Growing up in Western New York, I always looked forward to my family’s annual fall trip to Allegany State Park. Late every October we would pack a picnic lunch, put the dogs in the car, and head down to Allegany for a day of leaf peeping, hiking, rock climbing, and wilderness peace.
Some years it was sunny and 65 degrees, while others were a rain/snow mix in the 40s. Whatever the weather, it was always fun, always an adventure, and always absolutely beautiful.
Almost 15 years later, when I took the job as Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW) Coordinator for New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, one of my goals was to help New Yorkers learn to love our long winters. That is when I knew exactly where I wanted to host a new annual winter workshop.
BOW workshops are designed to teach women a variety of outdoor skills over a three-day weekend. These programs provide information, encouragement, and hands-on instruction in outdoor activities including fishing, shooting, archery, hunting, trapping, outdoor photography, map and compass, survival, camping, canoeing, and outdoor cooking.
These workshops are designed primarily for women who have little or no experience with outdoor recreation.
For 26 years, BOW programs have offered women a unique learning experience, putting everyone on an even playing field to learn new skills from a dedicated group of qualified volunteer instructors.
Since then, close to 4,500 women from all over the state, aged 18-80+ have attended BOW workshops in New York, have embraced outdoor activities, met like-minded women, and challenged themselves. Participants leave our workshops feeling empowered, accomplished, and often with a new group of lifelong friends to join in outdoor adventures.
The first annual ‘BOW in the SNOW Winter Workshop’, was held February 7-9, 2020 at Allegany State Park. The workshop was a success, hosting 55 participants from 23 counties in New York State, as well as three other states.
Participants ranged in age from 18 to 69 years old. Over the course of three days, these women learned a variety of outdoor skills including snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, fat tire biking, trapping, firearms safety, Dutch oven cooking, winter camping & survival, K-9 first aid, tree stand safety, ice fishing, and much more!
Allegany State Park was an ideal and beautiful location that delivered on snow just in time. Leading up to the workshop weekend, the normally snowy Southern Tier had seen little accumulation, and even less ice-up on its lakes. While I was getting a bit nervous, I had faith that the lake effect storms of Lake Erie would come through.
Sure enough, the week of the workshop, all of New York experienced an intense winter storm that delivered the perfect amount of snow for our weekend. While we ended up seeing some participants drop out due to travel restrictions and safety concerns, we had many who braved the storm and made it just in time to enjoy the weekend in an idyllic setting.
The Art Roscoe Nordic ski trails, the snowshoe trail at Stone Tower, and the fat tire bike trails hosted our classes with near perfect conditions. Although we didn’t have enough solid ice for the ice fishing class to go out on Red House Lake, our instructors adapted and offered fishing instruction on land followed by a delicious tutorial on cleaning and frying our winter catch!
BOW offers a three-day workshop every fall and now a three-day workshop every winter. If you’re interested in joining us or learning more about BOW, please visit dec.ny.gov and search ‘becoming an outdoors woman’ to find out about all of our upcoming events.
(Editors note: Check back on the DEC page for future updates as to scheduling.)
Post by Katrina Talbot, Wildlife Biologist & Becoming an Outdoors-Woman Coordinator
Interested in taking part in a future workshop? Here are just a few comments from last winter’s workshop evaluations, underscoring the popularity and benefits of the program:
“Working together with women in a group has been amazing. I learned to snowshoe and ski, and this weekend has made me so grateful.“
“This experience has taught me skills to allow me to enjoy winter in NY! I enjoyed sharing the weekend with strong, capable, empowered women!“
“This weekend was so much more to me than being curious and wanting to learn a new skill. Although both of those were true (I learned to ice fish and obtained my trapping certificate, neither of which I had previous experience with), this was more of a personal goal. Every single person I met at BOW, including the instructors, were amazing, patient, kind, friendly, warm, knowledgeable, fun… just good people. I commend the DEC for offering this program and from the bottom of my heart thank the volunteers and Katrina for her time, warm welcome, and dedication to this program. The spirit and energy of the instructors was contagious. “
Staatsburgh State Historic Site, formerly the Gilded Age estate of the very wealthy and socially-prominent Ruth Livingston Mills and her husband, financier and philanthropist Ogden Mills, sits along the eastern bank of the Hudson River in the mid-Hudson Valley.
