Almanack Contributor Phil Brown

Phil Brown

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.

Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.


Monday, January 4, 2010

The Problem With The Wright Peak Ski Trail

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.


Monday, December 28, 2009

When Things Go Wrong: Building Emergency Snow Shelters

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.

Drury is the author of The Backcountry Classroom and Camper’s Guide to Outdoor Pursuits.

You can read more about building snow shelters in Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, published by The Mountaineers Books, and How to Build an Igloo And Other Snow Shelters, by Norbert E. Yankielun.

Photo: A quinzee hut, courtesy Wikipedia.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Clarence Petty’s Last Words of Wisdom

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.


Monday, December 14, 2009

In the Adirondacks Quitting is Always an Option

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 wasn’t the only time I got lucky.

This past weekend, I set out to climb Debar Mountain with Mike Lynch, the outdoors writer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. I needed to get photos for a snowshoeing story that will run in the January/February issue of the Adirondack Explorer.

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.”


Monday, December 7, 2009

Pharaoh Lake Wilderness: The Battle of Crane Pond Road

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.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Discussion: Reopening Historic Adirondack Roads

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.