Tupper Lake seems to be on the right track toward increasing snowmobile tourism. This promises to be a big boost for the community's winter economy, which has been anemic since the Big Tupper Ski Area closed - both times: in 1999 and again in 2012.
Even if Tupper doesn't unseat Old Forge as the Adirondacks' undisputed snowmobile capital, it could at least become the northern Adirondacks' snowmobile hot spot, and that might be a pretty big deal.
It has a way to go, though. Smaller surrounding communities like Cranberry Lake, St. Regis Falls, Duane and Long Lake get more snowmobile traffic than Tupper does.
Snowmobilers pass a snowmobile trail groomer owned by the town of Inlet in December 2009 during Snodeo, an annual snowmobile rally in the Old Forge area.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
Even if you're not a fan of snowmobiling, Tupper Lake needs this kind of a shot in the arm economically. The town is also well situated for it geographically. It's surrounded by popular snowmobile trail networks in southeast St. Lawrence County, Hamilton County and central Franklin County, all of which are economic engines. There's also the state-owned railroad corridor running through Tupper, which, when there's enough snow to cover the tracks, serves as a snowmobile highway to points south, east and north.
So it makes sense that this crossroads community would be where sledders hang out between days of riding; however, relatively few do. Reportedly, getting between those trail networks and the village is more trouble than it's worth.
That's ripe to change, though, and Tupper Lakers are working on it.
First, the town needs better-groomed trails to draw snowmobilers into town. Town staff and volunteers already groom trails, but they need better equipment. The Franklin County Snowmobile Association also grooms here, but only when there's enough snow to travel on the railroad tracks.
Therefore, we think the town's planned purchase of a trail groomer would have a solid payoff.
At this point, the town can only afford an old one - even that will probably cost more than $50,000 - but it's a good step for a community that has shown it can do great things with limited resources and wonderful volunteers. Look at the amazing rehabilitation of the Big Tupper ski lifts and lodge, and the development of excellent cross-country ski trails around the town golf course. This was fine work done by recreationists for recreationists, and we expect the same kind of thing with the snowmobile trails.
In addition to better grooming, the Tupper Lake Snowmobile Club has built bridges and done other trail work to repair connectors between their village and the extensive web of trails between Childwold, Cranberry Lake and South Colton. Other progress includes signs installed next to the Tupper Lake train station, pointing the way to local restaurants, bars, hotels and other places of interest to snowmobilers. Also, the Tupper village government is working on an internal trail system on which snowmobilers will be able to get around the village without having to use many streets. Those trails will also be great in warmer seasons for bike and foot traffic.
All of this good work has broad local support. There is, however, a controversial step some people are pursuing, including a growing number of Tupper Lakers - ripping up the tracks.
The steel rails, outside the heart of winter when they're covered by snow, can be a damaging and dangerous deterrent for sledders. Removing them would extend the snowmobile season, probably by a couple of months a year, and would also make the corridor an avenue for cycling and foot travel in warmer months.
But it would also put a spike in plans to revive the railroad, another potential tourism booster.
This is perhaps the biggest debate going on in the Adirondack Park right now. Thankfully, it is set to be addressed soon. The state, prompted by Adirondack towns and villages as well as private advocates, has decided to revisit its unit management plan for the railroad corridor, a plan that in the 1990s allowed trains to return.
But rails or no rails, Tupper Lake can still realize its snowmobile dreams. If it gets to the point where it's a real destination - with plenty of good, well-groomed trails and amenities travelers enjoy like restaurants, pubs, shops and hotels - then people will drive up with their sleds in tow. Local people are working toward that goal.
It would help for Tupper to be different, to provide a snowmobile experience one can't get anywhere else. That could potentially come from long-distance sled tourists on the railroad corridor.
Let's imagine a typical snowmobiling couple who comes up to Old Forge every winter from central New York with their friends. It's pretty much the same thing every time, but one year they hear about a new, bold, multi-day trip: Old Forge to Tupper Lake (or points beyond) on the railroad corridor, 60 miles or so through some of the Adirondacks' most beautiful and remote terrain.
"Wow, maybe next year we should do that!" they say.
It could become the "next level" for sledders, a bucket-list item. In western Canada, for example, long wilderness snowmobile trips are already more common than they are here.
This could be happening now, but it's not mentioned much - the same way the Northern Forest Canoe Trail from Old Forge to northern Maine could have been paddled years ago but wasn't until someone started promoting and mapping it.
It would help, certainly, if the tracks weren't there. That debate will have its day. But meanwhile, there's a lot of other work for Tupper Lakers to do toward this goal.