By Tim Rowland
When a Jeep Cherokee ended up at Marcy Dam recently, Adirondack advocates, who had felt they were just starting to make progress with educational, leave-no-trace principles, scarcely knew what to say.
Somehow, a pair of would-be hikers had avoided the two-mile foot trail into the wilderness base camp and plowed their way through the forest up a gnarly, abandoned truck road to a virtual shrine of backcountry recreation where motors of any sort are emphatically not allowed.
To reach Marcy Dam, the driver had to go through a gate, which apparently had been left unlocked following a recent mountain rescue, and ignore signs against motorized use.
The incident also put a capstone on a summer season that has attracted a new demographic to the woods, as people have shunned beaches and air travel and searched for drivable vacation destinations.
Mistake or not?
“The vast majority of visitors want to do the right thing,” said Ben Brosseau, director of communications for the Adirondack Mountain Club. “This is certainly not the first time the gate to the Marcy Dam Truck Trail has been left open, so I don’t think we can use this one incident as an example of a behavioral trend.”
Brosseau said the breach in protocol was more due to an isolated case of poor judgment than anything related to a new set of Adirondack Park users who don’t know the ropes.
“Most probably would have taken one look at the Marcy Dam Truck Trail and decided that it wasn’t worth the risk to their vehicle,” he said. “It hasn’t been maintained for vehicle use in many decades.”
In fact, the last non-emergency vehicle on record to take the truck road was a security detail for George Pataki, who drove the then-governor to the dam so he could hike Marcy within a timeframe that did not interfere with his official duties.
A spokeswoman for the DEC said the owner of the Jeep was ticketed for use of a motorized vehicle on State Land, failure to obey a DEC sign, and damaging, destroying and injuring vegetation on State Land.
Surge in new visitors
But in the topsy turvy summer of 2020, officials are considering the impact of a new set of Adirondack fans on future years. Keene Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson said the one thing that’s caught everyone’s attention is that hiker numbers have remained the same, or even increased, over last year even though the Canadian border remains closed due to the coronavirus.
Canadians typically represent between a quarter and a third of Adirondack hikers. That means there’s been a big influx of American hikers, many of whom may be experiencing the mountains for the first time.
Wilson said the town has been trying to educate the crowds about lesser used trails, but now even those trailheads are filling. Plus, many newcomers who have read about the park online come determined to climb a High Peak, he said.
It’s all added up to record or near-record crowds. Employees at the Adirondak Loj who need to be at work at the crack of dawn say they have had to go in even earlier, to avoid the lines of cars that are flowing into the lot by 5 a.m. Wilson said The Garden, another popular trailhead, has been filled seven days a week.
That’s another difference. Perhaps because of more flexible work schedules, weekdays in the Adirondacks have been almost as busy as weekends.
Brosseau said ADK summit stewards have made about the same amount of contacts this summer — more than 12,000 — as last year, despite the absence of the Canadian hikers. But there are some curious differences. For example, the numbers of hikers to Marcy are up, while Algonquin’s are down. Brosseau said Canadians tend to find Algonquin — the Adirondacks’ second-highest mountain — to be a more appealing hike, while new hikers want the distinction of climbing Marcy, the state’s tallest mountain.
“We believe that a combination of pandemic-related situations — including limitations on most forms of recreation, travel restrictions, disruptions in work schedules, and the lower risk of contracting coronavirus in the outdoors — pushed a lot more people to explore hiking and backpacking for the first time,” Brosseau said. “As a result, we did see increased issues with unburied poop, trash, and illegal camping this summer. These sorts of challenges are often associated with novice users, who may be either unaware of regulations or uncomfortable with certain outdoor practices, such as using a cathole to dispose of poop.”
Or refraining from motorized shortcuts.