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Closing the woods

Tropical Storm Irene altered the region’s landscape and caused a rare shutdown of many backcountry destinations

September 10, 2011
By JOE HACKETT - Outdoors Columnist (tahawus@northnet.org) , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

On the outskirts of the village of Saranac Lake, there was a large, illuminated warning sign situated along a main road into town. The message, "ADK TRAILS CLOSED" blinked with an ominous warning to visitors.

Nature is very dynamic and ever-changing. There are very few elements of the landscape that remain static, even in a settled area such as the Adirondacks. The recent earthquakes, floods and high winds should provide a gentle reminder of this fact. Nature has closed the woods.

Ed Kanze, a guide and naturalist from Bloomingdale, noted this fact when he claimed, "The Adirondacks have traditionally remained relatively free from these big damaging storms and earthquakes. People are beginning to get a bit nervous."

Article Photos

Landslides like this one on Saddleback Mountain opened up across the Adirondacks in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene on Sunday, Aug. 28.
(Photo — Brendan Wiltse)

So, too, should those concerned with the changing face of the High Peaks, where new slides have appeared, familiar trails have disappeared and old ponds have been lost. Many of these familiar scenes have been changed dramatically, where landmarks once marking the land have been removed.

Sadly, Duck Hole Pond is one such scene. In its current dewatered state, it could more appropriately be labeled Muck Hole Mire.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation recently issued a warning that unsafe conditions will remain in much of the Adirondack backcountry and will likely persist well beyond the Labor Day weekend.

Storm damage from flooding and high winds has toppled trees and created vast swaths of blowdown and washed-out bridges, ladders and trails. The floods have breached a number of dams and have taken out numerous footbridges. Stream crossings should be approached with caution, and all slide areas should be considered unstable.

It will likely take many weeks, and possibly months, before the trails can be fully rehabilitated or relocated. It's a safe bet that trail crews will be glad to welcome volunteers. Contact the Adirondack Mountain Club for further information.

The Eastern High Peaks Wilderness, Giant Mountain Wilderness and Dix Mountain Wilderness were closed shortly after Tropical Storm Irene hit the region on Aug. 28. The Adirondak Loj and most of the trails in the eastern High Peaks reopened Thursday, but the Dix Mountain Wilderness remained closed because of trail damage and the closure of state Route 73.

Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, told me he expects some trails in the eastern High Peaks may take months to restore.

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History of closures

It has been years since the state of New York has had to close the Adirondack woods to the public. Historically, such closures have been reserved for periods with a high risk of fire danger. However, in recent times, rather than closing the woods, the state has simply imposed a ban on fires.

According to DEC Region 5 spokesman David Winchell, the DEC commissioner has the responsibility to determine when to close Forest Preserve lands, whereas only the governor can proclaim the woods closed, statewide.

Since 1924, governor's closure proclamations have only been declared on 15 separate occasions. Typically, these closures were implemented in the Catskills and the Adirondacks, often during the hunting season in autumn and only for a few weeks. However, a number of the closures were in effect statewide during periods of extreme drought.

The deer season was suspended by governor's proclamations due to fire danger in 1938, 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1963 and 1964.

New York's governor's proclamations were also used to close state forest lands in 1924, 1930 (twice), 1932, 1934, 1938, 1941, 1943, 1947, 1952, 1953, 1957, 1963 and twice in 1964, when it also banned "smoking on state lands."

The longest closure of state forest lands in history resulted from the Adirondacks' most infamous natural disaster, The big blowdown of 1950. It occurred on Nov. 25, when heavy rains and hurricane-force winds toppled more than 800,000 acres of forested land. The damage decimated forests surrounding the Cold River Valley in the western High Peaks, and it forced the fabled woodsman Noah John Rondeau to abandon his hermitage.

At the age of 67, Rondeau exited the woods for the last time. He would never again return to his home, which was situated high on the bank overlooking the Cold River.

