By Tom Woodman
In the central Champlain Valley, an area that the Adirondack visionary Gary Randorf refers to as the Adirondack coast, communities are building a trail system with a whole different vibe than the trails of the nearby High Peaks.
Where the trails in the wild heart of the Adirondack Forest Preserve can be craggy, long, and challenging, the hikes of the Champlain Area Trails System are mostly easy or moderate, inviting for families and casual trekkers.
Where High Peaks hikers climb through high terrain, even into alpine zones, visitors to the CATS system find themselves in low foothills, diverse woods, and lake-valley bottomlands.
The biggest difference, though, is in what you might call the spirit of the trails. In the High Peaks Wilderness, hikers are getting away from civilization, venturing into a wild environment that takes them far from their usual neighbors and daily routines. Hikers enrich their lives by moving outside their home communities.
For CATS, the goal is not to leave communities behind but to link them together, to draw people to explore the countryside around Westport and Essex and an expanding area to the west, north, and south.
“Our mission is we want to have the trail systems link our communities so it brings them together. We want to connect people with nature so people will know and understand the environment,” said CATS Executive Director Chris Maron.
“There is a history of people thinking that other towns are different from us. Trails are one way of pulling people together.”
On a recent afternoon Chris led photographer Sue Bibeau and me up CATS’ newest trail—a moderate one-mile ascent to the summit of Cheney Mountain in Port Henry. It was a lovely walk on a crisp June day, but we chose that route for more than its natural attractions. The trail, which had been dedicated just days earlier, held special significance as a symbol of the growing reach of the CATS trail system and the excitement spreading through the region about its work.
Cheney Mountain lies about seven miles south of Westport, outside the Westport-Essex axis where CATS has concentrated much of its work so far. And the trail was conceived not by Maron and his colleagues in search of new territory, but by local town of Moriah leaders who had noticed what CATS was up to and who thought the town-owned mountain would be a great place for a trail. They contacted CATS, which embraced the opportunity, helped map the trail route, and held volunteer days to clear and mark the trail.
The new path was a pleasure to walk, with easy grades and no erosion. Shaped like a bread loaf, the mountain offers several overlooks as the trail winds over the ridge-like summit. From the first overlook we could look northeast where Lake Champlain stretches past the headland of Split Rock Range. Farther along, we could gaze southeast over the lake past Vermont farmlands and to the Green Mountains. The graceful new Champlain Bridge spanned the lake in the foreground. A third prospect showcased the High Peaks to the west. At our feet sat the historic Mineville iron mine next to its mountain of gray tailings.
The man-made features that were so central to the views surrounding us gave a domesticated feel to the landscape, very different from the expanses of wilderness you encounter elsewhere in the Park. And that’s an essential part of the CATS experience. Instead of wild adventure, the model here is much more like the tradition of cross-country rambling that is popular in Great Britain. And that’s no accident.
Conversation about developing the trails grew from an exchange program in the early 1990s that local communities participated in with folks from the United Kingdom.
“They came here to the Champlain Valley,” said Maron, “and one U.K. participant said they thought this area looked a lot like England. And in England there’s this strong tradition of people going off on rambles, hiking across the landscape, going from town to town.”
And it should probably come as no surprise that one early champion for the Champlain trails was Gary Randorf, the photographer and advocate who extols a richly varied park experience.
“Gary said it would be great to have this trail system so you could ramble from Westport to Essex and go all the way back,” Maron said. “That sounded like a great idea.”
Now a complex of trails near the hamlet of Whallonsburg bears the name Randorf Ramble Trail to memorialize that vision.
The CATS system counts twenty-six different trails, one of which is actually a series of routes in Split Rock Wild Forest, with three more under development. Lengths range from 0.3 miles to six miles. Some, like ascents of Poke-o-Moonshine and Coon Mountain as well as the Split Rock trails are wilderness experiences, while others include sections along roadways. The trail map even includes the recently completed Champlain Bridge, which features a safe and scenic pedestrian lane.
Ambitions for the future make up a wish list of outdoor-education plans, community programs and, of course, new trails making new connections, with routes to Willsboro high on the list. Maron said the system consists of current trails, trails under development, and “trails of the imagination.”
“The cool thing about living here is you’re only limited by your imagination and by your diligence and optimistic attitude,” he said. “If you say you can do stuff chances are you can do it.”