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Mom and Pop Files: Tiny McCauley Mountain Punches Back Against Coronavirus

OLD FORGE, NY – Everyone just calls him “Stevie U,” and the joke is that the U either stands for “unspellable” or “unpronounceable,” depending on usage. But Stephen G. Uzdavinis, (that’s “YOOZE-duh-VENUS” for those of you scoring at home), a.k.a. Stevie U, is living his Adirondack Mountains dream, managing and operating his life-long home base, Old Forge’s McCauley Mountain Ski Center.

Ah yes, tiny, but rugged McCauley, the Yoda of ski areas. (***Insert voiceover from Empire Strikes Back*** “Judge me by my size do you? And well you should not…”) Remember how Yoda hobbled around with that cane, but then – ZANG! – he pinballed around with his light saber while the Evil Emperor threw the Galactic Senate at him? That’s McCauley.

Everybody has a healthy respect for McCauley, a bantam rooster that marches into the barnyard and crows as loudly as many larger neighboring mountains. Whether it’s Helmer’s, one of the bumpiest, narrowest, and steepest lift lines you could wish for, wooded quintessential New England trails like Olympic and Decamp that buck like an angry bronco, or the Barkeater Glades – so thick you’ll swear you saw the Blair Witch in there – McCauley is as much a proving ground as a winter athlete could ask for, and a proper warm-up for sojourns to the most difficult mountains the east has to offer – Killington, Whiteface, Cannon, anywhere.

On staff at McCauley since 1986 and manager since the winter of 1999-2000, Stevie U has seen four decades of some of the cruelest and coldest winters in America, and yet, through it all, McCauley is still thriving with a rabid fan base and the unquenchable spirit of the Adirondacks. Home to some of the hardiest skiers in the country, the region is the beating heart of winter sports passion.

We caught up with Stevie U on Thanksgiving eve. Here’s his update on the 2020-2021 season at the mountain and in Old Forge in general:

Jay F: Tell us about McCauley – its history, its trails, what else it has besides skiing, and how you got involved.

Stevie U: McCauley opened in the winter of 1958-59, but it was not Old Forge’s first venture into skiing. We had rope tows in town as early as even the late 1920s.

Jay F: What? Where were there rope tows in Old Forge, New York in the 1920s?

Stevie U: Maple Ridge! Downtown – right behind Town of Webb school, a K-12, one building academy.

Here at McCauley, we opened in 1958, starting with a single t-bar manufactured in Watertown, not far from here actually…

Jay F: Just up Route 12 North…

Stevie U: That’s right, about an hour north. And throughout the years we added lifts. There was a second t-bar in ‘62, and a rope tow, and the largest upgrade to date was back in 1973, when we added the main fixed grip double.

Jay F: How many trails do you have?

Stevie U:  21. There are five lifts. The property is 1000 acres total, but we ski on about 200.

Jay F: How did you come to spend so much of your life at McCauley?

Stevie U:  I was born and raised in Old Forge. I’m North Country through and through. I lived my whole life here and even got my degree in outdoor recreation from North Country Community College in Saranac Lake.

Jay F: I love Saranac Lake! I hung out at the Waterhole all the time back in the day. I’ve been going there since Billy Allen owned the place and was the de facto mayor of the town.

Stevie U:  Billy Allen??!! He’s awesome! I love Billy Allen!

Jay F:  So do I. He’s a holy man. There’s a song about him and Saranac Lake Winter Carnvival. How does the lyric about him go? “Six foot rock-a-bye laughin’ at me?”

(LAUGHTER)

Jay F: Okay…so back to you and McCauley…

Stevie U: Well, I bounced around from various mountains during the early ‘80s. I was at Jay Peak in Vermont for a few years – ‘82-’84. I actually almost got fired at Jay…

Jay F: What?! What for?!

Stevie U:  I was teaching at the ski school, and I took some kids into the woods for some glade skiing.

Jay F:  Wait…they almost fired you for that?

