1919 view from Algonquin
1919 view from Algonquin

We often think of our mountains as timeless, with features that have and always will look the same. While Hurricane Irene certainly taught me that this idea is not necessarily true, I still find that this is a pervasive mindset. As humans, our lives are so short, and geology encompasses such a long span, that it’s hard to see anything that happens outside of the context of a human lifespan as dynamic.

In the world of the summits and the Summit Steward Program, we know that the peaks do look different now than they have in the past. We speak of these summits as a living history museum, a window back 10,000 years into the past, but we know that’s not entirely accurate. Our summits are not frozen in time. Research we’ve conducted by comparing photopoints, precisely measured photographs retaken at specific time intervals, has allowed us to compare the alpine landscape we see today with the alpine zone as it appeared in the 1960s. Largely the story that these photopoints tell us is one of vegetation loss and recovery. Educated hikers have been staying off of the alpine vegetation, allowing these fragile plants to grow back since the hiking boom of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. (If you’re interested in reading more on this, you can find the article, published in the Adirondack Journal of Environmental Studies)

Recently, though, I had the opportunity to get a look at the summits not as they appeared 10,000 years ago, or as they looked during the height of the hiking boom in the 1960s, but as they were around 1918.

Retired Forest Ranger Peter Fish brought over a collection of photos belonging to Barbara Ann Hubbard, a deceased family friend. I don’t often get to see photos from this era, when boots were knee high, tents were heavy canvas, and packbaskets were the norm. As I looked through the first few pages, I was struck by how much has changed—the technology of the gear we hike with, the condition of the trails, even the trail building techniques themselves.  Even the forests were almost unrecognizable—logging camps dotted the landscape, and the scars of the 1903 and 1910 fires were clearly visible. The photos had the grainy feeling of a dream almost remembered, a weird simultaneous feeling of déjà vu and unfamiliarity.

Lumber Camp, Mt. Marcy, 1918
Lumber Camp, Mt. Marcy, 1918

And then suddenly we turned a page and I found myself looking at a view of the summit of Mt. Marcy. As a Summit Steward for 8 seasons, I’ve been up there somewhere between 350 and 375 times. I’ve spent countless hours walking the area above treeline. I know the landscape of Mt. Marcy’s summit better than I know the lines of my own face.

The view from Marcy has barely changed in the last 95 years. Like my own features, some parts are a bit more weathered, a few features have been added and removed (like the old stone shelter), but in essentials, nothing has changed. The view of the summit area reaffirmed what our photopoint series has demonstrated; much alpine vegetation was lost, but things are and continue to recover. The summit of Mt. Marcy in 1918 looks startlingly similar to the summit as we see it today. Overall, the vegetation is healthier than it was 40 years ago, or even 20 years ago. This recovery is the work of every individual hiker, choosing carefully where to put place his or her feet.  Just as the forests have recovered from the logging, our alpine summits will continue to recover from the hiking, as long as there is the will and dedication on the part of hikers and educators like the Summit Stewards to make it happen.

Mt. Marcy 1918-summit
Mt. Marcy 1918
Marcy Summit photopoint, 1999
Mt. Marcy 1999
Mt. Marcy 2008- summit
Mt. Marcy 2008

These photographs, snapshots from someone’s beautiful family hike long ago, show us the fragility and resiliency of our summits. They also speak to our enduring desire to visit these special places, a desire that is as old and as timeless as the mountains themselves.