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Duck Hole pond transformed by Irene into a muddy bog (Photos: Courtesy of Phil Brown, Adirodnack Explorer)
Duck Hole pond transformed by Irene into a muddy bog (Photos: Courtesy of Phil Brown, Adirodnack Explorer)

Irene carves up the Adirondack backcountry

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As we've been hearing, communities across the North Country are still reeling this morning from tropical storm Irene.

But for the first time, we're also starting to get a clearer picture of phenomenal damage done by this storm to the Adirondack backcountry.

Major landmarks like the dams at Duck Hole and Marcy Dam were wiped out. Massive rock and mudslides literally changed the faces of many of the Park's most iconic mountains.

As we head into the Labor Day Weekend, state officials say the Adirondacks' most popular wilderness areas are still too unstable, too dangerous, for hikers.

Brian Mann reports this morning from the eastern High Peaks Wilderness.

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Marcy Dam was also severely compromised, the footbridge washed away

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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In the days after Irene barreled through these mountains, videos like this one – posted by someone calling himself Tom C — began appearing on websites.

"Oh my God there's another one!" a woman screams.

The amateur movie shows John's Brook. The usually docile stream is transformed into pure fury, uprooting trees the size of Greek columns and dragging them away.

"The whole forest is falling down!" an onlooker exlaims.

Lt. Brian DuBay, a forest ranger who works in the High Peaks described the storm as "something like we’ve never seen before. The trails turned into brooks and rivers and [now] they’re ravines."

He says the popular hiking and camping area was just recovering from the heavy flooding that occurred last April and May.

"We’re coming out of a spring, and as you know that was a big spring.  And we had a lot of issues this spring with bridges and trails. This trumped anything we’ve seen. It came up so fast and crested within hours, but the damage was already done."

The Eastern High Peaks, the Dix and Giant Wilderness areas are closed to hikers at least through this weekend, but a handful of eyewitnesses have made it into the backcountry.

Phil Brown, editor of the Adirondack Explorer magazine, hiked to Duck Hole yesterday where a dam failed during the storm, transforming one of the Park’s prettiest ponds into a bog.

"It was shocking.  It was just like all the water had gone, just muck with green slime. It was kind of like a moonscape," said Brown.

DEC spokesman David Winchell said that Marcy Dam, another popular destination in the High Peaks, also failed.

"There was damage to the Marcy Pond dam and that’s slowly dewatering as well," he said.

Winchell says DEC officials have flown surveillance flights over the mountains  and Irene’s impact is breathtaking.

"It’s amazing. I think one of the things that really has people in disbelief is the amount of new slides that were created by this.  Some of them are just small slides but there are some extensive ones.  We did a helicopter fly-over and they literally had to stop counting because they couldn’t keep up with the number of numerous slides that are back there."

It seems miraculous that no one in the backcountry was injured or killed in this storm. But dozens of people were trapped for days at wilderness lodges and remote hotels. 

Darren Crippen is general manager of the Ausable Club, where roads and mountain trails were washed away.

"After probably about one O’clock on Sunday, whoever was here wasn’t leaving here…it was kind of a family atmosphere, we were all in it together," he recalled.

Tourists were also trapped at the Adirondack Lodge. Neil Woodworth with the Adirondack Mountain Club says they were finally able to leave yesterday.

"One lane of the Lodge road has now been replaced. Our thirty guests will be able to return to their homes and we can change the staff that we’ve had operating the Lodge for the last four days, give them some respite and bring in some new staff."

The Lodge will be closed this holiday weekend, as will the Mountain Club’s cabins on John's Brook. It’s still unclear how publicity from the storm and the closing of many popular hiking areas will affect the North Country’s economy. 

Wayne Feiling, a wilderness guide in Lake Placid, said his customers are nervous.

"You know they been watching the news. They’ve been seeing all the pictures of Vermont with the covered bridges dragged away and buildings undermined. And they’re concerned, justifiably."

Feiling said Irene has already forced him to cancel some rafting trips on the Upper Hudson, but he said he hopes to be back to normal operations as early as this weekend.

"A lot of outfitters including myself have canceled some trips because it's inappropriate for young kids and older peope, but my guess is that this weekend, by Saturday and Sunday [the river] will be at family levels again."

Indeed, much of the six million acre Adirondack Park was barely touched by Irene or is already back to normal.  The Mountain Club’s Neil Woodworth says he worries that potential visitors won’t get that message.

"Some of the public announcements about the condition of the Adirondacks has been damaging to places like Old Forge or Blue Mountain Lake or Cranberry Lake where trail conditions are fine, where you could have a normal Labor Day weekend."

But it seems clear that some of the Park’s most popular outdoor destinations will take a long time to recover from Irene. 

Katherine Reiss, owner of the High Falls Gorge in Wilmington, says her walkways, bridges and main building were severely undercut when the Ausable River surged. 

"I have about a foot more dirt and then my pillars will be without any ground under them on the back of my building. The erosion is that severe."

Reiss says volunteers are helping, but she doesn’t know when the Gorge will be able to reopen to visitors.

"We will not be able to do admissions this weekend. The property is not safe enough."

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