Lessons, laughter and love: Peter Fish and the Adirondacks

Peter Fish doesn't know how to stop being Peter Fish.

Between jokes that would keep any well-intentioned interviewer on his toes — "What brought you to the Adirondacks?" (Answer: "A car") — he spoke of his affinity for the Adirondacks. Something here grabbed a hold of him more than 50 years ago and never let go. He likes open summits, the islands of rock in the High Peaks that, as he put it, "make you feel like you're on a mountain." But there's more to it than that. Peter isn't a peak-bagging junky, hitting the trail just to tally big miles and big elevation gains. During his time working as a forest ranger with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, he helped craft new regulations that literally changed the character of some of the most heavily trodden trails in the Adirondacks.

Peter didn't do it alone, but it isn't inaccurate to say he made the High Peaks a better place, for both the mountains and for those who visit them. And to be fair, he did bag a lot of peaks along the way. He climbed the 46 High Peaks — those are the tallest in the Adirondacks— within a year of moving to the region, and said he stopped counting how many times he's climbed the highest mountain, the 5,344-foot Mount Marcy, when he got to 777. That's incredible.

Peter retired from the DEC in 1998, kind of. He's still out on the trails, sometimes in a kilt, and if you didn't know any better you'd think he was still on the job.

"I don't know how to see a log that's across the trail and not cut it away," Peter said. "I've got one waiting for me on Baxter as we speak. Tomorrow, I'll get it."

Retired DEC forest ranger Peter Fish has climbed Mount Marcy more than 777 times.

The beginning

Peter was born in Rochester and grew up in Geneseo. He went to college in Hartford, Connecticut. While there he joined some friends in a winter climb up Monadnok Mountain, a 3,165-foot peak in southern New Hampshire.

"It's a dinky mountain but it had all of the attributes of a big one," Peter said. "It was a barren rock summit, the wind blew and the snow was deep. I was hooked."

It's hard not to fall in love with those landscapes — they're a stage for stunning views, but they're also difficult to reach. That last part didn't bother Peter, who started making regular trips to the White Mountains. Then he discovered Mount Marcy on a New York state map, and he decided he had to climb it. On July 4, 1959 he did just that, and frequent visits to the area soon followed.

Peter's path became more defined when he took a DEC forest ranger job in the Catskills in 1969. These days, local papers in the Adirondacks run regular reports about daring, cliff-hanging rescues performed by DEC forest rangers. Things were different in the 1960s. Rangers were primarily around to fight forest fires, not to educate or rescue hikers.

"I was the only ranger down there who hiked," Peter said. "They had a truck, and they held it to the road with their body weight."

Adirondak Loj Road is the gateway to many hikes in the Eastern High Peaks, including the shortest route to Mount Marcy.

Into the Adirondacks

Peter always had his eyes trained on the state's northern highlands, so he put his name in for a job in the Adirondacks. When he was offered a new "wilderness forest ranger" position in the High Peaks, he took it and moved to the region with his wife, Ann.

Peter walked into a mess. The forest was littered with trash, the trails were widened by hiker traffic and the alpine vegetation — the low-growing tundra plants that only live on the highest mountains in the Adirondacks — was being trampled and was in danger of getting wiped out.

And then there was the camping situation. Peter described a free-for-all scene in which tents lined popular trails, like the Mount Van Hoevenberg trail up Marcy, and hugged shorelines and waterways.

"In '76 Marcy Dam was called Day-Glo City because there were tents everywhere," Peter said. "You just saw color all the way around the pond."

In Peter's mind that had to change, so he set out to change it. He crafted and got passed a new regulation which forbade camping within 150 feet of a waterbody or trail except at DEC-designated campsites. Rules are meaningless without enforcement, so that was the next step.

Peter likes to joke around with people, but there is also a serious side to him that's firmly rooted in conviction. He doesn't prescribe to an authoritarian approach and instead favors education, and he used that to get his message into hikers' heads.

To enforce backcountry regulations, Peter would tell people to correct their wrongdoings and explain why what they did was bad for the forest and for the experience of other hikers. If they didn't comply, he'd threaten to hike them out of the woods and into a courtroom, where they'd be fined. That usually worked. His approach was as simple as it was fair: Give people a chance to learn from their mistakes and they'll become better citizens who don't resent the role of forest rangers. The funny thing is, it worked. Garbage is a rare sight in the High Peaks, most camping is confined to specific areas and the trails look better than they did 40 years ago.

"I felt my role was education, and law enforcement is education," Peter said. "I always simplified my job as protecting the environment from the people and, conversely, protecting the people from the environment."

