A one-man marathon: Bill McKibben skis the Jackrabbit in a day
By Bill McKibben
5:45: Wake up. It’s late winter. I’m in my friends Jack and Mary Jean Burke’s house on Keese Mill Road in Paul Smiths. More specifically, I’m in the bedroom their son Tim grew up in. He’s off this week at the biathlon World Championships in some distant-Stan or another where they pay proper attention to skiing-and-shooting.
In the moonlight still filtering in the window I can make out the endless collection of ribbons, trophies, plaques that line his walls and shelves. Inspiration. Not that I’m trying to beat anyone but my own aging carcass—still, the plan for today is to ski the whole Jackrabbit Trail, almost 60 backcountry kilometers from here to Keene Valley, and I know I’m going to be tired before I’m done. Maybe well before I’m done.
6:15: Oatmeal, and temperature check. A couple of degrees below zero, but not a cloud in the sky, and not much wind either. The forecast is for sheer loveliness; it’s not been much of a winter for snow, but I don’t remember more blue-sky days. And in the last week we’ve had a couple of three- or four-inch snow showers. No storms, but enough to let us finally set off on a trip we’ve been planning all winter.
6:40: Jack’s neighbor Pete McConnville arrives; he’s agreed to ski with us as far as Saranac Lake. We wax up and head out the door. As we cross the road and climb a snowbank to enter the woods of the Visitor Interpretive Center, we can see the nearly full moon over our shoulder; the sun is near to rising ahead of us. We have a couple of miles to ski before the official start of the Jackrabbit, on the always-lovely VIC trails. The snow is squeaky-cold, but there’s a bit of fluff on top that speeds us along.
7:20: We cross Route 30 and start down the Jackrabbit Trail proper. This trail, the brainchild of indefatigable path-builder Tony Goodwin, is named for Herman “Jackrabbit” Johansen, the even-more indefatigable skier who glided these woods for many decades. And for the first, oh, quarter-mile, there’s just the hiss of skis on fresh snow as we kick along. Then, despite the large signs erected by the Paul Smith’s College that read “Motorized Vehicles Prohibited,” we’re suddenly skiing on snowmobile tracks. This slows us down right away, because snow machines and skis are very different animals. The former like to bounce up and down, leaving behind a series of humpy wallows. The latter—six feet long—like smoothness above all; there’s no way to kick and glide along a snowmobile track; it’s a little like trying to ride a bike over an endless series of speed bumps
8:00. We cross Route 86 at the height of land above Easy Street and head off on another sweet woods trail. After about half a mile, though, it widens out, and the single snowmobile track we’ve been following is joined by dozens more. We wind through a series of semi-clearcuts on the edge of some hills and then hit a powerline where we can see miles straight ahead. There’s something mind-numbing about this section–you know that on either side of the powerline cut there are ponds and streams and ridges, but you’re doggedly skiing along across terrain that you could find in any Connecticut suburb. Also, the bounce-bounce-bounce of the snowmobile track is taking its toll. It is remarkably like sailing into heavy chop, where the bow thwacks again and again into the shoulder of the wave. I find myself getting mildly seasick. Or at least grumpy. Goodwin says the Adirondack Ski Touring Council is at work trying to reroute the trail off the powerline; given their past successes they will doubtless succeed eventually. And not a moment too soon.
9:00. We reach Lake Clear Junction and Charlie’s Inn, where our rump snowmobile trail joins the real thing, the heavily traveled and routinely groomed corridor along the railroad tracks which is maintained by the state. A curious sign greets us, explaining that the corridor is for snowmobiles; you can still see the blacked-out letters that used to prohibit skiers from sharing the trail. Goodwin says it was a mistake by state planners; still, he’s urged us to ski the trail this direction so that we’ll be off the corridor before most of the snow machines are up and about. It’s not much fun, he says, when they’re buzzing by. In fact, it’s not a great deal of fun this morning. The track is canted slightly uphill, and even the snowmobile groomer has been unable to eradicate the endless swell.
9:15: Jack is laboring a bit. He is a better and stronger skier than I am, so this is a bit unusual. Not so unusual, however. It turns out on closer examination that a doctor this week diagnosed him with walking pneumonia. That didn’t give him pause—I mean, the doctor didn’t diagnose him with skiing pneumonia, did he? He has organized and outfitted this trip, and led us thus far, but now there’s an unhealthy looking pallor beneath his ruddy tan. We decide he’ll ski as far as Saranac Lake and then go home with Pete. So back we go to double-poling. Finally Lake Colby pulls into view, and then the hospital, and the lumberyard. We pull off our boards, cross the street, and ski into the village, where everyone is going about their normal Sunday business—going to church, buying the paper. It’s a bit odd to be skiing slowly through town along the railroad tracks; it feels a bit like playing hooky. You half want to hide from passing cars.
10:30: A half-mile or so past North Country Community College, the Jackrabbit trail finally leaves the snowmobiles behind and turns into the woods. I bid my companions farewell and strike out on my own. For about a mile. Then, at McKenzie Pond Road, I meet some more companions, Aaron Coburn and Laurel Kritausky, friends from Vermont, who want to see this country too. And they’ve wisely picked the best half of the day. By a little past 11 we’re starting on the long, long climb up the shoulder of McKenzie Mountain. It’s not steep—you have to herringbone in spots, but there’s no place where you’re fighting to keep from slipping back.
