Retired Forest Ranger Steve Ovitt aims to connect North Creek with the wild lands around the community.
By BILL MCKIBBEN
To really understand this story, you have to bear in mind two distinctive things about North Creek.
One, it butts up against the mountains much tighter than most Adirondack communities. Start on the path that runs beside Town Hall (within sight of the Hudson), and within minutes you’re climbing steeply up Gore Mountain, entering one of the largest wilderness complexes in the Park.
Two—and this negates the first advantage— North Creek is one of the few Adirondack hamlets bypassed by a state highway. Instead of following the main street, the state cut Route 28 between the town and the mountain, in much the same way that highway builders cut off many of our finest cities from their river or ocean fronts. (Think Albany or Boston).
The result: the Adirondack town that should have perhaps the easiest access to recreation finds itself physically and psychologically marooned.
But that’s changing, thanks more than anything else to the vision of one man.
Steve Ovitt was the region’s forest ranger for decades. Steadfastly resisting efforts to move him to a higher-paid desk somewhere, he patrolled the lakes and woods of this sparsely populated and remarkably wild hunk of the Adirondack Park: the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest, the Siamese Ponds Wilderness. From Crane Mountain to Thirteenth Lake he was the guy who rescued lost hikers, burned down illegal hunting camps, issued stream-crossing permits for loggers. He took care of things.
And then, once he had put in his years, he retired—still in his early fifties, still strong. Which is when he really went to work. He started a business—Wilderness Property Management—which builds trails for public and private landowners around the region. He started teaching in the adventure-sports program at SUNY Adirondack. He co-founded Adirondack Treks, a nonprofit aimed at getting local kids outdoors.
Most of all, he let his imagination run.
For twenty-five years he’d covered the ninety thousand acres of state land in his ranger district, maintaining the existing network of trails. But now, in earnest, he began to expand them.
The first, and most obvious, candidates were the ghost trails of the past—especially the famous descents along Raymond Brook that were, arguably, America’s first ski area. In the 1930s, when the ski train arrived at North Creek station from Grand Central, locals would pile the city folk into the backs of trucks and haul them up to the height of land near Barton Mines; then they’d crash and cruise through the woods back to town to do it again. The trails from the famous “Ride Up, Slide Down” years were abandoned when the state opened the Gore Mountain ski area in the 1960s, but Ovitt and a team of volunteers cut them back open. More than that, really: Ovitt has an eye for detail, and so the trails are carefully plotted to conserve snow late into the season, to give skiers runouts at the bottom of each drop. “You want to keep speed down and pleasure up,” he explained to me once. “It’s OK to have a small thrill; you just don’t want your life flashing in front of your eyes.”
Those trails end at the Ski Bowl, the small ski area operated as something of an afterthought by Gore, whose main trails are on the other side of the mountain. It’s the Ski Bowl that should be North Creek’s backyard, were it not for that cursed highway bypass. Over the years it has hosted small-scale downhill skiing, a snow-tubing park that never quite caught on, and even a miniature golf course. Also the town landfill. (It’s now going to serve in the winter as the East’s newest, and best-equipped, Nordic race course—see sidebar Page 50.)
It was the Bowl—literally a stone’s throw from Johnsburg Central School (if your arm was good enough to get the stone across the highway) that really got Ovitt thinking. Thinking philosophically. Thinking long enough to arrive at one of the ironies of the Adirondacks.
Put simply, recreation in the Adirondacks is largely designed with flatlanders in mind. You need to drive to most of the trailheads—the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) puts up a parking lot 6.8 miles from somewhere, and there the path begins. In the North Creek region, for instance, there are trailheads for places like Kibby Pond and Eleventh Mountain and OK Slip Falls. Everyone who comes, comes in a car. You are a long ways from anywhere before the hike even starts, which is actually perfect if what you want most is solitude.
But what if you kind of want company? (Humans are, after all, social primates.) Then someplace like the Bowl might be just about perfect.
So let’s walk up from North Creek in the company of Ovitt. The Carol Thomas Trail, named for the wife of former Johnsburg Supervisor Bill Thomas, leaves from next to Town Hall. “It’s a five-foot-wide hardened path,” he says. “You can walk it in good shoes, you can walk it side by side. It’s a strolling path, but it’s still narrow enough, at five feet, that if you encounter someone you still have to look at them, still have to yield a little. If it was eight feet—well, that’s a highway, you don’t have to look at your neighbors.”
In fact, says Ovitt, “the width is more critical to creating atmosphere and community” than any other aspect of the trail. “That’s why I like single-track trails. Someone has to give way.” And in fact we’ve now reached the Bowl, where the bike trails his company has constructed in recent years begin to branch out. Some double as walking trails; others (“Larry,” “Moe,” and “Curly,” in particular) are for hard-core thrill enthusiasts. All are carefully constructed.
“It takes four times as long to build a kilometer of biking trail as hiking trail,” says Ovitt. “It takes a day or two to lay out a kilometer—your grades, your turn radiuses. Then it’s on to brushing, leaf-blowing, and then you finalize the track location, establish your flow line.” Judging from the people whooping and hollering, it’s working.
