Tropical Storm Irene closed Wilderness Areas, washed away roads, damaged hundreds of homes and businesses, changed the look the High Peaks—and brought people together.
By Phil Brown
Johns Brook rises deep in the High Peaks Wilderness, less than a mile from the summit of Mount Marcy. The stream is well known to hikers who cross it on the way to the Great Range and soak in its bedrock pools at the end of a hot day.
But the Johns Brook observed by Brendan Wiltse on the afternoon of August 28 was not something anyone had seen before.
“You didn’t feel like you were standing next to a brook,” Wiltse said. “It was this raging river. It was like world-class whitewater.”
Wiltse was staying at Johns Brook Lodge on the day Tropical Storm Irene roared through the High Peaks. Located three and a half miles from the nearest road, the lodge offered a unique vantage from which to witness the power of a tempest that forever changed the Adirondack landscape and the lives of Adirondackers—destroying dozens of homes, closing businesses, undermining roads, flooding yards, damaging hiking trails, and triggering numerous landslides.
In some ways, Irene resembled Tropical Storm Floyd of 1999. Both started as hurricanes in the Caribbean, both traveled up the East Coast, and both brought heavy wind and rain to the Adirondacks. Unlike Floyd, Irene veered inland near New York City and continued north through Vermont. Thus, Irene came much closer than Floyd to the Adirondacks and caused far more destruction.
Nevertheless, Irene was just another rainy day in most of the Adirondack Park. Old Forge, in the western Adirondacks, received only two inches of rain. It was the eastern Adirondacks where the storm hit hard. Lake George got five inches of rain, causing floods that washed away part of a municipal beach and poured tons of sediment into the lake. About seven and a half inches fell on Whiteface Mountain. Residents of Keene reported more than ten inches.
The heaviest rain evidently fell in the eastern High Peaks, home to the headwaters of the Ausable River. Most of the havoc caused by Irene occurred in the river’s watershed. According to a gauge in Ausable Forks, the morning after the storm the river crested at 18.43 feet—three feet higher than the prior record and more than eleven feet above the flood stage. The river’s flow peaked at fifty thousand cubic feet per second, a hundred times greater than normal. By our rough calculation, Irene dumped sixty-two billion gallons of rain in the watershed, enough to fill Stillwater Reservoir one and a half times.
A good deal of that water funneled through Johns Brook valley. On a typical summer day, the valley sees a parade of hikers and backpackers on their way to Marcy or the Great Range. At the urging of state officials, however, nearly everyone fled the woods before Irene hit. Likewise, all the guests had left Johns Brook Lodge. But Wiltse and Seth Jones, both workers at the lodge, stayed behind to keep an eye on the property, which is owned by the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK).
It was already raining when the two awoke at 5:30 a.m. A few hours later, they placed a plastic bucket on the porch to measure the rainfall. The bucket was six and a half inches tall, and before the day ended, it would fill up twice.
Wiltse and Jones sensed strange things were afoot when they began hearing the clatter of boulders rolling down the brook and smashing into each other. They could feel the rumbling from inside the lodge. By early afternoon, Johns Brook had swollen to gargantuan proportions, flooding acres of forest. Wiltse’s photographs show a blur of water, slightly discolored from mud, coursing wildly among the trees and over the banks. Normally, it’s possible to rock-hop across the brook, but Wiltse reckoned the water during the storm was over his head. Not that he had any thoughts of crossing.
“It felt like you were standing along an interstate highway, watching the water go by,” he said. “It was cruising. If you stepped in, it would suck you right in.”
In one demonstration of its power, the brook demolished a large bridge near the lodge. The bridge consisted of two pairs of long logs that stretched from opposite banks to a sturdy wooden pylon that was filled with cement and sat on a big boulder in the middle of stream. In past floods, cables attached to trees kept the logs in place. No one thought to secure the pylon. During Irene, it disappeared without a trace. So did one of the logs.
But it was not until the next day, which was calm and sunny, that Wiltse and Jones observed Irene’s most enduring impacts in the valley. The rains had saturated the thin soils on the upper slopes of the Great Range until they gave way. One by one, tributaries of Johns Brook—Basin Brook, Chicken Coop Brook, Ore Bed Brook, Wolfjaw Brook, and Bennies Brook—became channels for tons of mud, trees, and rubble that slid down the mountains, creating conspicuous bedrock scars, some over a mile long. Irene had changed the faces of the High Peaks.
