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A wild place to play

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[Photo: Jim Patterson]
A night wind brings mist to the surface of Lake Placid and fog to the front of Whiteface Mountain at sunrise.

By JIM PATTERSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


The rugged Adirondacks tempt the tourist off the beaten path with breathtaking peaks, brooks and streams and forests full of wildlife.

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- It is James Fenimore Cooper country, more than 5.8-million acres of forest where Uncas and Natty Bummpo would have prowled. There are 2,759 lakes and ponds where Huron canoes were filled with war parties. It is the Adirondacks, New York's place where the wild things are.

Just a few hours north by interstate from New York City, in the back yards of Albany and Syracuse, Adirondack State Park covers 20 percent of New York state. The park, a patchwork of public and private lands, is equal in size to the combined acreage of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier and Great Smoky Mountain national parks.

Wild and rugged, it's a land of bear, moose, otter and beaver, bogs and waterfalls. Consequently, it lures sports enthusiasts, athletes and tourists every season of the year.

The park has 43 peaks that top 4,000 feet, but it also boasts 30,000 miles of brooks and streams, a 100-mile canoe route and more than 2,000 miles of marked trails. The hiking options alone range from short day hikes for families to a 120-mile backpacking route from Northville to Lake Placid.

The latter is perhaps the most famous of the Adirondack place names. Thanks to its role as main site of the Winter Olympic Games of 1932 and 1980, the village of Lake Placid today is a trendy, bustling resort with upscale restaurants, lodgings and shops.

But even during the late 19th century, the Adirondacks became the place for vacationing New Yorkers. Rail connections from New York City were easy, and steamboats plied the many lakes to deliver vacationers to grand hotels built in the woods.
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[Photo: Jim Patterson]
Canoeists head across Lake Placid, one of the thousands of lakes and ponds in massive Adirondack State Park.
One of the grandest of these was Blue Mountain House. Today, only the Log Hotel, built in 1876, remains on the lakeside grounds, but it houses the outstanding Adirondack Museum.

With 23 indoor and outdoor exhibit areas, the acclaimed museum interprets how people lived, worked, traveled and played in the rugged region since the early 1800s.

A favorite of museum visitors is the renowned collection of the region's typical boats, from birchbark canoes to the steam-powered launches of millionaires. A full-scale boatbuilder's shop demonstrates the skills needed to build a lake guide boat. Other, full-size working shops are occupied by a blacksmith and a barrelmaker.

One exhibit covers the "great camps" built at the turn of the 20th century for such captains of industry as J.P. Morgan, Collis Huntington and Alfred Vanderbilt. The camps, designed and built mostly by William W. Durant, featured the most opulent amenities in a rustic style of peeled birch logs and intricate stonework.

The most famous remaining great camp is Sagamore Lodge on Raquette Lake. Once owned by Vanderbilt, it is run by the Sagamore Institute of the Adirondacks and is the site of numerous educational programs.

My wife and I visited White Pine Camp on Osgood Pond. Designed for Archibald White in 1907 and later augmented by Addison Mizner (who later gained fame for his Florida boom-time mansions), White Pine Camp became the focus of national attention for 11 weeks in 1926 as the Summer White House for President Calvin Coolidge.

White Pine was then the ultimate in rustic luxury: Guests could enjoy the lakeside two-lane bowling alley, tennis, an authentic Japanese teahouse and miles of forested pathways.
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[Photo: Jim Patterson]
Authentic in design, this Japanese teahouse at White Pine Camp incorporates regional construction.
The small museum at White Pine has many photographs of the camp during Coolidge's stay. Fully attired in three-piece suit and wearing a fedora, "Silent Cal" is seen fishing from White Pine's 300-foot-long footbridge. He is surrounded by advisers and reporters, all similarly dressed.

After years in decline and disuse, White Pine now operates as a nonprofit organization and is being restored to its original design.

We also made the 25-minute drive around Lake Placid to Whiteface Mountain -- 4,876 feet tall. On the drive, we passed the Whiteface Mountain Ski Area, which boasts a vertical drop of 3,300 feet, steepest in the eastern United States.

At the mountain's 4,500-foot level there is a parking area, gift shop and the start of the trail to the summit. Rather than climb the steps and trail, we walked through a 300-foot tunnel to an elevator that creaks up nearly 300 feet to the summit's weather station. With temperatures at 35 degrees, there would be no prolonged stay at the summit.

Broken clouds scudded just above our heads, and below us, Mirror Lake shimmered like its namesake. To the east, Mount Marcy (highest in the Adirondacks) and Gore Mountain framed Vermont's Green Mountains. Intrepid hikers and climbers mounted the last of the stairs from below, gasping for breath. We headed for the elevator.

Back on our lakeshore beach, we sat back in traditional Adirondack chairs (the kind with smooth boards, not like those antiques made of saplings and bark we had seen at the Adirondack Museum) and sipped drinks as the alpenglow lighted the peak of Whiteface. In the distance, the call of a loon broke the evening silence.

Fenimore Cooper's Adirondacks have changed in 150 years, but the romance is still there.

- Freelance writer Jim Patterson lives in Largo; information from the Akron Beacon Journal was used in this report.

If you go

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the following:

photo Adirondack Regional Tourism Council, P.O. Box 2149, Plattsburgh, NY 12901; toll-free 1-800-487-6867 or (518) 846-8016; www.adk.com. It offers a 32-page guide to short walks and day hikes in the Adirondacks.

Lake Placid & Olympic Center, www.lakeplacid.com; toll-free 1-800-275-2243 White Pine Camp, White Pine Road, Paul Smiths, NY 12970; call (518) 327-3030; www.whitepinecamp.com

Tours of White Pine Camp are conducted daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to Oct. 15, and once daily, at 1:30 p.m., from Oct. 16 to the Friday before Memorial Day. White Pine has cabin rentals available from May to mid October. In summer, rentals are by the week. In other seasons, a two-night minimum stay is required. White Pine Camp is 20.5 miles north of Lake Placid on Highway 86.

Adirondack Museum, Route 30, Blue Mountain Lake, NY 12812-0099; (518) 352-7311; www.adkmuseum.org. Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Memorial Day to mid October.

Adirondack Regional Chambers of Commerce, toll-free 1-888-516-7247 or (518) 798-1761; www.adirondackregion.org.

New York Department of Environmental Conservation, 701 S Main St., Northville, NY 12134; (518) 863-4545; www.dec.state.ny.us.

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