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A closer look at winter visitors

(Photo provided by Zack Floss)

If you drove through Lake Placid parked at the High Peaks Information Center for a hike over the past weekend, the only way you’d know we were in the middle of a pandemic would be all the face masks.

The Tri-Lakes region and the High Peaks seem as busy as they would be during any year around the holidays. The streets are crowded with pedestrians and vehicle traffic. The speedskating oval is full of people, with the line stretching long down the sidewalk. Businesses are crowded, despite some restaurants still being shuttered due to COVID exposures. With the exception of the November lull (which was, by all standards, rather brief), the region seems, for all intents and purposes, to have been as busy as ever. Perhaps capacity limits at hotels, in restaurants and at other regional draws like Whiteface are having some impact, but it’s hard to see.

The guide service I work for provides a perfect example. At this point, we’re on track for January to be busier than August, and that trend doesn’t seem to be dissipating any time soon. This amount of interest is surprising, given present social conditions, but certainly begs the question of why so many people are still choosing to travel, even with the risks that poses to themselves and the communities they visit during this national health crisis. Some answers to that question start to emerge when you look at two types of client we’ve been seeing much more of recently.

It’s not uncommon for us to have clients call us to ask for help planning their trips to the Adirondacks. That said, they frequently have an idea in mind of what they’d like to be doing. They would like to hike a High Peak, a transition from gym climbing to outdoor rock, or other such things. Over the past year, however, many more people have been calling just asking for something — anything — to do. Many of these folks have never been to the Adirondacks before. Though they’ve heard about this area, they had planned on being somewhere else for their vacation but the pandemic interrupted their plans, so they came here instead. Many are, likewise, brand-new to wilderness recreation but just want our help to give themselves and their families something to do for the time that they’re visiting the area.

If not the former, then it’s often that folks just needed someplace to “get away” to. Given the state of the world, this is eminently understandable. One group, in particular, stands out within this crowd. Since we reopened in July, almost 70% of our clients have been medical professionals. I’m sure that number by no means reflects the regional average for visitors. People from all walks of life are still making their way up to recreate and relax here, but if there’s a group whose need for a rest I can be a bit more understanding of, it’s medical professionals. I would venture to say that of all the professional disciplines affected by COVID-19, theirs have seen the most dramatic and, likely, most traumatic moments. I don’t think I need to dwell to heavily on that point — they are the ones who are most constantly risking direct exposure to the virus while also watching the catastrophic human suffering it causes from the front row on a daily basis.

While it’s true that they’re taking a calculated risk, both to themselves and to others, by traveling to our area during this pandemic, it’s hard to blame them for wanting to get away for a little relief. While they prove an exceptional illustration of my point, they’re by no means the only people who deserve relief after a painful, stressful and in some cases downright devastating year. The therapeutic value of time in wilderness is undeniable, and having someone to plan and lead your expedition for you does away with added stress, especially if you’re new to this sort of therapy.

Both are great groups to work with as a guide. The first represent an opportunity to produce a lifelong love for these wild spaces and create introductions to activities like hiking, paddling, skiing or climbing with best practices and solid preparedness in mind. Working with people in the second group produces a deep, intrinsic sense of fulfillment and confirmation — it proves and reproves the healing and restorative power of wild nature. Both validate the reason that we’re continuing to do this work during a pandemic, despite the risks involved. But that’s beside the point.

For a community and a region that is focused intently on addressing issues of overuse (not to mention the national health crisis we’re facing and the fact that we’re still seeing large numbers of visitors), our approach to understanding the phenomenon has been somewhat limited. To date, a large part of the official focus seems to be on accounting for the total number of visitors and trying to address their impact with restrictions on parking and improved access to education and information. I think we should, instead, prioritize learning more about why people are coming to our region and what needs they have to be met while they’re here. There are plenty of reasons to visit, of course, and to list the types of people who come here in full is work for another time. But this year, two groups that seem worth taking a closer look at are those loosely described above: those who are desperate for something to do and see these mountains as a sort of last resort in a world that has been shuttered around them, and those who need a therapeutic retreat to recharge so they can continue facing a world turned upside-down. With a greater sense of understanding in mind, we might be able to better address the overuse issues we face, especially if all of the thousands of people who visited the Adirondacks for the first time this year come back when things go “back to normal.”

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