Marcy Dam no longer provides this scenic vista. The pond has been greatly reduced, and it consists of a number of small streams running through a wide field of mud and debris. Eventually, vegatation such as tag alder will reclaim the mudflats and beaver may even move back to the region to establish a colony and revive the pond.
Dams provide opportunities for power, navigation, fish barriers, and often serve as bridges for snowmobilers, hikers, bikers and skiers. They can also improve the aesthetics of an area by creating ponds and lakes.
Dams also create environments suitable for fresh water species such as brook trout, while also providing effective upstream barriers that prevent the introduction of non-native and invasive species of both flora and fauna. These are just a few of the benefits provided by backwoods dams and the bridges that are supported by them.
In recent years, there have been a number of the damn dams in the news. Most recently, the dam of note has been a popular and scenic structure located at Marcy Dam, which has long been considered the main Gateway into the High Peaks Wilderness Area.
In fact, Marcy Dam is likely one of the most iconic man made structures in the entire High Peaks region.
It is located on a popular and easily accessible travel corridor that receives heavy traffic all year round.
The location is typically one of the first places for hikers, snowshoers or cross-country skiers to stop and rest as they travel into the heart of the High Peaks from Adirondak Loj.
On a typical summer day, it’s not uncommon to find a couple of dozen travelers hanging out on the bridge, or find their food bags hanging from it.
Prior to the arrival of Hurricane Irene in August of 2011, most first time visitors would be awestruck by the scene, when they first gazed across the small pond towards a stunning vista of Mount Colden, Avalanche Pass, and Wright Peak.
Typically, their jaws would drop before their packs hit the ground, as they took in the scene of the small backwoods pond, impounded by a log crib dam with a few Adirondack leantos sprinkled about.
Unfortunately, the old log dam was damaged beyond repair as a result of Irene’s onslaught which brought heavy rains, stiff winds and a lot of runoff from the surrounding High Peaks.
Although Marcy Dam was a destination site, it was also a place for launching off, as well as a wonderful place to return to. It always seemed familiar, even if you’d only been there once. It was a benchmark, and you knew the journey was just beginning, or it was about to end. A quick trip into Marcy Dam was like visiting with an old friend.
Unfortunately, dear old Marcy couldn’t hold up to the powerful Irene and her Tropical Storm brethren. Neither could the old dam at Duck Hole, which was located several miles west of Marcy Dam. In between these two locations, there were several other remote dams, some of which were previously damaged, such as the dam at Flowed Lands, and some of which had previously been repaired, such as the dam at Henderson Lake.
Before Irene had even batted an eye on the Adirondacks, the old logging dam at Duck Hole was already in pretty rough shape.
Two years before Irene, DEC had removed the foot bridge that straddled the dam to provide hikers with access to the Bradley Pond Trail. Despite it’s advanced age, and a distinct lack of care and maintenance, the old Duck Hole dam managed to hang on. Sure, it leaked, and it had crumbled a bit, but the structure still managed to do what it was intended to do. It held back the waters of three roaring brooks each spring, and it provided safe sanctuary for beaver and brook trout, muskrat and salamanders, turtles and osprey, kingfishers and blue heron, bald eagles and more.
I was considered one of the ‘more.’ Over the years, I traveled into Duck Hole on foot, bicycle, ski, snowshoe and eventually by canoe. In fact, I may have been the first public paddler to cover the new paddler’s route which began with a carry from the Upper Works into Henderson Lake and on to a carry via Preston Pond Pass into the Preston Ponds.
Along the trail, I stopped at a height of land in Preston Pond Pass where a small stream parted ways. As the water flowed off a cliff, it forked with the water flowing downhill in opposite directions to form two of the longest rivers in the state.
North and west it went down into the Preston Ponds which continue on into Duck Hole and the Cold River, before draining eventually into the Raquette.
In the opposite direction, the waters went South and east, the flow drained into Henderson Lake, where the outlet combined with the headwaters of the Hudson. From the height of land in Preston Pass, it was all downhill to the pond and I soon made quick work of the paddle across Upper Preston.
I followed a short carry into Lower Pond and before I knew it, I was on the outlet of the Lower and heading downstream to where it dumped into Duck Hole in a tumbling waterfall.
Fortunately, I had discovered an alternate route just above the falls, which had me crawling over spruce roots and through blinding balsams to get to the shore of Duck Hole.
Over the next few years, I returned to Duck Hole religiously in order to pray at the Altar of the Blessed Brookie. Fortunately, I was always treated well, and with each return trip, I watched the old grand dam deteriorate, bit by bit.
