"A true community is not just about being geographically close to someone or part of the same social web network. It's about feeling connected and responsible for what happens. Humanity is our ultimate community, and everyone plays a crucial role."
It only takes one visit to the Adirondacks before noticing that there's "something about it" that's special. What that "something" is has never quite been defined, but you know it once you've experienced it. But to live in the Adirondacks allows you to immerse even more fully within that "something" that pulls people in. It is the locals within every Adirondack town that carry that "something" wherever they go and are the pulse of that community. Saranac Lake is no different, and local resident Jason Smith has added his own beat to the pulse of the region.
I had the opportunity to interview Smith, current owner of Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters and manager of the Dewey Recreation Center, and learn about his Pennsylvania upbringing, how he came to Saranac Lake, his family and their collective love for the outdoors, and the contributions Smith has made to the town he now warmly calls home.
Jason, tell me about growing up in Pennsylvania and how you fell into your love for outdoor recreation.
I grew up in Millerstown, Pennsylvania. It's very rural, and my backyard was the river. As a kid, I was always swimming, paddling, floating or swimming down the river, and hanging out in the forest or the river with my parents. We all shared that outdoor space together.
My parents met in college and settled on a rural place to live. My dad’s story about buying the house was that there was a super small, little river cottage. Two sides of the house had a big screened-in porch on it that looked down at the river. My dad’s story is his walking up on the porch, sitting on the porch, drinking a beer with the owner and saying, “Yeah, we'll take it,” and the owner saying back, “Well, you should probably go inside and have a look around so when you tell your wife that you just bought a house, you could tell her what the inside looks like.” And my dad said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.”
You first came to the Adirondacks in 1995, fell in love with the open space and mountains, and decided to live here. What was it that first brought you to the region in 1995?
I kind of bummed around out west a little bit, and I had moved back. A friend of my father's knew Jack Drury who ran the Wilderness Recreation Leadership program at North Country Community College, and they were a Wilderness Education Association affiliate.
So they really focused on outdoor leadership skills and group dynamic skills. And, you know, this friend of my father says, “This is a smart, great guy. This is good. The programming is interesting. You should go check it out.” So I drove up here from Watertown, came in, met him, and was like, “Yeah, I'll totally do this.”
I basically moved to the area, spent maybe a week-and-a-half prepping, and then went out on a thirty or thirty-two day backpacking canoeing trip in the Adirondacks while being in the field for that time. So that was kind of that. Everything that I liked was here — a lot of water for paddling, a lot of open space, a lot of public land that everybody can enjoy. It’s all so raw, you know? So that was all super attractive.
Of all the places you could have lived in the Adirondacks, how did you land in Saranac Lake? What about it feels like “home” to you?
Well, I had met my wife during that program — we were both on the same practicum for thirty days. We lived in Lake Placid for a while, and then we got married, had a kid, and bought a house in the same year. As we started shopping, the market for a house was less expensive in Saranac Lake than it was in Lake Placid or elsewhere. We knew a lot of Saranac Lake people, and we both worked here. It just seemed like a good community — a good place to live with affordable housing. So it just lined up that way.
That river home [in Pennsylvania] was a wonderful home and a great place for a kid who likes to run around outside to grow up. My folks don't have it anymore, but that was certainly lovely. But I think everything from spending twenty-plus years working in Saranac Lake, getting to know the community in Saranac Lake, raising kids in Saranac Lake — I think that's just what slowly creates “home.”
Talk to me about how you came into being the owner of Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters.
There was a new owner [at Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters] around the same time I started to work part-time in 1996 or ‘97. There had been a partnership, that partnership split to a single owner named Stephen Doxzon. As he was growing the business, I was fortunate enough to help him do that through taking ACA courses to be a kayak instructor and a canoeing instructor to help him build the retail from a little more than a simple guide shop and a simple rental shop to a large retail space for kayak and canoe than what it previously was.
