Since 1999, Phil Brown has been Editor of the nonprofit Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack.
Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing.
He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.
Beaver River (nine year-round residents) is not the easiest place to visit. Most tourists get there by driving along remote, dirt roads to Stillwater Reservoir and then taking a boat for six miles or so to the hamlet.
For years, the Thompson family has run a water taxi between the reservoir’s boat launch and the hamlet. The Thompsons also operate a barge that ferries vehicles across an arm of the reservoir to a dirt road that can be driven to Beaver River. In winter, it’s also possible to reach the community by snowmobile. Last year the state Department of Environmental Conservation refused to issue the Thompsons a permit to continue their water taxi and ferry, contending that the family’s operations at the state-owned launch amount to an illegal use of the Forest Preserve.
The Thompsons ran the water taxi and ferry without a permit in 2009, but it’s doubtful that DEC will look the other way this year. In January, DEC wrote a letter demanding that the family cease its operations at the launch and remove its docks from state land.
The Thompsons, who run the Norridgewock inn and restaurant in Beaver River, say DEC would cut off access to the hamlet and hurt their business.
Alan Wechsler wrote about the dispute in the March/April issue of the Adirondack Explorer. Click here to read the story.
Soon after the story’s appearance online, the Explorer received some e-mails and phone calls from owners of summer camps at Beaver River. It seems that not everyone in Beaver River supports the Thompsons. The Explorer was told that many people with camps oppose the Thompsons’ efforts to secure road access to the hamlet. These people like the isolation.
DEC is negotiating with the Thompsons to try to settle the matter, but if the talks fail, the controversy could come to a head after the ice thaws and the summer people start returning to Beaver River.
Photo by Phil Brown: The Thompson family’s barge at Stillwater Reservoir.
Nobody knows how many varieties of brook trout once lived in the Adirondacks. Probably dozens. Trout colonized the Adirondacks after the last ice age, when melting glaciers created watery pathways into the highlands. After water levels receded, trout populations were isolated from each other, and so they evolved separately, developing slightly different traits.
Sadly, only seven strains of heritage trout remain in the Adirondacks. The rest were done in by habitat destruction (often from logging), overfishing, acid rain, and/or shortsighted stocking policies. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is taking steps to protect only three of the seven heritage strains—by breeding and releasing fingerlings. The other four populations are so small that the department won’t risk removing fish from the wild for breeding. One DEC scientist says three of these populations are on the verge of extinction.
Think of it: a trout that has been around these parts for thousands of years—and is found nowhere else in the world—may soon be gone forever.
Perhaps you’re betting this won’t happen in your lifetime. Wrong. It already has. The Stink Lake strain in the West Canada Lake Wilderness apparently vanished just a few years ago, thanks to acid rain. And the Tamarack Pond strain in the Five Ponds Wilderness was lost in the 1990s. That pond became so acidified the trout couldn’t spawn. Because of the lack of competition, however, the adult trout grew fat. After word got out about the big brookies, anglers fished out the pond before DEC could act.
And then there’s the yahoo who released bass into Little Tupper Lake after the state bought it in 1998, thereby jeopardizing the heritage trout it had harbored for centuries. Fortunately, Little Tupper trout breed elsewhere, and so the population is not at risk, at least not now.
All of the above comes from an article by George Earl in the latest issue of the Adirondack Explorer, titled “Tragedy of the Trout.” Click here to read the full story.
Photo by George Earl: Angler with a Little Tupper trout.
A few weeks ago, I posted a video of my ski descent from Avalanche Pass. In the post, I mentioned that I had taken several short clips of my ski tour to Avalanche Lake and planned to piece them together to make a movie. Well, I’ve done that. It’s eight minutes long, including the descent posted earlier, and features such scenic highlights as Marcy Dam, the slide on Little Colden, the rock walls of the pass, the Trap Dyke, and of course the lake itself. You can watch the movie on my Adirondack Explorer blog.
I saw it on Route 28 just west of McKeever. It was definitely feline. You could tell by the way it crouched next to the guardrail, looking like it wanted to spring across the road. And it was big.
“A cougar!” I shouted.
