By BRANDON LOOMIS
Kris Bratton couldn’t believe she hadn’t known about this place years before.
The architect from Highlands, New Jersey, stood on the banks of Sagamore Lake on a crisp late-September morning, marveling at her ability to come tramping up a trail on the western corner of the Blue Ridge Wilderness and snag a bedroom and a hot meal at the former summer home of one of America’s all-time richest families.
Great Camp Sagamore, wildland retreat of the railroad baron Vanderbilts at the turn of the twentieth century, is now a nonprofit lodge open to the public and just a five-hour drive from Bratton’s home. It took her participation in a test trip for the Adirondack Hamlets to Huts trekking initiative to open her eyes to the rustic elegance of a Gilded Age log chalet.
“I didn’t even know this existed,” Bratton said. “It’s shocking I was that naïve when this is basically in my own backyard.”
She meant the lakes, the trails, the lodge: everything. The night before, a nearly full Harvest Moon had risen over the white pines and painted a buttery slash across Sagamore Lake as some of her group sat awed and others jockeyed for position with their cameras.
Guests study maps of their route the night before embarking on Blue Mountain Lake.
Bratton is the kind of traveler Hamlets to Huts has in mind as the Saranac Lake-based economic development enterprise tries to move from vision to business model by introducing recreationists to things they might not have considered without a little help.
The fledgling nonprofit’s goal is to connect Adirondack villages and outposts via people power in all seasons, allowing them to experience the backcountry without lugging all the gear. It’s patterned after European hut-to-hut systems, and the yurt trails of Vermont and Colorado. In the Adirondacks, the emphasis is community-based lodging, in part because new structures are prohibited in the state Forest Preserve.
Bratton is a strong cyclist who visited Lake Placid for the Cycle Adirondacks tour two summers ago and happened upon the Hamlets to Huts office in Saranac Lake. She hiked with the group’s guides on a first pilot trip out of North Creek last spring, and then returned for the paddling trip that put her on the water for the autumnal equinox. Paddling stretched her comfort zone, but she could be at ease with guides and a shuttle system that left her with just a day pack to tote between lodges for five days. On the last day she rode her mountain bike from Sagamore to the village of Raquette Lake, over trails and dirt roads.
“This is a great way to introduce people who aren’t familiar with the area,” she said, “or [who] don’t paddle, or cycle.”
That’s the idea: making older, younger or wild-wary people comfortable and able to move from camp or lodge to village, injecting new money into rural Adirondack economies. By coordinating a lodging and gear-shuttling network—and building some of its own lodging and tent platforms on private lands—Hamlets to Huts hopes to convince otherwise intimidated people to get into the backcountry, Executive Director Joe Dadey said. If the group’s envisioned reservation website connects some trekkers to guides, it could even attract people who would otherwise be afraid of stepping into the woods at all.
Clients’ average age on the fall trial run was sixty-four. Each paid $800 for five nights’ lodging, meals and guiding, though eventually the plan is to have most trekkers plan and execute their own trips with some logistical help.
“We’re looking to diversify the demographics that come to know, love and presumably be inclined to protect the Adirondacks long into the future,” Dadey said.
Several of the clients on the “Great Camp Traverse” said they appreciated the mix of slow-paced hiking and canoe paddling, especially an unusually glassy-water crossing of Raquette Lake, all without carrying their gear.
“For some of us it tested some limits,” Judith Peabody of Ausable Forks said, “and we felt success.”
The program remains a work in progress, with a lot of study and fundraising ahead. For one thing, the group still needs to build the reservation system expected to become its core.
After this fall’s trial runs, the group’s board wants to step back and create a strategic plan to determine what comes next and at what pace, board president Tyler Merriam said. The plan will help determine whether it makes sense to build and own lodging on routes where it doesn’t already exist. It will set near-term goals for priority routes.
“We’ve been building the plane while we’re flying it,” Merriam said.