I don't do much guiding now. As there was more business in retail and rental, there was less time to be the instructor, but I have a list of local guides and instructors that are incredibly experienced. So that's how I operate the guided instruction — if somebody asks for guides or instruction, I reach out to my people.
But buying this shop was something that through the years of working with Steve, the conversation would come up on both our ends. I’d say, “Hey, are you gonna sell this business to me when you're ready to retire?” and he’d say, “Yeah, probably, you know, we gotta keep talking about that.” And as the years went by, it was an unofficial agreement that I would get first dibs to buy it. And then as he continued to get closer to the age of retiring, the conversation got more and more serious. And I said, “Yes, I want to buy this.” I have a lot of time in this and was fortunate that he helped me develop what we have now. It wasn't like I just rolled in and said, “Hey, I want to buy this.” We built it together and he really gave me that opportunity to help him which was great. So that all happened over time.
So in the midst of owning and operating Adirondack Lakes and Trails, you then became the manager of Dewey Recreation Center as well. How did you land in that position?
So we’ve been around since 2005 or so...I think this is our 16th year in it. Around that time, we were closed in the winters. Mm-hmm. Steve [Doxzon] wanted to give me opportunities to have year-round employment, and I was needing that and looking for that as I got older. So we did a year of winter business, got into renting and selling skis and snowshoes — just basic stuff — and it was kind of a first go at it. It was okay, and then the opportunity came up [for Adirondack Lakes and Trails Outfitters] to put the bid in to be the management for the Dewey Mountain Recreation Center through the town of Harrietstown who owned it. We discussed it, and I was like, “Yeah, that would be awesome. Let's do it.”
It was a great opportunity for me to have year-round work with one business rather than piecing it together as I always had done. Steve and I managed together, but Steve is now a retired guy. The business still manages the facility, and I have a team of people who work there. But building up Dewey [happened] because a lot of great community members came in together. It’s just so unique in that Harrietstown owns this great little piece of property that they allow somebody to manage. A “friends group” was started to help fundraise for the capital improvements needed at Dewey, and that was formed with partnership with Saranac Lake Rotary. A friend of mine who lived near Dewey said, “Ya know, I don’t know how to manage a recreation center, but I know how to raise money and know this facility could use improvement money.” And then just a lot of the community gave money. The community was just like, “Yeah, we’ll support trail improvements. Yeah, we'll support getting equipment for youth programming. We'll support the building of a new lodge. Yeah, we'll support putting up a new lighting system," which is kind of our next big move. So there's three main players doing this: the friends group that's associated with Saranac Lake Rotary, the town of Harrietstown, and Adirondacks Lakes and Trails.
Tell me about your family. Are they interested in outdoor recreation as well? What types of things do you do together in Saranac Lake, whether or not it is outdoor recreation?
My wife’s name is Zoë. She had lived in the Adirondacks for a couple years already [before we met]. We were both already outdoorsy, and we just started doing more of the same things — like rock climbing together, hiking together, backpacking together. Yeah, so the outdoors definitely brought us together because we shared the common interests. My joke prior to marriage was, “Well, you know, we can't really get married until you paddle some class three.” So she ran the Sacandaga River, and she's like, “I'm out! I’m done. I did it.”
My son is turning 20 and my daughter is 16. They both work [at Adirondack Lakes and Trails], and I think it's great. I love it...hopefully they do, too! I think my son's probably been doing this for three years, and this might be his fourth year. This would be my daughter's second year. I always tell them both, especially when they started, “You know more than most of our visitors know about what we like to do up here, which is what most of our visitors are coming here to do.” It’s pretty natural to them.
They are outdoorsy. They grew up in boats and hiking with us and skiing with us. Being outdoorsy for them is...well, they didn't have much of a choice, ya know? It was more like, “Come along! Here we go!”
We would canoe camp, kayak, do lots of hiking out to Middle Saranac Beach and post up on the beach all day. So they were as young as they could be in boats. Canoes and kayaks. That's what we do.
It seems like it is almost easier at this point to ask you about what you DON’T do rather than ask what you do. That said, is there anything you are hoping to try someday that you haven’t done yet?
