Trailblazers at Adirondack Mountain Club helped shape the park; and their work continues a century later
By Zachary Matson
On a sunny July day in 2007, Seth Jones for the first time stepped atop Mount Marcy. He took in the power of the summit and its seemingly endless views and encountered a uniformed woman.
Julia Goren, an Adirondack Mountain Club summit steward, told Jones about the fragile alpine ecosystem blanketing New York’s tallest mountain and the importance of not stepping on the plants. Being a steward intrigued him. “It had never really occurred to me that that type of work was out there,” he recalled.
The hiker-steward interaction has happened hundreds of thousands of times since the steward program was established in 1989, but on that day two future education directors of ADK stood together on top of New York state.
Entering its centennial year, ADK, which has enabled so many to summit Marcy and other Adirondack peaks, remains committed to the Adirondacks and its future.
The story of ADK’s founding reads like campfire lore: In January 1921, Meade C. Dobson, of the New York State Association of Real Estate Boards, illegally caught a trout near Utica. He bragged about the fish to his friend, the chief state game protector, earning himself a fine and an audience with state Conservation Commissioner George Pratt—soon to be the club’s first president.
Dobson pitched Pratt the idea of an Adirondack hiking club similar to the Appalachian Mountain and Green Mountain clubs already working on trail and shelter projects in New England. The commissioner, whose department that year was granted $2,500 for trail work, was intrigued. After hearing more support for the idea from Adirondack resort owners, Pratt directed William Howard, assistant superintendent of state forests, to promote a club.
“That there is a wide field of usefulness open to such an organization cannot be doubted for a minute,” Howard wrote in a 1921 letter, according to ADK’s archives.
The existence of a mountain club could bolster interest in outdoor recreation among people “whose enthusiasm for such sport is only lukewarm at present” and stimulate improved “camping manners,” Howard argued. Crucially, a hiking organization could fill the void of needed work on trails and shelters in the North Country, opening the Adirondack backcountry wider to the public.
“There is a great need for more public trails and public campsites,” Howard wrote, “in the Adirondacks particularly.”
‘A wonderful field for actual work’
Before hiking clubs, surveyors cut trails to many of the state’s highest peaks. Logging operations built a network of roads that could later be used as trails. Vacationers visited in growing numbers in the second half of the 19th century as resorts, hotels and Great Camps proliferated. Some hoteliers established trails for their patrons. Downstate tramping associations formed to connect to wilderness.
In New Hampshire, the Appalachian Mountain Club formed in 1876, Vermont’s Green Mountain Club in 1910. In the Adirondacks, the need for a hiking club became apparent.
Around 1916, Saranac Lake native Henry Ives Baldwin and a group of friends clearing trails in the High Peaks named themselves the Adirondack Mountain Club, according to “Forest and Crag,” a history of hiking in the Northeast, by Laura and Guy Waterman.
But after Meade Dobson in 1921 appeared before Commissioner George Pratt, the idea of an Adirondack hiking club drew 40 enthusiasts to the Log Cabin atop the Abercrombie & Fitch sporting goods store in Manhattan. On April 3, 1922, 75 of 208 certified charter members including Franklin Delano Roosevelt formalized the organization.
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As the founders wrapped up the historic meeting, Dobson summed up the “boots on the ground” ethic.
“We are really the only organization that is going to do something for the people,” he said, according to meeting minutes. “So many of these organizations have beautiful theories and principles and adopt creeds and pledges and planks, but they don’t give the people anything. Here we come to the people and if they come to the mountains, we give them trails, campsites and shelters.”
The club propelled, issuing a 38-page manual, The High Peaks of the Adirondacks by Robert Marshall, in August 1922: part guide, part historic account, part catalyst to a new type of adventure. It sold for 25 cents.
Marshall, his brother George and their guide, Herb Clark, climbed the state’s highest mountains, and his account outlined the paths and trails available to all who followed.
“This is the first of a series of publications to be issued from time to time by The Adirondack Mountain Club… as facts and features are discovered or collected relating to the Adirondacks and deemed worthy of permanent record in this manner,” according to the introduction in the first of numerous guides, books and maps published by ADK.
A special note on the subjective nature of Marshall’s rating system advised: “To the reader who feels that some favorite peak has been slighted, our only advice is to climb them all and make your own rating!”
