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A Ski in the Park

A Ski in the Park

Travel
By Joe Cutts
posted: 09/19/2007

Turns out the human body bounces. I discover this on the NASTAR course at Whiteface, N.Y. It's one of those crashes where the first indication that anything's wrong is the sound of your head slamming to the snow, in this case soft spring corn right under the Valley Triple. Then there's silence as I fly through the air, having, indeed, bounced.

I slide to rest facedown. I'd lie there a minute and inventory what hurts and how much, but I'm pretty sure my wife is watching, not to mention the lift-riders above. So I bounce again, this time to my feet-See? I'm fine, everyone!-and scramble more or less back up to where my skis, hat and goggles litter the course. Below, the finish-shack guy announces over the loudspeaker that I'm a DNF. Yeah, no kiddin', pal.

My wife always says I'm an adrenaline junkie. Partly true, I suppose. What skier isn't?

But in fact, I can do "cozy," too, and I've always been an aesthete. So that night, as I relax, microbrew in hand, in our own unbelievably cool cabin, not30 feet from the edge of frozen Lake Placid, watching real firelight flicker on the ceiling and real embers glow in the hearth of an honest stone fireplace, it's with deep contentment. My shoulder throbs. I'll still feel it 12 weeks later. But every twinge will remind me of four fun days with family as we skied our way through the Adirondacks by day and relaxed at two extraordinary lakeside lodging properties at night.

We'll ski Gore Mountain as well as Whiteface. Both are owned by the people of New York, and each has thoroughly credible expert terrain to go with unspoiled views forever protected by Adirondack Park development restrictions. Neither, in my opinion, gets the attention it deserves (Whiteface: 200,000 skier visits; Gore: 225,000). As for our hotels, we'd be lucky to get a bed at either one during high summer, when the Adirondacks overflow with tourists, as they have for a century or so. But in winter, we get reduced rates and choice rooms. One stop is a grand old lakeside summer hotel, converted for year-round use. The other's a quintessentially Adirondack lodge (or was, and will be again, but more about that later).

It's a nice little trip, drenched in Adirondack beauty and history, loaded with fun and enough adrenaline to sate the greediest of habits, yet plenty soft around the edges. Perfect.

We'll spend our first couple of nights at The Sagamore, a resort on lovely, historic Lake George. The town of Lake George is boarded up and desolate, but up at Bolton Landing, the graciousSagamore glows with life on its ownlittle island.

Norman Wolgin deserves credit for rescuing one of the Lake's most illustrious properties. Originally dating to 1883, the Sagamore was one of those grand, airy monuments to the Gilded Age. But the current structure, built in 1930, was closed and crumbling when Wolgin bought and restored it in 1983. Now it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Lake George, in its day, was a classy place indeed. New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, artists Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz and countless old-money tycoons and their dames spent summers here, ensconced in seasonal mansions lining the 10-mile shoreline between Lake George village and Bolton Landing. Locals called it Millionaire's Row, and at its top, like a crown, was the swank Sagamore, where high society partied late into the soft summer nights.

We check in to our two-room, lake-view suite-plenty roomy, even for a family with two teenaged girls-then hustle down to dinner. The elegantly modern dining room glows with scores of fat white candles (faux, but convincing), and the food is terrific-which is good, because as far as we can tell, the local restaurant scene is limited this time of year. A sleekly attired pianist works the room. He's a suave pro with a bottomless repertoire-one of those guys who can laugh and carry on a conversation without missing a note. As courses comewe play "name that tune." I win.

[pagebreak]

In the morning, late-February sun blasts through our windows and floods the expansive glassed-in terrace downstairs, where I have coffee with the morning paper before looking around the grounds. Guests are warned not to venture onto the ice, but the locals obviously have no qualms. Fishing shanties speckle the surface, each as humble as the Sagamore is grand.

Lake George is Last of the Mohicans country, echoing with both French and Indian and Revolutionary War history. Looking out across the mountain-rimmed water, it's easy to picture the resourceful Gen. Henry Knox aboard his bateau in December 1775. He leans into an aggravating headwind, anxious to get the captured cannons of Fort Ticonderoga down the lake before the ice closes it to navigation. He succeeds, of course. And George Washington uses those guns to drive Lord Howe from Boston at winter's end.

