Living Wild | Preserving the Adirondacks One Step at a Time

The Adirondack Park is comprised of 6.1 million acres of rivers, lakes, mountains and a variety of wildlife and ecosystems. Covering one-fifth of New York state, the park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States, greater in size than Everglades, Glacier, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks combined.

(DoNorth/provided by Brendan Wiltse)

The Adirondack Park is comprised of 6.1 million acres of rivers, lakes, mountains and a variety of wildlife and ecosystems. Covering one-fifth of New York state, the park is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States, greater in size than Everglades, Glacier, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks combined. The park serves as a travel destination for outdoor recreation and exploring in any and every season. Towering over the park are the infamous 46 High Peaks. This group of mountains hold the highest elevations in the park and are a challenge for both locals and visiting hikers alike. Outdoor enthusiasts who complete all 46 hikes are awarded the chance to join the prestigious ADK 46ers club.

The ADK 46ers club is a non profit organization made up of members who have climbed all 46 High Peaks. To join, applicants must register with the organization’s historian and include a questionnaire, mountain list and dues. Accepted applicants are given a certificate and hiker number, along with ADK 46ers merchandise. Each applicant is part of a “class” of the year they joined. The club also holds regular gatherings in Lake Placid to welcome new members. 46ers also serve as volunteers to help protect and preserve the wilderness of the Adirondacks.

“As volunteers we are dedicated to environmental protection, to education for proper usage of wilderness areas, to participation in New York State Department of Environmental Conservation-approved trail projects, and to the support of initiatives within the Adirondack High Peaks region by organizations with similar goals that enhance our objectives,” the 46ers’ website says.

Hikers who complete all 46 climbs during the winter season, December 21- March 21, are given special recognition, as the hiking conditions are more dangerous during the season. Those who complete the task are entitled to wear the Winter 46-R patch as part of their completion.

Only those who are in excellent physical condition, properly equipped and skilled in winter techniques should attempt this, as winter climbing can be demanding and exhausting,” the 46ers’ website says. “Parents should be particularly careful in assessing the abilities of their children. It helps when winter hiking, to be familiar with the peaks, the weather, the hazards and to climb with a group of experienced winter hikers.”

The first registered 46ers earned their titles in 1925. As of June 2017, there are 10,136 registered 46ers, some holding double titles as Winter 46ers.

One of these double-title holders is Tyler Socash. Socash has hiked trails all over the world – from the Pacific Crest Trail, winding from Canada to Mexico via the United States west coast, to Te Araroa – “The Long Pathway” – of New Zealand and the Appalachian Trail, a more-than 7,000 mile feat he completed by himself in 13 months.

 An experienced, lifelong hiker, Socash got his start in the Adirondacks.

Growing up in Old Forge, New York, Socash says he spent his childhood hiking, camping and fishing with his family.

“I have one vivid memory of my first big hike that changed my life forever: I went on my first snowshoeing hike in the winter of my senior year of high school up Blue Mountain,” Socash recalls. “From the summit of Blue Mountain, I saw for the first time in my life, the perforated horizon revealing the stark topography of the High Peaks wilderness. I actually remember saying ‘wow,’ to my friend Pierre. ‘What are those mountains?’ And he said, ‘Those are the High Peaks.’ And I remember thinking, ‘I want to hike there someday.’”

Socash left home for college shortly after, but during a school break, returned to the Adirondacks to give the High Peaks a try. He hiked his first high peak, Cascade Mountain, on December 22, 2006, and seven months later, he climbed to the top Mount Colden, his final high peak. He said in the beginning, completing all 46 High Peaks seemed like an insurmountable goal.

Socash gained his initial 46er title in July 2007.

“I was standing atop Mount Colden on July 18, 2007, with my parents and siblings, and I became a 46er,” Socash says.

Socash joined the ranks as a Winter 46er in March 2012 when he hiked Gothics, the 10th highest peak in the Adirondack Park.

“In the winter of 2012, I became a Winter 46er, swimming through chest-deep snow to get to the summit of Gothics,” he says. “The appropriate term is ‘swimming through chest-deep snow,’ to achieve the summit of Gothics for Winter 46. And I remember there were lenticular clouds on the horizon, which are a rare sighting in the Adirondacks. It was a crisp, cold winter day, I could see for miles and miles. I’m glad I saved that one for last.”

Socash stresses the importance of winter safety in the Adirondacks. He says what people may not realize is that “shoulder seasons,” fall and spring, can be just as dangerous because of how quickly the weather changes with the increase in elevation.

“The shoulder seasons are difficult because you’re not quite sure what type of surface you’re going to encounter,” Socash says. “You might need extra traction, but mistakenly have left it behind at the trailhead because you weren’t expecting to encounter those type of conditions. The hardest time to hike is when you’re in those variable weather conditions in the late fall and early spring.”

Make no mistake, winter in the Adirondacks also comes with its own challenges. In 2016, two hikers were rescued on the second highest mountain, Algonquin Peak, after being lost for two days. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, the hikers suffered from hypothermia, and may not have survived another night on the mountain.

“You need to make sure that you stay hydrated and well-fed so that you fuel your inner furnace to stay warm on a long winter hike. The mountains can be a little bit more dangerous in the winter time, so you can’t let your guard down,” Socash says. “But planning ahead and preparing helps you to live the experience in advance, so you can help mitigate those risks associated with hiking the High Peaks in the winter time.”

Overall, Socash says his most challenging Adirondack Park hike was the completion of the Northville-Placid Trail.

