multi-tiered heap of cliffs overlooking Lake Champlain, is a climbing and hiking magnet. It too is crowned by a restored fire tower. In 2011, DEC announced that it was considering closing Poke-O’s Ranger Trail, the direct route to the summit. A straight shot; it too had become super-eroded and “unsustainable”, in the agency’s view. With a second nearby trail on the mountain, DEC could not see funding these trail repairs.
The route was a unique test through a boulder field and up through the lower cliff band. The Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine, stewards for the tower and trails, bit the bullet and raised $250,000 to rehab the popular trail. ADK and Tahawus Trails paired to the challenge, with each working on the trail segments that wanted their particular skill sets. Tahawus took on the mid-mountain rock staircases, while ADK built in water drainage and the long meanders on the lower and upper stretches.
Eddie Walsh, Tahawus Trails’ principal, points to this working symbiosis, “On projects like Poke-O or Hurricane there are opportunities for every skill set from volunteer brush removal to intricate rock-work”. Started in 2002 and based in the Hudson Valley and hiring fully seasoned workers, the company does public and private projects throughout the Northeast and has even built trails in the Virgin Islands. Eddie views trail work, from the volunteer level on up to adequately funded pro-projects as an investment in public infrastructure and community amenities.
The Giant Ridge Trail is a much-travelled scenic route to that sentinel above the East Ausable Valley. It’s had short switchbacks for 50 years now, but these haven’t able to withstand the perpetual problem of corner-cutting by hiking throngs. Over the years, they’ve had to be lengthened or armored with handrails or debris piles at the turns.
The trail is managed by ATIS, aka The Adirondack Trail Improvement Society, led for years by Tony Goodwin, near Keene Valley. Among other projects, ATIS built a new trail up Roostercomb Mountain in the 1998, with ADK assistance. Tony’s been building trails since the 1960s and points to the annual challenge of maintaining switchbacks and clearing blow-down and drainage ditches as musts that allow newly-engineered trail structures to function. This is prime volunteer turf.
Park-wide, but less visible are those volunteer efforts that supplement the bigger trail projects. The biggest push is by the 46ers, who any given year commit $30-$50K and over 3000 hours in about fifteen pieces of work from Pharoah Lake to the High Peaks. Hardening and re-aligning trails and fixing bridges and leantos, their home project since 1979 has been the Round Pond-Dix trail. The 46ers have gone way beyond being a club of peak-baggers, giving back far more than they take.
Like Roostercomb, but out of the High Peaks, smaller outlying mountains like Bartonville, Coon, and Potash recently got well-designed re-makes to their original trails. Wilderness Property Management has taken these on. WPM is run by Steve Ovitt, who, as a DEC Ranger, rebuilt the old ski and hiking trails around North Creek. Steve and his crew work all over the Park on public and private land trail projects. Having to hold onto his workers after the winter off-season, Steve says he must pay “decently at the required prevailing wage because we provide a professional service that requires skilled construction labor”.
Of the mountain ranges of the Northeast, the Adirondacks pose a unique geological challenge that tests trail upkeep on our thin and mostly organic upper elevation soils; often these routes require rock stepping stones or staircases that are pinned to the underlying bedrock, a cost-and labor-intensive proposition. High-elevation trail segments that lack this rocky armor quickly decay to wide swaths of black mush, hostile to plant life, and a wallowing ground for hikers.
Cascade is the most accessible High Peak, thronged by hikers drawn to its quick 2.4 –mile trail and wide open summit vistas. Overcrowded dangerous highway-shoulder parking at the base led the state in 2018 to its biggest trail re-make ever: a complete base-to summit relocation. Its new length will be at least 5.5 miles, and the effort will take at least three years of heavy lifting by Tahawus Trails, the SCA, and DEC crews. Hiker response, the trail’s layout and durability, and the project’s price tag will keep the Cascade jury out for the foreseeable future.
The old straight up-down mountain trails are very slowly and surely getting remade. Cutting-edge trail designs now wind further afield, not just to ease their climbs and erosion, but also to catch interesting features – a lookout, a boulder field, a waterfall, perhaps a cliff face… Hardened with mineral soil on gradients of no more than 8%-10%, they’re evolving from utilitarian goat paths to consciously designed environmentally sustainable and appealing routes.
The skills needed to make these pathways are complex, ranging from crowd-control psychology to intricate rock engineering. Heaps of brain and brawn are job prerequisites, brought forward by sufficient public and private funding. All the committed players deserve kudos.
Coney is a tiny mountain straddling the Franklin-Hamilton County line south of Tupper Lake. The “trail” used to follow this line, a 15-20 foot-wide swath of rocks, dust, or mud, a no-man’s land. The model replacement uniquely shows what’s possible; doubled in length, it begins on the lower west side of the mountain and spirals its measured and gentle way up and around, in one full circle, to the summit. Coney’s petite enough to allow this elegant and leisurely sashay. Its simplicity belies the task involved: a seasoned trail designer’s eye, and tons of digging, grunting, moving and artfully placing earth and rocks. Shunning water and Archimedes’ line, the trail bends and blends with the land. It will last ages, almost as much a thing of beauty as its mountain.
An abridged version of this piece appeared in The Adirondack Life 2020 Guide to the Great Outdoors.
Photos of trail work on Poke-O-Moonshine taken by Joanne Kennedy, provided by David Thomas-Train.