Old dams present inherent tension in wilderness areas
By Zachary Matson
The ground beneath the once-flooded Duck Hole in the High Peaks Wilderness was soft underfoot and teeming with life.
Monarch butterflies fluttered among summer flowers. Mosses, bog plants, grasses, shrubs and early succession trees carpeted the wide basin ringed by McNaughton, Panther and Seymour mountains. First-generation evergreen saplings sat low in a shady tangle, the tallest rising only five or six feet. Birds darted from branch to branch.
More than a decade after Duck Hole Dam crumbled during Tropical Storm Irene, draining the old logging pond populated by otters, loons and brook trout, a storied stop on the Northville-Placid Trail, the landscape has emerged as an open meadow, a bog and a fledgling forest in the heart of the High Peaks.
Guide and educator Matt Burnett first visited Duck Hole as a teenager during a North Country Community College outdoor leadership trip, and for years he helped patrol the area as an assistant forest ranger. He remembered his sister catching an 18-inch brook trout in the former pond and stories of his grandpa landing a floatplane there.
He returned last August leading a group of high school students from Upper Works trailhead along the Cold River to Long Lake. A couple of journalists from the Adirondack Explorer tagged along.
“It doesn’t seem like something is dying,” Burnett said as he took in the new scene at an old haunt. “Nature is bigger than the stuff we do.”
Before the dam failed and nature moved in to reclaim the place, hikers, paddlers, anglers, wilderness advocates and state officials debated the merits of repairing the deteriorating structure miles deep in the backcountry.
Some urged state officials to preserve the scenic pond, a remote paddling destination, and the brook trout fishery that developed in the decades since the Santa Clara Lumber Company constructed the dam in 1912. Others bemoaned the inherent tension of maintaining a large wooden dam, obstructing the headwaters of a scenic river, in an area meant to be left “untrammeled by man.”
Rules for the wilderness
The Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan considers preexisting dams, mostly a remnant of the region’s logging industry, a conforming structure in wilderness areas. They can be repaired using natural materials. No new dams can be built.
Maintenance of the park’s most remote dams in recent decades, though, has been rare and some have fallen far into disrepair. The 1998 High Peaks Wilderness unit management plan listed four dams in the sprawling wilderness complex and called for them to be inspected and maintained “in a safe condition.”
Only Lake Colden Dam is still standing.
During the classification decisions of more recent state land acquisitions, officials have effectively sidestepped the challenges of maintaining dams in wilderness areas by carving out primitive corridors to ease maintenance at dams deemed worthy of maintaining. When establishing a new classification for the Boreas Ponds tract, for example, the state only considered options that ensured direct access to the dam at the southern outlet of the connected water bodies, which were enlarged when Finch, Pruyn & Co. constructed the dam around 1916.
“If the APA is going to assume a need to maintain the dams, then the agency needs to provide a rational justification for that need,” a public commenter said of the state’s Boreas Ponds environmental review. Another suggested: “Existing dams do not need maintenance and Mother Nature should be able to restore a natural balance.”
The dams on the Boreas tract partly defined the boundaries of possible wilderness on the new state land, and dam removal was never examined. The five alternatives during the classification all included administrative access using Gulf Brook Road and established a primitive area around Boreas Ponds dam, enabling indefinite maintenance of the structure.
A unit management plan that covered the new Boreas tract committed the state to ensure all dams and other structures “are properly designed, maintained and safe for travel.” The plan instructed DEC to maintain the dam or, if maintenance “is not or cannot be performed,” the department “will remove the impoundment and restore the river channel to its natural state.”
Similarly, the two dams in the Lows Lake area support the popular Bog River canoe route. A 2008 amendment to the Bog River management plan noted the dams “should be maintained for the significant recreational opportunities they provide.”
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What about wetlands?
Old dams also present a tricky issue for environmentalists interested in preserving important wetland habitats. Over the decades, wetlands have grown around dams. During the Boreas Ponds debate, advocates calling for a larger wilderness highlighted the importance of wetlands in flows enlarged by the dams. They also suggested the dams could be removed without threatening recreational access on the ponds.
The state’s policy guiding decisions about dams in wilderness areas grants wide latitude to keep or ignore the remote structures. While the policy suggests that dams should be removed from wilderness areas “when they become unsafe or are otherwise in need of replacement,” it also outlines 10 factors that should be considered when deciding whether to rehabilitate an existing dam.
The state must consider the need to maintain water frontage, sustain upstream wetlands, support a fishery or wildlife habitat, preserve recreation access, protect scenic vistas, control downstream erosion or flooding, costs and safety.
