Editor’s note: This story about Canadian hikers was originally published in the September 2001 edition of the Adirondack Explorer magazine. The players have changed after almost 20 years, but you’ll notice not much else has. Solutions being suggested then: permits, education and spreading users to other areas of the park. This was around the time other restrictions were put into place, including limiting group sizes, prohibiting unleashed dogs and camping above 4,000 feet, and not allowing campfires in the eastern High Peaks.
Oh, one other thing has changed: the Canadian border was closed this summer due to COVID-19 and the numbers remained high.
By Chris Ringwald
No one is asking out loud, but with the foot traffic mounting in the High Peaks, a question looms. Foreign visitors: too much of a good thing?
A recent state report found that 18% of hikers who registered at trailheads in the High Peaks were from Canada. Other estimates put their numbers much higher. “I’d say 25%,” said James Giglinto, the state forest ranger for the area. And Neil Woodworth, attorney and lobbyist for the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), asserts that “on any given weekend, it’s 30-40%.”
None of this would matter much if not for the current efforts to reduce overuse of the High Peaks. Numerous reports have documented the damage, such as erosion around campsites and trampled alpine vegetation, inflicted by hikers and campers on the region’s sensitive ecosystems. Back in 1990, ADK estimated that 68% of the 100 trails in the High Peaks required extensive work to control erosion.
The heavy traffic has prompted proposals to charge fees akin to those levied on hunters or to issue one-time permits, but neither option is likely to be adopted anytime soon. Less-coercive measures range from restrictions enacted recently on group size-15 persons on day hikes and eight overnight-to outreach and educational efforts.
Aside from the same type of grumbling one may hear about people from New Jersey or downstate, complaints about Canadian hikers in the state-managed Park are rare. “Their footprint and impact is no different from anyone else’s,” said Kris Alberga, a senior forester for the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in charge of implementing the High Peaks management plan.
To be sure, the popularity of the High Peaks among Canadians is largely a plus. They enjoy the outdoors, spend money in local stores and restaurants, pay sales taxes and often employ local guides. Besides, we invited them.
The state launched the “I Love New York” campaign about 20 years ago and stepped up its marketing of the Adirondacks 10 years ago. “There was a lot of publicity on the Adirondacks,” said Susie Gaskins, secretary for the Montreal chapter of the Alpine Club of Canada. “People from all over starting going there.”
Based on trailhead registrations, at least 140,000 visitors flocked to the High Peaks in 1998–a twofold increase in less than 15 years. Although this headcount is the best available, it’s far from complete. At some registers, such as the one at Ampersand Mountain, perhaps only half the hikers sign in and out.
The eastern High Peaks region receives the lion’s share of foot traffic, owing to its proximity to Keene Valley and Lake Placid and to its spectacular scenery, which includes Mount Marcy, Algonquin Peak and Avalanche Pass. Nearly three-quarters of the visitors arrive at just five trailheads, all along or near Route 73, which links Keene Valley and Lake Placid to the Northway. Nearly a third start their hikes at ADK’s Adirondak Loj outside Lake Placid. The parking lot at the “Garden” near Keene Valley, the second-most popular register, became so crowded that the town and DEC started a bus service two years ago to shuttle hikers to and from the trailhead.
As popularity of the High Peaks climbs, so does its distant appeal. In 1998, almost half the hikers hailed from Canada or other states. In part, this is a testament to the success of the “I Love New York” campaign. Woodworth said advertising in Montreal and Ottawa led to a sharp increase in Canadian tourists starting in the early 1990s. Pete Fish, a retired High Peaks ranger, said that when he arrived in 1975, junior colleges in Canada were sending down groups of up to 60 students for physical education programs. “They caught the bug and kept on coming,” he said.
From a marketing standpoint, the effort to attract Canadians to the Adirondacks was a no-brainer. After all, Lake Placid is only a two-hour drive from the metropolis of Montreal with its 3.5 million denizens, and a 3½-hour drive from Ottawa, Canada’s capital. In contrast, it takes five hours to get to Lake Placid from New York City.
“They’re nice mountains, reasonably close by,” remarked Bernd Nennemann, a Montreal resident who hikes and skis in the High Peaks. He noted that he can get to the High Peaks in the same time it takes him to drive to the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal. And those mountains are neither as high nor as wild. Nor as cheap.
