© 2024 WRVO Public Media
NPR News for Central New York
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jonathan Zaharek on the Campbell Conversations

Ways To Subscribe
Writer and photographer Jonathan Zaharek
provided photo
Writer and photographer Jonathan Zaharek

New York's Adirondack Mountains are a precious resource, and within them is the High Peaks wilderness area. This week, Grant Reeher talks with writer and photographer Jonathan Zaharek, who has written a new guidebook on the High Peaks, called "Hiking the Adirondack 46 High Peaks: A Guide to the Region's High Peaks."

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. Well, spring has sprung in upstate New York, and a couple days have even felt like summer. On this program, we sometimes like to take breaks from politics and the dim news of the world. So today we're going to discuss the Adirondack Mountains and hiking in them. My guest is Jonathan Zaharek. He's a writer and a photographer and a deep devotee of the mountains. And he's written a new Falcon guidebook to them titled “Hiking the Adirondack 46 High Peaks.” Jonathan, welcome to the program.

Jonathan Zaharek: All right. Thanks for having me.

GR: You bet. Well, we're glad you could be here. And we'll talk about the mountains themselves and the book first. And then we'll get into some of your experiences in the mountains, as well as some broader issues. But first, I just want to say I have, read and used a lot of hiking guides, and I thought this one was particularly well done. So, kudos to you and to the guides for that. So really nice work. So let me just start with something very basic here. What marks the 46 High Peaks as being in a certain group? How do you qualify if you're a peak? How do you get to be a high peak?

JZ: I understand okay. Yeah, right. Yeah. So the 46 High Peaks is kind of synonymous with the other high peaks scattered around the northeastern United States. So all in all, there's 111, peaks that rise 4000ft or higher in elevation and so New York state has 48, two in the Catskills and 46 in the Adirondack Mountains, which would be the 46 High Peaks the most sought after mountains there in New York state.

GR: Nice.

JZ: What classifies them as a high peak is pretty much the day elevation above sea level.

GR: I gotcha. Okay. And, and you mentioned the two that are down the Catskills they're not part of the 46. And so. So. Right. Yeah. Right. Okay. And now I understand that there is it a formal or an informal club of people who have hiked all 46?

JZ: Sure. You know, it's started out certainly more formal. Back when, you know, in the early 1900s, because it was very few people. But since then, the popularity has caused it to be a little bit more, informal. There are many people who don't even, you know, you can be a 46er. That's what it's called when you finish. And you don't have to, say, you know, you don't have to actually submit something that you did. You know, some people don't. But if you wanted to, there is a formal process which is not nearly as extensive now as it used to be.

GR: I see okay. Yeah, I've got a I've got a neighbor of mine up the street who, who's a 46er. And so he's, I see him out training in the winter and he's walking around with a backpack on his back. So, you're a photographer and you're a writer. the pictures in the book, I have to say, they're plentiful, first of all. And they're, absolutely beautiful. Are they yours?

JZ: They are, almost, I I'd say there's maybe only 2 or 3 images in there that aren't mine, that are sourced from other people. But, yeah, most of them are mine. And, I'm honestly, I was very, very excited to be able to contribute the photography more than just the writing as well.

GR: Yeah, they're really, really striking. And I have to say again, I guess I'm going to be your chief salesman today. But the book is the book is worth it for the pictures. Even setting aside the helpful guide. Do you have a separate book or a place where people can see your photography in and of itself?

JZ: Absolutely. I don't have a physical photo book yet. I'm actually working on that. Maybe to release, next year, but as of right now, I do have a full-time website that people can, can search at is, jonathanzphotography.com. And Jonathan is spelled J-O-N-A-T-H-A-N. And, and you can just find my website, my portfolio online to see Adirondack galore of all photography. That's all that's pretty much there. even though I've traveled and photographed other places, the Adirondacks are my bread and butter.

GR: So one question on those pictures, then, now that I know that they're all yours. there are quite a few, from the tops of the mountains at sunset, at sunrise. You even got some pictures at night. Some spectacular pictures of the stars in the night sky. So that means that you're doing a lot of coming down and going up these mountains in the dark, right? Is that right?

JZ: You know, I guess one way to put it, and this might make more sense. I was a photographer first, then a hiker second. And so I always brought my camera with me when I was on these hikes. And some of these hikes are extensive enough that whether you like it or not, you're either going to be on top of sunrise or at sunset, or starting your hikes in the dark or ending in the dark, you know? So it was always nice to have my camera with me and photograph as I went along.

