Phil Brown is the former Editor of 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.
The staff of the Adirondack Park Agency has raised several objections to the Local Government Review Board’s proposal to reclassify the tops of Hurricane Mountain and St. Regis Mountain as Historic Areas so that fire towers on the summits could remain.
APA spokesman Keith McKeever said the staff is not making a recommendation. However, the staff comments submitted to the APA commissioners are more negative than positive. » Continue Reading.
If you subscribe to the Adirondack Explorer, you’re probably familiar with our Brief Bio feature. For each issue, we ask some notable person to answer a list of standard questions. One of them is, What’s your most memorable wildlife experience?
I’d like to ask you the same question.
If you spend a lot of time in the Adirondacks, you probably have several wildlife stories to tell, so feel free to share more than one. One of my favorite wildlife experiences occurred two summers ago, when I paddled with a friend and his son from Long Lake to Tupper Lake. On the first night, we canoed to a lean-to on the Cold River, where we spent the night in splendid isolation from civilization. The next day we continued our journey down a wild stretch of the Raquette and came upon a female common merganser followed by more than a dozen chicks. Whenever we approached, they would skitter ahead, roiling the water, then settle back into their lazy ways. Finally, they tired of the game and let us pass.
Later in the day we arrived at the mile-long carry around Raquette Falls. After finishing the portage, we went to the lower falls for lunch. It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and warm. As we ate, three mergansers approached the falls. When they got to the brink, they retreated to a little pool out of the current.
We watched them, wondering what they would do next. The ducks must have been pondering the same thing. After a minute or so, the bravest re-entered the current, followed by the others. One by one, they plunged over the falls, disappeared beneath the foam, and popped up like corks a few yards downstream. They then continued their merry way, bobbing through the rapids and out of sight.
It was a sudden—and surprising—solution to the ducks’ dilemma. And it cracked us up.
I have some other stories I could tell, but I’d like to hear yours.
Peruse the colorful Adirondack Park Agency land-use map and you’ll notice that many of the region’s rivers are overlain by strings of big black circles, small black circles, or open triangles. These rivers are part of the state’s Wild, Scenic, and Recreational Rivers System (WSR).
And then there are the eight rivers overlain by open circles. These are “study” rivers, candidates for the WSR system.
The legislature first asked the APA to study these rivers in the 1970s—more than thirty years ago—and the APA did recommend that all eight be added to the system, but apparently for political reasons, they never were. The rivers are the Osgood, North Branch of the Saranac, North Branch of the Boquet, part of the Oswegatchie, Main Branch of the Grass, Pleasant Lake Stream, East Stony Creek, and the Branch.
In addition, the APA identified in the 1970s at least eight other waterways as potential study rivers: the Chubb, Little, Jessup, and Miami rivers, Hays Brook, Otter Creek, and Fall Stream.
WSR rivers receive an additional measure of protection from development—something that doesn’t always sit well with local politicians and landowners. This, no doubt, is the reason that no river has been added to the system since the late eighties.
The Adirondack Explorer brought attention to this issue in a series of articles five years ago. The articles inspired the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) to deploy a team of volunteers to paddle a number of rivers in the Park to ascertain whether they should be added to the system.
ADK Executive Director Neil Woodworth told me he hasn’t given up on the WSR initiative. As a matter of fact, the club has drafted a bill to declare the Chubb—a lovely stream that winds through the High Peaks Wilderness—a Wild river. This is the most protective designation.
Yet Woodworth said this isn’t the right time to introduce the legislation, not with environmentalists fighting to restore cash to the Environmental Protection Fund and waging other battles as well. “The bill is certainly important, but we have other issues and other priorities right now,” he said.
Although WSR provides some protection against development, critics say the restrictions need to be strengthened.
Consider the Chubb. The proposed Wild stretch passes through one parcel of private land where there used to be a small hunting cabin. Several years ago, the cabin was replaced by a large house. Even if the Chubb had been in the system, that would not have prevented the construction of the house. APA regulations allow landowners to replace an existing structure with another. The new structure can be bigger, taller, and more obtrusive, as long as it’s not closer to the water.
As of today, all or parts of fifty-one rivers in the Park—totaling more than 1,200 miles—belong to the system. It looks like we’ll have to wait till next year, or longer, to see if the Chubb becomes the fifty-second.
Photo by Phil Brown: a paddler on the Osgood River.
At a recent public hearing in Keene, more than a dozen people spoke in favor of keeping the fire tower on Hurricane Mountain. Several others spoke in favor of keeping the lean-to along Gulf Brook. And one person spoke in favor of improving trails for backcountry skiing.
That would be Ron Konowitz.
Konowitz, a Keene schoolteacher, has long been one of the region’s most passionate and adventurous backcountry skiers. He is the only person to have skied all forty-six of the High Peaks. In a typical year, he skis more than 150 days. Whenever I ski with Ron, he fills my ear with complaints about how backcountry skiers are getting a raw deal in the Adirondacks. I heard them again one afternoon last weekend when we skied the first five miles of the Mount Marcy trail from Adirondak Loj.
Since I’m a backcountry skier, you might say I’m biased, but I think he has a point.
One problem is that the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan—the document that guides management of the Forest Preserve—fails to recognize Ron’s sport. This is not surprising, because few people pursued this sport back in the early 1970s, when the plan was written.