Meanwhile, Hamlets to Huts will press toward establishing at least one permanent route next year.
The group wants to start marketing a summertime hiking and rafting, wintertime skiing or snowshoeing loop—beginning and ending in North Creek via Indian Lake. The hike and float would follow the same route Bratton did with other trekkers last spring, from North Creek through the Siamese Ponds Wilderness to Chimney Mountain by Kings Flow, then on to Indian Lake and a float through the Hudson Gorge back to North Creek.
But even that trek—potentially the first of dozens the organization would support—illustrates the logistical challenges ahead.
It requires some new trail to link areas that the guides bushwhacked last spring, and the state is starting work on those segments.
“The history of Adirondack trails is they went to a pond,” and there they ended, said Jack Drury, the group’s senior adviser and a guide on the pilot trips. “They never thought about linkages.”
The test run on that route reserved a night at Chimney Mountain cabins that usually require a one-week stay. Hamlets to Huts might have to lease space from nearby timberlands to erect a yurt and some tent platforms that overnight trekkers could use. But the bigger outlay would be for a permanent lodge in Indian Lake, which currently lacks the beds that the group envisions.
That lodge could cost $1.5 million dollars that Hamlets to Huts doesn’t have as of this fall. “We’ll be proactive about that,” Dadey said.
Dadey wants the lodge within two years. Until then, the group hopes to enlist a string of smaller accommodations spreading down the west side of the lake—not ideal if the goal is to generate activity in Park hamlets. Someone would need to shuttle people to individual rentals.
Merriam said the board still needs to determine whether to build that lodge, and at what scale. “The main limiting factor right now is finances,” he said.
Ultimately, Dadey’s vision is for Hamlets to Huts to build some lodging and upscale camping on private lands along the routes, but mostly to rely on existing lodges, guides or gear shuttles that trekkers could peruse on the nonprofit’s site.
Some Adirondack Park advocates like the idea but wonder about its economics.
“I am skeptical that this plan will make a significant economic impact on our towns and local businesses,” said Pete Nelson, co-founder of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates. “With the fate of many smaller Adirondack towns in the balance over the next few decades, we need to do a much better job making sure that our resources and efforts are spent in the most effective ways possible.”
New York State has supported Hamlets to Huts with a Department of State grant and three successive Department of Environmental Conservation contracts to help plan and market priority routes, all so far adding up to about $250,000, with up to $40,000 still to come through the current contract.
Nelson would prefer the state fund some other need, such as a comprehensive shuttle system to alleviate Route 73 crowding or deliver carless New Yorkers to less-traveled parts of the Park. State investments should rest on a numbers analysis, Nelson said, “and not just go with what feels good.”
Hamlets to Huts said DEC Forest Preserve coordinator Karyn Richards has encouraged the group’s efforts. DEC declined to make her available for an interview, and instead offered a written statement saying the trekking concept would leverage the state’s conservation investments “into solid new economic opportunities for countless communities and businesses within the Park.”
Some business owners at Blue Mountain Lake, where the paddling test trip began, are eager to attract trekkers to one of the Park’s quieter recreation spots.
Blue Mountain Outfitters owner Kim LaPrairie said her business and others would gladly sign on to a unified website letting visitors reserve shuttle services, whether for their baggage, canoes, bicycles or other gear.
There’s outfitters out there that’ll do that,” she said, “and certainly individuals. We’ve hired local folks to do that when we haven’t had enough people.”
She also rents cabins—most by the week, though she has six rooms she would rent to trekkers by the night.
At Hemlock Hall, the vintage 1898 Blue Mountain Lake lodge where the paddling trip started, general manager Tony Provost said the place is often booked in mid-summer. But it would be ideal for groups traveling through in September, as the Hamlets to Huts participants, guides and videographers did.
“Oh man, this is huge for us,” he said after his family and staff fed the group a choice of corned beef and cabbage or sweet potato quesadilla. “This is kind of our slow time of year, so having sixteen people come in, even for one night, is really big for our business.”
