Dippikill: 50 Years of "Our Own Little Walden"
by Paul Grondahl '84 (November 22, 2005)
One visit to Dippikill and it's easy to see why alumni, students, faculty, and staff who come here year after year from across the country and overseas – as if making an environmental pilgrimage – call this special place "the University at Albany's own little Walden."
There is something soothing, almost spiritual, about the feeling of connection with nature during an overnight stay at Dippikill, an 853-acre wilderness retreat in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains. Part of the experience comes from the fact that you split your own firewood to heat your cabin, draw water from a hand pump, make do with gas lamps instead of electricity, and leave behind all modern conveniences such as cell phones (which don't work anyway in the wilderness).
Dippikill is located in the small town of Thurman, near the Gore Mountain ski area in North Creek, about 70 miles north of Albany. Dippikill, which means "small stream" in Dutch, is owned and operated by the Student Association. It is the largest student-owned retreat in the country and celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2006. The Student Association purchased 700 acres in 1956 for $10,000, and later added to the property with two land acquisitions.
"It's so beautiful and peaceful up here. I call it the greatest place on earth," said Sharon (Brady) Moores '98, a middle school English teacher. She traveled to Dippikill on Columbus Day weekend with her husband, Matthew, from their home in Rocky Point on Long Island. She began coming to Dippikill her freshman year in 1995 with a group of friends from the Class of '98. About 15 classmates have been coming every year for a weekend in May to commune with nature, hold an informal class reunion, and renew friendships. Moores liked the place so much that she introduced it to her husband and another group of alumni – some from as far away as Colorado and Thailand – who came for the long Columbus Day weekend. They traditionally stay in Collins Lodge, which holds 15 people and is one of eight rustic cabins spread far apart around the property.
"Our group keeps growing because we're now bringing spouses, babies, dogs, and families," Moores said. "We all love being outdoors and re-connecting with great friends. It sounds a little corny, but we wouldn't miss Dippikill for anything."
Word is getting out about what was once one of UAlbany's best-kept secrets. Attendance at Dippikill has nearly doubled in the past decade, to 5,200 overnight guests in 2004. Alumni have come from as far away as Hawaii, Germany, and Japan. Reservations continue to climb and must be made well in advance since the entire facility (95-person capacity overall) is often fully booked on weekends year-round. Students, alumni, faculty, staff, and those with a UAlbany affiliation receive preference when making reservations.
Craig Blair '98 organized the first official Dippikill Games with his classmates two years ago. They divide the group and each team has its own flag, head bands and wrist bands, and they compete in canoe races, volleyball, a Dippikill trivia contest, and other events. Trophies are awarded to the winners. "Life keeps getting busier each year, especially for those of us who have kids, but we all do everything possible to get together every spring for our weekend at Dippikill," said Blair, who lives in New Fairfield, Conn., with his wife, Kristy (Hagan) Blair '98, who also began visiting her freshman year. The place holds a special place in the couple's hearts, because Blair proposed to his wife atop Dippikill summit on the July 4th weekend, 2003. They weren't the first couple, and probably won't be the last, to fall in love amidst the natural splendor of Dippikill. There have been several marriage proposals there and a few weddings are held at the wilderness retreat each year.
The comparisons between Dippikill and "Walden" seem fitting, since author Henry David Thoreau – who sub-titled his classic volume "Life in the Woods" – aimed to strip life to its essentials during his two-year experiment in rustic living. Thoreau wrote that he re-discovered a sense of self-reliance and well-being at Walden, which had been missing from urban life. His little cabin by a pond in the woods was an antidote to the "lives of quiet desperation" many people lead in the rush for affluence and trying to keep up the frenetic pace of modern life, Thoreau argued.
"These are really busy, hectic times we live in and going to Dippikill forces us to slow down, to unplug our cell phones and to enjoy each other's company. There's nothing better than just hanging out around the campfire, sharing stories," said David Schaffer '83, who lives in Manhattan and works as an attorney with the New York City law firm of Malaby, Carlisle, and Bradley. Schaffer started going to Dippikill during the winter of his senior year with a group of six buddies. He's been coming back each January for 24 consecutive years, and the group has grown to more than 25 regular attendees. Schaffer gives out awards, such as an engraved pewter mug or Swiss Army knife, for those who make it 10 years and 20 years straight without missing.
"Most of us were from the tri-state area downstate and we started coming because we grew up in cities, and Dippikill was a very unique and special wilderness experience for us," Schaffer said. The other part they liked as students was that the rates are very affordable and still are. The cost currently ranges from $32 to $225 a night per cabin for students, which figures out to be about $10 per person per night when split among a group. Other stalwart members of Schaffer's crew are: John Skelly '82, Jim O'Brien '83, Chris Crean '83 and Stephen Honan '84. The guys asked their girlfriends and wives at one point to join them, but the women declined. The women noted that the cabins are heated with firewood and do not have electricity or indoor bathroom facilities in most cases – outhouses are nearby, but it's a short hike to a heated restroom with showers.
Class of '83 members who get together at Dippikill are now lawyers, doctors, teachers, and other professionals. One of their annual rituals involves a Saturday football game in the snow. They also go on winter hikes, ice skate, and stargaze late into the night. "I've never seen stars look as bright as they do at Dippikill because there's nothing else around," Schaffer said. So deep is the group's bond to the place that they donated money to have a new footbridge built over a stream leading to Collins Lodge, and they plan to make additional gifts to Dippikill in the future.
Those who visit Dippikill – including President Kermit L. Hall, who came for a Student Association retreat in August – consistently praise the hard work and stewardship of caretakers Matthew Scott, his wife, Dennie Swan-Scott, and their three children, Hawthorne 7, Willow, 4, and Rowan, 3 months (each named for a species of tree that grows at Dippikill).
The Scotts have been running the place for the past eight years, and have made substantial improvements to the facilities. In addition, they selectively log trees for the firewood in the cabins by using a Belgian draft horse in order to reduce the impact on the environment. They give logging demonstrations, lead nature hikes, and offer instruction on caring for the environment. "You can't learn some of this in the classroom. You have to get out and do it," Matthew Scott said. "A lot of education about the environment is actually happening when students are just out in the woods, having fun. They don't realize they're learning." The Scotts replaced longtime caretakers Jill and Rick Nelson, UAlbany alumni who still live adjacent to Dippikill in retirement.
"The best part is that cell phones don't
work up there, nobody brings a BlackBerry
or even a TV," said Nishant Phadnis, a senior
accounting major from Rochester. "I wouldn't
say we're real nature types, but it's nice
to get away from the city, build a campfire,
roast marshmallows, and have a great bonding