Climb to the top reveals a scene to be saved forever
By Will Nixon
Walking through a shady forest dominated by beech trees, John Collins encounters an old friend at a fork in the trail: a 15-foot yellow birch with long roots gripping a boulder like a pitcher preparing to throw a curveball. The birch died long ago.
“I remember when this tree was still growing,” said Collins, 61, who has been hiking this route up to Castle Rock overlooking Blue Mountain Lake since he was a boy.
The tree marked a cutoff trail to the lake. Collins used to row to the trail from his family’s hotel, the Hedges, on the opposite shore. The Hedges, an old-style resort where ice pitchers were de-livered to guest cottages prompt-ly at 5 p.m. for cocktails, demanded the family’s full attention from mid-March to mid-November.
“We’d get one day off in the summertime, if our dad allowed it,” Collins recalled, “but as kids we had lots of free time in the afternoons. Castle Rock was one of our favorite getaways.”
A retired schoolteacher, Collins has many silver streaks in his dark hair, but he remains quite trim in his blue shirt and red suspenders. He once served as a commissioner of the Adir-ondack Park Agency, including its chairman from 1992 to 1994. Although many Adirondackers disparage the APA, Collins relished his time at the agency.
“I grew up in a family where to argue was to live,” he said.
He possesses a hearty chuckle that takes some of the sting out of a passionate debate. With just such a chuckle, he says that not only has he been hiking up Castle Rock for most of his life, but he has been trespassing the whole time.
But not in the future. The landowners, descendants of Berthold Hochschild, recently decided to sell 207 acres on Blue Mountain Lake for $1.4 million, including the property around Castle Rock—ensuring that the land will be protected forever.
In 1904, Hochschild and three friends bought 3,500 acres around Blue Mountain Lake, Eagle Lake and Utowana Lake from William West Durant, who built many Great Camps in the Adirondacks. Durant had intended to subdivide the land around the three lakes into 500 to 600 narrow lots. But after selling a few properties and building a country club, clubhouse and golf course by Eagle Lake, he was foiled by bankruptcy.
Over the decades, the Hoch-schild family acquired the entire property from Berthold’s original partners, while subdividing for only a few summer homes for family friends. One of Berthold’s three children, Harold Hoch-schild, became a great student and patron of the Adirondacks, while also working as the president of a mining company. He wrote a history of Hamilton County’s Township 14, founded the Adirondack Museum and chaired Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s commission that led to the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency.
As a boy, John Collins knew Harold Hochschild simply as a generous neighbor. “Someone once asked me if the local people were envious of his wealth,” Collins said. “We might have been envious of the caretaker, who got a new truck every year and had a nice home, but we had little understanding of the wealth and power that Harold had.”
“Harold was very community-minded,” he added. “He didn’t hang out in the firehouse for coffee in the morning, but people in town knew him.”
The Hochchilds allowed the public to walk across their land to reach the state-owned Castle Rock. If Collins had been trespassing all those years, he knew that the landowners didn’t mind at all. In fact, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has long maintained a register at the trailhead at Minnowbrook Lodge.
In 1974, Harold Hochschild donated a conservation easement on 1,600 acres along the southern shores of Utowana and Eagle Lakes. As a result of the donation, the state pays 70 percent of the taxes on the land.
Today, Berthold’s five grandchildren share ownership of the property. They have converted the original country club—which had become Harold Hochschild’s home—into an artists retreat called the Blue Mountain Center and leased another building as a corporate conference center.
Now, after years of planning and negotiating, the family has opted to sell some 207 acres on Blue Mountain Lake, including the two largest islands and 3,200 feet of shoreline below Castle Rock, to the state. They also donated the development rights on 350 acres on three small islands in Blue Mountain Lake and on the north shore of Utowana Lake, which ensures that this land, though still in private hands, will remain forever wild.
“They’re selling the land at a bargain. The full value is almost $1.6 million,” says Erik Kulleseid, the state director of the Trust for Public Land, which helped the Hochschilds with negotiations.
With proceeds from the $1.4 million sale, the family will establish a $100,000 stewardship fund for DEC to hire a part-time ranger to maintain the property.
Indian Lake Town Supervisor Barry Hutchins likes the idea of a stewardship fund, because he contends that DEC usually does a poor job managing the Forest Preserve.
“They’ve made sure that the state doesn’t have the excuse of saying that it doesn’t have the money,” he said.
On the trail, John Collins pauses beneath a rock overhang as spacious as a porch. We follow the well-worn path that skirts the Castle Rock cliff by ascending roots and rock benches. Soon, we reach the broad summit rock with a panoramic view that takes in jagged peaks, rolling hills and lakes.
Beneath us, Blue Mountain Lake lies spread out like an artist’s palette with scattered islands instead of paints. Far to the west, there is a glimpse of Raquette Lake.
Collins predicts that the hike to Castle Rock, though already an official trail, will grow in popularity as a result of the land acquisition.
“It’s less than a third of the distance up Blue Mountain, and it has a much better view,” he said. “You get a bigger bang for your buck.”
As Collins gazes over unbroken forests around the lakes and in the Blue Ridge Wilderness to the south, he clearly likes what he sees.