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Are the Adirondacks Really “Forever Wild?”

Instantly, I notice the cool mountain air. As I open the door, get out of the car, and stretch my legs, I smell the earth, the slight humidity, and tranquility. It’s the crisp scent of fir and pine, the chatter of the chickadees, the echoes of woodpeckers, and the murmur of a beckoning mountain stream. A smile comes across my face. After five long hours heading to New York’s North Country, the woods’ gentle greeting soothes me. As soon as I hear it, smell it, and feel it, everything that bothered me is no longer on my mind. None of it matters anymore. But even though I’m calm, I’m also excited. I, two other students, and two teachers from my high school have been planning this trip for months. We’re going backpacking in the Adirondack High Peaks, and we plan on summiting Mount Marcy. At 5,344 feet high, it’s the tallest peak in New York. We lug our heavy packs out of the trunk, heave them over our shoulders, check the car one last time—make sure we didn’t forget anything—and we’re off: off on our mountain adventure.

Hiking up the Trail to Mt. Marcy.

When the five of us step on to the trail and delve into the Adirondack wilderness, we’re carrying on a two-hundred-year-old tradition. Ever since the nineteenth century, city dwellers, hunters, fishermen, campers, and hikers have all ventured deep into the great northern wilderness of New York. Within the Adirondack Park’s boundary, there are six million acres of land. That’s more than Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon, combined. Within this vast landscape, there are thousands of ponds, lakes, and streams. There are one billion trees, three hundred species of birds, eighty species of fish, and fifty species of mammals that all call the Adirondacks their home. Nevertheless, the Adirondack Park is best known for its mountains. Within its borders, there are two thousand mountain peaks. Forty-three of those mountains are taller than four thousand feet. Only two are taller than five thousand feet.

For a region so vast and tall, it’s hard to believe it remained hidden within New York for so long. Most people were unaware of the Adirondacks until 1837 when geologist Ebenezer Emmons first explored the region. When mankind heard of Emmons’s discovery, he thought of resources. Lumber for furniture. Hemlock bark for tanning. Adirondack charcoal to refine Adirondack iron. This thirst for resources fed booming industries and rapid urbanization. The urban downstate New York grew so fast, services couldn’t keep up. Cities were dense, dirty, and polluted. They were packed to the brim and overflowing. At the same time, the Romantics taught us that we could find a remedy for these ills in nature. They said nature would cleanse, purify, and restore our minds, bodies, and souls. People heard this and wanted to escape the cities. They wanted to venture into nature, find solace, and experience its beauty.

Suddenly, what was once valued only for the material things it provided, became valued for the life it could breathe into us. When people saw before and after illustrations of the Adirondacks in publications like Harper’s Weekly, they were appalled. Before, they saw a land of lush, alpine beauty; an eden of birch, moss, and firs; an interface between mountain lakes and sky. After, they saw mountains resembling a pile of boulders, their slopes sparsely studded with shards of trees, vaguely resembling toothpicks. Farmers began the assault on the landscape, clearing trees for crops. Bark peelers left the forest naked. Loggers claimed the straight, fat trees for themselves. Charcoal kilns devoured every last bit of viable woody biomass. Forest fires burned indiscriminately, leaving almost nothing in this region. In 1883, Field and Stream warned that “if the Adirondacks are cleared, the Hudson River will dry up.” People feared an environmental catastrophe. In 1893, to everyone’s dismay, the Hudson reached historic low water levels. It seemed that as if this prediction was coming true.

In these magazines, people caught a fleeting glimpse of what little forest remained. They felt a profound, urge to protect it. They wanted to preserve New York’s elixir of life. Back in 1885, New York’s Legislature designated the state’s scattered Adirondack lands as one forest preserve; a place to be “forever kept as wild forest lands.” Yet this alone didn’t end the Adirondacks’ destruction. Logging companies devastated its landscape within their own private lands. So, the state declared its intention to preserve all Adirondack lands. In 1892, New York created the Adirondack Park, encircling all public and private lands within the region. Inside this park, the state would dedicate “all lands now owned or hereafter acquired by the state” to conservation and public use. In November 1894, New York’s decade-long push to save the Adirondacks culminated at the polls. Voters approved a new state constitution. In it, Article VII, Section 7 guaranteed the Forest Preserve’s eternal status as “wild forest lands.” This sealed its status, historian Philip Terrie notes, as “one of the best protected landscapes in the world.”