GR: I'm glad you did. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with the writer and photographer Jonathan Zaharek, and we're discussing his new guidebook on the Adirondacks titled “Hiking the Adirondack 46 High Peaks.” So, some questions about the mountains. I have read concerns in recent years. I guess they go back a ways, but, that some of the trail's getting too much foot traffic and too many people on them. Do you have do you have observations about that in your experience on the trails or, or thoughts about that that you could share?

JZ: Sure. Yeah. So I, I'm somewhat new to the area. When you look at the whole spectrum of time that people have been hiking. I would say I've been hiking them for about the last ten years or so. And in that short time frame, I have seen the, the influx of people and how trails have certainly changed where I do remember certain areas being a single track, and then now it's like out of nowhere, it's predominantly rocks and mud in so many areas. And so I, I have and now that I live in that area, I have certainly seen the influx of people and the negative environmental impacts it has had. And I would say and from my stance, the, the influx of people isn't so much the problem as it is the infrastructure that's in place and the people in charge of the infrastructure and how fast or slow, things move when it comes to rules and regulations and limitations, because what you're doing is you're combating pretty much the constitution of the Adirondack Park, which is this forever wild, not building upon the land, which means there are certain things you are limited to when it comes to actual trail building. And then there's underfunding. and then there's just the process that it takes to, to work on things. And so we might have the foot traffic, and it looks like, I mean, it feels like a national park sometimes, but we have state funding, right? We're not a national park. And so it's it's the balance is very, it's very imbalanced. And so we're playing a lot of catch up, and you're really just trying to figure out what to do and that, has certainly come at the expense, the, the expense of some freedom, I guess, with that land.

GR: Yeah. The, I wanted to ask you more specifically about it. there's a large state park in the center of Maine, Baxter State Park. I don't know if you've ever been there or not, but I many years ago, I went there a few times, and it's the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi. I guess the Adirondack Wilderness area is the second largest. And, what they do is they limit the number of people that can come even into the park, forgetting about a particular trail, any given day. Do you think there's any discussion or movement toward trying to do something like that in the High Peaks?

JZ: Yeah. So the High Peaks Wilderness, is the second. And, obviously there's more wilderness zones within the Adirondack Park. So when you combine all the wilderness, it's I don't even know how many more times bigger than Baxter. But most people are going there. Most people are going to the High Peaks Wilderness. And so when you compare that to Baxter, Baxter, I believe, has, kind of written in it that if you are a resident of Maine, you are given Baxter State Park pretty much to you as a right whereas if you're not, then you pretty much are at the mercy of like first come, first serve. And so I would say that how the Adirondack Constitution, I guess because it was, I believe I think it was started in 1892, when that started, they didn't necessarily have an idea of what it would be like today. And so there's a lot of things built upon that. And so we're kind of at the mercy of New York state first of all, just how they do things, because it's a huge state, the dichotomy of populations. And the way politics are is it's very diverse and it's harder because we have more people coming into our park and Baxter.

GR: Yeah, much more remote.

JZ: Much, much more, I believe I think it was in 2021, New York state, the DEC, approximately 72 million people went to the Adirondack Park or through it in some way. So whether they were driving through it or whatever, and that obviously could be repeating people but there was approximately and I don't know how they calculated it, but around 72 million people, which is actually insane, because Maine, it's way up there. So I feel like it's easier for them to kind of restrict the flow, and the basis of it and how it was formed and how it's regulated is already different. So people aren't going to complain. I respect Baxter, I love Baxter, I've hiked there many times. And, I get it. And it's like, if I can't get a spot, I can't get in. I don't I don't blame them. I, you know, I blame myself. You know, I think here, though, it's different because you're starting with something that's already there and then you're taking it away.

GR: Exactly. Yes. It would be hard. Well, another question I had to ask you about the mountains and the park area too, is I've also read that the park, and the state are both concerned to some extent that the visitors to the Adirondacks are not as diverse as the state itself. You mentioned diversity just a minute ago, and there's been some efforts to do more outreach and change on that. I think there was even an office established, a, a director of, of of basically diversity for the Adirondacks. I’m just curious from your perspective, being out on the trails in the last ten years, have the has the population gotten more diverse, or is it, you know, eight gazillion Jonathan Zaharek’s out there. What are you seeing?

