Guides and outfitters negotiate an unfamiliar season in the Adirondacks
By Mike Lynch
Lake Placid-based hiking and kayaking guide Anne Brewer was leading clients in the Virgin Islands when she got bad news from back home.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo had basically shut down New York State due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
When Brewer returned home she found herself in a different world than the one she had left. Businesses were shuttered, schools were closed and her prospects for guiding trips in the near future didn’t look good.
“I’m basically done for the year,” she said in mid-May, “unless we get creative.”
Getting creative meant preparing to run hiking and kayaking trips with local clients, and imposing strict health safety measures, she said.
Brewer works for Adventures in Good Company, a Baltimore-based company that specializes in all-women adventures to destinations around the globe. Last year Brewer did eight trips that lasted for seven to 10 days each, taking women to places such as Norway, Greenland, Spain and the Adirondacks. The Virgin Islands trip in March was her first of the year.
In July she was scheduled to lead a paddling trip through the Saranac Chain of Lakes, leading women from places such as Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Georgia. But that trip was canceled. One of the prime reasons was Brewer didn’t want to bring people into the Adirondacks from places where the virus was prevalent.
“My moral obligation is more important to me than financial (considerations),” said Brewer, whose company may do some trips this year but was already starting to focus on 2021.
Brewer isn’t alone. Guides and outfitters throughout the Adirondacks face a more complex future that requires balancing health and financial risks.
Take the rafting industry.
On typical July mornings of years past, rafting companies from Indian Lake and North Creek would load up school buses with people bound for 15-mile float trips through the Hudson Gorge to North Creek. It’s an activity Cuomo has promoted and enjoyed in recent years.
This spring company owners didn’t know what to expect other than they’d be taking a big financial hit. For companies on the Hudson River, the season didn’t start until the end of June, months later than it normally does.
Wevertown-based Beaver Brook Outfitters co-owner Pete Burns said rafting companies expect business to shrink as much as 80 percent this season, and they’re making wholesale changes to protect their staff and customers. Masks will be required on buses, which will carry a reduced number of rafters, he said. The business also plans to rent rafts to groups instead of charging people by the trip, to prevent residents of different areas from sharing the same raft.
“We have to pay the mortgage, but we don’t want to infect anyone doing that,” Burns said.
If the summer doesn’t go well, Beaver Brook Outfitters hopes to rebound in winter, when it runs a ski shop that caters to nearby Gore Mountain skiers. The company also rents canoes and kayaks in the summer. But it typically earns half its annual revenue in July and August, and reservations were already down drastically as of early June.
“I just want to get through the summer and get through the other side and be a viable business, which I think I will,” Burns said.
Bob Rafferty, who owns Adirondac Rafting Co. in Indian Lake, said at the end of May he didn’t even know if he was going to open for the summer.
“We value our communities and we’re a fragile area when it comes to health with our resources and our aging population,” Rafferty said.
He planned to evaluate the situation later in June. Last week, his company announced it would remain closed for the season due to the health risks associated with COVID-19.
Even activities where social distancing would seem easy are complicated. Long Lake birding guide Joan Collins normally takes clients to see the Bicknell’s thrush and boreal birds on Whiteface Mountain from late May into mid-July. It wouldn’t be hard for her and her clients to social distance in the woods. But, as of late May, she didn’t see those trips happening this year.
“Most of my work has been canceled and won’t be coming back (this year),” Collins said.
She had planned to guide trips to Great Camp Sagamore and at the Adirondack Boreal Birding Festival, both of which have canceled their seasons. She expressed hope about working with Tupper Lake’s Wild Center on some video projects.
“If this continues, I’m thinking I may have to do something else,” Collins said. She is considering getting certified in “forest bathing,” a potential growth industry touting the health benefits of time in the woods.
In Keene, Adirondack Rock and River guide service owner Ed Palen and his guides decided they couldn’t take clients out this summer without the risk of spreading the virus. Guides have to share handholds and many of their teaching methods require being in close proximity of the clients.
“You can’t social distance in rock climbing, in our opinion,” Palen said.
The Mountaineer, a gear store in Keene Valley that caters to climbers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts, opened in May to curbside retail. Staffers have their own challenges, such as sanitizing gear that customers try out. The store bought two steaming machines that produce a mist at 200 degrees. Owner Charlie Wise said items such as hiking boots will be steamed twice and quarantined for 24 hours before being put back into circulation.
Wise said the company is looking at having an open-air shopping experience outside the store to supplement its in-store experience this summer. All the changes are actually causing the store to hire more staff than usual, including greeters.
“I believe that there’s a lot of pent up demand for hiking, camping—and getting into open spaces is very much on people’s mind,” Wise said. “We are preparing for essentially the same amount of traffic we get in a normal summer.”
Adirondack Lakes and Trails owner Jason Smith rents canoes, kayaks and SUPs in Saranac Lake. This season he is asking all customers to make reservations for rentals and pay ahead of time so customers don’t overlap when visiting the store.
His shop does not plan to offer shuttles. It will drop off boats for clients who request that service. He said rentals have been down, but boat sales have been steady.
Fishing guides got the state’s go-ahead on May 15, but had mixed reactions to that news at the time. Fly fisherman Vince Wilcox, owner of Wiley’s Flies in Ray Brook, was surprised and said he would initially limit his business to online and curbside sales rather than attracting guided clients from COVID-19 hot spots.
“It’s a really tough decision,” he said.
On the West Branch of the Ausable River in Wilmington, Two-Fly Shop owner Tom Conway planned to initially stick to selling flies and gear to locals. Among other things, he feared bringing the virus home to his 84-year-old mother.
“I don’t even see the purpose of trying to guide,” he said in May. “Too soon.”
Down the road, Hungry Trout Fly Shop owner Evan Bottcher was more optimistic. His guides do most of their work on their feet and can control their distance from clients. His guides could serve the region’s second-home owners, he figured.
“If there’s one thing people can do safely,” Bottcher said, “it’s take someone on the river.”
Hungry Trout guide Rachel Finn said some things will change, though. Guides won’t attach a client’s fly and then spit on the line to tighten the knot, for instance.
“Our lives are changed forever in my opinion,” she said. “We’re kind of making it up as we go along.”