Ben Chamberlain was born and raised in Addison County with the Green Mountains in his backyard, but what he could view from his front door really captured his imagination.
"As a child, my view was of the Adirondacks," says Chamberlain, who eventually left for art school at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute and a seven-year stint in California before returning to the Northeast. "When I came back, I just started exploring the Adirondacks more and more and more, and it consumed me — it was a real escape, just somewhere I could go and truly disconnect and get away from it all."
A night or two in the woods turned into multiday paddling and hiking expeditions, until Chamberlain and his girlfriend eventually moved to Saranac Lake to be closer to the Adirondack Park.
"It's so vast — six million acres, more than 3,000 lakes and ponds, 30,000 miles of rivers and streams," says Chamberlain of the ADK's allure. "I figured out I could spend my whole life here and never get to the end."
But what Chamberlain could also never attain, he realized last winter when coming down from a hike up 4,160-foot Phelps Mountain, was a sustainable, local souvenir that he could wear to show off his passion for those peaks.
"Here I am, in my mid-thirties, I love the Adirondack Park, but what authentic thing can I purchase to show that, aside from buying a Patagonia shirt, which has nothing to do with the Adirondacks?" Chamberlain recalls thinking. "I love Patagonia, but there's a real disconnect."
So he set out to create his own line of Adirondack wear.
Chamberlain was not only an illustration major at Pratt but also a longtime concertgoer and T-shirt collector. He realized that all-natural, organic cotton could be his canvas. His inks, meanwhile, would be water-based, environmentally friendly products from downstate in Hauppauge, N.Y. His designs would be inspired by ADK discoveries, from frogs and bears to sunsets and still waters.
Available in "small-batch" limited runs, each of Chamberlain's T-shirts tells a story. Like the time when he hiked several miles to the 250-foot OK Slip Falls in Indian Lake, recently acquired by the state from the paper company Finch, Pruyn & Co. The cascade is eye popping, but he was more concerned with the phenomenon at his feet: "thousands" of newts. "I could barely walk; I had to tiptoe because there were so many," says Chamberlain. "So I went home and drew up a little newt."
Less than a year after his winter-hike epiphany, Chamberlain officially launched Blue Line Design & Apparel (like the Adirondacks, it has a three-letter nickname: BLD) in January. Last month, he opened a flagship store on Saranac Lake's Main Street to sell everything from tank tops to thermals for year-round adventures. Experienced in construction, Chamberlain built much of the place himself, with reclaimed lumber racks and an in-house printing setup.
"Saranac Lake is having its own little renaissance right now, so I just really want to be part of that, and part of the community," Chamberlain says of his decision to base the business in the village of 5,400. "Plus, it's the final outpost before the St. Regis [Canoe Area] wilderness, which is what I like to call Waterworld — it's just insane. I think there might be more water than land mass; it's very remote. So Saranac Lake is where you go to supply up, and it's where you come back to when you're wet and cold and hungry."
When it comes to being wet and cold, what does he think of the old outdoor adage, "Cotton kills"?
"I do agree with some of that," admits Chamberlain. "But this is casual wear for the active lifestyle. My hooded sweatshirts are a great thing to have around the campfire at night; after you've summited that mountain or paddled that river, it's nice to get into a light, organic, warm, dry cotton sweatshirt."
Basically a one-man business, Chamberlain wears multiple hats, doing freelance design illustration and printing products for other local companies. He recently applied for a trademark for the term "Paddlerondack," which adorns some of his apparel. BLD, which sells Vermont-made Darn Tough socks, gives 1 percent of its revenue to the Adirondack Mountain Club, and has partnered with local summer events such as the recent Adirondack Stand Up Paddle Festival and the Adirondack Museum's upcoming Made in the Adirondacks Fair on July 19.
Spreading the gospel of locally grown goods, and how they benefit local economies and populations, can be slightly more difficult on his side of Lake Champlain, says Chamberlain. "Vermont is so progressive in this area — it's been the norm for a decade," he says. "Over here in Saranac Lake, it's very new; there's a lot of education that has to go on."
It's also been challenging, Chamberlain says, to find American-made organic products that can stand up to the rigors of the outdoors, even if it's cooking s'mores by the fire.
All those commitments leave the outdoorsman, his girlfriend and their basset hound, Amos, little time to escape on the expeditions that inspired BLD, but Chamberlain manages. He's spent part of this summer commuting from a campsite in the Rainbow Lake Chain of Lakes, a place so abundant in wildlife that "it's like a Parc Safari ride," he says.
Chamberlain advises his fellow Vermonters to seek out pockets of Adirondack Park beyond the highly populated High Peaks trails. "Despite its seven to 10 million visitors every year," he says, "you can go places and not see people for a long time."
That's after filling up a few shopping bags at BLD, of course. Chamberlain is working on getting his products in Green Mountain outlets; until then, they're available only at the Saranac Lake flagship store and a handful of other New York retail outlets. Still, he points out, that's way closer than the origins of much outdoor apparel, such as China, Pakistan, Nicaragua or Mexico.
"If you're wearing a BLD shirt from the Adirondacks," he says to Vermonters, "it's like eating a tomato from your garden."