What had started as just good-time riders enjoying their best friends and best horses streamed into the stewardship focus of “Friends of Otter Creek Horse Trails,” a volunteer group of nearby land owners intent upon helping preserve and improve the New York State Horse Trails at the central western edge of the Adirondack Park. With 2015 as the second year of FOCHT beyond the gestation stages of previous seasons, members have been analyzing needs and lifting a shovel (or 10) to better the trails.
With over six million acres within its Blue Line, The Adirondack Park is the largest state park in the lower 48. Since the late 1980’s, one hub has been the created maze of equestrian paths known as The Otter Creek Horse Trails. These interlace some 65 miles around the Otter Creek/Crooked Creek and Independence River Wild Forests, about one hour north of Utica/Rome, NY, just a few horse trailer miles off NYS Route 12. Since horse ownership is a more than $9 billion business in New York State, the trails have proven an economic boost to Lewis County and the pass-through locales.
The Department of Environmental Conservation region that includes the trails is a vast one, stretching to Lake Ontario, for instance. It is difficult for the rangers to be on the spot at all times or to handle all the blow downs, mud holes and other potentially hazardous occurrences along the way. Thus, FOCHT has graciously received approval from The New York State DEC to be of assistance to help identify needs, raise awareness, and, with proper documentation, request or implement some improvements for the Otter Creek Horse Trails, the Assembly Area and adjoining features.
This summer, Liz Hirschey was unanimously elected since the group’s first president Steve Ropel resigned, having become President of the New York State Horse Council. Under the leadership of each, progress has been made, thanks also to Matthew J. Nowak, who has lent invaluable time and cooperation, and others at DEC.
Among the examples of trail improvement recommended by FOCHT is a trail called Drag Line. From decades of intense use and harsh winter weather, this had become a deeply rutted, dangerous mud hole. While horses can easily slosh through mud and muck, one never knows what hazards lie beneath. And old horses or youngsters or young riders could be in jeopardy. “Now DEC has the hill all terraced; fabric has been put in and the mud is finally gone,” explains Liz Hirschey.
DEC also widened, sanded and graded the once stone and boulder heavy hill from South Cats Paw Lake toward the Erie Canal Bridge which long had been a source of consternation. It is now clear of obstacles and far safer, smooth sand based trail.
DEC has also taken out two small damaged bridges near Cats Paw Lake North, which had been noted by Friends, to replace them with bigger, better plank bridges. These now are 40 feet long (and wide enough for the snowmobile groomer in winter.)
Also, this summer DEC has followed a request for a load of gravel and some fabric to be dumped at the bottom of Otter Creek Trail below the Assembly Area parking lot. “Friends” then spread it. “We also put in a handicap accessible picnic table like the one we provided at Payne Lake last year,” noted Hirschey. “Of course, we painted it DEC brown with DEC paint.” Other such trail improvements are in the making.
Another FOCHT activity is placement of cans and plastic bags to collect and recycle deposit bottles. At Sand Pond, for example, eight bags (30 gallons each) had been picked up at one session, for starters. This is a modest fund raiser as well as an environmental concern.
To aid daily cleanup at the Assembly Area, FOCHT enlisted the aid of the local Lowville, NY, Tractor Supply Store, which agreed to supply at cost several additional implements including wheel barrows, rakes, manure scoops and shovels. Previous fundraisers created the kitty from which to draw needed monies.
Funds are needed to offset costs incurred by volunteers, and not just for salve for bug bites or muscle strain, all of which are endured with rugged riders’ stamina. For fun and fun-d raising, FOCHT added a Fun Run Saturday, Sept. 19, at the NYS Otter Creek Horse Trails.
From the donations 100 percent will go to the horse trails via the New York State Horse Council, a non-profit, with which The Friends of Otter Creek Horse Trails group is affiliated. The “Friends” volunteers have more to do and will continue until the season ends in October.
Some “Friends” volunteers have put up new trail signs to replace those that went missing over the seasons. A coordinating map and online website is continually improved so horse riders don’t get lost, and so they learn the latest Friends of Otter Creek Horse Trail activities. FOCHT is hopefully a model of equestrian volunteerism that others throughout the state and country could imitate. Every improvement that makes trails safer and more pleasing is clearly worth the time, money, and effort put forth by DEC and FOCHT.
“DEC believes we are a viable volunteer effort,” said Dr. Jeanne Cole. “This has become a busy and rewarding year for all of us.”