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Steppin’ the Adirondacks

Shoo-ing off black bears and debating Wilderness in New York’s highest peaks.

Words and photographs by Matt McDonald       

The dog, Caleigh, (a Llewellin Setter) chases crow shadows while my dad, The Rev, tightens his hat against 30-mile-per-hour gusts on New York’s tallest summit, 5,344-foot Mount Marcy. Before us, a panorama of neighboring peaks and hazy blue Lake Champlain. Dad and I high five. Then the wind shifts, pushing swollen gray thunderheads our way. Time to go.

I follow Caleigh down the 30-degree slabs of lichen-spotted granite, thinking of The Rev’s 70-year-old knees descending in the rain. Corralling the pup at tree line, I turn and see one of those images that stick with you: The Rev run-hobbling below a towering gray summit, hand on his hat, shirt whipping, last man on the mountain. Good thing Ma opted to hang at Lake Tear of the Clouds a thousand feet below. Once we’re together back at the busy campground, a yearling black bear plods up the path toward the smell of people food, and Ma hollers at it to get going.

McDonald family outings typically avoid people, but for this trip we forewent solitude in favor of realizing some goals in the popular stretches of the Adirondacks: Lake Tear of the Clouds for mom; the summit of Mount Marcy for dad. The bear made camp feel simultaneously wild and populated. Which leads us to a discussion of “The Problem with Wilderness” from the Early Summer issue of Mountain. Mom is a water resources specialist and she’s still forming her opinion about who to let in and who to keep out of Wilderness. It’s a gray topic to us—not black and white.

The Adirondacks, protected by the 1897 “Forever Wild” clause of the New York State Constitution, exemplify the nuances. Some sections of Wilderness, like our two-night campsite at Lake Colden, can feel more like public campgrounds than wild country “untrammeled by man.” But against the Adirondack Park’s 2.6 million acres of public land, the crowded sections seem minuscule. How do you increase recreation opportunities in the Adirondacks without compromising the park’s famed deserted mystique?




Here, too, how land is classified is not just academic theory. Currently on the table? The Adirondack Park Agency’s (APA) pending classification of 69,000 acres of newly acquired state land, which might be designated Wilderness, Wild Forest, or other. Also in the works: a Department of Environmental Conservation proposal for a network of multi-day/multi-use loop trails that would connect lodges and huts on private land—near towns in need of economic boosts—via trails through the forest preserve. Both discussions test the balance of recreation versus preservation. But they also highlight the Adirondacks’ greatest virtue: unlike the National Park Service, the APA isn’t about to pave a road to Lake Colden. If you want to see stuff, you have to get there under your own power.

With the bear run off—thanks mom—we lounge on granite slabs on the Opalescent River. The crystalline water will eventually flow past Albany and down to Manhattan as the Hudson. The dog Caleigh nips at gnats while we nip Highland Park single malt out of a leather Ski The East flask.

The Wilderness issue is complicated, to say the very least, but weekends like this are great precisely because they’re not.

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