Montgomery County

Community efforts give new life to Canajoharie park with tragic past

Wintergreen Park committee member Gregory Leary of Canajoharie tours one of the park's hiking trails along Canajoharie Creek on Thursday.
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Wintergreen Park committee member Gregory Leary of Canajoharie tours one of the park's hiking trails along Canajoharie Creek on Thursday.

For the past decade or so, Wintergreen Park has been associated with death. 

In a 433-foot-deep gorge, the Canajoharie Creek slices through the center of the park and eventually spills over the 45-foot Canajoharie Creek Falls, which, despite postings about the dangers, has taken several lives over the years. One of those deaths occurred in 2012, when a 25-year-old Schenectady man illegally jumped into the pool at the base of the falls and never resurfaced, according to a Daily Gazette story at the time.

In many ways, the park itself, located roughly 2 miles south of the Village of Canajoharie’s downtown, suffered a similar tragic fate following that 2012 death, which had been at least the fourth fatality in the creek since 2001, according to Gazette reporting.  

While the 1.5-mile Upper Gorge Scenic Trail, through white birch, black oak and red spruce down to a viewing platform of the falls, remained open until pandemic lockdowns led to the park’s temporary closure in 2020, Wintergreen Park had been largely neglected by the village for about a decade.  

That is, until a year and a half ago when community members like JoAnn and Peter Douglass stepped in, beginning a volunteer effort that has breathed new life into the 72-acre green space. That effort includes the reinstatement of a Canajoharie Parks and Recreation Committee, an Eagle Scout project and a lot of hours spent knocking down trees. Now, just in time for winter, Wintergreen Park has roughly 4 miles of renovated cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and hiking trails on the upper side of the park, opposite of the gorge trail. 

JoAnn Douglass said her involvement started because she was disappointed that trails in the park had become overgrown and that guardrails had been sprayed with graffiti. 

“It was neglected for a long time,” Douglass said. “Nobody was taking care of it. It was closed down for a year and a half [due to the pandemic], but even before that, nobody was really overseeing it.”

Douglass said as much at a Village Board meeting. And, as tends to happen in local government, when you speak out about a problem you’re often recruited to help. Mayor Jeff Baker told Douglass that the village used to have a parks committee, but it had been disbanded roughly 10 years prior. He asked Douglass if she’d like to help get it going again. 

And so, the village’s new parks and recreation committee was established, with full support of village leadership. Chaired by Douglass’ husband, Peter Douglass, the committee now has a full roster of nine members. And in a year and a half, the committee has organized several volunteer cleanup days and has even hosted two festivals, drawing people from across New York state to Wintergreen Park. The next winter fest, which will feature activities like a snowman-building contest, scavenger hunt, snowshoe demonstrations and campfire, and will offer food served by Bartlett’s BBQ and the Canajoharie Volunteer Fire Department, is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 5, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The all-volunteer committee has even been honored for its work by the state senator who represents the village, Sen. Michelle Hinchey.

The most intensive part of the Wintergreen Park renovation has been cutting down trees and brush, the Douglasses said during a recent walk on the new trails. Over the course of six cleanup days, volunteers trimmed back brush and chopped down roughly 50 trees, according to Peter Douglass. The wood from all those trees has been piled up as firewood near a rebuilt firepit that visitors are welcome to use, perhaps pausing for a winter picnic during an afternoon snowshoe outing.  

Chris Toher, a 42-year-old outdoorsy community member, says the difference is clear. He said he used to mountain bike on the upper-side trails, which were originally created as snowshoe trails but not maintained. 

“A lot of them were very overgrown, so I was kind of keeping the pricker bushes away and just riding aimlessly until I got too far in and would have to find my way back,” Toher said.  

The renovation is extra special for Toher because his 15-year-old son, Brady, devoted his Eagle Scout project to helping fix up Wintergreen Park. Specifically, Brady Toher gathered community donations, including a hefty supply of wood from Curtis Lumber in Fort Plain, and drafted plans for a kiosk now standing at the entrance to the new upper trails. 

The parks committee is working on creating a trail map that will be displayed in the kiosk, said Peter Douglass.

View more Erica Miller photos from Wintergreen Park

For high school sophomore Brady Toher, the process was a lesson in civics, requiring that he attend Village Board meetings to get approval for the kiosk. He said he’s glad to be able to provide something that can make a tangible difference. 

“It’s for the community to know the trails are here and to make the trails more user-friendly,” Brady Toher said. 

His mother, Andrea Toher, said she is proud of the young man the project has helped her son become. 

“It’s been great watching Brady grow and be a leader. For me, Scouting is about the project, but it’s more about watching him become a leader and go out into the community and ask for donations and seeing what our community does.” 

The entire community stands to benefit from the revitalized greenspace. That’s why Mayor Baker said he was supportive of the renovation even though the dangers of the park pose a liability to the village, while the park itself provides no monetary benefit–entrance is free. 

“Everybody likes Wintergreen Park,” he said. “But how much do you want to invest in something where there isn’t a ton of [financial] benefit for the community?”

That’s why he’s grateful for the time and energy the volunteer parks committee has put in.
“This committee is very proactive and very active,” Baker said. 

One of those committee members is 73-year-old Gregory Leary, who said he enjoys walking and snowshoeing amidst the placid scenery, just a five-minute drive from his house. Winter offers its own peacefulness, he said. 

“One thing I love about winter is there is a special quietness to it,” Leary said. 

But the importance of the park may be less subtle, especially for young families, Leary said. 

“You can be a family with young kids wanting to encourage [the kids] to do outdoor activities, and here’s a park that’s right in your backyard,” Leary said. “And once you’re here, it’s not like you need to walk for miles and miles to find a beautiful view.”     

Peter Douglass said residents have been very supportive of the Wintergreen park cleanup because it now gives them a revitalized gem of a park in such close proximity. 

“A lot of people are really excited to find out about these trails, especially in the local community,” Douglass said. “Anyone who likes hiking, snowshoeing or skiing had to travel quite a bit to find trails.” 

Next up, the parks committee is hoping to add tent campsites–possibly as soon as this summer — as well as day — use fire pits. The committee is also working with Montgomery County in hopes of securing funding for a new playground in the picnic area, according to Peter Douglass. Committee members envision a lively space for families and friends to celebrate birthdays, babies and graduations as the soothing sounds of the creek flow in the gorge below. 

“We still have a lot more to do,” said JoAnn Douglass. “But we’re trying to bring in the local community to get them back in love with this park.” 

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.  

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