When John Boyd Thacher State Park Manager Bill Hein got a call saying that Ron Swanson was going to visit his park, he thought it was a prank. It’s not every day that you get a visit from a celebrity, but that’s just what happened when Parks and Recreation star Nick Offerman visited this State Park in rural Albany County last month to promote his newest book on the network news program CBS Mornings.
The 51-year actor played the deadpan, gruff, libertarian head of small city parks department on the critically acclaimed series, which ran from 2009 to 2015. As fans know, Offerman in real life is a passionate woodworker, making furniture, canoes, and boats, and is the husband of actress Megan Mullally, who is best known for starring on the sitcom Will & Grace. She was filming locally, so CBS producers looking for a picturesque natural Capital Region location for their interview with Offerman chose Thacher Park for its sweeping views from the Helderberg Escarpment.
Joining CBS anchor Anthony Mason, Offerman started his morning with sunrise fishing at Thacher’s Thompson’s Lake. While there, the two discussed Offerman’s background. Born and raised in Illinois, Offerman has penned a new book (Where the Deer and the Antelope Play) that reads like a love letter to the outdoors and a reflection on our shared responsibility to act as stewards of our environment. It isn’t his first book but may be his most poignant – set against the backdrop of some of the nation’s most incredible natural sites, including Glacier National Park. His best advice? Get outside!
“In my book, with a sense of humor, I’m trying to remind everybody … to get out. If you don’t know what the poison ivy or poison oak situation is, then you’re not getting deep enough in the woods,” he said.
Read this interview that Offerman gave to the Los Angeles Times about the book and some of his outdoor adventuring that inspired it.
Getting outside is just what he did at Thacher, a flagship park in the eight-county Saratoga-Capital Region. After a morning fishing at the lake (with no catch to show for it), Offerman and Mason enjoyed a hike along Thacher’s famous limestone escarpment. Sitting atop the Indian Ladder Trail, the overlook has a panoramic view that stretches to Albany, down the Hudson Valley, and east into neighboring Vermont.
Punctuating the visual splendor was a roaring waterfall, flowing with gusto from a string of summer rain showers. Offerman couldn’t contain his glee. “We don’t have this in Illinois,” he said.
Settling down on a picnic table to continue the interview, Offerman stopped, pulled out his handy Leatherman multi-tool and tightened up a few screws he thought might be coming loose, much like his Parks and Recreation character, who was really into tools, maintenance, and repair. Offerman reflected on his penchant for woodworking with Mason throughout the interview. It’s a hobby so central to his story – and so unique for an actor – that it was written into his character, who in one episode received a fictional award for woodcraft.
As the crew wrapped up from its morning shoot, Offerman met with some of our real-life Parks and Rec staff, including Regional Director Alane Chinian, Park Manager Bill Hein, and Environmental Educator Savannah Wilson. Hein, an avid fan, even brought copies of Offerman’s previous books. In true Ron Swanson fashion, Offerman was generous with his time, cracking jokes, answering questions, and offering autographs.
“I had heard Nick mention Aldo Leopold during part of the taping and that kind of struck a chord with me,” Hein said. “I had read “A Sand County Almanac” in my earlier years and Leopold’s writing on killing wolves in the Southwest helped show me the importance of conservation and the delicate balance that nature lies in. It helped me solidify the career choice I was making out of college.”
Hein had brought with him a copy of Offerman’s earlier book “Paddle Your Own Canoe” for him to autograph. Beneath his signature, he wrote two words: “To Mirth.”
Before leaving Thacher, Offerman had one last compliment to offer Parks staff. “I love your office,” he said, gesturing to the escarpment. “Thank you for the work that you do.”
And thank you, Nick Offerman and CBS Mornings, for helping bring a bit of the beauty of Thacher State Park to a national audience. With its spectacular views and 25 miles of trails spread across some 2,500 acres for hiking, mountain biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling, it is truly a year-round destination!
Cover Shot- Nick Offerman. All photos by NYS Parks
Post by Rey Muniz, Public Affairs Manager, Saratoga-Capital Region, NYS Parks
It is almost time to put 2020 in the books, and bid farewell to a year that brought so much uncertainty and tribulation into so many people’s lives.
And to help New Yorkers do that, State Parks is again encouraging people to take part in the First Day Hikes program, now marking its tenth year in New York.
