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Columbus Day hiker influx tests new shuttle, reservation systems

Trailhead stewards Barbara Rasmussen and Joe Ryan demonstrate how to make a cathole near the Cascade trailhead on Saturday. (Enterprise photo — Lauren Yates)

KEENE VALLEY — For the first time in years, Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson, Jr. was out of town on Columbus Day weekend.

For the past several years, the town of Keene, which has a population of around 1,000 people, has seen a rush of hikers flocking to the High Peaks on long holiday weekends. The Columbus Day weekend is one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year. In the past, the rush of hikers has left state forest rangers, volunteers and local officials like Wilson scrambling to accommodate the influx of traffic, keep roads clear and attempt to educate as many hikers as possible about Leave No Trace principles before they venture into the wilderness.

This year, Wilson said he didn’t feel the same pressure to control the crowds.

“I’m not in Keene for the first time in a while,” Wilson said over the phone on Saturday afternoon. Instead, he was at his son’s college attending a parents weekend.

Wilson said the “systems” that have been put in place to accommodate High Peaks hikers — the town’s hiker shuttle, the county’s new hiker shuttle at Marcy Field and the new parking reservation system at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve lot — helped him feel comfortable leaving town this year. He said that with all of these systems finally in place, the town was able to keep hikers moving and happy, making for “a busy but good day” on Saturday.

County bus driver Ken White drives the new hiker shuttle on state Route 73 Saturday. (Enterprise photo — Lauren Yates)

The state Department of Environmental Conservation and the AMR took steps to address parking hazards along state Route 73 and overflow from the AMR lot this year. The pilot HikeAMR reservation system requires hikers to make a reservation to park in the lot, and reservations can be made as far as two weeks in advance. The Essex County Transportation Department also launched a new hiker shuttle this year that travels from the Marcy Field parking lot to the Rooster Comb, Giant Mountain Ridge Trail and Roaring Brook trailheads. The Keene town shuttle resumed operation from Marcy Field to the Garden trailhead this June after shutting down in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Mixed behavior

Wilson said he was out all day this past Friday preparing for the weekend, and hiker traffic was already ramping up then. He spent some time at the Garden trailhead, where he had to sort out a traffic jam, but he said people were “well-behaved” overall. He said he easily pulled into the Chapel Pond and Ridge Trail lots while setting up the county shuttle stops along state Route 73.

Trailhead steward Barbara Rasmussen speaks with hikers Saturday before the embark on their trip. (Enterprise photo — Lauren Yates)

“People are really, you know, following the ‘no parking’ signs and delineators and I didn’t see a single problem out there, and nobody was walking in the highway,” Wilson said Saturday. “People have learned the new parking rules and restrictions and they’re abiding by them. I was pleasantly surprised (Friday), when it was so busy, to see that there weren’t any real obvious safety concerns and there weren’t any illegally parked cars.”

There were still some illegally parked cars on Saturday, but not as many as in years past. On Monday, DEC spokesperson Jeff Wiernen said the DEC only issued six parking tickets over the entire three-day weekend.

“Existing controls were effective in mitigating parking violations, including the parking reservation system at AMR and the shuttle,” he wrote in an email.

Trailhead Stewards Joe Ryan and Barbara Rasmussen were posted at an informational Adirondack 46er table near the Cascade and Porter trailheads, and Ryan said that standing there all day, they’d seen some interesting behavior from hikers and motorists.

“People are people. If you’d stay here for a day, you wouldn’t believe it,” Ryan said.

He said he saw someone stop in the middle of the road on Saturday morning and try to park with their car’s bumper still in the road.

“The thing is, the car behind him was a state trooper,” Ryan said.

He said the trooper immediately flicked their lights on and pulled the person over.

Record numbers

It was a busy weekend for Ryan and Rasmussen. Ryan said that by Saturday afternoon, they’d already spoken to 377 hikers. Other trailhead stewards with a similar table at South Meadow had spoken to 318 hikers by noon Saturday.

In addition to his trailhead steward duties, Ryan said he was performing car counts for the DEC for the first time this year. He said he had to count cars parked in a small stretch between two road signs near Cascade, and on Saturday morning, he said he counted 60 cars parked between the signs at around 11 a.m.

Naomi Hodgson, a front country steward and Jay resident who supervised shuttle operations at Marcy Field this weekend, also saw high hiker numbers by Saturday afternoon. She said the Marcy lot had filled briefly around noon for the first time since 2019. She said that from the two shuttles’ start time at 7 a.m., she was up and running constantly until about 11 a.m.

Hodgson said that in 2019, the Keene shuttle to the Garden trailhead lot had a total of 164 riders on the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend. This past Saturday afternoon, Hodgson had already seen 169 riders with several hours to go before the 7 p.m. stop time. That’s despite ongoing travel restrictions at the U.S. – Canada land border.

Hodgson said that the new county shuttle, which launched on Aug. 21, hasn’t seen many riders yet. Most people who rode the shuttle didn’t know about it beforehand, she said.

At the Roaring Brook parking lot, the county shuttle’s third stop, the lot remained full through the afternoon while the Marcy lot dwindled. At one point, a few cars were parked illegally at the Roaring Brook lot entrance, and the young group of hikers who owned the cars debated their plans. When asked if they knew about the shuttle stops, the hikers responded that they didn’t know there was a shuttle to begin with.

However, the new parking reservation system at AMR is being used. AMR spokesperson Joshua Poupore said in a Monday email that the reservation system was completely booked for Columbus Day weekend by last Thursday, and when he arrived at the lot at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, he only saw a couple of free spots. In September, AMR reported that more than 15,000 hikers had registered in the system in 2021, just four months after the system’s launch.

More novice hikers, more problems

Ryan and Rasmussen spent the weekend giving hikers information about Leave No Trace practices, including a demonstration with emoji toys on how to properly make a cathole. Ryan is the coordinator of the program, and he said that when they started five years ago, the trails at Cascade and Porter were littered with trash and feces.

These educational efforts complement a recent study from the Adirondack Council, a local environmental advocacy organization, that shows overuse of the Cascade trail. In a statement late last month, researcher and Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway said the state planned to close the old trail and rebuild a more sustainable trail with a higher carrying capacity.

Ryan said part of the overuse problem is from an increase in novice hikers who don’t plan ahead.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, places like the Adirondack Mountain Club, which oversees the Adirondack Loj trailhead, have seen an influx of novice hikers who haven’t spent much time outdoors, according to the club’s deputy director, Julia Goren.

When two hikers approached Rasmussen for information at the steward table, Ryan looked at them quickly and could tell they were new to hiking.

“I can tell by looking at their shoes how much they’ve hiked,” Ryan said.

When Rasmussen asked the two hikers if they were headed to Cascade, one of them responded, “I’m not sure exactly yet.”

Some new hikers are walking into longer and tougher trails than they bargained for. County shuttle driver Ken White said he saw one couple sitting on the guard rail near Rooster Comb and took them to the AMR lot. Hodgson said they looked like they’d been in the woods for days, and White said that one of the hikers looked like he’d been through an eggbeater.

With a limited number of forest rangers stationed in the High Peaks region, a high number of calls for help at once — whether from unprepared hikers or those who were prepared — can stretch resources.

Hodgson and Ryan both said they believe the AllTrails hiking app can be a source of misinformation for new hikers. Hodgson also said it seemed like some new hikers wanted to catch a good view without having to put in the leg work. One shuttle rider simply asked her where they could take a mountaintop Instagram photo.

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