For nearly a century, the grand ol’ dam had held back the flowing waters from Hunter Pond, the Preston Ponds, Roaring Brook, Bradley Pond outlet and innumerable smaller creeks, crooks and brooks.
The combination of these flows provides water to Duck Hole and contributes the major source of water for the Cold River, which is a tributary of the Raquette.
A variety of visiting hikers and paddlers had urged the state to repair the Duck Hole dam in order to preserve the impoundment, which was a charming brook-trout pond ringed by mountains in the High Peaks Wilderness Area. By the end of the storm, the floodwaters had washed away the dam’s sluice gate and the pond lost an estimated 8 to 12 feet in depth.
All that was left of the 80-acre pond were three sluggish little streams winding through a mudflat. The pond no longer had sufficient depth to provide habitat to support a population of brook trout. I expect the result will soon be evident all along the reaches of Cold River, for which Duck Hole provided a brook trout nursery.
After Irene’s wrath breached the dam and emptied most of the ponded waters, the Department of Environmental Conservation was forced to make a decision, and it chose not to rebuild.
In part, the department’s rationale was practical. Given the remoteness of Duck Hole and rules restricting motorized access in Wilderness Areas, getting materials to the site would have been problematic. In addition, the cost of reconstructing the old timber and crib dam to comply with current day standards would be expensive (it was estimated the engineering study alone would cost $100,000). The department’s decision was based as much on the philosophical aspects of rebuilding a manmade structure in the wilderness as it was on the practical applications and required logistics. And I expect budgetary limitations also played a major part.
By definition, Wilderness Areas are places that are maintained for their primeval character, and as such they are to remain “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”
As a result, the State Land Master Plan does not allow for the reconstruction of existing dams in Wilderness Areas.
Existing dams, of which there are nearly a dozen, may be routinely maintained. However, the department currently does not have plans to replace dams in Wilderness Areas that have already been breached.
Proponents of keeping the dams raise issues such as the need to maintain fish barrier dams to prevent the introduction of non-native, and invasive species from accessing Special Brook Trout waters.
There are also special considerations regarding navigation, which may be jeopardized with a reduction of water levels as evident on the Cedar River Flow, which is a 190 foot long, 15 foot high concrete dam located in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness Area.
If the dam is removed, the large lake would be reduced to three separate, smaller and shallower water bodies.
Similarly, there are four other dams in Wilderness Areas which will continue to require regular maintenance in order to provide for navigation. And there are also dams in designated Primitive or Wild Forest Areas such as the Upper and Lower dams on Lows Lake and Hitchens Pond where the regulations regarding man-made structures are not as strict as in Wilderness Areas.
But one has to wonder about the impact on tourism and effects to the landscape, if the attendant recreational opportunities were negatively impacted if dams are allowed to crumble from old age and neglect. Consider the after effects of lowering the water levels in Round Lake, and Whitney Lake if the outlet dam was breached. A similar situation could affect Pharaoh Lake if the dam were to go.
Other dams such as the old Mill Dam in Willsboro Dam are maintained as barriers necessary to prevent the upstream migration of sea lamprey for spawning purposes. The Willsboro dam effectively eliminates the possibility of lamprey migrating upstream to establish breeding grounds in the Boquet River.
However, the current dam also prevents the upstream migration of landlocked Atlantic salmon, and limits the potential for establishing a self-generating breeding population for one of the most sought after sport fish in the country.
Although the State Land Master Plan does permit the establishment of dams on waters contained within the Forest Preserve, it does not trump the state constitution.
If the dam could not be maintained on the newly minted state lands surrounding Boreas Pond and the attendant Essex Chain of Lakes, what would become of this grand old dame of the waters?
There have been numerous Fish Barrier Dams constructed throughout the park, with over half a dozen located within the St. Regis Canoe Area alone.
Such dams are necessary to protect the restoration of a native Adirondack brook trout population and the dams can be found protecting waters such as Ledge, Little Fish, Bone, Little Clear, Lydia Pond, Little Long and St. Regis Pond.
It would certainly be a contrary notion if the restoration of native flora and fauna by the construction of the fish barrier dams was not allowed, due to provisions requiring the lands to appear to be “constitutionally appropriate.”
It would be a sad day indeed, if by zoning the land as wilderness we extirpated an iconic heritage species and diminished the recreational value of the land.
Maybe that’s why lawyers prefer to litigate while the average man is satisfied simply spending his time paddling and fishing.
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.