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North country abounds in winter wonderland of sports

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If one were to plot the north country’s winter sports landmarks, using a different color pushpin to represent each snowy or icy activity, the map would look like the board game Risk gone amok, a rainbow of snow-loving armies dotting the landscape.

Place a blue pin on the Tug Hill to designate the rivers of snowmobiling trails winding through Lewis County. Fasten green pins to the so-called Golden Triangle — the bays of Chaumont, Guffin and Henderson — where ice fishing shanties signal mid-winter’s arrival. Add red pins to the ice rinks where athletes spin and skate from Jefferson to Franklin counties.

But we aren’t done yet. There are yellow pins for Adirondack snowshoers, black pins for cross-country skiers, and pink pins for downhill skiers and snowboarders.

In short, the north country isn’t afraid to go outside and conquer winter.

“It drives me crazy how (the media) will scare people off and tell people how dangerously cold it is outdoors,” said Timothy McAtee, the owner of Dry Hill Ski Area in Watertown. “Are you kidding me? Put on some clothes and go outside.”

The north country possesses some of the more popular winter recreational activities in the state, as evidenced by the number of destinations known by downstate residents. Winter athletes from south, east and west gravitate to ice fishing on the St. Lawrence, snowmobile lodges in southern Lewis County, and cross-country skiing in untouched hills and valleys.

Then there’s the mecca of amateur winter sports in the eastern United States, Lake Placid, which is about the only place one can go to train in bobsled, skeleton or speedskating, or to simply watch those activities.

Even sports that offer plentiful opportunities elsewhere in the state, such as skiing, can’t boast the sheer convenience of winter recreation just a few miles down the road.

“Not a lot of places have skiing or snowboarding only 15 minutes away,” McAtee said.

Dry Hill is just one of several north country ski areas within about three hours of downtown Watertown. There is Snow Ridge in Turin, McCauley Mountain in Old Forge, Titus Mountain in Malone, and Big Tupper Ski Area in Tupper Lake, a resort that will reopen after Christmas following a one-year hiatus.

But as often as people participate in winter sports in the north country, McAtee said he would like to see more. He’s noticed growing competition from indoor facilities such as the Watertown YMCA, which allows people to play soccer or lacrosse year-round, and from schools, an increasing amount of which have pools and all-weather or indoor tracks.

“I’m not so sure I want to focus on one generation, but I think there’s a generation of young people coming up that maybe don’t push their kids to get out and enjoy activities and be physical and enjoy nature,” McAtee said. “And if people don’t get out to enjoy it, how do they go about protecting it and preserving it and taking care of it?”

But there’s promise, he said, pointing to the recent announcement of a revival of Snowtown USA, the community-wide winter recreation festival that thrived in Watertown during the 1980s and ’90s.

The fact remains that if people want to participate in winter sports, the north country has it all — the terrain, the facilities and, of course, the weather.

“There’s just so much from this area if you’re an outdoorsman,” McAtee said. “You’re in paradise.”

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