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Unpausing the Adirondacks

How will these mountains fare as New York begins to reopen? (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

A month ago, I wrote about folks coming up to visit the Adirondacks from downstate or out of state to adventure during the COVID-19 crisis. In that column, I outlined the mix of frustration and empathy that these visitors can elicit. The hope was to highlight these dichotomous feelings that many full-time residents here have been sitting with since this whole thing started. I never thought about how those words might land outside the Blue Line, though. So when, a day or two later, I got an email from a Brooklyn resident who had read the column, I was a bit worried at first.

That concern quickly gave way, though, as I read on. The email detailed how this person had been under conditions of self-isolation for 32 days (at that point) in a one-bedroom apartment there. They had grown up in Herkimer County and still had a house there, which they intended to move back into in April to enjoy some fresh air and fly fishing, like they do every year. Because of the coronavirus, however, they didn’t. Despite their desire to escape the claustrophobic confines of the city, they decided to stay put and wait things out.

It’s easy to say that this was the logical, responsible choice to make, especially when I can wander out my door onto hundreds of acres of state land whenever I want. By deciding to stay in the city, this person made a pretty incredible choice, though. Despite it being “extremely taxing,” and with no actual restriction barring them from leaving, they opted to continue their confinement because of their respect for the communities here. Their concern wasn’t just for broader considerations, like our health care network or the supply chains that keep bringing us groceries (though these were duly acknowledged). In their words, “[n]ot bringing a virus into these communities is the #1 priority but I would not want to cause any of my neighbors to feel unsafe.” The email closed with word of hope about when they could someday make the trip back up here.

It struck me as I was drafting my response that this email marked the first time during the pandemic that I’d had an actual conversation with someone who wanted to come visit the Adirondacks but didn’t. I’ve thought quite a lot about these people abstractly and what it would be like to live in a less wild place during all of this, but now I had someone sharing their thoughts on the matter with me directly. As I read over the email again, I was awed and deeply impressed by the sense of shared love for this place.

At the time, the question of when they could safely return to the Adirondacks was a pertinent, though rhetorical, one. The future was entirely up in the air, and answers were hard to come by. But that uncertain future has become the uncertain present, and as we begin to “unpause” New York, that email has been on my mind every day lately.

The question of how to address the safety and well-being of our communities as we reopen is intricately complex and also outside the scope of this column.

What I do want to consider here, though, is the “reopening” of our local wilderness. People who have been pent up at home for more than two months want to get back out and enjoy this beautiful place, but how will our trails, lakes, and peaks fare when faced with this new influx of visitors? How do we keep these places safe?

In this case, the word “safe” has a dual meaning. One reading of that sentence implies the need to keep the land and its inhabitants protected from harmful impact. I’ll address that idea shortly, but first we need to consider how to keep these places safe for us to visit. Since the beginning of this crisis, people have considered the woods a place where you could go to escape the near-constant strictures of social distancing. Now, though, as the backcountry starts to see more visitors, we have to keep in mind that the woods are, in fact, a public space. That means that, like in the grocery store or at the gas station, you need to have some sort of face covering and keep 6 feet apart from other people.

This has been a hard truth for me to swallow. I’ve relished the ability to leave my mask in my pack when I go for a hike. But unless we want to risk the backcountry being considered a potential arena for virus transmission (and thereby potentially subject to more restriction), we need to be as cautious as we can. But caution alone won’t do the trick in this instance.

Even if all the organizations that normally steward and protect our wild places are fully staffed (which seems doubtful in the present economic climate), I imagine that this season will be an especially busy one and, with lodging and campgrounds still in a state of limbo, the backcountry is likely going to see a record number of visitors. It would be wonderful if all of them were as thoughtful and aware as the person who wrote me that email, but inevitably, some won’t be. For both our safety and the safety of the wild places we love, I think that we’re going to need a lot more engagement from the community of people who recreate in them, both those who live here and those who visit. This means having more conversations, sharing our perspectives and creating dialogue where we might not have before. That way, we can enjoy finding common ground with those who share our passion for these mountains. More importantly, we can hopefully start to teach those who are new to them how best to respect and preserve them before more damage is done.

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