The woods were not reopened until 1955, when the emergency legislation that had closed them in 1950 was finally lifted.

Around the same time, in 1954, a most unnatural event forced a similar closure of the local woods surrounding the Lake Placid area. It occurred when a police manhunt was instituted to capture the fugitive James A. Call, as he attempted to flee the region after he had shot and killed one police officer and seriously wounded two others.

The woods were closed to the public as police sought the killer; however, Call eluded the dragnet and escaped, despite the efforts of nearly 300 law enforcement personnel and a number of deputized civilians.

The forests and trails surrounding Moss Lake near Old Forge were likewise closed by the state from 1972 to 1974, when a heavily armed group of Native Americans occupied a former Girl Scout camp in an attempt to "repossess Indian territory." The closure was lifted when Attorney General Mario Cuomo negotiated a settlement with the group. They were eventually relocated to Miner State Park near Altona, which they renamed Ganienkeh Territory, where they remain to this day.

During the summer of 1973, I was working for the DEC as a lifeguard at Lincoln Pond Campsite. That year, the Adirondack forests and campgrounds were closed for reasons far more horrible and threatening than just a fire or high winds. At the time, my supervisor was simply told to close the facility and to refund the campers' fees. He was instructed to do so immediately.

Eventually, we learned it was a manhunt that forced the closure of the quiet, peaceful Adirondack woods for more than two weeks. It all began when Robert Garrow, a known predator and an experienced woodsman, committed a double murder at a campsite located in Hamilton County, south of the village of Speculator in the lower Adirondacks.

Garrow fled the scene of the crime in a stolen car and took a female hostage with him. A posse of law enforcement officers, aided by forest rangers, eventually caught up with the fugitive in the town of Mineville in Essex County.

Garrow was shot, captured and eventually convicted of the crimes. Unfortunately, the posse caught up to him too late to save the hostage. She had already been murdered.

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Recent closures

In more recent years, the north woods have been closed more often due to natural disasters rather than from fire dangers or fleeing killers. After the big blow of '50 came another "derecho" event with the arrival of the big blow of '95, which was soon after followed by the great ice storm of '98.

Prior to the big blow of '95, the DEC had issued a variety of travel advisories regarding the woodlands that suffered severe damage from an ice storm that damaged more than 200,000 acres of forested lands. The storm left the forests cluttered with "widow makers," dangerous limbs that had snagged in the crowns of trees and were likely to fall on unsuspecting travelers.

Although the severe flooding of spring 2011 did not result in any major forest closures, the extreme weather event - compounded by heavy rains, high temperatures and a rapid thaw - was the result of an unusually dense snowpack.

The runoff resulted in a "500-year flood" along the Raquette River watershed, and it produced a "100-year flood" on many of the region's smaller rivers. The rapid spring thaw was also responsible for producing the "largest landslide in New York history." Located high on a hillside overlooking Keene Valley, the slow-moving landslide remains a work in progress.

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Enough is enough

The back-to-back floods of 2011 have devastated our local communities, and they have changed the course of numerous rivers and streams. It should be noted that such severe weather events appear to be occurring with greater frequency. The region has suffered at least three consecutive 100-year floods in less than a decade and another 500-year flood in less than a quarter of a century.

Last week, one day before Tropical Storm Irene arrived on the scene, the waters of the West Branch of the AuSable River were calmly flowing down from the High Peaks at a normal flow rate of just 250 cubic feet per second. Less than 24 hours later, the same river became a writhing, raging, chocolate snake that ripped through the valley with a flow rate of over 42,000 cubic feet per second.

The region has already put up with a fair share of thundering river boulders, landslides, washouts and other comparable community calamities. It would be nice if Mother Nature could turn off the spigot for a few years.

My appreciation goes out to former NYSDEC Forest Ranger Lou Curth for documentation provided in his book, "The Forest Rangers."

 
 

 

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