By the time my passenger looked, the cat had retreated to the other side of the guardrail and was ambling away from the road.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) says wild cougars (also known as mountain lions, panthers, and pumas) have not lived in the Adirondacks since the nineteenth century. The agency concedes that cougars are spotted on occasion, but it insists that they are released pets. Last week, DEC denounced as a hoax a rumor that a cougar had been struck and killed by a vehicle in Black Brook. » Continue Reading.
The tour from Adirondak Loj to Avalanche Lake in the High Peaks Wilderness may be the best day trip for intermediate skiers in the Adirondacks. Both the scenery and skiing are superb.
The scenic highlight is Avalanche Lake, a sliver of frozen water walled in by the cliffs on Mount Colden and Avalanche Mountain. This iconic Adirondack landscape is stunning in any season, but skiing across the ice offers a perspective impossible to obtain in summer.
The skiing highlight is a half-mile downhill on the return from Avalanche Pass on one of the few trails in the High Peaks designed for skiing. How hard is the descent? That’s a question asked by probably every skier contemplating the trip for the first time. Of course, the answer depends on conditions, but you can get some idea of what’s involved by watching a video I made this past weekend. I strapped a point-and-shoot camera to my chest before making the descent.
Note: I pretty much pointed my skis straight down the trail. Others may prefer to check their speed by making more turns or stemming their skis.
You can see the Angel Slides from Marcy Dam: two adjoining bedrock scars—one wide, one thin—on the southeastern slopes of Wright Peak. They are a well-known destination for expert backcountry skiers.
The slides got their nickname following the death of Toma Vracarich. Ten years ago this month, Vracarich and three other skiers were caught in an avalanche on the wider slide. Vracarich died under the snow. He was twenty-seven. The other skiers were injured.
It remains the only avalanche fatality in the Adirondacks, but it put people on notice that the avalanche risk here is real. Several years ago, I wrote an article on the history of Adirondack avalanches for the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine. I came up with a list of fourteen. Most were triggered by skiers, snowshoers, or ice climbers, usually on steep, open terrain such as a cliff or a slide.
Here are some examples of what I found:
On March 8, 1975, three ice climbers suffered severe injuries when they were caught in an avalanche on a cliff near Chapel Pond. They would have fallen to the bottom if their rope did not get entangled in the rope of a party below them.
A week later, a snowshoer named Roger Harris was on a slide path on Macomb Mountain when an avalanche swept him five hundred feet. He was nearly buried alive. “I was unable to take in a breath due to the snow jammed in my throat and filling my mouth,” he told me, “but I was able to stick two fingers into my mouth and clear the plug.”
In April 1990, Mark Meschinelli, a veteran ice climber, was standing at the bottom of the North Face of Gothics when it avalanched. “I heard this low rumbling,hissing sound,” he said. “I looked up, and the whole face is moving toward me. There was nothing I could do, no place to go. I got buried up to my waist.” Meschinelli dug himself out and climbed the slope.
In March 1997, an avalanche swept two backcountry skiers down a steep slide on Mount Colden. They might have plummeted to the bottom if trees had not stopped their descent. The skiers were bruised but able to ski out.
Avalanches occur most often on slopes between 30 and 50 degrees, and many occur during or soon after a big snowfall. But the business of assessing the risk of an avalanche is complicated. You can find more information online from the American Avalanche Association as well as other websites.
And if you do spend time in avalanche terrain, you should carry the three essentials: beacon, probe, and shovel.
You might also take an avalanche-safety class. The Mountaineer in Keene Valley will teach avalanche safety at the Adirondack Backcountry Ski Festival in March. The Mountaineer also offers avalanche instruction at its Mountainfest each January.
Photo of Angel Slides on Wright Peak from Wikipedia.
One of the perks of living in the Adirondacks is the lunch-hour hike or ski. In winter, I sometimes ski with sandwich in pocket to Oseetah Marsh. From Route 86 on the outskirts of Saranac Lake, I follow a trail through a pine forest for a half-mile to the edge of the marsh and then ski across the marsh. The marsh has fabulous views of nearby peaks, including McKenzie, Scarface, and the Sawtooth Range. The trail through the forest and across the marsh happens to be a snowmobile route. This would not be noteworthy except that the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan identifies Oseetah Marsh as a “Special Management Area.”
