Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Cross-Country Skiing:
An Adirondack Nocturne at the Paul Smith’s VIC

Twilight at the VIC, S. Hildreth

Nocturne: a work of art dealing with evening or night especially; a dreamy pensive composition for the piano that has a soft and somewhat sad melody.  – 2014 Merriam Webster Dictionary

It was Valentine’s Day, about 8 pm, and I walked out the back door, stepped into my x-country ski bindings, put on my gloves and slipped my hands through the straps on my ski poles, flipped on my headlight and silently glided into the stillness of the night. As I looked up the trail, snowflakes filtered down glittering into the beam of my light.

It was the Full Moon Friends of the VIC Ski Party and this was the evening after the big Nor’easter dropped about 10 inches of fresh snow on what was already a good solid base. There was a nice crowd at the Paul Smith’s College VIC, live music by Split Rock lighting up the great room, but I might as well have been a solitary skier. I met two other skiers coming back to the building right as I started out, and then just two more as I skied across the floating bridge on Heron Marsh. The rest of the evening was mine alone, and it was magical.

The Paul Smith’s College VIC is a true gem. Once operated by the state, it became part of the college in 2011 and is being very effectively managed by Brian McDonnell (yes, the same Brian from Mac’s Canoe Livery and the 90 Miler). Quoting from their website: “The 3,000-acre Paul Smiths VIC contains every habitat type found in the Adirondack Park with the exception of alpine vegetation. Included on the property is a 60-acre marsh, five ponds, several brooks and swamps, bogs, fens, and varied forest types, most notably northern boreal forest. The site includes significant glacial and geological features and provides scenic vistas of Saint Regis Mountain and Jenkins Mountain.” I have hiked, skied, and painted there for more than 20 years and the diversity of habitat really is an amazing asset. You can find trails that wind through massive 200 year old white pines, open  marsh and wetland views, mixed hardwood forests of various ages, pitcher plants, bog orchids and rare Dwarf Rattlesnake Plantain. You can hike up Jenkins Mountain for some great views or paddle around Black, Little Black or Barnum Ponds. But on Valentine’s Day 2014 at 8 pm I was skiing.

Heron Marsh

There are more than 25 miles of trails at the VIC – this is a big increase from what was there when it was operated by the state. These trails are wide and groomed, some with set tracks, many perfect for skate skiing. They wind through the woods, around Heron Marsh, up on eskers and down old roads, nothing terribly challenging and all marked thoroughly with brand new signage. My favorite is the Esker trail, which is part of about a 5+ mile loop that reaches some of the highest points of land of any of the trails with views of St. Regis, Moose and McKenzie, and Jenkins Mountain, with some nice downhill runs. The best thing to do is to pick up a map at the Visitor Center and plan a route. Numerous trails intersect each other and circle out farther and farther from the main Heron Marsh trail, so it’s easy to plan a personal track of any length for any ability.

“Discover the Adirondack Mountains at the VIC” – that’s the new tagline on the web site and it’s absolutely true. The VIC operates a wide variety of educational programs – year round. Bird walks, trail runs, naturalist led paddles, childrens’ programs, yoga classes. All summer long there is a butterfly house where you can go through the special double entry way into the netting covered building and walk among native butterflies and wildflowers, lovingly cared for by Sue Grimm. There’s a Sugar Shack now at the VIC so as the days lengthen, you can now observe the process of making maple syrup, “adopt a maple tree”, and even take home some Paul Smith’s College VIC Maple Syrup! Not interested in classes, a number of the trails have interpretive signs so you can go off on your own.

For most of the year, all these wonderful trails at the VIC are free for anyone to take advantage of. During the winter months, it becomes a fee supported ski center and is worth every penny. The best deal is to purchase a season pass because in no time at all you can make back what you pay for it when you attend some of the other programs at the VIC that charge admission (they’re free for season pass holders). You can also pay for single day trail usage but once you try these wonderful trails, whether skiing, ski-joring or snowshoeing, you’ll want to come back. When most every where else in the northern Adirondacks lost all their snow during the December and January thaws, the VIC retained most of their base and people continued to ski. It wasn’t great, but better than nothing. Now, with at least a foot base and more snow on top of that, the condition of the trails are superb.

