By TIM ROWLAND
In an information age, information about hiking the High Peaks can be surprisingly scarce.
A GPS app can supply the coordinates of a summit or trailhead, but nothing on a smartphone is going to tell a visitor where to go if the parking lots are full, how capable they are of tackling a High Peak or how much water to carry on a hike up Gothics on a 90-degree day.
That sort of information requires human contact. And while steps are being taken in that direction, somewhat remarkably, for all the thousands on thousands of guests pouring into Keene Valley each summer, there is nothing resembling a visitor center along Route 73.
Many if not most of the hikers arriving in Keene Valley are simply on their own, and that’s led to what officials are calling a crisis of parking and a concentration of too many hikers on too few trails.
Largely in the absence of state action, the tiny Town of Keene, with a population just north of 1,000 people, is battling back, asking for a $100,000 grant to pay for three years of help from front-country stewards, which are effectively guides who operate not in the mountains but in the parking lots, dispensing critical information.
It has also formed a planning committee made up of town residents to find solutions to overcrowding, and in conjunction with state Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, is working on sketches for a welcoming lodge at Marcy Field.
At a public meeting Wednesday, Town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson laid out the problem in dramatic terms, noting that at several points over the summer Keene Valley was just a whisper away from tragedy due to hiker inexperience or an inability to manage the crowds.
Over the summer, bridge work forced the closure of the narrow road leading up from Keene Valley to The Garden, one of the three most popular trailheads into the High Peaks interior. So the town ran a shuttle service to the Garden from Marcy Field over a private road that bypassed the bridge.
One hot evening after the shuttle service had ended, Wilson said a shuttle driver became concerned that a couple of hikers who had seemed poorly prepared and had not returned. “The driver said, ‘I’m worried, I’m going to make one more run,’” Wilson said.
He found a woman in the parking lot unconscious, suffering from dehydration.
A state effort to limit hikers by closing the shoulder of Route 73 to parking was at best a mixed bag. First, Wilson said, the no-parking signs were installed parallel to the road in a way that was hard for drivers to notice. After judges threw out the first round of tickets, the signs were reinstalled to face traffic. Even so, hikers who had made up their minds that they would climb a particular peak that day, simply parked farther down the road, which meant they were walking an extra mile or two along the busy highway just to arrive at the trailhead.
The restricted parking also pushed hikers seeking a parking space into neighborhood roads and private driveways. On peak days, authorities barricaded local roads and employed off-duty police to tell motorists to move on. Still the hikers came. Even Keene Valley residents who are steeled to the summer influx said this summer was particularly bad.
Keene finds itself torn between being a welcoming community, while making sure its roads and mountains are not overrun. “We’re interested in protecting the wilderness and we’re also interested in protecting the opportunity to enjoy the wilderness,” said Keene resident Peter Slocum, who is chairing a citizen committee charged with finding solutions to the hiker problem.
At a recent organizational meeting, committee members said they were startled at the crush of hikers this summer, and reported frayed nerves, even as they were trying to remain friendly to strangers.
Residents said they were also concerned that vacationers would squeeze locals off the trails. Keene resident Hearth Rising said that due to work schedules, locals don’t plan all-day hikes, but instead grab three or four hours on a trail with some frequency. She said she was concerned that shuttles and paid hiking permits would penalize those who live in the park year round. “If you’re on vacation, $10 is nothing, but if you live here it adds up very quickly,” she said. “You have to make it affordable for people who live here to hike here.”
And if residents were becoming agitated, hikers were as well. Wilson, who was engaged in a well-publicized dust-up with a Canadian banker angry at the lack of parking, said he can understand the man’s frustration after planning his trip, driving down from Montreal, staying the night in Lake Placid and then being told there was no place to park.
There are also other, more subtle signs of hiker anger. Prior to The Garden’s closure last spring, hikers were good about paying the lot’s parking fee on the honor system. After it reopened in late summer, Wilson said 40% to 50% were refusing to pay.
Wilson said he suspects the attempts to manage parking might actually be to blame. “The backlash is that we’re inviting them to the party, then we’re giving them a ticket,” he said.
One positive side effect of Wilson’s confrontation, outside of making him a local folk hero, is that the next day he received a call from Albany asking what the state could do to help.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has since acknowledged that crowd-management needs to be addressed with better planning, and to that end the Department of Environmental Conservation has appointed an advisory committee to offer guidance on something conservationists have argued for: a comprehensive management plan to address High Peaks use.
Dan Plumley, a former director of Adirondack Wild, said it’s something he among others have been agitating for years — although he said many of those first-movers have not been given a seat at the table as solutions are sought. He said intensive use is an issue that does not lend itself to piecemeal decisions.
“A decision is made in one place, and the problem goes somewhere else,” he said. “You’ve got to demand comprehensive planning, because it’s all tied together. The surge (of hikers) is going to continue, and what we don’t know will hurt us.”
Planning committees have a number of things to mull over, and some early indicators of what works and what doesn’t. For example, a shuttle designed to ease pressure in Keene Valley by running from Lake Placid to Wilmington-area trails found few takers.
On the other hand, front-country stewards are both popular and effective. Keene Board Member Teresa Cheetham-Palen said, “Most people welcome help and information. They just need some direction.”
But even little quirks of human nature can add to the crowds; people driving by who see a lot of cars will pull over as well, to see what’s so interesting, Cheetham-Palen said.
With all available parking filled to the gills by daybreak on popular hiking days, Cheetham-Palen, Wilson and Board Member Bob Biesemeyer themselves joined the front-country stewards in dispensing information on “surge” days, an activity that wasn’t part of the town-board job description.
But it was also a learning experience, and will be useful as the town plots its future course. Solutions will ultimately depend not just on the town, but on multiple jurisdictions and agencies. Some early ideas on the table are a permit system for hikers, expanded shuttle service, redirection to other nearby trails and more satellite parking.
But each potential solution seems to have potential drawbacks. The shuttles, for instance, make money only on the most highly used days, and finding drivers and scheduling is a management nightmare, Wilson said. The town budgeted $48,000 for crowd management and spent $71,000, largely because for the bridge closure. Revenue from parking tickets is expected to make up the difference, but because of the varying crowd sizes, a more extensive shuttle system would almost surely have to be subsidized.
Perhaps the best way to manage the crowds is to somehow get information into vacationers’ hands before they leave their homes — thus heading off problems of parking and over-hiked mountains at the pass. “Getting to hikers early is going to be a key component to management,” Wilson said. “The question is going to be, how do we reach them before they get here?”
Slocum said the final answers may still be hiding out there somewhere, and to that end he said his planning committee is open to town members, and all ideas are welcome. “We’d love to have more members, and we’re open to all kinds of suggestions,” he said.