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Summit stewards contend with hiker education challenge and coronavirus pandemic

A summit steward talks to two of numerous hikers atop Mount Marcy, New York’s highest point, on Sept. 23, 2017. (News photo — Antonio Olivero)

LAKE PLACID — Her daily commute finds her scaling a mountain.

Syracuse native Kayla White is in her seventh year as a summit steward in the Adirondack Mountains. It’s a job that brings her to high heights — literally. But it’s also a position that has become increasingly crucial as the number of nature-seekers wading into the High Peaks Wilderness continues to grow.

The Adirondacks are White’s adopted home. When she was growing up, her family used to vacation in the Inlet area.

It was after high school, when she and her cousins started visiting the High Peaks region to hike, that she was first introduced to the Adirondack Mountain Club. She stayed at one of the club’s campgrounds and knew she wanted to eventually make the move up to the Adirondacks.

After spending a few years in college and graduating from the University at Buffalo, she did just that.

“After my first year working at the Adirondack Mountain Club, I knew I wanted to be a summit steward,” she said. “I thought it was the coolest job, and I still do. I thought the idea of protecting the mountains was just the best thing ever.”

Now White serves as the club’s summit steward coordinator, leading a group of volunteers tasked with educating hikers, protecting fragile Alpine vegetation and doing high-altitude trail maintenance.

A steward’s typical day varies depending on the season, and whether they’re working on a holiday weekend. In the summertime, White said stewards try to be on their respective mountains no later than 9:30 a.m.

“We hike up, get to the summit. The first thing I do is change out of my sweaty clothes to stay dry and warm,” she said. “I eat food and get myself mentally prepared for the day. I’ll spend the whole day up there, stay until 4:30 p.m.”

What happens in those few hours varies. It often involves a lot of approaching strangers and talking to people face-to-face about land use regulations, the fragile Alpine plants that only grow above certain elevations, and ways to reduce their impact on the ecosystem.

“For the most part, people are very receptive to the message,” White said. “It’s not that they’re maliciously trying to cause damage. They just have no idea. They don’t know their actions are causing damage to the resource.”

The Adirondacks are facing historic levels of hiker traffic. Despite the ongoing closure of the U.S.-Canada border, the level of pedestrian traffic in wilderness areas remains high. The coronavirus pandemic — and public health officials’ belief that getting outside and away from other people is among the safest ways to recreate — may have something to do with that.

This season, as people across the country slowly return to work and venture out of their homes after months of self-isolation recommendations, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and local environmental advocacy groups face a growing challenge when it comes to hiker education.

“We’re seeing a lot of people that … that’s their first mountain,” White said. “They’ve never been hiking before, and because of that, they don’t have that knowledge of how to recreate responsibly.”

Traffic jams at trailhead parking lots have been a hot-button issue for years, but so has the impact of hiking in the backcountry, where inexperienced hikers can inadvertently harm the ecosystem. The summit stewardship program was created in 1989. It’s a partnership with the Adirondack Mountain Club, the DEC and the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy.

“The high use is not new. It’s something we’ve been experiencing for a long time. COVID is amplifying everything,” White said. “People are like, ‘Wow, it’s really crazy.’ It really has been crazy — it has been for multiple years now.”

The summit stewards play a key role in protecting part of the High Peaks region, including New York’s tallest mountain, Mount Marcy.

“I found what we do is even more important this year,” White said. “We’re up there to protect Alpine plants and educate hikers about Leave No Trace ethics. That is a big part of what we do.”

Right now in the fall season, stewards have transitioned to doing trail work three days per week and stewarding at the summits of Marcy, Algonquin and Wright on weekends, according to White.

Even as the importance of the job has grown, the program has faced some cuts, according to White.

“This year we have three summit stewards, plus myself,” she said. “Normally we have five, but with COVID, we were hit pretty hard and had to reduce our staff.”

The stewards’ pool of dedicated volunteers has also shrunk somewhat this year, from between 20 and 25 people to 15 active volunteers this year.

“Not all of our volunteers felt comfortable stewarding this year,” White said.

Summit stewards can talk to thousands of hikers each season, and there hasn’t been a lot of compliance with the state’s mask mandate on mountains — despite signs posted asking for compliance, according to White.

“There are points on the trails when you’re passing people and it’s narrow. It would be great if hikers can have their masks at the ready when they’re passing, and when they’re up at the summits,” she said.

Asked about the DEC’s recent steps to educate hikers — such as its use of the 511NY alert system, and its establishment of three pop-up hiker information stations — White said the DEC is “trying really hard to combat the issues.”

“I think it’s a great start,” she said. “I think there’s always something that needs to be done. It’s not all on them. It’s also about making sure that different programs that we know work are being funded, like the summit stewardship program. There are really amazing programs out there. We know education works.”

The myriad of issues as a result of the popularity of the High Peaks region is “a very hard thing to deal with.”

“That’s the importance of comprehensive planning,” she said.

Those interested in learning more about the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Summit Stewardship Program can visit www.adk.org/protect/summit-stewardship-program.