Of course, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this series of outdoor events will be a little different than before, with the addition of many self-guided hikes, requirements for social distancing, masking and capacity limits.
So, it is more important than ever to check in advance with any specific site that you may be interested in and pre-register if necessary, since restrictions on staff- and volunteer-guided events may limit the number of people who can attend.
The walks, hikes, and self-guided options are family-friendly, and typically range from one to five miles depending on the location and conditions.
So, to give people more options for 2021, many First Day events will now be held multiple times over the course of the first weekend in January.
Click here for a listing of Parks events, or use this interactive map below to locate hikes.
As New Yorkers adapted to COVID restrictions this year, which limited many forms of indoor activities, they turned to healthy and safer outdoor alternatives on hiking trails at State Parks and other state lands.
State Parks Commissioner Erik Kulleseid, who last year took part in a First Day Hike at Thacher State Park, is again encouraging New Yorkers to take part in this annual family-friendly event.
According to the Commissioner, “First Day Hikes have grown into a popular tradition for many New Yorkers and we look forward to welcoming families and friends out on the trail at many of our parks and historic sites. While this year’s program may look a little different from previous events, exploring the outdoors is still the perfect way to enjoy the winter landscapes, unwind with loved ones and kick off the coming year.”
As always with winter hiking, remember to dress warmly and in layers, while keeping in mind this old Scandinavian saying: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
And with snow and ice possible on many hiking trails, make sure to use proper footwear, and consider adding traction devices, like Microspikes, for additional stability.
Whether maintaining a safe distance in a group or hiking on your own, remember that you are still part of something that is happening across the U.S. in all 50 states, and dates back to the initial First Day Hikes that started in Massachusetts in 1992.
So, get outside, keep safe, and let’s ring in 2021 to welcome better days ahead!
Centered on the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, between the Adirondacks and the Catskills, the Saratoga/Capital Region of New York State Parks offers opportunities for both hikers and paddlers.
Covering Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer, Saratoga Washington, Schoharie, Montgomery and Fulton counties, the region includes a dozen state parks, as well as eight historic sites that reflect a history dating back to the Colonial era.
Maps for hiking trails and a variety of other useful information on State Parks, including those in the Saratoga/Capital Region, are now available on the NYS Parks Explorer app. The free app, which is available for use on Android and iOS devices, is easy to download, user friendly and allows patrons to have park information readily available.
As with all hikes, there are a few things to remember beyond carrying a mobile phone. Check the weather forecast before you go, and dress appropriately. Wear sturdy, yet comfortable shoes or boots, bring water and snacks, and perhaps carry a camera to capture what you see. Be aware of your surroundings and mindful of hikes on steep terrain or those that go near cliff tops. Having a small first-aid kit available in case of an emergency is never a bad idea.
Hiking poles are also useful and can transfer some of the stress of hiking from your knees and legs to your arms and back.
Trail maps are also available on each individual park website page at parks.ny.gov and at the main office of each park. Be sure to download maps ahead of time or carry a paper copy as a back up
In addition to the name and distance of each designated trail in a park, the maps include facilities such as parking, comfort stations, park offices, nature centers, campsites, and boat launches. To learn more about NYS Parks trails CLICK HERE.
Hikers should plan their route in advance, know how long a trail is and how long it ought to take to finish. Since daylight is not an unlimited resource, tossing a flashlight or headlamp into your backpack is a good form of insurance, should you unexpectedly find yourself on the trail as dusk approaches.
Parks facilities are carry-in, carry-out, so don’t leave trash behind. Follow Leave No Trace principles to keep trails clean for everyone.
Additionally, as incidents of tick-borne diseases surge in the state, it is always important to check yourself for ticks after being outside, even if it is only time spent in your own backyard.
Lastly, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, remember to practice safe social distancing, particularly in parking lots and at trailheads, and use face coverings when a distance of six feet cannot be maintained. To learn more about important COVID safety guidelines, CLICK HERE.
