Winter Camp ’99
Winter camping for the North Country Men’s Club normally means a trek into an Adirondack woodland replete with deep snow that requires donning snowshoes for a trip to a half-buried privy.
That was decidedly not the case in 1999, and the snow-parched landscape that club members Jack, Bill, Jay, Tom and Lucky (the only female member ever to go on a winter trip) found in the Saranac Lake-Lake Placid region in late February forced a change in plans that ultimately salvaged a weekend that appeared to offer little promise.
Having stayed in a motel in Glens Falls on a Thursday night, Tom headed up the Adirondack Northway Friday morning to Saranac Lake and arrived bright and early. Unable to find his four partners in the Blue Moon eatery or the Blue Line outdoors store, he called Mary, who figured the missing chums were still lounging around their motel room. Before long, however, the tardy campers appeared, and a fine breakfast was had in the Hotel Saranac.
With the woodchucks (an affectionate pejorative for Adirondack residents) all acknowledging the horrible lack of snow (there apparently had been barely a flake in the past month), the NCMCers decided anyway to scout their planned route on the Racquette River. The trail looked bleak, however, as it presented only a slim layer of dirty, bulletproof snow littered heavily with the accumulated debris of pine needles and branches that are normally buried by the frequent snowfalls.
The sorry state of the trail was of particular distress to Jack, who had researched the area extensively through the miracle of topo maps on CD, and had even been able to provide his fellow hikers with a detailed profile of the elevation along the route. Having never set foot on the trail, he had nevertheless come to know it like the back of his hand, but the knowledge was proving, at least for now, to be worthless.
Back to town
There was only one thing to do, Jack thought, and that was to go to McDonald’s. So the group headed to the arches for ketchup-only burgers (Billy abstaining most vehemently), and then on to an outdoor store in Lake Placid to procrastinate further and look to see if any other gear (ice axes, avalanche beacons, crampons), in addition to all the equipment that was crammed in their two vehicles, could be defended as necessary and therefore purchased.
One of the storekeepers did claim that the skiing was good above the Marcy Dam area of the High Peaks, which Jack said was promising news. Billy said it would be promising news if they ever, in fact, got there. In the end, the group headed off to Adirondak Loj for further reflection. It appeared, Tom thought, that they would either camp at the Loj, near their cars, or perhaps even head back to town and while away the weekend window shopping. The little exertion that either option would require was not unappealing to him.
As they wandered about the Loj parking lot and the Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks Information Center, however, a decision was made that they were going into the woods after all in search of a leanto at Marcy Dam. How the decision was made was not entirely clear, but made it was, and all the preparations attendant to it were underway by Jay, Billy and Jack. Tom decided he best get started, too, and he began to assemble the parts of his experimental sled, which he had constructed for the trip from plans that Jack had faxed to him. Although it cost virtually nothing to build, Tom had decided the project could have some merit after all. The sled was the winter camping equivalent of the first Mercury space capsule, an untried piece of technology that could catapult him to new heights in the wintry mountains, or could crash and burn on the launching pad, leaving him once again carrying his load of gear on his back.
After a long time, long after Billy and Jay had set off for the dam (Sound familiar, dear Reader?), Tom had bungee-corded his overstuffed pack, a five-liter bag of wine and a 12-pack of Budweiser to the trusty sled. Jack was kind enough to wait around (it had been his idea, in fact, to add the Budweiser to the load) during the process. Tom had actually planned to hitch the sled to Lucky, but Lucky looked smaller than the last time he had seen her and had already escaped from the parking lot on the heels of her master and carrying her own food and bedroll. Tom had no choice, therefore, but to clip on the waist belt from his old Jansport pack, which was now attached to the sled. At the same time, Jack hoisted his 400-dollar olive Dana Design terraplane (a MEDIUM-SIZED pack, but we won’t go into all that now!), and off they tramped to Marcy Dam.
On the trail
The sled proved to be both a godsend and an irritation. On a straight, level trail, it slid along smartly behind its pilot. So smartly, in fact, that at times Tom could not feel it at all. Dragging it uphill was no worse than carrying a pack, and downhill was easy, as the six-foot-long plastic pipes through which the ropes connecting the sled to the waistbelt ran kept the sled from riding onto the heels of the camper. The only problem was the sled’s tendency to flip over on curves. Jack, bringing up the rear, had to right the sled a dozen times or more. Some capsizes were avoided when Tom ran downhill rather than walked, which kept the sled from veering sideways off the trail in its effort to pass him.
