A Message to the Adirondack Wilderness Community

To the community of honorable people who love the Adirondacks and who are working hard to ensure the forest remains forever wild: thank you. I admire you. I appreciate you. I envy you.

When I moved to Upstate New York in 2013, acquaintances kept telling me about the Adirondacks, how magical they are, with their steep-sided mountains and layers of forest, mirror-calm lakes and clear-flowing creeks; bears, moose, loons. Having lived most of my adult life in the West and coming to New York from interior Alaska, I was skeptical, but hopeful. Could there really be such a large protected area in the Eastern U.S.? Could the views be as spectacular as people claimed, the air as fresh or the waterfalls as abundant? The lean-tos as remote or the trails as rugged? (Why did nobody mention the mud, the rain, the black flies?)

Curious to learn what’s so special about the region and eager to celebrate any and all wilderness left in this country, I applied to be a High Peaks Summit Steward, responsible for protecting Arctic Alpine vegetation, mostly atop Marcy, Algonquin, and Wright.

I spent my first season as a steward hating the place. Loving the small, hardy mountaintop plants, yes, and appreciating the few moments I could steal alone on the summits, early morning or late evening, the sea of forest and lakes unfurling under crepuscular light, but hating those awful trails, all straight up creekbeds, hating the weather, such a mix of hot, humid, stormy, windy, cold, wet wet wet, and, especially, hating the crowds.

High Peaks Alpine Vegetation (Photo courtesy Tyra Olstad)

It was near-impossible to get a moment of solitude, and stressful to try to herd hordes of tundra-stompers back onto rock surfaces, especially at lunchtime on, say, Cascade. Trained to prevent and repair damage—social trails, litter, human waste—I came to see only the impacts and peoples’ general disrespect for the mountains. After three full months of hiking up those trails and standing out in that weather, trying to be patient, understanding, dedicated, and somehow connected with the place, I had no deeper insight into what it is that people so love about the Adirondacks.

So I returned for a second season. A third. Fourth. I kept trying. I wanted to learn something from the Adirondacks, wanted to succeed in protecting at least some small scrap of wilderness. But if I couldn’t even keep people from stepping on plants in a handful of very specific places, how could I or anyone do something bigger, live up to the full intent and spirit of “Forever Wild”? (Kept as wild, these poor mountains and lakes, forests and loons? Forever?)

Summit Cairn and Clouds (Photo courtesy Tyra Olstad)

And then, of course, Boreas. I’d had such naïve hope and enthusiasm for the possibility of the entirety of the Boreas Tract being declared Wilderness, the forest left to reclaim the road and the ponds left somewhat unknown. It seemed so obvious—so many people seemed to rally around that same desire—that I was blind to the socio-political and socio-economic dimensions of the land classification process. The decision to compromise the tract’s wildness seemed indicative of the state’s (and country’s) disregard for “wilderness.” With that, I gave up on the Adirondacks.

I ran away. First, to the place that Bob Marshall had also sought after he’d wrapped up his 4000-footer quest: the Brooks Range (now Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve) in northern Alaska. There are no crowds there, no trails; weather plenty worse. That place is still truly wild, far more than I’d sought or anticipated. A thousand times over, it nearly swallowed me whole. I got what I deserved.

Next, to Chugach National Forest in south-central Alaska. An extraordinarily beautiful place, full of glaciers, fjords, and mist-wrapped mountains rising from the sea. But nearly all tourists there are on once-in-a-lifetime trips. They ooh at the orcas and ogle the glaciers for a day, then leave, no sense of true connection or dedication, no reciprocity.

Now, I’m in a national park in southern Utah, where part of my job is to help visitors understand, respect, and protect the biogeophysical, cultural, and psychological qualities of a proposed federal Wilderness Area. The landscape is undeniably spectacular: pink limestone cliffs falling into ponderosa-pine lined drainages; an impossibly blue sky sometimes filled with towering thunderstorms; views across 90 miles of mesas, canyons, and distant mountains; most famously, the world’s largest collection of “hoodoos”—lumpy, improbably-stacked, precariously-balanced rock spires.

It features nicely on t-shirts, wall calendars, and Instagram posts. But most of the views of the Wilderness are from above, from designated overlooks a short stroll from parking lots. As with Alaska, visitors here are transient, swinging through for a day or afternoon en route to or from Utah’s other “Mighty 5” national parks. They may walk a few trails and pause for a few photos, listen to a ranger talk or join one of the popular Constellation Tours, sleep for a night at one of the campgrounds.

People do seem to truly enjoy the park—I frequently hear exclamations of awe at the overlooks, aww for the chipmunks, and appreciation for the clean air, quiet soundscapes, and general lack of crowding—but there’s no investment, no mountaintop or campsite that they return to year after year, no childhood memories of swims, skis, or hikes, no dedicated lean-to adopters or trailhead stewards. No online forums to share hiking advice or community meetings to express management wishes or concerns. No Wilderness Advocates.

Years after I thought I gave up on the Adirondacks, I’m beginning to realize what it is that makes the place so special. Mountains, yes; lakes, loons. Mud and black flies are part of it, too. But mostly, it’s the sense of community, of shared love for forever wildness. So many people love the Adirondacks because so many people love the Adirondacks. Generations of Adirondackers and visitors alike have cared for the place—fought and fundraised and sweat, done anything you could to preserve it for present and future generations.

All I can say now is thank you. Future generations will thank you. How wonderful it is to be in a place that inspires and fosters such a collection of stewards, and to be part of that community. Please say hello to the High Peaks for me.

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