At the Heart of Winters in NNY

STEPHEN SWOFFORD / NNY LIVING
A snowshoer jogs through the woods near the end of the Stone Wall 5K snowshoe race.

By: Joleene Moody

Ahhh, the North Country. Blanketed with snow in the winter months, the sprawling hills of Northern New York are a wonderland for winter sport enthusiasts. From skiing and snow tubing to winter wine trails and festivals, the north country has a lot to offer during the coldest season of the year. It’s enough to keep even the heartiest of snow-goers on their toes, as one of the most beautiful areas in New York State adds more and more adventure to its snow palate each year.

                The number of snow-based activities in the north country is endless. Aside from the few mentioned above, ice fishing, ice climbing, ice skating, and ice castles rank as notable favorites. Snowshoeing and snowmobiling aren’t far behind. But when it comes to the number one winter activity in the tri-county area, it seems that tumbling or gliding down a snowy hill on any given day takes the cake.

Over Dry Hill and Dale

                It’s called Watertown’s “best kept secret,” although the Dry Hill Ski Area in Watertown is no secret to those who live around it. Perhaps for newcomers and out-of-towners it is, but once visitors get a taste of the popular ski center, the secret is inevitably out.

                Owner Tim McAtee has operated the Dry Hill Ski Area for 35 years. He’s seen his share of changes in the industry, including how snow lovers get from the top of the mountain, down to the bottom again.

                “When I first started, the only way downhill was on two skis,” he said. “Then, in the 1980’s, James Burton came up with the idea of snowboarding. It was slow to catch on in the beginning. Dry Hill was actually one of the first hills to even allow snowboarding. But after a while the concept took off and become a major player in the winter sports scene.”

                At the time, several ski resorts resisted the hearty piece of equipment. But as times changed, so did resort policies, and more and more ski areas opened up their trails to snowboarders. To keep up with the trend, Mr. McAtee said ski makers started retooling their factories to produce smaller shaped parabolic skis; skis that are wider and shorter and much easier to learn on. The redesign worked.

                “The industry made a bold, but smart move, because in the last few years, we’ve seen a return to people skiing more than snowboarding,” he said.

                As downhill skiers and snowboarders populate the ski lift line on one side of the hill, people of all ages venture up a different part of the mini mountain armed with large, bouncy rubber tubes that, once at the top, will take them back down the hill spinning and laughing. They are the snow tubers, the one’s that bravely take the hill face first. For those that don’t have the desire to conquer the hill on skis, snow tubing is the ultimate winter sport. It’s also the magic ingredient that helps keep Dry Hill functioning and profitable.

                We’ve been offering snow tubing for over fifteen years,” Mr. McAtee said. “It’s funny, but when I told people I was going to turn an area into a tubing hill, they thought I was crazy. They said it would never work. But if it wasn’t for the tubing business, I don’t know that we’d be in business. You don’t need equipment to go tubing and you don’t need lessons. It’s fun and it’s easy. All you have to do is dress warm.”

                When the season begins, the ski lifts are the most populated. Canadian neighbors saturate the hill, coming in from the Kingston-Brockville area. This is because Dry Hill is the closest ski area to Canada, and because Dry Hill will take Canadian money at par. Mr. McAtee said it’s not unusual for the first fifty customers of the day to be from across the border. Not only do they bring an international presence to the hill, but Canadian visitors also rev the engine of the local economy as hotels, restaurants, and local stores benefit from their stay.

                With seven downhill trails and an extremely popular tubing park, the Dry Hill Ski Area has quickly become a hotspot for snow lovers. Even on days when the snow has completely melted from our yards, Dry Hill is operating with more than enough snow, thanks to well-groomed trails and fast-working snow machines.

                “We have a lot of military folks visit us, and it’s really surprising how many love it because of the four seasons and everything the north country has to offer,” Mr. McAtee said. “Our soldiers go to work at Drum, come home and eat, grab their skis, ski for two or three hours, and are back home in time to watch the evening news. So many people think that’s the greatest thing. In other areas, one might have to drive hours to get somewhere. But not here. Here, Dry Hill is right in their backyard. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

Peaceful Playtime

                Meanwhile, down the road in Oneida County, the Osceola Tug Hill XC Ski Center is grooming 40 kilometers of ski trails for cross country enthusiasts. Located in the hamlet of Osceola just outside of Camden, the modest ski center opened its doors for the first time in 1980.

                Hugh Quinn, owner and operator of the Osceola Tug Hill XC Ski Center, said cross-country ski enthusiasts from all over the nation come to glide his trails. From Pennsylvania and New Jersey to Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maryland, even Ontario, snow lovers flock to his facility to experience a truly tranquil sport like no other.

                “It’s probably the most therapeutic winter activity you can do,” he said. “The solitude, the quiet, the exercise you get, is bar none. No matter how hectic your day is, when you get here, you slap on your skis and go for a peaceful 45 minutes to two hours. When our skiers come back, they are completely relaxed.”