(It should be noted that the snow cover on the trail was so thin and packed that the NCMCers walked in on boots alone. It marked the first time since the first-ever winter camping trip that neither snowshoes nor skis were required by the party to navigate the trail.
It should also be noted that the group eschewed a tent for the first time since the ill-fated trip with Conor. It was also the first time ever that each of the participants on the trip, including Billy, actually KNEW for a fact that there was no tent among the gear being hauled in. Even more extraordinary was the fact that there wasn’t even a tent brought by car to the trailhead. For his part, Billy acknowledged that he had “forgot to demand” that a tent be loaded in the van from Buffalo. He made that comment in the same resigned tone he would have used to say that he forgot to tell his daughters to bring their lunch to school. This tentless circumstance occurred despite the fact that the unavailability of a leanto was a distinct possibility considering the late time of day at which the group was entering the woods (Sound familiar, dear Reader?) on a Friday afternoon and the popularity of their destination. What the group did not know, and what would have been cause for even more alarm, was the fact that, in addition to all the campers who had preceded them to Marcy Dam on their chosen trail, a whole group of other campers was at or heading for the dam from another nearby trailhead. The NCMCers would only realize this later in the trip. All in all, it was a quite cavalier approach to winter camping, but, after 15 or so years of February forays, the NCMC is certainly entitled to some complacency.)
Arriving at the dam late in the afternoon, Jack and Tom were greeted by Billy, who informed them that, quite remarkably, he had secured not one, but two leantos for the campers. The nearer, more secluded leanto was deemed home for the trip, and the group set up shop for the night.
Chef Jay had brought both dinners, and the first night was Mexican night, with burritos, or where they enchiladas? Whatever they were, they were stick-to-your-ribs good, and included touches like sour cream, salsa and quacamole, and were preceded by a most excellent soup. Good food of this quality, of course, requires the hauling of heavy provisions over the trail, because the meals cannot be brought in dry and then reconstituted with the necessary liquid on site. Fortunately, Jay can haul as well as he can cook, and he packed in a feedbag load that the average observer would assume had required a burro or two. All that was lacking, and that could have been expected from Jay, were some Tex-Mex touches to provide “atmosphere.” For example, sombrero party hats for the diners would have been nice, or perhaps some southwestern travel posters taped to the walls of the leanto. The Editor suggests that Jay make a note.
Crying over spilled beer
One mishap that dampened spirits and Thermarests temporarily was the spilling of a beer in the leanto. As best as can be determined, here is how the beer came to be spilled: On the list of supplies that Jack circulated, he instructed Tom to bring beer for the parking lot gatherings before and after the trip. Tom dutifully purchased two 12-packs of Budweiser and transported them over state lines to the Adirondacks. Jack then suggested that the sled could accommodate one of the 12-packs. Tom dutifully added the 12-pack to the sled’s load and hauled it to the leanto. Later, in giving Tom one of the beers, Jack opened the pop top incorrectly, breaking the seal on the can only slightly, rendering it undrinkable without further opening. Tom got another beer and set the impaired can down on the wood fringe of the leanto. Somehow, it became Billy’s beer and he was going to try to open it with a can opener. Somehow, Billy’s beer became situated on top of the one of the Thermarests. Apparently, Lucky knocked it over and it began to slowly leak its contents onto Billy’s and Jack’s Thermarests. Billy eventually spotted the evolving disaster and began to clean it up. As he wiped up the beer, he voiced a few expletives and made it clear that bringing the beer into the woods in the first place was ill-advised. Tom’s only thought was that one of their precious beers had been lost. Who was ultimately to blame for the disaster? Well, Jack did order the beer to be brought and loaded on the sled, and subsequently mishandled the beer in question. And, since we’re not going to blame a faithful, noble and shapely dog like Lucky, the Editor reluctantly points the finger at Jack, unless it was Billy himself who put the beer on the Thermarest, in which case perhaps his culpability is equal to Jack’s. The only sure thing is that Tom and Jay did absolutely nothing wrong regarding the beer. In any event, the mishap was soon forgotten, and they all had some wine with dinner. The wine itself was described by Billy as “chillable red.” Whether it was a Peter Vella vintage is not known, but the resilience of the plastic bag in which the wine is sold is much more important than the wine itself, and the bag stood up to the brutal punishment of being bounced around on the sled all the way to camp.
