Tony Goodwin looks back on seven decades blazing trails
By Mike Lynch
In June of 1966, Jim Goodwin cut a new trail up Pyramid to Gothics. Following behind, Jim’s 16-year-old son, nicknamed Tony, tossed aside downed limbs and clipped live ones.
After days of hard work, Tony snipped the last of the balsam near Pyramid’s 4,515-foot summit and emerged to a view he now calls the best in the Adirondacks. He looked out at the snow and open rock on the slides of the Great Range in amazement.
“If I had to pick one moment when I just realized how much I appreciated my surroundings and also the work that I was doing, (it) was (when) my father and I cut the Pyramid-Gothics Trail,” Tony said recently.
That connection with the landscape he felt on Pyramid stands out, but Tony emphasized it was the entirety of his upbringing that led him to a career in the woods.
Now that path is reaching a crossroads.
Tony, 72, has retired after 35 years as the executive director of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society, a job that includes maintaining 105 miles of trail in the Keene Valley and St. Huberts area and overseeing camps, programs, and trips for kids and adults.
“I was still having fun doing it, and I was still physically capable of doing it, but I knew I couldn’t do it forever,” he said.
So, when a qualified successor came forward, retired Northwood teacher Ben Runyon, Tony decided to step down.
Following in his father’s footsteps
James “Tony” Goodwin says that working on trails and helping others access the woods is the family business.
A renowned guide, his father volunteered on most of the same trails Tony oversaw for ATIS, in addition to doing maintenance for the Keene Valley Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club. Plus in 1978, he became the Adirondack 46ers’ first trailmaster, overseeing volunteer efforts for five years. The elder Goodwin constructed several major routes, including the Brothers to Big Slide trail in 1951 and the Giant Ridge Trail in 1955.
Tony’s great-grandfather Charles Alton led the volunteer trail building and maintenance program for the Lake Placid Shoreowners Trail Association.
A Connecticut teacher who lived to 101, Tony’s father Jim Goodwin was a legendary guide. He led his first trip up Mount Marcy at age 12, did the first winter ascent of Mount Colden’s Trap Dike in 1935, and became the 24th person to register as an Adirondack 46er in 1940. Tony, who summered in Keene Valley before moving full-time to the Adirondacks as an adult, climbed all 46 High Peaks by age 11.
Vinny McClelland, whose family owned the Mountaineer gear store in Keene Valley, grew up exploring with the Goodwin family, which included Tony and his brother, Peter.
“In those days when you would go swimming in the brooks, we would just take our clothes off and go swimming… nobody was around,” McClelland said. “And the trailless peaks were truly trailless.”
An advocate for access
Because the ATIS job has always been a summer one, Tony had time for a winter occupation.
So in 1986, the same year he took over ATIS, he founded the Adirondack Ski Touring Council, becoming its first and only director, a position he held until 2015. When he retired, the organization merged with the Barkeater Trail Alliance, a bike and ski trail maintenance organization.
ASTC maintained cross-country and backcountry ski trails in the High Peaks region. Its first project, and biggest, was creating the 34-mile Jackrabbit Trail from Keene to Paul Smiths, linking traditional routes.
BETA Executive Director Josh Wilson said Tony continues to help out the nonprofit, contributing to the winter trail conditions report that ASTC started and BETA continues to publish on its website. He writes with the confidence of a skier who knows every trail. In March of last year he reported: “There is still a good base at the groomed x-c centers, and those are really the only possibility for skiing this weekend. Mt. Van Hoevenberg, Cascade, and Paul Smiths all have complete cover, but grooming will take time, so don’t expect everything to be skiable first thing Saturday morning.”
“His knowledge is so strong,” Wilson said. “I always joke that he can look out the window in Keene and know how much snow there is in Avalanche Pass or out in Paul Smiths.”
That knowledge shows in his decades editing the Adirondack Mountain Club’s popular High Peaks hiking guidebook, now in its 15th edition, and corresponding map. Before Tony took over the duties, his dad worked on the guidebook, starting in 1956, and edited the map, beginning in 1969.
Tony has also been a board member of the Adirondack Recreational Trail Advocates, a group that advocated for the Adirondack Rail Trail, a biking and snowmobiling route from Lake Placid to Tupper Lake.
The Keene resident says his actions, which often lead to access of the woods, are driven from a belief passed from his father that “there’s plenty of room” for everyone in the park.
“We had free reign when we were younger,” he said. “Why can we justify being selfish and say that this generation has any less right to use the forest preserve?”
Making his own path
As a teenager and young adult, Tony worked a number of jobs for ADK, including several summers on the John’s Brook Lodge crew. He recalled being one of ADK’s first Ridge Runners in 1974.
Created in response to a surge in hikers in the ’60s and ’70s, Ridge Runners were backcountry educators modeled after a program in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
The seasonal workers would spend 10 straight days in the woods, and Tony would camp at Lake Colden, Johns Brook Lodge, and Indian Falls. During the evening, he policed campsites when people were “more likely to be making mistakes,” such as scrubbing their dishes in the streams and rivers.
“Washing dishes in the brook was a big trigger for me,” Tony said.
Once, he saw campers using dishes in the stream near Johns Brook Lodge.
“I go over and give them this big lecture,” Tony said, chuckling. “And the counselor sort of sits there on the side, listens very patiently and says, ‘Well, you know, thank you for noticing that, but we were just floating the clean ones down the brook in the evening for entertainment.’”
