The institution of a permit system at the Ausable Club’s Adirondack Mountain Reserve surprised and confused some hikers and would-be hikers. Many didn’t realize that third most popular High Peaks Wilderness Area access point, through the Club’s lands in the Upper Ausable Valley, was privately owned.
A similar situation holds at the Johns Brook Valley, another popular access point just northwest. That area is owned by the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), it faces similar parking challenges and is just as susceptible to a future permit system.
The Garden Trailhead parking lot, the second busiest trailhead in the Adirondacks, is on private property at the end of a private road. The first 1.3 miles of the road are owned by the town of Keene, the last .3 miles are private. The parking lot is on a deeded easement allowing parking to access the “forever wild” constitutionally protected Adirondack Forest Preserve to the south and west (to the east and north are private homes).
According to DEC “the easement was acquired in 1968 to address parking problems associated with increased recreational use in the Johns Brook Valley.” The parking lot (able to hold about 50 cars) was built in 1970 where a former vegetable garden had been. During the busiest parts of the year its almost impossible to get a parking spot at The Garden; the town of Keene typically operates a hiker shuttle from the larger parking lot at Marcy Field.
Some Johns Brook History
Johns Brook (the apostrophe fell away long ago) is said to have been named for John Gibbs who lived at (or at least owned) the spot where the brook enters the East Branch of the Ausable in about 1795 (about where the Mountaineer stands today in Keene Valley).
The trail from the Garden Parking Area to Mount Marcy, on which Johns Brook Lodge sits, is said to have been laid out by Ed Phelps, son of legendary Keene Valley guide Old Mountain Phelps. Known primarily as the Phelps Trail (but also called the Johns Brook or Northside Trail), the route also serves as the northern boundary of the Johns Brook Primitive Area. The Primitive Area is one of four DEC management units (the High Peaks Wilderness, Adirondack Canoe Route, and Ampersand Primitive Area are the others) that make up the High Peaks Wilderness Complex [UMP pdf].
Johns Brooks Lodge (JBL) sits on one of 17 parcels of private land enclosed by the High Peaks Wilderness Complex boundary (3,315 acres total), known as in-holdings. The state has rights of access to these parcels, and the Johns Brook Primitive Area serves as a 1.3 mile long right-of-way across state lands leading to 13 of these private parcels. The idea for an intensive recreational use area in the Johns Brook Valley was suggested by Robert Marshall in 1934. A similar conservation easement applies at the Ausable Club’s Adirondack Mountain Reserve, where the new permit system is in place.
JBL is 3.5 miles from the nearest road and provides access to some of the best hiking in the Northeast, offering access to Gothics, Armstrong, Big Slide and Upper and Lower Wolfjaw mountains. At 5.6 miles from the summit of Marcy, JBL is the mountain’s closest overnight accommodation.
It could be said that Johns Brook Lodge was the Adirondack Mountain Club’s (ADK) second project. The club had been founded in 1922 with the stated goals of making the state forest lands accessible to hikers and mountain climbers and building open shelters and permanent camps. In 1922 they launched their first project, the 134-mile long Northville Placid Trail, on which they built six lean-tos. The following year they received an offer from J. & J. Rogers Company, which had just logged the land along Johns Brook on the trail to Marcy. An ADK club newsletter announced in 1924 that “The main thing in the eye of the Executive Committee is to have a Club Lodge.”
J. J. Rogers company had a long history in the Keene area, and the company holds a large part of the responsibility for the development of the Upper Ausable Valley. The company was formed when brothers James, John, and Thomas Rogers joined a Dr. Palmer to mine Palmer Hill in the 1820s. They bought, expanded and built new forges beginning in 1837 and continued to expand by acquiring new mines, building new forges, and eventually acquired 250,000 acres of forest.
The First Annual Report of the Forest Commission in 1885 said the company was leaving the “country bare” by extensively logging it. In the process they dammed and diverted water, built a number of plank roads between facilities, and grew oats and hay to feed the 300 teams of horses and oxen used for transport. Among the roads the company built was the old tote road along the south side of Johns Brook Valley which they clear-cut.
The iron industry’s movement west to areas of cheaper labor (immigrants) and cheaper fuel (coal) combined with the use of pig iron and new processes put the company out of business in 1889. Over the next ten years James Rogers, grandson of one of the founders, established a pulp mill supplied by their spruce and balsam lands, and run by water power. In 1894 their paper mill, the first sulfate mill in the Champlain Valley, began operating.
