During an afternoon lunch at the Adirondack Mountain Coffee Café in Upper Jay with Ruth Kuhfahl, there is hardly a face in the place she doesn’t recognize, though, she tells me, at 95 she often has to say to some, “Now, help me remember where our paths have crossed.”
She knows the table of eight women celebrating a birthday a few steps away.
She stops the waitress to ask her about her son.
A friend from church stops by and says she’ll be making muffins Sunday.
Even the one woman Ruth doesn’t end up knowing, she calls over to say hello because she reminds her of someone she does know.
“It’s hard when you’re a people person,” Kuhfahl says. “You’ve got to talk to everyone.”
Ruth Kuhfahl is as well-known outside the café, by many in the environmental community in the Adirondacks. From the 1980s until five years ago, she was doing trail work for the Hurricane Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, even chairing the program at one point. And when the heaviest work became too much, she started the “Ruth’s Easy Project” program for those who were new to trail work, kids or volunteers looking for lighter exertion.
“They were wonderful people who were like-minded and we all had a wonderful time,” Kuhfahl says.
She was “always good at getting dirty with trail work,” says Adirondack Council Executive Director Willie Janeway, who worked with her in the 1980s when he was with the Adirondack Mountain Club. She would gladly move rocks, clip branches, walk through mud before she later moved on to the “softer trail work.”
“Ruth has never slowed down but recalibrated her trail work (to her physical ability),” Janeway says. Most notably, he adds, whenever he sees her around, she “always has a smile and asks how you’re doing.”
With her “easy projects” and welcoming personality, she brought many more into the Adirondack fold and taught them about trail work, says Wes Lampman, ADK chief operating officer, who also worked with Ruth when he was trails coordinator for the Mountain Club. And, today, though she’s not on the trails herself, she remains a supporter of the program, Lampman says.
Trail work, her job, her participation in Senior Games—none of it was ever planned, Kuhfahl says. She just never said no to an opportunity that came along.
Originally from Connecticut, Kuhfahl’s former husband’s work with the YMCA took them to Ohio, Chicago and Buffalo. They adopted two sons (one of them died in 2017). After divorcing at 50, she worked as a secretary at the University at Buffalo in the physics department. She was temping in the office as a Kelly Girl, but they asked her to stay on full time and she said yes. It was her work friends who first told her about the Niagara Frontier Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club. She joined the club and began taking trips to the Adirondacks and quickly became involved with the trails program, which she chaired. She was also the last volunteer chair of the Nature Conservancy’s Buffalo chapter.
Though her first hike in the Adirondacks was the park’s tallest peak, Mount Marcy, she has climbed only 22 of the 46 High Peaks.
“I only did ones I wanted to do,” she says.
Her interest in hiking and trail work grew from there. In 1982, she took her first service trip (all-women) with the Sierra Club in 1982 to the Grand Canyon. She is still friends with the woman who camped next to her on the canyon’s edge.
Other service trips took her to Baxter Park, Maine; Mount Rainier National Park in Washington; Cumberland Island, Georgia; Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina; Virgin Islands National Park; and Acadia National Park in Maine.
Kuhfahl moved to the Adirondacks a year after retiring in 1988. She stayed with her “in-law family” in Westport for the first summer and then shared a home with Keene Valley attorney Emily Neville until getting her own place in town. Throughout the years, she was an avid hiker, paddler and community volunteer, adding many friends to her circle.
She had hip surgery recently and, though she has no family in the area (her one son lives in Florida), many friends showed up to help, she says. “They all appeared.”
She has friends from the Keene Valley library. She volunteered there when she first moved to town so she could meet people. She knew how to put books away, she says. She served as board president for two years. Others know her from the spring bird walk she helps lead each year on Hulls Falls Road in Keene. Since, as she jokes, she “can’t see or hear the birds anymore,” she helps participants identify wildflowers.
And she has her camping and paddling friends. The group of six she camped with on the Whitney tract faced Hurricane Isabel together and ever since have referred to themselves as the “Isabel Six.”
For almost 10 years in her late 60s and early 70s, she was a runner and race-walker in the Albany Senior Games, once winning a gold in the 100-meter.
“I was probably the only one in my age group,” she jokes.
She also chaired the Northern New York Audubon chapter and volunteered for 10 years at the Visitor Interpretive Center in the butterfly house.
She says there is nothing left on her bucket list.
“If you can’t do everything, you have to do all the things you can,” she says. “As long as I can be doing something constructive I want to be here.”
Photo of Ruth Kuhfahl by Mike Lynch.