John Boyd Thacher State Park, 830 Thacher Park Road, Voorheesville, NY 12186 (518) 872-1237: This popular park protects more than 2,000 acres and includes more than 20 miles of trails. In the heart of the park’s South Zone, the iconic Indian Ladder Trail is both scenic and historic, originating as a Native American footpath and offering sweeping views of the Hudson-Mohawk Valley. The trail descends the Helderberg Escarpment, a 100-foot tall limestone cliff rich with fossils. There is a staircase at both ends of the trail and a walk between the two along the Clifftop Trail will make a loop hike of about 1.25 miles. Trail heads are at the LaGrange parking lot and the Visitor Center. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing protocols, this trail is one-way only, and must be started at the LaGrange lot. After climbing down the stairs, the trail runs along the base of the cliff, passing under seasonal waterfalls and over an underground stream. Interpretive signs along the way tell of the geologic and cultural history of the area. This is a rocky trail with steep drop-offs. Wear sturdy shoes and please stay on the trail.
In the park’s lesser-traveled North Zone, which has no picnic area or restrooms, try the Fred Schroeder Memorial Trail. This three-mile loop leads to a scenic view from the cliff at High Point. The red-blazed trail is fairly level with an easy slope at the beginning and end of the loop. The trail begins at an old quarry on Carrick Road, off Old Stage Road. A kiosk in the parking area offers information about the interesting geology of the area and the Long Path. The aqua-blazed Long Path joins the trail briefly on its journey from New Jersey to the north. The Fred Schroeder Memorial Trail leads through mixed forests and across small fields, reaching the cliff edge at the midpoint. The limestone bedrock is full of marine fossils and karst features such as sinkholes, caves, and crevices. At the cliff edge enjoy sweeping views of the Hudson Mohawk Valley from High Point, where the Helderberg Escarpment reaches 1,300 feet in elevation.
Find trail maps here for the North Zone and the South Zone to plan your own adventure in this amazing park.
Peebles Island State Park, 1 Delaware Avenue North, Cohoes NY 12047 (518) 268-2188: Set at where the Mohawk River joins the Hudson River, this island park features a scenic 1.85-mile trail loop that offers wonderful views of the water. Take in sights including Cohoes dam, Horseshoe Falls and the Old Mohawk Paper mill. There are plenty of deer on the island, but kindly do not feed them! This is very shaded, intermediate trail. No bicycles are allowed, but there are picnic tables along the loop to rest and enjoy a snack.
Grafton Lakes State Park, 254 Grafton Lakes State Park Way, Grafton, NY 12082 (518) 279-1155: Covering more than 2,300 acres, this popular park has more than 25 miles of trails. A favorite is the Shaver Pond Trail, a moderate two-mile loop that circles the lake. Much of the trial is rolling terrain with some roots and rocky sections. Look for beaver chews along the lake’s edge as well as barred owls. With many sections of hemlock forest, Shaver Pond is a cool choice for hot summer days as well as an excellent spot for winter animal tracking in the snow.
For a map of the park’s North Zone, which includes the Shaver Pond Trail as well as the 2.5-mile Long Pond Trail, click here… Kayaks and canoes can be launched at Mill Pond, Second Pond or Long Pond.
For a map of the park’s lesser-used South Zone around the Dunham Reservoir, a former water supply for the city of Troy, which has seven miles of trails, click here… The reservoir also is a good place to launch a kayak or canoe.
Schodack Island State Park, 1 Schodack Island Way, Schodack Landing, NY 12156 (518) 732-0187: Hike Schodack Island’s Orange Trail for a shaded walk along the scenic Hudson River. This trail starts at the main parking lot and runs approximately 4.3 miles for a round trip. The hike is well worth it. The path is wide and flat perfect for any experience level. Hikers will pass the Historic Ice House Chimney _ a remnant of when ice was commercially harvested from the Hudson River _ as well as the park’s new wetland area filled with migratory bird species, and two pond blinds. Birdwatchers will find it perfect for viewing great blue herons, eagles, ducks, snowy egrets, kingfishers and a variety of turtles.
Cherry Plain State Park, 10 State Park Road, Petersburgh, NY 12138: Nestled in the heart of the Capital District Wildlife Management Area, Cherry Plain State Park is part of the Rensselaer Plateau, one of the largest and most ecologically intact native habitats in New York State. Cherry Plain has more than seven miles of tails, but a popular favorite is the Waterfall Trail. This two-mile, out-and-back trail is mostly moderate with several steep sections, as well as some rocks and roots. The waterfall trail winds through the woods overlooking small streams with the waterfall located towards the end of the trail. A fun hike for older kids, but be prepared to cross the steam a couple of times. Hiking poles or walking sticks and waterproof shoes are recommended during spring and after heavy rains. Looks for red efts on the trail and broad-winged hawks soaring above the trees in the summer.
