It was just after Christmas and I was riding the traditional high that comes from the Holidays spent with family and friends and looking to keep that feeling going through to the New Year. Having recently learned one of our local lodges was going to be offering lantern lit sleigh rides this year, I figured there were few better ways to embrace winter and stay in the holiday spirit than taking advantage of this new opportunity to experience an old Adirondack pastime. Fortunately, my friends Mike and Ari had traveled all the way from Zurich to see their families here in NY and were looking to get together and do something fun during their quick trip home. They agreed, a sleigh ride was in order!
It was Monday after work when I picked up Mike and Ari and headed out to the Lake Clear Lodge and Retreat. Located about 10 miles outside Saranac Lake, the Lodge is a popular destination for visitors and also one of the 'go-to' spots for locals looking for a relaxing night out for drinks and/or dinner. Entering the main building, we were greeted by a LARGE Christmas tree, stone fireplace, and oversized chess set in the lobby. One of my favorite things about the Lodge is its homeyness. When you enter the main building, you instantly feel like you've been invited as their special guest. It's easy to see this is a labor of love, cultivated over the course of several generations. Throughout, the decor suggests a lot of handpicked and finely crafted pieces collected over a lifetime.
First, A Drink
It was 6 o'clock when we arrived and the crisp winter air suggested a beverage or two before loading up for our sleigh ride. Fortunately, the Lodge boasts a great 'Rathskeller' (German for a basement bar). Our host, Ernie Hohmeyer, was quick to lead us into their fully stocked interpretive beer cellar, something that makes beer officionado's such as Mike and myself drool. Ernie excitedly showed us around the cellar's extensive collection of handpicked beers from around the world, organized by type and each with a label explaining what the beer was and how it would taste. If this were a blog about beer, I could go on from here for quite a while on the selection and Ernest's love of beer and teaching others about beer. Suffice to say, if you like good beer, you'd love this place. Ernie even offers a 'history of beer' class and tasting at the Lodge.
Turns out the Lodge was bustling this evening and it would be a little longer for our sleigh ride to begin. But content with drinks in hand, a roaring fire, and old friends, that was the least of our concerns! In addition to catching up, the lull gave us a chance to chat with Ernest about the history of the Lodge.
A roadside Inn since 1886
First built in 1886, the Lodge was a bustling Inn, General Store, and Post office serving as a stop for travelers coming through the Lake Clear Junction and Train Station down the road. The Lodge was a bustling hub of activity in the 1880's and through the early 1900's, but by 1965 the property had been unused for nearly 10 years and was falling into a state of disrepair. Ernest's German father purchased the property in that year, partly because it reminded him of the 'Guesthauses' of his home. The Lodge has been reonvated and expanded quite a bit over the last 50 years. Ernest and his wife Cathy work hard to offer an experience which combines Ernests' Germanic heritage with many of the touches of a traditional Adirondack Inn. The Lodge offers a variety of rooms and cabins in addition to their 'Great Camp' style dining and the already mentioned Rathskeller.
Our Sleigh Awaits!
Drinks finished, the horses had pulled up out back and our sleigh was ready! We bid Ernie adieu and headed outside.
Before us stood two substantial draft horses, a mother and daughter, named 'Lady' and 'Fee' (pronounced 'Fay'). We were warmly greeted by Bob Brhel, who with his welcoming demeanor and big white beard could have walked right off of an Adirondack postcard. The sleigh was equipped with enough blankets to keep us warm, even on the chilliest of nights. I let Mike and Ari take the back seat while I sat up front with Bob (my preferred seat anyway). Seeing there was a brake pedal in the center of the front seat floorboards I was a little confused as to which side I sat on and which side was for Bob to drive. Bob told me he could drive from either side, since "the brakes don't work with the runners on anyway." I guess on the flat ground in the snow, the ton or so of horse that stands in front are enough to stop the sleigh! All loaded up, and we were off!
At this point, I could, and will briefly, wax poetic about the atmosphere and peacefulness that roll over you as you glide through the woods, snow crunching under hoof and runner, and sleigh bells jingling. The clear night providing glimpses of moonlight through the trees and stars overhead. The only other light provided by the flickering lanterns along the trail. The horses pulled the sleigh seemingly effortlessly through the snow, guided only by the occasion 'gee', 'haw', or 'up Lady...up Fay'. It wasn't too hard to imagine what it would have been like leaving the Lodge by sleigh on a moonlit night a century ago... Unfortunately, all of these wonders of the evening do not translate so well into photographs. It's something you truly have to experience yourself. But, in the meantime, you can close your eyes and create your own moonlight Adirondack Sleigh Ride while listening to the clip included at the top of the page.
Over 150 Years of History
As we were sliding through the woods I got a chance to talk to our driver Bob a bit about the horses. The Lodge relies on the services of the Paul Smith's College Draft Horses. Today, Paul Smith's is a small liberal arts college known for their culinary and forestry programs. But, 150 years ago Paul Smith's was one of the premier resorts in the Adirondacks. Attracting the rich and famous from around the world to the Adirondacks for an escape.
Paul Smiths' Hotel, or the St. Regis Hotel as it was formally known, was located on the shore of Lower St. Regis lake, about 12 miles from Saranac Lake. Located well away from the nearby towns, the Hotel was in many ways self sufficient. Between 1859 and 1930 the Paul Smith's horses would have been used for everything from clearing land around the hotel, to farming, to transporting guests from two local train stations, one being the Lake Clear Junction Station (down the road from the Lodge on Lake Clear). During the summer months, Paul Smiths' Hotel boasted an impressive Carriage. But, during the winter, snow made sleighs and sleds a ubiquitous part of Adirondack life. Much like we did for this ride, visitors would have bundled up in blankets for the 12-mile ride through the woods and along snowy winter roads.
Today, Bob Brhel is on the faculty at Paul Smith's College and works to ensure the Adirondack Traditions associated with workhorses at Paul Smith's are alive and well. The College offers classes on traditional logging techniques and draft horse management. Paul Smith's is one of only a few colleges in New York State that still maintains a team of draft horses.
You can spot one of Paul Smith's original carriages (pictured below) at parades and events around the region, including frequent appearances in the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival parade!
One for the Road
After a good 25 minutes exploring the Lodge's 25 acre property Bob delivered us back to the main building. We bid Bob farewell and headed back inside. Not quite ready to head home just yet, we settled around the fire to warm up and enjoy another beverage from Ernie's well stocked Rathskeller. A perfect end to a thoroughly enjoyable evening!
Thinking about planning a visit? Check out some other great things to do in Saranac Lake.