On Aug. 29, 2011, the day after Tropical Storm Irene rolled through the Adirondacks, state Department of Environmental Conservation Regional Forester Kris Alberga took a helicopter flight over the High Peaks to survey the damage from above.
He saw swollen rivers, new slides and an empty pond surrounded by trees in the southern part of the wilderness area.
"The force of nature is pretty immense and pretty daunting when you think about the amount of soil that slid down some of those hills," Alberga said Wednesday, recalling his flight, "but Duck Hole was the most spectacular thing that caught my eye that day.
Enterprise reporter Chris Knight hikes up a slide created by Irene in the High Peaks Wilderness.
(Enterprise file photo — Mike Lynch)
"When you've flown over a pretty substantial-sized water body like that, that is blue and reflects the sky, and (then) you fly over and it's all brown, that really stands out."
Most of the 61-acre Duck Hole pond drained down the Cold River after the pond's dilapidated dam collapsed under the pressure created by the heavy rainfall. The old stone and wooden dam had been built by the Santa Clara Lumber Company in 1912 and then rebuilt in 1937 in the Civilian Conservation Corps. In recent years, the dam had fallen into disrepair.
For years, a debate had taken place about whether to restore the dam. But shortly after Irene, DEC announced it wouldn't repair the structure, putting to rest that discussion.
1 Year After Irene, a week-long series
-Saturday: Memories of Irene
Duck Hole was one of two old, wooden, backcountry dams that were severely damaged by Irene. Marcy Dam, a popular destination among hikers leaving from the Adirondak Loj trailhead, had also succumbed to the storm, and the pond behind it eventually drained down Marcy Brook.
For DEC, the damage to Marcy Dam presented a more complex problem. The Marcy Dam area sees substantially more use than Duck Hole because it is located on the Van Hoevenberg Trail, which heads up the state's highest peak, Mount Marcy, and many other popular destinations for hiking, snowshoeing and backcountry skiing.
To this day, DEC still has not made a final decision on what to do with Marcy Dam, although an alternative bridge that could serve as a permanent replacement was built over Marcy Brook earlier this summer. The new bridge is a couple hundred feet downstream of the old one.
In July, the DEC had engineers assess the old Marcy Dam, analyzing everything from what it would take to repair it to ways of performing a controlled dismantling of it.
"At this point, we're still in the decision-making phase," Alberga said. "The dam has been there since the '30s, so there are some historic preservation issues that we have to sort out, too."
But Alberga did indicate that if the dam is rebuilt, it would have to meet current dam safety standards, which are a lot more stringent that those that existed when it was built in 1939.
"Probably a total rebuild isn't real realistic, given the restraints we're under working in a wilderness area," Alberga said.
State closes wilderness areas
While the damage to Marcy Dam presented the DEC with a complex long-term problem, many of the other issues associated with Irene were more straightforward and were dealt with immediately after the storm. When Alberga took to the sky to survey the damage, what he couldn't do was see what had happened to trails that run through the High Peaks and nearby wilderness areas. Many of these trails were severely rutted, and bridges had been washed downstream.
Because of this, in the days after Irene, the DEC closed the Eastern High Peaks, Dix Mountain and Giant Mountain wilderness areas until it could fully survey the damage, reroute sections of trails and do maintenance work on essential backcountry infrastructure. But the closures didn't last long. By Sept. 8, the Dix and Eastern High Peaks wilderness areas were reopened to the public. The Giant Mountain Wilderness followed about a week later.
"Within a month, we had the vast majority of those trails reopened, so a lot of work went in initially," said DEC spokesman Dave Winchell. "There was a lot of effort by the volunteers and the DEC staff to get back in there and work as quick as possible and work hard to get the areas and the trails reopened."
Once access was granted to the public, curious backcountry users hiked deep into the woods and climbed high up the peaks to view the changes firsthand. What these people found were mountainsides scraped of vegetation, drainages widened, trees torn out of the ground by runoff and piles of stones that had tumbled down drainages, covering forest floors.
The changes were the most dramatic the Adirondack backcountry had seen since at least the 1990s. Hurricane-turned-Tropical-Storm Floyd had opened up many new slides in 1999, but not nearly this many as Irene.
"All of the new slides were the biggest impact, both as far as affecting trails and as far as affecting people's opportunities to get out and ski or climb new and challenging routes on familiar old peaks," said Tony Goodwin, author of the Adirondack Mountain Club's hiking guide to the High Peaks.
The difference between Floyd and Irene was that Floyd brought more wind with it and knocked down a lot more trees, said Goodwin, who is also executive director of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society. ATIS is responsible for maintaining 105 miles of public trails from Keene Valley south to the headwaters of the AuSable River and includes mountains such as Colden, Nippletop and Rocky Peak Ridge.
"Floyd ultimately created much more work for ATIS trail crews because of the wind damage," Goodwin said. "There were a number of sections of trail that had 100 to 150 downed trees per mile in Floyd."
Still, Irene left behind its share of work for the DEC and the work crews that assist the agency. ATIS, the 46ers trail crew, Lean-to Rescue, Adirondack Mountain Club and Student Conservation Association trail crew have all been busy since Irene.
"We're really lucky that there are a lot of people that care deeply about recreation in the High Peaks and the Adirondacks, in general," Alberga said. "They volunteered a lot of man hours."
No serious injuries
While Irene wreaked havoc in the backcountry, it didn't result in many backcountry rescues for forest rangers that weekend. A big reason for this was that in the days leading up to Irene, DEC warned backcountry users of the impending storm, advising people to get out of the woods and holed up somewhere safe.
By late in the day on Monday, Aug. 29, DEC forest rangers were able to account for the last group of hikers that were in the backcountry when Irene hit. The family - Marty Hiliard, 50, his wife Sara Meixell, 56, and their daughter Lexi Hiliard, 26 - had hiked Allen Mountain from Upper Works near Newcomb the day before Irene. Winchell said at the time that Meixell became ill and the group decided to camp out that night.
"Sunday morning, when they went to leave, the waters were too high, so they had to camp another night," he said. "They were walking out Monday and were met by a forest ranger who escorted them the rest of the way out."
Another group of hikers, three men, were stuck that Sunday night at Rocky Falls, about 2 miles from Adirondak Loj, trapped by a torrent of water in Indian Pass Brook. Forest Ranger James Giglinto said the group was able to get across the brook Monday morning and get back to the Loj.
Access to the Adirondak Loj, location of the busiest trailhead to the High Peaks, was also lost when the raging flood waters wrecked a bridge on Adirondack Loj Road, just past the intersection with South Meadow Road. Part of the bridge collapsed, sheets of pavement were ripped to pieces, and the bridge's guide rails were hanging in the air.
Adirondack Mountain Club Director Neil Woodworth said the day after Irene that about 25 guests were stranded because the bridge was impassable.
"We'll get them out as quickly as we can; meanwhile, we'll take good care of them," Woodworth said that day. "We have plenty of food and staff."
Later in the week, the guests all went home.
Ultimately, no serious injuries were reported as a result of Irene.
"I think that's one of the most remarkable things, in my mind, is that nobody, at least in the backcountry, really got hurt," Alberga said. "From that standpoint, we really got lucky that there's a little bit of a valley in late August with respect to people in the backcountry up here."