May 9, 2019

One Summit Steward shares their love for the mountains we call home, and asks for your help in protecting them.

When asked to explain my summer job it usually comes out something like this:

“Well, I’m a summit steward, so I work on top of a mountain to protect plants”.

I then go into a passionate account about the importance of the delicate alpine vegetation which blankets the highest Adirondack summits, the beauty and charm of the tiny flowers that appear in spring, and the paradox of how something that survives hurricane force winds, pelting rain, and long sub-zero winters can be killed by a single human footstep.

When I’ve finished my spiel, a bit lost in a haze of homesickness for the mountains I grew up in, I find the listener is staring at me with a rather blank expression on their face. Probably wondering what kind of nutcase they have just struck up a conversation with.

“So…you keep people from stepping on flowers”?

“Well, yes. But very special flowers.”

One of my most vivid stewarding memories is from a rainy Monday morning last summer. The kind of day that slips past dawn unnoticed through heavy mist and a steady drizzle. On these days the clouds hang low, they wrap the mountains tightly in a damp embrace and claim them as their own. Hidden in swirls of wind and fog, the mountains are invisible. A secret too precious to be let out.

This obscured morning came after a perfect hiking weekend—there had been spectacular, clear views in all directions, just enough wind to keep the bugs at bay, and not a rain cloud in sight. My numbers showed over 200 visitors both Saturday and Sunday, and my throat was still protesting from its overuse. I was looking forward to a quiet day on the mountain, and despite being battered about by wind and rain I welcomed the respite.

Due to the high volume of hikers the week before, I had spent most of my time talking. I explained to each hiker the wonder and fragility of the post-ice age relics surrounding them, and tried to impart some of the love I have for these alpine plants with my fellow hikers. I had answered countless questions about the nature of the trails, pointed out and named surrounding peaks, painstakingly emphasized the importance of bear canisters to those camping out overnight, and tried to turn those around I had found trudging up the trail close to dusk still several miles from the summit with no headlamp and, sometimes, no water.

This was to be expected. It was mid-summer and the number of hikers on Mt. Marcy was on the rise. I had been so busy educating visitors, I had not had much time for trail maintenance. Aside from the constant effort to pick up trash, bury toilet paper, and even human feces, I was having a hard time keeping up with the herd paths that were developing, and it was beginning to show.

Herd paths are undesignated trails that form when people go off the marked path to avoid an obstacle: often a fallen tree, a bit of mud, or a particularly steep slab. The result of herd paths is trampled vegetation, a sad sight below tree line and a tragedy in the alpine zone. As I paused just above the tree line, I noticed little clumps of diapensia ripped out of the ground, and gravel kicked up where mountain sandwort was just starting to take hold. Even though I knew I couldn’t possibly be everywhere at once, it felt like I let the plants down. They don’t have a voice so we need to speak for them, and that was my job. Sadly, I picked up the unearthed diapensia and placed it gently back in its place, packing some rocks around its base with the hope that they would protect it from the relentless wind.

Diapensia in bloom

Diapensia (Seth Jones)

Dropping my pack, I began the process of brushing-in: blocking off herd paths that tempt people to go off trail, and diverting footsteps away from the vegetation and onto one single path. I was determined that no further damage would be done in that section of trail.

Luckily for me, there are few things in life more satisfying than brushing in a herd path, and it was a good day to do it.

Being above tree line in this weather makes the rest of the world vanish. All that exists is the summit, the rain, the plants, and the wind. It has a way of elevating your senses—the sounds, clouds, smells and rain seem to permeate your very core. Despite being cold and often soaked to the bone, you feel alive.

So there I was. Clad in full rain gear, romping blissfully through the puddles. I hadn’t paid any mind to my appearance, and after an hour of scouring the krummholz for loose branches I was covered in spruce needles and sap. I undoubtedly looked more tree than person.

I was so lost in this alternate world of water and wind that I had forgotten that I might actually stumble across another human or, more accurately, that they might stumble across me.

That’s when I heard it, a very tentative “hello?”

Turning around and squinting through the rain—and the massive spiky branch I had just triumphantly hauled onto the heard path—I saw a man who was looking at me as if he’d just discovered a new species of Adirondack mammal, or perhaps come one-on-one with Bigfoot at last.

“Hey how’s it going?” I replied as cheerily as I could muster in the rain. As he took in that he was actually looking at another person and not Bigfoot, a bear, or some kind of strange tree creature his expression turned to complete and utter confusion. After a long pause, the first words out his mouth were:

“Do you live here?”

A smile spread across my wet muddy face as I realized how serious he was. This question sums up so much of what it means to be a summit steward. Although no human could, nor should, live on the mountain, in a way the answer to that question is yes.

The Adirondacks are home to all of us who live within the Park, and even to those who do not. It is home to countless red efts who climb their way over mountain summits, loons that send their haunting cries across the lakes, and black bears who munch on blueberries in a beaver meadow. It is home to people’s memories—treasured moments of childhood camping trips, and quiet weekend escapes. Over centuries the rugged peaks and wooded lake sides have captured the hearts of countless people, myself included.

But much like that little unearthed clump of diapensia, the Adirondacks cannot protect itself. It needs dedicated people to be its voice. We need more people to watch out for the alpine plants, to pick up that piece of plastic off the trail, step in the middle of that mud puddle, and help educate those who have never had the opportunity to learn how to hike responsibly, especially with visitor numbers increasing year after year. I can only hope to help inspire others as others have inspired me to take care of this unique place, to protect it, and to treat it as we would our home.

That is why after a summer of countless black flies, rain-soaked socks, lots of sweat, and even some blood, I am returning for a second season as a summit steward. It’s the least I can do for the place that has given me, and so many others, so much.

A group shot of the 2018 summit stewards

2018 Summit Stewards


Michaela Dunn was a summit steward for three seasons.