People come to the Adirondacks for a variety of reasons - sometimes to vacation, attend college or to visit friends. Tracy Santagate came to Paul Smiths from Hamilton, Mass. in 1978 to attend Paul Smith's College as a forest recreation major.
At a PSC party, she met fellow forestry student Nik Santagate, the man she would eventually marry. After graduation, the two moved to New Hampshire for a while, then to Cape Cod, where they worked at an environmental education center. Tracy later became a naturalist in the Catskills, where she ran programming for three different parks. Then she returned to school to get a degree in fisheries and wildlife.
She continued to work as a naturalist while completing her schooling, and took on odd jobs such as teaching lifesaving and working in an aquatic center for a scuba diving company.
Tracy Santagate in her basket-making studio at Books N’ Baskets on Olive Street, Saranac Lake on Nov. 12, 2008, by Phil Gallos for his project “How Many Artists does it Take to Screw in a Light Bulb: Portraits from the Saranac Lake Area Creative Community,” which ran as a one-artist exhibition at Bluseed Studios gallery, August to September 2009.
"My grandfather gave me $1,000 when I graduated high school, so along with money from odd jobs, I completed the degree owing nobody any money," she said.
Two weeks after graduation, Nik and Tracy got married and moved to Poughkeepsie.
"There was too much traffic ... the whole philosophy was shopping and driving, and there just was no peace," Tracy said.
In the fall, they attended a reunion party back in Paul Smiths, where Nik learned about a carpentry job. They gratefully moved back to the Adirondacks where they've lived ever since.
A few months later, Tracy became director of the Saranac Lake Youth Center, a job she loved. But her job was never the only thing she was doing. She and Nik built their own home together on land they bought in McColloms, north of Paul Smiths. They had their "clearing party" in 1986 just before their first son, Cori, was born, using wood from the trees on their property, a tractor and a portable sawmill to generate all the lumber for the house. Tracy was pregnant during some of the construction process, and her growing condition did not hinder her from hammering and nailing until the day she actually gave birth to Levi.
About learning how to build a house, she says, "Nik is an amazing guy ... he is my champion. He is an amazing worker, and where some people burn out, he just keeps going he taught me a work ethic and pacing, and started me slowly, giving me lowly jobs until I could handle the bigger jobs.
"He's a better framer, and I'm good at painting, but I can do all the jobs that need to be done."
Over the years, the couple has created teams of friends and students to build their home, a cabin, a greenhouse and a guest room, creating a true sense of community in the process.
Their children, Cori and Levi, were both homeschooled for the dozen or so years it takes to educate a young person. While she was pregnant with Levi, Tracy was working two jobs: full time at the youth center, half time at Camelot, a private school in Lake Placid, and while at home was helping build their house.
Once she had two little boys at home, though, she quit her jobs to focus on her family.
The Santagates became a part of the network of homeschoolers in northern New York, including other area homeschooling parents like Lynn Waickman and Linda Dobson. The process began when she attended a homeschooling party and met the other parents and children. "What really impressed me at that time was here were all these kids, all different ages and interests, and nobody fought! Kids would stop doing what they were doing to help others. I was just taken aback."
Her sons learned to sew, do leatherwork, and cook, along with their academic regime. She says, "When the boys turned eight they had to learn to make one meal a week for the family. I didn't care if Levi made his grandmother's Italian meatballs every week. They were delicious. And Cori made great burritos."
Choosing homeschooling had a global perspective. She says, "I had a great public school education I love to learn, and am passionate about all subject areas. The decision to homeschool was not a statement against the school district. But the educational system has been beaten down. You see it today with all the mandates and tests. And many students are just not getting simple standards of reading, writing and arithmetic. So I charted out a complete 12-year curriculum and based everything on a historical timeline. So all the math, literature, art and science was based on that particular time period. I got them engaged in as many ways as I could because people learn best with all their senses plus a sense of discovery that keeps them interested."
"I knew I had to make money to meet our budget, so while I was teaching them during the day, I was also waitressing in Lake Placid at night. I still needed to contribute financially. Plus, I taught as an adjunct at Paul Smith's, and I taught basketweaving classes here in my greenhouse. While I did that, the kids learned how to weave and became very proficient at it. Cori even taught a basket weaving class when he went to Japan with Jim Tucker's Enviro-Trek group." Tracy is a skilled basket weaver, and has been weaving baskets for 27 years, teaching classes or individuals who want to learn how to make their own woven containers.
"My philosophy of education is that I want my sons to be passionate about learning. I wanted them to have this strong skill set of reading, writing and arithmetic," she said. "With that skill set, if you find something that fascinates you, you know how to learn. I wanted them to learn from their elders. I wanted them to learn how to provide for themselves and a family. They both graduated from college where we all worked hard so that they were debt-free. They owe nothing."
A whole life doesn't begin and end in the Adirondacks, however.
In 1976, as a girl who rode her bike up and down the Massachusetts coast, she took her first major bike trip from Jasper, Alberta, Canada to Glacier National Park, a 750-mile trek. The trip was a turning point for her, as she says, "It taught me my limits, and that I could go beyond my limits if I tried. For me, that was huge, and became a part of how I raised my kids, as well."
Running her first bike trip through the Saranac Lake Youth Center, the group of two adults and 12 students rode from Saranac Lake to Lake Champlain, and down the big lake's coastline.
"I learned a lot from those kids," Tracy said. "I learned that teens want to be responsible. They desire to be autonomous; they want to make their own decisions. I told them I was part of their team, and I would only pull out executive moves if it was necessary. And as such, I expected them to rise to that level."
Her own boys each went on a 350-mile bike trip when they were 8 years old. The bike trips she has taken and led have allowed her to travel the entire east coast from Maryland all the way north to the Gaspe Peninsula.
When the Santagate boys were getting ready to leave the nest, other avenues of Adirondack living opened up for Tracy. She had always dreamed of opening a used book store, and in 2003, she made it happen. Before the boys left, they helped her draw up a business plan for the new store, and then helped her open it. The bookstore on Olive Street in Saranac Lake does a good business, but she is not in it for the mighty buck.
"A good bookstore needs a foundation of good books So unlike others in the book business, I don't necessarily want the books that will make me a lot of money," she said. "I want good books that you would want to read. I also refuse to profit from someone who is down in the dumps, like someone with cancer, or someone starting their lives over I will give them a break. Lots of people have done that for me, so I do pay it forward.
"Every step of the way, I gained a phenomenal skill," she says about her amazing variety of jobs over the years."If you know how to learn, you can do anything."
Tracy Santagate is a true Adirondack woman, skilled in basketry, biking, building, books and teaching, always busy, always learning, inspiring so many whose lives she's touched.