The hamlet floods
All the water tumbling down the mountains eventually reached the hamlet of Keene Valley, where Johns Brook meets the East Branch of the Ausable. Just before the river, part of the brook splits off to form Little Johns Brook. Both branches flow under Route 73. On the day of Irene, trees that had been swept downstream jammed against the bridges, blocking the water.
David McDonough owns a hardware store a quarter-mile from the confluence. About 1:30 p.m., he got word from a neighbor that Johns Brook was starting to overflow. McDonough watched the floodwater, and when it got near, he decided to close for the day. “I couldn’t get out the back door of the store,” he said. “It came up that fast.”
Soon the water invaded the store, ruining much of his inventory. “The first and second shelves were in sludge,” he recalled. The brooks also flooded his yard, depositing sediment and debris and leaving a high-water stain on a shed four or five feet above the ground.
McDonough didn’t reopen the store for days, but he knew his neighbors would need tools and other supplies to clean up their homes, businesses, and yards, so he kept the doors unlocked. “I told them, ‘If you need something, go get it and tell me later.’ I worked on trust.”
Such generosity—not atypical in the days after Irene—is even more remarkable in that McDonough estimates that the flood cost him $50,000 to $100,000, none of it insured.
Water from the brooks flooded three other businesses: Rivermede Farm, the Mountaineer (and its outlet shop), and Green Point Foods. Rob Hastings, the owner of Rivermede, said the water never entered his store, but it destroyed farm equipment and greenhouses. What’s more, the floods ruined his crops. Altogether, he figures he lost well over $50,000.
Among the farm’s losses were some eight hundred chrysanthemums, which usually sell for $7 apiece. Only two plants survived. “We put a sign out that said, ‘Irene-proof mums, $50,000,’” Hastings recounted. A month after the storm, he auctioned off the mums at a fund-raising dinner. One fetched $175, the other $500.
Hastings had organized the dinner to help him stay in business. He hoped sixty people would attend, but more than a hundred showed up, and he raised $10,000. Afterward he continued to get donations. By early October, he had received $20,000. “I realized what the farm means to people here and that they’re willing to make an investment to keep it around,” he said.
Johns Brook is just one of many tributaries of the East Branch of the Ausable. Other streams did as much or more damage. A few miles south, in St. Huberts, Roaring Brook and Putnam Brook washed away the bed of Route 73, creating huge craters in the highway, and flooded houses. The state closed the road, cutting off tourist traffic to Keene Valley just when the community needed it most.
In Keene, several miles to the north, Gulf Brook gouged out a new channel beneath the local firehouse, destroying two truck bays. Homes and businesses also were flooded. Nearby, Styles Brook washed out a section of Route 9N, closing that road as well, and ruined several homes. Farther downriver, the East Branch of the Ausable ravaged the communities of Upper Jay, Jay, and Ausable Forks—places where homeowners were still recovering from heavy flooding in the spring.
The West Branch of the Ausable also did damage, though not as much. The river jumped its banks and destroyed a section of Adirondak Loj Road, stranding more than thirty guests at Adirondak Loj for several days and cutting off access to the High Peaks’ busiest trailhead. A few miles downstream, a crush of trees piled up against the Route 73 bridge, forcing officials to restrict traffic coming in and out of Lake Placid. The West Branch also damaged snowmaking facilities at the Whiteface Mountain Ski Area.
All told, the floods destroyed about seventy homes in Essex and Clinton counties and damaged 560 more. Jeanie Roberts, executive director of North Country Red Cross, had never witnessed such destruction in her twenty-five years on the job—not even during the 1998 ice storm, which left people without power for weeks.
“At the end of the ice storm, everyone had somewhere to go,” she remarked. “We’ve never seen this many houses damaged.”
The destruction in the communities was plain, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation did not know what had occurred in the backcountry. When DEC Forester Kris Alberga flew over the High Peaks in a State Police helicopter, he detected so many fresh slides—on all the major peaks in the Great Range as well as on Colden, Giant, Wright, and Algonquin—that he lost count of them. One slide ripped out nearly all the trees in the Colden Trap Dike, a classic mountaineering route.
