Saranac Lake’s neighborhood cross-country-ski hill unites the community, nurtures future Olympians and offers good, old-fashioned fun
The summer after my junior year of high school I found myself working on a cattle ranch in Montana owned by Mel Gibson. He ran it from afar: in the two months I was there, I spotted more rattlesnakes (one) than movie stars (zip).
I grew up in Manhattan, and nearly every one of my assignments on the ranch—helping to drain a goiter bulging from a cow’s neck; re-stringing barbed-wire fences; remaining on the back of a horse as it streaked across open country—felt miles beyond my reach.
The first time I cross-country skied Dewey Mountain, in Saranac Lake, my mind returned to Montana and the memory of a particularly perilous task: driving a tractor, top-heavy with a load of hay, across the slope of a steep hill. I had expected the thing to topple and roll or slide out from under me at any moment. So long, senior year. (No one else at the ranch appeared worried.)
The trail I was following at Dewey, nearly a decade after my Montana days, led me across the slope of the mountain. It was well-packed and slick and I was a clumsy skier. Every few yards I would either topple over or my skis would slide out from under me. The stakes were lower, but I was back on that tractor.
Except I was having fun, slipping through the forest, as were the much better skiers who passed me, their friendly chatter fading as they disappeared into the trees. Some time later I returned for one of Dewey’s beloved under-the-lights ski nights, gliding among shadows, bare lightbulbs dangling above, snow sparkling below. I recall the thrilling realization that I was skiing exhausting, exhilarating loops through the woods, bumping into friends and neighbors around every turn, all about a mile from the center of town.
“The focus is always on having fun,” said Chris Morris, a volunteer coach and lifelong skier. A Saranac Lake native, Morris is a co-chairman of Dewey Mountain Friends, which formed in 2013 to raise funds for Dewey’s recently constructed lodge. “There are other options out there if you really want to focus on the racing end. We’ve tried to foster a love of skiing. Going out, exploring, playing games and having fun.”
For nearly 40 years, it’s worked, drawing first-time skiers and Olympians alike into the woods and onto the snow. What began in the early 1980s as a small knot of challenging trails and a drafty cabin has developed into a year-round hub of outdoor activity.
When Dewey’s ski season ends (and the trails dry out), mountain-biking season begins. Barkeater Trails Alliance— which has built a 50-mile network of single-track trails throughout the High Peaks region—has helped to bolster Dewey’s mountain-biking terrain.
Last summer, Pendragon Theatre, in Saranac Lake, staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream on a platform in the woods just off one of the main trails. There are races, musical performances, ski classes for kids and exercise classes for seniors. The new lodge—bright, spacious and thoroughly insulated, with massive windows gazing out onto trails—opened at the start of 2015.
Such is the communal love for Dewey that more than 600 households donated to the construction costs. Mason Stoddard, five years old at the time, contributed $1.19 in 2013. Tom Boothe and the Keet Family gave generously, and Boothe volunteered as project manager. Dewey Mountain Friends raised nearly half a million dollars.
Visitation climbed following the lodge’s completion; Dewey acquired an additional chunk of land for new trails; the parking lot was tripled in size. Growing pains of the best sort.
“It just gets better and better and continues to grow,” Jason Smith, Dewey’s manager, said. “I just love the variety. It’s great to be a part of the growth, the community, the support and the continued success of something.… There’s so much potential here.”
Dewey is owned by the town of Harrietstown, which contracts Smith’s outdoors company, Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters, to run it. Eight miles of ski trails, 2.5 miles of snowshoe trails and five miles of mountain-biking trails twist, dip and climb through more than 100 mostly wooded acres. Trails at the bottom of the mountain are groomed; trails near the top are not, giving skiers a hint of the backcountry without requiring they trek deep into the Forest Preserve to find it.
The ski area opened in an official capacity in 1981, following several years of planning by the town council and the Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce. But locals had been carving turns on the mountain for decades.
Once known as Ring Hill, Dewey Mountain is thought to have been named after Thomas and William Dewey, who ran a hotel—Dewey House—near the mountain in the early 1900s. In January of 1942 Dewey made a brief appearance in a New York Times article about the state’s efforts to “establish its North Country as one of the major Winter sports centers in the East.” After mentioning new trails in Keene, Speculator and elsewhere, the piece declared, “Snow fans visiting the Saranac Lake and Warrensburg sections will find Winter sports facilities enhanced by large-scale improvements. At Warrensburg, 20 miles north of Glens Falls, a new 500-foot ski tow is in service; and at Dewey Mountain, fringing the town of Saranac Lake, are a new 1,000-foot ski tow and a rustic ski hut.”
