As the head of the newly formed Northville-Placid Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, Tom Wemett has a lot of tasks he wants to accomplish. One of them is to repair the dams at Duck Hole in the High Peaks Wilderness.
The main dam at Duck Hole is a wooden and stone structure that was originally built by the Santa Clara Lumber Company in 1912. It was then improved and rebuilt in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Duck Hole is a desirable destination for many hikers, fishermen and even a few hardy paddlers who carry their canoes up from Henderson Lake in the southern High Peaks. The dam holds back the Cold River and has created a shallow 61-acre pond that is no more than 12 feet deep in spots.
If the Duck Hole dam were to fully deteriorate, this shallow pond would drain into the Cold River and revert to being a meadow.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
Along the northwestern shores of the picturesque pond are two lean-tos that sit back from the water at the back end of a meadow that is known for, among other things, being home to many snakes. Both lean-tos are a short walk to the main dam, where water spills into the rocky Cold River below.
The small pond is surrounded by several High Peaks: MacNaughton, Santanoni, Sawteeth and Seymour mountains. Duck Hole is also at the intersection of four trails: Bradley Pond Trail, Northville-Placid Trail, Henderson Lake Trail and the Ward Brook Trail. It is 6.9 miles from the nearest trailhead.
The main dam, a 12-foot-high, 110-foot-long structure, and its 62-foot-long spillway, has deteriorated slowly over the last several decades. DEC studies have determined the dam will likely continue to gradually fall apart, eventually draining the pond and returning the land behind it to a meadow. A bridge that once crossed the dam was removed in 2001.
But, to the chagrin of some Duck Hole aficionados, the structures are in serious need of repair and will eventually fall apart unless repaired. This bothers some people.
"There's a lot of people for it," said Bob Bates, an advocate for Duck Hole. "If it does go, it's going to leave a big hole."
As it stands now, there is little hope of saving Duck Hole unless a private group steps forward to do so. The DEC, which manages the land, likely doesn't have the manpower or funds to undertake such a project with the state struggling financially.
In 2004, a small group of outdoor enthusiasts started working together to try to save the dam, writing letters to the DEC on the subject and raising awareness to the area. Their efforts failed, however, and the subject was put on the backburner by members of the group.
But Wemett hopes to rekindle that spirit and eventually approach the DEC with a solution for saving the structure. Wemett says Duck Hole is an important part of the Northville-Placid trail corridor and is worthy of his chapter's attention.
"With my emphasis on the Northville-Placid Trail corridor ... I'm interested in doing something with it," Wemett said. "It's such a beautiful place."
Wemett said he knows it's a big task and it isn't his first priority in regard to the trail, but he believes it's one that can be accomplished. He said one of his goals is to hire someone at a "reasonable cost" to do an engineering study on the dam.
Wemett said he believes once such a study is done, there will be enough volunteers to get the actual work done and enough support for the project so that raising funds would be possible.
"I think we can raise any money that is necessary to buy the materials," Wemett said. "We've got the potential for a horse and wagon to haul the materials in. We do have the Ward Brook truck trail that goes right in there. You can't use a motorized vehicle but you can bring a horse. And I think you can put together the manpower."
One of the reasons that supporters of Duck Hole have hope the dams can be fixed is the example already set by a group called Lean-to Rescue. The volunteer group formed in 2004 and has repaired about 40 lean-tos in the Adirondack Park.
One of Lean-to Rescue's leaders is Paul Delucia, who said he doesn't believe his group would get too involved with repairs at the dam. But they would be interested in helping with the nearby lean-tos if DEC gave a directive to repair the lean-tos. He said his group wants to stay focused on its mission.
"I would be happy to work with anyone who is taking the lead on the project," Delucia said. "It wouldn't be me, and I don't know if anyone from our group would want to take on something that big."
He did say he has encountered a lot of support for fixing the dam.
"There is a lot of passion for fixing the dam at Duck Hole," Delucia said.
Delucia and Wemett both said one of the key parts of moving forward with any project to fix the dam would be for Duck Hole supporters to form a strong relationship with the DEC. In the past, some supporters have been confrontational with the DEC and this tactic hasn't worked.
"Some people have been very hard on the DEC," Delucia said. "Whoever took on (the Duck Hole project) would have to really be patient and really be willing to work with the DEC and soothe some of those wounds."
Plus, there are other complications. To repair the dam would require numerous approvals from state agencies. For one, the dam is situated in a wilderness area, where man-made dams are considered non-conforming. Such a project would require a public comment period and would likely have to be evaluated through the unit management planning process and get state Adirondack Park Agency approval.
The DEC declined to comment on this article other than to release a written statement.
"DEC has not committed to any plan of action regarding the dams on Duck Hole at this time," DEC spokesman Dave Winchell wrote. "Until DEC makes a determination regarding the management of the Duck Hole dam, no work will be allowed to be done on the dam, including any site preparation work."
The statement said the state would be doing an environmental assessment and cost benefit analysis for repairing the dam to determine if the dams should be replaced. All options and alternatives would be studied and the impacts on wildlife and fishery populations, recreational users and natural resources would be looked at. Plus, public input would be sought.
The DEC did not provide a timeline for when this would occur, although it has already been more than a decade since the High Peaks unit management plan outlined these directives.