Skiing in Canoe Country
The St. Regis Canoe Area is the Adirondack Mountains’ humble alternative to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario or Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.
Although tiny compared to the other two renowned destinations, the St. Regis nevertheless offers a beautiful, motorless realm to the paddler. Anyone who has spent a few days there in summer gliding across its lakes and ponds and tenting in its woods will vouch for its designation as a prized pocket wilderness.
After the 2001 winter camping trip of the NCMC, the club members who journeyed to the St. Regis also know that it is a superb winter destination where travelers trade their canoes for skis and slide across its frozen waters and search for untracked snow along its portages.
NCMCers Tom, Jack, Bill, Jay, David and Lucky took the trip to the St. Regis on Super Bowl weekend, and all but Lucky spoke highly of the area, and Lucky’s demeanor certainly indicated approval.
The Outside Consultant
Before each winter trip, the collegial NCMC has to reach a consensus on a destination. It is not an easy process, as different club members propose different spots. Some of these proposals would bring the NCMC back to a former winter haunt, like Cascade Pond near Blue Mountain Lake in the Central Adirondacks, or to Coreys along the Racquette River not far from Tupper Lake. Other suggested trips would lead the club to a promising new area. The only thing for certain is that Jack, the NCMC’s answer to Augustus McCrae, and Bill, who is a latter-day Woodrow Call, will engage in some verbal tussling over where the group should go. Unfortunately, ad hominem remarks are not unknown during these heated destination discussions. This year, Jack, wanting to find a new destination in the Saranac Lake-Lake Placid region of the Northern Adirondacks, decided to consult with Brian McDonnell, a well-regarded Adirondack outfitter and guide who has become the prime organizer of the Adirondack Canoe Classic, or 90-miler. Jack sent him the following email. Parenthetical remarks are the Editor’s, not Jack’s:
We have come to know and appreciate your sensibilities through participation in the ADK canoe classic. We are a bunch of fat, overweight guys pushing fifty who for some twenty years now have been taking winter camping trips for two nights to the Adirondacks. Each year we debate at length what destination to go to and how much stuff we can hide in Jay’s packs. Would you be interested in either recommending an Adirondack destination or guiding our group? In the past we have ventured into Avalanche Pass, the Raquette River from Coreys, Henderson and Wallface lean-tos from the Upper Works in Newcomb, Cascade Lake and Stephens Pond near Blue Mountain Lake and John Pond (near Indian Lake). We are at the intermediate level proficiency at cross-country skiing (How modest!). We generally target a lean-to 2-3 miles in for a destination. This year’s trip is scheduled for Friday, January 26th through Sunday the 28th. We are considering taking a guide, especially if you thought it could enhance or provide a different perspective on the trip. Enhancements of interest include great cross-country skiing destinations, winter vistas and interpretations or explanations related to the natural history of the area (but we’ll settle for directions to the privvy). A perspective on past trips can be gleaned from this link http://home.earthlink.net/~jmtconroy/coreys.html. Thanks again for all your help on the ADK Canoe Race.
McDonnell offered the following reply:
I’m not sure if you are looking for a guide or a sherpa! You’ve checked out some nice places, let me recommend a few more. Grace and I like to ski in to Fish Pond, on the old truck road. It is about 5 miles in, and there are two lean-tos on the pond. There is one real hill on the otherwise gently rolling route. As an alternative, with good conditions you could ski into St. Regis Pond via Little Long Pond, and ski to the Fish Barrier dam and on to the Fish Pond truck trail. Great views, and easy skiing. There is a lean to on St. Regis Pond as well. If lean-tos are not a prerequisite, there are a number of other trips you could check out. It would be fun to ski for a day with you guys. Let me know.
Brian’s excellent suggestion turned out to be the club’s destination: the lean-to on St. Regis Pond.
Not that the group immediately agreed on that destination. In fact, as the team headed for the Adirondacks the day before the expedition was to begin, a camping destination had still not been determined.
