I was still a teenager, when I began working for the recently created, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation in the spring of 1974. My first assignment was as a laborer with a Trail Crew tmaintaining the hiking trail to the summit of Hurricane Mountain, near Elizabethtown.
The Fire Tower Observer was our supervisor, and he had a real bad attitude with the new agency, which he called the blankety-blank, "Department of Eternal Consternation".
He regularly complained that the new agency, which replaced the venerable, old Conservation Department, was composed of "more fools than tools", especially since we went through equipment faster than the department could afford to replace it.
Trail work was a muddy, buggy and backbreaking endeavor. We were particularly hard on the equipment after my fellow laborers learned if they broke the handles off enough shovels, our efforts would be relegated to trimming bushes and whipping weeds; rather than moving boulders and installing water bars along the steep trail.
At the time I was an avid hiker, often climbing in the High Peaks with Geoff Carleton, a well-known birder from Elizabethtown. For me, the trail work was entertaining, with a mix of hard work and the pleasure of being in the woods.
But when the camping season opened in late June of 1974, I was fortunate to transfer to Lincoln Pond State Campground, where I began a five-summer stint as a Lifeguard. Although I actually enjoyed the trail work and the mountaintop vistas, the view on the beach was much better for a teenager.
In 1974, the department's hiking literature indicated that there were a total of over 2000 miles of marked hiking trails within the Adirondack Park. In 1980, Essex County tourism brochures touted the same 2000-mile tally. In 1990, I Love New York tourism still maintained that there were 2000 miles of maintained trails.
Even though nearly forty years have passed since I first discovered the total trail mileage tally, (in which time NY state has since added an additional one million acres of land to the Forest Preserve), the same figure of 2000 miles of trails, is still accepted as fact today.
In a publication published by the National Outdoor Leadership School, authors Bruce Hampton and David Cole explained that our nation's trails are declining in total, "In the 1930s, our national forests had 132,000 miles of trails; today there are fewer than 100,000 miles.... Today, although our national forest backcountry has 25 percent fewer trails, the public's use of trails has grown steadily. For every person hiking a trail in 1960, more than three people now leave their bootprints ."
I wondered if a similar situation was occurring in the Adirondacks, so I posed the question to Tony Goodwin, of Keene Valley. Goodwin is the Executive Director of both the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society (ATIS) and the Jackrabbit Ski Trail. A well known authority on Adirondack hiking trails, he is responsible for maintaining 115 miles of ATIS trails in and around Keene Valley, and for the 33 miles of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail.
Goodwin explained, "It has not shrunk that significantly in the Adirondacks. I think you find out the total if you add up the mileage from the Adirondack Mountain Club Guidebooks. There may not be a lot of new trails, but there have not been many lost."
I wondered, how could it be? So, my first call went out to the Adirondack Mountain Club, (ADK) an organization that was formed in 1922 to promote hiking and outdoor travel. From the beginning, ADK has been responsible for the design and construction of the majority of trails in the Adirondacks.
Today, ADK proudly continues this legacy. Currently, the organization has a professional trail crew to maintain state trails under a service contract with DEC. Additionally, various ADK Chapters provide numerous volunteer trail crews who are responsible for designing new trails and maintaining the older ones. And, ADK Guidebooks are considered the definitive source of information on hiking trails in the park.
However, even they could not provide a current net total of the trail mileage in the park. Neil Woodworth, ADK's Executive Director explained, "It is difficult to provide an accurate number, possibly the (DEC's) Unit Management Plans could shed some light on it. Rather than creating new trails, we are rerouting old trails or providing new connector trails for recently acquired lands."
Woodworth mentioned projects such as new trails to the summits of Lyon Mountain and Mt. Adams near Tahawus, as examples of ADK's redesigned trails. These routes now incorporate a series of switchbacks to combat trail erosion, and lessen the pitch of the climb.
These are new trails, but the cumulative affect has very little change in the overall total mileage. It seems that we are not loosing trails, however we aren't gaining any either.
Next week, I hope to have a more complete answer to the perplexing question of how the addition of over a million acres into the Adirondack Forest Preserve, has not changed the trail mileage in more than 40 years?
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org