I’m referring to down-mountain backcountry skiing—climbing and descending a peak, slide path, or steep glade.
The State Land Master Plan does recognize ski touring, or cross-country skiing, but this isn’t the same thing. The plan requires that cross-country trails must have “the same dimensions and character” as foot trails. Generally, skiers are sharing hiking trails, but in any case, a ski or foot trail is supposed to be only six feet wide. That’s okay if you’re skiing over gently rolling terrain, but for safety’s sake you need more room to make turns and control your speed when descending steep slopes. That’s just common sense.
Down-mountain skiing in the backcountry has grown greatly in popularity over the past twenty years, thanks to improvements in backcountry equipment: wider, shaped skis, plastic boots, and beefier bindings. At the same time, snowshoeing also has grown in popularity. So we now have more skiers and more winter hikers sharing the same narrow trails.
One solution would be to widen, only where necessary, those trails commonly used by down-mountain skiers. This is not a new idea: a 1952 state brochure titled “Lake Placid Trails” notes that “in 1936 the original Van Hoevenberg Trail was conditioned for skiing.” This was in the era before lift-service resorts lured skiers out of the woods. Over the decades, the trail has been allowed to grow back in to its current dimensions.
As Ron and I ascended the Van Hoevenberg Trail along Phelps Brook the other day, he pointed out the older trees off to the sides that once marked the boundaries of the trail. Clearly, the older trail was several feet wider.
What’s more, Ron said this section of trail was once reserved for skiing. Since the 1970s, it has been used by hikers as well and has been eroded as a result of heavy foot traffic in summer. A similar thing happened to the old Wright Peak Ski Trail. Hikers once used a different trail, but when that trail became eroded, DEC closed it and moved hikers to the lower section of the ski trail. Since then, this part of the ski trail has become eroded and grown in. Skiers now dodge rocks, trees, and snowshoers on the descent.
In an earlier post, I noted that Tony Goodwin of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council has proposed an easy fix for the Wright situation: reopening the old hiking trail as a ski trail, deploying volunteer labor. It shouldn’t cost the state a dime, but DEC isn’t interested. Nor does DEC seem inclined to widen trails to accommodate down-mountain skiers.
In contrast, DEC spent a great deal of time and money on writing new guidelines for snowmobile trails in response to complaints from the snowmobiling community. The guidelines were approved by the Adirondack Park Agency last year.
Like ski trails, snowmobile trails are required by the State Land Master Plan to retain the character of a foot trail. Yet DEC’s new guidelines allow snowmobile trails to be up to twelve feet wide in places.
Proponents say the snowmobile guidelines are needed for safety. They note that snowmobiling has changed: today’s snow sleds are bigger and faster than those of yesteryear.
Well, backcountry skiing has changed, too. We need to talk about that.
Photo by Phil Brown: Ron Konowitz at Indian Falls. Video taken along Phelps Brook.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s proposal to remove fire towers from St. Regis and Hurricane Mountains raises some difficult philosophical questions, starting with: what is wilderness?
In calling for the towers’ removal, DEC relies on the definition in the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, which is taken from the federal Wilderness Act: “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man—where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” » Continue Reading.
Jim Goodwin turned a hundred today. It’s an occasion that all who love the Adirondacks should celebrate, for perhaps no one loves these mountains more than he does.
Goodwin first saw Keene Valley when he was nine years old and was smitten at once. At eleven, he began guiding hikers for fifty cents a day. At twelve, he led his first client up Mount Marcy, the state’s highest summit.
Have you ever admired the scenery from Pyramid Peak? Thank Jim Goodwin. He cut the trail from Lower Ausable Lake to Pyramid and Gothics in 1966. Many hikers contend that Pyramid has the most spectacular vista in the High Peaks. Goodwin finished the Pyramid route nearly forty years after cutting his first trail, at fourteen, over Little Porter to Porter Mountain. Several years ago, Jim’s son, Tony, relocated the beginning of the trail and dedicated it to the elder Goodwin. Jim also cut the popular Ridge Trail, the most scenic route up Giant Mountain.
Incidentally, Tony followed in his father’s footsteps as a trail builder and as editor of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks guidebook.
Jim also made his mark as a rock climber. He pioneered early cliff routes in the Adirondacks with the legendary John Case, who went on to become president of the American Alpine Club, and wrote parts of the first Adirondack rock-climbing guidebook. Goodwin took part in several first ascents.
He also was a backcountry skier and ice climber.
Goodwin, who taught at a private school in Connecticut, wrote about his adventures in the Adirondacks and other mountains in And Gladly Guide: Reflections on a Life in the Mountains. Neal Burdick’s review of the memoir appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of the Adirondack Explorernewsmagazine. Click on the PDF files below to read the article.
Jim now lives in a retirement home in Keene Valley. And he still gets outside.
“He likes to take walks and say hello to the people he meets,” Tony Goodwin says.
Photo: Jim Goodwin, age 9, on top of Hopkins Mountain.
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.
Mine isn’t the only YouTube video on Adirondack backcountry skiing. Cloudsplitter Mountain Guides has posted two lengthy clips, with music. One was taken on the Whale’s Tail and Wright Peak ski trails during the 2008 Adirondack Backcountry Ski Festival. The other is from the Angel Slides on Wright Peak. Their links follow.
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. » Continue Reading.
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.
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