Most people who hike the Adirondacks think in terms of climbing a mountain, say Marcy, Cascade, Giant or Gothics.
A grand hike would be taking on one with a bit longer walk such as Dix, or for the hearty the Santanoni Range or the Great Range. For me, as a teenager, it was walking around the MacIntyre Range by starting at Heart Lake, walking through Indian Pass toward the Upper Works and then back through Flowed Lands, Lake Colden, and Avalanche Lake to Heart Lake.
This past Saturday, a Grand Hike of a very different character was unveiled by Champlain Area Trails, which featured a 14-mile ramble through forests, fields, farmlands and back country roads beginning at the Westport Hotel (near the train station) and ending at the Essex Inn. The character of the trail could not have been more different or varied. No high- or even medium-sized peaks were bagged.
Darlene and Paul Heller pose with their grandkids, Asha and Amena. (Photo — Naj Wikoff)
We experienced stunning vistas of field, lakes and mountains, picturesque landscapes with cows, hay rolls and organic farmers plowing their fields with horse-drawn rigs, a string of ever more complex beaver ponds, lovely woodlands, brooks, and skirting along the Boquet River. Hazards at times included waiting for a mile-long Canadian Pacific train to pass, pulling a string of black oil cars heading north to be filled with Canadian crude to be brought back down to the refineries in Albany.
Best though was the wide variety of people along the way and the five oases laden with cookies, fruit, snack bars and water served by cheerful volunteers who welcomed you like long lost friends, providing lots of friendly advice, and sending you gleefully on your way knowing in another 3 or 4 miles there would be another. Getting lost was not an option as the trails were well marked, and for anyone who felt that 14 miles was a bit too ambitious, vans were available at every oasis to take the weary back to the start or end of the journey. And if all that wasn't enough, a trail's end, a party awaited with beer, juices, seats by a fire, refreshments and free tote bags. It was a wow.
For many years, the photographer, author and founder of the Adirondack Council, Gary Randorf, waxed poetic about linking the hamlets of the Champlain Valley with trails modeled after that classic English, Irish and Scottish ramble. He was one of several who dreamed of such a future, a vision compounded by the relative lack of state Forest Preserve in that part of the Adirondacks - nearly all the lands are in private hands. About five years ago, a group of people got together, formed CATS and steadily worked to make agreements with farmers and other private landowners to provide public access and, through their successes, have continued to expand a network of trails.
The Grand Hike was unveiled to generate public awareness that more than 30 miles of terrific trails were available and to introduce their grander vision of expanding the network to go from Willsboro in the north to Ticonderoga in the south, and eventually connect with DEC trails in the west. I corralled my friend, Dan Plumley of Keene, to join me, and Saturday morning we drove over to the Essex Ferry parking lot and, leaving our car there, caught a van to the start at the Westport Hotel.
"My husband and I have been contributing to CATS for years and never done a hike," said Beth Auch, of Willsboro, as we waited for the van. "This one sounded exciting, and I wanted to try it, so here I am. I feel in good enough shape to do it because the trail is relatively flat. I tried the High Peaks, and some of the higher ones I have had to give up on so this is more my speed, I think."
"Our goal is to introduce a very broad audience to the idea of village to village on trails that are not too aggressive and not too difficult for people," said volunteer lot attendant John Bingham. "The goal is to get people out right close to civilization to see what's here in the landscape along the coast of Lake Champlain."
"My intention is to walk the whole way but if I don't make it I will not be upset with myself," said Gretel Schuler of Essex. "There a lot of logistics involved. I am impressed by how smoothly it seems to be going with the shuttles and everything and the weather seems to be cooperating."
"We have been planning this event since January," said CATS chair Katharine Preston at the registration table. "Rick and Karen Dalton at the Essex Inn instigated it. They talked to the people over here at Westport Hotel where there is a fabulous breakfast going on. They came to us and said, 'OK, how do we do this?' So we laid out a route, a couple routes as there are some choices you can make. Local businesses sponsored each of the oases along the route where people can get snacks, fruit and water, so this is about promoting local businesses too."
"People would come off the ferry and ask where can we hike and there were only a few small areas," said CATS mapmaker Sheri Amsel. "We decided we wanted to make a whole network of trails that connect the hamlets so people can hike with their families. We have put together over 30 miles of trails, and our goal is to keep it going throughout the valley."
"Of course, you always wonder what's going to happen if two people or 2,000 will show up," said CATS executive director Chris Maron. "We have about 200. I think that's a pretty good number."
About 11 miles later, I caught up with Mary McGowan, from Meadowmount, at the last oasis.
"We walked from Westport and did the high trail," said McGowan. "I had never been on that part, so I wanted to do that. It was lovely. There were lots of little scenic spots where you could sit, have lunch and just look out. It was very beautiful."
"The hike so far has been amazing," said Rebecca Palmer. "I am definitely grateful for all the volunteers, the people at CATS, just to think that for X amount of years this just didn't exist and now it is another amazing thing we get to do as a community. I love the variety of things to see and the variety of people. That's been really nice, too, and of all ages."
"The oasis stations were great," said Terry Jandreau." As my wife said, walk a couple miles and have someone cheer you in, give you a cookie, some fruit and something to drink, and then you are off and you can't wait to get to the next one. It was great. I thought it was exceptionally well organized."
"It was a grand hike," said Bethany Krawiec from Upper Jay. "They said it was, and it really was. They anticipated everything. I would absolutely do it again."
"I feel great! Big success!" exclaimed Katherine Preston. "It rained a bit, but nobody cared. It was cool, mostly sunny, not too hot, no bugs, great timing. We'll do it again."
For more information and maps, visit CATS online at champlainareatrails.com.