Stevie U: It was the early ‘80s. Glade skiing wasn’t big like it is now. But these kids were experienced; they could handle it just fine. And everybody was having a great time…

Jay F: …Until?

Stevie U:  Until we came out of the woods right in front of the ski patrol.

Jay F: Ugh…BUSTED!

Stevie U: Yeah, it sucked. But I talked my way into keeping my job! Better still, I also talked them into not puling my students’ lift tickets.

Jay F: ***shakes head*** That would really have been a %$#@ move…

Stevie U: It was a different world back then.

Jay F: Yeah, my lawyer buddies tend to ruin all the fun.

(LAUGHTER)

Stevie U: True that.

Jay F: Anyway, what are the iconic runs at McCauley? What’s the heart and soul of the mountain?

Stevie U:  Even before there was a ski lift to the top of the mountain, they had cut a trail called Decamp. It’s named after a local founding father. In fact, all our runs are named after people from the community! Also Helmer’s – our main lift line – is named after Leonard Helmer, a town supervisor, and their family is still an important one in the region. Best of all they all still ski here at McCauley.

Now Decamp was a trail where people would literally come out of school, ski up Maple Ridge, and then ski down to the base of McCauley. And then they’d sidestep up Decamp, ski down, and then go back to school. Later, they actually got some rope tows powered by old trucks going. They’d take wheels off the back axle, jack up the back end, and put a rope tow sheave on a mat and the lift operator would sit in the truck and run the engine. If he recognized you and liked you he’d crank up the gas and get you up the mountain faster.

Jay F: And warmer…

Stevie U: Yeah! And the remains of those trucks are still located up at the top of Maple Ridge. One of them is an old Helmer’s truck.

Jay F: Tell us about what guests should expect at the mountain this season, both on and off the trails due to Covid.

Stevie U:  Per the governor’s guidelines, the biggest change is the reduction to 50% in the base lodge. Regarding ticketing, on peak days we will be selling 25% fewer day lift tickets. That will be at the window. Cash or credit card works; we also have online sales too, and they get priority.

You don’t have to reserve parking. Better still, people will be allowed to tailgate. They can even bring a hibachi and grill in the parking lot.

Even so, we have a great restaurant in the lodge that will have a lot of grab and go food and specialty sandwiches. You won’t have to make reservations to eat. And our Friday night fish fry is a tradition.

Jay F: I can vouch for that actually. On Facebook you see people coming from 60-90 minutes away for the fish fry on Fridays.

Stevie U: It’s really popular.

Regarding capacity on lifts: this is one way a smaller mom-and-pop place has an advantage over a big resort or a place with quads and 6 packs and gondolas. We just have a double, and you can ride with anyone you came with and anyone in your family. We only won’t be doubling up people on busy weekends. Of course wear a face covering at all times when not actively skiing.

Jay F: What other ways do you think mom-and-pop places might have an advantage over mega-resorts and mega-passes and what advice do you have for smaller areas like yours?

Stevie U: I think people will turn to smaller resorts because they’ll want to stay closer to home. And smaller places have an easier time controlling the number of people. So my piece of advice is get ready because people are coming. We did summer scenic chairlift this year and were up 40%!

Jay F: Any chance you’ll join Indypass?

Stevie U:  You know there’s always a chance. We aren’t actively working toward it right now, but we do have a separate publicity department and they may be. But by the way…any of our specials or other programs that we usually have to lure people who would not other wide come to McCauley – like $13 Fridays – are off the table because of the pandemic.

Jay F:  Have you had any dry runs yet with protocols in prep for opening?

Stevie U:  We didn’t have any events on the lodge yet, but we’ve rearranged tables, built some fire pits all across the property so people can keep warm outside, and we are constantly cleaning everything. We will be back making snow any minute now, and are targeting first or second week of December for opening.

Jay F:  What’s the latest on whether out-of-staters can come?