Although slides are nothing new in the Adirondacks, Alberga was still astounded. “What was most striking was the number of new ones that occurred from this one storm event,” he wrote in an e-mail. “It certainly changes the appearance of the wilderness, and reminds us the scope and power of natural processes.”
Alberga also discovered that Irene had washed away the long bridge over Marcy Dam, on the most-traveled trail in the High Peaks, and breached the wooden dam at Duck Hole, draining a beloved pond on the Northville-Placid Trail.
Rangers on the ground reported more bad news: missing footbridges, eroded trails, lots of blowdown. A bridge over South Meadow Brook on the Klondike Trail ended up a quarter-mile downstream on the Marcy Dam Truck Trail. The Hitch-Up Matilda walkways, which are bolted to cliffs beside Avalanche Lake, lost several planks. Marcy Brook had washed away the Avalanche Pass Trail in two places. Landslides buried parts of the Southside Trail along Johns Brook, the Ore Bed Brook Trail, and the Avalanche Pass Trail.
The day after Irene, DEC closed the eastern High Peaks, the Giant Mountain Wilderness, and the Dix Mountain Wilderness. Together, these regions encompass about 137,000 acres and contain most of the forty-six High Peaks. Closing trails just before Labor Day weekend dealt another economic blow to businesses that rely on outdoor tourism.
Christopher Amato, DEC’s assistant commissioner for natural resources, said the agency made the right decision, given the damage in the backcountry and the closure of roads leading to trailheads. Moreover, forest rangers were busy helping the communities.
“We did not want to attract people to the area, because everybody had their hands full with emergency repairs,” Amato said.
Neil Woodworth, ADK’s executive director, defended DEC’s decision even though it meant the club had to shut down its lodges over Labor Day weekend. “It was prudent to take a period to evaluate the conditions of the backcountry,” he said.
Woodworth also praised DEC for shutting state campgrounds before Irene. The storm felled numerous trees at campgrounds on Piseco Lake, Lewey Lake, and Lake George. “By closing the campgrounds and encouraging people to get out of the woods before Irene struck, they probably saved lives,” Woodworth said.
Keene Valley merchants did fault the state for scaring away tourists. For despite the wilderness closures, many trails in the region remained open. And despite the road closures, motorists could still reach Keene Valley. Those facts often got overlooked in the talk about disaster. Marion Jeffers, owner of the Birch Store, was especially irked that the state placed a barricade at the junction of Route 73 and Route 9N north of the hamlet. Although motorists could drive around the barricade, she said many were reluctant to do so.
“They should remove the barricade and make it clear that the Keene Valley business district is open,” Jeffers said a few days after the storm. “Now more than ever, we need people to come and support us.”
State officials heard the complaints. Before Labor Day weekend arrived, DEC issued a list of hiking suggestions for people visiting communities hit by the floods. A few days later, the state Department of Transportation removed the Route 73 barricade. Motorists still could not reach Keene Valley from the south, but on Labor Day, Governor Andrew Cuomo toured Keene and vowed to reopen at least one lane of the highway by September 15 and both lanes by September 25. “Either wheels are going to roll or heads are going to roll,” Cuomo declared.
As it turned out, the governor came back to town on September 12 to cut the ribbon and reopen both lanes. Workers logged about 2,700 hours and used about 150,000 tons of stone to fix the road ahead of schedule, according to Cuomo’s office. (Despite the reopening, crews were still working on the road as of mid-October.)
Meanwhile, DEC had begun reopening trails in the eastern High Peaks about a week after Irene. By mid-September, it had reopened nearly all the trails in the three wilderness regions.
Hikers flocked back to the woods and soon started posting reports of trail conditions in online forums. Some of the more adventurous ones rushed to explore the new slides. Certainly things had changed, but by most accounts, the trail damage turned out to be limited.
One route affected more than most was the 7.4-mile Van Hoevenberg Trail, which goes from Adirondak Loj to Mount Marcy. Hikers now must rock-hop Marcy Brook instead of crossing at Marcy Dam, and just past the dam, they follow a quarter-mile of new trail that avoids an eroded section of the old trail.
