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Take a break from hiking in mud season

Hopefully you’ve already seen the numerous posts and articles noting that mud season 2021 has arrived. Last week’s warm up brought on a big melt and was then compounded by rain, making liquid out of much of the deep snowpack from this winter. Hopefully, this column will come across to you as a redundant reminder that this is not the time of year to go for a hike in the High Peaks or on any trail that is particularly muddy. It seems to me, however, that this is news that still needs spreading — so if you aren’t yet aware of the negative impacts hiking in mud season can have, or if you’re considering heading out on a hike in the next couple weeks, please read further.

Anyone used to hiking here has, doubtless, experienced how rough trail conditions can get. Whether you’re navigating a rocky washout, trying to pick the right strand of a braided trail around a swampy section, or slogging through ankle-deep mud in July, these rough conditions are mostly symptoms of erosion. There are plenty of causes for trail erosion. To begin with, we should consider the geology of the mountainous Northeast. Thin, rocky soil, ample moisture, and poor drainage in places lead to consistently muddy conditions, which we can find on certain trails no matter what time of year it is. This thin, rocky soil is also particularly vulnerable to erosion (note the many slides in the High Peaks). Compounding this issue is that construction of many Adirondack trails pre-dates our modern understanding of trail erosion and the impact that great numbers of hikers can have. Trails here largely follow drainages in meandering lines, often at steep grades, without sufficient features like water bars or switchbacks that would allow water to run off, thereby protecting the trail. Add to that the heavy load of foot traffic we presently experience, as well as the lack of available resources to maintain or rebuild trails, and you get a recipe for the challenging conditions we know so well here. In the springtime, as snow melts and drainage remains poor due to frozen ground below, trails are at their most vulnerable to damaging erosion.

With the shifting temperatures, melting snow, dangerous stream crossings, and near-endless mud, you would think that conditions alone might keep people from spring hiking without considering the ethical implications as well. Sadly, that’s not the case. In this state, we all experience the unfortunate freedom of having to decide whether or not to act selfishly with the wild lands we hold in common. Despite the robust legal protection that Adirondack wilderness enjoys, it is by no means safe from all poor choices. We can decide, for example, to head out into the backcountry underprepared in poor conditions, resulting in a costly and dangerous rescue operation when we become stranded or lost. We can choose to go on a long slog through the Dixes and posthole the entire way, despite remonstrance from other hikers who are suffering because of our choices. We can, on a whim, pound through the mud for 12 hours and create awful trail conditions that won’t just heal when things begin to dry a bit for the summer. These are not rare examples, and I would hazard to guess that many of us have made similar decisions at some point or another.

All too often, a justification I hear for why people head out when they know they shouldn’t reads like this: “I have experience, I’m know the Leave No Trace principles and I’m intimately familiar with the trail, so I can make less of an impact that most people would.”

Experience and knowledge are not a justification for selfish behavior. In fact, quite the opposite should be the case. Unfortunately, I’d be lying if I said I’ve never used this justification, myself. As inconvenient as it may be, however, we all have to acknowledge that when we make those sorts of choices, we can do just as much to damage our local wilderness as the people we condemn for leaving piles of trash by lean-tos or lighting fires on top of Mt. Marcy.

We’re confronted with such choices more often than we might realize, and I assume that many people take the convenient and selfish route more often than they would care to admit. But as we live in a society that couldn’t even endure two months without turning on itself over whether or not to sacrifice a little freedom to save lives during a global pandemic, it’s particularly worth taking the time to think about the impact of our choices, especially if they aren’t immediately obvious.

Trailwork in the Adirondacks is already an uphill battle. With hundreds of miles of difficult-to-access trail, tens of thousands of visitors per year, and an extremely finite quantity of resources (both human and monetary) available to put toward the work, we fall farther behind every year on projects that desperately need attention. COVID compounded this crisis to an extreme, leaving the Adirondacks years behind on critical trail work. Before you assume that the impact from your hike is just a drop in the bucket, please stop to consider how full that bucket is getting.

If this is all old news for you and you’re already committed to taking a break from the High Peaks and muddy trails for this season, thank you. As redundant as it might seem, please keep sharing this message. If you’re a person considering going for a hike anytime in the near future, please reconsider. We should all be aware of what we stand to lose from more feet damaging our already troubled trails.

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