12:15: We reach the height of land on the McKenzie trail. A few other skiers appear, headed in the other direction—this is one of the sections that Goodwin always urges visitors to take, and we find out why: The descent is a hoot, steep enough that you really go, but straight enough that you can hold the speed most of the way down. It’s the beginning of my growing appreciation for the trail-builders, since I’m instinctively wary of descents in the woods, always convinced there’s going to be a screaming turn at the bottom. None of that here. I mean, you wouldn’t want to do it on ice. But on powder your great-aunt would be fine.
12:45: Nancie Battaglia, one of my oldest friends in the Park, meets us at the bottom. She’s along to take the pictures for this article. More to the point, she knows the Jackrabbit like she knows almost everything else in the High Peaks, which is to say intimately. She sketches us a quick map of the next few sections, which wind across the Whiteface Golf Course and then the outlet of Lake Placid before ending up in the Howard Johnson’s parking lot. Across the street and behind the arts center we find ourselves skiing through the Fawn Ridge woods, where Overly Large House development is proceeding apace. Eventually, on a line I don’t believe I could retrace, the trail lands us in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn. We walk across the lot, and then—show-offs—put the skis back on for the descent of the hotel’s front lawn down to Main Street. Aaron and Laurel execute graceful tele turns. I manage my one fall of the day, sprawling onto the neatly plowed sidewalk beside a startled family emerging from a minivan with Indiana plates. They film me with their camcorder as I manage to undo my bindings and stagger off to join my friends.
2:15: We’ve been told the trail resumes in the parking lot of the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery. It’s hard to pass up the chance to sit and have a beer, but the sun is already past its peak, and I am very aware that many miles of trail remain. So I dig around in my pack for remnants of peanut butter sandwich, washed down with purple-flavor Gatorade, and off we go across the golf course of the Lake Placid Club. The skiing is wonderful across the open fields and even better as it heads into a section of trail only two years old that descends through the woods heading to the Ausable River. “That new section was designed for summer use too, to connect the village center with the surrounding public lands,” says Goodwin. It couldn’t be sweeter than it is today—every downhill bends gently into a runout; the ups and downs connect into an easy, skiable rhythm. “We try to make them work for an intermediate skier,” says Goodwin. They’ve succeeded. In order to make time, I’m doing this trip on skinny racing skis, with flimsy racing boots, not the heavier gear most people would use. And yet I’m never nervous.
3:15: Across River Road, the trail winds uphill through some woods before spilling out onto the Craig Wood Golf Course. This is Sound of Music scenery, with Whiteface looming up big behind. Mountains everywhere! I can feel weariness descending, but also a certain exhilaration. Barring accident, we should make it. And the terrain ahead I’ve always wanted to ski. I’ve passed the Cascade Touring Center a thousand times in my life without ever stopping in—in the winter I’m always headed over to Mount Van Hoevenberg for some race or another. Now I know what I’m missing—lovely, winding, old-school trails, which in good snow provide the kind of intimate rush lost in the wide and flattened skating trails that all more modern touring centers now design. I could spend an entire day here happily puttering along. But the sun is dropping. Time to stick the dark glasses back in the pack.
4:00. Cross the highway and head up Mountain Home Road. For the first 12 or 13 years of the Jackrabbit, this was an unplowed road in winter. But Development is an insatiable god, and now there are some home sites near the top. So it’s an unpleasantly tiring climb up the shoulder of a steep and sanded lane (Goodwin promises there will be a replacement path through the woods eventually). At the top, owing to an arcane legal dispute over rights of way, the town has erected a shiny steel street lamp (C.S. Lewis fans will immediately flash on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). Happily, it’s the sign that you’re almost ready to return to the deep woods.
4:45: Indeed, these deep woods are the most glorious part by far of the entire day’s ski. You climb beside Pitchoff Mountain, working your way around its back. Tonight the sun was setting gold on its top slopes, illuminating the last few ice-climbers. Then the shadows started to fall, and the air grew colder, and the trail became exhilaratingly steep. You plummet downhill, hurtling towards a beaver pond—but by this time my trust in the trail’s architects was so complete I didn’t even bother with a snowplow, just tucked in and watched the woods whiz by. This path seems so remote, small against the rock drama of Pitchoff looming overhead. But until the first road up past the Cascade Ponds was built in the 1870s, this was the road to Lake Placid—the road that John Brown’s coffin was carried up towards his gravesite. Goodwin says unlikely legend holds that it slipped off the back of the wagon and came careening down this same hill. If so, a good last ride.
5:30: A last ride for me too, at least for today. I emerge to see Nancie and Laurel and Aaron waiting in the parking lot at Adirondack Rock and River. I can’t stop talking about the glorious last descent—we must come back soon, very soon, and do it again. It’s been almost 11 hours, and every muscle in my body is happy to be relaxing, but I’m so jazzed it’s tempting to turn right back around. The promise of a beer dissuades me, and the thought that the trail will be here as long as there is snow, a little different each day, its glories subtly rearranged by the whims of weather. You can’t ski the same trail twice. But it will be fun to try.