Neighbors unite to reopen Piseco’s favorite ski trail
By Brandon Loomis
Bob Erickson kicked and glided between the hardwoods, across a new wooden bridge and then through a tunnel of snow-plastered spruce boughs.
This was the thing he had craved for several years since moving to Piseco from Wisconsin—a clear cross-country ski path through the woods near home. And now, on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, there was even fresh snow covering the icy crust that had made earlier outings treacherous.
Starting at Piseco Airport’s seasonally quiet little strip and then plunging through the woods and briefly joining a section of the Northville-Placid Trail, his route would loop through about 6 miles of the Jessup River Wild Forest.
Not too rugged or hilly, but plenty serene with a section along the West Canada Lake Wilderness, the trail had attracted dozens of skiers and snowshoers that day. Some, like Erickson, were out for a brisk workout. Others could test their skills on the soft snow without much fear of falling, except maybe on a couple of mild descents
“I call this light backcountry skiing,” Erickson said.
He and his community also call it the Foxey Brown Ski Trail, after a hermit who once lived in the area. The state’s new signs say “Foxy,” though the locals and some (but not all) of the literature about Adirondack hermits spells it their way. If you’re searching online for the state’s trail map, though, Foxy’s the keyword.
Whatever you want to call it, there would be no good way of skiing through it if not for Erickson and his neighbors, with some help from the Piseco Lake Association, a state forest planner and a ranger.
Together, over the last year or so, they recreated a trail that had once been a recreational focal point for a few hundred winter residents in the Piseco-Arietta area.
After years of visiting his wife’s family in the Adirondacks, Erickson retired from teaching art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and they built a home in Piseco. There was winter enough for him to continue his Nordic habit in the North Country, but few trails for it in this southwestern part of the Adirondacks. Asked to name the closest designated ski trails on state lands, DEC listed several in the north of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness—more like a day trip from Piseco than a morning’s shuffle in home woods.
Erickson said Gore Mountain and Lapland Lake’s groomed trails are other options, each at least an hour away. Oak Mountain Resort, in Speculator, has snowshoe trails.
“I’m an avid skier and I was looking for a place to ski,” he said. So he asked around and learned about the old Foxey Brown Trail, once the site of popular annual ski races.
Bryan Rudes grew up in Piseco and returned in retirement. He remembered those races fondly. He and his wife both participated at times. A state ranger had broken and marked the original trail, he said, and the Adirondacks Speculator Region Chamber of Commerce supported the event. An airport employee groomed the route back then, and 50 or 60 competitors turned out each year.
Grooming snow on state wild forest lands is forbidden, though. Sometime in the 1990s it became clear that the race ran afoul of the rules, and the fun ended. As fewer people used the trail, limbs and fallen timber closed in on the path. By the time Erickson, Rudes and neighbors sought to restore it, they had trouble finding much of it.
“There was a lot of blowdown,” Rudes said, “and it was difficult to get around.”
Most people forgot the trail was even an option. A couple dozen people would sign the register all year. With the trail reopened this winter, though, dozens of skiers and snowshoers—162 of them—would register in about the first five weeks of this year.
The neighbors got DEC to sign on for trail restoration in 2019, and the state budgeted funds to restore a pedestrian bridge over a slough a couple of miles from the trailhead. That money evaporated when the coronavirus trashed the state’s revenue stream, so the Piseco Lake Association chipped in $5,500 for it. Nick Addison, a DEC natural resources planner who works the Jessup River Wild Forest, coordinated the project and certified volunteers as state trail workers. Twenty-three signed up, and 10 of them worked routinely, clearing limbs and brush and building the bridge.
Their average age was 68. At 60, Erickson was the youngest.
Several from the crew enjoyed the trail on MLK Day, including Rudes on his snowshoes. Addison came out with a cordless drill to screw new trail signs and distance markers into trees at frequent intervals.
But the freshly cleared path and publicity on the Adirondack Almanack website also brought out holiday visitors from around the region. Dave Skibinski, a novice Nordic skier from Wevertown, had heard the trail suited his skills. Impressed, he thanked Erickson, Rude and friends for their work when he passed them. His ski partner, Samantha Burns of North River, said she just wanted to try someplace new. “This is beautiful,” she said at a point where the trail comes out of a dense stand of evergreens and joins the wider, flatter section of the Northville-Placid.
At one point an unofficial herd path—the route the trail crew had used to bring in bridge lumber from the clearing beyond the airstrip—is on the books as a potential cutoff to create a loop about half as long as the whole trail. As the gang paused there, Addison explained that this part of the project is on hold because it would require cutting seedlings, a “no-no” while the state awaits a court ruling on a lawsuit that Protect the Adirondacks filed to challenge what it considers excessive tree cutting for snowmobile trails elsewhere. The ruling could determine what counts as a tree, legally speaking, and therefore what’s protected by the state constitution’s prohibition on timbering in the Adirondack Forest Preserve.
As they spoke, Protect’s executive director, Peter Bauer, skied past and said he, too, was enjoying the trail. Some in the group jokingly shook a fist as he disappeared into the woods, but Erickson said he was glad Bauer was enjoying their work. In fact, Bauer’s group has helped with grant writing for an area trail-improvement program called Hamilton County Trails to Prosperity.
Later, when asked about his lawsuit’s effects on the project, Bauer said there shouldn’t be any unless a desired route goes through a dense stand. The case is meant to block cutting on the scale of the state snowmobile trails that provoked it—an estimated 925 stems per mile.
“If someone needs to cut a thousand trees a mile,” he said, “should they really be building that trail?”
More to explore
Check out a gallery of Mike Lynch’s photos from a day on the trail
As it is, he said a lot of people should be able to enjoy the Foxey Brown and its woods, creeks and mountain views across the airstrip. “It was a fun loop and the varied habitat was enjoyable,” he said. “It’s a pretty safe trail to bring somebody who’s not a great skier.”
The trail has a couple of descents where one can pick up speed, but they’re relatively straight, without tree hazards. Still, Erickson would have liked to have cut some trees to reroute sections. In some places that’s to skirt marshy areas that may be more trouble in summer. In others, especially in the narrows between evergreens, it would allow him to pick up speed for a better workout.
As it was, Erickson skied ahead and shook the fresh snow off of limbs so it wouldn’t fall on skiers behind him. That narrow section of the path added variety but did slow progress a bit, as did a couple of depressed spots where stumps or soggy patches made it necessary to pad sideways or remove skis to avoid a fall.
Mostly, though, the trail was a breeze. Days earlier, Erickson and Rudes said, icy conditions would have made even this relatively gentle trail sketchy. A storm covered up that problem, though the crust was still apparent under several inches of powder.
The friends said the renewed trail represents a proud achievement in collaboration with state workers like Addison, whom they hadn’t known before.
“I fully believe in the power of public service,” Erickson said. “It’s amazing how people have come together.”
There’s even talk of restoring the races next year, Rudes said, though only the path on town land by the airstrip could be groomed this time.