Exploring Adirondack Park with the Governor
by neal santelmann
"There is something really special about the energy,” says New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on what draws him again and again to Adirondack Park. “That’s the best word I can use. It’s just an extraordinarily restful but inspirational place for me.”
Last fall, shortly after the governor authorized purchasing 69,000 new acres for the Adirondack State Forest Preserve, he invited a group of journalists to have a look at the new acquisition, and experience the region he’s grown to love above all others. With a media crowd as hiking mates, it was likely one of the least restful days Cuomo has ever spent in the area, but he handled the reporter-heavy entourage with sporty aplomb.
We gathered at a handsome lodge nestled at Boreas Ponds, a striking spread of wilderness near the town of North Hudson named after the Greek god of the “North Wind.” Formerly owned by the Finch, Pruyn & Co. paper company and, more recently, The Nature Conservancy, Boreas Ponds is a dazzling highlight of the largest addition to the preserve in more than a century. The land, purchased for $50 million, will open gradually, enabling public access for the first time since the Civil War.
Journalists and photographers weren’t alone. Arriving ahead of Cuomo were cabinet members, VIPs, security, executive office staff, Nature Conservancy staffers, and maybe two dozen reporters and photographers hungry for sound bites, photo ops, and lunch. Say this for the governor: He wears the outdoors well. Standing on the lodge deck as Joseph Martens, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, proclaimed the new tract a “crown jewel,” Cuomo cut a sharp silhouette in climate-appropriate clothing—a black pullover, hiking pants, low-cut brown shoes, and later, smartly, a water-resistant jacket emblazoned with the state seal. “If you live in New York State, there is no reason to leave New York State to vacation,” Cuomo noted, praising the beauty and recreational promise of Boreas Ponds and the triumph of a land deal years in the making. “Whatever you want to do, you can do it right here.”
What the governor wanted to do was fish. And following a staff meeting and a quick, on-the-record Q&A, that’s what he did. I joined other members of the media on a cliff for a view. Back and forth, back and forth went Cuomo, with the next day’s headlines hanging in the balance: Would the governor snag a fish?
Cuomo has had numerous opportunities to refine his fishing technique in the Adirondacks throughout the years. Although he visited the park as a youngster with his father, it wasn’t until he was in his early 20s that he really started getting into it. When Mario Cuomo was New York’s Secretary of State in the late 1970s, the current governor began traveling frequently to the North Country to explore the park with his younger brother, Chris, who is now a morning anchor on CNN.
Like New York City, Adirondack Park is hugely diverse in culture, community, and jaw-dropping beauty. Cuomo has been “all through” the Adirondacks and is still at it. With Chris, he spends time fishing and canoeing in some of the park’s 3,000 lakes and ponds. When his daughters want to ski, he takes them to Lake Placid, which has hosted two Olympic games—or two more than the Big City at the other end of the state. In 2011, he split summer vacation between the Hamptons and the Adirondacks. And over the holiday season, Cuomo spent a week in Saranac Lake with his brother, taking time to work on his State of the State address and pop by the offices of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. The newspaper covered the surprise visit warmly by citing Cuomo’s thoughts on growing tourism with an “anchor event” along the lines of the town’s long-running Saranac Lake Winter Carnival and also noting his Adirondack-ready outfit in detail. (“The governor stepped out of a black sport utility vehicle in front of the newspaper’s Broadway offices just after 11 am. Wearing a black ski jacket and black and red-checked flannel shirt, he walked to the Enterprise front desk.”) When mentioning the paper’s meticulous wardrobe description, the governor laughs. “I bought that shirt myself,” he says. “People call it my ‘Brawny Paper Towel Man’ shirt. I wear it in Manhattan, too.”
Key to Cuomo’s vision for Adirondack tourism is the simple idea that if people see the beauty of the park, they will return. It certainly worked for him. “We have to get the word out,” he says. “It’s a function of exposure.” He is particularly cognizant of New York City dwellers who have never visited the park—and perhaps don’t even realize it’s there: “It’s amazing that they have this in their backyard and people are unaware of it.”
There is no place quite like Adirondack Park, which was established in 1892 to stem forest clear cutting, which threatened to leave the region barren and reduce water flow in rivers and canals. There are no gates or entrance fees on the more than 6 million acres, an area roughly the size of Vermont. By amendment to the New York State Constitution, all state-owned land within the park’s boundaries—more than 2.6 million acres of Forest Preserve—has been preserved since 1894. It’s “forever wild.”
Travelers were enjoying the Adirondacks decades before the park. In the 1860s, The New York Times proposed making the Adirondacks “a Central Park for the world,” and with the publication of Adventures in the Wilderness; or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks by pioneering outdoorsman William H.H. Murray, tourists poured into the mountains; hotels went up; stagecoach lines were developed; and a railroad was laid from Saratoga Springs to North Creek.