Commanding a view of the river and the Catskill Mountains, the estate’s Beaux-Arts mansion was once the scene of elegant house parties each autumn weekend for the glitterati of American society. The home is still filled with the original furnishings, art and décor chosen by Ruth and Ogden Mills after its redesign by prominent architect, Stanford White, circa 1895, from a 25-room home built by Ruth’s great-grandfather into the 79-room house we see today.
Touring the home, one is struck by its opulence but also by its regal formality: Ruth’s bedroom, with its hand-carved bed on a platform, surmounted by a lavish baldachin (a kind of ceremonial canopy), and surrounded by walls of raspberry silk brocade, seems well-suited for a queen of society.
Among her peers, Ruth was known for her acumen as a hostess, her exclusivity (reportedly opining that there were only 20 wealthy families in New York worth knowing), and her imperious poise. As one of her contemporaries said:
“[Ruth Mills] would invite [guests] to her house…greet them with a limp hand, languidly extended, and a far-away expression, and then apparently forget their existence. They were chilled but impressed.”
While it might be difficult to image, this reserved, aloof woman also had an athletic side uncommon for most women of that time. She helped build the popularity of the sport of figure skating as an early prominent practitioner and benefactor. And she also had a hand in the opening of one of the earliest indoor refrigerated ice rinks in North America.
My research into her history revealed some parallels with my own life. I have been a competitive figure skater for more than 20 years, and am a U.S. Figure Skating Gold Medalist after passing tests in four disciplines including freestyle and ice dancing. Now, I coach young skaters at a rink in nearby Saugerties.
For me, like it might have been for Ruth Mills, skating is athletic and artistic, allowing one expression through music and dancing.
Ruth Mills’ skating was widely recognized during her time. An 1893 New York Herald article praised her as an accomplished and graceful ice skater. According to the newspaper, Ruth started skating with her twin sister Elisabeth when they were girls. That would have been during the 1860s, which was a time when skating was starting to become very popular in the United States. By that time, men and women were skating together on the same ponds (one of the few athletic activities where both genders were involved together), and even the press was supportive of women skating, extolling the health benefits.
Figure skating was the first sport where women participated for the pure joy of it and where their participation with men was widely accepted. Skating became so popular in the mid-19th century that there was an estimated crowd of 100,000 on the pond in New York City’s Central Park on Christmas Day in 1860.
Newspapers of the day took note of Ruth Mills, with one reporter writing in the 1890s: “Mrs. Ogden Mills is quite too graceful and proficient. As if by common assent, the others stop a moment to watch her do the double Philadelphia grapevine, about the most difficult gyration on ice known to the expert.” By this point, Ruth Mills would have been about 40 years old.
Watchers of skating today might not recognize this move, but the double Philadelphia grapevine was seen as one of the most complex techniques of its time. As described in a contemporary magazine: “The double grapevine is the same as the single, except that a loop is introduced at the beginning and also at the end of the figure. It is executed, as in the single grapevine, by passing the right foot in front of the left foot with the chain step; but instead of making a half revolution, as in the single, the body is swung completely around by the means of two turns on the right foot and an inside loop on the left.”
While newspapers of this time made a habit of fawning praise over wealthy and powerful members of New York society, it is clear that Ruth was an accomplished skater. To the modern skater, the fact that Ruth could maneuver gracefully on ice, in the corset and multiple layers of clothing covering her from neck to foot, which Gilded Age women were required to wear, makes her ability even more impressive.
Given Ruth Mills’ self-composed demeanor, I find it hard to imagine her falling on the ice in front of people. But she must have started skating very early in life and put in much practice to become as skilled and confident as she was. Some of that early practice likely must have been on the rough ice of the frozen Hudson River at Staatsburgh when she was growing up.
We know that the river was a very popular place to skate and we have a photo of the estate superintendent’s family skating in 1916. The cove area near the estate’s powerhouse was a popular place for local village residents to skate.
While Staatsburgh was the primary residence of Ruth and Ogden Mills in the autumn, like many of their social set, the couple traveled with the seasons. New York City was where the elites dwelled in the winter months, as it was the season of the opera, and of lavish balls given in assorted Fifth Avenue mansions.
