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Jack’s List of 50 Lessons Learned Leading Wilderness Ventures

September 13, 2010

Okay, I know you’ve been anxiously awaiting this. Here’s my first installment on my top-fifty list of “lessons learned leading 35 years of wilderness ventures.”

Disclaimer – I don’t claim that these are necessarily profound or original. They are what came to mind when recently, in preparation for a presentation titled: “20 Years of Adirondack Wilderness Expeditions,” I scanned a couple of hundred 35mm slides of the trips I led. It was only after I had provided the title and description of the presentation that I realized it was more like 35 years of leading Adirondack ventures and that I’m getting older than dirt.

Starting at number 50 – Drum roll please….

50. Some human-made features are more welcome in the wilderness than others. When it comes to Wilderness (with a capital W) I’m pretty much a purist. If a human-made feature doesn’t meet the legislated definition of Wilderness then it doesn’t conform and should be removed. I’m also a big believer in the Recreational Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) and that we (government in general and land mangers specifically) have an obligation to provide opportunities throughout the spectrum from extremely primitive and natural (no human elements e.g., no trails, outhouses, fireplaces, picnic tables etc.) to very developed (campgrounds with showers, electrical hook-ups, and dumping stations). Heck, there is even a spectrum of Wilderness from the intensively managed, relatively small Wilderness Areas of the northeast, frequently found to have many human-made features, to the incredibly large relatively untouched areas such as those you might find in Alaska.

Bridge in Adirondack Wilderness

There have been times however when I have appreciated certain human-made features. The ones I appreciate the most are probably bridges. There are places where, if the bridge hadn’t existed, I would have had to travel miles to find a place where I could safely cross the river. Generally speaking however I find human-made features detract from the experience rather than adding to it. What do I mean? Let’s take lean-tos, one of the most favored human-made features in my backyard, the Adirondacks as an example. I generally (i.e., not always) find them less than desirable. I find they tend to create a wilderness slum. There is usually more litter, more physical destruction of the surrounding environment, and way too frequently have more rodents hanging around than the NYC sewer. They generally create the antithesis of what I’m looking for in an outdoor experience. Having said that, there are times, like after a long hike in the pouring rain, I have been grateful for the roof and dry conditions found in one. Yes, I too can be found to be a hypocrite at times.

Bottom line: My 35 years of leading wilderness trips have convinced me that while some human-made features are occasionally welcome in the Wilderness, if in doubt, leave it out. If you want human-made features go somewhere other than wilderness.

Up until the late 1970s Garbage Pits existed adjacent to many Adirondack Lean-tos

To Go to # 49 Click Here

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Doug Garrand permalink
    September 13, 2010 8:27 pm


    Thanks for including me on your developing list. I would have to totally agree; there are very few man-made structures that I like to see when travelling ‘wilderness’. In fact, bridges are the only ones that come to mind; though I would add, the simpler the better. As you and I both know, and have experienced, I have walked across simple planks to the ‘veritable verazzano’ on the NLP trail. To add to the slum list; pit privies aka outhouses, very often become dumping grounds for garbage. Add those too! Enjoy your trip, and please, let’s get together when you get back!

  2. September 13, 2010 10:11 pm

    Great start, Jack! Enjoy Beirut and good luck with the next forty-eight.

    All the best from Bloomingdale,


  3. jkdrury permalink*
    September 14, 2010 1:55 pm

    Former student of mine , outstanding artist, and long time Assistant Forest Ranger Matt Burnett sent me this to share:
    ” Interestingly enough, both as a DEC employee of many years and a long time recreator in the Long Lake, St. Regis, Cold River and High Peaks Region, I find the opposite…at least in more remote areas. I have seen the lean-to slums, but think that most of the remote lean-tos concentrate, rather then encourage, impact. For instance take the NPT, most people that do this hop lean to to lean to. And most of them are well frequented and maintained. After Piseco, I had occasion to camp along a brook in a “lean-toless” stretch and found 10 fire rings (with garbage) scattered about 1/4 mile of the trail.

    At the risk of making so profound a generalization after one experience, I think that the decision to “not improve” the Cold river leantos will lead to a situation where people will squat camp along the river when they are gone. Lean-tos, at least in remote areas, concentrate and insulate impact.

    But hey, I’m in love with those (Cold River shelters, which I was introduced to during our practicum in 19930. All of the lean-tos on Long Lake itself get shit on by motorboat partiers. But then, so do the regular camp sites on long lake.”

    These are great comments. What are your thought.

  4. jkdrury permalink*
    September 14, 2010 1:59 pm

    Former student, Wilderness Instructor, author, lecturer, and extreme hiker Erik Schlimmer shared this, “I know you were limited on length but the fact that a cabin, lean-tos, signs, registers, and bridges are okay in the High Peaks Wilderness Area but a bear box is not okay is bureaucratic logic at its best.”

  5. Doug permalink
    September 14, 2010 4:45 pm

    I like firetowers myself, but I think you already knew that.
    What about Lake Colden?

    • jkdrury permalink*
      September 15, 2010 2:31 pm

      Thanks for the comment Doug. Yes, we’ve had lots of fun discussions about fire towers 🙂 Stay tuned for another of the lessons learned regarding them.

      Your question about Lake Colden is a great one. In my ideal wilderness it wouldn’t exist but if you notice in my essay, I mentioned the legislative definition of Wilderness. In the case of the Lake Colden Cabin, it is included in the State Land Master Plan. As a result I have no problem with it and feel it serves a valuable service.

