Photograph by Jamie West McGiver
Let’s say you’re nearing a significant birthday. Let’s say you’re turning 55. And let’s say you have a group of friends circling the same drain. Let’s also put it out there that this group is pretty game. They like to do things. They welcome a challenge. Not marathon runners, but not the types who are ready to settle in for cards and cookies. Now, on top of that, let’s say it’s deep winter. And let’s add the fact that some of these 50-somethings have kids and spouses who are tolerant of adventures that only last so long.
What could you do to unify all these themes into a relatively short and invigorating tussle with the elements? What challenge could you present that tricky knees and rising blood pressure could overcome? What would get the spirit racing toward a goal while also providing opportunity for a comfortable bed at day’s end?
I suggest cross-country skiing the Jackrabbit Trail. Stretching 33 miles from Paul Smiths to Keene, the Jackrabbit rises and falls in typical Adirondack fashion. It’s got plenty of flat, too, and is conveniently punctuated by wholesome lodging and dining in Lake Clear, Saranac Lake, Lake Placid and Keene.
This is just the adventure I proposed to my New York City friends Sean, David, Jenny and Sarah. Each had in their own way hit a life pause. Sean had just ghostwritten a celebrity autobiography. David, who leads a democracy organization, was dreading an impending empty nest. Jenny had just closed on an apartment in Brooklyn. Sarah was wrapping a documentary about nurturing healthy gut bacteria.
Miraculously, all of us were free for an extended long weekend in January. Equally miraculously, snow, glorious snow, had fallen in abundance, coating the trail from end-to-end in thick powder. When we rendezvoused at Lake Placid’s Cascade Ski Center last winter to rent our equipment, we caught snowflakes on our tongues and jumped about.
The only problem was that most of us didn’t really know how to cross-country ski.
The Jackrabbit Trail is named after Herman Smith “Jackrabbit” Johannsen, a Norwegian born in 1875 who emigrated to North America at the turn of the century and broke hundreds of miles of trail throughout the Adirondacks and Quebec. For Jackrabbit, 55 was only the midpoint—the age at which he sloughed off a humdrum career as an engineer and made the next 55 years all about skiing. In The Legendary Jackrabbit Johannsen, the biography his daughter wrote, there’s nary a mention of Jackrabbit actually learning how to ski. One has the impression he schussed right out of the womb.
We New Yorkers were not so fortunate. To start us off I booked a lesson at Cascade with longtime Adirondack guide and ski instructor Terry Watson. Terry was familiar with the problem of downhillers attempting cross-country. As we geared up, he told us about a friend who’d been on the Olympic ski team who always scoffed at Nordic. “So, one day I brought him out and sent him down a hill,” Terry laughed. “Poles, goggles, gloves everywhere. Total yard sale.”
Terry explained that for the Jackrabbit Trail, it would be all about trying to get as efficient as possible. “You shouldn’t rely on the force from your upper body,” he explained. “It’s the engaging of the thigh and the slide that saves energy. A longer, slower stride with opposite arm matching the stroke of opposite leg is the most efficient. And then that transition from glide to climb should happen only when it’s truly necessary. Also, the poles should never be in front but almost dragging behind. I can always tell when someone’s been using the wrong arm motions. They come into the lodge and can barely get a 16-ounce lager to their lips.”
Flat and uphill explained, we then turned to everybody’s terror: downhill. “It’s not just a simple pizza wedge,” Terry continued atop a suitable slope. “There’s actually an uphill ski and a downhill ski. The downhill ski is loaded or weighted until the turn is finished and then unweighted, letting it become the uphill ski.”
One by one we gave it a go with Terry issuing grades afterwards. Jenny, the Harvard grad of Scandinavian descent, got an A+. David, Sarah and I got Bs. Sean—yard sale.
Lessons learned, we made our way to our lodgings at White Pine Camp, in Paul Smiths—a turn-of-the-last century cluster of cabins where President Calvin Coolidge once stayed, making it his “Summer White House.” Over a carbo-loading Bolognese dinner we tried to get it all straight.
“That part where you’re supposed to move your arms opposite to the skis, is both the most important thing and something I would prefer not to know,” said David. “Because if you think about it, you’ll mess it up. It’s like you need some kind of Zen-master quality where you understand it without really understanding it.”