All of this is pretty intensive work—which is why, says Ovitt, it’s suited for places right next to town. A bike trail might well feature berms and banks and rollers; he’s got a mini-excavator that he uses on jobs. To make a trail wide enough for skate-skiing, you probably need to really excavate, which means you’re putting in erosion control. “Something thirty-foot wide means culverts, water bars,” he says.
Most DEC trails aren’t designed for these kinds of multiple uses, Ovitt points out. They’re built for summer hiking, and if you want to try something else it’s “probably not going to be optimal. I remember bringing my college class on skis back from the Wallface lean-to last winter. It was low snow, and they had stone water bars on the trail, and we were hitting every one.”
But he’s careful to say this kind of work belongs near town, not deep in the woods. Ovitt has no issues with state policy that, say, keeps mountain bikes out of Wilderness Areas. “Skate-skiing, biking—they’re already kind of industrial,” he says. “They take machines, to ride on or to groom. So you do it close in. If you’re doing that kind of skiing, or bike riding, it’s maybe 50 percent where you are, and 50 percent is the ski or the ride itself. When you get further out, when you’re backcountry skiing or snowshoeing, then it’s all about the surroundings and destination.”
And indeed we are getting further out, along the trail up Gore Mountain that Ovitt rebuilt years ago when he was a ranger, which is named for conservation hero Paul Schaefer. As the intersections with bike and ski trails dwindle, it turns into a normal hiking trail—though an especially well-built one, which carefully avoids trashing the gorge of the lovely brook it parallels.
Eventually we climb as high as a lovely pond— which, just to remind you that we’re still in an “Intensive Use Area,” has a big pipe jutting in the air. This is Gore’s snowmaking pond, filled with water pumped up from the Hudson—come winter, if it’s another bad one, this is what Nordic racers down below in the Bowl will be skiing on. We sit on a rock above the water, and share a couple of beers that Steve has brought along. (His summer favorite, not surprisingly, is Fat Tire Ale). And we talk. About the new ski loops he has planned for the backcountry (an eight-mile trail he built around nearby Botheration Pond is a perfect day trip not just for the skiing, but also to see the fifty-foot rustic bridge he built from logs he felled on site—it’s the Brooklyn Bridge of the backcountry). About the plan for a groomable ski trail that would connect the fast-paced Nordic mayhem of the Bowl to the picture-perfect trails of the nearby Garnet Hill Lodge ski area. Mostly we talk about the community where he has raised his two daughters (one has graduated from Middlebury College; the other is a junior there), coached skiing, and been a crucial visionary for many years.
“Communities need to see themselves,” he says. “Kids need to be able to walk up a little ways to a high point and look back and see: this is where I live.”
One of the ways Ovitt has gotten so much done is by turning to friends. What started out as the Siamese Ponds Trail Improvement Society has morphed into the Upper Hudson Trails Alliance, chaired by Dick Carlson, who groomed and managed the ski trails at Garnet Hill for many years. Though he now works in Lake George, he still lives nearby in North River, and he’s helped rally locals to do massive amounts of trail work in recent years. “Weed-whacking, branch-clearing—we had to have done seventy miles of trails last year,” he says.
“These ‘Friends of ’ groups are springing up all over the state,” he says. “Sometimes they have budgets of millions of dollars. The state owns and administers the lands, but the DEC just doesn’t have the resources to maintain it all—not when the trails are so heavily utilized.”
The Upper Hudson Trail Alliance may never reach that size—northern Warren County is pretty sparsely peopled—but the group nonetheless has enormous vision. When the county and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry held meetings last year under a state grant to ask people about possible future trails, they supplied a long list, mostly, like the new trails in North Creek, down along the corridor that connects Corinth up to Tahawus. Mostly, that is, adjacent to communities. “It’s a pretty voluminous plan—how much will get implemented, I don’t know,” said Carlson.
But every bit that does get built brings the connection a little closer between town and mountain, between local and locale. Much of the planning that’s been done these last years has taken place on the stools of Bar Vino, the low-key and high-touch bistro that opened some years ago on North Creek’s main street—an institution that’s come to stand for the same mix of quality and accessibility that marks the trails just a few hundred yards away.
But those few hundred yards cross, of course, the state highway, keeping North Creek from becoming the sort of European ski town it could be. Unless, of course, there was a bridge over the road. A bridge wide enough that you could get a groomer over it. A bridge that let you ski pretty much to the bar at Bar Vino. Think, for instance, of the bridge across the entrance road at Mount Van Hoevenberg.
Carlson, and Steve Tomb, the local high-school teacher who’s pushed hardest for the new Nordic trails, have been known to dream such dreams over their pints. Carlson, in fact, has done more than dream: his investigation shows that a similar pedestrian bridge in Lake George, for instance, cost about $600,000. Which would be a fairly small price for the state to pay to make up for what it did to North Creek when it bypassed its downtown.
‘That bypass really did kind of screw us,” says Tomb. “It cut off this amazing resource from this village. Lots of times last year, when there were high-school races at the Bowl, visitors up to watch their kids would ask me: ‘Is there any good place to eat around here?’ And I’d say, ‘Sure, over in the village.’ And they’d say, ‘There’s a village?’”
