High Peaks A History of Hiking in the Adirondacks

The History Press, 2008 Softcover, 128 pages, $19.99
The History Press, 2008
Softcover, 128 pages,

Tim Rowland’s High Peaks: A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene is an impressionistic review of those aspects of Adirondack history that helped form the landscape that modern-day hikers traverse. Rowland, a humor columnist for the Herald-Mail in Hagerstown, Md., began visiting the Adirondacks in the 1960s, staying at his grandfather’s camp on Third Lake in the Fulton Chain.

His first climb was up neighboring Bald Mountain at age 6, an ascent he fondly recalls in the introduction. He quickly admits, however, that at 8 he was allowed to operate his grandfather’s motorboat, and it was another 30 years before he returned to hiking. He then took up the goal of climbing all 46 High Peaks.

The book explores how the motivations and attitudes toward wilderness and hiking have progressed over the years. The Noah in the subtitle appears to be not the hermit of Cold River (Noah John Rondeau) but the ark builder whose flood was once thought to have been the ultimate shaper of the landscape— including the huge boulders perched on the mountainsides. One can thus see that the book takes in a considerable sweep of time.

After a quick review of the geologic history, Rowland deals with the earliest, and mostly failed, attempts to civilize the wilderness. Iron mining brought dreamers like David Henderson into remote parts of the Adirondacks, but in the pre-Civil War era the wilderness was seen mostly as an obstacle to successful commerce and not a place people might come to for enjoyment. As railroads crept closer after the Civil War, access became just easy enough to permit the first rush of visitors. Rowland describes with great delight the early visitors known as “Murray’s fools,” the hordes of tourists inspired by the Rev. William H.H. Murray’s book on the Adirondacks.

While the first visitors kept mostly to the waterways, Rowland credits the surveyor Verplanck Colvin for not only charting the peaks but also being one of the first to climb mountains just for the sake of the climb. In my own opinion, that honor belongs to the guide “Old Mountain” Phelps, and Rowland does offer a charming portrait of that man and his appeal. The next phase was the Great Camps and grand hotels. We learn first about the eccentricities and excesses of the plutocrats who built the Great Camps, followed by some humorous anecdotes about early hoteliers and their guests.

Old Mountain Phelps
Old Mountain Phelps

The chapter “Forever Wild,” on the history of forest preservation, leads to a personal meditation on the meaning of wilderness as experienced when climbing Couchsachraga. The following chapter, “Fire and Wind,” describes how wildfires, which he says are usually caused by humans, and windstorms have made significant alterations to the Adirondack landscape. Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999, for instance, changed his route to Allen Mountain.

The final three chapters deal with the evolution of hiking in the 20th century. Bob Marshall is given credit for “creating a sport”—climbing the 46 High Peaks—and the hiking clubs get credit for nurturing that sport along. The final chapter provides a good summary of the changes in hiking and outdoor ethics during the past 40 years.

Rowland’s impressions of that part of the outdoor scene that he has witnessed himself are the strongest part of the book. I introduced High Peaks as an “impressionistic history” and close with the caution that the author unfortunately gets many facts wrong. They include minor glitches such as “balsam bows” instead of “boughs” and a consistent misspelling of “Adirondack Loj” (Melvil Dewey left out the “c”) as well as more major errors such as the role played by the Marion River Railroad and the timing of McKinley’s shooting and Roosevelt’s trip up Marcy. Mistakes notwithstanding, Rowland does convey in a very personal way what has attracted many of us to live or visit here: the enjoyment of the Adirondack wilderness.