Heroes of the High Peaks


From north to south, from east to west, the Adirondack Park is a spectacular place. We have vast expanses of intact forest, unpolluted lakes, and crystalline rivers with roiling whitewater. Everywhere you look, there’s something wonderful. But let’s face it: the High Peaks, especially that extraordinary environment on the alpine summits with its rare and delicate flora of the tundra, found nowhere else in New York, is the truly astonishing part of this splendid Park. Can anything really compare with the view from Haystack (or Dix or Gothics or Colden—fill in your personal favorite) on a cloudless, low-humidity day in late September?

Ebenezer Emmons
Ebenezer Emmons

My High Peaks epiphany occurred on Panther in 1966, after a bushwhack from Couchsachraga, before there was any sign of a herd path on that ridge. Panther was only my second High Peak (Couch, obviously, was the first). I had never experienced a 360-degree view in the Adirondacks. (I had also never experienced anything like the blowdown left by the great storm of 1950, tripping me up at every unsteady step.) It was a dry day with excellent visibility. I was only seventeen. To say something was life changing often displays little more than a lazy indifference to clarity, but that hour or so on the summit of Panther half a century ago did, in fact, change my life.

Such moments are not uncommon. Many of us Adirondack obsessives got our start in the High Peaks. Ever since Ebenezer Emmons, a scientist working for the state, announced the existence of these remarkable summits in the 1830s, New Yorkers and others have trekked to the High Peaks, and many have found the spiritual transcendence they were hoping for—to the point that in recent decades their footprints and their impact have seemed more than this fragile ecosystem can tolerate.

Adirondack Archangels: Guardians of the High Peaks, published by the Adirondack Mountain Club, contains essays, reminiscences, and other narratives of men and women who have devoted enormous time and energy to protecting the environmental treasure that the High Peaks continue to offer (it also contains a lot more than that). Foremost among these was Dr. Edwin Ketchledge (1924-2010), longtime professor of forest ecology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse. In addition to his academic duties, in the classroom and in the field, Ketch, as he was universally known, devoted much of his life to understanding and protecting the fragile tundra ecosystem of the High Peaks.

Adirondack Archangels: Guardians of the High Peaks Edited by Christine Bourjade Adirondack Mountain Club, 2016 Cover, pages, $24.95
of the High Peaks
Edited by Christine Bourjade
Adirondack Mountain Club, 2016
Cover, pages, $24.95

The first step was a serious study of the roughly one hundred acres of alpine flora in the Adirondacks. These remnants of the era following New York’s last episode of glaciation were in danger of being loved to death and disappearing entirely. With the help of hundreds of volunteers who gave thousands of hours of labor, Ketch and his crews assessed what was left in the alpine zone, stabilized the soil, and reestablished a micro-environment where those rare alpine plants could survive. Among other things, this whole endeavor sent Ketch to the summit of Algonquin 160 times.

More was needed. In 1989, Ketch and the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy convened a meeting of concerned stakeholders at the Adirondak Loj. Participating in that meeting were the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), the Nature Conservancy, and the Adirondack Forty-Sixers. The result was the establishment of the Summit Stewardship Program. With the assistance of the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the first two stewards were hired and sent to the field, on the summits of Marcy and Algonquin, in the summer of 1990. Their job was to educate the public, help them to understand—and to keep their boots away from—the fragile ecosystem of alpine flora and thin soil on these summits. Over time, the program expanded. More summits were covered; local merchants donated equipment; and the public began to appreciate what the stewards were doing. But funding was always uncertain.

By 2000, detailed photographic measurements showed that the alpine flora was recovering. The key role of Ed Ketchledge and the origins, development, and success of the program are well described in several essays in this book, each of which neatly complements the others. “The Original Summit Steward,” by Ketch’s son, James Ketchledge, describes Ketch’s formative years, including combat duty in the mountains of Italy during World War II, and his untiring dedication to understanding and protecting our alpine summits. “My Father the Renaissance Man,” by daughter Susan Ketchledge Mangus, adds details about Ketchledge’s character and values. Tim Barnett, the director of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy in 1989, and Kathy Regan, also working at the conservancy at the time the program began, recount the establishment and early years of the program, while Julia Goren, who has coordinated the program for ADK since 2006, fills in the years since.

Many of the other essays here wander far beyond the High Peaks, and I found myself searching for some coherent theme tying this book together. One thing this book desperately needs is a succinct introduction clearly stating what it aims to accomplish, what its subject is, and how the various essays were selected. All the pieces are interesting and worth reading, but the rationale for including them all in one book is never explained. I’m always eager to read anything by Ross Whaley, for example, but why is a piece by him on the Adirondack Land Owners Association in this book?

Only buried among the blurbs on the back cover do we learn that the proceeds from sales will support the summit-steward program. It’s a good cause, to be sure, and we should also appreciate a contribution from the Domtar Corporation that underwrote printing expenses. A bit more attention to layout and design would have made this a much more successful and aesthetically appealing book: page margins are tiny, essays are piled upon each other in a mad rush, the organization is perplexing.

That said, I should also add that there are gems here. In its helter-skelter, unpredictable sort of way, the book gathers important pieces on history, ecology, administration, and policy. There’s Seth Jones on Pete Fish, the legendary DEC ranger. Tony Goodwin, who probably knows the High Peaks better than anyone, offers a personal reminiscence on a lifetime of enjoying and caring for this spectacular place. Jay O’Hern looks at the story of the western High Peaks through the lens of the life of hermit Noah John Rondeau and shows how contemplating this odd fellow leads to personal insight. From Joe Martens we have an invaluable essay on his tenure as DEC commissioner. During the four years (2011-2015) that Martens was at the DEC helm, he presided over critically important (and often controversial) decisions on the status and future of the Forest Preserve. Agree with them or not, anyone studying this pivotal moment in Adirondack history will profit from reading his concise, detailed account of some turbulent and pivotal times.

Ed Ketchledge studies the alpine vegetation on Whiteface Mountain. PHOTO BY NANCIE BATTAGLIA
Ed Ketchledge studies the alpine vegetation on Whiteface Mountain.

This is not a book to read from cover to cover. But if you care about the High Peaks, you will want a copy (and don’t forget: the proceeds all support the continuing work of the summit stewards). There are dozens of authors included, along with a brief foreword by Bill McKibben, so I can’t comment on every one of them, but they are all worth reading. In one way or another, they all concern people and institutions that help protect our Park, and what is more important than that?

The central figure, of course, is Ed Ketchledge, and the book includes two essays by him. One, “The Four Rewards of Visiting Alpine Summits,” largely based on a piece Ketch published in ADK’s Adirondac in 1993, provides a delightful schematic of what makes these peaks so special. The other, “The Great North Woods,” is the text of a speech he gave at Union College keynoting a celebration of the Forest Preserve Centennial in 1985. Many men and women, beginning with Ebenezer Emmons himself, have thought deeply about the Adirondacks, what their essence is, why we love the region so intensely. Few have achieved the wisdom and sensitivity displayed in this piece by a man who spent most of his life studying, contemplating, and protecting the Adirondacks.

Historian Philip Terrie is the author of Contested Terrain: A New History of Nature and People in the Adirondacks, among other books.