 

Protecting people

Forest rangers can tell people to move a tent, but they can't make people go into the mountains prepared. That's an ongoing struggle — there really are reports of backcountry rescues in these mountains every week — and it's one Peter has seen the unfortunate effects of plenty of times. Most of the time, people simply twist an ankle and just need help getting out of the woods. That's not a serious injury and it can happen to anyone, but being immobile in the woods while waiting for help can lead to life-threatening problems, especially hypothermia.

Peter has plenty of stories about good days that turned bad because people got lost or weren't prepared to handle a minor injury. Most survived; some didn't. Once again, education is his answer. He said every hiker should always have a space blanket, compass, map, flashlight, knife, matches and whistle with them, even on short hikes. That's a bare-minimum list that should be in every pack, along with extra non-cotton layers of clothing, food and a first-aid kit. (Check out this series of blogs for more info on proper layering.)

To this day, Peter still gives people advice on the trail if they look unprepared, and he still helps those in need. Last spring he came upon a trio of people on Baxter Mountain, and a man in the group wasn't feeling well. He was having a heart attack. No one in the group had an aspirin or a space blanket, but Peter did.

"When people are climbing a little mountain like that, they don't think of these things," Peter said. "You don't have to have a long fall, you just need to have a short fall and a hard plant, and there are plenty of places that can happen."


Baxter Mountain, a short hike with big views.

The legend lives on

Peter's last day on the job was in May 1998. Since then, he's become something of a legend in the Adirondacks, so much that a pair of his hiking boots are on display in the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake.

The first time Peter became aware of his lofty status in Adirondack lore, he was participating in a wilderness education weekend at North Country Community College. On the bulletins for the event, he was listed as "the legendary forest ranger Peter Fish."

"I thought, 'Wow, this is neat. I'm right there with King Arthur because he's legendary too,'" he said. "I thought I really ought to know the finite of it, so I went to my dictionary and looked up legendary, and it said 'largely fictitious.' I loved it." 

It doesn't matter if Peter's talking about a rescue, his Scottish heritage, wilderness ethics or church — jokes like that are sprinkled throughout the conversation like punctuation marks. He loves mountains, he loves people and he loves to laugh, and if you ask him, that's all you need.

"I haven't grown up," Peter said with a warm chuckle. "I never will."


This week in #AdkPeople news:

A Byrd, A Plane, & An Adirondack National Hero.

The bear facts. 

Old school charm = key to success. 

Bed, breakfast, and 'broidery.

Pohl land.

Old, new, borrowed, blue, and just darn unique.

Comments

Peter Fish

Thank you for all you have done, Peter!

Peter Fish

What a lovely article.

Years ago my husband and I were walking up to our favourite place on the Boquet, and upon arrival there found spray-painted graffiti all along the trail and all over the rocks by the falls. We were horrified, and when we got back to Keene Valley I wrote to Peter Fish, who was then the ranger, told him about the situation, and asked whether we could go back with wire brushes and try to scrape off the paint and clean up the mess. He replied back, to say that he had seen this, and that it had happened on a weekend when he was off. "I should not have taken the weekend off," he said, as if it was somehow his fault for not being able to look after the entire High Peaks! He gave us permission to do whatever we could. We had to go back to New York, and didn't get back to our place in Keene Valey until later in the Fall. Armed with our wire brushes we headed back up the Boquet. (We discovered that someone else had tried to cover up the graffiti with grey paint, which was an improvement.) We spent the day scrubbing rocks and were satisfied with our efforts. Thanks to Pete, who has been such a great advocate for the wilderness, such vandalism doesn't happen much anymore and people are far more conscious of the environment. Nobody buries tin cans in a pit behind the leanto, as was once common practise, and there are no longer groups of forty boy scouts camping below Marcy.

Several years ago I went to the Scottish games in Lake Placid, because my nephew Tristan and his pipe band were playing. The emcee was Peter Fish, wearing his kilt and wooly knee socks on a very warm and sticky Labour Day weekend. He kept everyone entertained with witty repartee while the pipers were fiddling with their chanters and and drones, changing their reeds, etc. (If you know anything about bagpipe bands, this can take a while.)

What a guy!

Peter Fish

I first met with Peter in 1975 on my very first trip to the peaks, and have run into him countless times since. He is indeed legendary, although I suggest that the "mostly fictitious" self-assessment is farther from the truth than he'd like to admit. He is part of the staff at the annual Adirondack 46ers' Outdoor Skills Workshop: his presentation always elicits strongly positive comments and a high level of engagement amongst those hearing him, even those of us who have heard him dozens of times. I'm happy to have known him for the past 41 years and always look forward to sharing a Scots-related quip with him. Slàinte, Peter!