Today, the grounds of the hotel are buried under the snows of the greatValentine's Day blizzard of 2007, so we can't easily explore. And the spa is closed for renovation. But no matter: We're here to ski.

Gore is 40 minutes distant-a beautiful drive. About halfway there, we cross the Hudson (down which Knox sledged his cannon). Here the great American river is no more than 60 or 70 yards across and appears every bit the pristine high-country river, untainted as yet by the slurry of Superfund filth it will deliver to New York Harbor.

At Gore it's a busy Saturday, but the shuttles are quick and the layout is simple: just lots, lodge, lifts and slopes. No village, shops or condos. We're in the lodge in minutes, then on the gondola as soon as we care to be.

Like Whiteface, Gore feels more like parkland than resort. Unusual rock formations and immense glacier-beached boulders give it a unique visual appeal. From the base, its trails rise gently toa false peak, drop into a valley behind that, then rise steeply up a broad ridge, with terrain that gets progressively steeper as you work your way back.The snow, 10 days after the Valentine's blast, is unbelievably good. Groomed trails are firm but never hard; the steeps are soft and chalky. Despite heavy skier traffic, the natural snow holds up remarkably well.

Gore's frontside is broad-cruiser paradise, perfect for my wife. She's content to let us go. The girls are feeling feisty, so we work our way up to the steeps off the summit, where they drag me downLies. I expect wind-scour and ice on something this steep and wide, but theconditions are great. We cycle on the Straightbrook Quad, enjoying itscollection of blacks and double-blacks-Rumor, Double Barrel, Chatiemac. They're short (900 vertical feet) but charismatic and uncrowded. Then we rendezvous with Mom for lunch, enjoying the views from the midmountain Saddle Lodge.

We spend another night at the Sagamore and return to Gore the following morning. We sneak in a NASTAR session, partly because the girls have a race the following weekend, but mostly because it's fun. And while we can't explore every one of Gore's 75 trails in a day and a half, we're greatly impressed. Maybe I expected something shabbier from a state-owned resort? It's bigger than I imagined, more beautiful, refreshingly wholesome and noncommercial.

Whiteface is next up, but before leaving Gore, we spin through downtown North Creek. The tiny garnet-mining town has its own place in history-Teddy Roosevelt learned here that William McKinley was dead and he would be president-but not much else. It's quiet and nice, but there's little to do. We push north toward Lake Placid.

More scenic byways, more spec- tacular North Country landscapes. We debate which are more beautiful, the Adirondacks or New Hampshire's Whites, without settling the matter. The Adirondack Park, in its six-million-acre vastness, endures as a rare example of early environmental foresight in America. Our road wanders through mountain valleys, along rushing streams and across steep, thickly forested slopes.Avalanche-scarred peaks loom here and there in a disordered array. It may be true that one of Whiteface's drawbacks is the five-hour drive from New York City, but the last couple of hours are so enjoyably scenic they shouldn't count.

We wind our way through KeaneValley on Route 73, leaving Mt. Marcy on our left as we push through Cascade Pass. At the top, the road hugs the shores of the Cascade Lakes-two windswept tarns, particularly desolate and beautiful in winter. Then we descend toward Lake Placid, visible in the distance with massive Whiteface behind it. John Brown's last farmstead is somewhere nearby-an incongruous historical note in such a peaceful place. The radical abolitionist didn't live here long, but it's where his body rests in its grave.

The ski jumps signal our entry into the land of the Olympics. You come around a bend in the road, and suddenly there they are, towering monuments of science-fiction architecture rising out of the forest. They're a fitting gateway to Lake Placid-Shangri-la of winter sports and one of the sweetest little ski townson earth.

We meant to spend the afternoonskiing Whiteface, but we've dawdledtoo long. So we explore downtown for an hour, stopping in the shops on Main Street, which lines the shores of tiny Mirror Lake. (Lake Placid-the lake-is much larger and lies at the north endof the village.)