All told, the plan lists eighty-nine Special Management Areas, selected for their scenic beauty or their geographical, natural, or historic significance. It’s kind of an odd list. For instance, seventeen summits were selected for their scenic beauty. I’ve been up all but two. They all have nice views, but there are other mountains with equal or better views. Why these seventeen?
Twenty-six places were singled out for their natural significance. They include patches of old-growth, two mountains (in addition to the other seventeen), a few bogs and marshes, and one pond—Church Pond. Of the three thousand ponds in the Adirondacks, what’s so special about this one?
The master plan gives the state Department of Environmental Conservation the authority to draw up management guidelines to protect these areas and, where appropriate, to install interpretive signs.
I wondered what special management Oseetah Marsh receives. I also wondered why, if this marsh is so special (it was chosen for its natural significance), snowmobiles are allowed to ride through it. I don’t know if the snowmobiles are doing ecological harm, but the machines do emit oil and gas.
As it turns out, Oseetah Marsh receives no special treatment. But DEC spokesman David Winchell said the agency will consider special guidelines as it draws up a management plan for the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest (the marsh lies within the Wild Forest tract).
As far as I can determine, few of the eighty-nine Special Management Areas receive special management. The High Peaks Wilderness Area, for example, contains more than a dozen Special Management Areas. Most receive no mention or only incidental mention in the 336-page unit management plan for the High Peaks.
APA spokesman Keith McKeever said the list of Special Management Areas was drawn up in the early 1970s by the APA and DEC. He said the purpose of the list is not only to provide management guidelines, but also to publicize these treasured places.
“It was to identify areas of the Park that are really magnificent,” he said, “so people can enjoy them and visit them.”
But my guess is that few people are aware of the list of Special Management Areas in the back of a rather obscure state document. Indeed, it seems to have escaped the attention of officialdom as well.
Photo by Phil Brown: snowmobile tracks at Oseetah Marsh.
The other day I skied the Jackrabbit Trail from end to end, a twenty-four-mile journey starting in Saranac Lake and ending at the Rock and River lodge in Keene. When I got to Rock and River, I told owner Ed Palen of my heroic feat. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I do that every year.”
OK, I’m a far cry from Herman “Jackrabbit” Johannsen, the legendary skier for whom the trail is named. But for me, it was an epic day. And it got me thinking about other epic adventures in the Adirondacks.
What’s an epic adventure? First off, it must be long, arduous, and exciting. The best give you a quintessential Adirondack experience—one that can’t be topped.
The Jackrabbit qualifies as there’s no other ski trail like it in the Adirondacks. It traverses wild landscapes while connecting human communities. Tony Goodwin and the Adirondack Ski Touring Council deserve our thanks for creating and maintaining it.
Following are a half-dozen other Adirondack epic adventures that can be done in a day. If you have other suggestions or comments, please let us know.
Mount Marcy Ski. If you’re a backcountry skier, it’s hard to beat schussing down the state’s highest mountain. Of course, you have to climb seven and a half miles before the descent begins.
Eagle Slide. A number of High Peaks are scarred by bedrock slide paths. Many climbers regard the Eagle on Giant Mountain as the best. It’s wide and steep. I’ve done it in hiking boots and rock-climbing shoes. I felt much more comfortable in rock shoes.
Trap Dike. The deep gash in the side of Mount Colden, first climbed in 1850, is a classic mountaineering route. It’s steep enough in spots that some people bring ropes. After exiting the dike, you climb a broad slide to the summit.
Wallface. The largest cliff in the Adirondacks. To get there, you must hike several miles to Indian Pass in the High Peaks Wilderness. You don’t have to be an expert climber to scale the cliff—if you have a good guide. The Diagonal is the most popular route to start on.
Hudson Gorge. Several outfitters offer rafting trips through this wild, scenic canyon, but if you have the whitewater skills to canoe or kayak, go for it!
