Trails and an extended ski season-to any and all.
By Tom Woodman
Aboisterous hubbub greets us as we climb from the car at the trailhead. Whoops, hollers, and laughs carry through the trees from unseen adventurers and give us an early flavor of the place.
Mention winter recreation in the southwestern Adirondacks, and many people’s first thought will be snowmobiles. But these aren’t the sounds of snow-sledders. Here in the foothills near Boonville, the BREIA cross-country ski center has set its own path. And that path—actually fifty kilometers of paths—is increasingly popular not only as a regional draw but as a destination for visitors from many states.
BREIA, the Black River Environmental Improvement Association, isn’t your usual ski business. Created by a family foundation as a “gift to the people of New York,” BREIA (pronounced Bree-a) opens its trails to all comers at no charge and will not accept contributions from skiers. And through the affiliated Potato Hill Farm Outdoor Education Center it has connected thousands of school kids with nature. Like the ski center, the farm is dedicated to physical health as well as “awareness, understanding and appreciation of the environment.”
Located just a dozen miles west of the Adirondack Park’s Blue Line, BREIA benefits from the heavy snows that sweep across the Tug Hill Plateau from the Great Lakes. With an average winter snowfall of two hundred inches, it’s a good bet for skiable conditions when even mountain snows begin to thin.
We begin a two-day visit to BREIA at the Egypt Road trail system. Easily accessible to travelers and with interesting beginner terrain, this is the busiest of BREIA’s three systems. On this holiday weekend the parking lot is full and includes cars from as far away as Pennsylvania and Delaware. Jeannie and I pull on our boots and head toward the warming hut that serves as a hub for these trails. The good-natured tumult we heard on our arrival surely came from this direction, but its creators are nowhere to be seen by the time we reach the hut.
So we head out to ski the Rim Trail. This easy route winds through the woods, with the gullies of Alder Creek dropping off to the side and large bowls known as glacial kettles adding an element of mystery to the landscape. These pits, formed by melting glacial ice, are now round bowls dozens of feet deep and filled with vegetation.
Ample snow covers the trail, but the groomed track is hard and slick from rain two days ago. This becomes a factor when I venture down one of the steep gully trails that drop from the rim. Snowplowing isn’t enough to control my speed on the fast, turning descent, and I need to sideslip in places to keep from accelerating out of control. A couple of inches of fresh snow would make this an easier piste. But in any conditions skiers should respect the map’s designation of the gully trails as expert.
At the base of the gully, a trail winds along Alder Creek as it turns through high banks and past side gullies. A series of four steep gully trails connects this Creek View Trail to the Rim Trail above. In addition, the Egypt Road complex includes more than seven miles of intermediate terrain.
As Jeannie and I ease our way around the Rim Trail we encounter all varieties of fellow skiers, parents with young children, white-haired couples, newcomers finding their way, and regulars navigating with confidence. We round a curve and find in front of us the answer to the earlier question: Who’s having all that loud fun?
A dozen or so skiers array themselves up a short, gradual slope at a trail junction. One by one, they push off and practice their snowplows. Friends cheer, and their coach records video. It’s a Special Olympics team from Central New York training for the upcoming state games. Undeterred by disability, the athletes throw themselves into their training with a combination of uncertainty, determination, and hilarity. We will encounter them several times along the Rim Trail, and we come to look forward to hearing one athlete in particular. A large, gregarious man, he’s given to waiting at the top of a slope, booming out, “I don’t know if I can do it! I don’t know if I can do it!” Then, “I’m doing it!”
The team has been training weekly at BREIA.
“We’re very grateful for the gentleman that does the grooming,” says one athlete’s mother.
“And for the gentleman who bought the property,” adds her friend. At the request of that gentleman, BREIA does not reveal the name of its benefactor, saying only it’s a family foundation.
“We’ve been skiing here as a family for fifteen years,” says Linda Clark “We were skiing here last year when the coach came up and recruited my daughter.”
The coach, David Femia, is equally ardent in his praise: “Oh, my God. It’s just a dream come true. To have something like this available. It doesn’t cost one penny.”
BREIA was founded in 1984, and it began its work with the reconstruction of the Black River Canal towpath. Workers cleared brush and debris and carted in soil to widen the path enough to accommodate side-by-side ski tracks. The thirteen-kilometer Canal Trail runs along the former canal from Boonville south to Trails End in Boonville Gorge just below Pixley Falls State Park. Skiers encounter the remains of numerous locks that raised and lowered boats carrying timber and other Adirondack products from 1850 to 1922. (The Boonville Black River Canal Museum tells the story of the thirty-four-mile waterway that connected Rome and Carthage. Unfortunately, it is closed in the winter.)
