When it came time to find a subject for this article, a person or persons to expose, expand upon and extol the character traits of, Jim and Jennie Sausville sprang to mind.
Having met them while taking a beginner whitewater kayaking course a couple of years ago, it was clear how much they personified the absolute joy of doing what you love and living where that can occur best, which for them happens to be these Adirondack Mountains.
In approaching their home, tucked in the woods and caressing the shores of Kurung Pond, the snow banks piled high, smoke rising from the chimney, and various sets of well worn skis propped up on the front porch, it was easy to add the setting to that perception of a fine mountain existence.
Jim and Jennie Sausville and their dog
(Photo — Michael Williams)
Jenny proudly claims that title of "Adirondack native," having been born in Chestertown and growing up in that little town with her family's hardware store on Main Street as the setting for her childhood. For Jenny, the mountains were within shoutin' distance and she felt their pull and knew that she'd most likely end up living in those High Peaks some day.
Jim's story begins in New Jersey as a young lad growing up in his family's log home, a stone's throw from the shores of a small lake. This early introduction to the natural world led him to the Boy Scouts and a pathway to go further on and further in to those outdoor activities like camping, hiking, skiing and paddling that he continues to enjoy today. A visit to the Adirondacks as an adult, climbing a few of the High Peaks, piqued his interest in this particular location and after only a bit of consideration, the decision to attend Paul Smith's College became an easy one and good years were spent, learning and living in this modern day, multi-use wilderness.
After graduation, it was off to Colorado to join some friends in Rocky Mountain-style adventuring, and push all of his skills in mountaineering and backcountry skiing to a new level. The times spent out west were good ones, but Jim said he definitely felt a pull back to the Adirondacks.
"I was at point of choosing where to live and had the prerequisites had to have mountains, had to have water, had to have snow, had to have climbing, had to have wilderness and this area certainly made my short list," Jim said.
That subconscious attraction became an on-the-ground reality in 1980, when a friend called and invited Jim to be a part of the Winter Olympics as ski patrol for the Nordic events held at Mount Van Hoevenberg. Jim accepted the invite and that decision completed his return "home."
"I felt I was back where I was supposed to be," Jim said.
That sense was only reinforced when he met a certain young lady behind the counter at the rental shop. Jennie had also come up to work the Olympics at a friend's concession stand business spotted at the various venues, and she was immediately taken with the area. She was also taken with Jim ("interest at first sight," Jennie said) and long skis and talks in those side-by-side tracks at Mount Van Hoevenberg proved to be the cupid's arrow for this couple.
"We'd go around all the different loops, talking for hours, and she had these wooden skis and leather work boots that certainly caught my attention," Jim said.
"We started our relationship skiing together and still do just that," Jennie said.
After deciding to be together and stay in the area, it was onto the work of making a living. Jim began his work life learning the craft of carpentry and cabinet making from local contractors while working as a ski patroller in the winter months. He also recalled a love for repairing boats discovered in early experiences with the Boy Scouts, on that lake in New Jersey. All these elements led Jim to start his own business, repairing, renovating and building many boats over these past 20 years. His well designed and outfitted shop gives Jim the space to take on these projects, and being self-employed provides that flexibility for him to monitor conditions in the natural world (namely ski slopes in the winter and waterways in the fairer weather).
Jennie's professional progression began with her looking for work in the field she studied in, wildlife management. With no perfect job presenting itself, it became a journey through a collection of positions, working on a tree farm, at the various ski centers, at a local florist and as a cloud collector one summer on the summit of Whiteface, which kept Jenny employed while she continued to look. Persistent visits to the state Department of Environmental Conservation paid off with an offer for a position in the fish management department. Four years as a seasonal technician became a permanent position in 1990, and 21 years later, Jenny has a career under her belt and still loves going to work every day.
" I got lucky and found a great Adirondack job for myself," Jennie said.
In and among those years, there was the finding and acquiring of land and the building of the home they still live in. Jim, Jennie and plenty of friends worked over many months, and have both a beautiful home and plenty of those "build your own house" tales.
Life these days for Jim has him teaching techniques in those activities he has loved to do since he was a boy. Apart from instructing the whitewater course every summer here in Saranac Lake, he teaches courses as an adjunct professor in sea kayaking and backcountry skiing at SUNY Plattsburgh and Paul Smith's College. When asked if he ever thought he'd be an adjunct professor when he grew up, Jim gives an honest reply.
"When I was in school at Paul Smith's, I used to cut classes to do those things that I am now teaching," Jim concedes.
Despite this rather inauspicious start to Jim's higher-education biography, he realizes now that most of his adult life, working and playing, has contained some thread of teaching to it. Jim rattles off the list of endeavors he has been a part of over his years here.
"While I was with the ski patrol, I would teach the volunteers how to ski or ski better," Jim said. "We ran a telemark clinic at Mount Pisgah for years, and that was a lot of fun. I was teaching people how to kayak while working with some of the guides in the area and that led to the summer course that goes on to this day. From there came the position at Paul Smith's and then the offer from Plattsburgh."
Beyond this teaching element comes a spirit of volunteerism that runs through many of the above mentioned situations and extends to other activities that Jim and Jennie are a part of. It started with periodic river cleanups they would motivate in their spare time. As Jim wanted a place to teach a whitewater course, he was directed to the desk of the community development officer to pitch his proposal. Unbeknownst to Jim, this meeting would pull him into the world of community activism that became 15 years of Jim and Jennie volunteering their time to the betterment of the village of Saranac Lake.
"He (the community development officer) saw an able bodied, energetic guy with a vision and he just pulled me into the River Commission, which just happened to be starting the River Walk project at the time," Jim said.
From that young hippie who cut classes to roam the woods, Jim had "suddenly" become part of a government entity working to push through a public project. Years of tackling challenging situations gave Jim the confidence to succeed within this world of countless meetings with governmental agencies (sort of like shooting a rapid or skiing among the trees) to such a degree that he became the director of those proceedings for the last few years of the process.
In the end, the countless hours by many folks brought the River Walk project to its current day reality and Jim and Jennie are rightfully proud of the finished product.
"It's a great addition to our village," Jim said, "a great outdoor outlet, inside the village."
In and among all the stories within Jim and Jennie's life is the enjoyment they receive from participating in these activities together. A prime example of this is their canoe racing history and its thousands of hours of training, racing and touring. The result of which was their National Championship in 1995 in Marathon Canoe Racing.
Up next for Jim and Jennie is being a part of the push for a new ski lodge at the Dewey Mountain Ski Area. Beyond this, Jim looks to continue working on boats and working on adding even more paddling and skiing into his already full schedule. Jenny says she will retire one day in the future and increase her attendance at those outdoor excursions while finding new outlets for her other interests.
The interview closes with Jim and Jennie sharing their best Adirondack adventure story. They recalled a traditional, just after Thanksgiving, canoe camping trip on Lower Saranac; a run of beautiful weather leading up to their departure date had them thinking happy thoughts as they set off and then made camp that evening. A crazy change of weather brought extremely cold air in during the night and Jim and Jennie woke up to a solid 3/4 of an inch of black ice surrounding their island. So these two licensed Adirondack guides, sat and considered how they got here and how they would get out. After eating breakfast, breaking down camp and rooting for the sun to come to their rescue (it didn't) it was time to bite the bullet and break the ice. Hours of whacking and paddling (what type of stroke would you call that?) led them to a channel that some kind motor-boater had left for them. From there it was an easy out and ultimately a good story to share with their close friends (and eventually the entire community).
This story based on an interview with Michael Williams, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.