[pagebreak]

Olympic history is everywhere. Within a block of each other, at the south end of Main Street, are the hockey venue-scene of Team USA's miracle-the speedskating oval-where Eric Heiden won five golds-and the Olympic Museum. You'd have to be dead (or an ice-dancing fan) not to get goose bumps in that old hockey rink. Remember the shorthanded goal against Finland?

The folks at the Olympic Regional Development Authority, who manage all the facilities (as well as Gore), won't let you go off the ski jumps, but they'll let you do just about anything else. You can skate Heiden's oval, cross-country ski the nordic trails, even scare yourself silly in a bobsled. I can vouch for the latter: It gets the adrenaline-junkie seal of approval. And right in town, there's a 30-foot-high toboggan ramp onto the ice. These Adirondack people know how to have fun in the winter.

Hotels and restaurants abound-far more of them than winter visitors need. On previous visits, we've stayed at the Mirror Lake Inn and the new Whiteface Lodge-two standouts among the offerings. But this time we've got reservations at what may be Lake Placid's most extraordinary property, the Lake Placid Lodge.

We arrive to find a fire-blackened hulk. Cinders and ash smudge the snow. I know the original lodge burned, but that was a year ago, right? Haven't they gotten it cleaned up yet?

Yes, says the desk attendant. In fact, they're just breaking ground on the new lodge. The ruins we saw are those of a newly built trophy home adjacent to the property. It had burned less than a week before-a spectacular blaze, visible for miles around. The staff is still spooked.

But it's just the latest conflagration in Lake Placid, which has lost three of its historic landmarks. A series of arson fires destroyed the magnificent Lake Placid Club, once the Adirondacks' grandest resort. The original Mirror Lake Inn went up in 1988. Finally, the original Lodge, dating to 1882, burned in December 2005.

Happily, the Lodge's cabins were undamaged by the fire, and it's to a couple of these that our host shows us. Thus far, our impressions of the place have been disappointing: the fire pit; the rutted, muddy lot; the scattered ash and charred debris. Even the humble log cabins aren't much to behold from the outside. But step inside. The view, the fireplace and the handsome furniture (all of it crafted in the Adirondack style by local artisans) banish our qualms, and we can't wait to settle in. It's especially amazing, giveneys, along rushing streams and across steep, thickly forested slopes.Avalanche-scarred peaks loom here and there in a disordered array. It may be true that one of Whiteface's drawbacks is the five-hour drive from New York City, but the last couple of hours are so enjoyably scenic they shouldn't count.

We wind our way through KeaneValley on Route 73, leaving Mt. Marcy on our left as we push through Cascade Pass. At the top, the road hugs the shores of the Cascade Lakes-two windswept tarns, particularly desolate and beautiful in winter. Then we descend toward Lake Placid, visible in the distance with massive Whiteface behind it. John Brown's last farmstead is somewhere nearby-an incongruous historical note in such a peaceful place. The radical abolitionist didn't live here long, but it's where his body rests in its grave.

The ski jumps signal our entry into the land of the Olympics. You come around a bend in the road, and suddenly there they are, towering monuments of science-fiction architecture rising out of the forest. They're a fitting gateway to Lake Placid-Shangri-la of winter sports and one of the sweetest little ski townson earth.

We meant to spend the afternoonskiing Whiteface, but we've dawdledtoo long. So we explore downtown for an hour, stopping in the shops on Main Street, which lines the shores of tiny Mirror Lake. (Lake Placid-the lake-is much larger and lies at the north endof the village.)

[pagebreak]

Olympic history is everywhere. Within a block of each other, at the south end of Main Street, are the hockey venue-scene of Team USA's miracle-the speedskating oval-where Eric Heiden won five golds-and the Olympic Museum. You'd have to be dead (or an ice-dancing fan) not to get goose bumps in that old hockey rink. Remember the shorthanded goal against Finland?

The folks at the Olympic Regional Development Authority, who manage all the facilities (as well as Gore), won't let you go off the ski jumps, but they'll let you do just about anything else. You can skate Heiden's oval, cross-country ski the nordic trails, even scare yourself silly in a bobsled. I can vouch for the latter: It gets the adrenaline-junkie seal of approval. And right in town, there's a 30-foot-high toboggan ramp onto the ice. These Adirondack people know how to have fun in the winter.

