Although a popular natural attraction during the summer since 1870, the chasm had always been closed to visitors during the winter. But when longtime raft guide Chuck Fries became recreation director this fall, he decided to expand tours into the winter months, partly because he didn’t want to sit in an office all day, and also, because the demand was there.
“Summer tourists always asked if we were open in the winter and we always had to tell them no,” he said.
Ever since the winter tours were featured recently in a local newspaper, Fries said, the response from the public has been great.
“The phone has been ringing off the hook,” he said.
The snowshoe tour begins at the Gatehouse entrance on state Route 9 on the south side (the Keeseville side) of the Chasm bridge. The tour takes guests on a four-mile roundtrip excursion along the Rim Trail from Rainbow Falls to the end of the chasm.
The Ausable Chasm is a little bit of a geologic oddity. It’s a sandstone gorge 150 to 200 feet deep, with the Ausable River running through it. The chasm is punctuated by waterfalls, rock wall formations, like Elephant’s Head and Hour Glass, narrows like the Punch Bowl, and deep caverns, like Hyde’s Cave. The Rim Trail, completed in 2006, doesn’t get you as close to the river as you are able to get in the summer. The Inner Sanctum Trail is usually inaccessible in winter. Danger from falling ice, Fries explained, was the reason the chasm has to be admired from a distance, instead of from down inside it.
Huge icicles that form early in the season cling to the rock walls. At first glance, the huge blue and yellow ice formations seem like an ice climber’s paradise, but the fragile, soft sandstone breaks away easily and could not support a climber’s weight, Fries said. In fact, there were several spots Fries pointed out along the way where there is a dramatic change in the rock’s color, from a deep reddish-brown to grey. When the sun oxidizes, the minerals in the rock, it turns red, Fries explained. The grey sections are where rock has very recently broken away, revealing the darker color that has yet to see the effects of the sun.
Indeed, the chasm is always changing with the rise and fall of the waters of the river. The mangled remnants of a green metal staircase can be seen at the bottom of the chasm in several places, the result of a 1996 flood that ripped the stairs from the rock.
The hike continues past Mystic Gorge, a place where the sounds of the river fade away to complete silence for a few short steps. There were signs of wildlife all around — deer tracks in the snow, animal dens and little piles of pinecone shells. A little farther along the Rim Trail, Table Rock, the loading dock for raft and tubing rides in the summer, can be seen directly below. The large, flat rock is conveniently located just after the last series of rapids and just before a slow-moving, deep, narrow section.
“It couldn’t be more perfect if we built it ourselves,” Fries said.
The next river feature is the Grand Flume, a deep, narrow section between two high rock walls. Because of the striated layers of rock that create an optical illusion, from a passenger’s position in a raft, Fries explained, it seems as if the river is flowing swiftly downhill, even though the water here is barely moving.
Because the Ausable drains much of the Eastern High Peaks, the water level in the chasm is dependent on how much rain falls in the mountains. Heavy rains can raise the water level in the narrow chasm dangerously fast — but there’s a 12- to 24-hour window. Fries has become good at predicting exactly when the chasm will have to suspend its raft rides and tubing based on when and how much rain falls on the High Peaks.
After the last major flood, the chasm switched from guiding visitors down part of the river on two-ton, 30-passenger wooden boats to inflatable rafts and inner tubes. The new rafts mean the chasm can still operate tours when the summer water level is low.
“Those old boats sat down two feet in the water,” Fries said.
Around mile two, the Ausable Chasm ends abruptly and the rock walls drop away. The river continues meandering north for another few miles before it emptying into Lake Champlain at Ausable Point.
On a sunny Friday in February, our trek through the chasm and back was peaceful and serene — and eerily quiet. The normally deafening river was frozen and silent, except for the occasional cracking sound the ice made as it settled. But all it takes is a few unseasonably warm days to get the water flowing again. Fries said he hopes to continue the tours throughout the spring.
“Watching the river at flood stage is jaw dropping,” he said.
For more information, visit www.ausablechasm.com. To schedule a snowshoe tour, call 834-7454 or e-mail email@example.com. Tours cost $25 and a tour through the entire chasm takes about two hours.
Recreation Manager Chuck Fries looks down at the frozen Ausable River from one of the chasm’s many vantage points along the Rim Trail.
Photos/HEATHER SACKETT/Lake Placid News