Kayaks and canoes can be launched in the park’s Black River Pond. Find a trail map here…
Moreau Lake State Park, 605 Old Saratoga Road, Gansevoort, NY 12831 (518) 793-0511: Covering more than 5,300 acres, this park has more than 30 miles of hiking trails for all abilities. For experienced hikers, check out the trail to the Spring Overlook, which involves a challenging short one 1.25-mile climb up to a spectacular view of the Hudson River. Indicated by yellow trail markers, the trail begins at the Spier Falls Road trailhead. The trail beginning is wide open and takes you under some power lines but narrows as you make your way into the woods through white pines, black birches and hemlock trees. You will pass a trail marked in yellow and blue, which is the waterfall trail, this in not the same as the all yellow trail. Continue to follow the yellow trail markers while you cross under an old power line and walk along some steep rocks and tall grasses. While you are climbing you will see another trail junction marked with a 13 for the blue Eastern Ridge trail. At the intersection, continue left on the yellow trail to reach the rocky overlook for a scenic view of the river. This is a out-and-back hike, so when you have had your fill of the nice breeze and beautiful view head back down the way you came.
For experienced hikers, consider the short but advanced hike to the Moreau Overlook Trail. This one-mile hike starts at the back parking lot behind the park kiosk. Follow the blue trail markers up a moderate but challenging climb. At the intersection labeled number 1, stay right to remain on the blue trial and pay some extra attention you will also see red and white markers indicating other trails. The climb gets steep and rocky before you reach the top of this trail overlooking Moreau Lake. Sometimes even from the top if you listen hard you can hear the beach goers enjoying themselves. If you reach the intersection marked number 2, that is too far turn around. This is also an in-and-out hike.
For those seeking a gentler hike, try the 1.7-mile Lake Bonita Trail. The trailhead starts in the parking area off Wilton Mountain Road.
Mine Kill State Park, 161 Minekill Road, North Blenheim NY (518) 827-6111: Kayaks and canoes can be launched into the Blenheim-Gilboa Reservoir near the parking lot. At that lot, the Yellow Trail splits to the north and south for hikes along the reservoir where bald eagles, belted kingfishers, and families of ducks are often spotted. Take the Yellow Trail to the south, then left on the Red Trail, and then left on the Orange Trail, for a hike along the Mine Kill Creek. This joins up with the Long Path. Take a left at that intersection to reach a waterfall near Route 30.
The Bluebird Trail is an easy, beginner mile-long loop that goes around the pool complex, the park office, and disc golf course. The trail is a good place to spot eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, American Goldfinches, butterflies, and other forms of wildlife.
“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.
More than a decade after a devastating, bat-killing fungus was first discovered at a State Parks cave in the Capital Region before sweeping across half of the U.S., that same cave now offers a glimmer of hope for some survivors.
Hailes Cave stretches for nearly a mile beneath the 100 million-year-old limestone escarpment at Thacher State Park in the rural western portion of Albany County. It was in this cave, long an important winter hibernation site for thousands of bats, that state wildlife biologists in 2007 observed the first cases of what was later known as White Nose Syndrome (WNS).
This fungal disorder kills bats by infecting their skin, disturbing their hibernation, exhausting critical fat reserves needed for winter survival, and rousting them early from caves to starve without insects to eat. WNS has swept out since in all directions, killing millions of bats in 32 states and seven Canadian provinces
“White nose” refers to a ring of white fungus seen on the nose of affected bats, and which can spread to the rest of its body. The fungus originates in Europe and Asia, where native bats have developed a resistance to it.
With bat populations exposed to WNS in the U.S. plummeting by 90 percent or more, the outlook has been uniformly bleak for more than a decade, since there are no known methods of treating infected bats or eliminating the cave-dwelling fungus, identified as Pseudogyymnoascus destructans.
Some Bats Fending Off White Nose Syndrome
But now, it appears that a certain species of bat – the little brown bat, or Myotis lucifugus – is evolving its own natural resistance to better survive the fungal infections, according to a December 2019 study of hibernating bats in a former cement mine in Ulster County in the Hudson Valley. (The location of this mine is not revealed to reduce the risk of human intrusion, which can reduce the bats’ potential for survival.)