Whether dancing or ice skating, the elites of New York always preferred to pursue their leisure apart from the common folk, and in 1896, many of the wealthiest families, including Ruth and Ogden Mills, contributed to the construction of one of the earliest indoor ice rinks built in New York City, the St. Nicholas Skating Rink.
When skating depended on a pond or river to freeze, skaters were at the whim of mother nature (sometimes they had only 15 to 20 days a season to skate), but after the creation of indoor ice surfaces, the skating season would extend much longer.
The St. Nicholas Skating Rink also was one of the earliest indoor ice rinks made of mechanically frozen ice in North America. The arena also was the site of the first game between women’s ice hockey teams in the United States, when in 1917 the St. Nicholas team defeated Boston 1–0.
Building this rink was an investment of $300,000 (more than $9 million today) contributed principally by elite patrons like the Mills. Located on West 66th street, the rink was less than four blocks from the couple’s mansion, and contemporary newspapers accounts stated that Ruth Mills skated there nearly every morning.
Shortly after the rink opening, an article in The New York Times noted that Mrs. Mills was to host an “ice tea.” Not the popular beverage, this exclusive social event included both skating on the rink and tables to consume tea and light refreshments.
So here, Ruth Mills got to combine her interests in both luxurious entertaining and skating. Sadly, the St. Nicholas Rink was demolished in the 1980s after a long history of hosting skating and boxing matches.
If you would like to know more about this family, and the Gilded Age lifestyle they led and the mansion in which they lived it, make a trip to Staatsburgh State Historic Site the Taconic Region.
Nearly 200 acres of the historic Mills estate is within the Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills Memorial State Park, which is open every day, all year, from sunrise to sunset, with no fee for park entry. It includes the Dinsmore Golf Course, one of America’s oldest golf courses, as well as trails for hiking and cross-country skiing.
Guided tours and special programs are offered at the Mills mansion year-round; for programs information and hours of operation, call (845) 889-8851, or visit our website.
Cover Photo: The St. Nicholas Skating Rink in New York City.Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of NYS Parks.
Maria Reynolds, Ph.D., Historic Site Assistant / Curator, Staatsburgh State Historic Site
Reynolds has given lectures at Staatsburgh on “Gilded Age Tea & Talk” program series, presented each winter. Now in its sixth season, this program series offers guests the chance to enjoy the site’s custom tea blend, created by Harney & Sons, along with scones, clotted cream, tea sandwiches and sweets, served in the mansion’s opulent formal dining room while listening to talks on various aspects of Gilded Age history.
“Can you imagine anything freer and more exciting than when you, swiftly as a bird, zoom down the wood-clad hillsides while country air and spruce twigs whiz by your cheeks and eyes; brain and muscles tense, ready to avoid any unknown obstacle which any moment might be thrown in your path? You are one with your skis and nature. This is something that develops not only the body but the soul as well, and it has a deeper meaning for a people than most of us perceive.”
— Fridtjof Nansen – Norwegian explorer, scientist, humanitarian and advocate for cross-country skiing, 1890
The use of skis to cross winter terrain dates back millennia, with the oldest-known image of a person on skis carved about 5,000 years ago into the rock of a Norwegian island.
When winter graces the state with snow, State Parks are a great place to enjoy cross-country skiing, with many miles of ski trails for all abilities, from beginner to expert across 104 state parks and eight historic sites spanning the state.
Known in shorthand as XC (or also as Nordic) skiing, this family-friendly sport is a full-body, low-impact cardio workout as well as a wonderful way to get outdoors during winter to see how beautiful the season can be. Skiing is quiet as well, so skiers often have a chance to spot wildlife (and also get a close look at its tracks) that has not been scared off by their approach.
After a promising December start for XC skiing, this season has suffered from a dearth of snow. Perhaps a snowstorm or two is still to come before spring, or if not, this list can be held until the start of next season. Always call ahead to check on snow conditions.
This online map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also is a handy tool for getting a picture of snow cover across the state when planning a ski trip.