ADK immediately set out to establish an Adirondack long trail, running from Northville in the south to Lake Placid in the north, both accessible by train depot. Howard, the club’s trails chair, hired two men to build the trail. The pair spent the next two years clearing brush along logging roads and deer paths, building log bridges and shelters. By 1924, Howard reported the trail was “in good condition practically its entire length.”
The club also quickly built trails and shelters in the High Peaks, including storied backcountry haunt Johns Brook Lodge, which opened July 1, 1925, on 15 acres of timberlands donated to ADK by papermaker J. & J. Rogers.
Over the next 96 years, ADK built a legacy of expanding backcountry access, teaching visitors wilderness safety, leading adventures throughout the park and playing a major role in the countless political and legal fights that unfolded on issues of balancing recreational access and wildlands conservation–fights that sometimes divided the club.
It grew to nearly 900 members by 1927, to 2,500 in 1964, 7,000 in 1972, 18,000 in 1990, and nearly 30,000 today.
“There’s always been a very strong commitment in the Adirondack Mountain Club to giving back to wilderness, whether it’s men and women who want to help take care of trails, whether it’s volunteer summit stewards, whether it’s sitting on committees to develop policy,” said Neil Woodworth, the former head who worked at ADK for 30 years.
Growing up around Gloversville, the son of an avid trout fisherman, Woodworth learned to love the outdoors in the south-central Adirondacks. He started to get involved with ADK as a student at Albany Law School and while working as a trial attorney. He joined the ADK staff in 1989.
During Woodworth’s tenure, ADK expanded its advocacy and lobbying efforts, including focusing on projects of interest to members in their local communities.
“As we got more and more chapters spread throughout the state, those chapters began to be affected by decisions made by government agencies,” Woodworth said. “Then we began to take issues beyond the forest preserve.”
The club joined groups pressing the state to acquire Sterling Forest and supported the creation of the Schunnemunk Mountain State Park, both in Orange County.
ADK also continued to play a key role in the Adirondacks, joining with others in the late-1990s to a block resort development on Little Tupper Lake and filing a 2010 lawsuit alongside Protect the Adironadacks to reject a state decision allowing float planes on Lows Lake despite its wilderness classification.
They also offered backing to a spate of land acquisitions that added significantly to the state’s Adirondack holdings, including Boreas Ponds and 1 million acres protected under Gov. George Pataki.
“We were advocating for the purchase of new lands for the forest preserve and other wild places and making sure New York state had the money always to fund those purchases,” Woodworth said.
‘The young at heart’
ADK, like many social organizations, faces a “silver-hair” situation: 70 percent of its members are age 65 or older.
Club leaders note the longevity is a sign of member loyalty and continued involvement, but they also acknowledge the need to attract new members.
The opportunity seems ripe: Hordes are descending on the park’s trails and social media fuels viral interest in picture-ready nature. The need is also great. Many new adventurers lack necessary experience, and stories abound of unprepared hikers requiring rescue.
ADK hopes to step in and become an even more essential source of wilderness education.
“When I wanted to do more (adventuring), I was afraid of being the young woman lost in the woods by herself,” said Megan McLaughlin, 34, who is actively engaged in the Glens Falls chapter and works as membership services manager at ADK’s Lake George office. “I moved up here knowing nothing about real hiking other than going for a walk at a local park, and I have found mentors. They took me under their wing and educated me as we hiked.”
Some chapters have started efforts to recruit young members. The Schenectady chapter hosts regular social events at local bars, and some of the members who engaged through the socials have become chapter leaders. The Genesee Valley chapter created the first position focused on scheduling outings for young families. By targeting the needs of younger members, such as offering get-togethers or outings outside of normal work hours, chapters are helping people make connections. (McLaughlin met her boyfriend through ADK.) “We still want to cater to everyone,” McLaughlin said. “ADK has always been an ‘everyone is welcome’ place. The young member group, we advertise them as 20s, 30s and the young at heart.”
Seth Jones’ earliest experience in the Adirondacks centered around Old Forge, visiting Eagle Bay as early as six months old. After his summit encounter with Goren, Jones became a summit steward the next season. He spent a summer as hutmaster at Johns Brook Lodge, managing a small crew and feeding guests. He rode out Hurricane Irene at the backcountry lodge, feeling the floor shake as massive boulders crashed down the stream.