The recent study is co-authored by Carl Herzog, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC); Craig L. Frank, with the Department of Biological Sciences at Fordham University, and April D. Davis, with the Griffin Laboratory at the state Health Department’s Wadsworth Center in Albany.
Historically, Hailes Cave has been a critical statewide cave for hibernating bats. Caves provide a constant temperature above freezing all winter long that allows bats to hibernate until spring, and as such, is called a hibernaculum. During this period, bats are in a state called torpor, in which their bodily functions slow dramatically, allowing them to slowly draw down a reserve of body fat needed to survive until spring, when insects return as a food supply.
Hailes Cave Shows Rebound in Bat Population
Researchers have found that the numbers of bats hibernating at Hailes Cave, which plummeted after the onset of WNS to a low of about 1,200 bats by 2010, have been steadily rebounding, and by 2019 totaled about 7,200 animals. Before the fungus arrived, however, bat populations at Hailes were at least double this level. Bat populations at the Ulster County hibernaculum also increased significantly during that same period.
Most importantly, the recent study found that little brown bats at the Ulster County site are somehow developing a natural resistance to the fungal infection, so that an increasing number of bats get only a moderate infection, or perhaps no infection at all, even though the fungus is present in the cave. And this resistance appears to be behind the increased population at Hailes Cave.
“Clearly, Hailes Cave provides what little brown bats need, but exactly what those factors are is a subject of some speculation… there is some research suggesting that caves draw bats from a geographically larger summer range than mines, because caves have been available for thousands of years, whereas most mines only became available in the 20th century.”
DEC Wildlife Biologist Carl Herzog
Normally, bats wake from torpor during hibernation about once every three weeks. Bats infected with WNS were waking up every week and using up precious calories in the winter months, causing them to leave caves early and die of starvation. Now, little brown bats are waking up an average of once every two weeks, the study found.
This allows these bats remain in hibernation longer and retain sufficient fat reserves needed to survive until spring. Exactly how the little brown bats are developing this resistance to WNS is still unknown.
However, this encouraging evolutionary adaptation applies only to little brown bats, meaning that other bat species found at Hailes Cave, including the endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis), the Northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), and the tricolored bat (Perimyotis subflavus) are so far demonstrating no such defense, and their numbers are not rebounding.
The resurgence in the little brown bat at Hailes is also tempered by the fact that this species has not rebounded at other bat caves surveyed by state wildlife officials in Albany and Schoharie counties. This implies that surviving WNS-resistant bats from around the region might be congregating in Hailes for reasons as yet unknown. Brown bats can travel many miles from their summer ranges to ar hibernaculum, with the record for a little brown bat being a journey of 300 miles.
But for now, the study is a small bit of hope in a story that so far has been very grim.
State Parks, DEC and Cave Explorers Group Work Together To Protect Hailes Cave
In 2013, to protect the remaining beleaguered bats at Hailes from being disturbed by human intruders, crews from Thacher State Park, DEC and the Schoharie-based, not-for-profit Northeastern Cave Conservancy installed a two-ton steel “bat gate” near the Hailes entrance. The gate has bars that allow bats to come and go, but blocks human entry.
State Parks crews at Thacher keep an eye on the cave to ensure the gate remains in place to deter trespassers. When crews last spring noticed that some emerging bats died after becoming trapped in burdock patches near the mouth of the cave, those plants were cut away.
Every entry by people into a hibernaculum while the bats are present is likely to cause harm to the bats. It is illegal to enter most active bat hibernation sites in New York. To help the bats, people must stay away to prevent spread of WNS and to not disturb the bats.
Hailes Cave is among the largest bat hibernation caves in New York, and plays an important role in supporting our remaining bats. This cave, along with the Ulster County mine site, is now also giving us insight into how this tiny mammal appears capable of a rapid evolutionary response to a fungal attacker, which may help it to survive as a species.
Post by Brian Nearing, State Parks Deputy Public Information Officer
Cover Shot: Little brown bats cling to the ceiling at Hailes Cave (Photo Credit- Department of Environmental Conservation)
What Can You Do To Help Bats?
Build a bat house for their use during the summer season.
Reduce your use of pesticides and more, based on these tips from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For More Information
Read the Bats of New York brochure; some of these bats are rarer than they were when brochure was created.