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The Changing Nature of Backcountry Users

BY John Million

dsc_1347The wild lands of the Adirondack Park are much healthier in general than they were a hundred years ago.  The way the public interacts with these lands has also dramatically shifted over that time.  Instead of grizzled Adirondack guides leading “sports” on hunting and fishing expeditions, most visitors to the Park today would rather bag a peak than a bear.  But how does this shift alter the perception of a wilderness experience and the ways we interact with the landscape and each other?

There is no disputing the attraction of outdoor recreation and its ability to positively affect those who partake.  In fact, the Adirondack Mountain Club was founded in large part to encourage backcountry adventures and to help make them possible by building trails.

The breakneck speed at which technology has overtaken all aspects of our lives in the last few years is staggering.  Not long ago we were debating whether or not to install Wi-Fi at the Adirondak Loj.  Now we discuss how we can increase bandwidth to satisfy the demand of guests and the workplace needs of the staff.  Anyone who has hiked lately knows about the proliferation of electronic devices in the backcountry, from GPS units to the ubiquitous smart phones.  As supportive infrastructures such as solar recharging stations are developed, their greater reliability and acceptance as essential survival items will follow.

At the risk of preaching to the choir here, those of us who have experienced the view from a mountain summit know how deeply felt the connection to wilderness that keeps us coming back for more can be.  That imagery is powerful, and Corporate America has certainly taken notice.  Everything from clothing to automobiles to medications shows fresh-faced beautiful people smiling and looking wistfully off into the distance from some scenic mountaintop. Hordes of new visitors want to experience this manufactured euphoria firsthand, and head to the High Peaks in a North Face jacket that hasn’t been past the bus stop and boots right out of the box that are sure to be blistering monsters.  The muddy, flushed, bug-bitten folks I encounter in the Adirondacks, though, bear very little resemblance to the marketing models (except for the smiles).

We were all novices once (and it’s ADK’s mission to help educate and nurture these future conservationists), but we have to realize that the way these people will experience wilderness will be unlike the way we did.  They will share their adventures instantly through social media and by posting selfies on their choice of platforms, and their friends can instantly pass the adventures on to hundreds of others.  While this may be different from our own experiences, it ultimately is a good thing to convey the beauty of the Adirondacks to vast numbers of people who would otherwise never know they exist.  And unless the connection to that natural experience is made, our ADK legacy of advocacy and protection will slowly fade away.

Of course change brings challenges as well as benefits. The availability and ease of rapid communication among large groups of people has created instances of overcrowding, with dozens of people on the same hike, loosely organized by an ill-prepared leader, simply overwhelming the capacity of the natural resource, and in some cases creating dangerous situations with tragic results.  The social sharing aspects of the new media relationships common among friends and in online communities can contribute to a “look at me one-up the last guy” mentality that has led to some well-publicized incidents of outrageous behavior.  The competitive nature of today’s world has also transformed what for most of us is a partly spiritual experience into a never-ending list of athletic endeavors for some backcountry users.

So how do we, as members of the organization dedicated to responsible recreation, respond?  The last of Leave No Trace’s seven main principles is “Be Considerate of Other Visitors.” To me this is important advice from two different perspectives.  If we take the stand that the way this new breed of backcountry users is behaving is just plain wrong and it is up to ADK to set them straight, we are missing the point.  Adopting a scolding tone will alienate a younger generation of enthusiasts and reinforce an erroneous stereotype of elitist, holier-than-thou environmentalism.  One of ADK’s strongest points is its respect for inclusive access to a wide variety of outdoor activities.  So we must be considerate of how Millennials recreate and adapt our message in ways and places that it can best be absorbed.  The mission and tenets of ADK are just as critical today as they ever have been.  Our challenge is to bring our message to the masses in a palatable format under favorable circumstances of their design.

The flip side of “Be Considerate of Others” is the shared burden of these novice recreationists.  Just as we all had to learn that cotton t-shirts, blue jeans and Converse All Stars were not the best choice for backcountry attire, leading our newer outdoor participants down the path of responsible recreation will help them learn the lessons needed.  The wisdom you gain by trial and error and direct experience is the kind that sticks.  If we go out of our way to meet these folks where they are, and help educate them in a manner with which they are comfortable, the ethics of stewardship and respect for the environment and their fellow recreationists will be self-evident.

So let us embrace our new brethren in wilderness pursuits and seek to understand what it is that they are seeking and gently guide them to those experiences while sharing our knowledge respectfully and realizing this is their journey, not ours.  Just as we all had mentors, let us pass along the torch of stewardship for these magnificent Adirondacks and Catskills.  If we are thoughtful in our behavior, our new outdoor-minded compatriots may soon realize that track meets are best run in stadiums and keg stands belong in the frat house basement.  And they just might join an ADK chapter!

This article was first published in “Adirondac“.


John Million is ADK’s deputy executive director, heading up operations at ADK’s Heart Lake Program Center.