RAY BROOK - In many parts of the world, including the Northeast, hut-to-hut expeditions are part of the outdoor recreation scene.
That's not the case here in the Adirondacks, but a group of Paul Smith's College students explored the idea in a recent semester-long senior project.
The eight students presented their ideas to officials at the state Department of Environmental Conservation's Region 5 headquarters in Ray Brook in November.
Mitzpah Spring Hut, located at 3,800 feet in elevation near Mount Pierce in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, is part of an eight-hut system run by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
(Photo — Chris Knight)
"Our intent is to begin a conversation, so that's the approach we're taking," said Joe Dadey, Paul Smith's College assistant professor of recreation, adventure travel and ecotourism who supervised the project. "(It's) very much a conceptual start to this notion of huts in the Adirondacks."
Dadey later said that while the students would be done with the project once the semester ends - which it did last month - he would be happy to discuss the concept with anyone who is interested.
Citing several studies on the Adirondacks, the students determined that the huts could meet several needs in the Adirondacks. They would attract a wide variety of tourists, connect communities and stimulate economies.
"We need to be able to protect the Park but also encourage recreation within the Park," said student Theresa LeClerk.
The students thought the huts could be a way to provide backcountry wilderness lodging. For instance, they could serve those who want to travel light when they go into the woods.
"With hut-to-hut routes, you don't have to carry in a 60-pound backpack of gear," student Barrie Potter said. "You simply need a sleeping bag, some food and a map, pretty much."
Hut-to-hut systems are used around the world in places such as Switzerland, New Zealand, Iceland, British Columbia, Colorado, New Hampshire and Maine.
In the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire, the Appalachian Mountain Club has eight huts, each about 6 to 9 miles apart. Modeled after the huts in the Alps, each can accommodate 30 to 96 people. They attract 39,000 overnight visitors annually. Most of that visitation is during the summer months. Some of the huts close in the winter.
The huts have running water, modest kitchens, sleeping bunks with mattresses and pillows, electricity and trail and weather information.
In Maine, Maine Huts and Trails has four huts that are spread out over 80 miles of trails. These full-service lodges are located on public easement and private lands. They have a capacity for 40 people each.
The average cost of a nightly hut stay varies around the world: $15 in New Zealand, $30 in Colorado, $45 in Switzerland, $100 in Maine and $118 in New Hampshire.
The students did a survey of more than 200 people, asking them questions about potentially having huts in the Adirondacks. One question they asked was what modes of travel would be preferable for traveling between huts. They found that hiking (93.4 percent) was the most popular, followed by paddling (64.7) and skiing (49.7).
Seventy-eight percent of the respondents said that they would use overnight huts in the Adirondacks. Thirty-four percent of those people preferred to pay less than $20 per night, and another 34 percent preferred to pay between $20 and $29 per night.
Forty-six percent of the people thought each hut should house 10 to 19 people, by far the most popular number for the housing question.
The students also asked people about potential reasons for not having huts in the Adirondacks. Some answered that they shouldn't be put on state land, which the students proposed in some plans, because they are non-conforming structures in wilderness areas.
Others thought they would jeopardize the Adirondacks' wild character. Others thought lean-tos were sufficient and part of the local culture, and shouldn't be replaced by lodges.
Those in favor of the huts thought they would increase accessibility to the backcountry to a wider variety of people, including families and those with disabilities. They were also seen always to boost the local economy, including in the winter when most people prefer not to camp.
The students proposed huts that may work best in the Adirondacks. They suggested the best huts would be modest in size, using green construction that blended in with the environment. They would have 20 to 30 beds each, modest kitchens and running water. The two-floor buildings would have an open bunk room on the second floor.
"If they are done in the right spots and appropriate land destinations, they could be viable tool to jumpstarting and getting the Adirondacks to compete with other places as an outdoor recreation mecca," student Johnny Young said.
The students suggested a couple of hut-to-hut routes. One went from Big Moose to Tupper Lake along the railroad corridor. The other was in the central Adirondacks near the Essex Chain of Lakes.
The Big Moose-to-Tupper Lake trip would be 45 miles. It would be a six-day and five-night trip for those who went from one end to the other. It would also offer a shorter loop option of three days and two nights, starting and ending in Tupper Lake.
The system would utilize two existing lodging facilities in Stillwater and four new buildings. The new buildings would be on the corridor near Lake Lila, Upper Lows Dam on the Bog River, Horseshoe Lake and near Mount Arab. The trip would end in Tupper Lake, where the travelers could find a hotel room.
The route could be used by hikers, snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, and possibly cyclists if the corridor were to accommodate them at some point.
After the presentation, the students had a discussion with DEC officials including Region 5 Director Bob Stegemann, who offered feedback.
Stegemann suggested to the students that the hut-to-hut idea would have the best chance of succeeding if the structures are on private lands, or potentially on conservation easement lands.
"I think the non-conforming issue would be a big nut to crack," he said.
Overall, though, Stegemann liked many aspects of the students' presentation.
"I think it's right in stream with keeping with our thinking now, trying to connect the Forest Preserve to communities," he said. "I think you've done a really good job of tying this in with communities and trying to figure out how to bring people to communities, (while) at the same time trying to get people into the wilderness and enjoy that. So, I really applaud you for that thinking. I think it's a really good start."