So Valentine’s night I skied out into the darkness. There was a full moon and while some light was filtering down, clouds and snow flurries made a headlamp a necessity. It was about 20 degrees and calm so my skies were pretty quiet as they glided along the beautifully groomed trail – no frigid temperature squeaks. I stopped several times just to listen to the quiet. Fresh deer tracks gracefully tip toed across the trail, but the tracks showed a struggle through the deep snow in the woods. February can be the time of starvation for the deer although this snow depth did not seem to be hampering them from traveling. Then it came, from somewhere to my left: “Who cooks for you: Who cooks for you all?”  A barred owl was calling from a tree not 20 yards away from me. Almost immediately a faint call answered from the other side of Heron Marsh – from just about the very direction of the VIC building. My owl called again  – it was so close but impossible to see and once more was answered from afar.

With the circle of light from my headlamp on the trail, I made sure I didn’t miss the turn to go back across Heron Marsh on the second floating bridge. Out in the open it was drifted so much it was a challenge to actually see where the trail was as it wound through the black spruce and tamarack wetland. I climbed some hills on the other side, took a left at a junction to lengthen the ski a bit more, and then came to nice down hill run that came out on the Jenkins Mountain Road. No one else had come out this way on the trails since dark. I’d skied down this very road late in the afternoon and now in the fresh snow there were sharply defined coyote tracks heading straight down the middle of the road. No zig-zagging around, no side trips to scent mark every little bush and shrub – just a bee-line down the road, one paw print ahead of the other. Made me wonder who else was in the woods watching me glide by.

All downhill, it wasn’t long and the lights along the driveway into the VIC came into view and sounds of civilization returned. This night time ski was a magical experience – mid March will bring another full moon so there should still be more opportunities to do this.

If you haven’t been out to the VIC at all, or since it was operated by the state, it definitely deserves a visit. Check out the web site first because there are all sorts of activities going on. And did I mention the VIC also has an art gallery and monthly shows of regional artists? With the great concentration of artists we have in the northern Adirondacks, there is no problem filling the gallery with new, nature-themed art exhibits every month of the year. Currently on display, through February 28 is “Old Crows & Other Blackbirds”, an outstanding, multi-media exhibit by a group of 9 artists. Coming in March will be paintings by Mary Woodcock Johnson and photographs by Burdette Parks.

Paul Smith’s College is located a mile at the intersection of route 86 and route 30, The VIC is about 1/2 mile north on route 30. All visitors, whether guests or regular season pass holders, are asked to check in at the main building. While there, enjoy the art exhibit as well as an Adirondack interpretive display and a small gift shop. There are ski and snowshoe rentals available. The VIC is a gem that not enough people take advantage of – it’s great for kids, there are plenty of things for adults to do, and if all you want is a short, easy walk – it’s got that too. There’s live music 1-3 on Sunday afternoons! 518-327-6241.

Oh, and that second barred owl I heard – it was just as I suspected: expert resident birder at the VIC, Brian McAllister, had been calling to the real barred owl that I skied past.

Paintings by Sandy Hildreth: Above, Twilight at the VIC; and below, Heron Marsh.

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Sandra Hildreth, who writes regularly about Adirondack arts and culture, grew up in rural Wisconsin and is a retired high school art teacher. She lives in Saranac Lake where she was spends much of her time hiking, paddling, skiing, and painting. Today, Sandy can often be found outdoors Plein air painting - working directly from nature, and is an exhibiting member of the Adirondack Artists' Guild in Saranac Lake. She is also active in Saranac Lake ArtWorks. Sandy’s work can be seen on her website

One Response

  1. bigburly says:

    Agree this is a treasure. Have skied and walked the many trails over the years. Hope all our neighbors visit and enjoy.

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