My canoe buddies and I decided to camp this year at John Dillon Park, just north of Long Lake, for our annual canoe outing. We were pleased to find many amenities that made for a pleasant camping experience. Six of us stayed in two neighboring lean-tos in a wooded section of the park – very private, shielded from other campers. Each lean-to had plank beds (no pads) and separate fireplaces, with a wheel chair accessible shared outhouse. Paul Smiths students on staff for the summer helped us carry our canoes to the water and schlep our gear to and from the lean-tos in their club cars.
When John Dillon Park opened in 2006 it was the first park in the country designed to provide a wilderness experience for people with disabilities. The 198-acre park is the centerpiece of International Paper’s donation of a 15,802-acre conservation easement to New York State, in honor of John Dillon, retired president of the company. Mr. Dillon has close ties to the Adirondacks – born in Schroon Lake, raised in Newcomb, and a 1958 graduate of Paul Smiths College. He retired in 2003 and frequents the park often, as a proud steward. The easement protects the wilderness character of the Park compatible with the surrounding working forests.
Last year when I drove into the park to scout it out for a potential outing, the two-mile road leading into the facility was almost impassible in my automobile with rocks protruding at regular intervals. This year it was grated to eliminate most of the rocks, thanks to the watchful eye of Mr. Dillon. “He drove in one day last spring, concerned with the state of the entry road, and the next week we had front loaders and graders making it passable,” one of the Paul Smiths students said after I asked about Mr. Dillon. “He takes great interest in keeping the place up.”
It showed. The whole facility was well kept, no litter anywhere and clean outhouses with chemical toilets, plenty of toilet paper and spray fragrance. The gravel paths around the camping areas, grated to accommodate wheel chairs, offered easy walking to the Welcome Lodge and a dock at Grampus Lake, where we kept our canoes. We paddled to the end of the one-mile lake one morning, seeing just a few modest camps and boathouses. One of the Paul Smiths students gave us a ride on their electric-powered pontoon boat the next afternoon, as it was quite windy.
“What is the history of the lake?” I asked him. “There are a number of private camps, used by families – good fishing here. No public access, though. Except through the easement with International Paper,” he replied.
“Is there a Grampus family that the lake is named after?” I asked. “That’s funny,” he answered. “The story goes – generations of families came here for short periods of time, and the grandkids starting saying ‘We’re going to Grand Pa’s Lake” which got translated to Grampus Lake.”
I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a good story anyway.
There is no charge for day use or an overnight stay in the park. An endowment fund provides operating expenses for the park, managed in partnership with Paul Smiths College. Students from the college staff John Dillon Park that helps to support the college’s recreation management program.
The first few years after the park opened guests were limited to those with physical disabilities and their companions. Attendance in the park was low, so they changed the rules and the facility is now available for day use or camping to all who are interested. Even now, however, the facility is not heavily used. Many sites were not taken when we made mid-July reservations, or throughout the summer.
I think about the crowds that flock to drive-up campgrounds, such as Fish Creek and Lake Durant. And reservations need to be made far in advance for remote boat-only accessible campsites operated by DEC, as in Lower Saranac Lake. The facilities at John Dillon Park are unique when compared to these two models. Vacationers cannot drive-up to the camping sites, nor bring their own campers. Dillon Park is not as remote as, say, island campsites. It’s in-between. A near-wilderness experience is provided with much less hassle than what is required in remote areas of the Adirondack Park.
Photo by Jeri Wright: Camping buddies at Grampus Lake, John Dillon Park.