From Old Mountain Phelps to Today’s Adirondack Guides

by Annie Stoltie | April 2023, History

Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps. All photographs from Adirondack Experience except where noted

Orson Phelps named Adirondack peaks Skylight, Saddleback and Basin and was beloved by his clients for his quirky ways and philosopher’s heart. Bill Nye gave the “Hitch-Up Matilda” pass by Avalanche Lake its name when he hefted a client onto his shoulders there and carried her to safety. In Mart Moody’s charge were Presidents Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland and Queen Victoria’s handmaid. Mitchell Sabattis had remarkable tracking skills and could determine the soundness of a canoe by sucking its bark for holes. And Alvah Dunning, moose and panther slayer, could coax a mink from its den with a “peculiar chirping.” These are among the earliest and best-known guides in the Adirondacks, launching a profession that almost 200 years later is still an integral part of life here. Plenty has changed—not just the park’s physical landscape, with its trail system and network of highways that connect even our tiniest communities to the outside world, but also how, in the modern world, people learn about and experience this place.  

What hasn’t changed, says Sheila Young, who’s been a Tupper Lake–based licensed guide for 36 years, is “that guiding is a profession you have to love. You’re probably not going to get rich doing it. Guides of the past were caretakers, carpenters and lumbermen—today there are guides who are doctors and lawyers.” The reward, she says, “is in helping other people learn how to love this place as much as you do.”  

Young is a board member of the New York State Outdoor Guides Association (NYSOGA). She’s a 46er, a High Peaks trailhead steward, an instructor for the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Becoming an Outdoorswoman program, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and a member of Friends of Mount Arab and the Adirondack Mountain Club. Through Adirondack Foothills Guide Service, the business she and her husband, Sonny, also a guide, launched in the 1980s, Sheila focuses on the natural world, leading guests on hiking and backpacking adventures and teaching them first-aid, map and compass skills and how to ID flora and fauna. 

photograph from the Piseco Lake Historical Society

There weren’t many female guides when Sheila got started, but forerunners such as Julia Burton Preston—born in Piseco in 1896, an exceptional hunter, trapper and respected guide—are an inspiration. As a NYSOGA board member, Sheila tracks membership. “We’re still heavily proportioned toward men,” she says, “but I’m seeing a lot more women in certification classes.”

Two years ago Andrea Rice, of Bolton Landing, became a licensed guide. The 32-year-old’s Avid Hiker guide service is “a dream come true,” she says. Rice grew up downstate and loved the natural world. A trip to Yellowstone “opened my eyes—I saw things in a different light.” Rice followed that adventure with time in the Adirondacks, where, after years in the restaurant industry and hiking whenever she had a moment, she learned that guiding could be a career. Now she takes clients up and over the mountains surrounding Lake George. 

So far most of Rice’s clients are older visitors new to hiking who want an expert to show them where to go and how to stay safe. “They’re wise,” she says. “Too many people underestimate the Adirondacks. Those who rely on technology might not understand the elements, like a snow squall that comes from nowhere, making visibility impossible.”

Sheila Young says her clients, like Rice’s, are typically “more mature,” looking for an educational component during solo trips. As a trailhead steward, Young assists hikers and relays safety information and rules and regulations. She’s observed that younger people tend to travel in groups and that “their main interest is in getting to the summit, not necessarily experiencing the day.” 

Other pursuits, such as hunting, fly-fishing, and rock- and ice-climbing, require technical skills that sometimes only an expert can provide. Licensed paddlers are a necessity for navigating a river like the Hudson. But campers and hikers might bypass the idea of hiring a guide, relying on social media or a cell phone to show them the way. When Young sees the Department of Environmental Conservation’s weekly ranger reports, “unprepared” is often an underlying cause for hikers in jeopardy. “They don’t have appropriate clothes, they don’t have headlamps and they don’t have map and compass skills.” She says that in the 1980s, “there was greater guest preparedness and application of the seven principles of Leave No Trace.” As a guide, “those principles not only enhance our professionalism, but give us concise and quotable information to share with guests.” 

And that’s their legacy—as well as their inheritance. In his Guides of the Adirondacks: A History, Chuck Brumley wrote that guides were “the bridge between the wilderness and the people.” They’re still here, interpreting, teaching and trailblazing. “Becoming a guide is an incredibly satisfying accomplishment,” says Andrea Rice. “You get things done with your own two feet and with what’s on your back. And you get to inspire other people to do the same.”  

Learn more about Sheila and Sonny Young’s Adirondack Foothills Guide Service at or (518) 359-8194. Information about Andrea Rice’s The Avid Hiker can be found at or by calling (518) 415-7775.  


The New York State Outdoor Guide Association (NYSOGA) makes it easy to find a guiding professional. Visit Punch in the region and activity—or trip—in which you’re interested, and you’ll see a list of regional guides, their specialties and contact information. All NYSOGA members must have a New York State guide license for active membership. 


The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recognizes about 2,500 licensed guides in New York State. A guide, according to its licensing program, “is a person 18 or more years of age who offers services for hire, part or all of which includes directing, instructing, or aiding another in fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, whitewater
rafting/canoeing/kayaking or rock and ice climbing.”

•You do not have to be a resident of New York to receive a guide’s license.
•Certifications in CPR, First Aid and Water Safety are required.
•A guide’s license is valid for five years. 

Visit the DEC’s Licensed Guide Program page at for a list of requirements, regulations, and an examination schedule.

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