To feed the Champlain Mill, the largest capacity mill in the Adirondack region, the Rogers Company logged the slopes of Giant and Green mountains, Mount Marcy, the northern end of Indian Pass, Whiteface, and Esther Mountain. It’s been estimated that the company clear-cut 8,000 acres a year for pulp. The ensuing spruce and fir shortage left the company without a source of wood pulp and their last log drive occurred in 1923; thereafter pulp logs were brought from Canada. Still, the move to paper carried the company into the 1950s when it was finally sold. A smaller mill on the Ausable River closed for good in 1971 due to lack of orders and the upcoming state requirement to limit pollution of the river.
The land the Rogers Company gave the Adirondack Mountain Club in 1923 had also been recently clear-cut for pulp. The Executive Committee decided that the location of their new lodge should be on the site of an old company office, which although closed, was the home of the old guide (and squatter) Mel Hathaway. Charles Brumley’s Guides of the Adirondacks, notes Hathaway had guided the Ausable Lakes until that area became part of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR) in 1887. Refusing to abide by AMR’s fish and game rules, he was evicted and moved to the old Rogers Company building on Johns Brook.
Hathaway spent 18 years where JBL now stands and was frequently visited by hikers, including Russell Carson, author of Peaks and People of the Adirondacks, who remembered spending “many evenings in his shack and listening to his wild tales.” “I remember,” Carson wrote in a letter to the Adirondack Museum in 1952, “he stuck to it that wolves and panthers were still in the Adirondacks and their calls could be heard at night in the Johns Brook Valley.”
Hathaway also claimed to tend the state’s highest elevation garden. After ADK took over he refused to move on from his squat, even when offered land elsewhere. His refusal to clear out of the building caused a construction delay. Eventually, or so Carson says, Hathaway was offered a payout to leave and he spent his remaining years living with his sister; he died in 1932 at the age of 84.
ADK Takes Over
With Hathaway gone, the old office razed, and a new stately cabin built, Johns Brook Lodge opened in the first week of July, 1925. The new cabin included an enormous covered porch with, thanks to the logging, outstanding views of the surrounding peaks that lasted into the 1960s. In 1929, ADK purchased two nearby camps Thistle-Dhu (“Thistle Do,” known by ADKers as “Winter Camp”) and Grace Camp (built as quarters for volunteers).
The State built the Johns Brook Interior Outpost (one of four in the High Peaks Wilderness) a half mile downstream from Johns Brook Lodge in 1948. After the Second World War the porch roof was removed and improvements were made, the last until the 1960s when much needed overhaul was made (another major overhaul was completed around 2010). In 1968, following a fire, Grace Camp was replaced and Winter Camp was replaced in 1989 (named Camp Peggy O’Brien). A small hut was built for volunteers in 1978, and in the early 1990s both the Winter Camp and Grace Camp were renovated. The JBL area was the first area where water bars were used to control trail runoff (in 1967).
Over the years there have been discussions over whether or not ADK should give or sell the JBL property to the state. In 1973-74 the NYS Conservation Department made a halfhearted attempt to acquire the in-holdings following adoption of the State Land Master Plan. The odds of that happening are slim. But ADK is more easily able to institute regulations pertaining to who uses their property, including any future permit system, than the State.
The JBL Master Plan addresses the issue like this:
“ADK’s presence in the Valley has always been a subject of some debate. There have actually been some efforts, however short and futile, to have ADK dispose of this property. The facts, as stated elsewhere in this document, indicate otherwise — JBL is not the source of any problem. ADK must capitalize upon its opportunity to serve and educate the public in the interior. The JBL Property has available 46 beds for rental and three lean-to’s. These beds, when occupied represent 46 people not erecting tent sites, fouling water and cutting trees for firewood. It is a fringe benefit that ADK can meet this need, and generate a modest surplus which is directed to our public service effort.”
Over the years supplying JBL has become less of a challenge as transportation shifted from pack, to mule, to snowmobile, and since 1984, to helicopter. This is usually a one-day effort during a weekday in late April or early May. Among the benefits of the airlifts, is the ability to fly out garbage and sewage.
Illustrations: Above, Johns Brook Lodge (photo courtesy ADK); below, a map of the Johns Brook Primitive Area included with the High Peaks Wilderness Complex UMP.
Sources: The May/June 2000 edition of Adirondac celebrated JBL with several articles including “Johns Brook Lodge: A Short History” by Bob Grimm. Other sources for this article include the High Peaks Wilderness Complex UMP, The Forest Preserve by Eleanor Brown, Guides of the Adirondacks by Charles Brumley, Barbara McMartin’s Great Forests of the Adirondacks, and the ADK’s JBL Master Plan.