Younger people from cities don’t mind High Peaks crowds, Clarkson surveys find
By TIM ROWLAND
A study of Adirondack hiking by a class of students from Clarkson University has uncovered what might be a tricky dilemma for Adirondack problem solvers: The younger, more urban demographic that is flocking to the High Peaks may not have the same values or concerns about the wilderness as older, more solitary hikers.
“A few people on the summit of a mountain didn’t bother anyone,” said Maria Pelusi, one of six students who presented their findings at the Nature Conservancy in Keene Valley on Wednesday. “In fact, they felt safer with more people on the trails.”
Pelusi was speaking of informal surveys conducted by the students during hikes on some of the summer’s more crowded weekends. While the students stressed their findings were not scientific, the scope of their interviews, which included about 90 hikers, suggested the responses they received were more than anecdotal.
The students participated in Clarkson’s Adirondack Semester program, and partnered with the Adirondack Council on the research.
Speaking of trail erosion on Cascade, student Liam Lewis said, “A lot of them seemed not to be concerned; they said this (trail) was just fine.” They also came across people from the cities who were used to elbowing their way through crowds on streets and subways — to them, a summit with a scant 30 people milling about might indeed fit their definition of wilderness.
Students acknowledged they might have heard different comments on other, less busy days. Pelusi said locals were conspicuously absent on the trails on high-use days, suggesting they were off hiking on trails less taken.
Indeed, the hikers surveyed skewed far more international and urban than in the past. Even with the caveats about sample size and timing, it would appear people are coming from further distances than they have in previous hiking eras.
Students said it also indicates that hikers are less likely to understand Adirondack ethics, such as Leave No Trace principles. Among their recommendations, the students suggested an emphasis on stewards, interns, and something along the lines of the Trail Runners on the Pacific Crest Trail, who dispense information and do light maintenance.
This recommendation dovetails with local summer steward programs that have met with some success in managing crowds. The Town of Keene, which is a believer in the power of personal contact, successfully applied for a state “Smart Growth” grant this month that will pay for three years of front-country steward programs.
Another reason hikers are not receiving proper information and education is a failure of Department of Environmental Conservation web pages to attract much attention. In comparing the Adirondacks to Baxter State Park in Maine and Franconia Notch in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, students found that the top hit on a web search for Baxter and Franconia was the respective park’s own website. By contrast, the DEC website was the 18th result on Adirondack web searches.
What that means is that visitors to the Adirondacks are more likely to get their information from sites such as TripAdvisor, which is notably short on, for example, the proper usage of a map and compass. DEC web pages, by contrast, are jam packed with good information, which in these days of abbreviated attention spans is as much a burden as an asset.
Among their other findings, students noted that Franconia Notch — which has experienced similar traffic problems to the Adirondacks — has had success closing off the Franconia Parkway to roadside traffic and going to a shuttle system to transport hikers to their destinations. Unlike Baxter, Franconia does not use a permitting system, said student Forrest Gifford, “because New Hampshire prides itself on its ease of access.” Permits seem to work better in parks with controlled entryways, students said.
Noting the considerable erosion, and general steepness, of Adirondack trails, students suggested that other parks have had success with a matrix that numerically ranks trails most in need of attention. Trail conditions in other parks that were studied were a mixed bag. On the Pacific Crest Trail, reliance on switchbacks minimized the steepness and the frequency of washouts. By contrast, when switchbacks were proposed in Baxter, the idea produced blowback from traditionalists who did not want to see the trails changed — even if for the better.