Tony wasn’t alone as an educator in the 1970s. The state created a backcountry position (now called an assistant forest ranger) and had parking lot attendants at some popular High Peaks trailheads.
“You couldn’t move in the High Peaks without talking to somebody,” Tony said.
With so many resources already dedicated to education, Tony said ADK shifted some of its focus to trail maintenance in 1979, creating its first professional trail crew. That year, Tony served as its leader.
After one season, he dabbled in some other professional pursuits, including substitute teaching with the goal of becoming a permanent one. He got his undergraduate degree in history at Williams College and later his masters at SUNY Plattsburgh. He also “pounded nails” as a carpenter and had a couple of jobs at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex, including as venue manager for the biathlon field after the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics.
Even there, he was an advocate for access.
He recalled venue management deciding not to sell season passes at one point. Locals grew unhappy having to pay fees every visit, so he responded by telling customers to show up at 3 p.m. to avoid paying. Other times, he told skiers the cost of a pass was $29.99 and that they just had to visit a local gear store to get it.
“It’s called a headlamp.” (They just had to sneak in after dark.)
A couple of years later, in 1986, he landed jobs at ATIS and ATSC.
“Managing outdoor recreation and trail building was something where I was better at it than almost anyone else. Why not do something where you feel like you’re better than everyone else, rather than just being, you know, middle of the road?”– Tony Goodwin
ATIS trail crew
Steve Halasz, a Saranac Lake resident and software developer who worked on the ATIS trail crew in the mid 1990s, grew up in Keene Valley. One day, his grandmother told him that he needed to take his cousin, Dorothy Bankcroft, for her job interview as a camp counselor at ATIS, and that “by the way” he had an interview with Tony to be on the trail crew.
Halasz recalled Tony giving him the job despite being initially skeptical.
“He said, ‘You’re not that big, are you?’ He was very direct.’”
But he hired Halasz, already an avid rock climber and 46er.
A first-hand account
Plattsburgh State student Cal Seeley reflects on his experiences working on an ATIS trail crew
Photo of Cal Seeley doing trail work. By Patrick Bly
Halasz said Tony had described the ATIS work as rewarding because of the scenic surroundings and recalled Tony’s ability to keep things light with his sense of humor.
If someone said something funny around Tony, he would write it down and tack it up on a board in the trails cabin.
“I loved working for him,” he said. “It was one of the seminal experiences in my life and the best job I’ve ever had.”
One of Halasz’s fellow trail crew members was Steve Langdon, also of Saranac Lake, who later became an assistant forest ranger and Lake Colden caretaker for the DEC.
Now a self-employed ecologist, Langdon said the job taught him “how to function and get a job done in the woods, regardless of the crappy bugs, and terrible weather.”
He fondly recalled how Tony would tell stories about things such as the origin of place names and how they were often created arbitrarily. Mapmakers would drink with locals and come up with Chicken Coop Brook in the Johns Brook Valley.
“He was so filled with these little anecdotes about the Adirondacks,” Langdon said.
And Tony himself was a character. “He wasn’t afraid to take a nap after lunch,” Langdon said, remembering his boss dozing off on more than one rocky summit.
A guide’s life
Tony oversaw ATIS’s children’s High Peaks Camp at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, organizing and leading hiking and canoe trips for youngsters.
“My reasons for working with young people in the woods are much the same as most classroom teachers,” Tony said. “I liked the fact that, by imparting my experience and enthusiasm to young people, they were able to grow and become more confident—both in the woods and in their daily lives.”
Online entrepreneur Helena Grant, 41, grew up in New York City, but spent time in the Adirondacks and went to ATIS’s camp. She later became a counselor and is now on its board. One of her most memorable trips, at age 15, was with Tony going up the Trap Dike, a challenging journey that includes some technical ascents, scrambling and slide climbing on exposed terrain.
“He just, of course, had a wealth of knowledge about how to climb a slide, how to be out on the open rock, how to manage your own energy levels, and the best techniques for how to make it so you weren’t pushing yourself too hard,” she said.
She uses the leadership skills she learned at that camp today in her professional life.
Heather Raker, a former camper and current ATIS board member, said both Jim and Tony were role models for her and her daughter.
“He’s incredibly humble and doesn’t need or want recognition,” she said. “His father was very much the same way.”
Sam Hoar, who runs the ATIS junior program, recalled spending many evenings by the campfire listening to Tony’s stories. “The joy that you get from him, alongside the seriousness of purpose, is something I’ve always really admired,” Hoar said.
In retirement, Tony intends to continue spending time in the woods with friends and family, including his wife, Bunny, who he met on the summit of Mount Colden. The couple have two sons and a daughter, who all have deep passions for the outdoors and all worked at ATIS at one time or another.
Bunny, Tony said, shares his love of the mountains and the lakes and has sometimes joined him on excursions. “She has always been understanding of my desire to be out on the trails—either working or hiking,” he said.
She’ll have to keep being understanding. He continues to go out in the woods to maintain trails and he lined up a new summer gig: summit steward.
He expects to spend about eight to 10 days this hiking season atop Algonquin, Cascade or perhaps the familiar haunts of Gothics, near where he had that magical moment with his father.
And he said there’s still work to be done there to keep people on the muddy trail instead of outside it where there is alpine vegetation.
“It’s worth trying to figure out how to fix those … muddy troughs leading up to the summit,” he said. “It seems to me there’s got to be enough flat rocks that can be backpacked in from somewhere to keep people from going around.”
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