Mind your mountain manners

Over the course of my many years in the woods, I’ve managed to put a lot of trail miles under my feet. I’ve climbed most of the High Peaks and hiked the Northville-Placid trail. I’ve also spent a fair share of time wandering off the trails, especially during the fishing, hunting and ski seasons.

I began my hiking career as a 10-year-old kid growing up in Elizabethtown. After outgrowing Cobble Hill and Wood Hill, Giant Mountain and Rocky Peak Ridge became our climbs of choice.

I also traveled to many other High Peaks while in the company of Geoffrey Carlton, a well-known birder who wrote the book, “Birds of Essex County.” Mr. Carleton allowed me to tag along on his birding forays, provided I kept my mouth shut, which was a difficult task for an inquisitive kid.

However, I managed to stay on board for a free ride to the trailhead until my teenage years, when matters such as teenage girls and fishing excursions began to take priority over my quest to tackle the peaks.

Although I regularly return to the mountains of my youth, especially Cobble Hill and Raven, I rarely venture off into the High Peaks region any more, unless upon the request of a guest. I find the lower peaks are nearly as enjoyable, as are the lowland hikes in and around the St. Regis Canoe Area. I prefer to hike at my own pace, which makes travel far from a race.

No doubt, I was trained in this pursuit while struggling to keep pace with Mr. Carleton, who was a slim and lanky 6-and-a-half-foot-tall trooper. He kept up a steady pace that was aided by his 5-foot stride, and I ran along happily behind him.

On occasion, I would stop to pretend I heard or saw a bird, which was the only way I could catch up with him. It also allowed me a chance to catch my breath.

Throughout my college years, I continued to tackle the peaks with friends, and we often ventured into the Cold River area.

At the time, the High Peaks region was becoming very popular and campsites were often trashed. Although it seemed the trails were receiving heavy use at the time, in reality traffic was still quite light as compared to current-day use.

Over the past month, I’ve spent a lot of time driving to and from Elizabethtown, mostly over the weekends. Although it is far from a scientific study, it certainly appears the local trailheads have been busy beyond the norm.

Maybe the increased trail traffic has been in response to the fair weather, or possibly it is just a simple “end of the season, let’s pack it all in” response. Whatever the reason, the results have been glaringly obvious, with cars and trucks filling up and overflowing trailhead parking lots from Rocky Peak Ridge to Giant Mountain to the Cascades, and on through to McKenzie, Ampersand and St. Regis.

Last Sunday, I counted 42 vehicles as I drove by the Baxter Mountain trailhead, and it was 6:30 in the afternoon. The day before, there were more than 100 vehicles staggered throughout the Cascades. I also discovered hikers camping in their cars along the Adironac Loj road, while others had set up tents beside their vehicles.

Certainly, the new Saranac Lake 6er campaign has contributed to a rush to reach the top. Fortunately, the campaign has likely inspired many more friends and relatives to put down the fork and pick up a hiking staff. I realize the 6er effort has also attracted many family groups who may have missed out on the treasures, natural pleasures and blisters that can often be acquired along a long hike.

But as can be expected with so many newcomers in the woods and on the trails, there continues to be some obvious problems. Overuse is readily evident from the trailheads to the summits, and not all hikers are pleasant and considerate. In fact, some can be downright rude.

I don’t believe people who are unfamiliar with the woods purposely try to be rude. Often they are just ignorant of the accepted manners.

Unfortunately, it appears wilderness-use education rarely trickles down to the casual day user. Without a clue to the environmental ramifications, I’ve watched rookie hikers cut saplings for use as hiking staffs and I’ve seen them toss orange and banana peels aside.

They probably figure the peels are natural after all. However, the peels won’t degrade for years if left to rot a thousand miles north of their natural, tropical environment.

Try to explain the mechanics of that unnatural relationship to a couple that are rushing back down the trail in a hurry, after having confirmed their dinner reservations via a conference call from the summit.

There are some very common use problems, ranging from the lack of port-a-potties at the trailheads and to the leftovers on the summits – which regularly include torn packs, a single sneaker, hats, socks, and a fair share of bandaids, bloody bandages and of course toilet paper.

Reportedly, there has also been a good deal of misbehavior occurring along the trails. On certain routes, it seems there’s been a rash of old school whittling as passing hikers stop to carve their initials in the smooth beech bark.

It is important to remember that nearly everyone is on the trail for the same reason: to enjoy nature in its natural surroundings.

I recently overheard a conversation on the topic while I was speaking with a friend at the trailhead. A pair of disgruntled parents were imploring their teenage kids to strap on their packs and hit the trail. The father, obviously frustrated with the delay, finally let loose.

“If you don’t leave your attitude in the car, dude, I’ll leave my boot in your butt.”

I was certainly glad I didn’t have to follow them to the summit.

We often take our freedom to take a hike for granted. It is almost too easy for most locals. We fail to realize that the majority of the nation’s population no longer considers wilderness travel to be a normal part of everyday life.

I’ll admit it, we’re spoiled. It’s almost too easy for locals to get away.

And therein often lies the catch. Visitors simply don’t know how to act because they are so unaccustomed to the experience.

The situation is akin to the awkwardness exhibited when a non-resident attempts to start up a conversation while riding an elevator in Manhattan. People will look at you as if you’re a nutcase. However it will provide you with a bit of empathy for those rookie hikers you often mutter about under your breath.

It may be time for the state Department of Environmental Conservation to post an Emily Post column dealing with mountain manners and trail etiquette. Maybe it would help our visitors deal with such simple issues as “who goes first when uphill hikers meet up with downhill hikers on a single track hiking trail.”

For those who don’t know the rules of how and when to share the trail, the accepted protocol is for climbers to have the right of way over descending hikers.

Another point of contention is the unabated use of the cell phones and video cameras that fellow hikers so often employ to capture the moment. Taking a few snap shots is to be expected, but “posing and posting” to share a virtual moment with all of your e-buddies is frowned upon.

It is rude and inconsiderate to engage in loud cell phone conversations whether in the woods or on a summit. If you feel a real need to share the moment, step away from other hikers to carry your conversation; after all, they’re called mobile phones for a reason.

Responsible recreation means having both the good sense and common courtesy to enjoy the backcountry without spoiling anyone else’s experience.

Most hikers truly enjoy the peace and quiet that’s provided by the natural surroundings on a mountaintop. It is one of the main reasons they put in the effort to get away from the highways.

Be considerate of other visitors. Acknowledge them on the trail with a smile, nod or a brief “hello.” No one has to stop or even slow down to do this. It’s simply good manners to recognize your fellow hikers.