May 9, 2019
One Summit Steward shares their love for the mountains we call home, and asks for your help in protecting them.
When asked to explain my summer job it usually comes out something like this:
“Well, I’m a summit steward, so I work on top of a mountain to protect plants”.
I then go into a passionate account about the importance of the delicate alpine vegetation which blankets the highest Adirondack summits, the beauty and charm of the tiny flowers that appear in spring, and the paradox of how something that survives hurricane force winds, pelting rain, and long sub-zero winters can be killed by a single human footstep.
When I’ve finished my spiel, a bit lost in a haze of homesickness for the mountains I grew up in, I find the listener is staring at me with a rather blank expression on their face. Probably wondering what kind of nutcase they have just struck up a conversation with.
“So…you keep people from stepping on flowers”?
“Well, yes. But very special flowers.”
One of my most vivid stewarding memories is from a rainy Monday morning last summer. The kind of day that slips past dawn unnoticed through heavy mist and a steady drizzle. On these days the clouds hang low, they wrap the mountains tightly in a damp embrace and claim them as their own. Hidden in swirls of wind and fog, the mountains are invisible. A secret too precious to be let out.
This obscured morning came after a perfect hiking weekend—there had been spectacular, clear views in all directions, just enough wind to keep the bugs at bay, and not a rain cloud in sight. My numbers showed over 200 visitors both Saturday and Sunday, and my throat was still protesting from its overuse. I was looking forward to a quiet day on the mountain, and despite being battered about by wind and rain I welcomed the respite.
Due to the high volume of hikers the week before, I had spent most of my time talking. I explained to each hiker the wonder and fragility of the post-ice age relics surrounding them, and tried to impart some of the love I have for these alpine plants with my fellow hikers. I had answered countless questions about the nature of the trails, pointed out and named surrounding peaks, painstakingly emphasized the importance of bear canisters to those camping out overnight, and tried to turn those around I had found trudging up the trail close to dusk still several miles from the summit with no headlamp and, sometimes, no water.
This was to be expected. It was mid-summer and the number of hikers on Mt. Marcy was on the rise. I had been so busy educating visitors, I had not had much time for trail maintenance. Aside from the constant effort to pick up trash, bury toilet paper, and even human feces, I was having a hard time keeping up with the herd paths that were developing, and it was beginning to show.
Herd paths are undesignated trails that form when people go off the marked path to avoid an obstacle: often a fallen tree, a bit of mud, or a particularly steep slab. The result of herd paths is trampled vegetation, a sad sight below tree line and a tragedy in the alpine zone. As I paused just above the tree line, I noticed little clumps of diapensia ripped out of the ground, and gravel kicked up where mountain sandwort was just starting to take hold. Even though I knew I couldn’t possibly be everywhere at once, it felt like I let the plants down. They don’t have a voice so we need to speak for them, and that was my job. Sadly, I picked up the unearthed diapensia and placed it gently back in its place, packing some rocks around its base with the hope that they would protect it from the relentless wind.