Either way, to help decide where to go in State Parks when conditions allow, here are some staff favorites. Check each park’s website for a map of their trails:
With 24 miles of trails, the Art Roscoe Cross Country Ski Area at Allegany State Park in Salamanca, Cattaraugus County, offers some of best groomed skiing in western New York. Novices can try the 3.5-mile Christian Hollow Trail, a loop with gentle grades, or the multi-use, 3.5-mile Red House Bike Path.
Intermediate skiers can try the 3.3-mile Patterson Trail, which is a former rail bed. There are parking areas at both ends of the gently sloping trail, so a shuttle trip can be done by leaving cars at both ends.
Other more adventurous skiers can tackle the Ridge Trail for a 7.7- mile trek geared to intermediate to advanced skiers.
Ski equipment rentals are available at the park’s gift shop at the Red House Administration Building. Trail reports can be found online here.
Finger Lakes Region
The extensive trail network at Harriet Hollister Spencer State Recreation Area in Springwater, Livingston County, has grooming and is about an hour’s drive south of Rochester. Be prepared to share some of the trails with fat tire bikers on occasion.
A golf course can be a great place for novices to learn and practice, since such terrain is open, free of obstructions and tends not to be very steep. Going doing hill as a beginner? Remember to hold those skis in a “V” shape to control your downhill speed as you test out the friendly terrain at Soaring Eagles Golf Course at Mark Twain State Park in Horseheads, Chemung County.
There are 12 miles of trails at Selkirk Shores State Park in Pulaski, Oswego County. A staff favorite is a beginner/intermediate three-mile loop that incorporates the Front Pond Trail, Pine Grove Trail, a section of the 52C snowmobile trail, and Red Fox Trail, before returning to the Pine Grove Trail
Verona Beach State Park, in Verona Beach, Onedia County, offers miles of trails where they might encounter wildlife like white tailed deer, squirrels, foxes, and more. The two-mile Hog’s Back Trail loop follows a natural rise along Verona Beach’s massive swamp. Keep your eyes open at the overlooks for a potential glimpse of the nest of a mated pair of bald eagles.
There are about 15 miles of trails at Gilbert Lake State Park in Laurens, Otsego County. The mile-long trail around the namesake lake is periodically groomed, as is the two-mile Ice Pond Trail to the Twin Fawns Lake Trail.
In Wyoming County, head for Letchworth State Park in Castile, and its Humphrey Nature Center and the Winter Recreation Area at Trailside Lodge. Here, there are three beginner trails, each about 1.5 miles long.
The park contains seven different parking areas to access about 15 miles of (usually ungroomed) trails. Glide through old-growth forest on the Gravel Loop and the Bishop Woods Loop. For great views of the spectacular Great Bend Gorge, check out the Chestnut Lawn Loop.
Long Island Region
There are two ungroomed trails at the Caleb Smith State Park Preserve in Smithtown, Suffolk County _ the 1.5-mile beginner Green Trail that goes through woods, fields and wetlands, and the 1-mile Orange Trail that offers view of Willow Pond.
At the Connetquot River State Park Preservein Oakdale, Suffolk County, there are many miles of marked hiking trails that can be skied. There is no grooming, and trails range from one to eight miles in length. The preserve includes an historic former sportsmen’s club and a newly-restored 18th century gristmill.
About six miles of ungroomed trails, ranging from intermediate to advance, are found at Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park, Suffolk County. Take the Field 4 Trail to ski through woods before reaching overlooks for Sunken Meadow Creek and Long Island Sound. No skiing is allowed on the golf course.
At Knox Farm State Park in East Aurora, Erie County, explore the Outer Loop Trail that begins at the Red Barn Parking Lot. A 2.7-mile trail suitable for beginners, it meanders through open pastures and fields, with some short legs through forests and views of farmlands and valleys.
Explore trails at Evangola State Park in Irving, Chautauqua County, to capture views of Lake Erie. The trail network covers about five miles, with the Rim Trail running along the edge of the lake.
At Mine Kill State Park in North Blenheim, Schoharie County, start at the park office for the moderate, three-mile Long Path/Bluebird Trail Loop, which offers sweeping views of the Schoharie Valley and the Blenheim-Gilboa Reservoir. Snowshoes and a small assortment of XC skis are free to borrow from the Park Office with a small deposit.
