Adirondack elopements cater to couples seeking adventure and social distance
By Holly Riddle
According to wedding platform The Knot’s 2020 Real Weddings Study, nearly every single 2020 wedding was modified in some capacity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with couples postponing their weddings, changing their wedding formats and slashing their guest lists.
The study found that, for those couples who did not postpone their previously planned 2020 wedding, the average guest list was only 16 individuals long, leading to a trend of “micro weddings,” “minimonies” and elopement-style ceremonies followed by intimate celebrations with immediate family and close friends. Whatever style of small wedding couples gravitated toward, though, approximately 60% opted for an outdoor event, for safety’s sake.
However, as wedding photographers in the Adirondacks can attest, outdoor elopements aren’t necessarily new and aren’t entirely a result of the pandemic, even if the pandemic made them an option more couples are considering. According to a 2019 article from The Knot, even then, studies were showing that 91% of millennials were considering an elopement.
“I know a lot of people have been talking about how the wedding industry is really changing because of COVID,” says Juliana Summers of Juliana Renee Photography. Summers, a Lake George native, splits her time between photographing couples in the Adirondacks and the mountains of North Carolina. “People are paring down, but we saw that even before COVID. People were discovering the idea of eloping. Now, since larger weddings aren’t allowed in a lot of places, couples are realizing they can still get married and have the day of their dreams without pushing it off to 2022 or 2023.”
Summers says she typically photographs 20 to 30 weddings each year, but last year and into 2021, she’s photographed 60-plus elopements, at least half of which took place in the Adirondacks.
Similarly, Whitney Tracy of Mountainaire Gatherings says she’s always preferred photographing adventure weddings to traditional ceremonies, focusing on the former over her five years of being in business.
“The first two or three years, I tried to push for adventure elopements in the Adirondacks. They’re huge out west and on the West Coast, but no one’s really gotten into them out here, until last year,” she says.
No rules, no worries
Adventure elopements in the Adirondacks generally include a hiking component, allowing couples to experience a photography session unlike any other as they climb some of the area’s most recognizable landscapes, to not only grab snapshots with unbeatable backdrops, but to also exchange vows.
“Every [wedding] day looks a little different,” says Summers. “If you’re doing a more strenuous hike, [the couple will] hike to the top and change in the woods. They’ll say their vows… They can stay at the top and have a little picnic and really create a day that feels like them.”
“There are no guidelines or rules that you’d have at a venue. We all respect ‘Leave No Trace,’ but that’s really the only rule that applies to elopements.”— Juliana Summers of Juliana Renee Photography
A photographer plus so much more
Creating a day-of plan for couples looking to elope in the Adirondacks is not necessarily always an easy task, multiple wedding photographers explained, and some have adjusted their services to better meet clients’ needs post-pandemic, offering planning help and obtaining officiant certification.
“I act as their guide and help plan their day. I’m also an officiant. If my couples want to go way out into the backcountry, they don’t have to worry about finding an officiant who wants to go with us,” says Tracy, noting how many regional officiants have become overbooked with the increased demand of more couples traveling to the Adirondacks for destination weddings or elopements.
“Because a lot of couples are downsizing from larger weddings to smaller weddings, they need help with the planning process,” she adds. “They no longer need a traditional wedding planner, but they still need someone in the industry to help walk them through their day… Elopement photographers have really taken on a lot of different roles in the last year.”
When helping a couple plan an adventure elopement, Tracy takes many factors into account, from a couple’s fitness level to their familiarity with the region to how popular a specific mountain has grown for elopements.
“Before Whiteface Mountain closed, that was ‘the’ spot and it’s always been ‘the’ spot, because it’s the most easily accessible and people can drive up to it,” Tracy explains. “This year, they’ve closed for weddings and elopements and any photography sessions in general.
“The other very popular spot is Mount Jo at the Adirondack Loj. It’s gotten so popular that a lot of us have stopped booking weddings or elopements there, because you go up there and you’re there with two or three other couples trying to elope.”— Whitney Tracy of Mountainaire Gatherings
Christina Shaw, who runs Shaw Photography Co. with her husband, Brian, concurs that choosing a well-known mountain comes with its cons and going with lesser-known locales around the Adirondacks isn’t a bad thing. “We tell clients not to choose a mountain that’s well known, but one that’s an easy hike and one you’ve done before. The view doesn’t have to be so big to capture the essence of getting married on a mountain,” she says.
Ariane Seto and Kevin Lin worked with Mountainaire Gatherings for their September 2020 elopement, a replacement ceremony for what was originally planned as a destination wedding in Hawaii. The couple initially scheduled a sunset vow exchange followed by a sunrise photography session atop Cascade Mountain, but, after a trial hike ahead of the ceremony, switched gears.
“The views at the top of Cascade did not disappoint, but it was super windy and cold, even with the sun out, and it was a pretty challenging hike for us,” says Seto. “We decided that hiking Cascade for our sunrise session would not be the fun morning-after adventure we were looking for.” Still, she notes they were “so glad” they decided to elope in the Adirondacks.
Focus on what’s important
Shaw Photography Co. is based in Buffalo, but the Shaws travel to the Adirondacks for elopement and wedding shoots several times per year. Christina says she feels that “the pandemic re-centered people.” For her, couples are now asking, “What’s really important here? Most of the time, it’s that we get married and have close friends and family there. We can get rid of the extras and still be happy.”
