Tupper Lake trail deploys lights to allow for after-hours skiing
By Liza Frenette
When winter snuffs out the daylight too early, cross-country skiers typically have to wait for the occasional full-moon adventure, or else don limited-vision headlamps to ski at night.
But with an innovative new system at Tupper Lake’s James C. Frenette Sr. Recreational Trails, skiing after sunset, after work, and deep into the night is now possible with a system of solar lights that are triggered by motion.
“Let there be light” – but only when needed. There is no intrusion of full-scale lighting burning energy and intruding on the sanctity of the woods.
The solar lights have been affixed to trees at regular intervals along the trail system. As a skier approaches, the light flicks on, illuminating the way. Once the skier is past, the light goes out.
Kick. Glide. Light. Kick. Glide. Light.
Bringing a dog to this canine-friendly trail helps, too, because when the dog bounds ahead, it sets off the lights ahead. Skiing here at night, with the satisfying soft thump of the tails of your skis behind you, the firefly lights blinking on ahead of you, and the tall trees sheltering both sides of you, is blissful.
The lights were purchased with a Smart Growth grant from the state Department of State and put up in 2021.
The hushed magic of snowshoeing or skiing at night amongst birch, spruce, maple, cherry, hemlock, and other welcoming trees is enjoyed while users traverse along a generous brook and around a pond. Signs direct skiers to Cranberry Pond, a circular gem with a collar of trails around its edges; to Little Logger, or to Hull’s Brook trail, a careening, swooping trail.
The recreational trails—which first began from the Big Tupper Ski Area—were 60 years in the making.
“The first map was in my head,” said James Frenette Sr., the founder and first workhorse of the trail system that bears his name.
The wooded trail system started off the Tupper Lake golf course, and 95% of it was cut by volunteers. Town crews used a bulldozer to move stones and logs, and village crews also assisted, in addition to others helping with the muscle work of excavating.
Local volunteers peeled hefty hemlock logs themselves to build a bridge over a gully.
The first equipment used to groom the trails was primitive:
Frenette used a bedspring with chains attached to it hooked up to the back of a snowmobile. The bouncing metal springs and chains smoothed the snow for the coming skiers.
Over the years, more trails were added, and now there is a solid five miles through the woods. A 1960s recreational lease with the Hull family, who originally donated part of the golf course to the town, continues today. Preserve Associates LLC has continued the lease.
The final legs of the trail were added from 2016 to 2019. The Development Authority of the North Country helped with mapping, engineering and bridge work. In 2020, trails and bridges were completed.
Since the beginning, youth ski clubs have used the trails, some of which were skied years ago by the original high school cross-country ski teams.
“We’ve watched the youth ski program thrive,” said John Gillis, chief groomer and steadfast, loyal volunteer at the trails, day and night. He works with a regular crew of John Quinn, Eric Shaky Lanthier, Jules Callaghan, Scott Chartier and Owen Littlefield, local folk who like being out on the big machines preparing the snow.
“We do group texts and take turns; 2- to 3-hour shifts in the big storms,” Gillis said. Now, the crew uses a stable of three groomers. At night, the four-wheeler groomer puts out strong light as it is maneuvered through fresh-fallen snow. A roller can be added to knock snow down if there is too much of it.
“All of us that groom here are here because of him,” Gillis said, pointing to Frenette. “He was here for us…It’s like a gift that keeps on giving. He showed us how special it is to give that gift to other people.”
Gillis, a nephew of Frenette, was one of hundreds of youngsters who trained and skied under his uncle’s tutelage.
Frenette and his wife Susie (now deceased), a member of the Hull family, ran Bill Koch League ski team for youngsters at the trails from 1970 to 1980. Jim was also a high school ski coach from 1960 to 1970, using some of the same trails for his teams.
When he first began working on his dream of making a permanent trail system for all to enjoy, Frenette said “The message was ’You can’t do it.’” There were obstacles in land use, funding and labor. But he kept showing up. Others joined.
Last winter, indoor bathrooms were made available for ski clubs, since the golf pro shop was just winterized with a Smart Growth grant. Other visitors use outdoor portable toilets, but Gillis said they hope to have indoor access for all soon.
The trail system is funded through the town, by grants and from donations. From March 1, 2021, until February 2022, 4,750 user visits were logged. Skiers are sometimes joined by fat tire bike riders, winter and summer, and by snowshoers. In the summer, hikers walk the wooded paths. And then there are groups gathering around the fire pit on full moon nights to swap stories and drink beer.
Janelle Jansson walks the trails regularly with her dog Maggie and her mom Amy. She loves the solar light system because in the winter she can get outdoors after work.
“We come up in the dark. It’s really nice,” she said.
The trails are used for the popular, annual Brew-ski event featuring local brewers (happening this year on Feb. 25), and for occasional bonfire ski parties under the gaze of the full moon.
In the early section of the trail, skiers cruise past the shadowed flanks of Sugarbush Mountain, a ski mountain donated by the Hulls and used from 1940-1960. The trail system itself is en route to the former Big Tupper downhill ski area, now closed, but within viewing from parts of the trail. Frenette has skied on all the terrains, including Manning Hill, which the town operated for one year in 1939.
At 93, he’s now given up the grooming which he devoted many years to, but he still puts on cross-country skis for short jaunts.
Much of the land in this patch of town was once owned by the Hull family, of which Gillis is a descendant, and that is part of what drives him to don his cold weather gear and get out and groom on a cold night.
“It’s kind of like a “Pillars of the Earth” thing, where one man (William Hull Sr., former owner of Oval Wood Dish factory in town, and donor of ski slope and golf course land) sets a cornerstone, and his great grandson (me) put the spire on,” he said. “It’s a generational thing.”