The moderate/intermediate Shaver Pond Trail at Grafton Lakes State Park in Grafton, Rensselaer County is a two-mile loop around the pond, where you can often see signs of beaver activity. The trail has some roots and rocks, so be mindful of snow cover. The park office rents snowshoes, but not skis.
Skiers have been going to Thacher State Park in Voorheesville, Albany County, for years because of its extensive trail network. Try out the lesser-used North Zone of the park, and its Fred Schroeder Memorial Trail, a three-mile intermediate loop through fields and forests. Use the Carrick Road parking area.
Beginners can practice on groomed trails that run for a total of three miles through the camping loops and around the lake at Moreau Lake State Park in Moreau, Saratoga County. There is skiing on ungroomed trails through the rest of the park.
While there are no marked or groomed trails for skiing at James Baird State Park in Pleasant Valley, Dutchess County, the park’s golf course and many small, undulating hills there are a great place for beginners to practice climbing, turning, slowing and (maybe a little) falling.
Skiers could spend days touring the 25 miles of carriage roads at Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Pleasantville, Westchester County. Some favorites are the beginners’ 1.15-mile Brothers Path/Swan Lake Carriage Road, with views of the lake; the Thirteen Bridges/Gory Brook Carriage Roads, which along 2.5 miles of intermediate terrain offer view of the Pocantico River and waterfalls; and the intermediate Rockwood Hall Middle, Lower and Foundation Loop Carriage Roads, that go past the Hudson River.
There are 12 miles of trails at Fahnestock Winter Park in Carmel, Putnam County. Equipment rentals are available at the lodge, which also marks the start of the popular Lake Trail. Weather permitting, trails are also groomed on the lake. The trail will take you by a beaver lodge, over the dam built by the Civil Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, and past many small islands.
Cross-country skiing at Old Croton AqueductState Historic Park in Dobbs Ferry, Westchester County can be as near as one’s own backyard, as most of the ungroomed 26-mile trail is bordered by homes. As the park is level, the area is great for those who are new to the sport.
The Aqueduct is crossed by many streets, and the best cross-country skiing is found in the sections with the fewest road crossings. Top on the list is the section from Gory Brook Road in Sleepy Hollow to Country Club Lane in Scarborough, about two and a half miles of level trail through the woods. This section connects to Rockefeller State Park Preserve. Those who like hills should enter Rockefeller Preserve just north of the Weir chamber and follow the Peggy’s Way trail south for some gentle hills before returning to the Aqueduct.
Another popular area is at the northernmost section by the Croton Dam. Here the trail clings to the sides of a steep gorge through which runs the Croton River. The Gorge is a park of its own, operated by the Department of Environmental Conservation and called the Croton Unique Area. Only two lightly-traveled roads cross the 2.5 miles of wooded Aqueduct trail as it heads south to Croton.
Curiously the most densely-populated area through which the trail runs also features a fine area for skiing. This section, likewise of about 2.5 miles, has two road crossings, but almost all of it runs through the woods, with unparalleled winter views of the Hudson River and Palisades.
There are stunning clifftop views from trails at Minnewaska State Park Preserve in Kerhonkson, Ulster County. Being free of rocks, roots and other obstructions, the 16-mile network of carriage trails are wide and “skiable” even with only a few inches of snow.
Thousand Island Region
At Robert Moses State Park in Massena, St. Lawrence County, there are more than five miles of trails through the woods and along the St. Lawrence River in NY. The Nicandri Nature Center offers ski and snowshoe loans for all ages as well as ski instruction.
In the western Adirondacks, Higley Flow State Park in Colton, St. Lawrence County, has the popular 1.3-mile Overlook Trail that passes through a pine and spruce forest. This trail connects with the Backcountry Trail (1.9 miles) and the Warm Brook trail (1.6 miles) for those wishing to challenge themselves further.
This is just a sampling of the ski trails at State Parks. So, when snow is on the ground, grab your skis, and get out there!
Cover Photo: Skiers at Saratoga Spa State Park. All photos by State Parks.
By Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer for NYS Parks
Read this history of cross-country skiing in the Adirondacks.