“It was just an overwhelming amount of information and I don’t know whether I retained any of it,” Sean said. He then changed into a flowing robe and made his way to the cottage’s massive clawfoot tub. “I have to process all this,” he said. “I’m taking a Coolidge.”
People come at the Jackrabbit in different ways. Some ski bits and pieces and bag the entire trail’s length over the course of a winter. Some ski the whole thing in a single calendar day, starting and finishing under the cover of darkness. But for a group with minimal skills and a week or less of vacation time, a reasonable compromise can be struck by breaking up the trail into more or less consecutive seven- to 10-mile chunks per day. Developing a logistical plan for those chunks can require some advance strategizing. There is no hut-to-hut system along the Jackrabbit. Nor is there much in the way of affordable guiding infrastructure that would help you schlep your gear from one leg to the next.
Seeing as the forecast was for temperatures in the single digits, plus the fact that none of us was ski-stable enough to carry heavy packs for miles at a time, we opted to make White Pine Camp and its Coolidge tub our permanent base and use our two cars to stage at either end of each chunk.
With our new, semi-acquired Terry Watson skills, we set out near Paul Smith’s Visitor Interpretive Center and immediately dove into a trail straight out of a Grimm fairy tale. Frosted trees, curvy glades with enough short uphills and downhills to test the important “transition” from gliding to climbing and back to gliding. Surprisingly, no one fell through the first two miles of difficult terrain and we congratulated ourselves when we took a pause for a water break. Seconds later David’s skis slipped out from under him and flipped him onto his back. Yard sale.
On we pressed to flatter open ground. A third of the way to our destination Sean, as the least experienced of our underexperienced lot, realized there was no shame in turning around. After he left, we grew silent as each of us focused on trying to perfect the opposite-arm/leg-thigh-driving we all knew was the ideal. And then all of a sudden there was the ideal itself, swishing toward us. It was someone I knew—photographer Nancie Battaglia, who prided herself on squeezing in the maximal number of ski-days in a single season. Last year’s tally was 170.
“You heading to Charlie’s Inn?” she asked as we met at the intersection of ski and snowmobile tracks. “Follow me, I know a better way.”
Avoiding snowmobiles and the ice-encrusted ruts they leave can be one of the hazards of the western part of the Jackrabbit. Charlie’s Inn, a honky-tonk snowmobilers’ lair where Terry Watson told me the original Charlie had once kicked out a bunch of cross-country skiers for ordering nothing but hot water for their tea, seemed to be defended by miles of snowmobile trench. It was therefore a great relief to follow Nancie through an undisturbed glade of massive trees and schuss in total silence. Kick glide, kick glide. Nancie had it down. And before long, Charlie’s popped into sight and we traded in our skis for barstools.
Sean was there at the bar translating Pirandello and drinking an imported lager. The rest of us ordered “kicking crab” chowder. The rest of us that is, save Sarah. Through the corner of my eye, I spied her with one of her own tea bags in a cup about to motion to the bartender for some hot water. “Don’t do it!” I shouted.
Sated and laughing, we left Charlie’s patting our backs for a largely upright day with no injuries. As we made for the car, the hasps of my ski boots caught one another, locking my feet in place and causing me to plunge forward flat onto my face.
Total yard sale.
How far can we go before we fall? Or, more importantly, how many times can we fall before we can no longer get up again? Jackrabbit Johannsen fell and rose again and again throughout his century on the planet. Wiped out in the Great Depression, he left the New York suburbs, moved to the Lake Placid Club, did test runs to figure out the best routes for the ’32 Olympics, decamped to Montreal and built ski jumps and laid trail well into his 80s. At 94 he worked his way across the Atlantic on a freighter ship, braiding rope to earn his passage. He finally succumbed when he caught a cold while visiting his native Norway. He died in 1987 at the age of 111 in the arms of his octogenarian son.
In spite of his noble example, doubts about my own ability to rise again floated in my weary head as I took a Coolidge back at White Pine, soaking off the hip zaps and knee zings that had accrued after just one day of Jackrabbiting. Meanwhile, Sarah dressed and braised a pair of rabbits. We ate the delicious, tender flesh with roasted baby potatoes at our cabin’s big oak table and I tried to drown my misgivings in a bottle of Alpe Amaro Jenny had brought along for just such moments.
