Village considers retiring 6er challenge

Ending challenge one of several options in Baker/Pisgah discussion

A line of cars is seen wrapping around Moody Pond on the St. Armand section of Forest Hill Avenue near the Baker Mountain trailhead in November 2019. (Provided photo — Davina Winemiller)

SARANAC LAKE — As the Saranac Lake Village Board mulls a request from the town of St. Armand to remove Baker Mountain from the Saranac Lake 6er hiking challenge and replace it with Mount Pisgah, the board’s discussion shifted this week to the future of the hiking challenge itself.

Some of the issues at the Baker Mountain trailhead are issues that are being discussed about all hiking trails in the region — overuse, trail erosion and parking. Others are more specific to Baker, namely the parking issue, which is unique there because the trail starts inside a residential area and does not have a parking lot.

Hikers parking on both sides of the narrow Forest Hill Avenue, combined with the loop around Moody Pond being a popular place to walk and bike, make travel in the neighborhood dangerous, according to St. Armand town Supervisor Davina Winemiller. She said it’s been a “nightmare” for residents there.

Winemiller asked the Saranac Lake board to consider swapping in Pisgah for Baker to alleviate parking issues around Baker’s residential trailhead earlier this month. Since then, village Mayor Jimmy Williams said others have asked him to swap out other 6er mountains with new ones due to parking, overuse and safety concerns.

On Monday, some members of the village board wondered if they should retire the 6er program after a decade.

6er’s path diverges in a wood

The village board has a couple options it’s considering, but trustees say they are looking for more ideas from the community. Currently, the board could swap Baker for Pisgah, create a new hiking challenge — a sort of 6er 2.0 — retire the program altogether, or keep things the way they are.

Board members said they want to make some sort of change for Forest Hill Avenue residents. Williams said he probably doesn’t want to create another hiking program.

Village Trustee Kelly Brunette is having an internal struggle over the issue.

“The 6er is near and dear to my heart,” she said, but she also wondered if it has “run its course.”

The 6er challenge will turn 10 years old in next May. In that time, she said it has “created great economic benefits,” but also brought “costs.” Brunette helped kick off the 6er challenge while she was working in the village Community Development Office in 2013.

“It was so fun and exciting. I’m so thankful that I was able to be a part of the 6er,” she said.

The idea was fresh, “out of the box” and successful. When former Mayor Clyde Rabideau told village staff to make it happen, Brunette said the energy was palpable. Over the years, she’s read countless letters from hikers applying for their patches, telling her stories of hiking with family and sharing pictures of their 6er tattoos.

She said the village “struck while the iron was hot,” but she now regrets not involving the towns where the mountains in the challenge lie. She feels the village didn’t do its “due diligence” back then, and she said she doesn’t want to make that mistake again.

Brunette said the village needs to be mindful of people still on their quests to become 6ers and not “pull the plug” on the program without giving them fair warning.

Brunette said she wants more discussion with all stakeholders on the hiking challenge before making any changes to do it the right way.

The 6er program is for six specific peaks, she said.

“If we swap peaks, is it still the 6er?” she wondered. “Or is it a new and different hiking challenge?”

She’s unsure and has an issue with this. If mountains are swapped with different lengths and distances, it changes the “integrity” of the challenge, she said.

Williams said the Saranac Lake 6er was the first local hiking challenge in the area. Tupper Lake introduced its Triad in 2015 and the Lake Placid 9er kicked off in 2018.

Williams wondered if the village should “lead once again” and be the first to retire its program.

The hiking challenge includes Baker, the shortest hike, along with St. Regis, Scarface, Ampersand, Haystack and McKenzie.

Brunette mentioned that others have wanted to swap Jenkins Mountain in for Ampersand Mountain. Ampersand Mountain has a small parking lot across from its trailhead on state Route 3. During the summer, cars are often parked up and down both sides of the road.