  6. jkdrury permalink*
    September 17, 2010 10:49 am

    Matt Burnett provides a link that examines some thoughts consistent with my #50 lessons learned. You might like it:

  7. Ben Woodard permalink
    September 20, 2010 7:11 pm


    What a glorious lesson/ topic to start with. Comparing aceeptable human made structures in a wilderness (#49- what is a wilderness?) sounds a little like comparing religions. I see the objective of a lean to, outhouse, or designated camping site is to concentrate impact. Not all are equal. Bridges are for safety and comfort, making crossings easier. Fire towers were once used for communication, public relations, and spotting the occasional smoke. The interior ranger stations allow for maintenance, rescue, education, public relations, patrols, communication, etc. (You can see I am showing my bias). From my time as a Wilderness Ranger/ then Assistant Forest Ranger and Interior Caretaker the advantage of the public being able to find you makes the cabin more advantagous than the ability to traverse a wilderness area on a multi-day backcountry patrol. Ask me which I enjoy more – is of course the backcountry patrols.

    Putting in perspective how large the area is, number of users per season, topography, use, etc. changes variables. I was disappointed to find a single shampoo bottle on the tide while patrolling in Wrangell St. Elias while we would clean up whole garbage pits from lean tos, old leasee campsites, etc. in the Adirondacks. AK is not perfect either with oil test wells throughout the wilderness, among other “needed” or “traditional” uses.

    As everyone realizes you don’t have to travel by trail, take the bridge, use the outhouse, sleep in a lean to if you travel in the other 99% of the map. But, as humans, we like to take the path of least resistence rather the less traveled. However, as wilderness enthusiaists, we love to explore the new to us, the next mountain, pond, trailess area.

    So, I think if your experience is benefited by a bridge, fire tower, or lean to then that is your preference. Agencies that manage these lands hopefully take the subjective into consideration along with the scientific.

    • jkdrury permalink*
      September 21, 2010 9:43 am

      Hey Ben!
      Thanks for your wise comments. We now have three individuals that work in wildland management who have made great observations in this blog. One area I didn’t address at all in my original “lesson” is the use of facilities to assist in achieving management objectives. It is a complex issue but I guess my bottom line is that the use of providing certain man-made facilities is certainly appropriate for management purposes within a well defined management plan. What I don’t believe in is the idea of sacrificing certain areas/sites, by providing facilities (and attracting use to certain sites), in order to protect other areas. I think this is what Matt is suggesting in his comments. We have to find alternative management techniques so we don’t have to sacrifice anything. Does that mean we can’t have a spectrum of primitive campsites? No. I think we need to have a spectrum of primitive campsites. I just don’t believe we should have them deteriorate to the point that we think we are sacrificing wilderness standards in order to protect some other area within the same wilderness. I hope that I’m making sense here.
      Ben, Thanks again for a very insightful comment.

      • John Wood permalink
        September 21, 2010 1:13 pm

        Hi Jack,

        I have to also weigh in on this topic, as I agree with much of what Ben has said regarding interior headquarters and fire towers. They served a usefull, practical, management purpose. For example, I was at a recent ADK Trails Committee meeting, where a powerpoint presentation was made regarding the NLP trail, – highlighting the West Canada Lakes/Cedar Lakes section. Overgrown trails and beaver activity were present. I remember thinking to myself, what a difference there would be if the interior headquarters were still in the West Canada and Cedar Lakes. These stations were set up to house interior trail crews to work out of. The Cold River section with interior headquarters at Duck Hole and Shattuck Clearing are another good example. The trails, campsites and lean-tos in this area would be in better shape. I don’t view this as sacrificing wilderness standards. We used to do a better job of maintaining our backcountry recreational facilities. With the current fiscal situation and staffing, (i.e. no Wilderness or Assistant Forest Ranger program), it is only going to get worse.

      • jkdrury permalink*
        September 21, 2010 4:32 pm

        Thanks for the input John. It is wonderful that we are getting the input from so many people who work in the wildland management field for one reason or another. There is no doubt about it that things like the interior cabins made it (and still make it) easier for land management. Let’s face it, the real culprit here is funding. The state hasn’t had the funds to properly manage our wild areas for years (if ever). While I certainly believe that interior headquarters make management easier I have to lean on the side of wilderness purity. We could try to justify lots of things because they would make the land managers job easier but if the proper funding were available (a big IF) than I would argue that what makes the manager’s job easier is irrelevant. I think man-made facilities should be driven more by management objectives than convenience of the manager.
        Thanks again for your comment John.

  8. jim glover permalink
    September 22, 2010 11:00 am

    Most interesting, Jack. Only 49 more to go!

    In discussing human-made structures, it seems like you just HAVE to take into account the amount of use your wilderness gets . If your backcountry gets a certain level of use, then the “wilderness” nature of it has to be somewhat contrived anyway. Things like pit toilets, boardwalks, and (maybe) lean-tos may be compromises that minimize other impacts that might reduce the feeling of wildness even more.

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently in the Boundary Waters and Voyageurs NP of northern Minnesota. These are much like the ADKS in terms of geology and intensive use. There are no lean-tos, but designated campsites, steel food-storage containers (in Voyageurs), and pit toilets are used. It would be nice if these were not necessary, but they probably are. The wildness and ecological integrity there are remarkably intact considering the amount of use.

    • jkdrury permalink*
      September 22, 2010 11:17 am

      An interesting point Jim. I don’t disagree with it but as I’ve mentioned in some of my responses to other comments I think the man-made structures need to be considered as part of an overall management plan.
      Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  9. Bruce Hanat permalink
    October 19, 2010 9:34 pm

    I enjoy and value your comments.


  1. # 49 – Lessons Learned Leading 35 years of Wilderness Ventures «

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