“The most challenging hike in the Adirondacks would probably be completing to Northville-Placid Trail, which is the through-hike that goes from Northville, New York, all the way up through four wilderness areas, winding through the woods and waters of the Adirondack Park, ending at the northern terminus in Lake Placid,” he says. “It’s about 140 miles, but due to its length, it’s quite the challenge for a first time through-hiker.”

Socash says this through-hike inspired him to complete the Pacific Crest Trail, Te Araroa- New Zealand’s longest through-hike- and the Appalachian Trail.

“When I finished the Northville-Placid Trail, it instilled in me a reckless sense of confidence that gave me the skills necessary and the motivation to complete that 7,000 mile, year-long through-hike that I did last year,” he says.

Since initially becoming a 46er, Socash has completed the High Peaks run six times. Currently working in the Adirondacks as a Outdoor Skills Coordinator for the Adirondack Mountain Club, he has the opportunity to climb the peaks as a hiking guide and to educate others on safe hiking and preservation of the Adirondacks rare ecosystems. He originally began working with the club in 2009 as a Wilderness Trip Leader, holding the Day Hike and Backpacking Series. He left in 2010 to obtain his Master’s Degree in School Counselling, but found himself back in the wilderness shortly after completing his education. He set off for his 7,000 mile through-hike in 2015 and returned to the Adirondack Mountain Club when he completed his journey in 2016.

As an Outdoor Skills Coordinator, Socash teaches courses in backpacking, maps and compasses and snowshoeing. As a Leave No Trace Master Educator, Socash also educates hikers on the Leave No Trace principles. “Leave No Trace” aims to educate hikers on safety and preservation while recreating in the mountains. Some of the basic principles are: Planning ahead and preparing, disposing of waste properly and respecting wildlife, among others. Socash’s main goal is to educate visitors on the importance of protecting the rare lands in the Adirondack Park.

“22 of our highest peaks contain New York’s rarest ecosystem, the Alpine Ecosystem, where only specially adapted plants grow above treeline,” Socash says.

According to Socash, the Alpine Ecosystem is the size of about 20 percent of New York City’s Central Park, growing at about .6 centimeters per year, and that small percentage is spread out among 22 high peaks.

Socash also spends his time advocating for the preservation of the Adirondacks, to help rare findings within the park, like the Alpine Ecosystem. As a contributor to the Adirondack Wilderness Advocates, he hopes to protect the Boreas Pond Land Tract, a 20,000 acre parcel of land within the Adirondack Park. The land tract is home to a variety of endangered biological species.

The Adirondack Wilderness Advocates was formed by Bill Ingersoll, Pete Nelson and Brendan Wiltse after the Adirondack Park Agency failed to consider a full-wilderness alternative for Boreas Ponds.

“I believed in their message,” Socash says of joining the Wilderness Advocates. “I went to visit Boreas Ponds myself and stood at the shoreline of White Lily Pond and couldn’t recall another time in all of my six rounds of hiking the High Peaks when I felt so remote and when things felt so quiet and things felt so peaceful. I hadn’t experienced that deafening silence before.”

Boreas Ponds, New York’s largest high elevation wetland complex, hosts a healthy population of moose, herring and brooktrout.

“Boreas Ponds doesn’t just have the biological and ecological characteristics of a wilderness area,” Socash says. “It has the intangibles that you expect to find as well, like grand feelings of silence, remoteness, tranquility and solitude.”

Boreas Ponds is located off Gulf Brook Road in Essex County, but the portion of the road leading to the ponds is closed to the public, adding to its secrecy and tranquility. Socash says as long as the road stays closed, the ponds will remain as quiet as they are now. However, the option to open the land to the public, and motorized vehicles, is up for discussion by the Adirondack Park Agency. Only five percent of the Adirondack Park is three or more miles away from a roadway.

“To have a place like Boreas Ponds protected as wilderness would be a gem to pass on to future generations, and I want to be part of that conversation that helps protect that special place,” Socash says.

Socash, and other members of the Adirondack Wilderness Advocates recently sat in on an Adirondack Park Agency meeting as a form of protest to encourage stronger protection of Boreas Ponds and other protected wilderness lands.

The agency is debating on whether to classify the ponds as protected lands or open them to the public. Socash says he wants public comments to be heard by the agency, as 84 percent of the public comment is in support of protecting the Boreas Ponds.

On November 15, Socash hiked over 40 miles through the night from Boreas Ponds to the Adirondack Park Agency office in Raybrook, NY, to coincide with the agency’s meeting. He carried over 1,000 letters of support he and the other Advocates have collected from outdoor enthusiasts and the general public supporting Boreas Ponds, a testament to his passion for preserving the Adirondacks.

It may be one of the greatest symbolic stands for Wilderness in recent Adirondack history,” Socash says.

In total, Socash received over 1,800 letters of support for Boreas Ponds and the rest of the Adirondack Park.

“I am carrying that message on foot from Boreas Ponds to show how fragile Adirondack wildness is. If the classification is anything but full motor-free Wilderness for the Boreas Ponds Tract, current remote Adirondack backcountry will be marginalized.  My walk would only get easier if the APA turns more silent backcountry into more ordinary front country. Isn’t New York’s largest high-elevation wetland complex worth our best effort to save?”

As for the future, Socash hopes to hike the Continental Divide Trail, a 3,100 mile hike from Canada to Mexico, similar to the Pacific Crest Trail. Upon completion, Socash will have completed the American Triple Crown of hiking; The Pacific Crest, the Continental Divide and the Appalachian Trail.

“You meet other through-hikers, you form friendships with strangers from all different backgrounds, all different countries and you forge a trail family as you make your way north or south, east or west on these through-hikes and being open to meeting new people is all part of the overall journey.”

Issue 10: Winter/Spring 2018

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