Seeing the Adirondacks from a saddle. Don't expect a dance band at Cold River Ranch - it's not dudish

What could be more inviting? A 120-year-old farmhouse tucked at the edge of the woods, cheerful yellow-painted milk cans flanking the path, strings of year-round Christmas tree lights stretching across the porch. And Marie Fontana, glowing in a fuchsia and white pantsuit, designer glasses, perfectly coiffed hairdo, and broad smile, waiting at the door. ``Now, what would you like for breakfast? Eggs, coffee, bacon, ham, orange juice, pancakes, English muffins, toast, hot chocolate, tea?'' Marie asked, taking my arm, escorting me with motherly warmth into the large dining room.

Inviting enough, but hardly a set from ``Bonanza.'' I was looking for a horse ranch. Could this be the place?

``Now you're going to get hungry on the trail, so eat,'' she said, ignoring my pleas that I never eat breakfast.

So far, still no clue that Cold River is the only ranch in New York that runs horse packing trips in the Adirondack Mountains.

Not a clue, that is, until John moseys in. Whatever Marie lacks as a Dale Evans dress-alike, husband John makes up for in presenting the cowboy image from toe to 10-gallon hat.

John Fontana, a sort of whittled-down Johnny Cash, is resplendent in jeans, Western shirt with faux mother-of-pearl snap buttons, tooled boots, and mighty-fine hat.

``Well, looks like you're our only guest,'' John said, sliding his chair to the head of the table. ``Had three young ladies cancel last night when they found out we didn't have a band.

``That's what I'm trying to avoid. If it ever comes to that, I'll get out of the business. I guess what they were looking for was a dude ranch.''

John's definition of a dude ranch is where ``everyone gets outfitted in new flashy Western garb and sits around a campfire with musicians for a sing-along.''

``I guess it's a more social and maybe a better place to meet people,'' he added.

The Fontanas bought Cold River Ranch with some friends 20 years ago. For a while John used it as a hunting camp with some of his buddies. But in 1971 he pulled the plug on his heating contractor business in Yonkers, N.Y., and moved - lock, stock, and saddle - here to the greener side of the state.

``I didn't want to move our children here. Too `mousey,''' said Marie, referring to the furry little rodents that had taken up squatters' rights here. ``Didn't even want to go into the ranch and bed-and-breakfast business either,'' she added, sliding a plate of eggs, sausage, and toast under my chin. ``But slowly he got his way,'' she said, flashing a smile towards John.

``I'll never forget the day our first guests arrived. I looked out the window and saw this georgeous, tall, blond Norwegian couple. They looked like they had just stepped out of some magazine ad. They were be-yoo-teeful. I said, `Quick, John, get the camera!'''

``Well, time to pack up your saddle bags,'' John interrupted, sliding back his chair. ``Now, you'll be going with George Gould, our trailmaster, and his wife, Sue. George is taking up a team of horses with some equipment to set up our winter camp. Sue's going along to give her new horse some trail training.''

``Not until he tries just one of my blueberry pancakes,'' Marie said, returning from the kitchen with a plateful of hot flapjacks.

After strapping on our saddle bags, we mounted up and waved goodbye to Pistol Pete, Legs, Sluggo, Nacona, Foxy, and the rest of the barn residents.

George led in a two-wheeled cart pulled by a pair of rust-colored Belgian draft horses - Molly and her half-sister, Babe -- but not before Marie got off a parting shot with her Polaroid One-Step.

``Have a good ride and be careful,'' she said, waving. It could have been a scene right out of ``Little House on the Prairie.''

That began two spectacular autumn days into the very depths of the Adirondacks. For eight hours each day, we trotted, walked, and galloped our charges down old logging roads, fording icy, trout-filled streams and heading up narrow mountain trails through areas open only to hikers and horses.

Maple and beech trees showered confetti-colored leaves before us as we slipped quietly through the forests. Occasional stands of tall white pines broke the color pattern with swaths of dark green and soft brown scented needles.

``These are the `pristine Adirondack trails' travel writers write about,'' laughed George as we sloshed through trails oozing with knee-deep mud, dark and thick as molasses. ``It's always like this on this particular trail. It's the run-off from Mud Mountain,'' he added, bouncing along in, and sometimes off, his horse-drawn wagon.

This may not be the home where the buffalo roam but an occasional whinny breaks the silence as horses catch the scent of a black bear or deer lurking in the woods.

Several stops along the way gave me a chance to dismount, get my legs back, and share Three Musketeer bars and Keebler Pecan Sandies with my trusty mount, Lucky.

Arriving at the campsite around seven in the evening, there was just enough time before dark to build a campfire, feed the horses and ourselves, and collapse on a cot in a tent.

The shrill cry of a screech owl pierced the quiet dawn at 5 a.m. This announced that the little bird of prey was having his breakfast before we had cracked an egg.

While George prepared a bounteous breakfast of homefries, eggs, and bacon, there was time to explore local woods and water. Kingfishers were diving for fingerling trout in local streams, and tracks of bear, deer, and raccoons were evidence of a busy night along the bank. After breaking camp, we began our slow trot back to Cold River Ranch.

Marie had dinner served around a crowded dining room table piled to monumental heights with antipasto, ziti, meatballs the size of tennis balls, and fresh fruit.

What better way to experience the Adirondacks? A horse, the rhythmic clop of hooves, and yes, those pristine (albeit soggy) mountain trails, finally to retire after an evening meal of Marie's Italian ranch cooking.

Practical Information

Cold River Ranch has two- and three-day horse packing trips from early spring until hunting season in autumn for up to 6 guests per trip. Rates are $110 per day. Horses, gear, guide, sleeping bags, and meals included.

Bed-and-breakfast rates are available throughout the year for $22 per night.

The Fontanas will arrange for cross-country skiing or canoe rentals during other seasons.

Big Tupper Ski Area is only 15 minutes away.

Brockway Air has service to Adirondack Airport, with connections to major cities.

For more information contact Cold River Ranch, Coreys, Tupper Lake, NY 12986; or call (518) 359-7559.

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