hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture


A woman and a mountain

Event planner develops low-impact retreat center at edge of Adirondacks

Contributing writer


In this small town in the foothills of the Adirondacks, there’s one looming feature that’s both a landmark and a destination: Potash Mountain.
The 1,750-foot-high mountain, popular for its easy climb, is owned by the state and protected as part of the Adirondack Park.
But when Donna Gagnon learned that 325 acres at the mountain’s base were up for sale, she jumped at the opportunity to preserve that land – and also to share it with others.
Gagnon calls Potash Mountain “the icon of Lake Luzerne.”


Donna Gagnon bought 325 acres at the base of Potash Mountain in Lake Luzerne, N.Y., and has set out to create a low-impact retreat center there.

“Potash has been painted by artists, and people have been hiking it for generations,” she said. “I used to hike the property and didn’t realize it was private until I saw the for-sale sign.”
Gagnon bought the property in 2011 and decided she didn’t just want a typical retreat center in a wooded enclave. Instead she wanted to create a place where the land played a starring role and, in some sense, would be given the star treatment by guests.

So she set out to create what she’s calling Prinpaw Eco-Forest Private Retreat.
“Collectively, Prinpaw includes Potash Mountain,” Gagnon explained. “It’s unique because the mountain is state-owned, but all access to the mountain is privately owned. I’m keeping the land private, but I want to give it away: I want it to be used for enrichment, whether it’s hiking, art classes, or yoga retreats.”

Gagnon, who has a background in filmmaking, has run her own event-planning business, InfoTainment Services, since 2001, and previously worked as an event planner for Adirondack Studios.

Her name for the property was derived from the name of her late Samoyed, Princess, whose health struggles inspired her first idea for the property: a retreat center for the rehabilitation of dogs.

“There are similar places for horses, not dogs,” Gagnon said. “I talked to veterinarians, and they liked the idea of a place where pets who needed rehabilitation could get extended care. That was the original intent when I bought the property. I now say that Princess was the dog who moved the mountain.”


Keeping it green
Gagnon says whether guests visit Prinpaw for a yoga retreat, a wedding or simply a hike, she maintains a firm leave-no-trace rule.

“I have a certification from completing the Outdoor Awareness Program taught by SUNY Adirondack in 2009 and believe that everything we do in nature should work within the environment we are in,” she said. “When we leave the environment, it should resume its natural setting to be enjoyed and shared again. The Adirondack Park conservation areas adopt this type of standard.

“I really see Prinpaw as being a park within a park,” she continued. “The Adirondack Park is a beautiful, fortunate, and amazing place which I’m very in favor of protecting.”

Gagnon said she’s well aware of the duality involved with living in or enjoying the Adirondacks, the balancing act between livelihood and lifestyle. The region’s land-use restrictions, for example, often mean there is little or no cell-phone service.

“I realize there are concerns from people who choose to live here,” she said. “I’ve been on both sides of the aisle of saying technology and jobs are important. But you can’t just go through the Adirondacks and grow towns, because you lose when you gain.”

So her vision for managing Prinpaw’s land centers on environmental sustainability.
“I have 325 acres collectively, but I choose to develop it with a small ‘d,’” she explained. “I really don’t want to put any brick-and-mortar type of environmental change here, because I believe that a property like this can sustain itself and those who want to be enriched by it.”

For now, there is a cabin at the edge of the property that will be used for housing overnight guests or for workshops. There are also temporary structures such as the screen hut, made of old window frames that she carried into the woods piece by piece. It now sits by a stream, waiting for inhabitants that Gagnon says will range from massage therapists to yoga instructors.
To help defray the cost of the land and maintain its integrity, Gagnon had it certified through the American Tree Farm System.

“We did selective harvesting,” she said. “I engaged foresters to tag certain trees in order to enrich the trail system on the property. I can’t afford an excavator. But I asked myself how the land can sustain itself and join a trail system, so I chose forestry.”

The endeavor helped to create an extensive trail system on the Prinpaw property and also provided several cleared areas suitable for hosting groups of campers or day visitors for workshops.

“I was able to do all that, and I actually made money -- not a lot, but I logged responsibly and with a mission,” she said.

The mission went so well, in fact, that Gagnon said she would like in the future to work with fellow Adirondack landowners of 1,000 acres or less and write a plan on how to sustain a property.

“If you have a property, you look at it and say: How do you keep it pristine while also sharing it with people who want to know how beautiful it is?” she said. “I think one of the best ways is through retreat and recreation.”

“Prinpaw has always a place I’ve come back to in order to center and unplug,” she added. “It’s true that Prinpaw is a forest. But even if you think it’s just pine trees, I can show you an ecosystem that is not just pine trees. There is so much on this property, I don’t think it’s crazy to have yoga and art and painting, mountain climbing, and moonlight hiking.”


From weddings to therapeutic retreats
Although forestry and land management have been a learning experience for her, planning events for a retreat center is in Gagnon’s blood.

“I’m an event producer by trade and own a production company,” she said. “Creating vision is what I do for a living.”

Gagnon said she opted against making Prinpaw a nonprofit corporation, because “there’s no one focused vision” for such an organization to carry out.

“It’s art, it’s sculpture, it’s rock climbing, it’s fitness, and it’s spirituality,” she said. “And it’s also mushroom-growing: There are studies being done at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that say mushrooms are the next plastics, and they’re a resource to harvest without diminishing the environment.”

So in addition to Gagnon’s plans to have weddings, family reunions and enrichment workshops at Prinpaw, she is also reaching out to colleges to collaborate on research projects, as well as to arts organizations.

She recently began collaborating with Alexis Broz, an intern from SUNY Adirondack’s Outdoor Adventure Program who is also an avid hiker, guide, and chalk artist in Saratoga Springs.
“I became involved with Prinpaw because of my own strong interest in the field of wilderness therapy and the possibility of it becoming a place where people can overcome struggles with the serenity of nature,” Broz said. “Prinpaw is a place brimming with creative energy that is meant to be shared. It’s to be used as a means for people to make discoveries on both a grand scale of natural wonder, as well as from an introspective look within.”

Gagnon said she has every intention of visitors getting the most out of the land, which includes wooded trails, mountain vistas, open spaces, and gurgling streams.

“I was just ordained to perform wedding ceremonies,” she said. “I can hike a couple to the top of the mountain, they can say vows and come back down for the reception. I can customize a family reunion or wedding, and I know how to not leave a footprint.”

Her other plans for the future include a music camp, sustainable art projects for the property using objects such as stones and pinecones, glamping (a popular form of semi-luxurious camping), outdoor concerts, hiking trips for seniors, and outdoor adventures for the physically challenged.

As a member of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, she also envisions partnering with schools and summer camps to create opportunities to get children and teenagers more active and accustomed to being outdoors. This effort will include an Oct. 14 event that coincides with Nickelodeon’s World Wide Day of Play.

“I’d also like to develop a membership for Prinpaw, where dues are paid in exchange for use of the land,” she said. “But this isn’t a business, it’s a place. The property is posted and private. I do not allow public access without permission, for a variety of reasons including liability.”
Those who have been enjoying the land so far have included hikers, campers, skiers and snowshoe hikers, and artists who come to paint.

“Prinpaw is a unique place,” Gagnon said. “You can walk the land for an hour and not see another person. But you’re a mile from a general store, and you can be at a Wal-Mart in 10 minutes. And yet, between Prinpaw and Potash, you’re on thousands of acres. You can go back 300 acres -- and then you’re on state land -- and not see or hear a soul. It’s amazing.”


For more information on Prinpaw and its events calendar, visit www.prinpaw.com or e-mail prinpaw@yahoo.com.