Brian L. Houseal knows the Adirondacks.
He knows nice places to visit and can make recommendations for recreation. He knows the ecological state of the Adirondack Park and is hopeful for the community’s future.
Pennsylvania native Houseal, 61, has learned about the lakes, towns and people of the 6.1-million-acre park as executive director of the Adirondack Council in Elizabethtown. He’s led the group for 10 years and this fall will step down as head of the not-for-profit organization devoted to the ecological and wild well-being of the park.
As summer begins and thousands of people prepare for vacations in Adirondack waters and hiking trails, Houseal talked about possible Adirondack directions and diversions.
Q: When did you become interested in the Adirondacks?
A: It was before I could drive a car. Our family would come up to the Adirondacks. I fell in love with the place because it didn’t have any roads. If you looked at a map of the Northeast back in those days, it was pretty interesting to see the blank spots, so I knew there was going to be a lot of wilderness to explore.
Q: What were your favorite wildernesses in those days?
A: I believe it was mostly the High Peaks at that time. And Newcomb, it went right to the heart of the Adirondacks.
Q: How have the Adirondacks changed since you were a young explorer?
A: Certainly, the big extractive industries have closed down, the big resource extractive industries. I can remember Newcomb when the Tahawus titanium mine was in operation, a big hole in the ground and trucks moving in and out of it. So the hard-rock mining and the paper and pulp industries have gone through major transformations over the last 30 years. There are two operating paper mills left, International Paper in Fort Ticonderoga and Finch Paper in Glens Falls. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, there were probably 20 or 30 spread across the park.
Q: Is that a good thing for the Adirondacks?
A: That’s a good question, because the Adirondacks in many ways reflect the globalization of the economy. . . . I believe the Adirondacks are at another transformative point where people are looking inward and saying, “How do we maintain our villages and our hamlets?” We’re watching a rebirth of farming in the Champlain Valley, we’re watching lots of small businesses start to think about wood products in different ways, the arts businesses are here. Over the past year, a very talented group of scenario planners has mapped out a possible future for the Adirondack Park and everyone that’s been interviewed — and about 500 people have gone through these workshops — points to a sustainable park as the most desirable end point for the Adirondacks.
For the immediate future, I think most people recognize that recreation and tourism will be the industry of the future. It’s going to be the offerings that places like Schroon Lake or Newcomb or Long Lake provide that will attract people, and many in the Adirondacks are aware that we now have to market ourselves to the world. It really isn’t Long Lake competing against Newcomb or Blue Mountain Lake, it’s the Adirondacks competing against African safaris or trips to Bali, Indonesia.
Q: What can the Adirondacks do to sell people on these getaways to northern New York?
A: We are the largest protected wildlands area east of the Mississippi. We have a lot of scenic beauty, mountains and lakes that are very accessible. We have beautiful local communities where people are warm and welcoming to outsiders. We are an outdoor recreation mecca within a day’s drive of 70 [million] to 80 million people along the Northeast corridor.
Q: Can you let us in on some hidden treasures, some Adirondack communities that may not be all that well-known?
A: I have to turn around and look at the map. North Creek, near Gore Mountain. And one of my very special places is Long Lake because you can canoe and get up into the center of the Adirondacks without too much effort. Tupper Lake really has wonderful areas around town that are worthwhile to visit. Saranac Lake is an American community all unto itself; it’s a wonderful, vibrant place. Lake Placid, everyone knows. Keene and Keene Valley, tiny little places there are gateways to the adjacent wilderness areas where you can outfit yourself, have a nice rest in a bed-and-breakfast and be up on the trails at the crack of dawn the next morning.
There’s a sweet little town in the northwestern part of the park called Wanakena. It’s on Route 3 in Cranberry Lake. That little town is a special secret. The people in the town got together and put together what they call the Cranberry 50, it’s a looping trail that goes around Cranberry Lake. It’s a 50-mile hike, but you can canoe out and find a campsite so you don’t have to hike the whole thing. . . . It’s got some exciting little bed-and-breakfasts and they recognize they have to market to a wide audience. It’s a very small town, it’s a very special place to visit. In any season, they have an offering for you.
Q: How about places to swim?
A: I live on the Lake Champlain side of the park, so I’m familiar with many secret swimming holes. For somebody driving in a car on Route 73, Chapel Pond in Essex County. You pull into the parking lot and swim in some of the best quality water in the world. I mentioned Long Lake. Almost all these lakes have public access. That’s the wonderful thing about the Adirondacks; it really is a park whose public lands belong to the people of New York. It doesn’t close at 6 o’clock, you can camp or swim or hike to your heart’s delight up here.
Q: Places to eat?
A: They’re everywhere. I just had lunch today at the Blue Moon Cafe in Saranac Lake. There’s a place in Keene Valley, the Noon Mark Diner, where you get some real local color. The Long Lake Hotel has a Saturday night barbecue, which is a must-do if you’ve got little kids. We have plenty of fine eating establishments during the summer season. It gets a little sparse in the winter, but if you know the places you can get to them.
Q: How do you see the ecological state of the Adirondack Park?
A: There used to be a report called the “State of the Parks” done by the National Parks and Conservation Association. If I was to look over the past 10 or 20 years of the Adirondack Park, the ecological state of the Adirondack Park is improving. Part of that has been through the good efforts of the Adirondack Council and others particularly in terms of acid rain. The acidity levels are dropping in our lakes and forests and native fish populations are returning. But there’s a long way to go.
Of particular concern to the Adirondack Council and others are the coming effects of climate change and also of invasive species, two major threats that everyone knows about. In the Adirondacks, people are sensitive, for example, to snow and what that means to the winter economy or to invasive species in our lakes and what that means to water quality in both recreation and economic benefits to our communities. We’re nervous about that and I think there’s a lot of work to be done in the future.
Q: Can people help?
A: Absolutely they can do things. If you’re coming into the park, don’t bring any firewood from outside because you might be carrying in the woolly adelgid or Asian longhorn beetle that have been devastating forests further to the south. Clean your boats before and after you put them into our Adirondack lakes. There are groups that are pulling invasive plants like Japanese knotweed out of our streams and roadside crews that are working hard to remove invasives. New York state has an opportunity in the Adirondacks really to set in place a gem of a conservation area far into the future. And that’s going to be important as effects of climate change roll over us.