By: BRIAN MOLONGOSKI
To simply say Watertown residents Gary and Karen Burns are into the outdoors is like saying Michelangelo was into painting just for the hell of it.
For the husband and wife duo, who just recently reached 42 years of marriage, being outside is what life is all about, regardless of the season. They could be considered the poster children for what an outdoor power couple should look like. They do it all — from mountain biking to downhill skiing, cross-country skiing to running, with maybe just a little paddling thrown in the mix.
But one of their most sizeable feats was hiking the Adirondack High Peaks. All 46 of them — twice.
The pair has been blazing Adirondack High Peak trails for over two decades. After gradually completing all 46 peaks in warmer months, the two took another crack at the challenge, this time summiting each high peak during the winter.
Now, with those accomplishments under their belts, the two-time 46ers have discovered a new way to appreciate the mountains in exposing others to the beautiful challenge that is Adirondack hiking.
“When you get up in the mountains,” Mrs. Burns said, “you get away from the rest of society, and it’s beautiful, it’s peaceful. You have that call to keep going back.”
In Watertown, Mr. Burns is known for his photography business, Burns Photography, off Arsenal Street. The business has been around since the 1960s, when it was started by Mr. Burns’ father. Mrs. Burns is newly retired, after spending 20 years at North Elementary as a library secretary.
The Burnses’ foray into Adirondack hiking started with a little push while raising their four sons during their Boy Scout days. Mr. Burns said he went up a few mountains with his sons, and then he started going up on his own or with his wife.
“It was just more a once in a while sort of thing,” Mrs. Burns said. “We didn’t have a goal of doing all 46.”
But as time went on, becoming a 46er was inevitable.
Mr. Burns said, “I kind of looked at my list and said, ‘wow, I’m at like 30-something. Maybe I’ll just make this a goal,” He finished off his list, and Mrs. Burns finished hers shortly after.
At a 46ers banquet dinner, which the ADk46ers club puts on twice a year to recognize those who complete the challenge, Mr. and Mrs. Burns ran into north country author Carol White, who wrote the book, “Women with Altitude.” Centered on women who hiked all 46 high peaks strictly during winter, the book was what inspired the pair to give it a go.
Mr. and Mrs. Burns became winter 46ers in just a few years, hiking six to 10 peaks per winter. Compared to hiking in other seasons, Mrs. Burns said winter hiking has its own set of pros and cons.
“Doing the winter hiking, the trails are smoother because the snow is packed down,” Mrs. Burns said. “But if you’re breaking trail it can be really tough. There are times when we’ve had to back off and we couldn’t do it. You have to have that set in your mind that yeah, there is a possibly we can’t do this peak and we have to turn back.”
In the years leading up to garnering the 46er titles, the Burns’ paid close attention to the preparation aspect — knowing what’s necessary to be safe while out on a hike, especially in winter.
“We learned a lot as we went on — meeting more hikers, trial and error, what sort of equipment do you really need while hiking,” Mr. Burns said.
“Just don’t bring canned food,” Mrs. Burn said with a laugh.
Now, the two pass their knowledge onto others.
With the Adirondack High Peaks conquered on their own, a Burns trip back into the mountains usually includes a small group of friends. If they are going for the first time, the Burns’ have a sort of “shake down” at their home to prepare. Having upgraded gear several times over the years, Mr. Burns said they have plenty of extra equipment that friends can use, if necessary.
Mrs. Burns said, “We think that’s important because we make sure that people understand what is really required, whether it’s dangerous or not.”
Though the Burnses have no intention of creating a formal Facebook group for their excursions, they encourage new faces to join them on the mountain side. Right now, Mrs. Burns said the best way to reach out has generally been through word of mouth.
They also post photos and details about their trips on the local Team RWB chapter website in Watertown. Team RWB (Red White and Blue) is a nationwide group that supports veterans through sports and physical activities. Mr. Burns said local veterans have joined the duo on hikes since they started posting on the website.
One of the best parts about bringing people along, the Burnses agreed, is seeing an anxious first-timer overcome his or her fears and continue to hike well after the first trip.
“You can tell they’re nervous, saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’” he said. “They know they can go beyond their boundaries.”
“And once they do it,” Mrs. Burns added, “they’re just in awe that they could accomplish that.”