Monday, November 28, 2016

A Master Trail Builder; A Vision For North Creek


To really understand this story, you have to bear in mind two distinctive things about North Creek.

One, it butts up against the mountains much tighter than most Adirondack communities. Start on the path that runs beside Town Hall (within sight of the Hudson), and within minutes you’re climbing steeply up Gore Mountain, entering one of the largest wilderness complexes in the Park.

Two — and this negates the first advantage — North Creek is one of the few Adirondack hamlets bypassed by a state highway. Instead of following the main street, the state cut Route 28 between the town and the mountain, in much the same way that highway builders cut off many of our finest cities from their river or ocean fronts. (Think Albany or Boston).

The result: the Adirondack town that should have perhaps the easiest access to recreation finds itself physically and psychologically marooned.

But that’s changing, thanks more than anything else to the vision of one man.

Steve Ovitt was the region’s forest ranger for decades. Steadfastly resisting efforts to move him to a higher-paid desk somewhere, he patrolled the lakes and woods of this sparsely populated and remarkably wild hunk of the Adirondack Park: the Wilcox Lake Wild Forest, the Siamese Ponds Wilderness. From Crane Mountain to Thirteenth Lake he was the guy who rescued lost hikers, burned down illegal hunting camps, issued stream-crossing permits for loggers. He took care of things.

And then, once he had put in his years, he retired — still in his early fifties, still strong. Which is when he really went to work. He started a business — Wilderness Property Management — which builds trails for public and private landowners around the region. He started teaching in the adventure-sports program at SUNY Adirondack. He co-founded Adirondack Treks, a nonprofit aimed at getting local kids outdoors.

Most of all, he let his imagination run.

For twenty-five years he’d covered the ninety thousand acres of state land in his ranger district, maintaining the existing network of trails. But now, in earnest, he began to expand them.

steve-ovittThe first, and most obvious, candidates were the ghost trails of the past — especially the famous descents along Raymond Brook that were, arguably, America’s first ski area. In the 1930s, when the ski train arrived at North Creek station from Grand Central, locals would pile the city folk into the backs of trucks and haul them up to the height of land near Barton Mines; then they’d crash and cruise through the woods back to town to do it again. The trails from the famous “Ride Up, Slide Down” years were abandoned when the state opened the Gore Mountain ski area in the 1960s, but Ovitt and a team of volunteers cut them back open. More than that, really: Ovitt has an eye for detail, and so the trails are carefully plotted to conserve snow late into the season, to give skiers runouts at the bottom of each drop. “You want to keep speed down and pleasure up,” he explained to me once. “It’s OK to have a small thrill; you just don’t want your life flashing in front of your eyes.”

Those trails end at the Ski Bowl, the small ski area operated as something of an afterthought by Gore, whose main trails are on the other side of the mountain. It’s the Ski Bowl that should be North Creek’s backyard, were it not for that cursed highway bypass. Over the years it has hosted small-scale downhill skiing, a snow-tubing park that never quite caught on, and even a miniature golf course. Also the town landfill. (It’s now going to serve in the winter as the East’s newest Nordic race course)

It was the Bowl — literally a stone’s throw from Johnsburg Central School (if your arm was good enough to get the stone across the highway) that really got Ovitt thinking. Thinking philosophically. Thinking long enough to arrive at one of the ironies of the Adirondacks.

Put simply, recreation in the Adirondacks is largely designed with flatlanders in mind. You need to drive to most of the trailheads — the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) puts up a parking lot 6.8 miles from somewhere, and there the path begins. In the North Creek region, for instance, there are trailheads for places like Kibby Pond and Eleventh Mountain and OK Slip Falls. Everyone who comes, comes in a car. You are a long ways from anywhere before the hike even starts, which is actually perfect if what you want most is solitude.

But what if you kind of want company? (Humans are, after all, social primates.) Then someplace like the Bowl might be just about perfect.

So let’s walk up from North Creek in the company of Ovitt. The Carol Thomas Trail, named for the wife of former Johnsburg Supervisor Bill Thomas, leaves from next to Town Hall. “It’s a five-foot-wide hardened path,” he says. “You can walk it in good shoes, you can walk it side by side. It’s a strolling path, but it’s still narrow enough, at five feet, that if you encounter someone you still have to look at them, still have to yield a little. If it was eight feet—well, that’s a highway, you don’t have to look at your neighbors.”

In fact, says Ovitt, “the width is more critical to creating atmosphere and community” than any other aspect of the trail. “That’s why I like single-track trails. Someone has to give way.” And in fact we’ve now reached the Bowl, where the bike trails his company has constructed in recent years begin to branch out. Some double as walking trails; others (“Larry,” “Moe,” and “Curly,” in particular) are for hard-core thrill enthusiasts. All are carefully constructed.