There is a village. Unlike any other spot I can think of in the Park, or in the East, it offers, within walking distance, world-class paddling, a downhill-ski mountain, mountain biking, Nordic racing, backcountry skiing, and access to deep wilderness. It’s not hard to imagine it as the regional capital of muscle-powered sports. But most people just whiz right by, not noticing—that’s what 55 mph means.
It may be some years before that problem entirely disappears—before a bridge is built. But none of it seems impossible. Ovitt, after all, spent a quarter-century wandering around these woods as a ranger, thinking all the time about new possibilities. So maybe it’s fair to give him and his buddies a quarter-century more to make them all reality.
Ski Bowl ups its game
By BILL MCKIBBEN
No cloud without a silver lining. Or, in this case, no clouds means a carpet of white. Last winter’s record warmth and lack of snow left cross-country skiers seriously depressed. There’s probably no sport more vulnerable to the planet’s quick warming; one EPA report after another has warned that winter as we know it will vanish from these latitudes over the course of the century.
But that future is going to come slower in North Creek than most places: the town’s Ski Bowl suddenly looks set to become one of the East’s premier Nordic race venues. It’s not cross-country like you’ve ever seen it before. But once you’ve seen it you can’t stop watching.
“We’ve been making some snow down at the Bowl for cross country skiing for a few years,” says Mike Pratt, who has run Gore Mountain for many years. “But last year, when it got time for the big high-school races, no one else had snow. And so we stepped up and made it work.”
Indeed they did—with brown ground everywhere else, there were, count ’em, nine high-school races in the Bowl last year. And as the season unfolded, Pratt and others began to notice just how popular the sport had become. Yellow buses from schools around the region would rumble into the parking lot, followed by fleets of parents.
“I was tremendously impressed,” says Pratt.
“I mean, we had people coming from the lower Hudson Valley. The coaches from Shenendehowa and Saratoga were telling me that even with the awful winter they’d increased the number of kids who were participating.”
Partly that’s because the Bowl offers a whole new atmosphere for the sport. Until recently, a ski race was kind of hard on spectators. You’d cheer like crazy as the racers disappeared into the woods in a bunch, then stand around shivering for half an hour until they emerged again, this time in a ragged line. By contrast, the course at Little Gore lets you watch virtually the whole race from the bottom of the hill—it’s like a Nordic ant farm.
“We had huge bonfires—it was like Friday Night Lights for cross-country skiing,” said Johnsburg coach Steve Tomb, who was a key force in getting the operation underway. “Suddenly, it’s like they’re the basketball team or something—everyone can cheer.”
The winter was so successful that even before it was over Pratt had begun making plans to transform the area. For many years the Bowl has been a bit of an orphan operation for the main mountain. In recent years, for instance, they had installed a tubing hill, only to find that not many people were willing to drive an hour or two for an afternoon of sliding.
But for an afternoon of climbing up steep hills on skis? Sure. So Pratt called in the ‘homologators,’ ski-racing officials who make sure that courses meet international standards. They’ve now figured out a 2.5-kilometer sprint course and a 3.3-kilometer course that you’d loop for distance races—courses tough and wide enough that you could hold the Olympics on them if you wanted. And unlike the other premier Nordic venues in the Adirondack Park, these trails come with snowmaking: there were already snow guns on the hill, and there’s an endless source of water in the Hudson flowing nearby.
There are a few other eastern Nordic areas now making snow, such as the Middlebury and Colby college race courses in Vermont and Maine and Craftsbury in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. But even they lack a couple of other things that North Creek offers. One is—bulldozers. The area crisscrossed by the new course is sandy, and it’s already been heavily developed for downhill skiing. That means if you need a new hill or a bank, the heavy equipment in Gore’s fleet can reconfigure the course at will.
And the other is lights. Lots of them. Nighttime racing is relatively common in Europe but almost unheard of over here. When the short days of winter draw to a dusky close, says Tomb, “all you have to do is flip a switch.” The base lodge sells food; Tomb says there are even plans to hook up wi-fi cameras this season. “The kids are totally stoked.”
The adults too. Tomb has begun plotting ways to lure international competitions to the mountains of Warren County. Mostly, though, he’s thinking of local youth. “I’ve been teaching fifteen years, and the [digital] screen thing—it’s scary,” he says. “You grow up in a ski town, it should be your birthright that you’re a good skier.” The hot new slopes a few hundred yards from the high school, he thinks, will lure many of his students back to the outdoors. “It gives us a real chance at a Nordic lifestyle, a healthy lifestyle for our communities.”
Pratt says that as long as it’s cold enough to turn on the snow guns there will be skiable snow by Thanksgiving; they’ll open the new Nordic course the same day as the big alpine mountain. The weekend of December 15 will mark the town’s first Nordicfest, with races of all kinds beginning Friday night under the lights.
We hope it’s a great winter with lots of snow for everyone,” says Tomb. “But it’s definitely going to be a great winter in North Creek.