There aren't many places that have groomed cross-country ski trails, not to mention ones that are free, extremely well cared for, dog friendly, and best of all, only a short drive from the center of town. The Tupper Lake Groomed Cross-Country Ski Center offers a network of trails with all of those features and more. The trails are set on the golf course's upper nine fairways and extend into the wilderness beyond the course, all offering their own unique setting and views.
This little slice of natural heaven is just what John Gillis, one of the Center's volunteer caretakers, aptly noted: "It's a little part of the picture of what Tupper Lake is." He was referring to the work of community members, who came up with an idea, pulled together the resources needed, made it happen, and have stuck with it to make it even better, all in the name of pitching in to offer more outdoor opportunities in Tupper Lake.
Over the past five years since the trails have taken shape I've skied on them a lot, and regardless of the conditions -- bluebird skies or bitter cold or pitch black by headlamp -- I've always pulled out of the parking lot happy. There's such a mixture of terrain that depending on what you're up for, whether it's a 20-minute cruise just to get fresh air or a couple hours spent surrounded by trees and not much else, you can get all of that, and everything in between, on these trails.
On Martin Luther King Day, I took my two dogs, Jack and Gilly, with me and we headed out for our first ski on the trails this season. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, and since it was a holiday I wasn't surprised to see that the parking lot was full. Between the ski trails and the sliding hill on the 10th hole, there are always folks who are out enjoying the day. Side note: The crew that maintains the ski trails also grooms the sliding hill, including a path that makes the trek back up to the hill's peak a little easier on the legs, and a section for sliding, which makes getting to the bottom fast and fun.
With two exuberant pups egging me toward the trailhead, I took a minute to sign in at the box located near the Pro Shop. It's neat to see all the names of people who've been out to enjoy the trails as of late, and it also helps the trail crew take note of how many people are taking advantage of the trails. This bit of information is especially helpful when they present their work to the village and town boards, both of which have been very supportive of their work. So in short, if you like to ski free please take the time to sign in, as it helps justify keeping the place up and running at no charge to the skier.
Once my name was in the book, I followed Jack and Gilly down the trail created last season that runs parallel to the 9th fairway. Even though I could hear hooting and hollering from the sliding hill, I felt like I was in a winter wonderland all of my own. The trail is wonderfully wide, and the trees surround it in a way that makes you feel like you're deep in the woods. There's a lot of volunteer effort that went into making this trail, from the surveying, clearing, and excavating to the bridge building, and all that work has definitely paid off. While you're on this section of the trails, definitely take the time to look around and take it all in.
Since this was my first time out this year, it was my first chance at checking out the new extension of the wooded trail, which has been nicknamed The Creekside. This new path follows the outlet of Cranberry Pond and purposely extends the option to ski in the woods, while also offering a shortcut to the fire pit, where the festivities for the Full Moon Ski parties and Skiing with the Stars events take place.
The dogs and I decided to take The Creekside, and then ventured further into the woods on the Cranberry Pond and Little Logger loop trails. This extension of trails definitely gives you a backcountry experience without having to go very far out of your way. There are some really beautiful vistas, including a clearing that lets awesome lighting in as the sun is making its way down, as well as several opportunities to ski right up to Cranberry Pond and enjoy a clear view of Big Tupper.
We stuck to the Cranberry Pond Loop and I found that conditions were great. I mostly stayed in the set tracks, but occasionally veered out of them to enjoy some untouched snow. Jack and Gilly had a ball racing down the trail or bounding off into the woods to check out the off-the-beaten path sights and smells.
On our return trip, I decided to take the Golf Course Loop, which brought us by the fire pit and the edge of Cranberry Pond and back out onto the golf course. The dogs had a blast in the wide-open space, and although there is less protection from the trees on this section compared to the wooded areas, the trail is situated on the edge so there is some shelter from the wind. The harshest section on a windy day can be the final stretch to the Pro Shop, but there are some hills leading into it and it's a nice flat stretch, so you can really turn on the burners to get back to the car.
If it's your first time out on the trails, or you've only been a few times and want to mix it up, all of the routes are well marked with handmade trail markers. Additionally, there are numbered signposts with maps that give you a sense of the lay of the land.
I've known there was a core group of groomers -- Jim Frenette, Sr., John Gillis, John Quinn, and Eric "Shaky" Lanthier -- who volunteer their time to maintain the trails, but I never asked what sparked the idea for getting all of this up and running. So, as with a lot of local history that I've wondered about over the years, I called Mr. Frenette, because as John Gillis noted one of the reasons he enjoys working with his uncle so much, "He's like a walking almanac."
When asked how this all got started, Frenette said he was approached by Shawn Stuart to see if there was any way to get some cross-country ski trails up and running for the public. Using his background knowledge of trails that were maintained in the '70s, '80s, and '90s, and his desire to revamp this recreational option for community members, Frenette got to it. They began with two loops around holes 4-9 on the golf course, and received a grant through former Assemblywoman Janet Duprey to purchase grooming equipment, and piece-by-piece the trail operations began to take shape.
During the beginning stages, Frenette said he was trying to put the new equipment together and because of frigid temperatures, he needed a wrench to do what he needed to do. Luckily, Gillis lives down the road, so he went to his house to borrow one. After hearing about what his uncle was up to, Gillis wanted to check it out and see if he could help out, and as Frenette said, "Once he got a hold of it, it took off. He's a real mover, and it was his enthusiasm that allowed it to expand."
According to Gillis, helping out is a lot of fun, and all the people who pitch in are doing it because they want to. They split up the grooming and put in time when they can. Frenette noted that he and John Quinn share the morning shift since they are both retired, while Gillis and Lanthier take on the evening shifts. Both said that depending on the snowfall, grooming can be a fairly quick job or one that takes quite a bit of time.
Gillis reports that in addition to the dedicated crew of four, there are a lot of others who have made amazing contributions to make the public trails possible. He said the town and village have been very supportive, and businesses such as Kentile Excavating and Hammersong have donated time, work, and materials to establish the trails and to build equipment to maintain the trails. Additionally, Gillis said that people are always willing to pitch in, even on short notice, to clear brush, move snow, or do whatever needs to be done. He said it's really incredible to see it all come together and to see how much people are willing to help out.
Good to know
If you'd like to make a donation to the Tupper Lake Groomed Cross-Country Ski Center, there are envelopes located in the sign-in box. All donations are deposited into the ski center's account and are used to purchase equipment and make trail improvements.
The trails are dog friendly, but please be sure to clean up after your furry friend. There is now a dog waste station at the sign-in box, so please take advantage of it.
Grab your skis and hit the trails this winter. The Tupper Lake Groomed Cross Country Ski Center is also a great place to snowshoe this winter. Plan to stay awhile and check out all of our great outdoor activities, then let us know what your favorites are!