Winter adventure at the Vic

The Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretive Center maintains many miles of ski and snowshoe trails. Photo by Nancie Battaglia.

By Dick Beamish

Happy day! An early, mid-November blizzard has graced our northern end of the Adirondacks with nine inches of snow. Last weekend we were hiking these trails at the state’s Visitor Interpretive Center at Paul Smiths. Today we’ll be skiing on them.

The Boreal Life Trail winds along Barnum Brook. Photo courtesy of Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretive Center.

We park at the VIC, a mile north of Paul Smith’s College and 12 miles from Saranac Lake, and carry our skis through the main entrance of the interpretive building, which resembles a 19th century Adirondack Great Camp. At the reception desk (staffed by a typically cheerful volunteer) we pick up the latest trail map and head out the back door into the snow.

Boots secured in bindings, we push off on the descent to Heron Marsh, the ecological centerpiece of this 2,885-acre nature preserve. The rhythmic swimming motion of pulling through with one pole and then the other, the glide after each easy push of one leg and then the other—it all seems so natural and familiar we can hardly believe it’s been seven months since we last did this.

There are about 20 miles of ski and snowshoe trails on the VIC property, which is leased to the state by Paul Smith’s College. Today we’re doing a 4-mile loop that will take us back to the center for lunch. Right off we encounter, coming toward us, the only other skiers we will see for the next two hours, a couple we happened to have dinner with a week earlier. This reminds us that the Adirondack Park, despite being larger than Massachusetts and occupying one-fifth of New York state, is in some ways a very small world. Our friends report good skiing ahead except for trees down here and there across the trail, a result of the fierce winds that accompanied yesterday’s snowfall.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

Down the gentle hill we go, then take a short detour to a bench overlooking the freezing surface of the marsh. I decide to take a picture of Rachel with Jenkins Mountain in the background. To get the best angle I step off the wooden platform and sink up to my knees into the snow-covered vegetation; Rachel, proving once again that chivalry is not dead, helps to pull me back onto the trail.

We soon pass a sign not yet covered by ice or buried in snow. It says we are on the “Shingle Mills Trail” and that this “.8 loop explores the natural and human-created changes that have occurred here. Present- day Heron Marsh was the site of a water reservoir as early as the mid-1850s, with a water-powered mill building at the base of the falls.” The sign suggests that we look for birds, though most of those listed won’t be back until next spring. But we will, as also suggested, keep an eye out for beavers and muskrats. (There are signs of beaver activity everywhere.)

Rachel looks awfully chic–or is it sheik?–on her first ski of the season. That’s Jenkins Mountain on the left. Photo by Dick Beamish.

A half-mile on we cross a bridge over a small dam at the outlet to the marsh. Though the mill and house (pictured on the sign) are long gone, the water still pours over the dam and cascades down a steep, boulder-strewn stream. The water is the color of dark beer. From the bridge we look out over the shallow pond surrounded by unbroken forest, further evidence that much of the Adirondack Park is wilder today than it was a hundred years ago. Beyond the dam the trail moves up and away from the marsh, through woods that until recently were managed for timber production by forestry students. Farther on the trail passes through a former golf course, in operation when Paul Smith’s Hotel was a world-famed resort, but you’d never guess it now except for a sign that marks the spot where golfers once teed off. Now they would be driving into a dense, second-growth forest.

But before getting to that point we fork right on the Tamarack Trail, rather than take the longer Esker Trail to the left. We pass through snow-covered conifer woods, including some awesome white pines. Farther on the path dips down to cross the marsh on a long boardwalk. On a cold, windy day we’d stop first to put on an outer, windproof layer and raise the hoods over our wool hats. Not today, though. Rachel, having warmed up, is now bare-headed and I’m fine with a visor cap. Looking east across the marsh we see the VIC building. Like a proper Adirondack Great Camp, it blends in with the surroundings, with only a brown, wooden peak peeping over the trees.

Skiers cross Barnum Brook on a sturdy bridge. Photo courtesy of Paul Smith’s Vic.

Beyond the marsh the trail winds upward for half a mile before it makes a short descent marked “steep” on our map, though what’s considered steep here would be judged a gentle hill in other backcountry settings. Here and elsewhere deer tracks and red-squirrel tracks have been criss-crossing the trails but we’ve seen no sign of other regular residents such as snowshoe hare, ruffed grouse and coyote. At the bottom of the hill we connect with the unpaved, one-lane Jenkins Mountain Road, reduced by the new snow to a two-lane path for skiers and snowshoers. A mile from here, via the alluring Barnum Brook Trail, we arrive back at the interpretive building.

Another day, with more time to play, we’d have followed the Esker Trail (see map), a longer loop that begins with a few short up-hills, passes through part of the long-gone golf course, dips into a clearing with a side trail to Black Pond, then ascends through the woods for a half-mile. From this high point you can enjoy a long downhill to Jenkins Mountain Road, and from there continue a mile and a half back to your starting point. That loop usually takes us about 90 minutes.

With another hour to spare, we could connect with yet another loop, leaving the Esker Trail and following the balsam-bordered Woods & Waters Connector Trail (see map) for a mile to the lean-to on Black Pond. (This is a summer route and not part of the VIC’s winter trail system, it’s not maintained or patrolled, and from the junction with the Esker Trail, you’re entirely on your own.)

Snowshoers return from the Barnum Brook Trail. Photo by Nancie Battaglia.

In previous winters, we have crossed Black Pond to the trail that leads to Long Pond, then skied down the middle of Long to the lean-to at the far end. (We’ll ski on lake surfaces only if the ice is at least three inches thick, and we carefully avoid skiing on ice near inlets and outlets.) From the lean-to it’s two-tenths of a mile to the Jenkins Mountain Road and two miles from there back to VIC headquarters. Much of this trip has a remote, wilderness feeling to it that can make you forget you’re only a few miles from civilization.

Back at our Adirondack Great Camp—and it is ours since we are two of 18 million New Yorkers who own it—we have the place almost to ourselves. We lunch in a long room that doubles as a gallery for Adirondack photographers and painters on one side and for bird-watching on the other. The feeders outside attract the species that are pictured and described under the big windows, including, as we watch, some blue jays, black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches and a hairy woodpecker.

There’s much more to see and do here.You can take in the natural history exhibits, films and slide shows in the 150-seat theater. You can veg out in a visitor’s lounge overlooking Heron Marsh, with the songs of birds piped in from the feeders outside. Or you can study a huge platform-mounted relief map and trace the network of skiing, snowshoeing and nature walks, including the new Boreal Life Trail with its 1,600-foot boardwalk bordering Barnum Pond. But today we decide to get back to work, so we wave goodbye to the friendly young woman behind the desk, pick up our skis outside the door, and drive back to Saranac Lake, thankful for this unexpected early treat and hopeful that we have a long, snowy winter ahead.

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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