Skiers enjoy a gustatory reward after a nine-mile trek from the Paul Smith’s College VIC to Charlie’s Inn.
By Phil Brown
Several years ago, I asked Bill McKibben, the author and climate-change activist, to ski the entire Jackrabbit Trail and write a story for the Explorer. I expected him to start in Saranac Lake and end in Keene.
You’d figure twenty-four miles would be a long day even for Bill, who once wrote a book about his effort to become a competitive cross-country skier. Not so.
Bill started at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center, skied nine miles to Lake Clear Junction—through woods, down a logging road, and under a power line—and then followed railroad tracks to Saranac Lake. In all, he added about sixteen miles to the trip.
The stretch from Paul Smiths to Lake Clear is indeed part of the Jackrabbit, but if you don’t ski on the railroad tracks it’s cut off from the rest of the trail. I think of it as the orphan section of the Jackrabbit.
Since moving to the Adirondacks, I have skied the main Jackrabbit on many occasions—sometimes all at once, more often just a piece of it—but I had never skied the entire length of the orphan section. Last winter, I resolved to do so. My decision was driven in part by a paucity of snow in the Lake Placid region. The orphan Jackrabbit is a good bet for a ski tour early in the season or during a low-snow winter as Paul Smiths lies in a snow belt and the trail is relatively smooth.
My girlfriend Carol and I were joined for the trip by the perfect guides: Josh Wilson, the executive director of the Barkeater Trails Alliance, which maintains the Jackrabbit, and his wife, Jecinda Hughes, who owns Origin Coffee Company in Saranac Lake. We met at Origin, where Jecinda plied us with delicious pastries, and then the four of us drove in two vehicles to Lake Clear. We left one car at Charlie’s Inn and continued in the other to Paul Smiths.
We had a simple plan: work up an appetite by skiing the Jackrabbit back to Charlie’s and then satiate it with food and beer.
Normally, visitors pay a fee to ski at the VIC. The fee is waived for Jackrabbit skiers, since they are on VIC trails only briefly. From the VIC building, it’s just a few minutes on skis to Route 30. The Jackrabbit proper begins on the opposite side of the highway.
After crossing the road, we skied through a stand of pines to a clearing. Bearing right, we passed the old foundation of a farmhouse, including a freestanding chimney, and a barn. We followed the wide trail to a junction about a half-mile from Route 30. Turning left, we enjoyed a short downhill that brought us to a narrow passage between Church Pond and Little Osgood Pond.
“I’m so glad you talked me into coming. This is beautiful,” Jecinda told Josh when we stopped to enjoy the view of the ponds and snow-laden evergreens. (She had planned to spend the day baking pies.)
A bit farther on, we came to a lean-to on Church Pond and skied onto the ice. Although the snow cover in the woods was a bit thin for January, conditions were perfect for pond skiing: a few inches of fresh powder over solid ice.
DIRECTIONS: From NY 86 and NY 30 in Paul Smiths, drive north on NY 30 for a mile to the VIC entrance on the left.
We got back on the trail and a minute later crossed a wooden bridge over a little canal connecting Church Pond and Little Osgood Pond. It and a second canal, connecting Little Osgood and Osgood Pond, were dug by hand in the 1800s so vacationers on Osgood could row to church in Paul Smiths.
After passing through a stand of large pines, we reached White Pine Road, about 1.25 miles after leaving the VIC. We skied across the road, re-entered the woods, and soon reached a trail junction near a pile of abandoned tires (Josh plans to remove the tires). We bore left and shortly came to another junction, where we bore right.
We paused to admire a small bog, frozen in white, before climbing a small hill. We now faced a fairly steep descent, with a left bend at the bottom to avoid a large tree. Intermediate skiers should be able to negotiate the turn, but beginners might want to sidestep part of the hill.
At 2.4 miles from the VIC, we reached Jones Pond Road. On the other side of the road, we passed through a forest that had been recently logged by Paul Smith’s College and then climbed a long hill past silviculture plots managed by students at the college. Not for the first time, we found ourselves following deer tracks.
“We’ve got to do something about deer walking in the trail,” Josh remarked.
“Postholers!” I complained.
When we got to the top of the hill, we faced a short descent to State Route 86 west of “downtown” Gabriels. Skied in the other direction, the hill offers the longest descent on the orphan section of the Jackrabbit—nearly four-tenths of a mile in two drops. Beginners may find it somewhat intimidating.
When we got to Route 86 (3.2 miles from the VIC) we removed our skis, crossed the road, skied a very short distance to Bert LaFountain Road, removed them again, crossed the road, and entered a corridor of snowy evergreens. In a few minutes, we crossed a power-line corridor and re-entered the woods.
We were now following snowmobile tracks, which made the skiing less pleasant. Josh said snowmobiles are not supposed to be on this section of the Jackrabbit. “Technically it’s not on the snowmobile map, but people ride it,” he replied. “If it happened more, I’d hear about it. I haven’t heard any complaints.”
At about mile four, we traversed an open area known as Montou Clearing. At 4.8 miles, we reached a wide lumber road. We turned left and followed the snowy road for nearly a mile and a half of easy skiing. On the way, Josh pointed out some small trees whose bark had been stripped by a porcupine.
Eventually, we turned left off the road to follow a power-line corridor frequented by snowmobilers. We stayed in the corridor for almost 2.5 miles, occasionally deviating to ski across frozen wetlands. As we got closer to Charlie’s Inn, we saw several snowmobiles. After one machine roared up the trail, Josh and Jecinda enjoyed a rare sighting of a bobcat when it emerged from the woods. Perhaps it wondered what all the racket was about.
By this time, we were getting bored with skiing on roads and power-line corridors. Yet we didn’t slow down: we were fixated on our reward at Charlie’s. At 8.75 miles, we crossed a road that leads to a waste-transfer station and soon after reached an unplowed road. We turned left here and followed the road a short distance to Charlie’s.
You’ll find more snowmobilers than cross-country skiers at Charlie’s, but everyone is welcome. We had been on the trail about four hours, and it was good to come out of the cold. We ordered burgers and sandwiches and beer.
Afterward, Carol and I agreed that the first part of the orphan Jackrabbit, from the VIC to Route 86, is well worth repeating, what with the ponds, the tall evergreens, the charming canal, and the fun little hills. We thought that continuing from Route 86 to Charlie’s is worth doing once or twice—mainly for the enjoyment of ending a ski trip at a bar/restaurant.
“The first segment of the route is prettier and more varied,” Carol told me. “But doing the full nine-mile route is a great workout if you’re trying to log some steady, nonstop ski miles.”
If you don’t want to ski all the way from the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center to Charlie’s Inn, here are two other options for enjoying the orphan Jackrabbit.
Round trip. Park at the Osgood Pond boat launch on White Pond Road. On the opposite side of the road, a trail leads in a hundred yards to the Jackrabbit. Turn left at the junction and continue to Jones Pond Road. Cross the road and climb a big hill. Turn around at the top and enjoy the ride back. The round trip from the parking area is about four miles. You can extend the outing by exploring the trail network near Osgood, Little Osgood, and Church ponds. For this, head down a trail that begins in the southwest corner of the parking area.
Through trip. If you have two cars, you can ski the 3.2 miles from Route 86 to the VIC. Park on the little-used Bert LaFountain Road near Gabriels. A brief ski will bring you to Route 86. Cross the highway and follow the Jackrabbit signs to the VIC. Skiing in this direction, you enjoy the big downhill just north of Route 86. If you’d rather avoid the downhill, ski the route in the opposite direction: the descent from the height of land will not be as challenging