Those “large-scale enhancements” wouldn’t endure. But Harrietstown Town Councilman Ron Keough, a longtime advocate for the ski center, remembers climbing the mountain in the 1940s and early ’50s with friends and whooshing down on skis and toboggans. They made their own trails, then stopped for “hot chocolate at the McGill home after.” Even then, a day at Dewey sounds like fun.
“It was a dream that became a vision that became a reality,” Keough said, as he rattled off names of people and organizations (Saranac Lake’s skiing guru Natalie Leduc; the town’s Highway Department; former Chamber director Sue Dyer) responsible for Dewey’s success. “I just believe in Dewey,” he said.
Brian McDonnell was Dewey’s first manager, running it until the early 2000s. McDonnell, owner of Mac’s Canoe Livery, in Lake Clear, recalled legions of dedicated volunteers helping him expand and improve trails, install lighting and run events.
“It was a true community center,” he said. “We got a lot of help from a lot of different people. Several people in town did their community service at Dewey Mountain. I see them now and they say, ‘I still remember the day you worked my tail off.’”
For years, McDonnell said, skiing at Dewey was free. When fees were eventually introduced, they were kept low. Even now, a day pass is only $5. A season pass for a family is $75.
“A lot of families became ingrained into the Dewey community,” he said. “We made sure we engaged with people in the apartment complex next door. We had doctors, regular people—everyone.”
Dewey’s managers, coaches and volunteers have always emphasized the benefits of outdoor exercise and camaraderie over cutthroat competition, access and participation without even a whiff of elitism. “Our work at Dewey and at places like [Mount] Pisgah and the skateboard park,” Morris said, referring to a pair of Saranac Lake facilities, “is to make sure there are opportunities to families regardless of income, so they don’t have to worry about how much it costs, or how to get there.”
You don’t have to be a good skier to go to Dewey, but the mountain has nonetheless produced a startling number of really, really good skiers. Annelies Cook, Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey and Billy Demong all skied at Dewey as kids, and all have competed in the Olympics. Demong, now the director of USA Nordic, won gold and silver medals in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
“One of the distinguishing things about Dewey is, it’s a hard course,” Demong’s mother, Helen, said. “Our girls and boys, if they could ski here, they could ski anywhere. They came up here, and then they were skiing up the Alps.”
And then, despite international success, they return to Dewey, maintaining their ties to the mountain and its community of skiers. Morris said the kids he coaches are always up-to-date on Burke’s latest race results. “They feel connected to that,” he said. “And it’s empowering to them.”
Cook coaches at the mountain, as do her siblings. She, Demong and Burke all have trails named after them.
“They want the kids around here to know you can do anything that you put your mind to,” Helen Demong said. “I’m well aware that we were very fortunate to have facilities available for our kids. It was not a goal to develop an Olympian, it was a goal to have great fun outdoors for the kids. The friendships that were made, the memories, we were very lucky.”
One gets a sense Dewey’s young skiers are still very lucky. Jess Zobel (one of Cook’s siblings) has been leading children along Dewey’s trails for nearly a decade. She grew up skiing and racing on the mountain and wants to fill her young charges with positive associations with the sport. “If people choose to live in Saranac Lake, they need to have some winter recreation skills to be happy during our long winters,” she said. “When I ski with the children, I always point out the beautiful things we see on the trails: ‘Look at that boulder covered in snow. I wonder how big it really is and how much is actually just snow.’ ‘Can you see how the golden light is coming through the trees in the sky? That’s how we know that direction is west, and the sun is setting.’ ‘Look at those tracks in the snow. Who do you think made them?’”
While visiting Saranac Lake last winter, I brought my daughter, Louise, then a year-and-a-half old, to Dewey. Within minutes of our arrival, Jason Smith, the manager, had emerged from the equipment room with a pair of skis barely longer than a butter knife to strap to her boots.
Louise’s first moments on skis ended in tears, but Smith’s account of the experience was decidedly positive: “Hey, she shredded a couple of inches.”
Smith clearly delights in his work. “I like the idea that I can start my day by updating our social media with a post about trail conditions,” Smith said. “Then I get on a snowmobile and make the trails look beautiful, then transition to skiing with kids of people I know, my neighbors, then transition to a lighted ski trail, skiing with locals or visitors who finish their day skiing laps at Dewey.”
My most recent visit to Dewey occurred last March, on one of those perfect days when spring claims the air and winter maintains its hold on the ground: no need for a jacket; plenty of snow to ski. A friend and I slid out onto the trails. We guessed wrong on wax, so our strides weren’t always as smooth as they might have been. It didn’t matter. We climbed, we talked. I fell on a flat stretch but remained upright on a long downhill with a tight turn. We were outside, having fun.
If You Go
Dewey Mountain Recreation Center is a mile west of downtown Saranac Lake on Route 3. Learn more about its trails, hours and rentals at www.deweymountain.com or (518) 891-2697.