Well, we have kids that will soon graduate and be in college. We're looking at this like, “You know, we will be a little less busy someday, and we’ll start going out a little longer.” I would say our recreation is more half-day pursuits now. The big, big days out, the long multiple days — we didn't do as much of that as soon as our kids were middle school, high school. They’re just busy, busy, busy. They have their lives. They're involved in everything — always have been — so it keeps you busy. So we're kind of discussing it, like, “Oh, you know, in the fall when the kids are both in college, we can go south and have fun for a week. We can do a big backpacking traverse. We can do that big trip through the whatever-area in the Adirondacks we were thinking about.” We're already prepping. We’ve been buying the fancy, lightweight comfort camping gear, like, “Oooo, why yes, let’s get that four-inch packable Therm-a-Rest pad!”
Do you have any big goals for the Adirondack region, itself?
I don't know, I'm not a super goal-oriented guy. I mean, I guess a goal for me would be to continue to spend more time than I currently do outdoors and doing what I like, which is skiing in the forest, riding a bike in the forest, hiking in the forest. It's as simple as that. Being outside more and being in the places we haven’t been would be awesome.
So if and when you aren’t outdoors and can’t be outdoors, what is something you like to do?
Hmm...I don’t really know! I mean hanging out with family is good, hanging out with my wife is great, I like music — I don’t mind going out and seeing music, and I like alone time. I would like to play more music, but I don't. I grew up playing drums — my dad was a drummer — and I play a little guitar...but I don't. I pick it up once a month just to say, “Oh yeah, right, I still remember this.” But yeah — I’d like to do it more.
Who has been a mentor or a role model for you?
This is your hardest question because I'm not really a “favorites” guy. I get asked, “What's your favorite? What's the number one?” And those are impossible to me. There's no way you could say, this is the best mountain or this is the best flavor of ice cream or this is the best river, you know? It's just impossible. I can top-ten things, so I can tell people, “These are my top 10 outdoor things” because we do get asked here.
So...I think people like my parents would be mentors. My mom is a very creative person. She was an art teacher, and I love creativity and I love art. Until I got to this place, I was doing graphic arts as a side hustle that helped me supplement to make money and get gigs, so my mom was that creative [influence]. My dad is a very mindful person, a very patient person, thoughtful person, so that’s how I would say he mentored me. Then there’s people like Jack. Jack Drury ran the Wilderness Recreation Leadership program here. He was definitely where I learned a lot about outdoor leadership, specifically group dynamics — dealing with groups, dealing with people, which is certainly what we do. My wife is a focused, determined, fair, just person.
Those are some of the mentoring people for me. Again, I'm sure there's others but this is definitely the hardest question. I think if you have a memory of somebody and it's a positive memory and you kind of reflect upon that in decision making or moments in life, then I think they’ve mentored you in some way, whether it's just a little bit or a lot.
What do you think living here in the Adirondacks — being here, raising your family, and having this be home — what has that done for you as a person?
Being here is part of being an Adirondack family community. It’s sort of like you’re all sharing a secret. It happens here every day that people are like, “Oh, I came to the Adirondacks as a Boy Scout,” or “I came to the Adirondacks with my family or friends when I was ten and there was just something about it, and I've been coming back for fifty years.” I've not only heard that story hundreds of times, but I've seen that in friends I grew up with. They brought their families up here and were like, “Wow. This place is amazing. There's something about it.” Now they can't not come back.
So I think it's like being a part of the family. It’s such a unique place. Although you may not share the same views as your neighbors and community members, you at least all share the uniqueness of living within the Adirondacks. There’s just something there.
During your next visit to Saranac Lake, make sure you stop in to Adirondack Lakes and Trails to say hi to Smith (and perhaps even his son or daughter). Rent a canoe, a kayak, or a standup paddle board and explore the paddling paradise Saranac Lake has to offer! Grab your mountain bike or take a hike at Dewey Mountain. Don't forget to refuel at any one of our delicious restaurants in town!