So much of what we see when we follow a trail is the trail itself. Between watching our feet to avoid tripping over rocks or getting bogged down in mud, and keeping an eye out for trail blazes, it’s a wonder we ever manage to notice anything else.
For some people, this is an argument for bushwhacking, but in fragile ecosystems and/or treacherous terrain with lots and lots of hikers, going off-trail doesn’t seem too responsible an option. And if you read accounts from early hunters and climbers in the Adirondacks, it’s obvious that their trail-free excursions often entailed a great degree of flailing about, wielding axes with abandon to extricate themselves from a blowdown or patch of krummholz, and sometimes ending up on the wrong peak.
Still, one feels a little guilty just adding to the numbers who hike these trails every year. When I visited the High Peaks region with my hiking buddy last week, we found many of the more-traveled paths to be virtually indistinguishable from streambeds but for the greater quantity of mud they contained. Even the dry parts had been gullied out by decades of waffle-stompers, exposing networks of roots and the bare granite that’s never more than eight inches down.
The Adirondacks were polished clean by glaciers during the last ice age, so soil has been building only for 8000 years. Even without any help from humans, landslides are a perpetual risk on the steep slopes. A lumber boom in the mid to late 19th century led to raging forest fires, and in some of the burned-over areas the soil, no longer held in place by living root systems, subsequently washed away. Luckily, the unique “forever wild” provision in the New York state constitution that protects the Adirondack Park explicitly bans logging.
Ironically, the man who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for that protection is also responsible for some of the bare summits we see today. Verplanck Colvin (delightful name!) was the state surveyor whose yearly reports to the New York legislature built the case for protection, accurately observing the capacity of mountains covered in old-growth forest to retain water like a sponge, thereby guaranteeing the water supply for rivers and canals down-state. Heavily influenced by George Perkins Marsh’s seminal 1864 study Man and Nature, Colvin was a true visionary, who could see in a moss-covered rock the source of life and industry for millions.
But surveying the peaks meant establishing lines of sight from one to the other, and this often entailed cutting and/or burning everything on the summit higher than five feet. Sometimes the erosion that followed was as severe as that following one of the clearcuts Colvin decried. Where today yellow paint marks a trail across bare rock, Colvin and his men might’ve camped among dwarf spruce, sometimes for days, as they waited for clouds to lift on an adjacent peak.
The highest peaks, of course, rise above treeline, exposing delicate alpine vegetation to generations of view-hungry hikers. The last time I visited the Adirondacks, I was surprised to be greeted by a “summit steward” — a plant cop — when I finally reached the top of the second-highest peak. That’s the way it has to be, though, I guess. I was touched to see how many hikers had carried a small rock all the way up to the top of Algonquin Peak (I’d missed the sign at the trailhead) to extend the borders of protected, wild gardens where native alpine plants were slowly being reestablished.
Most hikers do want to do the right thing. We wouldn’t go out there if we didn’t love nature — though I sometimes wonder at the backpackers who soldier along at a rapid clip, sans binoculars or camera, and rarely seem to lift their eyes from the trail until they get to the next official view. Probably they in turn wonder at day-hikers like me, dawdling along, not seeming to care how much ground I cover — and often pointing my camera at the ground right next to the trail. But I think we’re both walking, literally and figuratively, in Colvin’s footsteps.