It’s a sentiment Kerrie and Ryan Giambalvo express when describing their own experience. “I would not change a single thing about my wedding day,” says Kerrie. “Besides, how many people can say they got married with a beautiful sunrise on Lake Placid with Whiteface Mountain in the background? I think how Ryan and I got married was perfect for our relationship and for who we are. I would definitely tell other couples to consider this type of wedding, because it really keeps the focus on you, your love for one another and your unity.”
Madison Ford, who worked with Noxon Photography last year for her and husband Nick’s wedding in Lake Placid, likewise says, “Even though COVID-19 made an impact, we still would have been married at the same spot on that exact same day, even if COVID-19 didn’t exist.”
Still, some couples who chose to elope in the Adirondacks last year did admit that they missed the opportunity for a larger celebration. “We chose to elope in the Adirondacks because of the pandemic and we were able to abide by the guidelines at the time. If there wasn’t a pandemic, we would have had a larger wedding, though we don’t regret our choice of eloping,” says Ashley Lennon, another Noxon Photography client.
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A Juliana Renee Photography client, Alex Chryst, agrees, saying, “We would not have chosen to elope during a ‘normal year.’ We are still trying to have our previously planned wedding in June.” However, she does say the elopement experience “was incredible” and she and her husband, also Alex, credit that primarily to Summers.
“If it wasn’t for her, I don’t think it would have happened!” she says. “We changed our location three times and were concerned about rain. It rained all day up until we reached the trailhead. The sun came out, it warmed up and was a beautiful afternoon. Then, with about five minutes left in our shoot, it started downpouring again.”
The worrisome side of business
While more business for regional elopement and adventure wedding photographers is overall seen as a blessing in the midst of an uncertain year for the wedding industry, the trend doesn’t come without its worries.
“We really, really respect the land and educate our couples on ‘Leave No Trace’… It does worry me that these [elopements] are getting more popular and becoming a fad, like hiking did. I’m a little worried about it, to be honest.”Brittany Noxon, Noxon Photography
“I always educate [couples] in the sense that this is protected land and even if it wasn’t, we should treat it as such. I had a couple coming from Missouri and they had no idea what ‘Leave No Trace’ even was. I let [couples] know that we stick to the trail, we aren’t going to pick flowers. I know it looks cute, but it’s not cute. We don’t do that,” she continues. “Every photographer doing this really needs to be diligent. If we’re the ones marketing this and putting this out there, we need to be responsible and make sure couples understand before they even get here [the rules] we abide by and make sure they agree. If they think it’s silly, let them know why it’s not. We need to protect our lands.”
Tracy echoes similar worries for the safety of the couples themselves, and that of any photographers traveling from outside the area to conduct business. “People don’t understand how big the Adirondacks are. A lot of couples don’t realize the safety measures that need to be taken. It’s not just going off on a little hike and thinking everything is fine and dandy and there’s no danger,” she says. “Photographers should have first aid experience and familiarity with the trails and where they’re taking couples. You see a lot of [photographers] coming from out of the area now, who think that they can just head out on a 10-mile hike to get to these great, Instagrammable locations without prior knowledge of the area or prior experience. They’re not hikers; they just want that Instagram shot. It’s very dangerous not only to themselves but to the couple as well.”
Still, Noxon remains positive that adventure elopements often attract a certain clientele. “People who want to elope, though, they do respect the land. It’s almost like a different kind of couple. They’re my kind of people,” she notes.
Here to stay?
Is the adventure elopement trend here to stay in the Adirondacks? For some wedding photographers, that looks to be the case, with elopements allowing for a greater level of intimacy and a more individualized experience, as well as less stress and, often, a smaller budget.
“I think elopements are here to stay and I hope they stay forever,” says Summers.
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Ah I’m just seeing this post. Allow me to fold my hands in unequivocal respect for any intrepid soul that is willing to haul a wedding dress up an Adirondack trail just for a photo! That’s some “perfect moment” dedication.
This is a fun article and as is my nature, I both appreciate it as a “feel good” piece but also want to get a little “meta.” This is a great way to market the ADKs to a new, young demographic, and kudos to the photographers doing so. I applaud their LNT ethics. I also wonder if they’re making efforts to integrate these visitors with the communities they’re hiking in at all, or if there is nervousness to do so. For example, there are more interracial couples pictured in this article than I’ve seen over any trip to the ADKs, full stop. (Which isn’t surprising, still only about 15% of all couples are of multiple racial backgrounds, less than 10% in majority white communities.)
What effort is made to introduce all of these young people to the communities they’re visiting for a photo? Surely they’re also staying at least a night in town. That’s also an ethical thing to do, perhaps as important as LNT – to help folks get to know positive elements of the communities visited.
What’s often unsaid when considering such efforts is that there may not be elements of every community noted that are going to appeal to your average under-30. But that too is important to talk about. Small business owners like the photographers in this article play an outsized role in attracting future residents. They should be empowered to work with community members to represent the region accurately.
I’m all about ethical tourism – there should not be a “free lunch” attitude to the way in which needed tourist dollars are spent. Just wanted to add this comment, many thanks!