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Combating unpreparedness

The scenery is beautiful, but if visitors come unprepared, things can get ugly in a hurry. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

There’s something about being outdoors, whether its on a boat or a trail, climbing rock or biking, that leads people, in my experience to be more friendly than they normally would. Maybe it’s just the joy of being out in the open air, or maybe when you see someone else recreating in the way that you choose to, there’s enough of a common bond to let one’s guard down a little. The amount of outwardly rude or hostile people I’ve encountered in the woods certainly form the minority.

In the dozens of times I’ve set out for hikes this summer, I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with lots of different people, both in passing and in depth. Though regular trail conversation has become a bit more abbreviated because of the pandemic, almost every group at least pauses to exchange pleasantries through hastily donned masks before heading on in whatever direction they’re going. Most of the time, everyone at least gives a smile, if they don’t stop to ask what mountain you’re headed up before they share their own experience with this or that specific hike. It seems to be a pretty universal phenomenon, even among those who are new to recreating outdoors.

That said, people don’t generally head to the forest just to socialize. There’s a big part of wilderness recreation that revolves around the senses of solitude and autonomy one feels when no one else is present. Many seek out trails with fewer people (an increasingly difficult task) because they want to be fully immersed in the experience. Part of that experience is having to problem-solve on the fly, as wilderness often delivers unexpected challenges, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with “roughing it” for a little while.

If you’ve spent a bit of time outdoors in the Adirondacks, though, you’ve probably encountered more than a few people who are expecting to “rough it” but have no idea just how rough it’s going to be. On any given day, on any given trail here you can find people who are woefully underprepared for Adirondack wilderness experiences. For those of us who hike here often and are interested in helping preserve our local wilderness, it may be worth offering those groups a little more than the perfunctory, passing “hello,” But how do you tell someone you’re just passing by that they’re clearly not prepared without destroying that sense of autonomy and compromising their wilderness experience?

Sometimes, this problem resolves itself handily. Often, just asking something simple like “where are you headed” can prompt folks to offload a bunch of questions that they didn’t have anyone to ask before they left for their trip. Sometimes, they can be surprising in their scope and reveal just how little information people come in with.

For people researching things to do in the Adirondacks, the list that comes up from a standard Google search is often not at all suitable for beginners. Rather than always finding lists of easy, accessible hikes in the region, people still stumble upon Whiteface and Marcy as top options for hiking trails. They get the false impression that these are easy-to-do when they see words like “highly trafficked” or “moderate difficulty.” What’s more, at least some of these folks come to the Adirondacks with a conquest-oriented mindset. The allure of bagging the highest peak in the state, for example, draws in people who aren’t experienced enough to know that 16 miles in the Adirondacks is going to be more of a challenge than they’re up for.

On top of that, not everyone is inclined to ask for help or advice. In some of these cases, people will discover their limits and turn around when the hike becomes too much, a bit chastened, having learned a thing or two in the process. But it’s impossible to ignore what kind of impact they might make in the process. The litter epidemic we’re seeing this year, for example, can be largely attributed to ignorance and lack of experience (despite some obvious examples that are just plain lazy or malicious).

Some won’t notice their limitations until its too late. I spoke with a group recently who went for a sunset hike with their young children up Giant and failed to bring headlamps. By midnight, they were completely lost and, with dying iPhones, they called in Forest Ranger assistance. Sure, they learned from the experience, but at what cost? Further, what if this story were repeated daily (hardly a theoretical supposition)? The magnified effect of this sort of inexperience and unpreparedness has a cascading impact in our local communities, ecosystems, and across the agencies tasked with protecting and preserving them.

To posit another theoretical, though; what if someone passing by that family had stopped to ask them if they brought some sort of light? What if they’d been told by someone headed down the mountain that it was a tough hike that could take several hours and was difficult to navigate in the dark without experience? Would that have ruined their experience or simply changed their mind about trying it out? It’s hard to say, as everyone interprets input differently, but by the time I talked to them the next day, they told me that they wished someone had said something.

There’s a fine balance to be struck between condescension and education, especially in passing conversations. It’s one that often requires the would-be educator to swallow their pride and to try to get on the same level as those that they’re trying to teach. There’s a huge difference between telling someone “you’re not going to make it dressed like that” and “oh, you’re going up Marcy? That’s a really tough hike to start at this hour!” One of those options allows everyone to keep their dignity, even if some plans are quietly changed. One of those options makes the would-be educator more approachable and encourages follow-up questions.

The harder challenge, though, is deciding to say anything at all. For most of us, it would be easier in the short term to ignore the unprepared and just mind our own business. But we can’t ignore the impacts that will ultimately have on the places we love to recreate.

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