                With only two primary techniques to master, the skating technique and the classic technique, Mr. Quinn said cross- country skiing is a fairly easy activity to learn. With trails as wide as 16 feet, enthusiasts can take in miles and miles of forest scenery, easing in to the quiet sounds of winter and the peaceful solace of the season.

                Kids as young as two and as old as 102 can don a pair of skis and become part of a unique wonderland adventure. The warming hut at the ski center offers small snacks, coffee, and hot chocolate. But families and friends come prepared with a packed lunch and warm clothes, renting skis for as little as $12.  If you’re ready to take in the beauty of the north country in the most tranquil way, this 5,000-year-old Scandinavian tradition just might be the way to go.

A Toast to the North country

                As the fishermen take to the ice and ski bunnies to the hill, those less interested in playing in the snow seek other adventures during the winter months. This is where a taste of the Thousand Islands comes in.

                Thanks to the various wineries and craft beer establishments popping up throughout the North country, the area has proudly established a wine tasting and craft beverage trail called Taste 1000 Islands that snakes through Alexandria Bay, Black River, Cape Vincent, Clayton, and peeks into Canada. Over a dozen winemakers, brewers, and distillers are harnessing North country winters to bring an exclusive piece of this incredible industry to visitors. The Thousand Islands Winery in Alexandria Bay is one of them.

                “A lot of people are surprised to find out how our craft beverage trail has developed in this area,” said April Anne Young, the marketing director at Thousand Islands Winery. “The big focus for the wineries here are the cold, hearty grapes. These are grapes that can sustain some of the 30- below winters and ice storms we’ve endured.”

                For some, a winery might be the last place they think of as they head out to play during the cold winter months. But Ms. Young said it’s actually the ideal option for bachelorette parties, corporate events, even public events. Come February, happenings like Military Appreciation Day and a wine and food pairing the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, remind locals and visitors of what the region has to offer.

                “We’re a year-round tourist region, but the winters for the snow enthusiasts are pretty amazing,” she said. “We have developed an incredible area in terms of skiing and snowmobiling. We’re in a unique position here, that visitors can not only come to the Thousand Islands, but they can also hop across the border into Canada and enjoy two countries in a weekend.”

The Saranac Winter Carnival

                If you’ve lived in the North country most of your life and haven’t yet ventured to Saranac Lake during the winter carnival, it might be high time to change up your winter adventure routine.

                Since 1897, the village of Saranac Lake has hosted one of the single greatest winter celebrations in the Northeast. The history of the carnival is rich in healing, and has grown to see tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world every February. When it began 120 years ago, it was to help lift the spirits of the many sick individuals living in what were known as cure cottages. Because of the clean mountain air and peaceful setting, Saranac Lake became a destination for those with tuberculosis to come and heal. One by one, the healing cottages sprouted up, bringing the very sick back to optimal health. But the road to getting well was long, and to help ease their lonely hearts (as family members were often far away), the community came together to create the event.

                At the center of the event was an enormous ice castle, once built by professional architects to greet a king, his queen, and their royal court. Back in the day, the court was a popular movie star or radio personality. Today, court members are local residents who generously volunteer in the community.

                “The ice castle is the central focus of the event,” said Colleen O’Neill, Saranac Lake Winter Carnival committee member and public relations liaison. “The castle is not as large as it used to be in the early days, but it is still one of the premiere sights at our ten day carnival. People from all over the world, including Germany and Japan, come to Saranac Lake to see the castle and take part in carnival.”

                Ten days of sport, parade, fireworks, games, and, of course, the ice castle, is the anatomy of carnival. Tens of thousands of visitors fill every hotel, motel, and bed and breakfast in the area. Restaurants buzz with dozens of foreign languages from hungry visitors. And shops fill with curious tourists from every corner of the world.

                “Saranac Lake gets an economic shot in the arm,” Ms. O’Neill said. “All of a sudden we become a bustling city. Some of our small businesses rely on carnival every year to keep them afloat during winter.”

                The number of events over the ten day period is too long to list, but include favorites like Arctic Golf, the Lady Fry Pan Toss Competition, Torchlight Skiing, a colorful, eclectic parade, and three different fireworks shows. The non-profit event offers carnival at no cost. Some events require registration and a small fee, but overall, visitors can take in carnival without spending a fortune.

                If the spectacle of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival doesn’t get you, the buttons specially designed to help raise funds to support the event will. Created by “Doonesbury” cartoonist and former Saranac Lake resident, Garry Trudeau, the buttons are drawn based on the current theme of carnival. The buttons have become a collector’s item for many, as fans work to gather every one that has ever been designed by the cartoonist since 1981.

                With so much to do and see in the North country winter months, we’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg.

(No pun intended.) The area is dotted with budding snowmobile enthusiasts and snowshoeing aficionados. Ice fishermen and women also make up the landscape of happy winter-goers. For all of you, we offer the following list of hotspots for cool sports. The North country may be cold, but it heats up every winter with excitement, sport, and game. Grab a snow cone and take a look at everything this incredible region has to offer. Until then, we’ll see you in the snow.