The Trip to the Trip
This was David’s first winter trip and Jack told him that he, Jay and Bill would meet him Thursday night at a motel in Saranac Lake. Tom decided the he would drive to Albany Thursday night and stay with Gary Delisle, and get up early to meet the group on Friday. Upon arriving in Albany, Tom called the motel at 11:30 p.m. and woke up David, who had arrived from Montpelier, Vermont in the evening and had gone to sleep. Jay, Billy and Jack, of course, had not arrived from Buffalo. This then, was David’s initiation to an NCMC winter camping trip — arrive first and hurry up and wait for the Buffalo contingent.
Tom set out for the North County the next morning, stopping along the way to try to make contact with his fellow NCMCers on his cell phone. Service was intermittent, and at a one point he reached the motel, where the proprietor asked him if he was on of the “no-shows” from the night before. His call was then cut off, and he wondered if the three NCMCers from Buffalo had not even made it to Saranac by that morning. He continued north, and finally, while stopped at the Noonmark Diner in beautiful downtown Keene, the home of the High Peaks, made contact with Jack at the motel. Jack informed him that he had arrived around 2 a.m. in Saranac and was going to get breakfast before proceeding to the trailhead that would take them to St. Regis Pond, which had been finally settled on as the destination. Tom decided to get breakfast, too, and stopped briefly at the Mountaineer, a fine outdoor store in Keene, before figuring he better rush to the trailhead so as not to delay the party.
Rushing from Keene, and passing Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, Tommy arrived at the trailhead, but found none of his fellow campers. He wondered if he had made a mistake and was in the wrong spot. If he was in the right spot, he thought, surely the others would have gotten there first. He sat in his car for awhile, considering whether he should retreat to Saranac, when the others finally arrived. They must have had a leisurely breakfast, he thought.
The group parked their cars at the trailhead and began to assemble their gear for the trip. They loaded their packs and waxed their skis. What wax to use always produces a lengthy discussion involving the age and temperature of the snow. For those who have only used waxless cross-country skis, we’re talking kick wax here, not the glide wax that is melted and ironed hot onto downhill skis. The purpose of the kick wax is to provide grip when you weight a ski so you can kick the opposite ski forward with gusto and glide on it. Too little grip makes it tough to go uphill and too much grip reduces glide. The kick or grip wax comes in the form of a fat, stumpy crayon. You “crayon” the wax onto the ski’s base — usually the middle third of the base — and then smooth it with a cork. These wax crayons come in various colors corresponding to the type and temperature of the snow the skier encounters. Generally, the newer and colder the snow, the harder the wax should be, because the facets of the individual snow flakes are sharp and grabby. Wetter and older snow requires a softer, messier wax, because the facets of the flakes are rounded or worn down, and the smooth snow surface offers little purchase. Extremely old snow, which has gone through several thaw and freeze cycles, and is also known as ice, requires a molasses-type wax called klister, which is so gooey that it comes in a tube rather than as a crayon, and must be spread on the ski with a small spatula. Before this can be done, the klister wax must be softened as much as possible by holding it next to the skin under the armpit. Klister, which seems to get on everything, including one’s clothes, is the last resort, and is usually only applied to the ski after the softest crayon wax has been applied optimistically, and failed miserably. Klister is often needed in the spring, since it is the only thing that will grip both ice and mushy, melting snow. The extremes of NCMC waxing philosophy are embodied in Jack and Tommy. Jack will approach the oldest snow as if it is freshly fallen, and rummage through his various wax types, including the fancy, expensive, new-fangled ones, to find the one that best matches the temperature of the day. Tommy, on the other hand, feels that any snow, no matter how powdery fresh in appearance, is not new unless he saw it fall, and immediately begins to complain that only klister will work. The end result is that Tommy usually waxes warmer than Jack. He then either complains loudly that his skies are not gliding well enough, or smugly notes that Jack seems to be slip-sliding from his too-hard wax. Let is be said, however, that the NCMC has encountered too little grip for more often than it has experienced too little glide. On the trip in to St. Regis Friday, January 26, the snow was fairly fresh and the temperature was in the 20s. In addition, since they would be skiing on frozen lakes for most of the trip to their lean-to, with only one portage to cross, there would be almost no climbing. The upshot was that a choice of wax was not that critical, and Jack and Tommy could claim success with their personal preference.
