Big plans for NP trial
By Peter Crowley
Jeff and Donna Case of Syracuse have hiked the Northville-Placid Trail 16 times—more than anyone else they know of. “In fact, our dog has done it more times than anyone else,” Donna said. “He’s done it 10 times.”
“It’s a perfect two-week vacation,” Jeff remarked. “People might have a perfect spot to go on vacation, and they go there year after year. Well, this trail goes through all our favorite spots.”
One of them is West Canada Lakes, where the trail winds past a series of pristine lakes: “It really gives you a sense of wilderness because it is so open and the lakes are so big,” Jeff said.
The Cases have had sour times on the trail as well as sweet. Last year, they arrived at the Lake Placid end to find their car vandalized—a window smashed and dried beer coating the exterior. Another year, a camper stole their food at Duck Hole. A porcupine once chewed a hole in Jeff’s backpack. And then there are the sections of trail periodically flooded by beaver dams.
While most annoyances come and go, one remains constant: trudging down asphalt and dirt roads that make up several stretches of the 133-mile trail. “The road parts are what kind of spoils it,” said Jeff, who especially dislikes a 6.6-mile section along Cedar River Road west of Indian Lake. When carrying a heavy pack, he said, this gravel road gives feet a pounding like no woodland trail can.
“This year, my feet were the best they’ve ever been,” Jeff said. “And then we hit the road. I had blisters so big, I didn’t even think I could walk into town to get supplies.”
“If you’ve ever done that road walk, anything would be better,” agreed Rich Vertigan of Schenectady, who hiked it several years ago on a 90-degree August day. “Cars would go by and throw dirt on you. It seems like it goes on forever.”
Vertigan, a member of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), is the man to whom NP end-to-enders write for commemorative patches once they’ve finished the route. “A lot of people ask, ‘Can I still get the patch if I skip that road, if I get a ride?’ ” Vertigan said.
Most hikers skip the 10.3-mile stretch of road that takes the trail from Northville, its official southern terminus, to Benson, where it enters the woods. A few purists still start in Northville but only for the sake of their own consciences—that road march is not required to earn a patch. Less avoidable are the Cedar River Road and the three miles of blacktop in and around Piseco. Hikers must walk these stretches to qualify for a patch.
ADK, which built the trail in 1922, has long wanted to reroute the NP to avoid the road walks, but it could not do so until the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) wrote unit management plans for the Forest Preserve areas where the new trail would go. DEC is decades behind in preparing management plans for the Park, but in 1999, Gov. George Pataki ordered the agency to complete them all within five years.
The three Forest Preserve units relevant to the NP reroutes are the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest near the Northville-Benson stretch, the Jessup River Wild Forest near Piseco and the Blue Ridge Wilderness near Cedar River Road. Rick Fenton, DEC’s regional forester in Northville, said he is trying to accommodate the reroutes in all three, but the locations remain uncertain.
As this year marks the 80th anniversary of both the trail and ADK, the club has been pushing hard to make the NP a completely wooded domain. The club built the “Long Trail,” as it was then called, as its first project. ADK’s first president, Standard Oil executive and state Conservation Commissioner George Pratt, bankrolled the project himself.
“The Northville-Placid Trail is really the reason why the Adirondack Mountain Club was formed in the beginning,” remarked ADK lawyer Neil Woodworth. “It really goes to the core of why we exist.”
In 1923, ADK members Bob and George Marshall proposed a second Adirondack long-distance trail, from Lake George to Lake Placid via Mount Marcy, but funding never appeared. Then, in 1928, the club shifted its priorities away from new trails, focusing instead on “conservation, recreation and education.” The NP Trail is now managed by DEC.
No one has yet gone on record opposing the reroutes. John Washburn, who owns the Trailhead Lodge in Benson, would seem to reap financial benefits from NP hikers who use his inn as a last breath of civilization before starting the two-week trek. One would think he’d lose business if the actual trailhead were in Northville. Yet Washburn is one of the most vocal advocates of rerouting the start of the trail. Two years ago, he and a friend pounded through thick woods, rain and bugs in the Shaker Mountain Wild Forest to scout a potential Northville-Benson route—an adventure he wrote about in the Explorer.
On June 1, National Trails Day, ADK led a guided bushwhack into the Blue Ridge Wilderness to scout a route that would avoid Cedar River Road. The reactions were mixed. Some said the ADK planners might need to go back to the drawing board.
“It was pretty wet,” Judy Harbison of Rochester said. “Granted, it’s spring and we got a lot of rain last night, but a lot of it was really a creek hike.”
Tim Tierney, ADK’s trails crew chief, said DEC probably will designate a corridor where the trail can go and leave it to the trail workers to cut the best path within those boundaries. Just because ADK cut the original trail doesn’t mean its crew will do the reroutes, but the club will try to win the bid.
Meanwhile, Jeff and Donna Case have even more reason to return to their beloved trail. ADK has hired them to prepare a new edition of Guide to Adirondack Trails: Northville-Placid Trail, the definitive guidebook for all aspiring end-to-enders. The book is due out next August.
The Cases have hiked the NP Trail almost every spring since 1985. They skipped it only one year, when Donna was ill, and they had to abort one trip, when Jeff sprained his ankle. They always hike from south to north to avoid having the sun in their eyes. On occasion, friends join them for part of the way but never for the whole trek.
When not in the woods, the Cases run a small business cleaning offices. They are active Jehovah’s Witnesses and have been married for 26 years. They have no children but own two cats. The dog that was their faithful hiking companion died a few years ago.
Just where are their favorite spots? High on their list are Silver Lake near Benson, the West Canada Lakes, Cascade Lake in the Blue Ridge Wilderness and Shattuck Clearing in the western High Peaks. Oh, and it’s especially nice to amble into the hamlet of Long Lake for an ice-cream cone after you’ve been on the trail for several days.
The Cases always skip the Northville-Benson road, and Jeff said that they may recommend in the guidebook that other hikers do the same. “It’s almost risky,” he said. “The cars really do move along pretty quick.”
The Cases’ new guidebook may be partly out of date in a few years if the trail is rerouted, but they don’t mind. They look forward to visiting the new places and finding few more favorite spots. “Whatever’s there is better than what’s on the road,” Jeff said. “That’s for sure.”