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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Olympian set up Benson ski center 40 years ago

January 19, 2018
By AMY FEIEREISEL - NCPR Correspondent ( , Lake Placid News

BENSON - There's a small town in Hamilton County called Benson on the southern edge of the Adirondack Park. Residents refer to "being on the mountain" because the town is at a higher elevation and gets more snow in the winter. The population is 192.


The ski resort

Article Photos

Paul Zahray, co-owner of the Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center, enjoys the trails.
(Photo provided)

Most of those people commute to work in larger towns and cities south of Benson - places like Amsterdam, Johnstown and Albany.

That's because in Hamilton County, work is dominated by either government services or tourism-related businesses.

One of the few Benson-based businesses is the Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center, which rents cabins surrounded by 50 kilometers of cross-country skiing trails. It's a popular ski center, but it also functions as a space for Benson events, such as the town's annual picnic.

Its original owners were Olavi and Ann Hirvonen. Olavi skied in the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California, for the U.S., although he is of Finnish descent and grew up skiing in Finland.

When his skiing career was over, he and his wife opened the Lapland Lake Nordic Vacation Center. It's been in operation since 1978.


New owners wanted

A few years back, the pair was looking to retire. The new owners, Paul and Kathy Zahray, stepped forward, even though they had no experience running a lodging or skiing business.

But Paul and Kathy had been driving up from New Jersey to ski and stay at the center for years with their children, and when they heard the Hirvonens were looking to sell, they found themselves considering it. Kathy remembers:

"We kind of looked at each other and said, do you think we could do this? It's a place we love... we were ready to change gears a little bit, and that's how we jumped into it."

Paul said it helped that Olavi and Ann were happy to pass it on:

"We talked to them for a while and then said, 'Do you think we can do this?' and they said 'Oh, yes, we'll help you,' and they did. Life is about learning new things, and we've learned a lot in the past few years."

So the Zaharys learned everything they could, sold their home in New Jersey, and made the move to snowy Benson. It's been a transition, but one that they've loved.


A day at Lapland Lake

Paul takes point on grooming the ski trails, which are counted in kilometers because that's the way Finnish Olavi set them up. Paul says Olavi is the true master of the grooming equipment, but that he gets better each year. A typical work day looks something like this:

"Usually in the winter I leave the house at 5:30 or 6 in the morning. I usually ski the half mile from our house to the lodge because it's one of the perks of the job. And it also gives me a first view of, is there a lot of wind debris on the trails? Are they icy?"

Then he updates trail conditions and spends a few hours grooming the trails.

Kathy is in charge of the ski center, which is where visitors can rest, rent equipment, and chow down in the dining hall. She said it's always busy, between the customers and their staff, which includes ski instructors, food service, rental personnel and housekeeping for the 12 rental cabins on site.

"I'm pretty much the day to day operations inside of the lodge building," Kathy said. "We have a great staff. Quite a few people in and out of the building. It's really fun. They're all great."

Life in a snowglobe

Thing get so busy in the wintertime that Kathy said it can start to feel like living in a snowglobe.

"A lot of times I'll just be up here," she said. "I don't get down the mountain to do shopping and that kind of thing except on rare occasions. So it pretty much becomes a continuous vacation. I mean, we're working, but it's just a beautiful, beautiful place to be."

Paul said he's grateful to live and work in the same place:

"It's a privilege to just wake up and live here and not need to leave everyday to go someplace else."

(This story comes to you from North Country Public Radio's North Country at Work project, which explores the working lives and history of our region. To see all the stories, check out



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