Grapes of Wrath
The only notable incident that occurred during the packing process involved the wine. Jack had made an impressive spreadsheet that listed the items to be taken on the trip and had assigned the wine to Billy, apparently with his consent. Billy had brought the usual five-liter box of Peter Vella Delicious Red, the official vintage of the NCMC. Billy now summarily declared that he was not bringing the wine., which he said was way more than the group required and was too heavy. His tone made it clear that he felt his decision was not an attempt to shirk a task, but a brave moral judgment made before a potentially angry mob, and it was followed by only minor grumbling by the group to the effect that Billy should just stuff the wine in his pack. Billy then relented slightly, and offered the possibility that he might come back later that day, or the next day, to retrieve the wine. (Can’t you, NCMCers, see the impatient scowl on Billy’s face as he reads this?) This sat well with everyone, at least for the moment, and they went back to their packing, with Billy strapping saddlebags onto Lucky so she could carry her food, sleeping pad and sleeping bag. David, who had been the first one of the group to make it the Adirondacks the night before, appeared to be the first person ready to hit the trail as well. He was already testing his wax by skiing a bit up the trail before putting on his pack. Billy was right behind David and, as soon as he was ready, suggested that he and David start off. It was no doubt pleasant for Billy to have someone ready to go at about the same time as him, and he probably wanted to reward David for his alacrity. If David was to become a regular member of winter expeditions, Billy did not want to discourage him from getting ready and on the trail as soon as possible. That was Billy’s goal each year, and having a like-minded individual on the trip could possibly speed things up. Jay was soon on the trail himself and Jack and Tommy brought up the rear. They were getting underway at close to 1 p.m. Although it is never the plan, the NCMC always get underway at 1 p.m. After going several hundred yards, Jack realized he had left his snow thermometer stuck in the snow, and Tommy went back to retrieve it.
Land ‘o’ Lakes
The group’s destination was a lean-to on the west shore of St. Regis Pond. The lean-to was about two and one-half miles from the trailhead as the crow flies. Their plan, however, was to ski down Little Clear Pond, and then traverse the portage from Little Clear to St. Regis. This route would make the distance about three and one-quarter miles. It was a sunny day with little wind, perfect for skiing on the lake, although it may have been a fraction too warm for skiing with a heavy pack. After a short ski from their cars in the woods, they emerged onto the lake and headed north. They occasionally encountered some slush between the good snow surface and the ice of the lake, and it was often better for each skier to break his own trail, rather than ski through the slush exposed by a lead skier. Bringing up the rear, Tommy and Jack could see where Lucky, who always walks directly behind Billy as close as the tails of his master’s skis will allow, had post-holed through Billy’s ski tracks into the slush below, wetting her paws. As to what causes slush between the frozen ice of the lake and the snow on the top, the NCMC does not know, but it is a common occurence. Consider the following short excerpt from Walden, where Thoreau, in that fine chapter entitled, “The Pond in Winter,” determines the topography of the bottom of Walden Pond by taking soundings through the ice: ”When I began to cut holes for sounding, there were three or four inches of water on the ice under a deep snow which had sunk it thus far; but the water began immediately to run into these holes, and continued to run for two days in deep streams, which wore away the ice on every side, and contributed essentially, if not mainly, to dry the surface of the pond; for, as the water ran in, it raised and floated the ice. This was somewhat like cutting a hole in the bottom of a ship to let the water out.” In front of them to the north, as they skied down the lake, they could see St. Regis Mountain. Tommy misidentified it as legendary Whiteface because he could see the lookout tower on St. Regis and thought it was a weather station atop Whiteface. This was quite the glaring error, as St. Regis Mountain rises to only about 2,874 feet, compared to Whiteface’s summit of 4,867. In addition, the two mountains, of course, are not in the same place! There are three portages leading out of Little Lake Clear. Billy and David, leading the group, dropped their packs at the most easterly portage, and skied down it to a small pond. Jay waited for them at this point, while Jack and Tommy continued to the most westerly portage, which led into St. Regis Pond. The snow in the portage, protected by the shade of the woods, was perfect for sking, light and dry. They emerged from the short portage onto St. Regis Pond, took their bearings from the map and headed for the lean-to. Along the way, they continued to encounter animal tracks on the lake. One set of tracks baffled them. The tracks were like Morse Code — a series of dots and dashes. The dots were clearly the tracks of some animal other than a deer, but they couldn’t figure out what the long dashes were in between the dots. It was as if the animal was carrying something for a short distance, and then dragging it in the snow. It was Bily, coming by later, who realized it was the track of an otter who had alternately run and slid accross the lake. In fact, Billy later found an otter slide in the woods by their lean-to.
