What’s in a trail sign name?
New book celebrates place names along the Northville-Placid Trail
LAKE PLACID — A year before the Adirondack Mountain Club and its first major project — the Northville-Placid Trail — celebrate their 100th anniversary, there’s a new book detailing the place names along the 138-mile hiking path.
Erik Schlimmer self-published his book “From Northville to Placid: Place Names of New York’s Oldest Long Trail” earlier this year. Originally from the Warren County town of Chester, he now lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“Having hiked the Northville Placid Trail myself, this book allows me to relive my trek as I recall the familiar lakes, rivers, and streams once again,” wrote “The 46 of 46 Podcast” producer James Appleton in the foreword. Appleton lives in Lake Placid. “Except now they’re more than just names on a map or sign. They have history behind them, a story to be learned, a connection to be made by everyone walking through this wild land.”
Most of the book consists of NPT toponyms, from Abner Brook to Woods Lake, both in the Hamilton County town of Benson.
Asked why he wrote this book, Schlimmer said, “I was just really surprised that nobody had done it before. … Since use has increased on the Northville-Placid Trail so much in the last 20 years, I just felt a book was in order. You have all these people hiking it, traversing and encountering all these features, and they hadn’t a clue as to why they were named. And I just couldn’t sleep at night knowing that.”
Schlimmer hiked the Northville-Placid Trail for the first time in August 1995.
“That was my first long hike ever,” he said. “And the biggest difference is, back in the day, if you wanted to hike sincerely the whole trail, you would have to start in downtown Northville and walk the pavement up Route 30 into Upper Benson.”
The trail was 133 miles at the time and has since been relocated at the beginning in two sections, plus a section from the Cedar River Road, adding five more miles.
In 1995, Schlimmer was a 22-year-old college student who had been honorably discharged from the U.S. Army two years earlier. Most of his outdoor experiences came from the Army, which “shamefully ruined” hiking and camping for hikers and campers like him, he wrote. Even though he vowed never to carry a backpack again, a new outlook on life — including exercising in the Adirondack wilderness — led him to the Northville-Placid Trail.
This would be a different experience for Schlimmer, and he was overprepared. Like humorist Bill Bryson’s neophyte exploration of the Appalachian Trail — detailed in his 1998 book, “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” — Schlimmer brought all the wrong equipment on his first through hike of the Northville-Placid Trail.
“My 5,500-cubic-inch L.L. Bean internal frame pack weighed about as much as a Navy destroyer’s anchor,” Schlimmer wrote in his introduction. “Inside this behemoth of a pack were crammed a 26-ounce jar of spaghetti sauce, a heavy and bulky 20 degree sleeping bag, a self-inflating air mattress fit for a king, too many clothes, a backpacking stove that could have smelted iron, and a complicated and redundant pan and pot and bowl set, among other useless or overbuilt items.”
Since then, Schlimmer has learned a lot about backcountry hiking and camping. And his curiosity of the place names of the Northville-Placid Trail was an adventure unto itself.
“Once you get into it, once you start learning about these things — whether you’re a researcher or whether you’re just a reader — it becomes kind of addictive,” Schlimmer said. “I’ve had a couple of people say that I’ve ruined hiking for them because now when they hike, they’re like, ‘Oh, I wonder how it got its name?’ And they try to look it up and they can’t find the answer and they become a little frustrated.”
At first, Schlimmer didn’t know much about the trail’s history.
“I knew that it was established in 1922,” he said. “I knew that the Adirondack Mountain Club played a role in that. But other than that, I didn’t know anything, and nobody’s written a solid history about the trail, so that was my favorite thing to do.”
Schlimmer said the biggest surprise to come out of his research was learning that the trail was supposed to span from Lake George to Lake Placid instead of Northville to Lake Placid.
“It was also supposed to be called the Long Trail, but that had been taken by the Long Trail in Vermont about a decade earlier,” he said.
After the Adirondack Mountain Club was established in 1922, it tackled its first project during the same year: the creation of the Northville-Placid Trail, which was 135.5 miles when it opened. The trail was cut and marked in 1922, and improvements were made (more cutting and marking) in 1923.
The west end of the bridge over the Sacandaga River at Northville was the official beginning of the Northville-Placid Trail, and remains so today. It was near the train station, so it was convenient for hikers traveling to the trailhead via the Fonda, Johnstown & Gloversville Railroad. The Lake Placid train station was the official end of the trail, making it a convenient escape from the Park on the railroad (with trains on the Delaware & Hudson’s Chateaugay Branch and eventually the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad’s Adirondack Division). Today, with the northernmost trailhead next to the Chubb Rover on the Averyville Road, the official end of the trail is the “Four Corners” at the junction of Averyville Road and Old Military Road.
While the history of some toponyms were easy to figure out, others remain a mystery.
For example, Lake Durant in the Hamilton County town of Indian Lake was named for William West Durant, a developer of Great Camps during the Gilded Age. However, Wanika Falls in the Essex County town of North Elba “was probably the creation of an explorer of European descent, who let his imagination wander when he found this waterfall.” Wanika, Schlimmer explained, is the Hawaiian spelling of the female name Juanita. “Your author can’t imagine how a Hawaiian woman’s name could end up in the Adirondack Mountains.”
This book can be enjoyed by anyone interested in Adirondack history, especially people who have section hiked or through hiked the Northville-Placid Trail. Yet the author has a tip that may make reading the book even more enjoyable.
“If it was me, and I’m partial to my own work, but if it was me, I think it would be really cool to hike this trail with the book and, as you make your way from end to end, to stop at that feature and read the entry,” he said.
Learn more about Schlimmer’s books at beechwoodbks.com.