“It takes four times as long to build a kilometer of biking trail as hiking trail,” says Ovitt. “It takes a day or two to lay out a kilometer — your grades, your turn radiuses. Then it’s on to brushing, leaf-blowing, and then you finalize the track location, establish your flow line.” Judging from the people whooping and hollering, it’s working.

All of this is pretty intensive work — which is why, says Ovitt, it’s suited for places right next to town. A bike trail might well feature berms and banks and rollers; he’s got a mini-excavator that he uses on jobs. To make a trail wide enough for skate-skiing, you probably need to really excavate, which means you’re putting in erosion control. “Something thirty-foot wide means culverts, water bars,” he says.

Most DEC trails aren’t designed for these kinds of multiple uses, Ovitt points out. They’re built for summer hiking, and if you want to try something else it’s “probably not going to be optimal. I remember bringing my college class on skis back from the Wallface lean-to last winter. It was low snow, and they had stone water bars on the trail, and we were hitting every one.”

But he’s careful to say this kind of work belongs near town, not deep in the woods. Ovitt has no issues with state policy that, say, keeps mountain bikes out of Wilderness Areas. “Skate-skiing, biking — they’re already kind of industrial,” he says. “They take machines, to ride on or to groom. So you do it close in. If you’re doing that kind of skiing, or bike riding, it’s maybe 50 percent where you are, and 50 percent is the ski or the ride itself. When you get further out, when you’re backcountry skiing or snowshoeing, then it’s all about the surroundings and destination.”

And indeed we are getting further out, along the trail up Gore Mountain that Ovitt rebuilt years ago when he was a ranger, which is named for conservation hero Paul Schaefer. As the intersections with bike and ski trails dwindle, it turns into a normal hiking trail — though an especially well-built one, which carefully avoids trashing the gorge of the lovely brook it parallels.

skiers-head-up-one-of-the-old-ski-trails-reopened-by-steve-ovittEventually we climb as high as a lovely pond — which, just to remind you that we’re still in an “Intensive Use Area,” has a big pipe jutting in the air. This is Gore’s snowmaking pond, filled with water pumped up from the Hudson — come winter, if it’s another bad one, this is what Nordic racers down below in the Bowl will be skiing on. We sit on a rock above the water, and share a couple of beers that Steve has brought along. (His summer favorite, not surprisingly, is Fat Tire Ale). And we talk. About the new ski loops he has planned for the backcountry (an eight-mile trail he built around nearby Botheration Pond is a perfect day trip not just for the skiing, but also to see the fifty-foot rustic bridge he built from logs he felled on site — it’s the Brooklyn Bridge of the backcountry). About the plan for a groomable ski trail that would connect the fast-paced Nordic mayhem of the Bowl to the picture-perfect trails of the nearby Garnet Hill Lodge ski area. Mostly we talk about the community where he has raised his two daughters (one has graduated from Middlebury College; the other is a junior there), coached skiing, and been a crucial visionary for many years.

“Communities need to see themselves,” he says. “Kids need to be able to walk up a little ways to a high point and look back and see: this is where I live.”

One of the ways Ovitt has gotten so much done is by turning to friends. What started out as the Siamese Ponds Trail Improvement Society has morphed into the Upper Hudson Trails Alliance, chaired by Dick Carlson, who groomed and managed the ski trails at Garnet Hill for many years. Though he now works in Lake George, he still lives nearby in North River, and he’s helped rally locals to do massive amounts of trail work in recent years. “Weed-whacking, branch-clearing — we had to have done seventy miles of trails last year,” he says.

“These ‘Friends of ’ groups are springing up all over the state,” he says. “Sometimes they have budgets of millions of dollars. The state owns and administers the lands, but the DEC just doesn’t have the resources to maintain it all — not when the trails are so heavily utilized.”

The Upper Hudson Trail Alliance may never reach that size — northern Warren County is pretty sparsely peopled — but the group nonetheless has enormous vision. When the county and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry held meetings last year under a state grant to ask people about possible future trails, they supplied a long list, mostly, like the new trails in North Creek, down along the corridor that connects Corinth up to Tahawus. Mostly, that is, adjacent to communities. “It’s a pretty voluminous plan — how much will get implemented, I don’t know,” said Carlson.

But every bit that does get built brings the connection a little closer between town and mountain, between local and locale. Much of the planning that’s been done these last years has taken place on the stools of Bar Vino, the low-key and high-touch bistro that opened some years ago on North Creek’s main street — an institution that’s come to stand for the same mix of quality and accessibility that marks the trails just a few hundred yards away.