Jack and Tommy were the first to the lean-to, which sat at about 1,620 feet of elevation on a point on the western shore of the pond (74 degrees, 19 minutes west longitude and 44 degrees, 23 minutes north latitude), and looked across the pond to Whiteface, uh, St. Regis Mountain. The lookout tower on St. Regis was two miles away from the lean-to. (A return trip to St. Regis Pond could include the goal of bushwhacking to the lookout tower). The two campers quickly staked claim to the ends of the lean-to, unfolding their Thermarests in the coveted spots. Jay, Billy, David and Lucky could stuff in between them as best they could.
The other skiers arrived and the group occupied themselves by setting up stoves and gathering firewood. Billy stepped through the ice near the shore of the pond by accident, and that gave them their water hole. Before dinner, as it was getting dark, they skied back down the pond to the portage, hoping to find a trail leading off the portage that would lead them south back to the trailhead through the woods. They came up empty in their search, however, and skied back to the lean-to with the aid of headlamps. It was sometime after their return to camp that David moved away from the roar of the campstoves, which had been ignited to prepare dinner, to tend to his skis. In the relative quiet, he picked up the howling of coyotes in the woods, which Tommy also heard when he ventured over to inspect David’s work. Although various Adirondack trail guides promise the possibility of being serenaded by coyotes along this or that trail, this was the first time the NCMC had ever actually heard them. Tommy recalled that he had recently seen a National Geographic television special that reported that, since the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, the population of coyotes has been cut in half, having been driven off or killed by the wolves. Jay made a tremendous dinner of pasta primavera, which everyone but Billy agreed would have been superbly complemented by the Delicious Red sitting back in the car. Billy said he would make “his best effort” to secure the wine the next day. It was unclear whether “his best effort” would result in wine with dinner the following evening. The group turned in fairly early, following a reading of The Spell of the Yukon,” the official poem of the NCMC. Lucky slept on her pad under whatever spare coats were available. The low Friday night was only about 18 degrees and nobody complained of cold during the night. Indeed, if you polled the members, loud and continuous snoring by their lean-to partners is always a bigger impediment to a sound sleep than the cold.
White Gas and Red Wine
They got up at a reasonable hour on Saturday. Amazingly, Jack jumped out of his sleeping bag and lit a stove to heat water before returning to his bag. Tommy remarked with surprise at Jack’s action, and Billy said that Jack had made some sort of resolution to do things like that. It was quite the astonishing occurrence. Tommy made a mediocre breakfast of frozen croissants and sausage. Tommy had asked Jack to bring his bakepacker, but he had forgotten it. That left Tommy to pile all the croissants into one bakepacker. He cooked them a long time, but the ones on top were cold and Jack, although he got a hot one from the bottom, gave the taste two thumbs down anyway. After breakfast, the group decided to ski back to the car via Little Clear Pond to see if Billy would get the wine. In addition, Jay thought they could probably use some more fuel. They had a nice ski back to the cars, encountering a number of day skiers and snowshoers on the way. At the cars, more fuel was procured and there was more discussion about the wine. The end result was that Jay brought back the wine. Tommy was pleased that the wine was coming and that he didn’t have to carry it. Jay decided to return to the lean-to via the same route they had been using, but the rest of the NCMC opted to take a woods trail to the west of St. Regis Pond. The trail was an old truck road, and the skiing was easy. At one point they ran into a couple coming the other way out of the woods. Billy asked them where they had come from. “Connecticut,” was the reply. He then let the Nutmeggers know that he was interested in their skiing destination, not their home state. They skied on over mostly level terrain. After a couple of miles, however, they began a fairly long climb and were able to take a good downhill run, at the bottom of which was a side trail leading to St. Regis Pond. They took the trail, found the lake and were soon back at the lean-to. Jay heated up his delicious carrot soup and told them that some day skiers had been at the lean-to lunching upon his return. They had quickly left upon Jay’s arrival, no doubt nervous in the presence of this formidable woodsman who was obviously camping with a group of other men who were probably just as menacing.
