By MIKE LYNCH
Summit steward coordinator Kayla White prefers to greet hikers with a smile at the summit of a mountain.
But this year that hasn’t been possible because she wears a mask and her expressions are hidden from the public. For now, she has decided to squint her eyes a little more than normal, like she does when she has a big smile on her face.
“So much of what we do and how we communicate is non-verbal,” she said. “You’re trying to show that you are being friendly (with a smile) and sometimes that’s hard to convey.”
She said people have been guarded at times when she approached them this season because a common way summit stewards connect with people is to ask hikers where they live. She has often found people hesitating to respond because they are from outside of the region or state.
“They think they are going to get chastised about it,” she said. “I try to keep it positive.”
White is the head of the summit steward program, which is run through a partnership between the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, state Department of Environmental Conservation, and Adirondack Mountain Club, with additional funding provided by the Adirondack 46ers. The program has three main goals: educate the public about alpine ecosystems, maintain trails above treeline and conduct scientific research. They often can be found interacting with the public on the state’s tallest mountains, such as Mount Marcy and Algonquin Peak.
This season the program has had to make some adjustments due to the pandemic and funding issues. The crew is smaller than normal. They only have three paid stewards this year compared to the five they’ve had in year’s past. To fill in the gaps, they’ve used members of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s education staff as stewards. They also get help from volunteers.
They also adjusted where they are stationed. For instance, the stewards continue to cover Marcy and Algonquin seven days a week, but no longer go to Cascade Mountain on weekends. Staff determined it wasn’t safe to be on that summit with the large crowds that go there because the majority of hikers don’t wear masks on summits, she said, and the Cascade summit is too small for social distancing.
When on the summit, they also keep their distance more than normal. They no longer take photos of hikers with their smart phones, a common practice in the past, and make sure to keep their distance when talking to people.
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White has noticed that days when people hike are also slightly different from days past. For much of the summer, Thursdays have been very busy. As normal, so have Fridays and Saturdays. But Sundays have been slow, at least they were earlier in the summer. Overall, she said, hiker traffic had been down on summits leading up to early July. But it has definitely picked up since then, with trailhead parking lots filling up well before 6 a.m. on busy days.
“They are not always coming on the regular days that we think as being busy,” she said.
The large summer crowds are a trend that has been well established in recent years, and many hikers are continuing to go to the summits unprepared for such long and remote day trips. An Explorer reporter witnessed several accounts of this on a busy Saturday in mid-July on Mount Marcy, when there were hikers near the summit walking in sandals, multiple hikers carrying little gear – and the chronic issues related to human waste clearly hadn’t gone away.
“We have continued to see a lot of unprepared hikers, a lot of new people to the area who have never been here,” White said. “I think that can be attributed to COVID, people trying to get out into outdoor spaces.”
One summit steward, Michaela Dunn, wrote about some of these issues with unprepared hikers in a July 30 blog post on Hiking for Wildness, a website dedicated to “outdoor adventures and conservation advocacy.”
She detailed one particular morning when she ran into three groups on Mount Marcy who had tented near the summit of the 5,344-foot mountain. Camping above 3,500 feet is prohibited. One of the groups even had a fire. Another pair of people that she ran into that morning had a drone, which aren’t allowed to be launched from wilderness area.
Dunn wrote that in three seasons of stewarding the past two weeks had been “the hardest days I had ever experienced.”
“I spoke to 700 hikers in five days. Many people accidentally step on the vegetation above the tree line before I can talk to them,” she wrote. “700 people means 700 pairs of feet on the trails. Just five footsteps will kill the plants.”
Adirondack Mountain Club education program coordinator Tyler Socash, who has been summit stewarding this season for the first time, commented on the Explorer’s Facebook page that 326 people visited Marcy one Saturday, and he had to bury eight piles of toilet paper on his way down from the summit.
Socash also spoke to the Explorer about his summit stewarding experiences in an interview in early July.
He said he noticed three trends in the spring and early summer. In May and June many hikers weren’t prepared for the inclement weather, such as colder weather and snow near the summit. In addition, many people didn’t realize they were supposed to stay on the rock trails near the summit and were treading on alpine vegetation and the thin soils. He also found lots of microtrash scattered on trails, although White noted that can be a result of it melting out of the snow in the sprint.
But despite the challenges, Socash said he’s found the summit stewarding experience gratifying as he’s had to “relay that message of how important that ecosystem is and can we can enjoy it responsibly.”
“I used to hike for the vista and used to hike to see if I could spot Mansfield in Vermont or see Long Lake to the west,” he said. “But after my first stint summit stewarding now I’m just as fascinated by the plants beneath my feet.”