The promise of a made-to-order hiking day with abundant sunshine, reasonable summer temperatures, and a light breeze convinced us to make our annual pilgrimage to the summit of Algonquin. What draws us to climb Algonquin at least once a year during the summer months is not to revel in the gorgeous views from the top – impressive as they may be – but rather to explore the unique flora that live on Algonquin’s open alpine summit. It’s those fragile plants with their delicate blooms and miniature size that elicit a sense of awe for the wonders of Mother Nature. Each time we visit Algonquin’s summit we see different plants in bloom and identify one or two that we hadn’t noticed before. It’s that thrill and excitement of discovery, like a child finding that wished-for gift under the tree on Christmas morning, that we yearn to experience.
The florae on the open Adirondack alpine peaks are arctic plants found elsewhere only on the tundra landscape of northern Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. Through a combination of environmental factors, geological history, and the quirks of nature, they manage to survive in the harsh environment of the high summits. Most of the plants are rare or endangered, and all of them are protected.
It’s particularly gratifying to see Algonquin’s summit covered in blankets of diverse plant communities, as that has not always been the case. During the 1960s and 1970s the Adirondack summits experienced a significant increase in hiker traffic. Unaware of the damage that walking on the alpine vegetation would cause, hikers were literally trampling the plants to death. Boots tore at the tundra, eventually eroding away the thin soils that supported the alpine plants. As hikers crisscrossed the alpine environment, taking their own route to the top, the summits were reduced to barren, grey, gravel paths, mostly devoid of plant life.
Most 46ers probably already know the story of how the barren mountaintops were transformed into the lush and thriving garden that we see on the alpine summits today. But it’s a success story that deserves to be repeated.
Dr. Edwin H. Ketchledge (46er #507) had been studying the degradation of the alpine environment of the High Peaks over the course of his 30 year career as a professor of ecology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. His research delineated general trail erosion and more specifically the deterioration of summit vegetation. With support from the United States Forest Service, other ecologists, as well as hiking and conservation organizations in the Adirondacks, he developed a restoration program for the alpine summits. The plan included shoring up the eroded sides of the trails above treeline and then planting grass seed in the eroded areas to provide a seedbed for the native plants to grow. For more than twenty years hundreds of volunteers, many of them 46ers, carried the raw materials to the open summits for the restoration project — small rocks to stabilize the eroded trail sides, and five pound packets of lime (to counteract the acidity of the mountain soil), grass seed, and fertilizer to plant among the bare gravel areas.
Crowberry: With small evergreen-like leaves, Crowberry forms mats on the summit rocks. It is also found on rocky lower summits.
Meadowsweet: This bush is common in the lowlands and is one of the larger alpine shrubs.
Over the course of several decades the grass grew. Mosses appeared and formed seedbeds for the pioneer plants (hardy species that are the first to appear in barren environments that have been damaged by natural or manmade causes) to take hold. The native plant communities slowly returned, and the non-native grasses died out. Today, hikers who climb to the top of the open alpine summits can attest to the remarkable success of Ketchledge’s experiment.
To protect the restoration work and prevent hikers from re-damaging the alpine plants, a number of groups including the Adirondack Nature Conservancy, Adirondack Mountain Club, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, 46ers, and others joined forces to establish and provide support for the Summit Stewardship Program. Since its inception in 1989 the program has placed trained educators on the summits of the peaks with alpine vegetation to conduct plant inventories and to educate hikers on how to help protect the rare and fragile natural wonders.
Heart-leaved paper birch: Named for the shape of its leaves, this miniature tree with reddish bark is found in the krummholz and alpine zones in northern forests.
Boott’s rattlesnakeroot: This is a globally rare plant that grows only on New York and New England summits. The plant was hiding among the grasses on Algonquin’s summit. The close-ups of the plant’s leaves and flower buds provide more detailed looks.
Mountain sandwort: This pioneer plant, which is a hardy species that is the first to colonize barren environments that have been disrupted, such as by fire or erosion, grows in the krummholz and alpine zones.
So, the next time you are on one of the alpine summits in the Adirondacks consider it a privilege to be hiking among living plants that only grow in a few places on this earth. If you encounter a Summit Steward ask him or her to identify some of the plants for you. And remember to do your part to protect the delicate, fragile alpine vegetation:
- Stay on the trails; follow the trail markers and paint blazes and rock cairns above treeline.
- Do the “rock walk.” Walk on solid rock wherever possible and avoid stepping on vegetation, soil, and gravel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9AJpxs2BEE
- Do not pick or remove any plants. Photos only, please. No souvenirs.
- Do not grab a clump of vegetation to help you as you climb.
- Do not camp above 4,000 feet.
For more information on Adirondack alpine plants and the Summit Stewardship Program see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvJN_hLIIlQ