By Dan Higgins
Published on 9/21/2003
INDIAN LAKE -- Emily Evatt stares at a television screen and talks to an apparently empty classroom. She's on the second floor of the Indian Lake Central School building, and it's a bright fall day, the kind of day where the oxygen seems a little richer, the rare clouds whiter.
But Evatt, who is 17, is taking notes right now, in a distance learning class in psychology. The class is taking place at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy.
On the screen, instructor Charlotte Prokop diagrams a neuron with a dry-erase marker on a white board.
Does anyone have any questions? Emily?" asks the image on the screen.
It turns out Evatt doesn't have a question, but she gets her turn to bridge the 97 miles between herself and Troy when Prokop asks her to describe how the sensation of pain travels from, say, a burnt finger to the brain.
She does well, this virtual student who appears in the Troy classroom only as a head-and-shoulders image on a television screen. She speaks into a microphone on her desk and the image on the TV screen nods.
Evatt is receiving college credit for the introductory psychology course and is so far the only Indian Lake student using the community's new high-speed Internet connection, called a T-1 line, for such a purpose.
But the hookup is new, and superintendent Mark Brand said he hopes the number of students using the technology will grow.
"I tell students who are juniors, 'Just go up there and watch what she's doing. Because next year you're going to have the opportunity to do it, and I want you to see if you can learn in that environment.' "
That environment is the distance-learning hookup, a piece of high-tech that has become somewhat humdrum in recent years as it has become more common, especially at hospitals and college campuses.
But in Indian Lake, population 1,471, this is news. And it's an important way for the isolated Adirondack community to stay in touch, especially in the winter, when travel to the nearest "big city," Glens Falls, can take two hours or more.
The line was installed late last winter, a fiber-optic connection running along the path of existing telephone lines. It was purchased through a grant supplied by the Hudson Mohawk Area Health Education Center, a non-profit health care development agency.
The group's director, Tim Christiansen, helped the local Hudson Headwaters Health Network clinic, which serves Indian Lake, Schroon Lake and other small communities, obtain a $53,000 grant from state and federal sources as startup money. Then, Christiansen said, he helped broker a deal between Hudson Headwaters, the school district, the volunteer Ambulance Corps and the town government about sharing the superfast, hard-wired Internet connection and the approximately $700 monthly cost of maintaining it.
After a meeting between the groups, which also included the county's public health department, and representatives of town and county government, a deal was hatched. The line, owned by Adirondack Area Network and a company called Questar III, was up an running by February.
Because all of these organizations are within sight of each other along Indian Lake's Main Street, the project wasn't all that technically difficult, Christiansen said.
But the benefits are mounting, and the high-tech gadgetry is quickly being integrated into a community that has no cellular phone service, hardly any cable TV, and where hitting the "scan" button on your car's stereo will cause nearly every one of the FM frequencies to fly silently past except for two public radio stations.
In the warmer months, Indian Lake -- around 60 miles from Glens Falls -- caters to summer tourists, and people put up with such nuisances as black flies and protecting garbage from the occasional black bear. For many, the beauty of the Adirondacks is a reason to live here, with dark mountains seeming to leap out of the horizon and an autumn whose colors can make even a dyed-in-the-wool local gasp. But that beauty is balanced by the sheer isolation that makes life so difficult, especially during harsh, long winters.
"Isolation is always an issue," said Barbara Sweet.
She should know. For six years in the 1990s she served as a commissioner to the Adirondack Park Agency, the group that regulates development within the six-million acre park.
She also has served on the town council of the Town of Newcomb, which is between Long Lake and Ticonderoga, but not really close to either.
"I think there's a large percentage of people using the Internet in the Adirondacks, and it's larger than people might think," she said. "There's no one newspaper that covers the whole area, and people need to stay in touch. Without the Internet, it's hard to know what kind of issues are going on in the next town over."
Businesses in the Adirondacks are also recognizing that they need some kind of Internet access, and at the very least an attractive Web page, just to stay alive.
Ernest Hohmeyer, the head of the Adirondack Economic Development Corp., said that although the Internet was hard to sell some businesses on in its early days, people, especially in the tourism industry, can't thrive without it.
"If there is no Web presence, then people aren't going to see you. It's going to be like you're not there," he said.
That is especially difficult for places in remote areas that have no reliable Internet connection. Until very recently, that included Indian Lake.
For the Indian Lake Volunteer Ambulance Corps, that isolation means that every time a neighbor or sick tourist needs a hospital, ambulance crews must drive to Glens Falls, which the corps' president, Richard Leonard, said can be done in less than an hour "if we really push it."
But the yawning distance between Indian Lake and Glens Falls, or any other population center, has made life there difficult in any number of ways.
If you are one of the two dozen people charged with rescuing the injured and the sick in the town's 200-square-mile area, you have to rouse yourself once a month for a trip south of the blue line to Adirondack Community College or Albany Medical Center for in-service training. Emergency medical technicians must complete dozens of hours of specialized training each year.
It just wasn't easy for people to make the journey necessary to keep their credentials in good stead, said Patty Mahoney, a member of the rescue squad.
That has changed with the arrival of the high-speed Internet access.
On a recent Tuesday night, about 10 members of the ambulance corps gathered in their meeting room on Main Street for their distance-learning class, this one on emergency obstetrics delivered by a young resident physician at Albany Medical Center.
Turnout on this night was high compared to pre-Internet days, when only a handful of squad members could make the trip at any given time.
But it's different now, just months after the T-1 line began hurtling billions of bits of information between Indian Lake and, mostly, points south. The real difference is the quick realization among residents of Indian Lake - who are well aware of the their town's isolation - that recent technology, even a relatively mundane Internet video hookup, is eroding that isolation, if only just a little bit.
For the future
It's probably no different than at the dawn of the 20th century, when telephones first started appearing in town, or automobiles, highways, and televisions.
Brand, the Indian Lake schools superintendent, said high-speed Internet access is a way to put local students on a more equal footing with their peers from other communities when they leave for college.
He wonders what would happen if a student is thrust into a college classroom where communication with the professor is done primarily through e-mail and assignments are located on a central server.
"And for years all they've had here is dial-up access?" he said. "It would put them at a disadvantage."
But for all the little advantages, a T-1 line won't literally bridge the distance that keeps towns like Indian Lake so beautiful, and so remote.
While the medical resident in Albany drones on about what to do if a baby has its umbilical cord tied around its neck, the rescue squads portable radios start chirping. There's been an accident on Big Brook Road, a car has wound up in a ditch, resting on its roof. It could be scrapes and bruises or something far more serious.
About half the members present jump up and in seconds are headed into the garage and toward one of their two ambulances.
"We're probably taking someone to the hospital," says Leonard, now talking loudly over the TV screen in the corner. Leonard has the microphone off, so they can't hear him in Albany. It's impossible to tell if, over the two-way video connection, the resident doctor noticed the sudden thrum of activity in the ambulance corp's small meeting room.
Leonard smiles before he jogs out the door to the ambulance rig.
"But no matter what happens, we won't be back for about three hours," he said.
Article ID No. 84700