No matter how you say it, Wilmington’s Cooper Kill Trail offers range of outdoor pursuits
By Tim Rowland
Adirondack outdoors types have made a bit of a cottage industry of debating the origin of the name Cooper Kill Trail, which is assigned to a 6 mile traverse of the Stephenson Range through the Wilmington Wild Forest.
The trail is popular for skiing and snowshoeing in winter, hiking and mountain biking in summer, and as a jumping off point to the slide on Wilmington Peak, as well as a quick-and-dirty bushwhack of Morgan Mountain and a visit to remote Cooper Kiln Pond.
Yes, Cooper Kiln Pond is on Cooper Kill Trail, and the question becomes:
1. Is a kill the same thing as a kiln?
2. If not, is kill or kiln a mistake on the map?
3. Which one is correct?
4. Aren’t there more productive things we could be arguing about at the moment?
First, a kill and a kiln are two different things. Kill is a body of water, such as a creek, while kiln is a furnace for heating or drying or cooking various products, including bricks, charcoal, ceramics, fertilizer and cement.
I have seen internet origin stories suggesting Cooper Kill must refer to a brook somewhere in the backcountry. Except there is none. And Wilmington historian Guy Stephenson — who is in a better position to know, seeing as how his is the family for whom the Stephenson Range is named — said the correct name is kiln, referring to an early industrial site.
Who was Cooper? We’re not sure, except that early maps show an M.Cooper owned property nearby, and Stephenson said several families of Coopers were recorded in the Wilmington area.
It’s also notable that to a nascent wilderness settlement, the cooper, or barrel maker, would be of similar importance as a sawyer or miller. These coopers dried their staves in kilns, so I suppose there’s a possibility the cooper could refer to the occupation of the kiln owner — although a family name seems far more likely.
As to the confusion between kill and kiln, the Dutch-derived word kill is more predominant on the lower, more bureaucratic map-making regions of the state. This far north, such a stream is usually known as a brook; my Mid-Atlantic upbringing is more accustomed to a creek or a run.
However, something else I know from my Mid-Atlantic sensibilities is that, properly pronounced, the “n” at the end of kiln is silent. That’s not me talking, that’s the 1881 Etymological and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language.
So my fantasy is that the conversation went something like this:
“Hey Edgar, what’s the name of that trail again?”
“Cooper Kill, got it.”
Unfortunately, in history, a fun answer is usually a wrong answer.
But if you don’t want to think about the name and just want to enjoy the trail, skiers of all abilities have options. Daring types can go for the whole enchilada — the preferred direction is from Gillespie Road down to Bonneview, which has a 2-1 downhill to uphill ratio — while everyone can enjoy a beautiful, flat tour d’evergreens by leaving from the Gillespie Road trailhead just off the Whiteface Memorial Highway, several hundred yards past the trailhead for Cobble Lookout.
However, an interesting and gentle side trail is to be found off the Bonneview Road trailhead east of Wilmington, particularly for people like an aging me whose taste for ripping down mountainsides into a spruce have dwindled over the years.
This two-mile out-and-back begins at the trailhead at the intersection of Bonneville and John Bliss roads, and is a mostly level to gradually climbing route through an attractive mixed forest that’s reclaimed the farmland of old.
At about a half mile, the trail jogs left across a small stream with a steep but short bank on either side. Usually this little brook is frozen snowpack in winter, but on a mild January day, a snowshoer warned Beth and I that the water was open and we would probably need to walk it. She was right.
Across the stream, the trail jogs right again and continues on into the meat of the Stephenson Range, growing steeper and more rugged in short order.
Just after this turn, however, is an unmarked but obvious (to those who are looking for it) trail coming in on the left. This informal trail gets scant use, although it does appear to get some degree of maintenance. One tree was down in our path, but other scattered blowdown has been cut.
The route makes a few little twists and turns past ghosts of old stone walls and corrals before coming within spitting distance of the head of a small chasm. Here it turns right and shadows the chasm rim. The woods are pretty open and conducive to little off-trail sojourns on our stubby Altai Hoks to enjoy the view of the brook.
At its head is a grove thick with ash trees, with their striking, diamond-patterned bark. With the emerald ash borer closing in from the south, these trees may sadly be doomed, so we enjoy them every chance we get.
Further downstream, the chasm grows deeper and more dramatic. The trail remains on high ground until it descends to the floor of the little valley on a moderate downhill that adds a bit of “whee!” to an otherwise level route.
Shortly after this downhill, the trail dead-ends at private property, necessitating a U-turn. Returning to the junction with the marked trail, you can turn right and return to your car, or get in a little more skiing by turning left and heading up into the mountains. That is, if you have some more time to kiln.
- Distance: 2.2 miles, roundtrip.
- Elevation: 1,468
- Elevation gain: 176 feet.