At a glance
• Looking for more places to enjoy winter in Schenectady County? Contact ECOS: The Environmental Clearinghouse at 370-4125 or visit www.ecosny.org.
• The organization offers outdoor outings year-round and publishes books promoting outdoor activity and education, including “Natural Areas of Schenectady County,” a 56-page guide that describes 26 areas open to the public.
Time seemed to stand still Monday afternoon in the Plotter Kill Nature Preserve in Rotterdam.
The 60-foot-high waterfall was silent, frozen mid-cascade into a mammoth blue-gray ice sculpture.
Dark green hemlock trees, some still cloaked in white remnants of Friday’s storm, stood without a quiver.
Quiet rested like snow on the preserve’s 632 acres.
Snowshoeing through that pristine, frosty place, it was difficult to believe Rotterdam Square mall was less than five miles away.
Schenectady County is full of natural places like that, parks and preserves tucked amid the bustle and noise of modern life that take on a special beauty in winter. Harsh lines are softened by snowdrifts. Creeks’ frozen ripples sit still to be studied. Animal tracks punctuate smooth expanses of white.
Recreational opportunities abound in these local winter wonderlands, including ski and snowshoe trails, sledding hills and skating ponds. There are areas ideal for making snow angels, bird watching or simply listening to the winter wind or the song of a stream rushing beneath a layer of ice.
Hiking out of the Plotter Kill Preserve on Monday, the soft percussion of my snowshoes was joined by voices coming from a distance up the trail. Into view came Aaron Girard, of Albany, and Aaron Pause, of Schenectady.
The two were pushing fat-tire bikes through more than a foot of fresh snow, in search of a path packed hard by snowshoers.
Girard, 28, was taking a maiden voyage on his Salsa Beargrease fatbike.
“It’s similar to riding on the beach,” he explained. “They’re kind of made for that soft terrain. A regular bike tire that’s really skinny would just sink in and not be able to go anywhere, but these kind of float on top of the snow.”
“I told Aaron it would be more of an adventure than a bike ride,” his buddy chimed in. “It’s not about miles today, just getting outside.”
The technique, Pause said, is “low gear and a lot of pedaling.”
Wipeouts are frequent, the 40-year-old noted with good cheer.
According to “Natural Areas of Schenectady County,” a guide published by ECOS: The Environmental Clearinghouse, biking is actually not permitted in the Plotter Kill in any season. The dangers of pedaling through the snowy preserve, with its deep ravines and cliffs, are obvious. Skiing or snowshoeing can be risky, too. The Plotter Kill drops 900 feet in its 3.5-mile descent from Rynex Corners to the Mohawk River. The result is two spectacular waterfalls along the way and a third on Rynex Creek where it meets the Plotter Kill. The Plotter Kill’s upper falls is 60 feet high, and the other two fall 40 feet. Caution is mandatory near the edge of any of the drop-offs.
The safest way to explore the preserve in winter is with snowshoes, said outdoorsman Rich Vertigan of Rotterdam.
“You can usually walk right up the stream,” he said. “Where you couldn’t do it in summer, you can snowshoe right up it now.”
The preserve can be accessed from Route 159, Coplon Road and Lower Gregg Road. The area is vast, so keeping to marked trails is recommended.
Indian Meadows Park
That’s not always the rule at Indian Meadows Park in Glenville, though.
“As long as you know the area you’re in, there’s nothing wrong with doing a little bushwhacking back there,” said Patrick Clear, executive director of the Niskayuna-based ECOS.
The 186-acre park is bordered by neighborhoods and the Greater Glenville YMCA.
Tuesday morning, ECOS members donned cross-country skis for an outing. The terrain there is mainly flat, except for a few hilly spots in the woods. A groomed loop around the park’s playing fields is a great place for fledgling skiers to learn the basics.
“You’re out in the open for part of it, and on a nice, sunny day, it’s great,” Clear said.
Those who venture back in the woods are treated to views of the Indian Kill, while traveling through a mature hemlock forest.
“You see a lot of deer tracks, turkey tracks and, on the right day, especially in the ungroomed part of the woods, a lot of winter birds,” Clear noted.
Hawks can often be spotted, sitting in leafless trees or floating on air currents above the large, open fields.
In addition to recreational trails, the park offers ice rinks with lighting for night skating and a sledding hill.
Mohawk River State Park
A number of snowshoers had already wound their way through the fresh snow at Mohawk River State Park in Niskayuna by Sunday morning. Vertigan was there to explore the state-owned, 94-acre preserve on skis.
Accessed by way of Whitmyer Drive off River Road or from two spots on the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail near Lock 7, the preserve offers a sweeping view of the icy Mohawk River, along with glimpses of small streams winding through deep ravines.
Trails wander through land long ago cleared for farming. Now a second-growth forest, the area offers a great workout for snowshoers and challenging terrain for cross-country skiers.
“It’s a little tough because it gets walked by people a lot sooner than a lot of other places around do, dog walking or snowshoeing,” said Vertigan. “[Sunday] it was a little bit hard-packed and trenchy for my liking. The hills were kind of interesting.”
Snowshoers will find great mid-winter conditions in the preserve, though, and much to see.
“You’re going to see a lot of winter activity of the wildlife,” said Clear.
The combination of forest and hilly terrain keeps visitors out of the worst of winter’s winds, he noted.
Although the park’s ravines are just as beautiful in winter as in summer, Clear cautioned visitors from getting too close to the edge.
Gorgeous ravines are also part of the geography at Sanders Preserve in Glenville, an especially pretty place in winter.
“We get that classic look of the mix of snow on pine trees. There are a lot of hardwoods in there also,” said James MacFarland, longtime Glenville parks administrator, who visits the preserve weekly. “You get to see the streambed, go up and down little hills and dales, so the variety is very nice. You have the ice if you want — the tributaries of the Washout Creek that are in there.”
The hilly preserve offers an excellent challenge for more experienced cross-country skiers. A ski or snowshoe to the preserve’s lean-to is fun.
“We don’t mark a trail to it. People kind of like discovering it,” MacFarland said. “It’s a little bit of a treasure to find out there.”
A hunt for the structure through the 395-acre preserve could take a while, but MacFarland offered this tip: There is a lean-to symbol on maps that can be found at most of the trail intersections.
Skiers, sledders and snowshoers can all have a ball at the 18-hole Schenectady Municipal Golf Course, where treeless, rolling hills provide perfect places to launch a snow tube, practice snow plowing on skis or to simply stroll.
From the hilltops, the winter view is of sweeping stretches of white, edged by pine trees and the graceful yellow branches of enormous willows.