Adopt-a-Lean-to coordinator says the mountains saved her, and her work shows her gratitude
By Tracy Ormsbee
One hundred yards from the 221-year-old farmhouse Hilary Moynihan is renovating in Saratoga Springs is a structure common in the Adirondacks, but less so outside this Victorian city known for horse racing and mineral baths: the humble lean-to.
It was built for Moynihan by friends she has made through her work as volunteer coordinator of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Adopt a Lean-to program. She asked people she has come to know through the Adirondack Lean2Rescue to help her build one and they said, “How quickly can we build it for you.”
“That’s the type of guys they are,” Moynihan says. “I was just floored. Such wonderful people that I know.”
The story of the lean-to in her backyard starts with an experience we all know well—the moment she fell in love with the Adirondacks. For Moynihan it began after a broken hip incurred during a half-marathon ended her running hobby and started her hiking instead—at the same time she was going through a divorce.
The mountains, she says, saved her life.
She started hiking in the Lake George region and then moved on the High Peaks. Her first was Cascade.
“I was so under-prepared,” she says. “The pitch getting to the top was ice and people were helping each other. I got up there and it took my breath away. Now every time I summit a high peak, I get tears in my eyes.”
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She has done 20 more since, but is taking her time. “It’s all about the journey,” she says.
Her journey led her to trail stewardship with the Adirondack Mountain Club as a way to give back to the place that had given her so much. She maintained Pitchoff and Porter mountains. She also worked as an assistant in development and membership for ADK.
Then, when John Schneider, creator of the volunteer Adopt a Lean-to program for ADK, retired as coordinator in 2010, Moynihan stepped in as the second person to coordinate the program since it began in 1985. Since then, the program has grown from 125 lean-tos to 205 cared for by 300 volunteers.
Additional lean-tos in the park are maintained by the Department of Environmental Conservation or private clubs, but the ADK program is always looking for more to satisfy demand for the popular program.
Usually 20-30 people are waiting on a list to adopt one of the 10-15 lean-tos that come available each year. When she doesn’t have any lean-tos available to adopt, she sends people to help Lean2Rescue.
“I’m always talking lean-tos.”
With her children Grace and Jack in college, Moynihan has an empty nest and lots of ideas for what she’ll do next with her life and the program.
Here’s one: a “lean-to challenge” where people would need to visit all 205 of the lean-tos in the program.
The volunteers have Adirondack memories camping in those lean-tos, and like Moynihan, they want to care for the structure so others can experience them as they did. They are campers, Boy Scouts, parents passing the idea of stewardship on to their children.
“They have fond memories of visiting with family and friends. Just reading the registers, is like a journal” Moynihan says. Those stories have been included in the book “No Place I’d Rather Be: Wit and Wisdom from Adirondack Lean-to Journals” by Stuart F. Mesinger that is given by the ADK to all new adopters.
“How do you show that gratitude? It’s the whole essence of stewardship,” Moynihan says.
More about Lean2Rescue
Read about Lean2Rescue’s work in the park to repair and restore (and in some cases move) lean-tos.
Photo by Brandon Loomis
Volunteers pick up trash around the lean-to. “People bring everything but the kitchen sink and leave it behind,” Moynihan says. They trim hazardous trees hanging overhead, inspect the roof and floor boards, and check logs for rot. If the register is full, they send it to Moynihan and she sends a replacement. If the privy is full or needs repair, they dig a new hole and move it—or if they can’t do it themselves, they report it.
But they can’t have stewards in the field all the time, Moynihan says, and so adopters write notes in the register asking campers to take care of the lean-tos, to “Leave No Trace.”
“Sometimes people leave them better than they found it,” Moynihan says. “Sometimes they use the register as firewood.”
Moynihan collects all the reports. If major repairs are required, she coordinates with DEC and Lean2Rescue.
“There’s a wonderful synergy between DEC, the adoption program and Lean2Rescue,” she says. “If it’s work that’s beyond the adopter and DEC doesn’t have the people to do it, DEC welcomes the help. It’s been a wonderful relationship.”
The cabin she owns in Keene has become a headquarters of sorts for the effort. Out back is a large barn they call the “Lean2Hospital.” Lean2Rescue build lean-tos in the barn and DEC comes and flies them to their destination.
Volunteers store tools there.
“Anybody doing good for the woods, they’re welcome,” she says. “I’d love it to be a place for stewards to come stay. If you’re going to do any work in the woods.”
She bought the cabin in 2010 and had planned to live there herself and “work in the woods the rest of my life.”
But then the Saratoga farmhouse came available, the one she remembers driving by when her kids were babies sleeping in the car.
“At the cabin, all these people come from all over to build lean-tos—a retired FBI agent, a farmer, an engineer,” she says. “The work is so hard and we’re laughing the entire time. It’s a fellowship. The commonality is a love of the woods.”
Campfire light lights up
The inside of a lean-to and
The underside of pine boughs
Campfire light-good as
Jingle Bells at makin’ spirits
Bright-campin’ out tonight.
-Wolf Lake lean-to (from the book “No Place I’d Rather Be: Wit and Wisdom from Adirondack Lean-to Journals” by Stuart F. Mesinger
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This first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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