Great Range. Backpacker magazine describes a trek over the entire Great Range as “possibly the hardest classic day hike in the East.” Starting in Keene Valley, you summit seven High Peaks, ending on Marcy. Total ascent: 9,000 feet. Distance: 25 miles. You’ll need lots of daylight, water, and stamina.
There’s plenty of good powder in the woods these days. It’s an ideal time for skiing glades.
Good luck finding one. Most backcountry skiers would sooner give out their bank PINs than reveal the locations of their favorite glades.
In the decade I’ve lived here, I’ve stumbled upon a few glades while exploring the woods and learned about others through word of mouth. I ski three or four glades fairly regularly.
It’s a guilty pleasure, though. Many glades are surreptitiously maintained by skiers who cut saplings and underbrush—which is illegal in the forever-wild Forest Preserve. I’ve talked to skiers who insist that the grooming doesn’t harm the forest. As much as I enjoy skiing glades, I am a tad skeptical. Certainly, it changes the natural environment. Then again, so does just about everything we do in the wild—whether it’s cutting a hiking trail, driving a polluting snowmobile over a marsh, or stocking a stream with hatchery fish. The question is how much alteration of the environment is acceptable.
Recently, I happened to meet a well-respected environmental scientist at a trailhead, and I asked him if thinning glades damaged the forest. His off-the-cuff answer: not much.
An article in Vermont Life takes a hard look at the issue of cutting bootleg trails and thinning glades. One critic argues that cutting saplings creates a forest of even-aged trees and when these trees die, gaps in the forest will emerge. Yet the article also quotes an expert suggesting that glades can be managed to minimize the environmental impact.
Many resorts, including state-run facilities at Whiteface and Gore, have created glades to satisfy their patrons’ desire to ski in a more natural environment. Some backcountry skiers would like to see the state authorize the creation of managed glades in wild portions of the Forest Preserve. Frankly, I see that as a long shot, but it’d be neat if Paul Smith’s College or the state College of Environmental Science and Forestry looked at the impact of ski glades. As a long-term experiment, students could thin a glade on their own, study it over the years, and come up with suggestions for glade management. This information could be useful to resorts and perhaps to backcountry outlaws as well.
Backcountry skiers need to watch what they wish for. If the state did permit maintained glades in the Forest Preserve, everyone would know their locations.
I have a feeling, though, that hard-core enthusiasts would be skiing elsewhere.
Photo by Phil Brown: A skier in an Adirondack glade.
The Wright Peak Ski Trail is a testament to the lure of down-mountain skiing in the backcountry despite the existence of lift-service resorts.
Cut in the late 1930s, the trail switchbacks down the northeast side of Wright, providing a thrilling and challenging descent through a beautiful forest. After World War II, the trail fell into disuse and became overgrown, but in the late 1980s, Tony Goodwin and other backcountry skiers received permission from the state Department of Environmental Conservation to reopen it. The trail is now featured in David Goodman’s guidebook Backcountry Skiing Adventures: Vermont and New York, published by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
The problem is that the ski route ends after a mile and joins the popular Algonquin Peak hiking trail. This means skiers must descend a few miles on trails often crowded with snowshoers. It seems like an accident waiting to happen. The snowshoers probably don’t like this any more than the skiers do.
What most snowshoers don’t realize is that this section of the Algonquin trail was once part of the ski trail. In those days, hikers went up Algonquin by a separate trail located a little to the north. In the early 1970s, however, DEC closed this trail and moved hikers to the ski trail. Since then, the old ski trail has been maintained with hiking in mind: water bars have been dug, rock steps have been created, brush has been laid down to narrow the passage—all of which makes the trail less suitable for skiing. What’s more, hikers have eroded the trail and exposed boulders that create dangerous obstacles.
Goodwin has come up with what seems like a sensible solution: reopen the old hiking trail for skiing. Under his proposal, the old hiking route would be clipped to its original width. Eroded sections would be filled with logs and brush. The trail would be smooth when covered with snow but remain gnarly enough to discourage hiking in other seasons. As it is, some hikers continue to use the old trail, causing erosion.
