An excellent pair of articles published here recently by Mike Lynch (Beyond Peak Capacity and Group of 67 People Ticketed on Algonquin) resurrected some memories from the 1970s and ’80s, when avid (or zealous, rabid, insatiable … just pick one) hikers like me lived in constant fear that access to the mountains would soon be restricted. That anxiety was based on frequent newspaper headlines touting plans to alleviate trail damage attributed to hordes of newcomers to the Adirondacks.
Like now, the problems back then were intensified by successful efforts aimed at raising public awareness about the wonders within the mountains, and thus boost the region’s tourism-based economy. The result: more people, more spending, and greater profits, but also more boots on the ground, more worn trails, and more poop in the woods. The problems intensified so quickly that organizations and politicians offered all sorts of solutions, most of which left hikers fearful that the freedom to roam would be restricted.
I lived along the Canadian border in northern Clinton County at the time, 90 minutes from Keene Valley. Already I had been making the trip twice a week for years to hike and climb. Imagine starting at St. Huberts early in the morning (you could park near the tennis courts back then), spending six to eight hours hiking, and not seeing another soul all day. Or climbing Giant Mountain, including side trails, and not encountering anyone. It was glorious! The key was focusing on weekdays and working the 4 pm-to-midnight shift. Foregoing sleep was worth a high that lingered well into the next day.
In the 1970s, all the talk about hiking permits and closing off parts of the Adirondacks was scary, and more than a little depressing. But something needed to be done to preserve places (mountain peaks and the most popular trails) that were taking a beating. Requiring hiking permits for the High Peaks was perhaps the most common proposal, but don’t confuse common with popular, for most hikers hated the idea.
Still, it was proposed many times, and was even part of legislation prepared in 1977 by Assemblyman Glen Harris. An estimated 85,000 hikers used the High Peaks area each year, a situation that was unsustainable without some sort of control measures. Said Harris: “Participating in the summer rush-hour traffic of 85,000 hikers can hardly be a ‘wilderness experience.’ The trails on Mt. Marcy and Algonquin are already badly eroded, strewn with litter…. To reverse this trend, I am drafting legislation to be considered at the next session that will require a use permit, or season ‘passport,’ for anyone desiring to climb and camp out in the High Peaks. Hopefully, some of the crowds will disperse to other equally beautiful areas of the Adirondacks…. Obviously, I do not advocate charging a fee for ‘a walk in the woods’ or hiking in other less-used areas of the Adirondacks. But the situation on more than 200 miles of trails in the High Peaks is unique and can no longer be ignored.”
In 1979, the DEC director of lands and forests, Norm Van Valkenburgh, suggested that “indirect management policies” might work much better than direct actions like hiking permits. “One idea that I have to reduce use is to create a ‘friction’ to the hiker—something to get in his way…. By neglecting the maintenance of trails, we could reduce usage.” The theory was that only the most dedicated hikers would endure hardships that were added to make movement more difficult. Examples included “lengthening trails, removal of bridges, and closing some trails.”
In 1985, the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution asking the state to develop a system of fees charged to hikers and canoeists to cover the cost of maintaining the most popular (overused) trails. The proposed price for a license was $5, but fishermen and hunters would be exempt because they already paid license fees to the state.
Despite all those scary proposals (and if you passionately loved hiking, climbing, and canoeing in the Adirondacks, those were scary ideas), what worked was education. Rangers advised hikers on good practices, and also gleaned information from them that helped shape future policies. The Adirondack Mountain Club spent those decades educating the public on how to behave and use proper etiquette in the woods, resulting in measurable improvements. During the giardia outbreak of 1984, when it was realized that cases of infamous “beaver fever” were on the rise because of poor sanitation practiced by campers (yes, ingesting water tainted with human excrement was making many people ill), the Adirondack 46ers purchased 10,000 trowels, which were handed out to campers on their way into the woods, along with brochures provided by the AMC with information on how to help curb the illness. The short version of those instructions on handling human waste was provided by Dave Slingerland, a DEC ranger, who put it succinctly: “You gotta bury it.”
Those same groups and others educated the public on many topics: alpine summits and how to preserve them; the importance of carrying out trash; and the rewards of seeking out many of the lesser-used sections of the Adirondacks, like the Five Ponds Wilderness Area, Cranberry Lake Wild Forest, and Pepperbox Wilderness.
Areas like those became my salvation, for despite the positive outcomes of many educational programs, and great progress in preserving the trail system, I was hooked on the solitude and wilderness feel of those all-day trips without encountering other hikers. The solutions for me were lesser-known peaks of all sizes, canoeing in quiet places, and bushwhacking. On those outings, seeing 67 people over the course of a year was unheard of, let alone in a single group. Those quiet trips of long ago are treasured memories.
Photos: Headlines, top to bottom: Lake Placid News, 1985; Lake Placid News, 1979; Adirondack Daily Enterprise, 1985; Adirondack Daily Enterprise, 1984
A version of this article was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.