Stevie U:  If the come from a neighboring state and stay less than 24 hours, you don’t have to quarantine, and now you can also test out of long quarantine time.

[Author’s Note:  As this situation changes hourly, you must check the rules of both your own state and the state to which you will travel for updated information. It’s an imperative this season:  know before you go.]

Jay F:  What is your prospectus for numbers for the year? Up?

Stevie U: Absolutely. In anticipation, we will be spreading people out. Of course weekends are our peak, but we’ll encourage people to come more during the week. We think we’ll see more families during the week what with home schooling and remote learning increasing.

Jay F: How expensive were the Covid compliance protections?

Stevie U: It’s a running total!

(LAUGHTER)

It’s fairly expensive, although we’re pretty lucky in Old Forge. We aren’t “Covid-proof” but we’ve been both busy and lucky…lucky that we’ve been remarkably safe. We’re also hoping to get money from the State to offset some costs.

JF:  How badly were you affected losing last March and April?

Stevie U: It was, generally speaking, mostly our season pass-holders and they were understandably upset, but they also recognized the seriousness of the situation. We lost the last three weeks of the season. It would have been worse if we’d have lost the first three week of the season.

JF: What was the biggest challenge you’ve overcome regarding Covid?

Stevie U: Thus far – and I can only talk about this summer – just making sure everyone is on the same page regarding safety rules, from staff to guests, absolutely everyone needs to pull together to get through this. For example, I know I’ll have to go into the chalet and tell people it’s time to go hit the slopes, other people need to warm up! Brief chalet visits this season.

JF:  The car is the base lodge?

Stevie U – That’s what I’m hearing, and the smart season pass holders will be doing that.

JF:  Then again, that keeps the energy humming in the parking lot. It has a bit of a party atmosphere, and the spirit of McCauley still thrives.

Stevie U – Oh yeah! This season will be a bit of a throwback to the 1950s and ‘60s where families packed a lunch and a thermos.

NEW WARMUP SPOTS AT MCCAULEY WILL BE LOCATED AT BOTH THE SUMMIT AND BASE

Jay F: Anti-social distancing (as I call it) seems to erase one of the great things about skiing:  making new friends and reuniting with old ones on the mountain. Is one of the great tragedies of Covid that you can’t come back from skiing with ten new friends?

Stevie U: Well again the parking lot scene here will still be lively. Skiing is the perfect social distancing sport:  even with new skis, tip-to-tail is the perfect social distancing distance. No, you won’t get to meet new folks on the lift, and you won’t be hanging out in the lodge, but that’s only a fraction of the skiing experience, and people can still see each other on the mountain or in the lots.

We’re also going to have a pavilion at the top of the mountain and at the bottom that are new this year, with fireplaces and tables and chairs. Our deck will also be open with more heaters and spaces. We might even have a bon fire. We’re gonna go through a lot more firewood and not in the lodge.

JF: Name three of your favorite resorts in the USA.

Stevie U: Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee in Wyoming. Then Cannon with my 12 y/o son and Bode Miller! That was fun; it was Bode-fest, after the Olympics where he didn’t do so well…

(LAUGHTER)

But he rode up the lift with my son, and we camped out in the parking lot the night before. It was really cool. And the Whiteface!

JF:  (smiling broadly) Of course!

SU – For places I want to go see? Magic in Vermont. Everyone talks about it. My sister lives in Cali, so I’d like to do Mammoth. And then I like going to the other little mom and pop places in New York, like Hickory and Dynamite Hill. The smaller, the better.

EVERYONE LOVES WHALEBACKS

 

SIDEBAR – Top Ten Ways to butcher poor Stevie U’s Name:

Stevie Uzbekistan

Stevie Uzgiliath

Stevie Ulaan Bator

Stevie Umbilical

Steve-O!!!

Mxyzptlk (that’s a Superman joke and a spelling joke rolled into one…)

Stevie %$^&#*%$

Stevie Uruk-hai!

Steve Sax

Candyman Candyman Candyman…