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Glade Runners

The ups and downs of backcountry skiing on Lyon Mountain

adklife_ma2012_pp34-35Sometimes the pull to get outside in the spring is so strong that you just have to play hooky. It seems more than justified after the dark days of winter; I like to think of it as “calling in sunny.” That’s precisely what I did on a beautiful weekday in March to ski in the woods on Lyon Mountain. The conditions were perfect: blue skies and deep snow softening up after a crisp night—a wonderful consolation prize for those of us left behind by friends and neighbors who had fled south.

At 3,800 feet and topped by a fire tower, Lyon Mountain is the most prominent landscape feature in the Clinton County towns of Sar­anac and Dannemora. Compared to the High Peaks region, tall mountains and access to them are harder to come by in this northeastern corner of the Adirondack Park. Maybe that’s why Lyon Mountain is a giant magnet for outdoor enthusiasts, especially from the greater Plattsburgh and Montreal areas. Skiing there entails neither a summit experience nor a marked trail. If you go, a pinch of Lao Tzu wisdom may be appropriate: “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Another wise person might add that carrying a compass wouldn’t hurt.

On that sunny March day, a compass was unnecessary; the unmarked trail was easy to follow given its popularity among backcountry skiers. My companions and I—three humans and one snow-loving dog—slowly made our way up­ward. Two things about the first section stood out: the openness of the trail and the dense forests of skinny trees that lined it. Those telltale signs of prior timber harvest gave the approach a certain feel—not good or bad, just noticeably different from the next leg of our journey.

The more we climbed, the more the character of the forest changed. Spindly trees transitioned to thicker, taller, more mature ones. Within 30 minutes we ar­rived at the first skiable area, an enticing north-facing slope with an open birch forest and nice enough view of Chazy Lake to the east. (“Open” is relative when referring to any Adirondack forest.) Someone just getting her backcountry ski legs may choose to hang out here, making repeated short runs to find her groove. We kept going upward and westward, following established tracks toward an undefined endpoint. Another skier, also on the climb, passed us. He told us he was a wind technology student from a nearby community college. We didn’t ask if he was playing hooky.

After about an hour-and-a-half of climbing, we were ready to give ourselves over to gravity. Mike Lynch, a local outdoors reporter who only recently discovered a passion for skiing, went first—whooping it up as he bombed down. I took it more cautiously, making sweeping turns and choosing a different fall line through the trees. My husband found his own rhythm. The snow was less predictable than it would be at a groomed ski hill. Ditto the terrain. At times my skis punched through the snow, making it difficult to turn, but mostly they stayed on the surface. I took my fair share of lashings from low-hanging branches and was grateful for my helmet.

It took a little bit of courage to ski through the trees, but nothing compared to the courage it must have taken to work in the local mines when iron-ore extraction was a thriving enterprise in the 19th and 20th centuries. The nearby hamlet and the peak, both called Lyon Mountain, are named for Nathaniel Lyon, a settler from Vermont who was not a miner, but a farmer. Still, Lyon Mountain is remembered as one of the most productive mining hubs in the nation—an enterprise that claimed the lives of more than 160 men.

In the 1960s some developers set their sights on the slopes of Lyon Mountain and ran a short-lived commercial operation called the Lowenberg Ski Area. Their vision for creating a year-round resort included mechanical ski lifts, Bavarian-style chalets (custom-made, starting at $9,500 with six percent financing, according to a Lowenberg Corporation brochure), a hotel and a marina on Chazy Lake. It never got beyond a small parking area, one primitive lift and three ski trails.

With or without a developed ski area, Lyon Mountain has a reputation as a snow pocket. It was popular with local skiers long before the property came into public ownership in 2008. (It was also popular with hikers, but not necessarily because of the snow.) Access for many years rested on a wink-and-nod understanding between a longtime commercial timberland owner and the general public. The tentative nature and vulnerability of that access went away when New York State purchased a tract encompassing most of the mountain, thereby permanently securing access for everyone. (In the interest of disclosure, the Department of Environmental Conservation purchased the property from the Nature Conservancy, which is my employer.)

Thinking about the Lowenberg Ski Area made me nostalgic for the now-closed Paleface Ski Center, in Jay, where I spent much of my youth, with clunky ski equipment and cold toes, riding the lift and skiing the trails. I never would have imagined back then that a 21st-century excursion on Lyon Mountain would find my feet tucked into plastic boots with warm and comfy liners, the boots attached to hourglass-shape skis, synthetic climbing skins adhered to the ski bottoms, a nylon pack sheltering a camera that doesn’t require film and a phone that doesn’t require a cord, and chemically-activated hand-warming packets in my pockets.

But there I was—a slightly different kind of skier testing my skills, not long after the new state land was classified as “wild forest.” According to the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, “a wild forest area is an area where the resources permit a somewhat higher degree of human use than in wilderness, primitive or canoe areas, while retaining an essentially wild character.” (Incidentally, if you are interested in trails and access points on Lyon Mountain for a particular type of use, you’ll want to weigh in during the state’s management planning process, which has not yet begun for this tract.)

We spent more time going up than down, which is where the real thrill is. No matter, it was a great way to spend a sunny day in a wild Adirondack forest.

IF YOU GO:

THE TRAILHEAD
Take I-87 Exit 38N to Route 374. Follow Route 374 west for 23.2 miles to Chazy Lake Road. Drive south on Chazy Lake Road for 3.2 miles (going past the unnamed gravel road on the right that provides access to the hiking trail) until you get to a snowplow turnaround on the right. There is no official parking area for skiers, so most park in the turnaround, though it’s not advisable to park there when it’s snowing.

THE TRAIL
Chazy Lake is to the east; the trail goes to the west underneath a power line. It skirts up and over a small rise before dropping to cross the old railroad tracks, now a popular snowmobile trail, so proceed with caution.

The trail passes through a nice forest and crosses a stream. After briefly heading northwest, it turns west again and widens. Coming down this section can be tricky. The trail has enough pitch to pick up speed, but isn’t wide enough for sweeping turns, and the depressions left in the snow from ski tracks make turning and slowing down a challenge. Ab­ruptly, the trail and the feel of the forest change at the same time, with the former becoming narrower and the latter more mature. The first skiable area is within a birch forest— it’s a large area without the confinement of a trail. This is a good place to test your skills. Or follow the trail— just tracks left by previous skiers—as it continues upward and westward through alternating patches of dense and open forests.

Check out the “skiing Lyon Mountain” videos posted on www.YouTube.com. Snowshoeing on the marked hiking trail is also a fine winter experience and brings better views.

THE GEAR
Be sure to dress in synthetic layers of clothing, and bring along climbing skins and a helmet with your other winter backcountry essentials.