Sixty Degrees of Separation
“Cheerful In All Weathers” applies as appropriately to the members of the North Country Men’s Club as it did to Deets of Lonesome Dove fame. That truth was underscored during the NCMC’s 2002 winter camping trip, which again brought the club to St. Regis Pond in the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York State. As is the case from time to time, the weather was warmer than desirable, making for less than ideal ski conditions as the snow assumed the texture of mashed potatoes.
With one exception, the same cast returned from the 2001 trip to reprise their roles. Lucky, however, was replaced by Bob Goger, who made his winter camping debut. Asked why Lucky hadn’t returned, Bill reported that, despite appearances, Lucky was now older than Bill himself in dog years, and that the old faithful girl was better off staying home by the hearth. The Editor does not know if any member of the expedition was struck by the irony of Bob taking the younger Lucky’s place in the lineup.
The trailhead to St. Regis Pond is the on the fish hatchery road off Route 30 west of the village of Saranac Lake. Bob and Tom arrived at 1:30 p.m., after stopping at the Mountaineer for a balaclava and at Cascade Cross Country Center to pick up backcountry skis for Bob. The two campers found the rest of the crew assembled and ready to take off. As a matter of fact, Bill offered to carry Bob’s and Tom’s packs from the cars down to the shore of Little Clear Pond, whose frozen expanse they would be crossing en route to their lean-to on St. Regis Pond. It’s always nice to have someone carry your pack, no matter what the distance. If your pack is not absurdly heavy, however, you run the risk of having your NCMC sherpa wonder aloud whether you are shouldering your fair share of the total expedition burden. Perhaps there is some communal item, like the five-liter bag of wine or one of the fuel bottles, that by all rights should be added to your load. Tom, for one, has learned that these attacks can be parried successfully by pointing out that you spent a great deal of time carefully selecting your gear, and painstakingly pared the cumulative weight by casting aside all but the most essential items. One ought not be faulted for meticulous planning and a willingness to go without items that a less hardy camper would claim to need, like a full jar of mustard, or an extra pair of boots. (The Editor recalls a winter trip ten years ago when one of the NCMC founders came upon a pair of white spiked golf shoes while emptying the pack he had just carried for miles into the woods.)
Although their packs were light due their expert packing, Bob and Tom allowed their loads to be carried down to the lakeshore. From there, the group set off skiing to the north, heading for the portage linking Little Clear Pond to St. Regis Pond.
As is often the case when skiing on lakes in winter, they discovered that there was slush between the snow covering the lake and the ice that supported them. The phenomenon of this slush is discussed as follows in an out-of-print book of Adirondack cross country ski tours:
“Heavy snows cause ice on lakes to settle, forcing water up through the cracks that result. This ice slush, which is seldom visible, may freeze on contact with ski bottoms. This slush is often local in nature. The first person through usually has no problem, but the person following will encounter exposed slush that will stick to and freeze on his skis. If the track looks dark ahead, move quickly to the side and make a fresh track.”
The Wine that Broke the Camel’s Back
Bob and Tom were traveling with Billy, who was laboring under what looked to be a very, very heavy pack. Because he was sinking deep into the slush, and he was getting no glide on his skis, Billy decided to switch to snowshoes, a move that Tom had never seen the NCMC’s most expert skier make before. Billy took off his pack and put on his snowshoes. Bob and Tom then offered to hoist the pack together onto Billy’s shoulders. The pack was so heavy, however, that Bob and Tom could only lift it, with great effort, to their waists. Billy bent down and they helped him get his arms through the pack’s shoulder straps. With a grunt Bill plodded off over the ice, bent at the waist. He looked like he had a hay bale on his back.
