Bucking the region’s aging demographic, young adults who love wilderness choose to settle in the Park.
By Mike Lynch
In 2015, Old Forge native Tyler Socash decided to take the money he had been saving for a car and spend it on something more experiential: three long-distance hiking trips.
Starting in August, he ended up hiking seven thousand miles as he finished the Pacific Crest Trail, Te-araroa (Long Pathway) in New Zealand, and the Appalachian Trail. After the yearlong trip, the thirty-year-old came home to the Adirondacks, where he returned to a former employer, the Adirondack Mountain Club, as a wilderness trip leader.
Socash developed his passion for outdoor recreation while hiking five rounds of the forty-six High Peaks, including a winter round, and also finishing the Fire Tower Challenge. He also has completed the Ninety-Miler, a canoe and kayak race from Old Forge to Saranac Lake, and plans on paddling the 740-Mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail this spring.
During his hiking odysseys, Socash thought of where he wanted to live and chose Lake Placid, where he is close to mountains and lakes and wild lands.
“I want to live in a place that allows me to engage in the recreation types that I love, and the Adirondacks, with its wilderness regions, provides that for me,” he said. “I was looking to go just about anywhere, and shockingly, it was the Adirondacks that offered me what I needed, and I’m so glad to be home.”
While the Adirondacks is the perfect fit for Socash, many towns and villages around the Adirondack Park have struggled to retain young adults. According to a report by the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, the average age of Park residents younger than thirty years old is projected to decline by an average of 14 percent each decade from 2000 to 2030. By 2030, more than one-third of the Park residents will be over the age of sixty.
Bill Farber, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors, said AATV’s research has found three main reasons the Park struggles to retain and attract young adults: lack of job opportunities, disparity between wages and housing costs, and lack of communications infrastructure for smart phones, internet, and other communications technology.
“We don’t fully appreciate how big an impact it is … the inability to access communication tools that are the norm for so much of society. Not having access to that is a real quality-of-life issue,” Farber said.
But Socash said some communities in the Adirondacks, including Lake Placid and nearby Saranac Lake, do have those services and other things that appeal to young adults, such as music venues, coffee shops, and restaurants.
“What distinguishes those Adirondack towns is that what they offer is a full range of amenities, which are complemented by their surrounding wilderness areas,” Socash said. “What really needs to happen is New York State needs to invest significant tourism dollars into those smaller towns.”
The Park’s smallest communities typically lack such amenities. Nevertheless, Farber believes they offer a quality of life that will attract young people if they can work there. He hopes that technological advances will allow people to live in these communities and telecommute to work. “Now we see more and more opportunities for employment without walls, whether it’s accounting, engineering, design, architecture, consulting,” Farber said.
Many people in Hamilton County work for towns or counties in public-sector jobs. “We’re seeing a younger population start to apply for those jobs with great regularity,” Farber said.
Some young adults stay in the Adirondacks to pursue their own entrepreneurial interests. One of them is Dylan Smith, who grew up in Old Forge and spent time out west. Like Socash, he returned to the Adirondacks because of an interest in outdoor recreation. He now lives in North River, where he started a hostel near the Hudson River—a natural fit for him because his father co-owns Adirondack River Outfitters, with offices in Old Forge and North River.
Smith, who also guides whitewater trips, has a degree in expeditionary studies from Plattsburgh State College and hopes to develop a business planning and leading multisport adventures in the Adirondacks.
But recreation isn’t enough to draw everyone back to the Park. Colin Chriss, who grew up in Old Forge and is attending Harvard University, said he would love to return, but he’s leaning against it for social and economic reasons.
“There are very few high-paying jobs in the Park that would ensure stability for my family were I to want one,” he said. “There are also social deficiencies in the Park that make it unattractive to live in, like a lack of diversity. That’s something that I’ve really come to value, living in an urban environment exposed to people of different backgrounds, different ethnicities, races, cultures. There’s a richness. It’s just a responsibility to your fellow man because you learn and you grow because you’re exposed to that stuff.”
Farber agreed. “I don’t think we can compete, but I think we can certainly do a much, much better job with the diversity side,” he said.
Regardless, small towns that have just a few hundred people each may find it hard to retain young adults in the foreseeable future. North Hudson Supervisor Ron Moore said only about 240 people live in his town, and it’s hard to keep people after they graduate high school and college because of the lack of jobs. Those that wind up staying often do so for the quality of life. Moore himself grew up in Ticonderoga and then left to join the Navy, where he spent more than twenty years. Throughout his naval career, Moore dreamed about coming back to the Adirondacks.
“As soon as I could, I did, for the recreation: the hunting, fishing, the hiking, and the outdoor-type activity that I love,” he said. “And that’s what keeps people here.”