One More Ski
Replenished by Jay’s soup, the group went back to skiing in the woods, with Jay staying behind to guard the lean-to from any would-be intruders who might have been lurking about in hopes of plundering some of the fabulous gear strewn about the camp. The skiers picked up where they had left off, continuing on the truck road toward Fish Pond (which was the trail that Brian McDonnell had mentioned in his message to Jack). Rather than go to the pond however, they decided to loop back to St. Regis Pond via Ochre Pond. They found the carry to Ochre Pond, which was narrow and hilly. The powdery snow on the trail was also unbroken. It made for good skiing in the trees and they soon found themselves on Ochre Pond. They skied across the empty pond and back into the woods along the portage from Ochre Pond to St. Regis. Again they found unbroken snow — which Jack, Tommy and Billy wisely left for young David to break trail on — and a narrow trail that snaked between the trees. This obscure trail brought them to St. Regis Pond and they skied across the lake back to their lean-to.
Would You Like Wine With Dinner?
Changing into warm clothes and basking in front of the fire, they reached a consensus that they had never done so much skiing on the middle day of one of their three-day winter trips. This night they had Jack’s excellent dinner of pineapple chicken over rice and sampled the Peter Vella Delicious Red. There was so much sampling, in fact, that the mylar wine bag actually became empty before the evening was spent. This astonished the group, since Billy had opined at the start of the trip that the bag held too much wine for two nights, let alone one. It was Jack’s birthday, so they toasted him with the little wine they had, and Jay took some excellent digital photos. They piled into their bags a little later than the previous night, and all appeared to sleep well, as the thermometer only dropped to 10 degrees.
The next morning, Tommy got up and started the stoves and began to pack his gear for the trip out. It was Super Bowl Sunday and he was acting like Billy because he had to leave by 10 a.m. to make it to his car by noon and make it home by 6 p.m. to watch his beloved Giants try to gain football’s ultimate prize. Jay, in particular, expressed amazement that Tommy was actually packed at such an ungodly hour. There was a brief discussion about Super Bowl XXI, in which the Giants lucked out so mightily against the valiant Buffalo Bills. Jay rightly noted that spending any time rehashing ancient and meaningless football history is useless, but Tommy felt a need, as he has on many occasions, to give the courageous Bills their just due and to point out just how fortunate the Giants were on that fateful day in Tampa. Tommy left the group at the lean-to and sped off on his skis toward civilization. He did, however, stop once or twice along the lakes to inscribe “NCMC” with his ski pole in the powdery snow. He made it to his car by 11:22 a.m., no doubt aided by the fact that his pack was quite light by winter camping trip standards. He always tries to keep his pack as light as possible in the event that Jay will have to carry it out. It would certainly be unfair to Jay for Tommy to burden him with a pack anywhere near as heavy as his own. Besides, better to pack light than to bring a lot of extra and unneeded personal gear, like that other guy with a Dana Design pack. Tommy learned later that the rest of the campers made it out of the woods and back to their respective homes without incident. It was related to him later, however, that Jack, Jay, Billy and Lucky hit a lake-effect storm in the Watertown area on their way back to Buffalo, and that Jack hit the brakes so hard at one point that Captain Billy was sent flying off the back seat of the van on which he had been sleeping. Jack is a pilot, so whatever he did behind the wheel must have been called for, just as it was when he had that encounter with the Old Town canoe truck on the New York State Thruway on the way to the 2000 Adirondack Canoe Classic. So ends another faithful account of an NCMC winter trip. It was a memorable trip for a number of reasons. David made his debut winter voyage and found the food to be satisfactory, a new and rewarding destination was discovered, more valuable waxing experience was gained, a digital camera wielded by Jay brought back stunning images, and, once again, against seemingly insurmountable odds, a small patch of snow was stained purple by an errant drop or two of Peter Vella that eluded a stainless steel mug held under a mylar wine bag on a cold winter evening warmed by a good fire in front of an inviting lean-to.
Gallery: Skiing in Canoe Country