Over a century later, this story has been largely forgotten. To the untrained eye, traces of the Adirondack’s nineteenth-century devastation have all but vanished. Perhaps this is because New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)—the agency responsible for the Park’s upkeep—manages places within the Adirondacks as wilderness. In the 1970s, new state initiatives said the DEC must maintain these wilderness areas as places having “primeval character . . . which is protected and managed . . . to preserve, enhance, and restore where necessary, its natural conditions,” a state in which “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” This strict management helps explain why—as we wander down a wilderness trail towards Marcy, admiring the lush thick oak, birch, and hemlock forest—I believe the “forever wild” landscape. Yet later, I learn we’re hiking down an old logging road. Once, this landscape might have been devastated, too. Long ago, a logging company built this road to harvest timber from the slopes of Mount Marcy. But through the course of time, this wilderness landscape has recovered. And this smooth logging road also explains why we’re making good time.

A view of the Adirondack Park's High Peaks Region as seen from Marcy Dam
This is the view of the Adirondack’s High Peaks Wilderness from Marcy Dam. Once, these flats were covered with a man-made pond. It was beautiful, but Hurricane Irene destroyed the dam and drained the pond in 2011.

After two short miles of hiking through the forest, we reach Marcy Dam. It’s a backcountry crossroads of trails, a collection of campsites and Adirondack lean-tos, a stunning view of Avalanche Pass, Mount Colden, and Wright Peak reaching far into the sky, trees painting them with vivid shades of blue and green. All of that reflects in a mirror-like pond impounded by an iconic wooden dam. It’s this view, the surrounding peaks, the campsites, and short hike that make Marcy Dam one of the most popular, most accessible, and most photographed view in all the Adirondacks. In 1998, the DEC estimated that 140,000 people visit the region annually. Almost twenty years later, fifty-three thousand people signed the register for the trail we’ve been hiking. Is this truly a “wilderness area,” a landscape “untrammeled by man?”

In the past, the DEC removed some human structures—including the archetypal Adirondack lean-tos built to attract visitors—to promote the idea of wilderness. After Tropical Storm Irene damaged the dam and drained Marcy Pond in 2011, the DEC began to remove Marcy Dam. After all, it’s a relic of the logging era that doesn’t confine to the idea of wilderness. I don’t know which has contributed more to this landscape: the idea of the high peaks calling us here because of its pure and stately wilderness, or the human structures—trails, lean-tos, and privies—that help us enjoy it. But I do know we’re thankful for the lean-tos. We drop our heaviest camping gear in one before continuing our trek up Marcy.

Leaving the smooth logging road, and turning up a narrow trail, it’s obvious that we’re now climbing a mountain. The trail goes up and up and up. It makes me think of an endless staircase, leading to the sky. After a few hours climbing the staircase-like trail, made from anorthosite rock and chiseled by glaciers, we ascend into a cloud. I reach out and touch the mist with my fingers. It seems magical; I can almost hold it in my hand.

As we climb closer to the summit, the winds blow harder. With the mist pelting our faces, it’s hard to see. We scramble up the pure rock slab on our hands and knees, following the arrows painted directly on Marcy’s rocky skin, guiding us to the summit. Then, instead of an arrow, there’s a shiny medallion, emblazoned with “MARCY. 5344 FT.” That’s it. We’ve made it to the summit of Marcy, and now, we’re the highest people in New York State. But that’s our only reward. Standing up, and expecting to see some sort of grand view, there’s nothing. All we see is an icy grey wall of mist and fog.

Just like my group cannot see the view, people don’t consider this wilderness conundrum. We come to the Adirondacks because they are a source of natural beauty that is “forever wild,” an escape “untrammeled by man.” Yet at the same time, many enjoy its human structures: trails, lean-tos, and dams that reflect iconic landscapes into ponds. When we venture into its woods, there must be something human about following the Adirondack’s call. Something even I can’t understand.

On the summit of Mt. Marcy.