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The joys of stick season

A classic late fall view (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

In my line of work, I often wind up on a trail with people who are stunned by how much there is to do in the Adirondacks. Many have never visited before, so when they learn about the huge variety of outdoor recreation opportunities that have been waiting mere hours from where they live, they’re surprised, to say the least.

The follow-up question I hear time and time again is always, “What time of year is the worst in the Adirondacks?” It’s not an easy one to answer. Almost every month offers something for some kind of enthusiast. My go-to answer has been “late fall and early spring.” The “late fall” part of that answer, though, is a bit self-serving.

Every year, I find myself surprised and a bit frustrated by the winnowing number of daylight hours in November and December. Usually, this means afternoon dog walks in the dark, a serious reduction in viable housework hours, and hikes that begin and conclude with headlamps. Things are slow as far as guide work is concerned. Ice and snow aren’t yet established, but the cold makes it more dangerous to paddle and hard to climb, so shorter hikes seem to be the order of the day.

But really, there is a lot to love about this time of year. Known by some as “stick season” for its lack of both colorful leaves and the soon-to-arrive blanket of winter, it’s easy to find your way through the woods or spot objectives that would be obscured by foliage or snow. Sure, it’s tempestuous as far as weather is concerned. It’s hard to predict or plan out many activities other than hiking, since any week there could be a heavy freeze or a big dump of snow. But even in that, the excitement is palpable. Even though the sun is down by 4 in the afternoon, things start to acquire the mystique of winter.

In my opinion, November and early December should be celebrated as one of the best months of the year for local wilderness enthusiasts. By the time the first big snows come in December, Whiteface will be drawing crowds from across the Northeast. Hotels will fill up, traffic through Lake Placid will become dense again, and the wave of visitors will return for the full variety of winter pursuits available to them here. This year, between the tumult of the ongoing pandemic and October weather that was pretty pleasant, we were still seeing notable crowds at trailheads through the beginning of this November. Now, though, you can even find spots at the Ausable Valley Club parking area by mid-morning.

Those of us who live here get precious little time to have these mountains to ourselves. This may be a somewhat selfish sentiment, but there is a certain pressure to be “on” when you come across some visitors, especially when you work in the mountains. There is a sense of responsibility that comes with being a source of local knowledge. Not that this is unwelcome — it’s great to be able to help point someone in the right direction or offer advice that might save someone quite a bit of hardship. Even if you choose not to engage when you see someone doing something foolish, there is a little feeling of regret or frustration. So this time of year offers a little break, a little more quiet and calm, and a little more time to ourselves.

I’ve also found it to be a great season to explore corners of the Forest Preserve that I haven’t visited before. I’d bet that even for those who’ve lived their whole lives in the Adirondacks, there’s probably a trail within an hour of their home that they’ve never visited before. Given the brevity of daylight hours, this is much less the time of year for 16-hour epics. Instead, it’s a great opportunity to go on those shorter day trips you hear about but haven’t tried — the Catamounts, Debars and Loon Lake mountains, to name a few. Scoping out a new mountain arouses that sense of curiosity and wonderment, the freeing feeling of newness you get when an unfamiliar landscape unfolds before you.

So when I say that November is one of the worst times of year in the Adirondacks, I mostly mean that it’s the worst time to visit. Unless you already hold a deep appreciation for the area and have some experience with these mountains, it’s far better to wait until late December or early January, when the snow is likely to be deeper and the ice thicker. For those of us who live and play here all year round, and who cherish a little bit of quiet time in the woods before the mad rush of winter, stick season might just be the best time of year.

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