“These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.”
— The Shooting of Dan McGrew
Dear North Country Men’s Club Members,
As I have other editing assignments to tackle at the moment for which I actually get paid, I am unable to conduct the usual interviews and craft them into a seamless account of the most recent club outing. Herewith, then, is Tommy’s dutiful report, forwarded to you as is. I’m sure its artlessness will help you all appreciate how much work I have to do to turn these things into good reading.
To: The Editor
From: Tom Conroy
Date: February 2, 2000
Subject: latest trip report
Date of Trip:
January 29-30, 2000
Myself, Jack, Billy, Jay, Dylan, Ryan (new member)
Hemlock Hill Lean-to
According to the ninth edition of Guide to Adirondack Trails: High Peak Region and Northville-Placid Trail (1979, Adirondack Mountain Club), we began the trip “at the horseback assembly area just east of the Stony Creek bridge on the road leading from Route 3 through Coreys.” The turn off of Route 3 is between the towns of Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.
“Starting at the horseback assembly area, the trail follows a gravel road, avoiding a right turn at 0.06 miles, and continues up the east side of the Racquette River flood plain. At 1.45 miles, where an obscure lumber road turns right towards the river, the road bears left, climbing away from the river, following a small brook. Crossing the brook at 1.66 miles, it comes to level ground and reaches a junction at 2.07 miles with a trail leading right to the Hemlock Hill lean-to. Beyond this, the trail dips down to a junction at 2.21 miles, where the trail to Racquette Falls (2.00 miles) leads to the right across Palmer Brook.”
About a foot of new snow within the past week made for excellent skiing on packed powder trails. If you stayed ahead of me dragging my sled, you had nice tracks to ski in. There was all fresh powder in the woods, although it was not terribly deep, as there had been a snow drought all winter.
The low early Saturday morning was minus 23 (which was why Jack, Jay and I spent the night in a motel carbo loading on pizza and beer), but it was about 5 degrees when we started out on the trail at about 11 a.m. The high Saturday was about 20. The low Saturday night was minus 14 and it warmed up again on Sunday to about 20. It was sunny Saturday and clear overnight. Sunday was a mix of sun and clouds.
You should call the trip “The Case of the Obscure Side Trail” as we did not find the trail leading to the lean-to until late in the day. Jay and Jack apparently skied past its junction with the main trail several times, but it hadn’t been skied on, so it didn’t stand out (there was no sign or marker at the junction). Only Jack and Jay missed the trail because they were in front and they turned the rest of the party around before the four of us had a chance to spot the trail or miss it ourselves. We went all the way back with our gear to the “obscure lumber road” described above, but concluded it was not the way to the lean-to. I’m pretty sure that Billy finally found the trail, which seemed somewhat obvious to him, and Jay and Jack received a moderate verbal lashing for having overlooked it. This criticism by Billy and me would have been worse had the young men not been present, which prompted us to temper our remarks. The lean-to, in the end, was well worth the effort to find it. It sat on a nice spot above the river.
Interestingly enough, it turned out that we had a good, large-scale map of the trail that Jack had made the previous year using a computer software program of topographical maps. Billy had brought it along, but did not pull it out until after we had found the lean-to. He had assumed that Jack had his own copy in hand. There’s no way of knowing, of course, whether it would have made a difference if we had this map to refer to. In fact, we ran into two skiers familiar with the trails who were unable to assist us.
It was difficult to tell what Dylan and Ryan thought of this poor route finding, and of the trip in general. They are the strong, silent type and offered neither criticism nor complaint throughout the two days. It’s only a guess, but I believe they found the food to be wanting. Their behavior was exemplary despite severe cold. Dylan had behaved similarly in 1995 when competing in the grueling Adirondack Canoe Classic at a tender age. He had hoped to make astronomical observations on this trip, but for some reason his telescope was not among the gear hauled in.
As usual, I assiduously avoided camp chores so that I could better observe the goings on and make a thorough report. Billy was the only one to bring snowshoes, so he spent a lot of time hauling water from the river and finding wood. Carrying bundles of branches through the trees while wearing his green jacket and rabbit fur hat, he looked somewhat “woodchucky” himself.
