5 Years After Irene: Front-row seat

KEENE – Having worked for the Adirondack Mountain Club at Johns Brook Lodge for several years, Brendan Wiltse was familiar with the feel of the building shaking. When hikers stomped their feet on the front porch of the lodge, the tremors could be felt a good way away.

But at noon, Sunday Aug. 28, 2011, Wiltse and the lodge’s hut master Seth Jones had sent about 28 hikers home after serving them an early breakfast six hours earlier. The lodge is a 3.5-mile hike into the High Peaks from the Garden parking lot in Keene Valley, and this duo was all that was left there to experience Tropical Storm Irene, as it battered the backcountry.

Those tremors? They weren’t people. They were boulders, wreaking havoc on mountain streams as 11 inches of rain deluged the lodge that day.

“Around 11 or noon the brook probably got to the highest I’d ever seen it before,” Wiltse recalled this week, five years after the storm. “At one point I thought someone was walking across the front porch of the lodge.

“I got up and looked round,” he continued, “and I realized it was boulders getting knocked around in the brook in front of lodge. You could actually feel it slightly inside the lodge.”

The situation Wiltse and Jones experienced at the Johns Brook Lodge was similar to what many people and places dealt with throughout the region, especially in nearby Keene Valley, Keene and St. Huberts. State highways such as Route 73 were eaten up, bridges were busted, and buildings were demolished as residents along the AuSable River tributaries tended to hamlets that were partially underwater.

Wiltse now works for the AuSable River Association, recently spearheading water quality testing of Mirror Lake in conjunction with the Mirror Lake Watershed Association. Now 32 years old, Wiltse said five years ago during Irene he was never afraid for his safety. He said the nature of Johns Brook Lodge being at a higher elevation in the High Peaks meant it didn’t suffer as much as the Route 73 corridor. The water came quicker, but it subsided faster as well.

Rather, the memories that stand out for Wiltse revolve around soaking in the reality that, thanks to their location, he and Jones may have been the first people to see the epic scars on the Adirondack wilderness left behind by Irene.

This included when, the day after Irene struck, he and Jones climbed to the top of the lodge’s roof to scan a view they’d seen many times before, that of the Great Range.

“That’s when we saw the new slide on Saddleback Mountain and the new slides on the Wolfjaws,” he said.

A day later after tending to the damage surrounding the lodge, the duo set off toward the heart of the Great Range to view what kind of havoc Irene had imposed on Saddleback and Gothics. Near the 4,515-foot summit of Saddleback, they saw a rather peculiar slide leading toward Orebed Brook. It spoke to the sheer power of the storm.

“Normally, pre-Irene, slides would run off the steep areas, and then there would be a debris pile at the bottom,” Wiltse said. “But a couple of different slides from Irene went right into a brook, which meant there was enough water and volume in the brook to keep it moving. And that was all of the stuff that got hung up at the bridges in Keene Valley.

“You could see all the brooks were scoured,” he added. “The Bennie’s Brook slide on Lower Wolfjaw did the same thing – went into Johns Brook down into Keene Valley.”

Despite the damage at higher and lower elevations, Wiltse, Jones and the lodge came out of the storm unscathed.

“I never felt unsafe,” he said. “The water, it never got close to the lodge, and that was the main threat. It wasn’t particularly windy – just a lot of rain.”