Now, as education director, Jones, 33, hopes he can inspire more young adventurers and expand on the club’s existing school-based programs. He also emphasized the importance of reinforcing hiker preparedness.
“It’s not vilifying people when they don’t know, the weaponizing of ‘leave no trace’ that happens,” Jones said. “It’s being welcoming and accepting of novice users and helping them on that journey.”
Goren, 42, who previously worked as an ADK summit steward and education director, returned to ADK in 2021 as deputy director. She said the organization has long focused on providing people different ways to access the Adirondacks and work to support the shared mission of protecting them for future generations. She said she thinks ADK and the Adirondacks of the next 100 years should better represent New Yorkers.
“I would hope to see an Adirondack Park that’s really welcoming of new voices and new faces and is a reflection of New York state, and the mountain club is a reflection of that, too,” Goren said.
‘Welcome to the cloud’
About 12 miles from its start at a small pocket park in Northville, the 135-mile-long Northville-Placid Trail crosses Benson Road. It heads north into Silver Lake Wilderness, the first of four wilderness areas it passes through on its way to Lake Placid. The trail, rerouted in recent years to minimize road walking, now skirts Woods Lake and traverses Adirondack lowlands as it crosses multiple streams before meeting up with the old route.
Late last fall, the largest hills surrounding the lake were draped in the soft white of early morning snow and partly shrouded in clouds. Clear water lapped the shore. Large boulders dropped in place by receding glaciers stood like sentinels. The trail at times dissolved into a tangle of streamlets and mud as Klarisse Torriente, 29, recounted her summer as ADK’s first Black summit steward.
She enjoyed volunteering “in the clouds,” watching ever-changing weather and light as it moseyed over the mountains, and engaging with scores of hikers atop Wright, Cascade and Giant. But it was the rare occasion that she saw other people of color taking in the summit views.
“Most of my friends of color don’t have a relationship with the Adirondacks,” she said. “Your advocacy isn’t working, your education isn’t working, you need more people coming…. Then you will get more lawmakers who say, ‘My people are going up there, ok, then I care too.’”
Torriente grew up in Newburgh, the child of a Puerto Rican mother and Black Cuban father who worked as a New York City police officer. She grew passionate about nature as a high school cross country runner, but she didn’t know anything about the Adirondacks until she moved to Albany and started hiking more.
During a hike, she discussed future career prospects in Adirondack recreation or conservation. “It’s a hard world to break into.” She outlined wilderness goals. “I’m going to see a moose.” And pondered the untold histories of the Adirondacks. “I wonder if the Underground Railroad came through here.” She hopes to again work as a volunteer summit steward with ADK and hopes to do the same next season. On some days last summer, she woke up at 3:30 a.m. to hit the road out of Albany by 4 a.m. Arriving at the trailhead around 6:30 a.m., she could make it to her outpost in the sky by 9 or 10 a.m.
“Welcome to the cloud,” she would tell hikers on a particularly socked-in day on top of a High Peak. “Everyone can be in a cloud, and a lot of people don’t even know that… If you haven’t been going to your best friend’s family’s camp on Cranberry Lake every summer, you don’t know.”
She would ask if they had ever met a summit steward. When the answer was no, she took her cue. “Boy, do I have a story for you,” she said. “I would be overtly welcoming, like I’m greeting someone into my kitchen.”
When Marshall published his 1922 guide to the High Peaks, he offered readers six trails up Mount Marcy. Today, one of those trails starts from ADK’s Heart Lake campus; in Marshall’s day the legacy of logging was still fresh and scarred the landscape.
“From the north there is also a trail, very muddy and running mostly through slash,” he wrote.
Goren followed that trail many times during her years as a summit steward. In the 100 years since Marshall offered his unflattering assessment of the Heart Lake approach, burned and downed trees have transformed into soil and a century of new growth has renewed the forest to a state far more natural than what the earliest club members experienced.
“It’s still muddy,” Goren said, “but it’s wilder than what Marshall experienced by a lot, and if we do our job right, it will be wilder still in the future.”
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This first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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