Another thing that changed was the view from Marcy Dam. The pond behind the dam, with its reflections of Mount Colden and Avalanche Pass, is one of the iconic scenes of the Adirondacks, familiar to tens of thousands of hikers. The flooding not only washed away the bridge, but it damaged the dam’s flashboards, allowing most of the impoundment to drain.
Today the pond is a mudflat split by a sluggish stream.
DEC has not decided whether to repair the dam. It does intend to construct a bridge over Marcy Brook, either at the dam or someplace downstream. But that probably won’t happen until next year. Meantime, DEC is diverting hikers to a ford, known as the Squirrel Crossing, a quarter-mile below the dam. Once on the other side, they can pick up the end of the Marcy Dam Truck Trail and continue to the dam.
The Squirrel Crossing is a temporary solution, as it’s unsafe in high water or in winter. If no bridge is in place this winter, skiers and snowshoers should cross at the former pond, once it’s sufficiently frozen, or start their journey on the Marcy Dam Truck Trail.
DEC also must decide what to do about the Duck Hole dam in the western High Peaks. Ringed by tall mountains, Duck Hole has long been a favorite stop on the Northville-Placid Trail.
Even before Irene, fans of Duck Hole were urging DEC to fix the dam to preserve the remote pond and its breathtaking views. Now they want the department to replace the dam.
“Pretty much anybody who paddles or hikes in there experiences the same thing—it’s just a magical place,” said Tom Wemett, chairman of ADK’s Northville-Placid Trail chapter and one of the strongest advocates for the dam.
Others argue that reconstructing the old dam to meet modern design standards would be too expensive and that, apart from the cost, the dam does not belong in a Wilderness Area.
ADK’s position could be influential. So far, the club has taken no position on the dam, but its trails committee has voted against replacing it. If the dam is not rebuilt, Duck Hole probably will not disappear entirely. Several weeks after Irene, a third of the pond remained, fed by three streams.
“Duck Hole is down, but it’s not out,” observed Joe Hackett, an Adirondack guide who took his canoe there after the storm.
If there is any good news for backcountry enthusiasts, it’s that Irene left about two dozen new slide scars in the High Peaks, many of which cross or come close to hiking trails. Indeed, part of the Ore Bed Brook Trail now is a slide. Given their accessibility, Irene’s slides are sure to become playgrounds for those who enjoy rock scrambling or backcountry skiing.
“The number of slides seems to be about the same as with Floyd, probably more,” said Tony Goodwin, editor of ADK’s guidebook for the High Peaks. “What seems unusual, though, is how many of the slides are long and narrow.”
In many cases, the slides extend for a mile or more. David Franzi, a geology professor at Plattsburgh State College, attributes their length to the sheer volume of water unleashed by Irene.
The longer slides originated on steep upper slopes and funneled into streams, carrying away trees and soil on both sides of the watercourses.
Andrew Locanto, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said Irene did bring more rain than Floyd, but that isn’t the whole story. Floyd hit the region after a dry spell, so the ground soaked up a good deal of the rainfall. In contrast, Locanto said Irene arrived after a rainy period, so it didn’t take much extra water to saturate the thin soils on the upper slopes.
Once water-logged, the soils became too heavy for the slopes to hold.
Irene is the kind of storm that might occur in the Adirondacks once every century or two. At least, that used to be the case. Curt Stager, an ecologist at Paul Smith’s College, worries that the region may see more violent storms as global warming alters the climate.
“You can never attribute an individual storm to global warming, but it’s the kind of thing that we can expect more of if the world gets warmer,” said Stager, the author of Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, a book about climate change.
Stager says the evidence suggests that hurricanes are already becoming stronger. “It’s not so much that storms get more common, but the big ones get bigger,” he said.
And that means Irene probably is not the last big one to hit the Adirondacks. ■
More Irene Coverage:
• We’re still here – Local businesses in communities hit by Irene make it clear that they’re open and they’re staying.
• New slide guide – Hikers and skiers look forward to exploring the many new slides created in the High Peaks by Irene’s deluge.
• Park Perspectives: In the wake of the flood