Guest Blogger: Chris Maron, CATS
Feature photo of Split Rock Wildway by Jill Piper
Champlain Area Trails Creates Trails All Can Enjoy
Imagine being in a part of the Adirondacks where there are fabulous views of sparkling blue water, lush forests, rolling farm fields, and mountains — but hardly any hiking trails. Pretty sad, right? Well, welcome to the Champlain Valley ten years ago, just before Champlain Area Trails began making trails.
Back then, you could hike up the Adirondack Land Trust’s Coon Mountain in Westport to see a vista stretching from Vermont to the High Peaks. Or go a few miles north to New York’s Split Rock Wild Forest in Essex, the largest protected land along Lake Champlain and hike trails going to the lake and a couple of overlooks. But that was about it.
Then, in 2006, Steven Kellogg and Bruce Klink, of Essex, NY, realized they were reading the same book—Wandering Home by Bill McKibben. Subtitled, “A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape,” McKibben describes walking from Ripton, Vermont to his Adirondack home in Johnsburg. His chapter about walking through Essex and Westport inspired them to bring friends together to consider creating a local network of trails.
Their idea aligned with a recommendation put forward in a 1993 report from the U.S. – U.K. Exchange where representatives visited selected areas in each other’s countries. They observed that New York’s Champlain Valley resembled places in England where people hike across the countryside, and suggested establishing a similar trail system here. That idea remained just an idea until Kellogg and Klink returned to Essex and held the first meeting about making some local trails.
CATS was Born
The group concluded that the Lake Champlain Region had few trails because it was the last addition to the Adirondack Park; thus it is mostly private property. They proposed to do something new — create a network of hiking trails on private lands. They would need a new organization to take on this task and as they thought of names, John Davis, a wildlife enthusiast who worked for the Adirondack Council, said “How about ‘Champlain Area Trails? Its acronym can be ‘CATS.’” Perfect, so they took that name and the mission to “create hiking/skiing trails that link the Champlain Valley’s communities, connect people with nature, and promote economic vitality.”
At that time, I worked for The Nature Conservancy and Adirondack Land Trust (TNC/ALT) and chaired the meetings. We noticed that the Eddy Foundation owned 2500 acres of lands on Boquet Mountain which could be where we began making a trail corridor to connect Essex and Westport. Its president, Jamie Phillips, was part of the group and encouraged us to do that. So, we hiked the land, agreed on a six-mile trail route, organized volunteer work projects, and soon developed the trail.
In 2009, CATS became a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation. At about this time, The Nature Conservancy reacted to the economic recession and cancelled its Champlain Valley Conservation Program which I directed. So, I officially moved into the leadership role at CATS as its first executive director. CATS saw a need to continue the land conservation work TNC/ALT had established and became the local land trust with a mission of conserving natural areas, farmland, clean water, and scenic vistas.
As CATS embarked on making trails and saving land, it also worked to raise the funds needed to operate a new non-profit organization. Financial support from the Klipper Fund for the Champlain Valley, the JC Kellogg Foundation, the Arnhold Foundation and hundreds of individual donors fostered early growth of the organization. Key grants from New York States Conservation Partnership Program, funded by the Environmental Protection Fund and administered by the Land Trust Alliance, enabled the new organization to add needed staff.
Seven Years of Trails
After seven years, CATS has developed 30 new trails covering over 45 miles. It publishes an updated CATS Trail Map every year that shows its trails and other local trails including those at Rattlesnake Mountain in Willsboro, Blueberry Hills in Elizabethtown, and even the Champlain Bridge which is the most obvious example of how CATS trails can provide relatively easy hikes for people of all ages and abilities.
To encourage hiking between communities, CATS has organized five “Grand Hikes” where as many as 250 people have walked from town to town on trails, back roads, farm lanes, and short sections of busier roads. CATS is now promoting the phrase “Hike the Lake on hamlet-to-hamlet trails around Lake Champlain” to create an identity that will attract people from near and far who want to walk through the beautiful Champlain Valley landscapes in New York, Vermont, and Quebec.
Most of CATS trails are currently in the central Champlain Valley part of NY’s Essex County which has a more “forgiving” landscape than what hikers find in the Adirondack High Peaks. According to the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, these types of trails address many Adirondack visitors’ desires to have relatively short (1-3 hour) hikes on easy terrain.
“We provide a great variety of hiking experiences,” said CATS Board Chair Evan George. “People can hike up to spectacular vistas like you’ll find at the Wildway Overlook Trail in Essex and Cheney Mountain in Moriah. Or they can take pleasant walks by beaver ponds, rock walls, and biologically rich forest communities on the Bobcat or Homestead Trails in Essex.”
One of the newer CATS trails is in Crown Point at the Penfield Homestead Museum. "Years ago, we had boy scouts create a trail at Penfield Pond,” said Museum board member Dave Hall. “But it fell into disrepair so I contacted CATS who improved the trail and added it to their trail map. Now many more people enjoy hiking along the pond and learning about local history.”
CATS trails provide superb hiking, running, skiing, and snowshoeing opportunities throughout the year. The CATS Trail Map and website show the trail routes and have brief descriptions so you can plan your hike. Some people already talk about hiking all the CATS trails, much like 46ers hike all the High Peaks. Yet with CATS trails, you constantly have new challenges because they create new trails every year. Imagine that.
Chris Maron is the executive director of Champlain Area Trails, based in Westport. He has been conserving land and making trails for over thirty years. In 2015, he and his family completed a 207-mile hike in southern France which inspired many innovative ideas for the CATS trail system.