Meanwhile, well-heeled New Yorkers created magnificent Great Camps in now-unmistakable Adirondack style, fashioning elaborate lifestyles for family and friends far from the swelter and disease of the city in the days before sanitation.
J.P. Morgan purchased Great Camp Uncas on Raquette Lake; it was later sold to Margaret Emerson, whose husband, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, went down with the RMS Lusitania. Whitelaw Reid, editor of the New York Tribune, launched artsy Camp Wild Air on Upper St. Regis Lake with buildings designed by his niece. Frederick William Vanderbilt, director of the New York Central Railroad, cluttered Pine Tree Point with Japanese-style buildings. Socialite Marylou Whitney still owns thousands of acres on Little Tupper Lake, which she inherited from her husband, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. And a peninsula on Saranac Lake, formerly owned by William Avery Rockefeller, is now The Point Resort, among the most exclusive addresses in the country with 11 lake-view rooms in original log buildings and rates from $1,500 a night.
As for society types today? Earlier this year I conducted an unscientific e-mail survey of New York A-listers who I had previously pursued for articles in Gotham. I asked, “Have you ever vacationed, or even considered vacationing, in Adirondack Park?” The philanthropist/animal activist/cruelty-free fashion accessories designer Cornelia Guest replied that she had. “The Adirondacks are so beautiful,” she said. “I used to go to Lake Placid for the horse show. I don’t mind the driving. It’s a fun town and a lovely change.”
Others didn’t know the area at all: “Never been, but sure we’d consider it”; “I have often thought of a romantic getaway to The Point, but my husband and I always thought of the long drive”; “I married a wonderful man who does not pride himself on being an ‘outdoorsman’!”; etc., etc.
Although Cuomo finds such detachment “almost inexplicable,” he gets it. “It’s not surprising. It’s like the Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover [View of the World from 9th Avenue, 1976]: It’s all about New York City.” The “east-west axis” of the city that puts the Hamptons within easier reach doesn’t help the Adirondacks, either
But Guest isn’t the only A-lister drawn to the park. Ralph Lauren has long been inspired by the North Country and today sells Slim-Fit Adirondack Lake Jeans for $265 a pair. Designers Mark Badgley and James Mischka summer in Lake Placid, calling it “very American, very old school.” Bruce Weber uses his Adirondack lodge as a backdrop for photography. Food Network superstar Rachael Ray has a cabin not far from her old high school in Glens Falls. Sigourney Weaver has acreage in Long Lake. And whose voice is that on the audio tour at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake? None other than Kevin Bacon.
It’s not all about celebrities in the Adirondacks, of course. Population and school enrollment has been in flux, and there is a constant push-pull between those who favor development and those who want to keep the park pristine. “Some don’t want the park well-publicized, arguing that what is special is the isolation,” acknowledges Cuomo. “That’s true. But it’s also true that the economy has to be sustained and you need tourism to sustain it. That’s the tension of the park. Finding a balance is very important.”
Discovering a workable development-to-preservation ratio will take time. “Adirondack Park is a working model, and each generation has to figure out for themselves what degrees of regulation are required to protect it and how people are going to live in the park and make a living,” notes Stephanie Ratcliffe, executive director of The Wild Center, a nonprofit science museum in Tupper Lake. Even as many New Yorkers are unaware of or have never visited the park, Ratcliffe reports that foreign delegations have recently come to study it for ways to preserve natural regions in their own countries without kicking people out.
Cuomo highlighted his administration’s Adirondack focus in the State of the State address in January, proposing a coordinated marketing plan to bolster Upstate New York. He got a big laugh with a comic presentation on his plans for an Adirondack Challenge rafting event (saying there would a special part of the competition for Democratic and Republican legislators), which he hopes will “focus the world’s attention” on the beauty and recreational opportunities of the region and attract tourists in turn.
Whatever its effect in the long run, Cuomo’s focus is generating plenty of attention. “Putting the Adirondacks in the headlines is good for the Adirondacks,” says Andy Flynn, a longtime resident, local newspaper editor, and author of several books on the park’s history, including a recent e-book New York’s Adirondack Park: A User’s Guide (Hungry Bear Publishing). “He seems genuine. When he comes with the family to Saranac, they’re here to enjoy themselves.”
Ratcliffe also lauds Cuomo’s approach. “He understands the region has its challenges. But he sees this natural asset, and he’s trying to help us figure out how to use that asset to preserve the natural places but also have a viable economy.” She recalls a friend who once noticed an image of the Adirondacks on Cuomo’s cell phone. “That tells you something.”
“That’s freaky,” Cuomo said when I mentioned the screen-saver sighting. He has since picked up a new cell phone, but confirmed the old one had a photo he snapped of Mount Marcy, the state’s highest peak.
photography by jeff gale; courtesy of an elegant wilderness, acanthus press, 2011 (pine tree point; kill kare); the adiron dack museum (roosevelt); Kindra Clineff (the Point)