Peter Fish

I arrived in the Adirondacks in May 1978, my buddy John had just signed on to manage the Adirondak Loj. He called me up, offered me the job of chief cook and bottle washer - just get the kitchen operation straightened out over the summer, then I could go on my merry way. That summer job ended up landing me in the Adirondacks for many more years than that, and many meetings with Peter Fish. When I was at the Loj, it was truly an event when Ranger Fish would pop his head in and regale us with his many tales of the goings on in the High Peaks. Peter is one of the great characters in Adirondack lore!

Hi Peter

I look forward to reading this and glad to see you are still out and about. I hiked with you a time or two a while back, a flatlander :-) living still in Manhattan but my heart is in the High Peaks. Miss it all the time and I hope to get up there more and say hello next time!
All the best always, Cynthia

Authority with a heart ...

It was back around 1982. I broke the rules. I was camped at the bottom of the Trapdike, NOT at a designated campsite AND too close to the waters of Avalanche Lake. Then I got caught by Peter Fish. As he marched his way up to my tent that morning I knew I was in trouble. I was also embarrassed. Peter wielded his authority in a gentle but firm manner by re-educating me on the rules and also the potential consequences of planting ones tent at the bottom of an avalanche zone. Peter left me humbled that day, but without crushing my dignity. A true gentleman you are Peter Fish ... a gentle soul with a kind heart ...

Peter Fish

As one of the Co-Founder's of Monroe Community College's "OAU" Outdoor Activities Unlimited Club I'd like to thank Ranger Fish for his many years of excellent service. He was instrumental in assisting our club members when caught in a bad storm and had to honker down near the Marcy summit with some party members of out group contracting hypothermia.

C. Peter Fish

Nice article about a Catskills hiker that has done good.
I first met C. Peter Fish in October, 1966 on the summit of Balsam, where, with sleet and snow making the ambient cold more miserable than it needed to be, I was quite surprised to hear the Catskill 3500 Club's Charter Member #12 (and later, #2W) loudly exclaim, “Thank God I finally got this mountain!”. But such is his way, always upbeat and full of humor, even in less than desirable conditions.
Peter was the Club's canister maintenance chairman at the time, so we saw him quite often on the “no trail peaks”, doing double-duty as he also assisted his brother John during that first year of Red Hook Mountaineers' day-trips. More than once as a hiking novice I personally benefited from Peter's knowledge of directions to either the summit or the parking area! I had the opportunity to pay him back as, in an odd circumstance about a year after we met, I accompanied him on an overnight search for an injured student over Friday and Balsam Cap in October of 1967.
He showed up on Doubletop in February of 1968 when the first two Mountaineers finished up the Club's requirements, but then I lost track of him when he left to attend school at Wanakena, until he suddenly re-appeared in 1969 as the new Forest Ranger in Ellenville! In the next few years he held different executive positions in the 3500 Club and occasionally led hikes, some of which I attended. Even though some of my subsequent life choices saw me gradually leave hiking in the Catskills behind, I was always grateful for the friendship and guidance (particularly hiking directions!) he showed me.

Peter Fish

Congratulations on all your accomplishments Peter! You are truly a remarkable man! I'm proud to say I spent some time with you during your educational training in Wanakena, along the Oswegatchie River. That summer was one of my most memorable. I learned how to safely hike in the Adirondacks and experienced some awesome hiking above Avalanche Lake. I also fondly remember numerous hikes with you in the Catskills while you helped develop the Catskill 3500 Club during its infancy. I want to also thank you for helping to inspire in me a lifetime of love for the mountains and woods. To this day my heart races when I smell the balsam fir or reach the top of a mountain and take in the views. There is nothing better - which is why we must all continue to preserve the wonder that nature has provided us.

Peter Fish

First met Pete in the 70's when he was patrolling the High Peaks. You could run into him anywhere, and you could see Pete stealthily checking your pack, boots and gear while he was chatting with you. Friendly, engaging and often hilarious, Pete made everyone feel safer in the back country. When we first started hiking the High Peaks there was litter everywhere, people camped near water and trails and LNT was never heard of. Pete's presence single handedly made the High Peaks a better place and it's always the highlight of my day when I run into him from time to time.

Pete Fish

Ran into Pete on Baxter Saturday afternoon with my wife and daughter. Introduced ourselves by first names only then chatted for 10 minutes and parted before I realized he was THE Pete Fish, whose name I had seen countless times in trailhead registers over the years. I'll go back up Baxter on the next nice day we're up and surely run into him again, so I can thank him for all he's done over the years to protect and preserve our glorious Adirondacks. Thanks Pete!!!

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