The new bridge over the West Branch of the AuSable River on the Adirondack Loj Road was recently completed, ending a two-year reconstruction project after Tropical Storm Irene ripped it apart.
Less than a mile up the road is the Adirondack Mountain Club's (ADK's) Adirondak Loj, campground and High Peaks Information Center. It is home to the busiest trailhead in the Adirondack Park, leading hikers and backpackers to the heart of the High Peaks Wilderness Area and the most popular backcountry destinations in the state, including New York's tallest peak, Mount Marcy.
Typically in late summer, ADK hosts about 300 guests on the 640-acre property, including the Loj, lean-tos and campsites. Yet the club cut that to 30 as Hurricane Irene moved up the eastern seaboard during the final weekend in August 2011.
Adirondack Mountain Club Deputy Executive Director John Million and Adirondak Loj front desk supervisor Baylee Crowningshield. )Photo by Andy Flynn)
"We had talked to a lot of our guests prior to that weekend," said ADK Deputy Executive Director John Million. "Anyone who had a reservation, we had warned them about the possibility of the storm coming. We had a lot of reservations. For the last weekend in August, to only have 30 people was significant in the amount of people who weren't here because normally we would have a full house."
With fewer guests and an impending storm, it was still business as usual at the Adirondak Loj. By the time Irene reached the Adirondacks on Sunday, Aug. 28, it had been downgraded to a tropical storm, yet it was still dangerous. Flash flooding from Irene destroyed many roadways, bridges and buildings throughout the region.
"No one expected the devastation that came," Million said. "It was far beyond what we had even seen up here."
The storm ripped through the Catskills before it tore into the Adirondacks. Million was staying in the Catskills at the time.
"I actually got stuck in the Catskills for a day because there were road washouts there," Million said. "I was in contact with our folks here, and they let me know ... the bridge was washed out. As soon as I arrived in Lake Placid, I drove down to the bridge. I just couldn't believe my eyes. The 40-foot chasm on the outside of the bridge and the power of the water that had just stripped the pavement right down to the wooden understructure was awesome, not in the best way. It was just amazing, the power of nature."
Like other waterways out of the High Peaks, the West Branch of the AuSable River was extremely high that Sunday. The debris and the raging water scoured the riverbed and everything in its path, including the Adirondack Loj Road bridge.
"We were kind of lucky with the bridge because ... so much woody material - trees and branches and things - came down the river and sort of plugged up the hole under the bridge," Million said. "So most of the damage that we got from Irene was on either side of the bridge. It actually dug out about a 40-foot trench on the North Elba side of the bridge and maybe 20 to 30 feet on the Loj side of the bridge and literally stripped all of the pavement right off of the roadway."
Although undermined, the bridge was still standing when the flood waters receded.
"At some point that plug of branches and wood released, and that's what ended up down at the ski jumps at the bridge there," Million said.
Soon after ADK staffers discovered the bridge damage, town, county and state officials were on the scene making their assessments. The road belongs to the town of North Elba, and the bridge belongs to Essex County. The guests, on the other hand, were not able to leave.
"They were unable to get out by car until Thursday, so from Sunday to Thursday, the road was literally impassable," Million said. "Overall, the experience for the guests was kind of a good one because if you're going to get stuck somewhere, it's a great place to be. There was food. Luckily we didn't lose any power, so basically they had an extended four-day vacation on ADK."
The skeleton crew at the Loj grew as other staff members made it to the property by Monday, when the region awoke to see the damage. While cars couldn't cross the bridge, people could climb their way across the mangled wood, concrete and asphalt.
"There was plenty of help for the folks who did stay," Million said. "I've got to tip my hat to some of our staff people who drove in and parked at South Meadow Road and walked across what was remaining of the bridge to help out over the next few days. ... I was really kind of taken by how our people here, particularly the folks who live on property, all pulled together and made the guests comfortable. Literally they were on duty 24 hours for the next four or five days. In particular, one seasonal person who worked at our front desk, boy, she was on the phones nonstop."
With the quick response from the county and the town, one lane of the bridge was open by Thursday. By the time ADK's guests were able to leave, Million said there were few complaints.
"They had the whole place to themselves, they were all in it together, and they knew there was no alternative, so they just said, 'I'm going to hike Mount Jo every day. We've got the canoes and kayaks to ourselves. We've got Heart Lake to ourselves.' I was really impressed that people made the best of a bad situation," Million said.
Although the bridge was temporarily fixed, ADK did not open its property to the public until the following Thursday, Sept. 8.
The state had closed all the trails in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness after Irene, including Labor Day, which is typically one of the busiest weekends of the year for the Adirondak Loj trailhead. The storm caused widespread blowdown, landslides and washouts and destroyed the bridge over Marcy Dam, a 2-mile hike from the Loj.
"It didn't make any sense to bring people to Heart Lake if they couldn't go off property," Million said.
The damage to the backcountry - and the well-publicized temporary closure of the High Peaks - gave many hikers and campers a reason to go elsewhere for their outdoor recreation. Things didn't really get back to normal at the Loj until the following spring.
"And then people wanted to see what had happened and how had the landscape changed," Million said. "We had a number of new slides. Many of the streambeds were changed. And, of course, there was damage out to Marcy Dam and that bridge was out. It definitely took the wind out of everybody's sails for that fall as far as visitation of the High Peaks."
Springtime became a time for rediscovery. The Marcy Dam trail was rerouted, and ADK's professional trail crew built a new bridge during the summer of 2012 just downstream from the old Marcy Dam bridge.
"By the midsummer, the hiking had returned to pretty much normal," Million said.
With a new bridge over the West Branch of the AuSable River, and another bridge replaced over North Meadow Brook on the Adirondack Loj Road in October 2011, it looks as though ADK's bridge woes are over for now.
"It's amazing how the natural environment can rebound from something like that," Million said.