November 03, 2018
Playing in the snow is a very old Adirondack tradition, but it took a while for this activity to become more enjoyable than practical.
Depending on the level of development where people lived, skiing and snowshoeing was simply the way people got around in the winter. Local Indigenous people, like the Huron and Algonquin, taught European explorers and trappers the usefulness of the right footgear for winter travel.
The beginning of gear
The first people to play in the Adirondack snow were the Akwesasne, a Mohawk community known as First Nation. These early Northeastern Americans modeled their snowshoes on how animal paws worked to keep their bodies moving across the snow, not get bogged down into it. Two popular styles, known as "beavertail" and "bearpaw," were the beginnings of modern snowshoe design.
Skating and cross-country skiing were likewise developed as practical ways to travel the winter landscape. It was only in the early 1900s that New York felt the full effects of a transition from farming to industrial culture. Those necessary winter activities shifted from trapping and hunting for food to a desire to explore the woods for enjoyment.
The Adirondacks became even more popular as an exotic destination when the experience of actual wilderness dwindled in people's lives. As it became less and less common to be able to enjoy pristine nature settings, people wanted it more.
In Saranac Lake, whose life as a town began when Jacob Smith Moody built a cabin in 1819, the rugged frontier life was no longer. A century later, winter was viewed as less of a challenge and more of a playground. The Pontiac Club began in November of 1896 to support and promote organized winter sports.
The beginning of events
The Adirondack philosophy is to not let the weather get in the way of having fun. Every season only requires the proper gear and a different choice of outdoor activity.
The idea of recreational winter sports appealed greatly to both residents and visitors of the Adirondacks. The Pontiac Club was the brainstorm of Saranac Lake civic leaders. They wanted to provide support for local players and entertainment for the rising numbers of tuberculosis patients who were curing there.
Since tuberculosis was primarily a lung disease, it was "doctor's orders" to get them out into the fresh air, no matter what temperature that air might be. So the Pontiac Club became a new way for patients and townspeople to get out, mingle, and enjoy themselves during the winter.
It was good fun and good for health to stay active and get plenty of fresh, clean air.
The peak of pleasure
Between the Adirondack love of the outdoors and the enticing possibilities of encouraging visitors to enjoy it, almost every town found a local mountain they could turn into a ski complex. Saranac Lake has two.
Mount Pisgah is the perfect size for an easy family outing. There's alpine skiing, two slides for downhill tubing so people can race each other, and trails for glade and cross-country skiing. The recently renovated lodge has a cozy fireplace and big windows, making it an excellent place to take a break. Find out more about Pisgah's interesting history with the blog, Mt Pisgah: Local and Loved Ski Hill.
Dewey Mountain recently expanded their lodge, offers gear rentals, and has multiple cross-country and snowshoe trails which reach to the top of the mountain. Signage and groomed trails direct everyone to the trail that will fit the day's ambitions. Learn more with the blog, Family Ski at Dewey.
The efforts of the Pontiac Club are still with us today. They built on that early snow enthusiasm to launch the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival. Since 1897, it has grown into a ten-day festival with an ice palace, snow sports, dance party, a huge parade, and fireworks.