Children of the Adirondacks are rich in wild lands, clean waters and recreational opportunity. Despite the privilege of growing up in close proximity to a vast amount of natural treasures, many children suffer from a severe disadvantage: they are wealthy in resources, but poor in access.
One would think that since these children live in communities surrounded by an incredible wilderness landscape, they would readily enjoy world-class adventure travel opportunities. Yet, many resident youth lack the necessary skills, education and equipment to fully enjoy the recreational assets available in their own backyard.
The woods and waters of the Adirondacks have hosted the world through two Winter Olympics competitions, the Goodwill Games and three years of ESPN's Great Outdoor Games.
Throughout the year, an estimated 12 to 15 million visitors travel to the region to challenge whitewater on the mighty Hudson River; backpack along the 132-mile Northville Placid Trail; ski, snowshoe or dogsled along numerous trails and old, logging roads; or hunt and fish among the nearly 3 million acres of state Forest Preserve lands.
Paddlers come from across the country to compete in the annual Adirondack Canoe Classic, a 90-mile race that follows a historic canoe route through the heart of the park, while others flock to the High Peaks seeking the coveted title of '46er, after climbing the 46 summits over 4,000 feet in elevation.
Along the fabled Ausable River, flyfishermen pay homage to the feisty brown trout and acrobatic rainbows, while others seek the remote recesses of over 10,000 ponds is search of native brook and lake trout.
Anglers stalk trout along some 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, while the "fish factory" at Lake Champlain continues to draw professional bass anglers to tournaments, where national records are continually established by both the quality and quantity of bass taken.
In the backcountry, big game hunters scour the hills for whitetail deer and black bear; while a burgeoning wild turkey population and resident ruffed grouse continue to satisfy even the most savvy bird hunter.
A growing number of festivals currently bring birders of the non-consumptive variety to the park. They capture their winged prey with a pair of binoculars, a spotting scope, long lens or a sharp ear to add to their life list of species. Others come for the wildflowers, majestic forests, waterfalls or the opportunity to photograph magnificent scenery in the magic light of the mountains.
Sadly, despite the multitude of the region's natural attractions, many local residents have never visited them. They simply have never seized the opportunity and some of them never will. Adirondackers are indeed a minority among travelers in the local woods or on the waters.
See it for yourself. Just read the addresses in the log books at the trailheads or the canoe put-ins. Or check out the license plates at local boat launches. Ever wonder what percentage of the 33,000 Adirondack Mountain Club members have a home address with an out of the park zip code? More than 50 percent of Adirondack property owners currently send their property tax payments from a zipcode outside the Blueline.
Children of the Adirondacks have not been purposely deprived of the unique pleasures of the backcountry. Their lack of participation isn't due to some secret APA agenda to lock up the woods. Rather, many local children simply lack the necessary knowledge and skill sets to properly enjoy the land. In some cases, they never took the time to learn the skills necessary for backwoods travel; or just never cared to.
In other cases, it may be because they never had the opportunity. They lacked a mentor, someone to show the way. Typically, this is a role filled by parents, usually the Dad. However, with the national divorce rate now being a little over 50 percent, and more babies delivered to unwed mothers than married women; there is now a shortage of outdoor mentors.
Studies reveal that parents do not participate in outdoor recreation, in most cases their children will not. Any child living in the Adirondacks without the opportunity to acquire the required knowledge and tools to effectively enjoy the woods and waters of the park is at a severe disadvantage. Without adequate skills, local children are deprived of the treasures and pleasures of the wilderness.
Without the ability to access their local environment, today's youth will be unable to pursue and enjoy a host of positive recreational outlets. If this is the case, they will almost certainly pursue the usual negative recreational outlets of sex, drugs and alcohol.
The late Rachael Carson, author and environmental educator, once expressed the need for mentoring when she explained, "If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in."
Numerous studies have revealed that Carson had the right idea. Parents and family are indeed the number one factor in getting children involved in outdoor activities. In a recent national survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, nearly 50 percent of active outdoor enthusiasts indicated it was a family member that sparked their interest. The second most influential factor for participation is friends, with 31 percent revealing that friends got them started.
Outdoor activity is great for families. Fully 67 percent of respondents to a recent poll reported "Dad" took them on their first fishing trip and 79 percent said that outdoor activities strengthen family relationships. Starting young is key to life long involvement. Over 90 percent of current participants started an outdoor activity between the ages of 5 and 18 years old.
Most participants started young and were heavily influenced by sharing the experience with parents or friends. For them, participation in outdoor activities is viewed as an ingrained behavior. However, 55 percent of those surveyed said they would like to have their children experience more frequent outdoor recreational activities, such as hiking, camping, fishing or canoeing.
Next week, I will report on a number of communities that have developed outdoor programs for local youth.
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org