But those few hundred yards cross, of course, the state highway, keeping North Creek from becoming the sort of European ski town it could be. Unless, of course, there was a bridge over the road. A bridge wide enough that you could get a groomer over it. A bridge that let you ski pretty much to the bar at Bar Vino. Think, for instance, of the bridge across the entrance road at Mount Van Hoevenberg.

Carlson, and Steve Tomb, the local high-school teacher who’s pushed hardest for the new Nordic trails, have been known to dream such dreams over their pints. Carlson, in fact, has done more than dream: his investigation shows that a similar pedestrian bridge in Lake George, for instance, cost about $600,000. Which would be a fairly small price for the state to pay to make up for what it did to North Creek when it bypassed its downtown.

‘That bypass really did kind of screw us,” says Tomb. “It cut off this amazing resource from this village. Lots of times last year, when there were high-school races at the Bowl, visitors up to watch their kids would ask me: ‘Is there any good place to eat around here?’ And I’d say, ‘Sure, over in the village.’ And they’d say, ‘There’s a village?’”

There is a village. Unlike any other spot I can think of in the Park, or in the East, it offers, within walking distance, world-class paddling, a downhill-ski mountain, mountain biking, Nordic racing, backcountry skiing, and access to deep wilderness. It’s not hard to imagine it as the regional capital of muscle-powered sports. But most people just whiz right by, not noticing — that’s what 55 mph means.

It may be some years before that problem entirely disappears — before a bridge is built. But none of it seems impossible. Ovitt, after all, spent a quarter-century wandering around these woods as a ranger, thinking all the time about new possibilities. So maybe it’s fair to give him and his buddies a quarter-century more to make them all reality.

Photos from above by Nancie Battaglia: Main Street, North Creek; Steve Ovitt; and skiers head up one of the old ski trails reopened by Ovitt.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

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Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel.’ His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty thousand rallies around the world in every country save North Korea, spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.
The Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was the 2013 winner of the Gandhi Prize and the Thomas Merton Prize, and holds honorary degrees from 18 colleges and universities. Foreign Policy named him to their inaugural list of the world’s 100 most important global thinkers, and the Boston Globe said he was “probably America’s most important environmentalist.”
A former staff writer for the New Yorker, he writes frequently for a wide variety of publications around the world, including the New York Review of Books, National Geographic, and Rolling Stone. He lives in the mountains above Lake Champlain with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, where he spends as much time as possible outdoors . In 2014, biologists honored him by naming a new species of woodland gnat - Megophthalmidia mckibbeni - in his honor.

16 Responses

  1. Tim Record says:

    Year’s ago. 15 at this point. Tha CORE committee of North Creek invited Old Forge and Inlet to visit in an idea exchange. As we walked Main Sreet, Lani Ulrich, former CAP CEO, mentioned what a wonderful pedestrian friendly community this was. The only problem was that we didn’t have the number of tourists on Main Street like Old Forge.

    Why.? The bypass. Folks have been bypassing their whole lives. Only a small number make the 100 yard journey into the best community in the Adirondacks!

    We’ve learned to live with it. If you’ve never tried it, we dare you.

  2. Jody Meyer says:

    I believe the plans and actions being taken will really help North Creek; a village I love dearly. I spend some time here every summer and winter I come up North. But there is something else that North Creek needs to really make it. That’s connectivity. While Cafe Sarah has wifi, it isn’t open year-round. But even more than that, North Creek needs cell service. People will not come, spend money and stay there as easily without it.

    • Bruce says:


      I’ve not been to North Creek, am I correct in thinking it is not a real busy town like Old Forge which sits firmly astride Hwy. 28?

      If North Creek actually retains some Adirondack charm, why do you believe having connectivity will improve it? Wouldn’t that make it more like Old Forge?

      Some years ago, before I-phones came along and ordinary cell phones were the rage, my heavily connected daughter gave me a tee shirt…”Hang up and Fish.” I think that says it all. Do we need connectivity to enjoy the simple pleasures of life?

      Each year, we rent a camp on Sixth Lake, outside of Inlet. There is no phone in the cottage, cell service is available a few miles up the road, and if you want Wi-Fi you can sit out in the hot sun just outside the camp office. We really enjoy the peace and quiet.

      • John Warren says:

        Bruce, those of us who actually live here need connectivity.

        Those of you who only visit can feel free to turn yours off.

        • Paul says:

          Well said! Several of my friends and family in the Adirondacks need it for their jobs! Good jobs – that the Adirondacks does not want to lose.

