photograph by Carrie Marie Burr
Northville’s Finn-tastic ski resort
In Fall 2013, my boyfriend, Keith, and I arrived at Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center in the southern Adirondacks for the first time. We were greeted by a black-and-white cat, Little Bit, as well as Kiva, a Karelian bear dog, who bounded onto the scene, his tail wagging. Along with our welcoming party, the bright foliage, the rushing stream in the background, and the smell of pine signaled that we were home.
Then again, Keith and I both knew Lapland would be “our place” before we ever left our apartment in Brooklyn. After combing through lists of places to stay in the Adirondacks, we surprised each other by both picking this resort in Benson, about nine miles from the village of Northville. For Keith it was the description: spring-fed non-motorized mountain lake, miles of forest trails, little housekeeping cottages—or “tupas,” as they’re called in Finnish—and most important, peace and quiet.
I craved nature and relaxation too, but I was fascinated by Lapland’s founder, Olavi Hirvonen, who had competed in Nordic skiing in the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics. Having been a competitive speed skater where I grew up in the Midwest, I had trained with, been coached by, and looked up to Olympians. I may have fallen short of the Olympics myself, but the quality of friendship and hospitality embodied by those who have lived and trained in those worlds left a lifelong impression on me.
Olavi’s wife, Ann, greeted us with a smile. We met Olavi and he shared stories about starting the resort and early mornings on the groomer. Phil Blowers and Pat Ferri, who brought wood to our tupa, talked with us like old friends. Even the bookkeeper, Pat Peryea, went out of her way to make us feel welcome.
That week was magical—exploring the woods, visiting Viima, the resident reindeer. We spent evenings by the campfire and then cozy nights beside our cabin’s woodstove. We took advantage of the Finnish sauna and spent early mornings kayaking on Woods Lake, sometimes paddling through fog.
We learned how far our hosts’ kindness and generosity extended after our car broke down just as we were about to drive back to New York City. Ann brought food to our cabin, and Phil drove Keith to Northville to check on our car during our unplanned extended stay. Being at Lapland reduced the stress, particularly those extra visits to the sauna.
Olavi Hirvonen, a Finn who had moved to the States in 1949, started Lapland Lake in 1978. The story goes that, as Olavi was driving to the Adirondacks from his home in Westchester County, something compelled him to turn off Route 30 and onto Benson Road. There was property for sale—a colony of housekeeping cottages called Lang’s Cabins.
Olavi approached the main house to ask about the property. When he knocked, there was no answer, so he turned to leave. Then he heard a baby cry. He went back to the door and knocked again. He was met by a woman who told him, yes, it was for sale. (Years later that child who cried would visit Lapland Lake.)
This would become the 300-acre resort that Olavi would lovingly name for the northernmost region in his homeland.
Into his 80s, Olavi was ready to let someone else take over Lapland’s reins. The Hirvonens retired in 2014, selling the resort to Paul and Kathy Zahray, a couple from New Jersey who were longtime Lapland Lake guests. Olavi and Ann stayed on for a couple of years to assure a smooth transition.
“The customer base is like a supportive family,” says Paul. “Similarly, the staff that we inherited and other people that we’ve picked up over time, like Anne Marie and Brad Johnson who also run a family farm store in Northville, are all very unique individuals. And once you come to realize what talents you have, you can accomplish a lot and enjoy it.”
Winter is Lapland’s most popular season. On average, Benson receives 117 inches of snow annually, which means 110 days of skiing. There’s no snowmaking, but because of what Paul describes as a microclimate, the natural snowfall here makes Lapland “probably as good as, or better than, most places in the region.”
Paul grooms 38 of the resort’s 50 kilometers of trails; the remaining 12 are reserved for snowshoeing. He says he learned how to groom from Olavi. The Olympian had a sixth sense for the art, knowing where trails needed to be smooth or fast. “It was intuitive [for him],” says Paul.
Under the Zahrays, Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center has the same charm. Little Bit is still the queen of the lodge. Finnish traditions and aesthetics remain. Updates include cabin renovations and changes to the contour of the trails to make them more manageable and dependable under varied weather. Last winter’s wet conditions proved to be a good test of that work, says Paul. “A lot of our projects made a difference.”
The Zahrays moved the dining room to the top floor of the main lodge. Visitors can order soup, paninis, baked goods, coffee and hot chocolate. In winter, overnight guests can have catered dinners delivered to their tupas.
Last February, after a guest had the idea to recognize Olavi, the Zahrays dedicated one of Lapland Lake’s trails to the resort’s founder. When they mentioned it to Olavi, he suggested the name “Olavin Uni,” which in Finnish means “Olavi’s Dream.” Hundreds of people turned out for the dedication ceremony.
The Zahrays are optimistic about the future of skiing at Lapland, despite the threat of a warming climate. Paul and Kathy admit that it’s on their minds.
But right now the focus is on drawing more groups to Lapland, particularly younger vacationers who, perhaps, haven’t been exposed to cross-country skiing. “You really have to experience it to appreciate it,” says Paul. “We have a lot of people who say, ‘Wow, why didn’t I try this years or decades ago?’”
The resort offers lessons for all ages with certified instructors. Broomball and other games, a tubing hill and lit ice-skating pond are hits with the kids. Lapland also gives snowshoe tours, horse-drawn sleigh rides, and hosts high-school ski races.
In warm weather, canoes and kayaks are available for paddling Woods Lake; guests can fish, mountain-bike and hike nearby trails; the 136-mile Northville-Placid Trail runs adjacent to Lapland’s property.
As Kathy says, “There’s never a bad season at Lapland.”
Having been there in all of them, I agree. In October, Keith and I were married at Lapland, along the shore of Woods Lake. You could say we officially made this place a part of our permanent story.
IF YOU GO
Learn more about Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center by visiting www.laplandlake.com or calling (518) 863-4974.