Lean-to love: Volunteers restore quintessential Adirondack shelters
By Brandon Loomis
The work chant echoed from the hillside and across Lake Colden as a line of men leaned on a rope strung through a treetop pulley.
“Oy! … Oy! … Oy! … Oy!”
It was the sound of an enthusiastic band of volunteers—outdoorspeople who joke that they toil weekends in the woods because they’re “dumber’n a bag of hammers”—pulling the iconic Adirondack lean-to into the future.
That’s something that the crew from Lean2Rescue does both literally (pulling the Beaver Point Lean-to log-by-log to restore it in a state-approved new location away from the water) and figuratively (salvaging historic structures that would otherwise rot and return to the forest).
It’s a grueling job that some of them say they would never do for pay, but would go out of their way to do for love. It’s also not without controversy, as people with long traditions of staying in particular lean-tos get upset when a crew moves it on the order of state environmental officials.
Along with the Adirondack 46ers and the state, these volunteers this spring surpassed 100 “rescues,” or restorations of the structures that have been identified with Adirondack adventures for at least a century. Private campers or clubs built many on state land before there were rules against it, which made them state property. With 234 sprinkled across the park, volunteers figure to have more than 100 more jobs to go, averaging a little more than a handful a year.
“It’s about heritage: Adirondack heritage. Why waste a lean-to that could be refurbished?”— Tom Hart, Lean2Rescue volunteer
It’s also about harmony, as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation attempts to preserve a century-old tradition of log-sided camping structures while reducing developed spaces along waterways and trails. It was for that reason that the workers had to dismantle the lean-to and hoist it into the woods uphill from its shoreline perch on Colden before giving it a new roof and decades more to stand.
“We’re trying to get people not to camp right on the shoreline,” said Kris Alberga, regional supervisor of natural resources for DEC. Keeping a lean-to on the waterfront encourages people to congregate there and create more paths that can affect both the shoreline vegetation and the area’s natural appearance when viewed from across the water, he said.
The Beaver Point job, in May, was the second removal from Colden’s southwest side. The other relocated structure is now in the woods east of the lake.
The state amended the park’s land plan in the 1970s to require at least a 100-foot setback, but Alberga said there’s not a sufficient budget to schedule moving those that remain on shorelines. Instead, the department waits until a lean-to needs major restoration—a whole new roof, say, instead of just reshingling—and calls in for help moving and fixing it.
It’s a costly bargain for those whose favorites are moved or removed.
“I get why they want the lean-to moved,” Jan Hansen said in response to an AdirondackExplorer.org story about the Beaver Point relocation. “But part of the charm staying in a shore-adjacent lean-to is to wake up to the sound of water and the beautiful scenery.”
The old Beaver Point location offered those elements in abundance, with a dramatic vista across the water to Mount Colden and the cliffs that cradle Avalanche Lake beyond.
Moving lean-tos helps preserve views enjoyed by people visiting a lake’s other shore, Alberga said. But DEC also wants to preserve fragile vegetation, whether on shorelines or the High Peaks alpine zones, where the state removed several lean-tos years ago.
Lean-to camping rules have also changed over the years, Alberga said. For instance, the “rule” that campers must make room to share the structure with late-arriving campers is no longer enforced, because it became outdated with the advent of lightweight backpacking tents. Decades ago campers’ only options were either cumbersome wall tents or the lean-tos, so declining to share could mean leaving someone unsheltered in the woods. Sharing may still be common etiquette, he said, though most people will prefer to pitch a tent elsewhere when they find a lean-to occupied.
Doug Arnold, a Lean2Rescue volunteer from Phoenix, NY, acknowledged during the Beaver Point relocation that some people grouse about relocations away from lake views, but he said others thank the group for protecting waterfronts. Through it all, the volunteers have ignored any politics, Arnold said, and “prided ourselves on working in the woods.”
“We’re here to be directed by the New York State DEC,” he said. “If they ask us to move a lean-to from the side of a lake up there,” he said, pointing to the wooded hillside where his crew (“Oy! … Oy!”…) was hoisting logs with pulleys, “they have a reason and we don’t question it.”
The group has been active for 15 years and has about 300 volunteers, including a regular core of about 40. Arnold singled out “lean-to saint” Hilary Moynihan in particular, both for coordinating volunteers and for providing local barn space that has become a “lean-to hospital” where the crew moves a structure when it needs more work than can be done on site.
“There’s always someone that would dispute what we’re doing,” Arnold said, “but we think, by and large, restoring a lean-to so that it has another 50 years of life is the important aspect, and we’re thankful to do it.”
Arnold worked the hillside, helping guide the logs along boards laid down to keep them from gouging into the forest floor. Below, several young men marched back and forth carrying the logs from the former shoreline campsite to the foot of the hill, where another man tied them to the hoisting rope. Above, next to the line of rope pullers, those with some carpentry skills drilled and hammered the logs back into the form of a three-sided cabin. In all, 14 volunteers completed the move and rebuild in about a day, with some having previously dismantled the lean-to and stayed overnight in the wilderness.
Lean-to enthusiast and historian Robert Williams’ voice rises when he discusses the condition of many of the structures. Their adopters report rot and other problems each year, he said, but DEC doesn’t invest sufficiently to protect most of them. He recalled visiting a lean-to at Tongue Mountain that’s in such disrepair, “why even leave it there?” Volunteers do admirable work, he believes, but these are public resources that deserve public attention.
“If the state says they’re public property,” he said, “you’re damn right they should be taken care of on a regular basis.”
Last year, Bloated Toe Enterprises published Williams’ book, “The Lean-to: A History from Ancient Times to the 21st Century.” Lean-tos in one form or another have existed since humans have needed shelter, he said, and the Adirondack style—four-log base topped by a sleeping platform, three log walls and a sloped and shingled roof—evolved from Scandinavian log builders when they settled in North America.
“The Adirondack lean-to has been called the best backwoods shelter that exists, and it probably is,” he said.
Researching the book was a retirement project that the former state education official pursued after a lifetime of camping in the shelters largely for the security of having a roof overhead instead of a tent.
Although Williams doesn’t object to the state pulling lean-tos away from water (“You can walk down to the lake”), his personal favorite one presents sweeping views of Long Lake.
Trees often fall down in the Adirondacks, and he recalled his terror from a night near Long Lake in 1995 when a derecho bent pines and spruces back and forth like windshield wipers. One tree snapped off and speared the ground nearby. He was safely in a cabin, not a lean-to, but the same lesson applied: A roof is critical equipment in dense woods.
“You can have all the best tents and lightweight stuff and that’s great,” he said, “as long as the weather’s good.”