Hotels and restaurants abound-far more of them than winter visitors need. On previous visits, we've stayed at the Mirror Lake Inn and the new Whiteface Lodge-two standouts among the offerings. But this time we've got reservations at what may be Lake Placid's most extraordinary property, the Lake Placid Lodge.

We arrive to find a fire-blackened hulk. Cinders and ash smudge the snow. I know the original lodge burned, but that was a year ago, right? Haven't they gotten it cleaned up yet?

Yes, says the desk attendant. In fact, they're just breaking ground on the new lodge. The ruins we saw are those of a newly built trophy home adjacent to the property. It had burned less than a week before-a spectacular blaze, visible for miles around. The staff is still spooked.

But it's just the latest conflagration in Lake Placid, which has lost three of its historic landmarks. A series of arson fires destroyed the magnificent Lake Placid Club, once the Adirondacks' grandest resort. The original Mirror Lake Inn went up in 1988. Finally, the original Lodge, dating to 1882, burned in December 2005.

Happily, the Lodge's cabins were undamaged by the fire, and it's to a couple of these that our host shows us. Thus far, our impressions of the place have been disappointing: the fire pit; the rutted, muddy lot; the scattered ash and charred debris. Even the humble log cabins aren't much to behold from the outside. But step inside. The view, the fireplace and the handsome furniture (all of it crafted in the Adirondack style by local artisans) banish our qualms, and we can't wait to settle in. It's especially amazing, given what we've seen, that they'll let us build our own fires. But then, the substantial nightly rate surely reflects a premium paid for insurance.

We have dinner that night and breakfast the next morning in a guest cabin that the Lodge has gamely repurposed as a dining room. Twenty minutes after pushing back from the breakfast table, we're unloading our gear at KidsKampus, feeling like wily Whitefaceveterans. If you forget everything else, remember Kids Kampus. It's alwayshad the closest and easiest parking at Whiteface. Now that this base lodge has been completely rebuilt-a clean log structure with lots of sturdy cedar chairs and plenty of storage shelves-it's by far the resort's nicest place to boot up. And yes, they offer children's programs there.

For all its height-an amazing-for-the-East 3,166 feet of uninterrupted vertical-Whiteface lacks somewhat for breadth. That'll be remedied soon enough, with the opening next season of the Lookout Mountain expansion-a triple chair serving more than six miles of new trails and additional glades on the north edge of the area. Even now, there's sufficient variety to go with all that vertical. More significantly, there's a depth of Olympic history that no North American resort can match. The big scoreboard still stands by the slalom hill, where only the great Stenmark could hold off Phil Mahre, who raced with four screws and a metal plate in his ankle following a severe crash on the same hill just a year before. At the summit, we peek down Cloudspin and imagine-well, try to imagine-having the nerve to tuck straight down it, as the Olympic downhillers did.

Like Gore, Whiteface is unusually beautiful, thanks to the absence ofbase-area clutter. From the top of the Gondola, we can look over the backside toward Lake Placid, where we swear we can just make out our little cabins on the far shore. In the opposite direction, Lake Champlain is a silvery sheet nearly 100 miles long, with Mt. Mansfield, Camel's Hump and Sugarbush plainly visible on the Vermont side. The day is brilliantly sunny and unseasonably warm-an early dose of spring skiing. We're introduced to the Pump House Gang, a friendly crew of Whiteface regulars, who are just firing up their barbecue. We stick mostly to the upper mountain to enjoy the views and find the least-sloppy snow. Then I wreck myself on the NASTAR course just before we leave for the day.

Back in town, my wife heads directly for the spa at the Mirror Lake Inn. We'll meet her later for an elegant dinner at the Mirror Lake's dining room. Meanwhile, the girls and I have a couple of hours to kill. We should probably go for a skate on the Olympic oval or tour the museum or take a bobsled ride, but instead we hang out at our cabins because they're so cozy and so cool. Mine has a birch-bark ceiling in the bathroom, a massive king bedstead adorned with half-round cedar sticks and aperfect-10 view of the west side of snow-plastered Whiteface. Theirs has a similarly stick-built grandfather clock and an even more elaborately rustic-ornate bed. All cabins are similarly styled in High Adirondack Camp. We take turns hosting open-cabins, raiding our respective minibars, tending our fireplaces. It's already been decided that we're staying an extra night. The heck with school.

