Saturday, April 12, 2008

A different look at the Driveway trail

I would like to take a few moments to discuss one of the many unique features that the Pilot Knob Ridge Preserve (PKR), located on the eastside of Lake George, has. I feel the need to talk about this attribute because I believe that many people, especially first time PKR hikers, are surprise and feel disappointed when they see it. I did. I have even read some trail accounts that mention this man-made feature negatively. What I am talking about is a short section of the orange trail loop that includes the original driveway which leads up to the gazebo clearing. What I would like to suggest to the hiker who walks on this path is that this driveway, gravel and macadam in spots, is that the drive has many benefits and lessons for the hiker if one takes some time to think about them. The drive provides us with an existing hardened surface to hike, an educational opportunity for adults and children, a reminder of why we have access to this land in the first place, and an opportunity for people who want to hike, but find the rocky uneven trails painful on their knees, a somewhat less taxing path to the views at the gazebo.

When I first hiked PKR last spring I headed up from the kiosk, as everyone does, and when I reached the first intersection on the orange trail loop I went to the right instead of going straight. I was greeted with a nice hike through some stunning open woods along a slope with a couple of sharp switchbacks. This led me out to what looked like an abandoned gravel road. I thought that I missed a turn, but then caught sight of an orange trail marker when I looked uphill. As I started up, the road turned from gravel to asphalt and back again, and I felt a slight disappointment as I walked on it. I wanted to go for a walk on a nice nature trail, not some paved road (only a very short section) in the middle of the woods. Before long I arrived at the gazebo clearing and took a moment to take in the beautiful views of Lake George and the surrounding mountains. The feeling of disenchantment had not left me until I decided to hike the blue trail, soon forgetting about the walk on the driveway. When I was done and had been to the waterfalls and completed all the loops of the trail system I was thinking less of the drive and more of what this little gem of a preserve provided me with. The PKR trails afford me a couple of hours of quiet hiking through open woods with chances to enjoy scenic views and opportunities to see and hear Adirondack wildlife. I had a wonderful trip.

Fast forward to September and I was looking at the Lake George Land Conservancy’s (LGLC) web site and asked them if I could become a volunteer Preserve Steward at the PKR. They thankfully allowed me into the program and I started hiking the trails each weekend. That is when my attitude about the drive began to change. When I had my first meeting with my contact at the LGLC, I mentioned my disappointment at the drive being part of the trail system. The gentleman that I met with said they considered rerouting the trail, but decided not to, due to the lack of better options. As I became more knowledgeable about trail building and maintenance, I realized that it would not be environmentally responsible to reroute the trail when you have a hardened trail already in existence.

I started to ask myself questions like why create yet another thread up to the clearing that could potentially erode? For that matter instead of abandoning the drive, I thought why not just reclaim it and turn it into a nice little foot trail? Again that would be environmentally irresponsible as it really would be a waste of energy, material, and labor when nature will eventually reclaim the trail anyway. During my first few weekends hiking this part of the trail, I realized that nature was already removing the drive and if you look you will see examples of this all the way up the trail: frost heaves, water erosion, plants encroaching onto the road and roots buckling the pavement in spots, just to name a few. In fact there is one spot on one of the switchbacks where I may have to fix a section before the entire drive is washes out. This drive provides a lesson in the persistence and permanence of nature. A lesson that can be taught to youngsters who are visiting the PKR and offers them an example of how nature acts and changes things that we mean to be permanent. There is something to be said when you see a tree sprouting from a crack in the pavement. So this driveway provides us with an educational opportunity as to how nature becomes part of the reclamation process. An example of how nature is at times the best “reclaimer.”

Another feature that this driveway provides the hiker with is that it reminds us of why this little jewel hidden away in the southern Adirondacks is allowed to be used by the public in the first place. The story that I heard was that the high cost of the drive alerted the authorities that the people who were building it may be getting their funds from illegal sources. After an investigation, the house, drive and all the land were confiscated and put into a trust. In other words, a person who is hiking and enjoying this property today can be thankful for the existence of the driveway.

One last benefit the drive offers is that it provides people who have trouble on steep uneven trails with a short respite from the pounding that trails can give ones joints. This route up allows people who normally would not be able to enjoy a preserve like the PKR an opportunity to hike up and have lunch at the gazebo while they wonder at the spectacular views a short walk up a hill can offer.

For some hikers this driveway that may take the “nature” out of the nature hike for a short section of the trail system; however, it really provides a solid logical tread up to the clearing without the loss of labor or material, it offers an example of how nature acts on man made structures, it gives us an example of some of the thoughts that go into the reclamation of lands, it reminds us why we are allowed on this property in the first place, and it even provides those with bad wheels a route up so they can enjoy one of the best views in the southern Adirondacks. These thoughts are what make me view and think of this drive in a much more positive way.

If you are still turned off to walking on the driveway, you can go straight at the lower orange trail intersection and just head down from the gazebo using the same path and not do the orange trail loop…but do the loop, the walk along the slope is worth it. I have seen a lot of wildlife there.

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