Thursday, June 30, 2022

Tackle that “Adirondack Bucket List” this summer at Paul Smith’s

building a lean-to

Anyone who has ever spent a night camping in an Adirondack lean-to will be able to describe the joy of being woken up by the early morning sun accompanied by the fresh scent of balsam needles and the haunting call of loons. If you have ever come upon one of these unique three-sided structures deep in the backcountry and wondered how such a thing was constructed, or even fantasized about having one in your backyard, you are not alone. Building a proper lean-to requires a set of knowledge, skills, and experience that make it difficult for the average person to do on their own. The Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC) had remedied this by offering a full lean-to building class as part of our “Adirondack Bucket List” series.

The first installment of this series was held right in the backyard of the VIC building and spanned three days. Over the course of the long weekend, a group of hardworking individuals of all different backgrounds transformed a pile of spruce logs into a finished lean-to that will be a permanent feature on the property. The class was led by Dave Simmons, a professor of forestry for Paul Smith’s College, who catered to any level of experience and made sure that everyone left with new skills. Participants learned how to safely operate a portable sawmill, use chainsaws in a construction setting, work with the quirks of natural materials, and so much more.

Day one of the class consisted of building the foundation and milling all the lumber down to a workable size using a portable sawmill. The first day was the slowest moving as introductions were made, expectations set, and fundamentals covered. The weather cooperated with pleasant temperatures, clear skies and just enough of a breeze to keep the bugs at bay. The sounds of power tools and machinery were punctuated by jokes and laughter as the group got to know each other better and figure out their own dynamic. The general mood by the end of the day was that of accomplishment and an eagerness to start putting the pieces together. After enjoying a hard-earned pizza dinner provided by the VIC, some participants, keeping with the theme of the weekend, decided to spend the night in one our other lean-tos.

lean-to building as part of Adirondack Bucket List series

Saturday, being the most labor-intensive day of the entire process, naturally brought the worst conditions of the weekend. Participants donned raincoats with as many layers underneath as they could fit and worked through the entire day of rain and 45-degree temperatures with a minimal – but appropriate – amount of complaining. A lunch of warm waffles and maple syrup did quite a bit to help raise spirits as they hit their mid-day slump. This was the most satisfying portion of the class because they were able to get all three walls put up and the floor put in, ending the day with something that was beginning to resemble a lean-to. Before putting the final nails in the floorboards, the group decided that they wanted to put a time capsule below them as a surprise for future lean-to repairers.

Sunday brought ample sunshine along with a soundtrack of birds chirping, dragonflies buzzing, and nails being driven into wood. The final day of the class was dedicated to getting the roof put on and working on some of the finishing details. No construction project is complete without at least one mistake that needs to be troubleshot and fixed, and this was no exception. Part of learning how to build with natural materials is realizing that no two projects will ever be the same and that you need to learn how to modify a plan to fit your needs. The slight delay just provided a more thorough learning experience and left everyone feeling even more accomplished and motivated to finish.

Regardless of whatever experience participants had prior to this course, each one of them left with a new set of knowledge and skills that left them more capable and confident than they were before. No project is without setbacks, but the very few that were encountered along the way ended up turning into valuable learning experiences that only made the class better. The lean-to will provide a place for hikers to eat lunch and take cover from rain along with providing a cozy place to warm up in front of fire on long, cold ski days. The shelter will even feature a plaque with the names of each participant to acknowledge their contribution and celebrate the weekend that they got to cross another item off their Adirondack bucket list.


The next PSC VIC “Adirondack Bucket List” program is camping with Loons on July 8. Join famed Naturalist Milt Adams and retired Forest Ranger Scott van Laer on an overnight camping adventure at Black Pond. This trip involves a canoe paddle, learning about ecology, biology and observing the loons during the day and night.

All food, tents and sleeping bags will be provided. Scott will be sure to share many stories from his searches, rescues, and the many humorous human interactions he experienced during his 25 years “rangering” in the High Peaks Wilderness around the campfire. Visit or call 518-327-6241

Building a lean-to part of Paul Smith’s College VIC’s “Adirondack Bucket List” series. Photos provided

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Ethan Johnson is a steward at the Paul Smith's College Visitors Interpretive Center. He is a junior majoring in sustainability at Paul Smith's College.

One Response

  1. Karla Bove says:

    Dave Simmons is the man!

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