Mark Mayhew of Lake Luzerne has been climbing Adirondack mountains since he was 10 years old. When he needs a hiking stick, he just tramps into the woods and chops a knobby branch from a fallen tree.
“There’s white birch, beech and oak. There’s cherry, ash, striped ash, mountain ash and maples,” says the 55-year-old outdoorsman. “There are no sticks that are the same.”
Lynn Benevento, who also lives in Lake Luzerne, has been hiking since she was a young girl, and three years ago, she became an Adirondack Forty-Sixer, after reaching the top of each of the 46 High Peaks. “My great-grandfather was the first fire observer on Hadley Mountain,” she says.
Today, Benevento climbs mountains with a pair of Leki trekking poles made of carbon fiber.
“They give you more exercise because you are using your upper body. They help on the uphills. And then on the downhills, you can put extra pressure on the pole, and release pressure off your knees,” she says. “We’d have pain in our knees that would last a few days, and I don’t get it anymore after using the poles.”
This autumn, you’re sure to hear that click-click-click sound in the Adirondacks, as more and more trekking poles go up the mountains, although there are plenty of hikers who carry a bark-covered staff and still others who hike with their hands free.
“Everyone has their opinion,” says Mayhew. “I personally like to have one stick and keep the other hand free.”
On the famous Appalachian Trail, which measures 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine, 90 percent of “thru-hikers,” people who go the entire distance over several months, use trekking poles, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Among day hikers, pole use is 10 to 15 percent, the ATC estimates.
Trekking poles have been around for years, but in the Adirondacks, they really started taking off about 10 years ago, says Steve LaParl, supervisor at the Eastern Mountain Sports store in Niskayuna.
“They are becoming more popular now because of articles written out there about burning more calories when using them,” he says.
And Baby Boomers and senior citizens seem to be buying them more than people in their 20s or 30s, he says.
“As you get older, your strength is going, and they give you a lift,” says the 55-year-old LaParl, who carries them on his pack whenever he goes hiking.
“A lot of older people are buying single ones. They’re using them when they’re walking on bike paths.”
In Lake Placid, Sue Cameron and her husband walk with trekking poles every day on the cross-country ski trails at Mt. Van Hoevenberg.
“He has rheumatoid arthritis. It really helps,” says Cameron, the events and communication manager at the Lake Placid Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“And they make me walk faster. It’s getting my 58-year-old body in motion.”
At LaParl’s store, where they sell Pitzel, Leki and Black Diamond poles, you can pay from $45 to $200 for a pair.
When shopping for trekking poles, unlike with alpine and cross-country ski poles, your height and weight don’t matter, because the poles have two or three sections. Shock-absorbing springs are optional.
“They are all adjustable. They are pretty universal,” says LaParl.
“The only difference between men’s and women’s is that for women, the grip is thinner.”
Jim Mosher, who operates Harris Grocery in Lake Luzerne, has climbed the High Peaks in winter and summer.
“I’ve gone around ’em three times, almost four,” says the 60-year-old Mosher.
He doesn’t like trekking poles.
“I find no use for them whatsoever. I’d rather be free-handed and just walk. It’s kind of annoying to me to listen to people go click, click, click.”
For winter hiking, he does use a single ski pole with a basket, the old aluminum kind, that he picks up at garage sales.
“If you get bushwhacking, you need that pole to knock the snow off the things in front of you so it doesn’t go down your back when you go underneath. And I do find it handy going over icy things.”
Benevento, who is one of Mosher’s hiking friends, says trekking poles are useful for stream crossings and walking on logs.
“You have an extra set of balancing points. You put them down and hop across,” she says.
Last March, when the High Peaks were cloaked in snow, Dave McMinn, a 21-year-old Union College student, climbed Giant, elevation 4,626 feet.
He doesn’t like manufactured poles because they are expensive and unnecessary.
“I like recycling. I use a walking stick now and then,” the Niskayuna High School grad says.
Like Mayhew, he likes to find his own stick in the woods and then leave it for another hiker.
“I like the fact that you can pick up a stick at the head of a trail,” he says.
Some nature lovers don’t like trekking poles because they can scratch rocks, make holes in trails and damage vegetation.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy advises hikers to use rubber tips on their poles and asks them to carry them on their packs while going through sensitive environments.
Trail etiquette is part of the lesson when Mayhew teaches children, teens and adults how to make their own hiking sticks at the Adirondack Folk School in Lake Luzerne.
In his three-and-a-half-hour class, students select a branch about six feet long from about 100 he has already collected. They carve them, wood-burn them, drill a hole in the top for a lanyard, then try it out on a trail near the school.
In another class, students learn to carve an eagle-head walking stick from Walt LeClair, an award-winning bird carver.
Good for spirit
For Benevento, a painter who runs Lynn Benevento Gallery in Lake Luzerne, the trekking poles she started using seven years ago keep her hiking, which she finds invigorating to body and spirit.
In 1983, she and her husband, Gino, started climbing the High Peaks together.
“We made it up to 41 peaks, and my husband got really sick and couldn’t hike anymore. He passed away in 2008. And in 2009, I finished, for him and for me,” she says.
“The hiking endorphins are good for grieving,” Benevento says. “I hike a lot.”