Jay brought along plenty of food and hot drinks, as well as excellent soup. Jack had made a superb stew that he had ingeniously poured into plastic bags and frozen into round cakes that neatly fit onto the bakepacker. We had some problem with the stoves due to the cold, but now we know to disassemble them at night and keep the pumps in our sleeping bags if it’s going to be below zero.
The night passed without incident except for a disagreement between Billy and Jack regarding snoring. Jack awoke Billy several times to get him to stop snoring, and Billy thought snoring was something to be silently endured under the circumstances of six men sleeping together in the close quarters of a lean-to on a January night. My take on the disagreement is that my sleep was disturbed only by Jack yelling at Billy to stop snoring, not by the snoring itself, despite the fact that Billy slept between Jack and me.
The next morning, Billy went bushwhacking to find a shortcut to the main trail. The side trail that led to the lean-to actually circled back in the direction we had come, so we knew that the main trail was only a short distance from the lean-to as the crow flies. If we could find it, we could haul our gear there and save ourselves the effort of carrying it over the longer distance we had traveled the day before. Displaying great woodsmanship, Billy came back after a while to report that he had indeed found the main trail. He was rewarded for his efforts with no breakfast, as I ate his croissant in his absence.
We then hauled our gear along Billy’s bushwhack trail and deposited our packs near the main trail. This left us free to ski without packs up to the trail leading to Racquette Falls. We went down that trail for perhaps a mile, but stopped before the falls due to the lateness of the day and the fact that a returning skier told us there was tricky terrain ahead. We skied back to retrieve our gear and then headed for the parking lot.
That was the trip in a nutshell. It was certainly our longest overnight trip, since we started in earlier than usual on Saturday and got back out to the cars later than usual on Sunday. I should mention that Billy drove from Buffalo at 5 a.m. Saturday with Dylan and Ryan to meet us. As for myself, I left Connecticut early Friday morning and skied into Marcy Dam before heading on to Lake Placid to meet Jay and Jack at the Olympic speed skating oval.
I suggest that you give Jack and Jay a hard time for missing the trail, and especially lay it on Jack, since I believe he picked the spot originally. As Billy loaned me his booties on the trip after I had forgotten mine, I would treat him generously. Jack was right about the red wax, but there is no point in giving him a swelled head, so I’d leave that out. Jay, as usual, carried a ton of weight and brought a lot of provisions and gear.
This is a spot that we should visit again on a two-day trip, because the terrain is excellent for skiing and the lean-to is probably rarely used.
I think next year I’ll leave that #$%^&*ing sled home; it’s nothing but trouble!
And here is Dylan’s account of the trip:
By Dylan Semler
You have not yet experienced the full meaning of cold until you have at least gone winter camping. It is when you wake up from a disturbed night’s sleep, and you open your eyes, and see nothing, and you hear only the sound of your father snoring, and all you feel is cold. Your breath freezes shut your nostrils, and stings all the way down your throat. The only compensation for this is that you exhale, which is done with the feeling that the air that is now leaving is carrying away with it a few more degrees of warmth from your body.
It didn’t start out that bad. On the car ride up, we had a good time. We were thinking lightly of some of the events about to take place. Even as we arrived at the Raquette River, we were looking forward to getting our skis on and being off on the trails. As we hoisted up our backpacks, we realized then what we had gotten ourselves into. If you can, imagine that you had taken all of your clothes that you would wear to go skiing, or playing in the snow. Now double that amount. That is just what we were wearing; we still had twice as many clothes in our packs to survive the weekend. Also, we had our sleeping bags, which somehow managed to have the heaviness of a forty below sleeping bag, but about the insulation of a springtime thirty above sleeping bag. Also, one cannot forget to bring the tent, the tent poles, and the tent cover, just in case we couldn’t find an open lean-to. Of course, this had happened to my father a couple of years back, and they had opted not to carry the tents with them so as to make their packs lighter. Also, there was a certain amount of food to carry for each of us, along with stoves, trail mix, silverware, cups, pans, and bowls. Now you must take all of that stuff, place it on our backs, and then place all of us on cross-country skis, which are not much wider than an inch.