Hemlock Hall closes yearly after Columbus Day.
From Hemlock Hall on the lake’s north, the trip included a hike up Castle Rock for a wide-angle view of the lake country, and a descent to canoes and kayaks and a paddle to The Hedges lodge on the south shore. The next day’s paddle traversed Eagle Lake, Utowana Lake and a portage to the Marion River and Raquette Lake, delivering participants to a dinner cruise with Raquette Lake Navigation and a house with a 19-bed bunkhouse at the old St. William’s Catholic church, now a nonprofit gathering place. The group then toured historic Camp Pine Knot and paddled to Raquette Lake’s South Inlet before storing the boats and hiking to Sagamore. Trekkers had the choice of biking from there to the village of Raquette Lake, as Bratton did, or returning to the boats and paddling there.
These are just suggested sites for a future lake route, and it’s not certain that they will join the initiative long-term.
For paddlers Lynelle Spring and Tim Woods, of Victoria, British Columbia, the comfort and history of the great camps was a unique part of the attraction. The two own a summer home near Malone, but had not visited Sagamore or the others.
“Normally we’re on a campsite somewhere in the wilderness with wolves all around us,” Spring said. “So this is a brand-new experience for us to combine paddling with a bit of luxury and also rustic. We love it.”
Woods considered Hamlets to Huts a likely boon to the Adirondacks, and without big development pressures of new resorts. Protecting but still enjoying the environment “is a balancing act,” he said, “and this is a great way to balance those things.”
At Sagamore, guests enjoyed a fire, wine or Scotch next to a stone hearth, and teased each other over cribbage and trivia. They were hardly roughing it, but neither were they luxuriating among the fabulously wealthy, and Dadey later told them that evening had epitomized the spirit of comfortable adventure. The sporting great camp owners of years past “would’ve said, ‘Bravo, you had a good time just as we would.’”
Other routes will require some new accommodations. The group envisions comfortable camping, with a kitchen and common space in yurts and tent platforms and beds. The camps may have outhouses and water systems, depending on what health officials would require for gray-water treatment. The group itself would build these, primarily on private land it leases from timber companies.
Some routes could use those same types of camps, but in state campgrounds—if the state will permit them. That would require an amendment to unit management plans, Drury acknowledged, if not the state lands plan. It’s not something the group would propose anytime soon, though he believes it could fit with the intensive-use designation that covers developed campgrounds.
The Adirondack Mountain Club says yurts and tent platforms—or anything beyond a tent site, picnic table and fire ring—are illegal at state tent campgrounds in the Forest Preserve.
“That would be going beyond what I believe both the constitution and the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan provides,” ADK Executive Director Neil Woodworth said.
He thinks Hamlets to Huts is a good idea, he said, and that there are plenty of private lands to support it. But, “We would have to legally challenge any attempt to put a lodge on the Forest Preserve.”
For now the group is refining and identifying support businesses for ten of the fifty-nine possible routes it identified in a 2015 report, all lodging guests on private land. Those priorities include the North Creek and Great Camp routes, plus a Newcomb-Lake Placid traverse and an Old Forge-Raquette Lake loop.
The ultimate goal is not to coordinate the kind of immersive experience with strangers that the pilot trips have offered, Dadey said. Rather, it’s to provide a sort of business-to-business ecosystem linked through a common website, allowing families and small groups to pick their own adventures and shop for the kinds of prices and experiences they want.
The group may consider adding its own guided options, though, after hearing from the initial groups that their favorite part was bonding with new people over a shared adventure goal.
“We built a bond, and it was magical,” Spring said at trip’s end.
Either way—self-guided or with a group—Bratton intends to make the trip north from New Jersey again.
“I could come up with friends and do a three-day portion of it,” she said. Or she could join another tour to make new friends. “I’ve seen what’s possible.”