June 2016 - HIKING, RUNNING & BIKING
Champlain Area Trails
Creating Trails All Can Enjoy
By Chris Maron
Imagine being in a part of the Adirondacks where there are fabulous views of sparkling blue water, lush forests, and rolling farm fields but hardly any hiking trails. Pretty sad, right? Well, welcome to the Champlain Valley ten years ago, just before Champlain Area Trails began making trails.
Back then, you could hike up the Adirondack Land Trust’s Coon Mountain in Westport to see a vista stretching from Vermont to the High Peaks. Or go a few miles north to New York’s Split Rock Wild Forest in Essex, the largest protected land along Lake Champlain and hike trails going to the lake and a couple overlooks. But that was about it.
Then, in 2006, Steven Kellogg and Bruce Klink, of Essex, were in the Charlotte, N.C. airport and realized they were reading the same book, Wandering Home by Bill McKibben. Subtitled, “A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape,” Bill describes walking from his home in Ripton, Vt. to his Adirondack home in Johnsburg.
Steven and Bruce liked his description of walking through the Essex and Westport countryside before climbing into the Adirondack foothills. It inspired them to gather friends and local conservationists together to explore the idea of making trails in the Champlain Valley that would connect the valley’s communities.
It turns out their idea aligned with a goal articulated in a 1993 report from the U.S. / U.K. Exchange, where representatives from both countries visited selected areas in each others’ countries and made recommendations. After observing that the Champlain Valley resembled places in England where people hike from pub to pub across the countryside, they suggested that a trail system be established here. That idea remained just an idea until Steven and Bruce returned to Essex and held the first meeting about making some local trails.
The group, which I was happy to be part of, quickly realized that the reason the Champlain Valley had so few trails was because it was the last addition to the Adirondack Park; thus it mostly private property with little public land. The solution to this problem was to do something new – to create a network of hiking trails on private lands to link the valley’s communities, connect people with nature, and promote economic vitality. As we considered names for a new organization to take on this task, John Davis, who then worked for the Adirondack Council and is a wildlife enthusiast, said “How about ‘Champlain Area Trails? Its acronym can be ‘CATS.’” Thus began the first steps down a new trail.
At that time, I worked for The Nature Conservancy and Adirondack Land Trust promoting community conservation and chaired the meetings where we noted that the 2,500 acres of Eddy Foundation lands on Boquet Mountain could be the beginning of a trail corridor connecting Essex and Westport. Its president, Jamie Phillips, was part of our group and encouraged the creation of trails there.
We, the CATS founders, hiked on the land and soon agreed upon trail routes running about six miles from Essex toward Wadhams. We organized volunteer work projects, publicized by attractive posters created by naturalist/artist Sheri Amsel of Elizabethtown and Steven Kellogg, who is also well-known children’s book illustrator.
By 2008, we realized CATS should become a formal organization and thanks to another founder, David Reuther who filed the paperwork, Champlain Area Trails became a non-profit corporation. It was about this time that The Nature Conservancy reacted to the economic recession and cancelled its Champlain Valley Conservation Program, which I directed. I seamlessly moved into the leadership role at CATS becoming its first executive director. CATS also saw a need to continue the land conservation work TNC/ALT had established, and became the local land trust with a mission of conserving natural areas, farmland, clean water and scenic vistas.
As CATS embarked on making trails and saving land, it also worked to raise the funds needed to operate a new non-profit organization. Financial support from the Klipper Fund for the Champlain Valley, the JC Kellogg Foundation, the Arnhold Foundation, and hundreds of individual donors fostered early growth of the organization. Key grants from NYS Conservation Partnership Program, funded by the Environmental Protection Fund and administered by the Land Trust Alliance, enabled the new organization to add needed staff.
As CATS enters into its eighth official year of operation, it has created over 29 new trails covering over 42 miles. It publishes an updated CATS Trail Map every year that includes its trails and other trails in the area, including those at Coon Mountain, Split Rock Wild Forest and Rattlesnake Mountain. Selected trails and dirt roads are indicated on the map for mountain, cross or gravel-grinder biking. The map even includes the Champlain Bridge, which has a multiuse path – the most obvious example of how CATS trails provide relatively easy walks, runs or bikes, which people of all ages and abilities can enjoy.
CATS’ most popular events are the “Grand Hikes,” which are hamlet-to-hamlet hikes where as many as 250 people have joined in walking from town to town on trails, back roads, farm lanes, and short sections of busier roads. CATS is now promoting the phrase “Hike the lake on hamlet-to-hamlet trails around Lake Champlain” to create an identity that will attract people from near and far who want to walk from town to town through the beautiful, authentic Champlain Valley landscape.
Most of CATS trails are now in the central Champlain Valley part of Essex County, which has a more “forgiving” landscape than what hikers find in the Adirondack High Peaks. According to the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism in Lake Placid, CATS trails address many visitors’ desire to have relatively short, one to three hour hikes on easy terrain.
CATS provides a great variety of experiences. People can hike up to spectacular vistas, like you’ll find at the Wildway Overlook Trail in Essex, and Cheney Mountain in Moriah. Or you can take pleasant walks by beaver ponds, rock walls, and biologically rich forest communities on the Bobcat or Homestead trails in Essex.
CATS stewardship coordinator, Bill Amadon, talked with someone in May who said he had a hard time walking on uneven surfaces, so Bill directed him to the Champlain Bridge. It’s a wonderful “hike” across the lake on a local “sidewalk” trail that New York and Vermont built. We feature it and many other nearby trails on the CATS Trail Map.
One of the newer CATS trails is in Crown Point at the Penfield History Museum. “Several years ago, I had some boy scouts create a trail along Penfield Pond,” said Penfield Museum board member Dave Hall. “But it fell into disrepair so I contacted CATS who improved the trail route, held some volunteer projects to fix it up and place new signs, added to their trail map, and now many more people are using it.”
CATS trails provide superb hiking, running, skiing and snowshoeing opportunities throughout the year. The trail map and website (champlainareatrails.com) show the trail routes and have brief descriptions so you can plan your trek. Some people already talk about hiking all the CATS trails, much like 46’ers hike all the High Peaks. Yet with CATS trails, you constantly have new challenges because there are new trails every year. Imagine that!
Chris Maron (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of Champlain Area Trails, based in Westport. He and his family recently hiked 207 miles from town-to-town in southern France which inspired many innovative ideas for the CATS trail system.