In practice, some of the park’s most remote dams have had little or no maintenance in decades and continue to decay.
A ring of dry rock bed around Cedar Lakes in the West Canada Lake Wilderness marks the drop in water level as the structure slowly falls apart. The dam was reconstructed by DEC in 1972, listed as in “good condition” in 1980 and apparently has not been visited by state inspectors in over 40 years, according to state records.
The dam’s spillway in the fall was covered by a jumble of wooden debris. Large chunks of a concrete abutment had disintegrated, mud flats covered parts of the lake basin and a steady flow of water passed through what remained.
State records also point to decades without inspections of the outlet dam at Pharaoh Lake. The DEC last examined Lake Colden Dam in 2020, finding minor maintenance needs. It promises to continue maintaining the dam.
Save Duck Hole
Landscape photographer Gary Dean isn’t interested in seeing Duck Hole ever again. He wants to remember it the way it was when he photographed still waters and the high mountains that shimmered in their reflection.
“I refuse to go back,” he said. “Since 2011, it has a real bad taste in my mouth. I would rather remember it how it was.”
Dean started visiting the area in 1999 and returned frequently over the years to capture the special landscape.
“I used to get up at 4 a.m. and go out on the bridge (over the dam) and wait for the first light, and it was absolutely beautiful, it’s just indescribable,” Dean said. “It was a rare treat to be there and enjoy that in its last days; it’s a shame no one else will be able to enjoy that.”
After talking to people he encountered in the backcountry and on popular Adirondack online forums, Dean helped launch the “Save Duck Hole” campaign. The advocates signed petitions, lobbied policymakers and attempted to highlight the risk if the deteriorating wood structure would fail.
At one point, the dam supporters listed over 150 volunteers willing to work on repairs and lined up someone to donate lumber, Dean recalled. A commenter on a multi-year thread in Adirondack Forum suggested “a merry band of renegades” repair the dam themselves.
It was clear to those who visited that the dam was falling apart. A state inspection in 2000 found a litany of problems: abutment walls “leaning inwards;” wood cribbing half rotted away; wall planking with “significant deterioration;” rock fill scoured out; and the bridge across the dam settled unevenly. Inspectors observed “a slight vibration of the dam” caused by water passing over the spillway and declared the dam “in poor condition.”
In an Adirondack Explorer “It’s Debatable” opinion piece in the September/October 2011 issue, just before the dam breached during Irene, a pair of recreation enthusiasts took opposite positions on repairing the dam. Guidebook author Bill Ingersoll argued there “is nothing static about wild environments” and that changes to nature “are neither good nor bad.”
“They are just the latest paragraphs in the ongoing story of natural forces. … And in wilderness areas we have consented to allow this story to proceed without our direction or interference,” Ingersoll wrote. “So let’s let the dams go.”
Mike Douglass, of Cortland, for decades volunteered as an Adirondack Mountain Club lean-to adopter at Duck Hole, visiting regularly and observing as the dam gradually degraded.
“The first time I went in there after Irene, a few weeks after Irene, I have got to tell you I had a tear running down my face,” he said. “Duck Hole was so spectacularly beautiful. I was in love with the place and wished they had kept the dam, but I also understood why they let it go.”
In the days, weeks and months that followed the dam breach, visitors reported back on the sprawling mud flats dotted with tree snags, long preserved underwater.
What has sprung from nature
Now, the start of the Cold River winds past islands of trees and flowering meadow once surrounded by water. Moose Creek meets the river in a deep channel once obscured to all who passed by.
Burnett said the fate of Duck Hole was symbolic of the Adirondack wilderness, both disfigured and protected by humans, always changing. “My heart would have said I want it to last forever. My pragmatic side says we can still come here, still use it, it’s going on to its next chapter.”
The group of high school adventurers Burnett led down the Cold River valley jumped rocks as they explored the dam’s remains, impressed by the massive wooden structure and the power of the water that forced its way downstream. Together, they pondered the merits of maintaining dams in Adirondack wilderness.
“Building the dam itself is trammeling,” Galen Halasz said, referencing the definition that wilderness is a place “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
“The consequences of the dam is trammeling,” Galen continued.
“I like that they let it go, but I wish I would have seen it before,” Pailin Hample said. “I like seeing the change that happens in nature.”
All five students were happy the dam was not replaced. But not far down the trail, Burnett said, some were already reconsidering. What if the state had reinforced the structure? What if there was still a large pond they could carry a canoe to?
One of them joked about the tortured trade-offs: “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”