Back and forth
Then we hit the trails. Due to the balance problem that many of us had trying to ski with these immense packs on, we were falling all over the place, rendering any sort of progress into the woods very slow. As we traveled along the trail, we were being guided by a guidebook to Raquette River that my father had purchased. This described the trail to the lean-to as being on the side of the river at the base of a steep incline, like there was only one steep incline. We searched and toiled back and forth on this 2.1-mile strip for the trail. Up and down, back and forth, to no avail. Finally, one of us had stumbled into the trail. He was coming down a steep slope and failed to make the turn in which the trail headed. He went straight and just happened to be standing on a straight path leading toward the river — but not at the base of a steep hill, unless you were coming from the other direction. At this point we felt very stupid and exhausted.
Overpacked and underpacked
Of course the trail from here to the lean-to was not very short, and when we finally got there, we just laid down. After rushing back and forth on the trail we had worked up quite a sweat, and had removed a couple of layers of clothing. As we lay in the lean-to, the temperature began to drop and so did our body temperature. We had gotten to the point of near numbness before we decided to attempt to light a campfire or a stove. The fire pit was covered in three feet of snow which all had to be removed before any fire could be started. I was assigned the task of gathering firewood, which is not easy when the ground where all the sticks had fallen during the autumn is covered in much more than three feet of snow — closer to ten feet. It was my Dad’s job to light the stove. Every year, my Dad somehow manages to be both overpacked and underpacked at the same time. Although my Dad had remembered to pack his snow-purifying toothbrush cleaner, he had forgotten to include a gasket for the stove. So now, we had no fire to heat any sort of substance that then might in turn be used to heat ourselves. I have not yet reached the part about the cold.
Starry night highlight
Somehow we all pitched in to clear the fire pit and gather enough firewood to start a fire. We could now, with some tricky maneuvering, place a pot of water over the fire to heat and then to be used with soup or hot chocolate. Soon our dinner was on the way.
So things began to look good; we had our sleeping bags set up in the lean-to, dinner was served, the sun was setting, the crystalline snow was glittering with the orange reflection of the distant clouds on the horizon and when I reached back to scratch an itch on my back, I could actually feel my back with my fingertips — a sign of warmth. Then night began to fall and the true reason we came, the stars, came out. If you have ever truly seen the stars then you will be able to relate to what we saw that night. There was not a single source of light within fifty miles of us. No cities, houses, cottages, cars or even flashlights. Everyone within that radius was appreciating the spectacular view of the sky. That was the highlight of our trip.
A vicious cycle
Soon, as we became weary and cold, we retired to our sleeping bags to try to warm up and sleep. After we all began to doze off, the silence had gotten to me. Up here where it is now about ten below, all living things that had once spent any amount of time here had fled southward in search of warmth. Then, as my father began to doze off, he began to snore. This was more unpleasant than the deadly silence that had existed before. Somehow I managed to fall into a disturbed slumber. One time during the night I awoke, not realizing where I was until I opened my eyes. Then I closed my eyes, then open, close, open, close. I could not tell the difference between my eyes being open or closed. I tried to play a game to see if I could guess if my eyes were open or closed, but it turned out to be too easy. At this time I also became conscious about my breathing. As I began to inhale, my nostrils immediately froze shut. I then resorted to my alternate method of gathering oxygen into my body through my mouth. I took a deep breath, possibly my biggest mistake of the whole trip. As the twenty below air raced down my throat, it stung and somehow, despite its temperature, it burned my throat and lungs. My immediate reaction was to gasp for air, which I soon realized would only worsen the problem, so I stuck my head way down into my sleeping bag, and I slowly inhaled the foul air. After a couple of breaths my throat felt normal, but the oxygen level inside my sleeping bag began to drop — not a good sign. Regrettably, I pulled my head out of my bag and breathed in the needle-like air of the lean-to. This began a vicious cycle of pain and suffocation.
Good to be warm
Somehow I managed through the night. By morning, the sun had warmed up the atmosphere to about an even zero degrees. That day seemed better than the first day; perhaps we were getting used to the cold. We went on a few pack-less skis around on the river. We returned to our lean-to and packed our bags. As we left in the car, we were not thinking of the stars from the night before, nor the pleasant sunset, nor the brisk ski we had earlier in the day. All we were thinking of was that it felt good to be warm.
(Editor’s note: Dylan Semler is a long-time NCMC member who has been on numerous club outings. He completed the 90-mile Adirondack Canoe Classic in 1995)
Gallery: Coreys 2000