I was particularly troubled because I knew from personal experience how the next day had the potential to be the mother of all yard sales. Two weeks previous to our trip, I’d gone out on a test run with Josh Wilson, current head of the Barkeater Trails Alliance, which maintains the Jackrabbit Trail, and skied a portion of “McKenzie Pass”—a precipitous rise and fall that connects the Saranac Lake portion of the trail to the Lake Placid section. “If you can ski this part, I think you can probably ski the whole thing,” he’d told me as we made our way up from the trail near Lake Placid Lodge. Going up wasn’t much of a problem. But when Josh felt satisfied that I would pass muster he turned us around and I found myself staring down into an icy Hades. For the next half hour while Josh expertly skied on ahead, I wobbled, tumbled, crashed and slid, dinging my head again and again on the ice and rocks. By the time I caught up with Wilson in the parking lot, blood was dripping down my brow and I raced to my car in shame, thanking him over my shoulder for a “really great day.”
Two weeks later, when I led the five of us to the same parking lot, it was with a terrible foreboding. Jamie West McGiver, our photographer for this story and unofficial guide for the day, had warned that the Saranac Lake side of the pass that I’d not skied on my previous test run was even “spicier” than the hill that had so gashed me. But this time I had three things going for me: six inches of fresh powder, Terry Watson’s training and a helmet.
Four of us made it briskly up the Lake Placid side (Sean had bailed without shame around mile three). And by the time we reached the high point of the pass the sun had broken through. We stopped for lunch at a lean-to and then, before taking on Mount Spice, Jamie passed us a flask of “liquid courage.” Downing a shot, I felt a little bit of warming against the 10-degree weather and then plunged into the pass.
David and Sarah, the best downhillers of the group, descended without incident. A+ Jenny also clocked a clean run. I skied longer and farther downhill on cross-country skis than I’d ever done before. I also fell and fell and fell. But the soft powder and the camaraderie of my good friends made the whole thing feel more like comedy than tragedy.
Sean, still translating Pirandello, was there waiting for us at Casa del Sol, in Saranac Lake, when we emerged from the trail. Vast amounts of Mexican food and margaritas were consumed. And then we returned to White Pine. Most of us took a Coolidge while Jenny, not in the least fatigued, explored the grounds of the camp, reporting back on the fabulous great room, the antique bowling alley and the miles of additional trail that we could ski if we’d had only a few more days.
Too often in the Adirondacks we’re prone to count things we’ve conquered: Forty-six High Peaks. Fifty miles around Cranberry Lake. Twenty-five fire towers. Why all these numbers? In the fog of youth, we’re prone to fall under their spell and even calculate our self-worth relative to how many miles we’ve deposited into our lifetime accounts. Jackrabbit Johannsen never seemed big on numbers. For him it wasn’t the miles he’d logged on skis that made him feel satisfied. What was important was just keeping himself and others going. When he looked back on his long life, the numbers he really treasured were the thousands of people, young and old, who had discovered Nordic skiing through his example.
For our last day of Jackrabbiting, the plan had been to log one last leg, starting outside Lake Placid, mounting the territory back toward Cascade and then a final descent into Keene. But whereas the previous days had stayed just warm enough to allow knees and elbows to keep bending, the mercury barely broke zero and it threatened to dip into serious negative territory in the afternoon.
I looked at my dear friends who had trusted me to plan something fun and challenging while at the same time leaving it to me to assess the risks and get them home safely. It occurred to me that the only number that really mattered was the number you needed to exceed to be a little better than the last time. “You know what?” I said. “Let’s take it easy. Not too easy. But easy.”
We spent the last morning sampling some last pieces of the Jackrabbit, including the loop of the Peninsula trail in Lake Placid followed by pastries and coffee at nearby Simply Gourmet. Then the last three miles into Keene, followed by a return to Cascade Center to warm up before finally saying goodbye to one another in the parking lot.
“You know what was really true and good about this trip?” asked Sarah after returning her skis and poles to the rental shop. “At our age, there’s always the danger that you’ll look ahead and say, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ A month ago, my back went out. I could have said, ‘I can’t do this with my back being like this.’ But you know what? I didn’t listen to that voice. Instead, what I said was I have to get my back better.
“I have to do it. For Jackrabbit.”
Paul Greenberg is the author of The Climate Diet: 50 Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint and five other books, including The New York Times bestseller Four Fish. He wrote “Shopping for the Apocalypse,” about buying climate-safe land, in this magazine’s At Home in the Adirondacks 2021 issue.