There was even another spill a bit later during the process of thawing Jay’s beans. A pot tipped slightly, and some of its gooey contents spread on the leanto floor. Lucky was employed to lick it up, however, and did a most thorough job. The Editor believes that helping Lucky acquire a taste for beer will make her even more docile and add to her utility by giving her the capacity to lick up spilled brew in a leanto.
By the light of the silvery moon
Perhaps the best feature of the evening was the bright light from an almost full moon (In planning future trips, it might be wise to pick a date that coincides with the possibility of a moonlit night). The degree to which a full moon can illuminate a snow-covered landscape is quite remarkable, and allows the camper to wander about the woods without any need for flashlight or headlamp. The snow is so bright that it appears to be a light source of its own, rather than simply reflecting the light that the moon itself is reflecting from the sun beating on the other side of the world. Although a moonlight night in the summer woods is certainly a phenomenon not to be missed, it pales in comparison to its winter counterpart, and for those who doubt the pleasurable aspects of winter camping, the Editor would suggest that all doubts would be erased if they could see the finely etched black shadows of the spruces slanting eerily through the glistening white terrain.
So, the group walked about a bit after dinner, away from the glow of lanterns. The marked trail along which their leanto sat was particularly bright, and could not have been more clearly delineated. While it is easy to lose a trail at night in the summer, a snow-covered, moonbeam-lit trail in winter is as easy to follow as a ribbon of interstate in the desert.
The group finally bedded down to relatively mild temperatures in the teens and, except for the obligatory middle-of-the-night pee, had an uneventful sleep, with minimal snoring.
Saturday morning was sunny and bright, and promised mild temperatures. There was no need to melt snow for water, as the nearby stream was running beneath its covering of snow and ice. Either an NCMCer had punched a hole in the ice, or widened an existing one, making for easy access to water. Getting water reminded one of Henry Thoreau cutting a hole in Walden Pond and dipping his bucket into the “cool parlor of the fishes.”
Jack made pancakes for breakfast. As he made his mix, its initial texture caused concern that Jack had brought dried mash potatoes rather than pancake mix, but the concern proved groundless. Although there has been some debate over the years as to whether such an elaborate breakfast as pancakes should be part of the proceedings, Billy always insists that the time and effort required for pancakes and the like is a most worthwhile investment and Jack, with minimal grumbling, has always sought to accommodate Billy’s wishes on that score.
The plan for the day was to ski to beautiful Avalanche Lake. Klister was passed over in favor of one of the various soft waxes and off the group went, though not all at the same time.
At one point on the journey, Jack and Tom encountered a friendly and enthusiastic Department of Environmental Conservation forest ranger. After discussing wax and trails and ski conditions, including the lack of snow, Jack said to the ranger, “So, you’re working now?” Translation: “You’re actually getting paid by taxpayers to go for a carefree ski on a sunny and mild February morning in the beautiful Adirondack High Peaks?” The ranger said that indeed he was being compensated at the moment, and Tom decided that, should he be in need of a rescue at any point on the trip, he would make it clear to the ranger that he found Jack’s remark to be a terrible insult to an underpaid, underappreciated public servant who was slogging through the woods to safeguard any and all citizens whom he happened to encounter.
It turned out to be a fairly rigorous climb on skis to Avalanche Lake from their leanto and, at least for Tom, raised the issue of whether one should ski or walk along a trail if either mode takes the same amount of time. Anway, after a while, the four campers all assembled on the frozen, sunshine-bathed lake for a lunch of summer sausage, pumpernickle, and cheese … very, very strong cheese.
While they munched, they gaped up at the steep rock faces that rose up on either side of the narrow lake. On one rock face, they could, upon craning their necks, watch a group of climbers, no doubt equipped with ropes, crampons and ice axes, edging slowly up a steep, icy pitch toward the top of the cliff way, way above where they stood on the lake. It was a daunting display and, as the NCMCers advance inexorably to middle age, with its inevitable bad hips and other disabilities, the chances appear more and more remote that such extreme winter sport will ever be theirs to experience. But what of it? Ultimately, their point is to enjoy a little wilderness at a leisurely pace, not to test themselves on a foreboding cliff. Leave the latter pursuits to younger men, they believe, who are perhaps not quite so secure in their manhood as the NCMCers. Besides, judging from how far the ice climbers had progressed, that had obviously started their day’s excercise much earlier than the NCMCers, and they certainly had not had time for pancakes or some other civilized breakfast.