“Our parks are fee; theirs aren’t,” said Giglinto, the High Peaks ranger. The vast Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, for instance, has a fee-permit system that requires reservations up to five months in advance.
The Adirondack tradition has long favored unrestricted access. As a celebrated section of state Environmental Conservation Law declares: “Lands of the Catskills and Adirondacks parks shall be forever reserved for the free use of the people.” No one has defined “the people” to mean only New Yorkers or only U.S. residents. But the Canadian factor must be reckoned with in any solution to preserve the High Peaks. The Canadians themselves, realizing they are part of the problem, are trying to be part of the solution.
Many Canadians who hike in the High Peaks belong to the Alpine Club of Canada, which boasts more than 7,000 members, most of them in the west. Its Ottawa chapter, with about 300 members, and the Montreal chapter, with about 450 members, sponsor hiking, backcountry skiing, mountaineering and other activities in the Adirondacks as well as other places. The Montreal chapter also owns Keene Farm, a 35-bunk cabin on 105 acres in Keene Valley. David
Gillespie, who oversees the farm, and other Canadians are promoting low-impact or “leave no trace” hiking and camping. As a result, Canadian tours stopped sending dozens of hikers up the same mountain all at once.
Gillespie said that more than 500 Canadians have volunteered for trail work throughout the High Peaks over the years. He noted that the Montreal chapter of the Alpine Club has “adopted” Hurricane Mountain for regular attention. “We use the trails, so we should give something back,” he said. “It’s our thank-you for using your trails.”
One thing’s for sure: the Canadians plan to keep coming. This year, the Montreal chapter planned 27 outings from June to October, and 14 of them were in the Adirondacks. No one is suggesting that we close the border. Nor is anyone suggesting a solution to High Peaks overcrowding that discriminates against Canadians. The three main options are 1) restrict access by requiring permits or charging fees, 2) educate hikers not to despoil the environment, and 3) encourage tourists to visit other parts of the Adirondacks.
Efforts already are underway to lure visitors away from the High Peaks. DEC and the Adirondack Regional Tourism Council, for example, publish tips on places to hike and canoe in other regions of the Park. ADK has begun an “Adirondack Quest” in which members who visit 15 Wilderness areas and 15 Wild Forest areas earn a colorful patch. Nevertheless, the High Peaks remain the biggest draw in the Adirondacks and continue to be marketed in tourism campaigns.
This year, DEC adopted several regulations to minimize the impact of visitors in the High Peaks,including limits on the size of hiking and camping groups. Campfires are no longer allowed in the eastern High Peaks, thus keeping people from trampling vegetation while searching for wood. Other rules include a ban on glass containers, unleashed dogs and camping above 4,000 feet. Quebec outdoor groups helped the agency translate its regulations and “leave no trace” principles into French, the language of the province. “We did a good job getting the information out in the U.S. media; now we have to improve what we do in Canada,” Alberga said.
It’s unclear whether even the best education campaign can succeed, given the high volume of foot traffic. “Is the problem the sheer number of people in the High Peaks or the way they use the High Peaks?” asked Peter Bauer, executive director of the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks. “I don’t know. But if education doesn’t work, we’ll probably support permits down the road.”
Alberga said DEC will consider the permit option in a few years if other measures fail to address the problems of overuse. Just how many visitors would be acceptable? “We’ve come to the realization that 140,000 is probably on the high end of where we want to be,” he said, “but we haven’t come up with a number that would be appropriate.”
Any permit proposal, whatever its details, is sure to meet strong resistance. “I don’t know any cost effective way to collect a fee without a lot of unpleasantness,” said Assemblyman Chris Ortloff, a Plattsburgh Republican who frequently hikes in the Adirondacks.
In defense of Canadians, Ortloff noted that many own second homes in the Adirondacks “and they pay taxes.” Rather than impose permit fees, he suggested that the state collect donations from Canadians and other non-state taxpayers via pamphlets and return envelopes stocked at trailheads.
Susie Gaskins, of the Montreal club, said Canadian hikers are willing to help in any way they can, fiscally or physically. “If we are using the High Peaks, we should contribute to the upkeep,” she said. “A parking charge [at trailheads] is good, since it encourages people to car-pool.” Pitching in as trail volunteers also yields benefits. “We encourage people to join in the upkeep,” she said. “If we put in the effort, we will feel like caretakers.”