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Traveling the Adirondacks High Peaks Region on Horseback

October 24, 1987

COREYS, N.Y. (AP) _ The flames from the flickering campfire are slowly dying under the starlit sky, the only reminder of civilization the distant rumble of a jet fighter.

After seven hours in the saddle, some barbecued chicken and a fireside chat, it’s time to call it a day - and midnight is still almost five hours away.

Welcome to the world of John Fontana - who five years ago left the hustle- bustle of New York City for the silent splendor of his 100-acre Cold River Ranch, located in the shadow of the high peaks of the Adirondack Mountains.

Fontana, 63, was no stranger to the Adirondacks when he decided to give up his work as a heating contractor and move to the tiny hamlet of Coreys with his wife Marie. They had been regular visitors to the region since the 1960s and had a cabin in nearby Lake Placid before they purchased the ranch 20 years ago.

″It was just a lodge which had been empty for three years,″ said John Fontana, one of only a handful of outfitters east of the Mississippi to offer overnight pack trips. ″There was no barn, just fields and pine trees.″

Fontana shows no effects from heart bypass surgery four years ago, which was one of the main reasons he decided to head north. There are other reasons, though, and it only takes a step out the front door of the 116-year-old ranch house to notice one of them.

″Where are you going to get color like that?″ Fontana asked, pointing at the brilliance of the early October foliage. ″Not on Forty-second Street. Every time I go in, it’s a different picture.″

Going into the wilderness. That’s what gives John Fontana peace of mind, and just about everybody else he takes with him on either day-long rides, overnight trips, or three- and four-day treks.

Fontana does not work alone. Ten of the surest-footed horses around are stabled in his barn, and there are a few part-time wranglers, such as Bob Takacs, to help care for the animals as well as guide visitors down the horse trails of the Cold River region.

There are 800 miles of horse trails scattered across New York, including more than 200 miles in the Adirondacks. They were the brainchild of former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a horseman himself, who rode into the Cold River region in the early 1960s when the trails were narrow logging roads, truck trails and fire lanes and decided a statewide horse trail system was a good idea.

The trails, one of the best-kept secrets in the state, provide a study in contrasts between the high peaks of the Seward and Santanoni Ranges and the lowlands adjacent to the Cold River.

″I went out West once, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming,″ Fontana recalled on a recent overnight trip. ″There are some beautiful mountains there, but they’ve got entirely different conditions. It’s gorgeous, but the mountains aren’t accessible. These mountains are. You go on a three-day ride and you get to see some nice scenery. Over there, in Wyoming, you get to see the scenery before you get on the horse.″

A brochure describing the Cold River Ranch ends with this thought: ″a few minutes after you arrive you will feel as if you have known everyone for weeks.″ It doesn’t take that long.

After a hearty breakfast in the lodge, Fontana, who developed his love for horses as a youngster working at stables in Manhattan and the Bronx, introduces his guests to their horses. Once everybody is saddled up, Fontana, dressed in his customary brown suede hat, jeans, western shirt and cowboy boots, shows the way.

There is time for everyone to get adjusted since the first mile of any trip follows a back road past camps with their firewood piles stacked and ready for the long winter ahead. Once on the trail, though, one thing creeps quickly to mind - there is nobody else around.

Only aspens and white birches with their golden leaves ablaze, majestic pines, spruces, hemlocks, fiery-red sugar maples, huge moss-and-fern-covered boulders from another age, beaver dams, and countless decaying trees, remnants of a rare hurricane 37 years earlier.

Leaves fall lazily through the air like the snowflakes that will soon replace them. Each bend in the trail seems more beautiful than the last. The leather saddles creak with each step as the horses clippety-clop at their leisurely three-mile-an-hour pace, over wooden bridges, past Mount Seward and further into the wild.

It is amazing that the horses, who would rather eat the foliage than admire it, can traverse the terrain so effortlessly. They barely miss a step along the way.

Fontana always leads just in case the unexpected happens because he’s seen just about everything.

″I had a bear almost run over me last year,″ said Fontana, who wears either a .32-caliber or .357-magnum pistol at his left side for just such emergencies. ″I was off my horse checking a spot along the trail, and all of a sudden I see him coming my way. He kept coming and coming, and I drew my pistol and aimed it at him.

″But I woofed at him instead,″ Fontana chuckled, mimicking a dog bark. ″He looked up, sniffed the air, and boy, did he run 3/8″

Overnight adventurers travel about 15 miles into the woods and are likely to camp alongside the Cold River. For the novice the second day can become tiring, even grueling at times, with aching knees and backsides providing most of the agony.

Nevertheless, after a somewhat perilous journey over an extension of the old Raquette River Stagecoach Road, the two-day journey seems to be ending much too quickly. An hour later the group is sitting around the supper table, sipping wine and chatting about what brought them to the ranch.

″I’d probably be in a padded room by now,″ said Takacs, 38, who quit a job as a computer programmer for General Electric in western Massachusetts and now spends much of his time here wrangling, even though it doesn’t pay the bills. ″I had to get away from the every-day routine. I needed a fresh outlook on life, and I can get that here.

″People that come up here don’t want to talk about what they do. This is a release for them and they don’t want to be reminded.″

After two days in the wild, it is clear why almost every visitor to the Cold River Ranch departs feeling a sense of envy for the Fontanas.

″We get our breaks,″ said John Fontana, who also entertains hikers, hunters, sled-dog racers, snowshoers, skiers and canoeists. ″We could get away, but I don’t want to.

″I always tell people, ’for you, when you leave here, you’re going back to the real world. For me, this is the real world.‴

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