Caring for the backcountry

LAKE PLACID – The work day begins early for backcountry caretakers.

The sun has barely started warming the slides on Mount Colden’s western flanks, and backcountry caretaker Katie Tyler is on the trail. Her worn leather boots are cracked and dirty, not unlike the calluses on her hands, but the sun is shining and there’s work to be done.

Making her way down the narrow path from the caretaker’s cabin to the former site of Marcy Dam, Tyler explains that she loves her job and feels honored to be doing it, but that’s obvious – the only thing more prominent than the surrounding mountains is the smile on her face.

Tyler became a state Department of Environmental Conservation caretaker two years ago after spending five years as an assistant forest ranger.

“With the assistant forest rangers, I think of it as they’re hired to be the legs,” Tyler said. “They’re hired to be out in the woods, covering a lot of ground. If something happens up high, like someone gets hurt, you can send an assistant forest ranger to respond. The caretakers are more tied to the cabins. We do the trail maintenance.”

There are four cabins, or interior outposts, for backcountry caretakers in the Adirondacks: at Marcy Dam, Lake Colden, Johns Brook and on the Raquette River. Only one of the cabins, Lake Colden, is staffed year-round. The rest are usually vacant by the end of October and are only used by forest rangers during emergencies in the the off-season.

Caretakers like Tyler have a list of responsibilities. They survey the trails in their area and do trail maintenance, campsite maintenance and they also educate hikers and campers and assist with search and rescue efforts.

On this day, Tyler begins with a sweep of the campsites in the Marcy Dam area. She checks to make sure things are in order, that people are following regulations and properly storing food so animals can’t get to it. Black bears used to frequent the area, and Tyler said they would even approach campers in broad daylight if there was food around.

Bears are still in the area, but they aren’t as common as they once were. Backcountry caretakers still carry pepper spray, though, just in case a bear gets too close.

“I remember when I was an assistant forest ranger, we had a bear hanging out right here in the bushes eating blueberries, glaring at people,” Tyler said. “It was terrifying. The thing that is so hard to convey to someone, especially if they’re just here for a night, is that the moment that bear gets that food, you’re basically marking it to be a problem bear. I spend quite a bit of time trying to explain that to people.”

Tyler attributes the decline in bear activity to a requirement that says all campers along the Marcy Dam and Lake Colden trail corridor must use bear canisters – bulky, barrel-shaped containers designed to be impenetrable to prying bear claws.

After her rounds, Tyler makes a short stop back at the cabin and goes into the garage, which is filled with axes, sledge hammers, nippers, saws, shovels and a whole slew of other hand tools designed to move earth. She grabs a small hand saw and explains that her next task is to remove a downed tree she spotted on the path from the Adirondack Loj.

There is no managerial presence traversing the High Peaks with a clip board, jotting down every occurrence of loose stones or blocked drainages. Tyler must survey the surrounding trails regularly and make a mental note of any projects needing her attention.

The size of Tyler’s area explains her worn hiking boots and calluses. Her zone begins at the cabin and includes everything along the 5-mile Van Hoevenberg trail to the top of the 5,344-foot Mount Marcy, including the side paths up other mountains, the 3-mile hike to Lake Colden, the 2-mile hike to Adirondack Loj and the 3-mile South Meadow Road.

“You can only do so much, so you pick your projects and you focus on different areas,” Tyler said.

On the way to today’s fallen tree, Tyler encounters a group of eight boys making their way up the trail. She stops and asks where they’re going and reminds them that campfires are forbidden in the Eastern High Peaks. She also gives them a brief synopsis of the weather, which might turn ugly later in the evening.

“It’s great to see people coming out here to enjoy the woods,” Tyler said. “I’m not here to make that experience bad for them, I’m here to make sure they safely enjoy it. When you get someone out into the woods like this, out of their comfort zone, I think it’s an empowering thing for people.”

Today seems boilerplate: check on the campsites, educate visitors, perform trail maintenance, check on more campsites, talk to more people. But that could change in a second. On busy weekends she avoids longer hikes, like the one to the summit of Mount Marcy, because she needs to be available if forest rangers need help with a rescue.

“You really have to think about what’s going to be happening, maybe later,” Tyler said. “It’s nice to get up high, but it’s your responsibility to be available. If they call you at 2 o’clock, you go.”

Just a few rugged miles up the trail from Tyler is the Lake Colden interior outpost, where backcountry caretaker Sean Platt stays year-round. Between Marcy Dam and the cabin is Avalanche Pass, a narrow, nearly mile-long obstacle-course stretch of trail that winds over and under boulders as it skirts Avalanche Lake.

The situations Platt faces in the summer are similar to the ones described by Tyler, but winter brings its own set of circumstances. The wind whips through Avalanche Pass and the temperature often dives below zero. It’s a frigid combination that often beats unprepared hikers into submission.

“When you’re out there, especially in the wintertime, you can’t rely on an incredibly fast response,” Tyler said. “I think people tend to forget that this is wilderness. Maybe it’s not as remote as Alaska, but it’s still pretty remote. If it’s a bad day and a helicopter can’t get back there, you’re looking at being back there for a while.”

Platt was exposed to the backcountry lifestyle from the beginning. His father, Charlie Platt, is a longtime forest ranger in the High Peaks. Platt said the accessibility of the region make it a big draw, but the same terrain that makes the mountains beautiful also makes the hiking technical. There are areas of exposed rock where a slip could cause an emergency, steep sections of trail that turn into waterfalls during downpours and weather that seems to shift with the wind.

The distances on trails signs can also be deceiving in rugged terrain, where one mile can feel more like five. It’s a phenomena Platt affectionately calls an Adirondack mile.

Those Adirondack miles sometimes add up, leaving people fatigued. Platt stressed that preparation is essential to safely enjoy the backcountry, even for a day. He said to bring enough food, have a headlamp, have the means to filter water, wear clothing that doesn’t absorb moisture instead of cotton, bring a map and carry a first-aid kit.

“Any time you start feeling loopy or strange on the trail, there’s something to it and you just need to sit down and take your time,” Platt said. “It’s all very preventable stuff. Just take your time, eat and drink enough, and be careful.”

Platt pointed out that rescues not only take time, they also put the rescuers at risk.

“You go into the woods unprepared, and then you need to be rescued, then other people are deployed to retrieve you,” Platt said. “By not being prepared in the beginning you’re basically not only putting yourself at risk, but you’re putting a lot of other people at risk. Those situations are really dangerous for everybody. If the weather report is bad, stay home. If it’s 50-mile-an-hour winds and pouring on top of Algonquin, it’s not a good day to be up there, and it’s definitely not a good day for us to come and get you.”

Oftentimes, rescues involve minor injuries like a twisted ankle or knee. Others are not so common.

One summer day Platt came across a group of people who had just climbed over Mount Marcy from the Adirondack Loj and were sitting near the Lake Colden dam.

Someone in the group asked Platt how to get a ride on the boat, and he responded with the typical caretaker response: “If you’re broken, we’ll give you a ride on the boat.

“And then this girl in the group said, ‘Well he’s blind,'” Platt said. “He is blind in one eye, and he can see out of the other eye but it isn’t good vision. As long as it’s bright out he’s OK, but he just moves slow.”

Platt and Tyler each put an arm under one of the man’s arms and the pair directed him down the trail, one step at a time. Back at Marcy Dam, rangers gave the man a ride back to the Loj via South Meadow Road.

“The guy was awesome,” Platt said. “He was just joking around the whole time. The thing I’ve taken away from this is that people consistently surprise me in what they’re able to do, and I see it all the time out there.”