All that remains is to come up witha story for my hardcore ski buddies back home in Vermont, explaining my injury. Maybe: "hooked a tip while shredding the Slides," Whiteface's unpatrolled off-piste playground. Or: "went a little too huge in the halfpipe." Anything but "crashed on the NASTAR course."

Oh, well. I'll think of something.I arrange the cushions on the handsome bentwood sofa and settle in with another beer, a good book and that view across the lake. The broad, snowy summit of Whiteface glows yellow, then orange, then pink with alpenglow. Fire crackles and hisses in my fireplace. All else is silence.

iven what we've seen, that they'll let us build our ownn fires. But then, the substantial nightly rate surely reflects a premium paid for insurance.

We have dinner that night and breakfast the next morning in a guest cabin that the Lodge has gamely repurposed as a dining room. Twenty minutes after pushing back from the breakfast table, we're unloading our gear at KidsKampus, feeling like wily Whitefaceveterans. If you forget everything else, remember Kids Kampus. It's alwayshad the closest and easiest parking at Whiteface. Now that this base lodge has been completely rebuilt-a clean log structure with lots of sturdy cedar chairs and plenty of storage shelves-it's by far the resort's nicest place to boot up. And yes, they offer children's programs there.

For all its height-an amazing-for-the-East 3,166 feet of uninterrupted vertical-Whiteface lacks somewhat for breadth. That'll be remedied soon enough, with the opening next season of the Lookout Mountain expansion-a triple chair serving more than six miles of new trails and additional glades on the north edge of the area. Even now, there's sufficient variety to go with all that vertical. More significantly, there's a depth of Olympic history that no North American resort can match. The big scoreboard still stands by the slalom hill, where only the great Stenmark could hold off Phil Mahre, who raced with four screws and a metal plate in his ankle following a severe crash on the same hill just a year before. At the summit, we peek down Cloudspin and imagine-well, try to imagine-having the nerve to tuck straight down it, as the Olympic downhillers did.

Like Gore, Whiteface is unusually beautiful, thanks to the absence ofbase-area clutter. From the top of the Gondola, we can look over the backside toward Lake Placid, where we swear we can just make out our little cabins on the far shore. In the opposite direction, Lake Champlain is a silvery sheet nearly 100 miles long, with Mt. Mansfield, Camel's Hump and Sugarbush plainly visible on the Vermont side. The day is brilliantly sunny and unseasonably warm-an early dose of spring skiing. We're introduced to the Pump House Gang, a friendly crew of Whiteface regulars, who are just firing up their barbecue. We stick mostly to the upper mountain to enjoy the views and find the least-sloppy snow. Then I wreck myself on the NASTAR course just before we leave for the day.

Back in town, my wife heads directly for the spa at the Mirror Lake Inn. We'll meet her later for an elegant dinner at the Mirror Lake's dining room. Meanwhile, the girls and I have a couple of hours to kill. We should probably go for a skate on the Olympic oval or tour the museum or take a bobsled ride, but instead we hang out at our cabins because they're so cozy and so cool. Mine has a birch-bark ceiling in the bathroom, a massive king bedstead adorned with half-round cedar sticks and aperfect-10 view of the west side of snow-plastered Whiteface. Theirs has a similarly stick-built grandfather clock and an even more elaborately rustic-ornate bed. All cabins are similarly styled in High Adirondack Camp. We take turns hosting open-cabins, raiding our respective minibars, tending our fireplaces. It's already been decided that we're staying an extra night. The heck with school.

All that remains is to come up witha story for my hardcore ski buddies back home in Vermont, explaining my injury. Maybe: "hooked a tip while shredding the Slides," Whiteface's unpatrolled off-piste playground. Or: "went a little too huge in the halfpipe." Anything but "crashed on the NASTAR course."

Oh, well. I'll think of something.I arrange the cushions on the handsome bentwood sofa and settle in with another beer, a good book and that view across the lake. The broad, snowy summit of Whiteface glows yellow, then orange, then pink with alpenglow. Fire crackles and hisses in my fireplace. All else is silence.

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