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February 2018

Battle on Skis

Storming the ramparts at Crown Point's historic ruins

I’d skied over the tops of Marcy, Lyon Mountain and Poke-O-Moonshine, but never across the top of a 250-year-old British military parapet. During the French and Indian War there were two clashes called “The Battle on Snowshoes” in the Adirondacks, but never a Battle on Skis. Last February, several of us decided to remedy that, setting upon the forts at Crown Point on our boards.

That 18th-century war was a clash between superpowers Britain and France for control of North America, as part of their imperial conflict over Europe and the Americas. The Champlain Valley was a major economic, strategic and transport corridor, so both nations built forts and settlements—and frequently fought. They put up a fort each at Crown Point, the two-mile-long peninsula jutting into the narrowest and most strategic control point on the lake. Strangely, these saw little action.

For our expedition, the real battle turned out to be logistics—corralling a small army of skiers and jibing schedules with the iffy Champlain Valley snow. In the end, our group—outdoor guide Elizabeth Lee, Crown Point State Historic Site director Michael Roets, photographer Nancie Battaglia and myself—twice laid schuss and siege to the irresistible turf of the bastion. 

Aside from the visitor center, the entire 350-acre historic site is free and open to the public in winter. We parked near a stone picnic pavilion and set off on our skis to explore the ruins.

The defensive ramparts of the big British 1759 fort are super-steep earthen mounds that were originally covered with wood. They are hardly skiable and barely scalable on the outside; jagged rock rubbles the dry moat that surrounds them. But we breached the northern walls at a huge gap where the entry gate once guarded the way, and easily climbed the much gentler inside slope. It was fun to glide the high perimeter with drop-offs on both sides: sentry duty on skis.

Within the walls are the huge parade ground and the three gray stone barrack ruins. Outside, the view is a splendid jumble of chronology: the arched steel span of the 2011 bridge over the ancient lake, the 1909 Champlain lighthouse monument, an 1800s limekiln, the modern village of Port Henry backed by the timeworn mountains, and at water’s edge, the French fort, whose walls and underlying rock outcrops are composed of 480-million-year-old limestone.

What went on at this place? Our skis tracked over most of the grounds, but we barely scratched the surface of Crown Point’s history. Native Americans were here, as stone projectiles found on the peninsula attest. The first “permanent” settlements came in the early 18th century, as the French pushed south from Canada.

In 1737, they finished a small fort, St. Frederic, a garrison for 120 men. In February 1757 Robert Rogers, the British guerrilla commander of Rogers’ Rangers—an independent company attached to the British Army—burned and looted the farms hereabouts. Later that year, as the Brits moved aggressively north, the harried and outgunned French abandoned St. Frederic and blew it up. Except for the corner nearest the blast, the fort’s stone base remains, dwarfed by the British stronghold behind it.

A second explosion in 1773 made easy our 2017 escape from the bigger bastion. Just 14 years into its life, a fire broke out in the barracks, spread to the outer walls and touched off the powder magazine inside the rampart. It burst the south corner of the stronghold and burned all the buildings. Now there’s a gentle pathway over this part of the once–sheer wall, so out we coasted.

We gazed back to the ghostly chimneys of the hollowed-out barracks. All this had been built on six acres for an army of 4,000 men. Looking from above like a gargantuan squat turtle with pointy appendages, it was all but abandoned by the Brits after the fire. So in 1775, the Yanks snatched the fort’s cannon and hauled it to Boston in an epic winter trek that helped clinch the American rebel victory there. The largest British structure in North America was now out of action.

So was the entire strategic peninsula. On our second foray, Michael skied us across fields past a ring of four redoubts, smaller fortifications outside the main fort. Each had been guarded by 100 men and about 10 cannons; Gage’s Redoubt, named for General Thomas Gage, sits atop a semicircle of rock, with its own 15- to 30-foot walls, less steep than the main fort’s. The snow was deeper this time, so these pitches were a blast to shoot.

We skied down to a curious 40-foot stone tower. Younger than the forts, this 19th-century kiln was used to bake limestone into lime, the key element in mortar. The kiln’s top quarter is broken, exposing the firebrick furnace chamber. All the structures at Crown Point State Historic Site are “preserved ruins,” a status that maintains but does not restore them. Modern-day mortar is needed for this and is evident in repairs all over the grounds; two full-time masons are on staff.

The trails around the forts are wide swaths mowed in the grass in summer; they wind through the fields, into the woods, past the ruins. We took one toward the shore of Bulwagga Bay, the western arm of the lake, apparently named for a Native American who drowned there. Rafts of ducks, geese and gulls shelter here, away from the big water. In May, a bird-banding station operates just up the hill, where spring migrants are caught, recorded and released as they wing it north up the peninsula. Farther on, an osprey nest platforms the top of a telephone pole. The state designates much of the Crown Point site a bird conservation area; that day, most of the fliers were still far south.

Other wildlife abounds. We followed a distinct trail of fox tracks, elegantly laid out at the base of the larger fort’s north wall. Fox waste little energy, taking advantage of land contours, and head efficiently for their targets; they would never climb  super-steep hills like these ramparts except in an emergency. Weasel prints reveal hyperactive little guys that zip hither and thither checking out each sound and smell. The only local mammals missing are those that crave big spaces or seclusion, like bears and bobcats. 

Down at the tip of the peninsula, next to the water, lies Fort St. Frederic, our last stop. The modest ruin is dwarfed by both the British one and by the immense new bridge. But here had been a hefty four-story redoubt with 12-foot thick walls of fancy chiseled stonework, a chapel, a moat and  drawbridge, guardhouse and iron portcullis—impressive in its time and place. The French destroyed most of it and sailed north, so the Brits took what was left.

We skied the perimeter, checked out the interpretive signs, glided back to the cars, said our goodbyes and made our retreat.

The forts are quiet places, and they share their tales subtly and gradually. A busy highway edges the grounds, yet it’s out of mind. The skiing is mellow, but for the walls. We’d crossed them, slid into the past, and let the forts take us captive.

 

If You Go

Check the weather for conditions in the Champlain Valley, which has less-reliable snow cover than at higher elevations. 

On Crown Point State Historic Site’s webpage at parks.ny.gov, click on Maps and pull up the Trail Map; the Adirondack Mountain Club’s fifth edition of  The Guide to Eastern Trails also has descriptions and a map. Plan on at least two hours here; the skiing is mostly gentle, and the trails are wide. Wear layered clothing, and bring a snack and binoculars.

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