Thursday, January 24, 2013

Challenges of Winter Caretaking at Johns Brook

By Brendan Wiltse


Johns Brook Lodge in Winter
My first experience with the camps the Adirondack Mountain Club owns on the Johns Brook Property was New Years 2005.  A friend reserved a space in Camp Peggy O’Brien last minute and invited several people along for a winter overnight.  We gathered in the Garden parking lot on the last day of December 2004 and prepared to haul our gear the 3.5 miles into Peggy O.  I would love to write that it was a beautiful sunny day and all went smoothly, but that wasn’t the case.  It rained so much I could swear the sled I was pulling was floating more often then sliding over snow. It was an incredible relief to arrive at a heated cabin, dry our gear, prepare a hearty meal, and enjoy an evening of relaxation and fun.

While staying at Peggy O, I wondered who took care of the building and how the heck the large barrel of “you know what” under the privy was changed out.  At that time, I never would have imagined I would one day work for the Adirondack Mountain Club and eventually be the person overseeing the operations of the entire Johns Brook Property.  I have been working there since 2009 and took over management in late-2011.  I spend 5 days a week on property from May to October and about 2 days a week the remainder of the year.  I’ve learned a lot about the operation and maintenance of the property since that first experience several years ago.
 
So how do those blue barrels under the privy, affectionately referred to as “honey buckets,” get changed?  They come up through the floor with a hoist, and then get gently rocked across the snow where they await airlifting.  Winter presents unique challenges; lids freeze, barrels deform, or “deposits” don’t make it in the “honey bucket"  When working with such substances one must keep a sense of humor.  I have often mused that I could write a book about the state of the American digestive system, based on my experiences with those “honey buckets.”

"Honey Bucket"
There is also the challenge of changing propane tanks in subzero temperatures.  Caps often freeze in place due to the many freeze-thaw cycles they experience in early winter.  No one prepared me for this.  I often travel the property with a blowtorch in hand to thaw locks and “honey buckets.” One day all the caps were frozen on; I couldn’t get a single one off.  While I admit I briefly considered the blowtorch, the mental image of 20 propane tanks going up in a huge ball of flames and the forest rangers finding nothing but a charred skeleton with blowtorch in hand wasn’t very appealing.  It did spark the idea of using hot water, then I thought to myself, “why the heck didn’t I think of this earlier and why didn’t anyone suggest it to me prior to sending me out here?”

I also have the pleasure of being in a position to help people in need.  Johns Brook Lodge often serves as a vital communication link during backcountry rescues in the Johns Brook Valley. I have a folder in my desk full of incident reports that staff have dealt with.  They range from sprained ankles to dislocated shoulders. Our staff and volunteers are occasionally called upon to assist the Forest Rangers in backcountry evacuations.  ADK takes traditional mountain hospitality to heart and is always willing to help a person in need. 

I am incredibly grateful to be in a position to spend a considerable amount of time in the backcountry.  The Johns Brook Property and surrounding wilderness mean so much to so many people; I am honored to be a steward of this land and the facilities on it.  The property gives people a chance to connect with nature and the closer people feel to nature the more likely they are to protect it, whether it’s the Adirondacks or their local park.  The Johns Brook Property is not operated to generate large profits; it is operated to fulfill the Adirondack Mountain Club’s mission of the protection and promotion of responsible recreational use of New York State wild lands and waters.  The revenue from the property helps support other mission oriented programs such as our conservation and advocacy department, education department, and the field programs department.

If you haven’t visited the camps on the Johns Brook Property before, you should.  Nowhere else can you stay in a heated cabin full of amenities in the heart of the High Peaks Wilderness.  I can guarantee you will have an experience to remember.  Hopefully that experience will help you connect with nature and lead you to become a steward of the land as well.

 Photo Credit: Seth Jones

Brendan Wiltse is the Adirondack Mountain Club's Johns Brook Property Coordinator.  He has worked for ADK since 2006 and is a former High Peaks Summit Steward.  Brendan has a B.S. in Field Biology from Paul Smith's College and is pursuing a PhD in Paleolimnology at Queen's University .  He enjoys a variety of outdoor activities that include skiing, hiking, bushwacking and photography.