JZ: You know, I think there's a lot of people, like we have a lot of Canadians. Right. And there's I mean, there's the whole northeast in general isn't that diverse of a region of the United States. And so probably like 75% of the people hiking in our area are from within a neighboring state or neighboring cities. So automatically right off the bat, when you bring more people in, you're at the mercy of how diverse the cities and states are just surrounding New York, which already at the end of the day, isn't too much but when it comes to the types of people actually out there, I will say there's been an influx of people who might have a passion for the outdoors, but they might be getting in over their heads about it. And so there's a lot more unprepared people, a lot of people who think, oh, these are just hills, you know, it's New York state. It's, you know, it's not the big deal. I'm going to get into hiking. And it's a great way to get into hiking, because you can't get in the hiking without hiking. I mean, it's a great way to learn mistakes, and it's a great way to learn how to do things right. Because I say, if you can hike in the Adirondacks, you can hike anywhere and I think there's a lot of truth to that, depending on how you actually take it. But I do think there's also a way that the people who live there and the people who are in charge of helping people and education and all these other things, it's we're also, kind of we have our own responsibility everyone has their own responsibility, but everyone's playing a different key, a different part. And it's about making sure that people are properly educated, you know, because we want people to come in. It's free. It's public land. We don't want to restrict access, but sometimes that might be necessary for the, you know, for the, for the, for the safety of it.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with the writer, photographer and hardcore hiker Jonathan Zaharek. And we've been discussing the Adirondack Mountains and his new guidebook titled “Hiking the Adirondack 46 High Peaks.” So Jonathan, you're kind of an unusual guy. Let me just summarize some of your physical accomplishments in the Adirondacks. You've logged over 4000 miles hiking there. You've done 11 complete rounds of the entire 46 peaks, accumulating them all up 11 times. Uou've done three winter rounds of that. You've done something called the Red Line in the summer, and the winter. And you've done a solo Bob Marshall traverse in both the summer and the winter. And you've also hiked 25 peaks in 25 hours. Now, I don't know what some of those things are, but I am convinced from all that that, you're a bit of a fanatic in these mountains. And that's probably a good thing.

JZ: Yeah, it’s very passion-driven.

GR: Yeah, I can see that. So. So let me ask you some questions. Based on your experience on this land. First of all, what is the most difficult of the 46 peaks to hike and why?

JZ: This is a great question, and I wish it was a clear-cut answer, but I'm really I'm really I, I, I'm asked this question quite a bit. I think a lot of it has to do with whether, how remote it is or how technical it can be. What I tell people the final boss of a high peak is, I say Allen and I say Allen Mountain, for multiple reasons. Why? Now, Allen isn't very technical, but it does have technicalities to it. When I say technical, I mean there might be scrambling hands-on. It's not just a dirt trail. I would say Allen Mountain because it is the most remote pretty much from like the access road. Everything from as the crow flies, singular high peak in all of the northeastern United States. So it's almost 20 miles to go, car to car, round trip for this thing. So it's almost ten miles, one way out into the wilderness. And so the first thing that you have to conquer is the distance. You have to have the distance. And then half of the mountain, half of that trail isn't even marked. So you have to have good trail judgment. You have to understand where you're going. You have to be able to read your map and know what turns to take and where to go, because it's not all marked. There's plenty of mud, river crossings. And then once you actually get to the ascent of the mountain, there's slides, rock slides that you have to climb that are sometimes very slimy. And so there's a lot of things that could, you know, a lot of precarious situations if you're not careful. There have been rescues on that mountain, and there are other mountains that are more dangerous weather-wise. But I think Allen is like, you need to if you're going to go out there, go with someone who's been, and don't make that your first high peak or it's going to it might be a really, really bad time for you.

GR: Of all of the 46, what's your personal favorite?

JZ: I, I kind of have two, I think, I'll start with kind of like the better view. I personally think my favorite view of any high peak is Basin Mountain. And, I mean, I just think it has the best panoramic view of all the major peaks, both front and back. And then I would say for sentimentality purposes, it would be Algonquin, which is the second-highest peak. If I could only hike one mountain for the rest of my life, it would probably be Algonquin, because it's the second tallest. It's very short. It's like 3.7 miles. It's very steep, but it's short and sweet right from the main hiking trail hub, and it's spectacular. Any season, any time, any weather.

GR: It's funny, we have something in common because that was the one I would pick as my favorite. Although I don't have the extensive experience of all of them that you do. What is I listed all these things at the when we came in from the break of all these, some of them sort of sound crazy. 25 peaks, 25 hours. But what's the most challenging thing that you've ever done as a hiker in these mountains?

