AUSABLE CHASM - White water tumbled down through chunks of ice in the AuSable Chasm, white and blue cliffs on either side of the gorge. Cars sped across a bridge, high above, on state Route 9 near Keeseville as I listened to the gush of the river, staring across at 150-foot icicles clinging to the snow-covered rock.
But I wasn't there for sightseeing, or to take a guided winter tour at the popular attraction - I was there to ski.
During Presidents Day weekend, the AuSable Chasm - a 2-mile-long sandstone gorge - reopened a nearby network of cross-country ski trails that haven't been in use for more than a decade.
AuSable Chasm recreation manager Chuck Fries skis along a network of trails that opened over Presidents Day weekend.
(Photo — Eric Voorhis)
"These trails were a hit in the '80s and '90s," said Chuck Fries, recreation manager of the Chasm. "Night skiing was always hugely popular; I think it drew in a lot of people."
But in January 1998, an ice storm tore through the North Country, knocking out phone lines, downing power lines and leaving many roadways impassable. The storm blasted the AuSable Chasm ski trails and destroyed the entire lighting system, Fries said. It was left that way for years.
"I'm not entirely sure why they haven't tried to fix it up until now," Fries said. "I guess the timing just wasn't right."
Three years ago, the AuSable Chasm opened for winter tours of its ice-encrusted rock walls, caves and waterfalls to draw more business. Fries, who was at the head of the project, said the move paved the way for reopening the forgotten ski trails.
On Sunday, Feb. 27, Fries led the way, digging his poles into the side of the trail and gliding through tall patches of white pine hanging over a thin underbrush.
The ski trails are a short drive up Mace Chasm Road, away from the impressive Adirondack landmark, toward the AuSable Chasm Campground.
I was disappointed to hear that the afternoon ski wouldn't offer any impressive views, but soon found myself skiing through the woods on a well-groomed and slow-rolling trail. I could always stare at the chasm more later on.
The 10-mile network of trails is made up of four separate loops, ranging in length, with a straight path shooting right though the middle - the yellow trail, which is offered as a dog trail for skijoring. Since I left the pooch at home, I decided on the "Red Outer Loop," which would give me a good sense of the entire network, Fries said.
The trail was wide and even, groomed well for nordic-style skiing and perfect for families, beginners or a quick workout. (The Blue Loop is groomed for skate skiing.)
A map of the ski center shows a series of unmarked connector trails scattered through the network.
"We're hoping to start clearing out more and more trails to offer some more challenging terrain in the future," Fries said.
Mountain biking planned
On Thursday, Fries said there was still plenty of snow on the ground for skiing, but shared his excitement about the mountain biking opportunities that will be offered this spring and summer "as soon as the snow melts."
"I've been spending quite a bit of time the last few weeks mapping and marking some new trails that will open for mountain biking this summer and backcountry skiing next year," he said.
The Chasm will open 10 miles of additional trails, offering more challenging terrain than it currently has.
"The black diamond and double diamond trails are going to be amazing terrain with great views," he said. "They ride along a hilly ridgeline with views of Lake Champlain and drop into a couple of gorges next to a creek full of beaver dams."
Fries said the trails would have never been opened if not for a successful partnership with Mountain Riders Bike Shop in Plattsburgh, which provides ski rentals to the Chasm. Owner Paul Maggy has been responsible for grooming the trails through the winter.
"I was thinking the season was about over, but I just loaded up the groomer so it's ready to go," Maggy said Thursday. "I was kind of looking forward to the snow melting, because we've got some great new (mountain biking) terrain."
Maggy said trail crews from the Northern Adirondack Mountain Bike Association - a non-profit organization that promotes trail building - would continue to cut trails in the next several weeks.
"It's an exciting time right now," Maggy said. "Some of the trails are definitely difficult - much more technical - but the idea is that this is a place for everyone to enjoy, including beginners. It's a great family place."
After cross-country skiing through the trails, and taking another look at the Chasm, I spoke with Plattsburgh resident Frank Berry, who remembered skiing the same trails back in the '70s.
"In the winter of '77 and '78 our church had a congressional cross-country ski trip to the Chasm," he said. "From then on my wife and I skied it three or four times a week."
Of the newly opened network, Berry said he's noticed a great reaction among friends and neighbors who remember the trails before they were suddenly closed in 1998.
"We've really enjoyed it," Berry said. "It's a nice easy trail for those with any ability."
Free ski weekend
The AuSable Chasm will host a Free Ski weekend today and Sunday to promote the new network of trails, offering a free pass and $1 rentals for all. For more information, call 518-834-7454 or visit ausablechasm.com.
Typically, ski passes cost $5 for Clinton, Essex and Franklin County residents. All other tickets are $10. The same prices will apply to mountain biking.