By MIKE LYNCH
About a decade ago, Jim Frenette was monkeying around with the trail groomer for the cross-country trails at the Tupper Lake Golf Course.
But he needed a wrench, so he drove down the road to the workshop of his nephew, John Gillis.
Gillis, an avid skier and carpenter, had the right wrench. Perhaps more important: During the visit Gillis took an interest in trail grooming. Since then, he has helped spearhead a volunteer effort to expand and groom the free cross-country skiing trail system that is now known as James C. Frenette, Sr. Recreational Trails.
The trail system consists of nearly five miles of groomed trails and another mile-long spur trail that connects to the currently shuttered Big Tupper Ski Area. The system is a big upgrade from where it started in 2008 when the main focus was skiing the golf course, which is owned by the town and leased to the Tupper Lake Country Club from the spring to the fall.
Gillis said one of the major changes in recent years has been moving the trails off the golf course and into the nearby trees, a process they are in the final stages of completing. “Having the trails in the woods has been a game-changer,” he said. “The conditions are so much better in the woods. It holds the snow better.”
Overall, the trail system has two miles on town land, including the 1.5-mile beginners’ loop around the golf course and the adventure-seeker’s half-mile Hulls Brook Trail that Gillis warns “isn’t for the faint of heart.” In addition, there are 2.7 miles of intermediate level groomed trails on Trail Preserve Associates property.
There is also a groomed sledding hill that draws families on weekends.
The trail system is named for the 90-year-old Frenette because he has been instrumental in the Tupper Lake cross-country scene for decades as a coach, groomer and mentor. In the 1960s, he coached the high school team. Then, in the 1970s, he and his late wife, Susanne Hull Frenette, ran the local chapter of the Bill Koch youth league.
Eric Lanthier, one of the main grooming and trail building volunteers for the trail system, said skiing in the Bill Koch League under Frenette was life-changing. “It set me up to do winter activities the rest of my life,” he said.
One of the interesting things about the trail system land is that people have been skiing on it since it was owned by the Oval Wood Dish Co., which was owned by Frenette’s wife’s family.
Oval Wood Dish operated in Tupper Lake for about 50 years, starting in 1918. The company, which employed 500 people at its peak, made wooden bowls, spoons, bowling pins and other wooden products.
OWD was friendly toward skiers and leased land for the Sugar Loaf Mountain ski center adjacent to the golf course below Mount Morris in the middle of the 20th century. If you look long enough in the woods, you can find the old engine that was used to run the rope tow, Frenette noted. Sugar Loaf was the precursor to the Big Tupper Ski Area, which later developed on Mount Morris.
Town councilman and volunteer groomer John Quinn said the long-term hope for the Frenette trails is to make them available for a wide range of users year-round. He said the town is already experimenting with allowing fat-tire bike use on the property in the winter—conditions permitting. Plus, the trails are open to dogs, a rarity for groomed trail systems.
Quinn said another major upgrade in the near future will be converting the golf pro building, so it can be used as a warming hut in the winter. Right now, the only facility open to skiers is a portable toilet. That warming hut project’s funding will come from a $100,000 Smart Growth grant that Tupper Lake recently received for improving its winter recreation economy. The grant will be used for multiple projects, including creating a town-wide winter recreation and tourism master plan.
Of course, one of the challenges of this grassroots projects is funding. Grants have definitely been beneficial and helped pay for grooming equipment and special projects, but the town is still required to subsidize the trail system with taxpayer money and the help of donations earmarked for the trail system. And none of it would be possible without the free labor provided by volunteers. All in all, the trail system, including its grooming equipment, has come a long way.
“When we started, we were dragging bed frames behind a donated snowmobile,” Gillis joked. The bed frame—which had a chain link fence attached—served as the groomer.