JZ: Yeah. You know, I would say the 25 peaks thing. And I know they get probably a majority of the people listening to this probably might not really grasp grasp it. and I would say, like there was a fundraiser that I was participating in a few years back, and the original goal was to do 25 high peaks in under 24 hours, which would have broken the record at that time but I got a little bit too far behind schedule. But still went over the 25-hour mark straight nonstop. And so that was like pretty much a single day, if you look at it really as a single day, continuously, nonstop. It was around 57 miles, and around 28,000ft of climbing, which is almost the height of Everest. So I Everest, you know, from sea level. but, yeah. So it's like things like that. a lot of it's just passion driven and it's like, I think a lot of people look at the things that they want to accomplish, because again, accomplishments are in, the eye of the beholder, right? Because someone doing one round of the 46, they could take several years. And once they finish it, they like I congratulate them because it's like to them, I understand how big of a deal that is for them. For me, it might be a lot easier now at this point. and that's okay because again, it's in the eye of the beholder in a way. And so I think a lot of it is passion-driven. And so, these challenges are not there are not doing them just for accolades like I do them, because it's like I want to go out there and experience this place. For example, the red line, which you mentioned is every mile of every single trail in all of High Peaks Wilderness, which is well over 300 miles. And by the time you finish that, you have done 6 or 700 miles. You have to go to and from places multiple times to go get all these miscellaneous trails that people don't hike for months at a time, in certain times of the year.

GR: Wow. So was there ever a time and all your experiences where you felt in danger of your life, or that something serious could go wrong?

JZ: Yeah, there were two. I can be brief at these. The first time was actually when I had little to no experience with winter hiking, and I thought I was. It was the classic I thought I was better than I really was, and went and put myself in a situation that probably wasn't the smartest, but, I was pretty much like it was I got first-degree frostbite. It was zero visibility. And I went up to the summit of Algonquin, on the coldest day of one winter with incredible winds. And, it was around 75 below zero with the wind chill. And, it was a very terrifying experience. I couldn't I couldn't even use my goggles. And so that was that's something that I reflect on frequently and then the other thing is I've had, I don't want to go because I could have a whole conversation about this, but I definitely have had some very, terrifying, kind of scary things to happen to me. I guess you could consider a wildlife, by myself out in wilderness areas. kind of out north near that Allen mountain that I mentioned. You know, I've had some very, very unexplained things happen to me, like, you know, rocks being thrown at me and trees getting ripped down, and actually feeling like I'm not even joking, like I was going to die. Like, I actually, like, had my S.O.S. beacon ready to go and everything. I was terrified, big things pacing you in the woods. It's, you know, even though they're probably deer or bear or, but there's just very it's it can be eerie at night in that area sometimes.

GR: Yeah. We've all seen the Blair Witch Project. If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. And my guest is the writer and photographer Jonathan Zaharek. So I wanted to ask you, it's obvious from your writing that you have, some kind of, special spiritual experiences when when you're hiking in the mountains and, and I've had those experiences as well. So I'm very curious to hear more about those kinds of experiences for you. What, you know, what are the special things that, that, that or the, that you're experiencing there? Where do you think they come from? What do they mean? Just tell us a little bit about that.

JZ: Sure. So I think the first thing that I know it is every single time I go out somewhere, most of that, most of the time, I've already been there. And so the more I go out into the same place over and over again, I start to compound my experiences, my memories, the way that I've seen it, just how you might enjoy the same thing with a friend over and over again. You keep doing that same thing and you start recounting memories. So from a personal perspective, just being able to take people to other places or go to the same mountain at a different time, I start compounding all these sentimental memories. Because memories aren't planned, right? Memories are things that we have to go and we do and we don't. We don't expect them. and so there's just a lot of, sentimentality for myself personally, and even that didn't exist prior to me hiking in the Adirondacks. But I would say since then, what I've kind of found even to be more profound and you did say, you know, spiritual and I think I believe in creation, and I see these mountains and I like and I kind of almost feel like I'm on a similar, a similar spectrum with them that the, the, the entity who created the mountains may have also created me. And so I almost in a way, I guess you could say you feel one with them in a way, but I would just say, like, I feel like I can actually build a relationship kind of with, with, I guess you could say God in this way and then the creation and then myself, as well as a creation, with a conscience and but the mountains are also kind of being subdued and immovable, and it's just this idea of nature and just like, I don't know, it's just such a unique if for anyone who experiences the outdoors on any spiritual level, will probably feel this in some way and just the grandeur and it's like, wow, how small am I? And like, how great is this? But it's like they stand and they are not moved by time yet. Even though I might have a conscience, I am still this like the mountains let me be here, you know, and, like I'm at the mercy of them, right? I and I like to say I don't use the word conquered when it comes to these, these mountains, because they aren't something to be conquered. The only thing to be conquered is yourself and the journey, you know? So that's my biggest takeaway and how I experience them.