“We want to improve it for skiing but make it less desirable for hiking,” Goodwin told the Adirondack Explorer last year. “That would be a win-win situation.”
Goodwin said the volunteers would do all the work to reopen and maintain the trail, so it wouldn’t cost DEC a penny.
Yet DEC has scotched the proposal—not because it’s a bad idea, necessarily, but because it would require an amendment to the High Peaks Wilderness unit management plan. DEC doesn’t want to revisit the High Peaks plan until it finishes the UMPs for other Forest Preserve units.
Given DEC’s chronic shortage of staff, however, it will be years, perhaps more than a decade, before the other plans are done. DEC was supposed to complete all the unit management plans in the 1970s, but more than thirty years later, we’re still waiting on a dozen or so. In addition, DEC is writing recreational plans for vast tracts protected by conservation easements.
In short, we all could be dead or in retirement homes before DEC gets around to evaluating Goodwin’s proposal—if it ever does.
The same goes for proposals for trails in other parts of the Forest Preserve. The Adirondack Ski Touring Council has talked for years of extending the Jackrabbit Ski Trail from Saranac Lake to Tupper Lake. DEC won’t rule on this until it completes the management plan for the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest. When will that be? No one knows.
One purpose of the management plans is to ensure that trails are not approved willy-nilly, without due forethought to their impact on the Forest Preserve. But the system is broken. Because DEC lacks the staff to write these plans, proposals wither on the vine or languish for decades. Surely, there must be a way for DEC to evaluate worthy ideas more quickly without neglecting its duty to protect the Preserve.
Perhaps there are sound reasons for rejecting Goodwin’s proposal for the Wright Peak Ski Trail, but it deserves a hearing.
Photo of skiers on Wright Peak by Susan Bibeau/Adirondack Explorer.
I do a fair amount of skiing in the backcountry, often solo, and I’ve thought a lot about what I would do if something went wrong and I had to bivouac overnight. What would I do for shelter?
Snow shelters commonly covered in outdoors books include the igloo, quinzee hut, and snow cave. But all of these take considerable time and effort to build. I figure if I can build an igloo, I probably can get out of the woods—in which case I don’t need an igloo. Moreover, the snow conditions in the Adirondacks are not ideal for building igloos and snow caves. For igloos, you want wind-packed snow that can be cut into blocks. For snow caves, you want drifts that are at least six feet deep. You might be able to find appropriate snow in some places in the Adirondacks, but the chances are slim that one of them will be the place where you break an ankle.
A quinzee hut, in contrast, can be built just about anywhere there’s snow. Basically, you shovel snow into a large mound, wait a few hours for the snow to set, and then dig a room inside the mound. In an emergency, though, you want something that’s quicker and easier to construct.
Like a snow trench.
“In the Adirondacks, if you’re in an emergency situation, most of the time a trench is the most practical shelter,” says Jack Drury, an outdoors author who founded the Wilderness Recreation Leadership Program at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake.
For a trench, you’d like the snow to be at least three feet deep. If it’s not, however, you can use excavated snow to build up the walls.
A one-person trench should be dug three or four feet wide and six or seven feet long. Drury recommends leaving at least five or six inches of snow at the bottom as insulation against the cold ground.
Given enough time, you can create an A-frame roof from slabs of snow, but in an emergency, you can just lay branches and evergreen boughs across the trench and then place snow over the boughs for insulation. If you have a tarp or a waterproof shell, lay it over the boughs before piling on snow. Once inside, stop up the entrance with your pack to keep warm air from escaping.
Drury recommends that winter travelers keep a piece of closed-cell foam in their packs to use as a sleeping pad. It should be long enough to stretch from your shoulders to your butt. If it’s an emergency and you don’t have a pad, place evergreen boughs on the bottom of the trench for insulation. He also recommends carrying a lightweight sleeping bag or heavily insulated pants and jacket for emergencies.
“You might not be comfortable, but you’ll survive the night,” he said.
Drury said the temperature in a properly constructed snow trench should stay in the twenties even if it’s colder outside.
As editor of the Adirondack Explorer, I interviewed Clarence Petty before every issue over the past five years for our “Questions for Clarence” feature. Several times before his death, at age 104, I asked what piece of wisdom he would like to impart to future generations.
