Ruth and Dave Olbert, owners of Cloud-Splitter Outfitters in Newcomb
While the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) does not have the Essex Chain Lakes classification on its agenda for the Nov. 14-15 meeting, according to APA spokesman Keith McKeever, the upcoming decision is weighing heavily on small business owners in the Upper Hudson Recreation Hub — the towns of Long Lake, Indian Lake, North Hudson, Minerva and Newcomb.
It’s the chicken or the egg thing.
Do small businesses invest in building accommodations and hope an influx of tourists will come to the Adirondack Park to explore the new Forest Preserve in the Essex Chain Lakes? Or do they wait until Gov. Andrew Cuomo approves the Adirondack Park Agency’s recommendation on what the property will be classified?
Ruth and Dave Olbert at Cloud-Splitter Outfitters in Newcomb are ready to expand and offer more accommodations for travelers. But, at this point, it’s a gamble and a waiting game.
“We’re kind of one foot in the air,” Ruth said. “We’re waiting on the classification like everybody else. We’re kind of ready to expand. There’s a need to expand, definitely, but there’s fear involved because it’s been pretty quiet here for a long time.”
Ruth is convinced that a wild forest classification would liven things up in Newcomb, economically. It would bring in more tourists for the Essex Chain Lakes, a tract of land to the south of Newcomb recently acquired by the state. Wild forest means more users because it could have motorized uses such as watercraft with small engines on the lakes, snowmobiles and mountain bikes. Or, depending on the Unit Management Plan, which is drafted after classification, it could simply mean mountain bikes and no motorized traffic. Either way, it would attract more people, and that means more business for the Olberts and the town of Newcomb.
The Essex Chain tract — including the Hudson River and 11 lakes and ponds interconnected or within portaging distance of each other — provides an opportunity for hunting, day rafting, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, overnight river trips and camping.
Leaders in the five towns affected by the recent state land acquisition of former Finch, Pruyn timber land — including the Essex Chain — are pushing for a wild forest classification. Those towns are Newcomb, Minerva, Long Lake, Indian Lake and North Hudson.
Environmental advocacy groups, such as the Adirondack Council, are pushing for a wilderness classification. They worry that motorized access — such as motorboats, snowmobiles and ATVs — could ruin the natural resources. Therefore, wilderness would restrict the use to hikers, backpackers and backcountry paddlers.
Ruth is not convinced a more restricted use will be good for business in Newcomb.
“I don’t think it’s going to change hugely,” Ruth said. “The campers come in self-contained a little bit, so I think there would be less business than if it had more access.”
The Olberts are ready to offer their services to more day users, people looking for trips lasting a couple hours rather than a couple days.
“The people who study these things say that’s what the users typically want is about a two-and-a-half hour experience,” Ruth said. “Without the access, that’s not going to happen.”
The Olberts grew up in the area. They know the land, the people, the culture. They’ve seen changes in the economy, from mining and lumbering to mainly tourism. And they see the need for more foot traffic if Newcomb business are going to survive.
“Our business is a typical mom-and-pop,” Ruth said. “It started out really small with a few boats in an abandoned garage. It’s been 17 years, and every year we add something and have tried to do it ourselves.”
Dave grew up at the Upper Works, the tiny village known as Adirondac just north of the old titanium mine at Tahawus and then in Newcomb once the National Lead company moved the village of Tahawus to the Winebrook Hills development in 1963. His father was the guide and caretaker for the Masten House. Ruth grew up in Olmstedville.
Together, they’ve filled a need for oufitting visitors who want to enjoy the outdoor recreation available in the town of Newcomb. Located next to the Hudson River bridge on State Route 28N, they are uniquely located to outfit visitors for mountain biking, snowshoeing, kayaking, canoeing and relaxing tube floats on the Hudson River.
Current customers include Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) members; groups from Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal; and a lot of travelers from New York state and New Jersey.
“We actually picked up a guy in Pottersville this year and shuttled him to Newcomb,” Ruth said. “He went into the Santanoni Reserve for a couple of days, backpacked, did his thing, and then we picked him up and took him back to the bus station in Schroon Lake. That was our first shuttle, and he was very excited about it.”
Cloud-Splitter Outfitters even has two rentals: The Tamarack, a small cabin that accommodates four to six people; and The Pilot’s Bunkhouse above the oufitter shop.
“And that is more of a historical rental,” Ruth said of The Pilot’s Bunkhouse. The pilot she refers to is the river driver, a lumberjack who hopped from log to log while driving logs downriver from the Adirondack chopping grounds to the sawmills at Glens Falls. “It’s actually where the lumberjacks used to have their square dances. It’s pretty cool.”
The Olberts designed the smaller rental for cyclists looking for overnight stays, as Newcomb is located on the northern bike route from Portland, Maine to Portland, Ore. The cabin rental is designed for weekly rentals.
One family has been staying with the Olberts for eight years. The first year, Ruth was concerned. She hadn’t seen them for two days, so she checked up on them, and the parents were on the porch watching their kids go in and out of the screen door. The kids weren’t allowed to do that back home, so it was a treat. Now they’ve branched out, and a screen door won’t pass for entertainment anymore.
“This year, they actually took a hiking/backpacking trip on their own into Santanoni and camped for a couple of days,” Ruth said. “So that, for us, was huge, just to watch them learn all the different things, the fishing, all of it. Every year, they do something more, and they love it. They’re just experiencing Newcomb and everything that’s here.”
The rentals are apparently doing very well.
“And there’s a need for more, obviously,” Ruth said.
Yet she needs her current customers to help spread the word about Cloud-Splitter Outfitters and the various outdoor recreational opportunities in the town of Newcomb. So far, however, many are reluctant.
“One of my biggest issues is the people who rent from us keep it a secret because they want to be able to get a reservation,” Ruth said. “I’ve laughed about it because we really would like to expand, but they’ve got to help us out a little bit.”
The Olberts are looking at two options for expanding their accommodations, and each is associated with a choice the APA commissioners and Gov. Cuomo will make regarding the Essex Chain Lakes.
“Right now, we have a Plan A and a Plan B, depending on classification and the extent of what the classification is,” Ruth said.
Plan A: If it’s wild forest, the Olberts will probably expand with buildings, equipment and adding more mountain bikes. This would include the construction of a small lodge with 20-30 beds. The lodge would be rustic, similar to the Johns Brook Lodge operated by ADK in the High Peaks Wilderness.
Plan B: If it’s wilderness, they will probably lean toward entertaining equine enthusiasts, as there are nearby horse trails in the Forest Preserve. They will put an addition onto their barn and add paddocks so the equestrians can camp in cabins on the property near their horses. The cabins and parking for horse trailers would have to be constructed.
The Olberts would really like to go with Plan A. But that’s in the APA’s hands now.
“I really, really hope they don’t go wilderness,” Ruth said. “My personal reason is that once you’re at that restricted use, you can’t back it off. You can start at wild forest and slowly bring it down if there’s a need, add more protection until you get to wilderness. Once it’s done, it’s done with the wilderness classification. I don’t understand why people can’t give it a try with wild forest first and then protect it through the UMP.”
Providing more access would be fair to the most amount of people, she asserts.
“I think about my dad,” Ruth said. “There’s no way, if that’s wilderness, that he’ll ever see it. And I think about some of the disabled veterans, and there’s no way they would be able to do that. Everybody paid for it; everyone should be able to have access.”
For more information about Cloud-Splitter Outfitters, contact Dave and Ruth Olbert at (518) 582-2583 or visit online at www.cloudsplitteroutfitters.com.