You and I have something in common: our love of the Adirondack Mountains. We are awed by their beauty and lured by their wild, natural state. We are also keenly aware that, despite their stoic and unyielding facade, our Adirondack Mountains are vulnerable. Heavy use puts the High Peaks Wilderness, especially the rare alpine summits, at risk. But together we can, and have, reduced that impact. Can my fellow Summit Stewards and I count on your help to protect our fragile alpine zones?
I’m Michaela, a second year Summit Steward, one of five that, along with several incredible volunteers, comprise the Adirondack High Peaks Summit Stewardship Program. Now celebrating its 30th year, this program (a partnership of ADK, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy) has reversed decades of damage to fragile ecosytems on the highest Adirondack peaks and continues to hold the line as hiker traffic increases. But only because we’ve had the support of caring people like you.
When I’m 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 that 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.
‘So…you keep people from stepping on flowers?’
“Well, yes. But these are 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, wrapping the mountains tightly in a damp embrace and claiming them as their own. Hidden in swirls of wind and fog, the mountains are invisible, a secret too precious to be revealed.
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 floral relics surrounding them, and tried to impart some of the love I have for the plants to my fellow hikers.
I had answered countless questions about the nature of the trails, pointed out and named surrounding peaks, emphasized the importance of bear canisters to those camping out overnight, and tried to turn around those I 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: 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 could not possibly be everywhere at once, it felt like I had let the plants down. They don’t have a voice, so we need to speak for them, and that was my job. Sad, I picked up the unearthed diapensia and placed it gently back in the soil, packing some rocks around its base with the hope that they would protect it from the relentless wind.
Dropping my pack, I began the process of brushing-in: blocking off herd paths that tempt people to go off trail and diverting footsteps away from the vegetation and onto one single path. I was determined that no further damage would be done in that sector of trail
Being above tree line in this weather makes the rest of the world vanish. All that exists is the summit, the rain, the plants, and the wind. It has a way of elevating your senses—the sounds, clouds, smells, and rain seem to permeate your very core. Despite being cold and often soaked to the bone, you feel alive.
So there I was, clad in full rain gear, romping blissfully through the puddles. I had not paid any mind to my appearance and, after an hour of scouring the krummholz for loose branches, I was covered in spruce needles and sap. I undoubtedly looked more tree than I did person.
I was so lost in this alternate world of water and wind that I had forgotten I might actually stumble across another human or, more accurately, they might stumble across me.
That is when I heard a very tentative, “Hello?”
Turning around and squinting through the rain—and the massive spiky branch I had just triumphantly hauled onto the herd path—I saw a man who was looking at me as if he’d just discovered a new species of Adirondack mammal, or perhaps come one-on-one with Bigfoot at last.
“Hey, how’s it going?” I replied as cheerily as I could muster in the rain.
As he took in that he was actually looking at another person and not Bigfoot, a bear, or some kind of strange tree creature, his expression turned to complete and utter confusion. After a long pause, the first words out of his mouth were, “Do you live here?”
A smile spread across my wet, muddy face as I realized he was serious. This question sums up so much of what it means to be a summit steward. Although no human could, nor should, live on the mountain, in a way the answer to that question is yes.
The Adirondacks are home to all of us who live within the Park, and even to those who do not. It is home to countless red efts who climb their way over mountain summits, loons that send their haunting cries across the lakes, and black bears who munch on blueberries in a beaver meadow. It is home to people’s memories—treasured moments of childhood camping trips and quiet weekend escapes. Over centuries, the rugged peaks and wooded lakesides have captured the hearts of countless people, myself included.
Nevertheless, much like that little unearthed clump of diapensia, the Adirondack Park cannot protect itself. It needs dedicated people to be its voice. We need more people to watch out for the alpine plants, to pick up that piece of plastic off the trail, step in the middle of that mud puddle, and help educate those who have never had the opportunity to learn how to hike responsibly, especially with visitor numbers increasing year after year. We need YOU to support Summit Stewardship.
I am driven to inspire others, like you, to make a difference. So, after a summer of countless black flies, rain-soaked socks, lots of sweat, and even some blood, I returned for a second season as a Summit Steward. It is the least I can do for the place that has given so much to so many.
Your gift to ADK takes care of this unique place, protects it. With your support, Summit Stewards can teach others to treat the Adirondack Mountains with the respect and reverence they deserve. Please give generously so alpine habitats can flourish now and for future generations.
P.S. Your gift today protects the most vulnerable environments in our beautiful Adirondack Park. Thank you in advance for taking care of New York State’s rare alpine zones.