Williams said drivers whip around a blind corner at the top of the hill at highway speeds, and with hikers crossing the road to get to the trail, it’s pretty dangerous.

Brunette said Ampersand has similar issues with erosion and lots of rescue calls there, too.

Trustee Rich Shapiro said trail usage is up at all local peaks, so he thought it was unfair to blame the 6er program for the increase. He said someone should survey hikers to see what percent are hiking Baker for the 6er program and how many are just hiking it to hike it.

Some locals hike it two to three times a week, he pointed out.

Winemiller said Baker’s promotion through the 6er program has made it a much more popular peak.

“The people who live there see a decided difference from what it was 10 years ago,” Winemiller said.

Shapiro agreed that it is worse that 10 years ago, but said all peaks in area have use many times higher than 10 years ago.

Williams said currently, there are around 5,500 registered 6ers — that’s a lot, he said.

Baker swap

For years, Winemiller’s said there’s been a problem with parking and pedestrian safety around the Baker trailhead on Forest Hill Avenue, which circles Moody Pond.

It’s a very popular hike. With a short, steep, 1-mile hike with scenic views at the summit and close proximity to town, it attracts hundreds of hikers a season.

The Baker Mountain trailhead is in the town of St. Armand, just outside of the Saranac Lake village line. Forest Hill Avenue runs through a point where the towns of North Elba and St. Armand and the village of Saranac Lake boundaries all meet. Though most of Forest Hill Avenue is in the village of Saranac Lake, the northern corner — a 0.2-mile stretch of road containing the Baker Mountain trailhead — is outside the village limits in St. Armand.

Williams said he thinks trail overuse will continue to grow and parking will continue to be an issue for the people living around Moody Pond, no matter what the village does. But he doesn’t want the village to be part of the problem.

“There will obviously still be a lot of hikers going to Mount Baker, but it won’t be us pushing them there,” Williams said. “We are not trying to fix a problem. We are trying to do our part to better the problem.”

“It’s not going to solve it by any means,” Winemiller said.

But she hopes it would alleviate pressure.

Shapiro said the village’s Parks and Trails Advisory Board is expected to weigh in on this soon.

Shapiro pointed out that Baker is an accessible hike for non-mountain-climbers, and he don’t want the 6er to lose that.

He and his wife, Lindy Ellis, bike around Moody Pond routinely. Most of the time, when they go around, he said the parking area at the Moody Pond boat launch is not filled.

Shapiro said the village had talked with the state Department of Environmental Conservation at one point about moving the Baker trail, but it never went anywhere.

Winemiller said she has a meeting with a DEC representative this Thursday. However, she said the state does not have a usage master plan for that area, so no “significant changes” can be made — any change longer than one-quarter of a mile.

Pisgah problems

Brunette said “passing the buck” to Pisgah isn’t a great solution either.

Directing 6er hikers to Pisgah has its own issues, Shapiro pointed out.

The Barkeater Trails Alliance’s mountain bike trails weave all over the mountain. Shapiro said hikers will destroy these trails, which are built for bikes. Hikers will just walk straight up through the switchbacks, he said.

He also said having hikers and bikers on the same trail is a “disaster waiting to happen.”

Also, the peak of Pisgah is private property with a radio tower owned by Harris Corporation.

Winemiller agreed that there are problems with Pisgah, too. But, she said Baker’s placement in a residential area is a bigger problem.

Winemiller said St. Armand owns only a sliver of the land near the trailhead, but, “we’re the only ones doing anything out there to help the residents of that area with the parking problem.”

All local mountains are facing serious erosion on their trails — not just Baker, Winemiller said.

She lamented a lack of trail maintenance by the state. But Winemiller said DEC workers around here are “wonderful.”

“They care about our trails … and their hands are tied,” she said. “I, personally, am very frustrated with the fact that the state can come up with millions of dollars to buy more state land, but they can’t come up with a few thousand dollars to do some trail maintenance on property that they already own.”


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