Saturday, January 15, 2022

A fresh start to a new year

first day hike at Paul Smiths VICWe had been instructed to bring snowshoes, which we did out of a sense of honor, but on the first day of 2022 there was really no need. We would be tramping over skinny snow, the Weight Watchers version of the real thing, the typical plump mounds and drifts reduced to an unhealthy parchment stretched thin to cover what it could of stones, stumps and tufts of grass.

Because I had snapped a photo of the thermometer at the time, social media was good enough to remind me that on the first day of 2018 the temp was 24 below. So the 37 degrees registered by the car thermometer in the Visitor Interpretive Center parking lot at Paul Smith’s College represented a 61-degree swing for which we were not entirely ungrateful.

We were here for a First Day Hike, a rededication to a year in which we pledge to spend more time out of doors. It was also a chance to reconnect with VIC director Scott van Laer, who had transitioned to the job after spending 25 years as a DEC ranger. Our band of more than two dozen people skirted Heron Marsh, a three-mile plein air festival waiting to happen, with too many memorable vistas to count and a diverse assemblage of plant life and critters — including otters and ruffed grouse — that have learned that the species that roams these paths and boardwalks with colorful stocking caps and mechanical gadgets pose no particular danger.

Being a college property, the VIC is also gratifying in that you cannot swing a cat without hitting a scientist, and they are most gracious about sharing their knowledge. You can’t help but come away from the VIC smarter than when you came in. We were fortunate that noted amateur mycologist Susan Hopkins joined the hike halfway through, pointing out a number of treebound fungus including the polypore known as hoof or tinder fungus, the type that was found in the fire-starting kit of Otzi the Iceman, whose 5,000-year-old remains were discovered in the Alps in 1991.

first day hike

We also met Nancy Hull, who was in the party that first discovered the fall of the Adirondack’s tallest tree in Paul Smith’s old-growth Elder Grove. She smelled it before she saw it, she said, like fresh-cut lumber — pleasant at first, until the implications set in

Paul Smith’s College itself, van Laer notes, sits on 14,000 acres, which is just barely big enough to contain the 700 outdoor-oriented students enrolled there. The VIC has a passionate following, and with good reason. You can essentially dial up an ecosystem of your choice, and somewhere on its 25 miles of trails, the VIC will have what you’re looking for.

Visitor Information Centers have been on the Adirondack radar of late, basically because there aren’t any, at least not in the traditional sense. You won’t find one that will remind you of a national park, because there is no single road into the Adirondacks on which to put a mechanical gate.

There has been some talk of a visitor center at Marcy Field on Route 73 because that’s where the swells of hikers arrive from the Northway. (And Adirondack Mountain Club is poised to close on a deal to purchase Cascade Ski Center on Route 73). Paul Smith’s does it differently, putting the visitor center in the midst of a rich natural ecosystem well off any main highway and challenging visitors to seek it out.

Knowing where to go and what to see is important — but so is understanding what you see when you go. The latter model, the VIC model, “has taken some time, but it’s working,” van Laer said. The 28 people and two dogs who spent New Year’s Day exploring its many wonders would certainly agree.

first day hike

Photos: Scenes from a First Day hike at Paul Smith’s College Visitor Information Center. Photos by Tim Rowland

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Adirondack Explorer’s weekly “Explore More” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

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