Managing hiker information in the High Peaks Wilderness
As of late last week, the Adirondack Mountain Club temporarily closed the Loj and the High Peaks Information Center due to COVID-19. This sort of closure is by no means a surprise at this point in the pandemic. We’ve seen it happen to a number of restaurants and stores in the area, and each has had its own impact on the community. The closure of the Loj, though, and especially the HPIC had a different sort of effect this week. It limited a critical source of information and access to the High Peaks wilderness — one that I think many often take for granted.
This Presidents week, as has been previously noted, is perhaps the busiest week of the year for visitation to the High Peaks region. A solid plurality, if not an outright majority, of new visitors to the Adirondacks make a stop at the Adirondack Mountain Club property if hiking, snowshoeing or skiing is of interest to them. A trip around Heart Lake or a hike up Mount Jo are, for many, the introduction to this region’s natural beauty and exciting terrain. It’s also where you see a lot of early learning happen — whether that’s education in proper preparedness, land regulations and gear use, or information regarding the vast trail network that extends outward from the Loj.
The other critical function that the HPIC serves is to furnish rental equipment that many didn’t know they needed to recreate in the High Peaks. In the summer, this mostly takes the form of bear canisters for those intent on camping. In the winter, however, the HPIC staff are often the first ones to inform recreators of the need for snowshoes or traction devices on trail. Critically, they also provide access to those pieces of gear.
On what was probably the busiest weekend of the year so far, losing such a crucial resource had obvious consequences. Standing in the parking lot on Saturday, one could see many groups of would-be hikers wandering around searching for trailheads or standing confused on the porch of the HPIC, trying to figure out how to get snowshoes or whether to just go on without them. Some folks got back in their cars and left; others headed off down the trail bare-booted, not quite knowing where they were headed. While forest rangers were, indeed, patrolling the area, they couldn’t be everywhere at once. Nor could they be simply chained to the parking lot, tasked with directing foot traffic. The absence of those few HPIC staff members could be felt fairly acutely.
There has been plenty of debate over whether there are enough rangers to handle the enormous task of managing education and Department of Environmental Conservation legal enforcement here in the Adirondacks. I’m not taking up that debate here. What we should consider, though, is what other sources of information people wind up interfacing with when they prepare to go outdoors here. The DEC does work continuously to improve access to backcountry information. Over the past year, we saw the implementation of a new hiker information program geared toward novice recreators, for example. But it’s not just the state that people appeal to for trail knowledge. Every part of the local tourism industry, especially outdoor gear outfitters, wind up fielding a vast quantity of information requests from folks looking to get outside for some fun.
Whether it’s experienced recreators looking to talk about trail conditions or visitors who are just out looking for something to do in the Tri-Lakes region, thousands more people wander through the doors of shops like the Mountaineer, High Peaks Cyclery, EMS or Blue Line Sports every year in search of gear and information. A smaller, though not insignificant number also call on local guides and guide services to plan and outfit a major part of their visit to our region, sometimes coming to us with no prior outdoors experience.
I think we all take it for granted, to a certain degree, that the information we give is comparable. We’re all working with the same set of regulations and the same Leave No Trace principles, and have similar experience in the same mountains. There are even acknowledged specialties from outfitter to outfitter, and we will often send folks down the line to the next shop if we know their needs will be better served there. That said, there isn’t, by any means, a formal or structured sharing of this knowledge, these principles and guidelines throughout the industry. As such, I think it’s interesting to look at the role that an organization like the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) plays in this process, especially as they straddle the lines between advocacy, educational authority and outfitter. In my experience, ADK staff have been a guiding light for best practices in the Adirondacks, a key authority on conditions and the final point of contact for a large number of recreators in our area. Just one weekend without a resource that I generally take for granted has convinced me that this deserves more consideration.
While I’m not proposing that there should be a regional council of outdoor outfitters to coordinate messaging, per se, I do think we could all invest more thought in where people are getting their information before they head into the Adirondack wilderness. We should also evaluate how that information can be better disseminated before people get to trailheads that don’t have a High Peaks Information Center, especially as we see record numbers of visitors heading outdoors for the first time in our proverbial backyard. Lastly, we should be very wary of taking any of our local informational resources for granted.