His answer: Let the people vote. He argued that since the Adirondack Park is a state treasure, the residents of the whole state should vote on matters of importance to the Park. He had no doubt that the statewide electorate would favor preservation of the Park’s natural beauty and wild character. We didn’t discuss the nuts and bolts of how these referendums would work, but it’s an interesting idea. Surely Clarence is right that people in Buffalo, Syracuse, Long Island, and other distant places would be inclined to favor state land acquisition and other measures intended protect the Park’s natural resources.
Of course, in-Park officials would fight tooth and nail to prevent such outside influence on the region. But Clarence often found himself at odds with his fellow Adirondackers.
I got to know Clarence only in the last decade of his life. The Explorer’s founder and erstwhile publisher, Dick Beamish, knew him for nearly forty years. For the newsmagazine’s January/February issue, Dick wrote a lengthy article about Clarence’s life and contributions to the Park. It’s the most comprehensive piece on Clarence I’ve seen since his death in November. You can read it here. You’ll also find a selection of Questions for Clarence.
Photo of Clarence on top of Giant Mountain, at age 70, courtesy of the Adirondack Council.
The Climbing Code in The Freedom of the Hills has nine precepts meant to promote safety in the mountains. Some are common sense, such as No. 1: “Leave the trip itinerary with a responsible person.” Others are technical: “Rope up on all exposed places and for all glacier travel.”
Most of us violate some of the rules on occasion. Many times I’ve gone on a short hike without telling anyone or without carrying the ten essentials.
But I’ve had the hardest time over the years with precept No. 7: “Never let judgment be overruled by desire when choosing the route or turning back.” When you set out to climb a mountain and you travel for hours in pursuit of that goal, it takes mental discipline to turn around short of the summit if, say, bad weather or fatigue slows your progress. If you’re a mountain climber, after all, you’re probably the sort who takes risks, the sort inclined to push on despite the dangers.
Several years ago, I violated six or seven of the precepts when I climbed the slides on the east side of Giant Mountain. I went solo, I didn’t tell anyone, and I got into a situation above my ability. I ended up ascending a very steep face, scratching dirt out of cracks to make holds. Essentially, I was rock climbing in hiking boots, and I had no rock-climbing experience.
It’s a round trip of nine and half miles. We skied in a few miles and then switched to snowshoes when the trail got steeper. We were breaking trail the whole time.
Most of the climbing comes in the final mile or so. As we ascended, Mike started to fall behind, so I waited for him. He told me his asthma was acting up. He also may have been worn out from skiing eight days in a row. We decided to go a little farther to see if he felt better. He didn’t, so with less than a half-mile to go to reach the top, we turned back.
No doubt we could have made it had we pushed on. In the past, I might have regretted turning around, but I felt we made a smart decision—especially as we were running out of daylight—and that gave me as much satisfaction as reaching the summit.
A wise man once said: “The mountains will always be there; the trick is to make sure you are too.”
Two decades ago, some Adirondackers forced the state to back down from a decision to close Crane Pond Road inside the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness.
A few weeks ago, I went to Crane Pond Road to take photos for a story that will run in the next issue of the Adirondack Explorer.
The dirt lane became a cause celebre two decades ago when the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) tried to close it. » Continue Reading.
A week ago today, state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Pete Grannis effectively reopened Old Mountain Road between North Elba (Route 73) and Keene (Shackett Road / Route 40) in Essex County. According to surveys made in 1893-1894 (here, and here), the road had been abandoned since the 19th century; it was believed to have been officially closed when the Sentinel Wilderness Area UMP was ratified in 1974. Beginning in 1986 part of the road has been maintained as the popular 35-mile long Jackrabbit Trail by the Adirondack Ski Touring Council.
The Grannis decision was forced by Lake Placid Snowmobile Club President James McCulley who drove his truck down the trail in May of 2005 and was ticketed (he previously beat a 2003 ticket for doing the same thing with his snowmobile). An agency administrative judge later found that the road had never been closed properly (it required public hearings). » Continue Reading.
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