GR: That's a good way to put it. For me, I was curious if you've had this there there are a couple particular moments that kind of were more powerful than others, and I don't really have a good I don't have a good reason of for myself of explaining why it was then, you know, do you have you had that where you was like like, you know, something you just something is much more powerful than the usual feeling of being in these mountains and that's magnificence?

JZ: Yeah, yeah, I think I think a lot of it comes down to my, my personal relationship, with, with God in this way, because I'll go out a lot of times solo. And what I'll do is I'll just I'll just communicate. I'll just I'll just talk. I'll just I'll just speak. I'll kind of almost be in a prayer like state and just, kind of just in the silence. And a lot of the time that comes to reflection on who, who are, what are the things that I might be going through my trials and tribulations. And a lot of people will say, I'm going to go into the woods to to leave that stuff behind me. But with my mental state going into the woods, I'm bringing the outside world, like with me. Like I can't just ignore it and go on there because I'm going to have these thoughts, I'm going to have these things and it's a great time for me to just reflect. And there are certainly been times where, I'll kind of just stop and get on my knees, like in a beautiful moment, and I'll just like, I'll just, I don't I'll just be overwhelmed, like with like, with fear, but, like, in a good way. and just kind of like this contriteness and just being like, wow, this is like, what an experience. Like, I get to be here and it's like, why am I so concerned? Why am I so worried? and all these other things. So I do think it's a great opportunity for people to, to experience those things and, on a personal level as well and it's a great time to develop those relationships with others, too, who might be like-minded.

GR: Yeah. No, I think you're making a good point there. So, more personal question. You know, I'm I'm looking at you. You're obviously a young guy. How did the, how did you and the guidebook come together? You seem very young to have written a guidebook, so congratulations on that. But. Yeah. So how did this how did this happen?

JZ: Yeah. You know, it's very providential. I, I also think it's another, another way to kind of put it, I mean, there's providence, but there's also like, what, what you put in, like, you'll kind of get that back in a way. And so my efforts in creating my photography, kind of publicly and my, my YouTube channel and putting up videography kind of becoming a, I guess you could say this kind of known entity, I guess, within the region and pretty much just trying to exercise, my passion and hope that it inspires other people had, kind of caught the attention of Falcon guides, and they were seeking an author for a guidebook of this, these mountains, which they have yet to do. And so I got an email from them one day, basically asking if there was something that I would consider. So they came to me about it, and I was 24 at the time. I'm 27 now. And, they were looking for someone who was younger, who had a good modern perspective on the mountains, who were in them all the time. And you had photography and you had a social, personal engagement. And, I mean, I fit that bill. And I thought about it, and I was like this to me, this is a way that I can utilize my love and passion for these mountains, even though I was not born and raised in them. I'm not a, you know, a legitimate local by any means, and I'm not claiming to be, but I still feel that they're giving me a voice and I felt confident enough that I would be able to do it justice because I've been able to develop relationships with these people who have been there for generations, and I've been able to get the, the, the lens and the perspective of both worlds. And, you know, I had a lot of people help me in this writing with like, hey, what do you think of this? You know, I got a lot of input from people who I respect, and I didn't just want to throw my own words out there and just, you know, you're like, I wanted to make sure that it was done well. And it being a first edition, like, I didn't write, I haven't written anything before this. And so it was certainly, a feat.

GR: Well, it first of all, your passion comes through in the book loud and clear, and it's very well done. So you should feel very good about it. We only got about 30 seconds left. I got one last question for you. So you got a sort of like the lightning round. But for the newbies listening who now have had their appetite whetted, what's the most important single piece of advice you would tell them?

JZ: Enjoy the journey. It will be harder than you probably think, but make sure you prepare, do your research, pick up one of my guidebooks and, just enjoy it, you know, enjoy it.

GR: Great. That was Jonathan Zaharek. And again, his new book, which really is splendid, is titled “Hiking the Adirondack 46 High Peaks.” Jonathan, it's been a pleasure talking to you and makes me feel good about the park and the future of it. So thanks again for taking the time to talk with me.

JZ: Yeah, no, thank you.

GR: You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.