  3. Dave Gibson says:

    Thanks so much, Bill McKibben, for this great piece of writing and focus on North Creek-North River trailbuilders like Steve Ovitt. Steve won my respect as a DEC Forest Ranger years ago and earned Adirondack Wild’s Stewardship award in 2015 as did the local organization Adirondack Treks. By the way, the Schaefer trail up Gore Mountain is not named for the great conservationist Paul Schaefer but for the Schaefer family as a whole, and I believe more specifically for Paul’s brother Carl Schaefer who as a young man in the early ’30s developed the 1st ski hill in these parts off Peaceful Valley Road and who, I believe, was the 1st to teach downhill skiing to all those who took the early Ski Trains from Schenectady, etc. Carl was a remarkable man and his name is prominent at the North Creek visitor center by the tracks.

  4. Ron Konowitz says:

    Great tribute to Former NYS Forest Ranger Steve Ovitt !

    Steve was an incredible Ranger who was directly involved in innumerable Search and Rescue Missions saving lives by assisting injured and lost Forest Preserve visitors. Steve protected his Ranger Districts Resources while also advocating and planning for increased access to Forest Preserve Lands for appropriate user groups.

    A prime example of this is the Raymond Brook Ski Trail which Steve was instrumental in both advocating for and participating in meetings during the extensive UMP planning process as well as overseeing the boots on the ground layout and implementation of the work needed to make this incredible BackCountry Ski Trail a reality. Steve’s vision and work ethic gave rebirth to this incredible Forest Preserve gem first layed out by members of the famed Schaefer family.

    Steve Ovitt and his family are also members of the Adirondack Powder Skier Association. Members of the Schaefer family have also joined and supported the APSA.

    The APSA has been working with the DEC, APA, Environmental Groups, and the Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo to improve low impact appropriate access to NYS Forest Preserve Lands for human powered BackCountry Skiing by updating the 43 year old State Land Master Plan Cross Country Ski Trail Standards to include BackCountry Ski Trails and Open Woods Ski Routes.

    Thank you Bill McKibben for the well deserved great Tribute to Steve Ovitt !

  5. Charlie s says:

    Jody Meyer says: “While Cafe Sarah has wifi, it isn’t open year-round.”

    Izzy’s is open year round. They have the best food in that whole area. They make their own mustard and bread and bagels. They make a killer kale salad and their bakery items are to die for. If you like quality & different Izzy’s is the place to go.

  6. rc says:

    What a great photo of North Creek.
    Pure color!
    and then I looked for the attribution: Nancie Battaglia

    Always have liked her work

    thanks for using an appropriate – and beautiful – photo

  7. Boreasfisher says:

    What a fantastic set of musings on North Creek. I have been visiting and enjoying the place for years and this provides a trove of insights into its history and potential future that I greatly value.

    McKibben for mayor….who else could have a woodland gnat species named after him?

  8. Natalie C Underwood says:

    Correction: Steve Ovitt helped build the bridges on the Botheration Pond back country ski route. My father, James Underwood, known locally as Jim, was a primary builder of the epic bridges of the loop. He brought his years of experience building bridges in the back country and skill of log crafting. Ovitt’s bridges were simpler before my dad joined him, and lacked the Adirondack railing details.

  9. Dylan Walrath says:

    It’s been a pleasure to work with Steve Tomb, Steve Ovitt, Kelly Nessle and others who are connecting the village with its nearby recreational assets. Thank you so much for highlighting the value of this work! Just wanted to note that much of the ski bowl trail building and signage has been funded by an Adirondack Park Smart Growth grant by the Department of Environmental Conservation from the NYS Environmental Protection Fund. The primary goal of DEC’s smart growth program is revitalization of Adirondack Park communities.

  10. MARY C COFFIN says:

    Another feather in North Creek’s cap is that the 4,600 mile North Country National Scenic Trail’s route, which spans across the Adirondacks on its way from Vermont to North Dakota, passes through North Creek to cross the Upper Hudson on Route 28N.
    This will provide another recreational boost to the local economy.

  11. Jake Haker says:

    Correction: The Siamese ponds trails improvement society (SPITS) has NOT morphed into the UHTA. SPITS is alive and well with over 40 members with signed Volunteer Stewardship Agreements on file with the DEC. SPITS has been very active keeping the trails of the Siamese Ponds WA, Wilcox Lake WF and Vanderwhacker WF clear and open.

    I am sad to report that 3 or 4 weeks ago the 50 foot bridge on the Bortheration pond loop collapsed into the river and is not useable.