After lunch and lounging, the group skied to the far end of Avalanche Lake and into the woods again, headed for Flowed Lands. Emerging from the woods, and taking in the expansive view of Flowed Lands, they turned back homeward, skiing back through the woods and then back down Avalanche Lake. Tom decided that he would not ski down the steep trail leading down from Avalanche Lake, opting instead to snowshoe down an adjacent hiking path. He made this decision despite another encounter with the friendly forest ranger they had met earlier in the day.
At their second meeting, out on Avalanche Lake, the ranger admonished them not to be wusses who walked down the ski trail. Tom, however, stuck stubbornly to his personal rule that he does not ski when the same piece of ground can be covered faster, or just as fast, on foot. Jay, Billy and Jack chose to ski down the trail and did fine. Plus, it only took them about 10 minutes longer than Tom took to walk the distance. The four campers regrouped on the trail at an empty leanto a few minutes up the trail from their own encampment, and they all skied from there back to their leanto.
Stupor by Jay
As twilight approached, Jay went about preparing an awesome pasta dinner. Simultaneously, the large tree trunks and other sizeable pieces of wood that he and Billy had collected were used to produce a large bonfire. The combination of the large-portioned, tasty dinner and the warm fire created a contented effect best described as “Stupor by Jay,” and Tom saw little reason not to embellish the mood with a little “chillable red.” Nevertheless, the group went for a walk up the trail in the direction of Avalanche Lake. Once again, the night was clear and the moon lit up the woods to a remarkable degree. After getting halfway to Avalanche Lake, Jay and Jack decided to keep on going, while Billy and Tom returned to the leanto. Jay and Jack returned to the leanto later, claiming that anyone who did not walk all the way to the Lake, as they had done, and view it in the moonlight, missed out on a “once in a lifetime experience” that salvaged a trip otherwise rendered mediocre due to the poor snow conditions. While the Editor is quite certain that Avalanche Lake on a silent moonlit night is a sight well worth seeing (if in fact, Jay and Jack actually saw it) surely those who did not see it did not waste their weekend, particularly when the alternative was to take a somewhat shorter after-dinner walk in the moonlit woods, and then sit on the edge of the leanto, gaze into the fire, sip “chillable red” from a double-walled Coleman mug, and discuss at length the shortcomings of the absent campers.
The last night of the trip was a tad warmer than the first, and was passed without incident. The morning was quite breezy and cloudy, signaling a storm. Breakfast was eggbeaters and sausage prepared efficiently and with no need for cleanup in the Bakepacker, and the group performed reluctantly the sad chores associated with packing up and leaving. If one were to look in the leanto and its environs on the last morning of an NCMC winter trip, he or she would be much surprised to learn that all the gear and supplies strewn about were in fact carried in by the group, and will be carried out again, and will somehow be stuffed into a quartet of packs that, although roomy, seem to be short on the volume necessary.
The men and dog planned to head home via the “truck road,” rather than the trail by which they had come in. The choice was made on the assumption that the road, which ran roughly parallel to the other trail, would allow them to ski out with their packs ather than walk. Billy wanted to try the sled from the leanto down to the dam, and he made an important discovery and he hauled it along. He realized that capsizes of the sled could be avoided by attaching the ropes to the middle of the sled, rather than to the end. It is believed that he once taught elementary school science, so he apparently knew what he was doing. The sled became much more stable after Billy made the necessary adjustments, and Tom was able to ski easily down the road with the sled trailing obediently.
The only problem with their route, aside from its patches of bare mud and gravel, was the fact that it did not lead directly to their cars, but rather to a different parking lot along the road leading from Route 73 to Adirondack Loj. There was a narrow side trail leading to the Loj from the road, but Jay and Jack missed the turnoff, and Billy and Tom, who did not, found the snow cover to be inadequate, and decided to bypass it as well. Jack, after reaching the parking lot where their cars were not parked, ended up walking down the road for well over a mile to his car, and Tom, not sure where Jack was, hitched a ride to his car. It had begun to rain just as they had reached the trailhead, but that soon changed to snow.
After a brief gathering at the High Peaks Information Center, the group was off to Buffalo and Connecticut, having reached a consensus that the finest trip possible had been “salvaged” from the dubious conditions. Without the prospect of great skiing, they had opted for the scenery of rugged Avalanche Lake, and had not been disappointed, except for the spilled beer.
Gallery: Avalanche Lake 1999