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A changed wilderness

Backcountry landscape is different because of Tropical Storm Irene

September 17, 2011
By MIKE LYNCH - Outdoors Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Of the locations in the High Peaks that have been affected by Tropical Storm Irene, perhaps none is more recognizable than Marcy Dam.

Thousands of people have stopped at the dam to look out at the view of the mountains rising up around what used to be a pond. From there, you could look up Avalanche Pass to the slides on Mount Colden. Further to the right, you could gaze at the Angel Slides on Wright Peak.

Today, that view is altered. New slides have stripped the mountainsides of vegetation and the pond is a mere mudflat with a small brook running through it.

Article Photos

Tropical Storm Irene damaged Marcy Dam, draining most of the pond behind it and turning the area into a mudflat.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)

"It's been one of the most photographed spots over the years because it is accessible and it's kind of the first rest stop for folks as they head into the backcountry," said Adirondack Mountain Club's deputy executive director John Million. "One of the beauties and challenges of managing wilderness as wilderness is that there's always going to be change. If you look at the difference in the Flowed Lands or any of the other areas that have had a number of changes over the years, I think change is part of the character of wilderness that we're trying to encourage."

After Tropical Storm Irene hit the area in late August, the state Department of Environmental Conservation closed the Eastern High Peaks, Dix and Giant wilderness areas. Since then, I have heard various reports about the conditions of the trails, most of which have opened in the past week.

On Tuesday, fellow Enterprise reporter Chris Knight and I went in the Eastern High Peaks from the Van Hoevenberg trail that starts at the Adirondack Mountain Club's High Peaks Information Center to get a closer look at the damage.

For the first 2 miles, we found little change in the trail. The biggest difference was that the DEC had rerouted the Van Hoevenberg Trail to cross Marcy Brook less than a quarter mile below the dam. Here, we hopped on some rocks to cross the brook and noticed a large piece of timber that had been part of Marcy Dam.

Once across the brook, we followed trail markers up a side trail to the Marcy Dam Truck Trail, which led us to the dam. Here, we found the mudflats, with footprints along its edges.

As we continued up the trail, we noticed that the trail up Mount Marcy had been rerouted. There were deep ruts that were filled in with brush. At this point, we turned right toward Avalanche Pass.

Soon the trail connected again with Marcy Brook. It was here that we found what I thought was one of the more interesting changes in the landscape. The brook was filled with tall piles of stones that had been pushed downstream by the powerful runoff. There was also one section where the brook had completely washed out where the trail once was.

Shortly after seeing that, but prior to getting to Kagel Shelter - the first lean-to on the way to Avalanche Lake - we left the trail to head up a streambed. Our plan was to hike a new slide in the valley between Wright and Algonquin peaks, then head up to the summit of Wright following an old slide.

Getting to the new slide required us to leave Marcy Brook and follow drainages uphill for about a mile. When we arrived at the base of the slide, we found downed trees and limbs piled high, creating a natural dam. Stones and mud deposits covered the forest floor and small limbs wrapped around tree trunks.

Chris had hiked this area previously. He said there used to be a small stream surrounded by vegetation. Now, there was a 50- to 75-foot wide swath running down the mountain.

"Adirondack Slide Guide" author Drew Haas, who had flown in a plane over the Adirondacks after the storm, said he'd seen some other slides similar to this one.

"They all ran pretty long, anywhere from a mile to probably two miles," Haas said. "Just huge, wide slide paths."

He said he hasn't been on the ground, but he's heard reports from others who have seen the longer slides that they are generally fairly wide.

"They are all about 100-foot wide. They aren't just streambeds. They are pretty much cut pretty wide," he said.

That's generally what we found.

The edges of this slide were lined with overturned trees and twisted limbs, while the base of the gully was covered with slabs of rock, loose stones and boulders that were now a whitish color. The violent nature of the flooding had caused rocks to run downstream rubbing the grayish color off the surface. They had been thoroughly scrubbed clean by Mother Nature.

The slide itself was pretty low angle. It required us to negotiate some boulders and a few slippery sections, but there was nothing that required any technical rock climbing skills. It was like following an intermediate ski trail up Whiteface Mountain, except there were logs and other debris strewn about in places.

As we hiked, we joked that we would name this slide the "bathing suit" slide because we had curiously found a women's bathing suit near the base of it. There's a backcountry tradition that says people making first ascents of slides or backcountry features get to name them. Whether or not we were the first up the slide, we weren't sure. I wouldn't be surprised if others had been up it since the storm.

Eventually, after walking for a little more than a mile up the new slide, we headed off to the right and into the woods. Our plan was to bushwhack to the base of an old slide on the southern side of Wright.

After bushwhacking through some thick spruce that left my lower legs looking like they'd been clawed by an angry cat, we found the base of the old slide on Wright. From there, we hiked upward to the open middle part of the slide. On this much steeper, high-elevation slide, we had a view of many of the surrounding High Peaks, including many of the new scars.

The most impressive slide to me was one on Mount Colden. Like an old one running alongside it, the new slide started out narrow at the top and widened as it went downhill. The biggest difference between the new and old slides was the new one was a whitish color, like the stones we had seen earlier.

After a short break to eat lunch, we continued up the mountain, which got pretty steep toward the top. After we scrambled up, we went though another thick patch of forest before getting back on bare rock again. This time, though, we were on the summit of Wright Peak.

From the top of Wright Peak we followed the trail back to the High Peaks Information Center parking lot. We found this trail to be in good condition.



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