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ON THE SCENE: Skiing to Great Camp Santanoni

January 19, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Going to Great Camp Santanoni started on a rough note, my partner Renee's 185 Fisher cross-country skis with new NNN bindings were stolen.

She's had the skis for a bit over 20 years; they were racing skis when she acquired them, so light with a good camber. It was an emotional as well as a financial loss.

That was a bummer.

Article Photos

Shea Schnell skis with dogs Panda, Zola and Jack and his friend Dan Gonyea, all from Plattsburgh.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

So we rented some skis from the Cascade Cross-Country Ski Center in Lake Placid and struck out again. Our plan was to take in the first of three winter open houses at the fabled Great Camp in the town of Newcomb. We had planned to head in Saturday, Jan. 14, but the weather was so lovely we went skating on Lower Cascade Lake. That was a dream.

It was special, as both Upper and Lower Cascade were skateable. Lower often is because the wind tunnels through the pass every few days keeping the surface clean, while the Upper Lake tightly ringed with the mountains on either side and the hill to the northwest is often covered with snow. Not so on Saturday. Both lakes looked like two dark mirrors. A bonus, if there even is one with winter rains, is the drive down to the parking area between the two lakes was open, providing easy access in either direction.

While the ice is thick, it does boom occasionally when you skate on it, which can be a bit unnerving. One does have to watch for cracks and a few ripples in the surface are formed if the wind is blowing when the ice freezes. A way to deal with those challenges is to rent nordic skater blades (most local ski shops have them) which clip to your cross-country ski boots. As they are longer than a regular skating blade, you can slide right over such rough spots. Brings some poles and you can really zip.

When I was a kid, I hung out in Eagle's Eyrie, the Great Camp at the end of Lake Placid in Echo Bay owed by the Pardees and built for them by my great-grandfather Harv Alford. He continued as their caretaker; Camp Wood Smoke was his camp and where I stayed. My heartbreak was when Eagle's Eyrie was turned over to the state, which then burned it down. Up in smoke went a miniature village of buildings many laced together with walkways. With them went all the interior furnishings that included rustic furniture, guide boats, early wooden water skis (quite long), and a long list of items owners of the Adirondack Store would die for.

I stole two of the guideboats a couple of months prior, hiding them in the horse barn just up from Wood Smoke (horses were stabled there in the winter when the caretakers cut ice for the camps along the lake). My father discovered the two guideboats and made me put them back. Never in his wildest dreams did he think the state department of Environmental Conservation would burn them along with the buildings themselves. He stood and cried.

A similar fate awaited Great Camp Santanoni in 1972 when the carriage lands and the surrounding 12,900 acres became part of the Forest Preserve. Santanoni was first owned by Robert and Anna Pruyn of Albany. Architect Robert Robertson designed the complex which is said to have had a Japanese influence, most notably in the stepped roof and continuous roof that links six separate buildings. These buildings and the nearby boathouse and artist studio, all located on the shore of Newcomb Lake, coupled with the Gatehouse complex and the farm buildings represent a great window an opulent way of life that began in the late nineteenth century through the Gilded Age and beyond.

In 1971, Melvin family, who has purchased the estate 20 years earlier, suffered the tragic loss of an 8-year-old grandson who wandered into the forest never to be seen again. The family, having no wish to return, sold the estate to the newly formed Adirondack Nature Conservancy, which after removing the furnishings, resold it to the state. There it languished and slowly rotted while preservationists struggled to keep in from being razed.

Beginning in 1990, Adirondack Architectural Heritage led a campaign to preserve the estate. Doing so required creating a historic district (a first), getting it landmarked, and in cooperation with the town of Newcomb, launching an effort to stabilize and preserve the buildings.

While the work is not completed, a tremendous amount has been accomplished and the 4.6-mile trek out by snowshoe or skis is well worth the effort. The snow conditions were fine. The challenge, though, for skiers is that the people coming by snowshoes, on foot or with their pets have near obliterated the ski trail. It's a pity as the carriage road is wide enough for both. The DEC would do well to place signs along the trail saying skiers keep right and snowshoers stay left, thereby enhancing the experience for all.

The setting was lovely, the trail easy and the bonhomie and fire with free cups of coffee or hot chocolate that awaits at the Artist's Studio was an added incentive. Volunteers serve up refreshments and good cheer, give tours, and are filled with information about the history and locale. The welcome starts right at the Gatehouse with Chuck Vandrei, the DEC site manager who has been there about 20 years.

"This place is unique," said Vandrei. "It's a special place. I love the interface between the human-built stuff and nature. The human construction here was done in a very thoughtful way."

Armed with maps and information we were off. About 90 minutes later we met fourth-year volunteer Matt Shephard serving beverages in the Artist's Cabin. "The winter weekend gives people a chance to enjoy the camp in a different way, to see it when everything is still and covered with snow," he said. "Santanoni used to be a retreat for some well-to-do Albany people, their friends, and family and now it's open to all, free to explore, and it's so quiet."

"This is our first time," said Ann Stedman, from Poland, New York. "It's beautiful. It was a nice walk."

"We come here a lot," said Bill Kimble out with his wife, Liann. "We live in Connecticut and have a house in Minerva. "We came up, bought a Hornbeck boat, and fell in love with the area. When we got a place of our own we were shocked to learn just how much there is to do right here, and since then all the recent acquisitions by the state have been in this area. It's just fantastic!"

"We came because we heard the camp was open," said Shea Schnell, with dogs Panda, Zola, Jack and his friend Dan Gonyea all from Plattsburgh. "We've been out before in the summer. It's a gem.

"I love this place," said Dan Gonyea.

The next winner weekends will be President's Day Feb. 18-20, and March 18-19. For more information, visit or



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