BREIA has expanded over the past twelve years, using a combination of land purchases, easements, and agreements with the state and private landowners. It now includes the three major trail systems of Egypt Road, the Canal Trail, and the Skyfields of Jackson Hill. Over eight thousand skiers signed trail registers last season, triple the number from two years before. And, of course, many more visitors ski without registering.
BREIA extends its outreach through its partner, Potato Hill Farm, where nearly seventeen thousand schoolchildren have come in the past two years to receive an introduction to skiing, snowshoeing, and wildlife. In warmer seasons, the farm offers hiking bicycling, and interaction with farm animals. It’s all free of charge.
Back on the Rim Trail we encounter just the sort of skier BREIA is hoping to attract, Mr. Rowan Planck, four years old and skiing for the fourth time in his life. His verdict? It’s fun, not hard, and the best part is going downhill. Fast. His parents and sister, Anna, who’s coy about her age, keep up. They’re all going strong, though Mom confesses to having been a little concerned at the Adirondack Overlook, which drops off in way that makes mothers nervous.
And how does this compare with video games? “We’re trying to hold off on those as long as possible,” says Mom (who also answers to Pamela). “We figure if we get the kids out having fun then this will stay ingrained.”
As bustling as the trails were on our first day’s outing, they are quiet on the second. A little rain overnight and drizzle first thing in the morning may have discouraged skiers. But the clouds will lift as the day goes on, and we’re content to sample the other sections of BREIA in near solitude.
The Boonville Gorge section of the Canal Trail will be our main outing this morning. But first we make a swing through the Skyfields on Jackson Hill. This area includes some of the more remote and challenging terrain BREIA offers, including routes down steep wooded slopes that allow advanced skiers to connect with the Canal Trail from the hilltop.
But the Skyfields network also includes easier loops on open fields that provide views in all directions: south to the Mohawk Valley, north to the Tug Hill escarpment, and northeast to the Adirondacks. This morning, the view is the same in all directions: gray clouds and mist. But the two-mile swing around the Northern View Loop of the Long Field provides an easy warm-up and a sense that we are saving a reason to return for trails left unskied. Like the Egypt Road complex, Skyfields offers a mix of easy, intermediate, and advanced terrain, though the balance is weighted toward the harder trails.
We finish our two-day visit where BREIA began its work, the Canal Trail.
Because we don’t have time for a round trip of the entire thirteen-kilometer Canal Trail, we start at Trail’s End so we can ski through the striking Boonville Gorge. Driving the twenty minutes from Jackson Hill to the trailhead we catch glimpses of ruined locks and the ski trail as Route 46 parallels the BREIA route. We descend into the gorge past Pixley Falls State Park (closed for the season) and find the parking area.
Two women are heading out ahead of us with a golden retriever accompanying them. Though BREIA doesn’t allow dogs on the rest of its trails, the Canal Trail, being on state land, does permit them. The skiers tell us they are frequent visitors to the trail and assure us that the climb north through the gorge is gradual.
We start off several minutes after them and don’t see them for the rest of our trip. As with Jackson Hill earlier in the day, we have the trail almost to ourselves. We are never far from the road on this trail, so it isn’t a wilderness experience. But traffic is light, and it’s easy to immerse ourselves in the history and natural beauty of the gorge.
Climbing the old towpath, we remain on a high bank overlooking the Lansing Kill to our right and the remnants of the canal on our left. Only five minutes into our excursion we come to one of the steeper sections of trail where a flight of five hand-operated locks raised and lowered boats. The ruins of a stone building stand on the right of the path.
Twenty minutes later we hear Pixley Falls through the woods to our right and soon come to the state park. Water drops fifty feet over the broad falls, but the viewpoint for this stunning landmark is across a bridge and picnic area in the park. A sign informs us that the bridge is closed and crossing would be trespassing.
From the park we resume our steady but gradual climb. The drizzle has glazed the track, and we settle into the soothing rhythm of kick and glide, taking in the sights of the wooded shoulders of the gorge and the rounded side valleys emptying into it.
About three miles from the start, we reluctantly decide to turn around. The slope that had imposed the continuous climb on the outward leg gives us a long easy glide past the locks, the park, and the abandoned structures to our car. Though we have a beautiful drive ahead of us through the Adirondack Park, we feel some regret that we must leave with still more to explore at BREIA complex. Another time.