With Jack, David and Jay somewhere ahead, Bob, Tom and Bill reached the portage trail that would bring them to St. Regis Pond. They headed up the trail into the woods, onto the better snow of terra firma. Tom suggested that, without the problem of the slush on the lake, Billy would have better glide with his skis. Billy switched back to skis and moved on. He then reached a hill on the portage trail and began to herringbone up the hill. He lost purchase on the steep slope, however, and began to slide backward. He tried to arrest himself on his poles, but the weight of his pack was apparently too much and one of his 20-year-old bamboo poles shattered like a popsicle stick. Perhaps the five-liter box of Peter Vella Delicious Red in his pack was the straw that broke the spine of his old pole.
Tom said Bill should leave his pack at this point and ski to camp without it. They could then return with an empty pack, divide the contents of Bill’s pack, and return to camp. Bill agreed and took off down the portage skiing with one pole, doing a wintry impression of the one-armed man in the Fugitive.
Bill soon left Bob and Tom behind. Tom took this as a good sign, figuring that someone in camp would return with Bill, relieving Tom of his vow to return with Bill himself. Sure enough, Bob and Tom reached the lean-to at the time Jack and Bill were heading back with Jack’s empty pack. With Jack and Bill on their mission, the rest of the expedition team set up camp. They stomped down the deep snow around their lean-to with snowshoes, dug the snow out of the stone fireplace that faced the lean-to, dug out the door to the outhouse that sat on a rise behind the lean-to, lit lanterns and stoves in the winter gloom of late afternoon, and gathered downed branches in the woods for firewood. Tom watched all this work with a careful eye, sitting on the edge of the lean-to and offering sound advice now and then to his fellow NCMCers.
A Fine Meal and an All-Night Serenade
Jack and Bill returned in the dark with what looked like two completely loaded packs. With the group reunited, Jay prepared his dinner of pasta primavera. It was as fine a meal as winter campers could hope to have. As has often been acknowledged, the beauty of Jay is that he combines the skill of Emeril with the strength needed to carry the necessary provisions for a fine, large meal into the woods. He had prepared his sauce at home and lugged it into camp in frozen form, then had thawed it out at the lean-to. He had also used the tail of one of his skis to break a hole in the ice and haul water for the pasta. Jay is also the master of making piping hot camp coffee with his famous European coffee sock.
The high temperature that day was 30 degrees at 9 p.m., so there was no rush to get into sleeping bags before the warmth of the pasta primavera could dissipate. A near-disaster occurred when Jack spilled a saucepan full of boiling water in the lean-to, but no one was hit and the water was contained toward the front of the lean-to, so the gear was largely unscathed. When the campers finally bedded down, Bill said he wanted to fall asleep before David did so he would not be kept up by David’s snoring. Bill also directed that relatives sleep alongside each other so that they could easily intervene when snoring did occur. David quickly feel asleep and began to snore. Jack woke him up and told him to roll over. David never made a sound for the rest of the evening, nor did any perceptible breathing come out of him on the next night.
Although it can be difficult to reconstruct the various murmurings that occur during a winter night in a lean-to, when heads are buried in balaclavas and the puffy hoods of down sleeping bags, it is certain that Jack on several occasions demanded that Tom shake Bob out of his snoring. Although he was never wakened himself by Bob’s snoring, he dutifully gave Bob’s bag a tug on command from Jack, and Bob would immediately cease, if not desist, for the night. As Bob said nothing during these interventions, Tom assumed that his slight tug on Bob’s bag was enough to alter his breathing, but not to the point of wakefulness.
Job Heads Back to the Cars as the Weasel Makes His Appearance
Daylight Saturday brought wet snowfall throughout the morning. Billy arose and, without having coffee or breakfast (sausage, egg and cheese Hot Pockets, pancakes and coffee cake all done in the Bakepacker), donned his skis for the return to the trailhead and a spare pole to replace his broken one.
Poor Bill! Here he was, for the second consecutive year, forced to return to the cars. Last year it had been to retrieve the wine he had refused as a matter of principle to carry in on the first day. This year he had carried the wine, which may have been the very reason his pole broke, and now he had to fetch a spare. Could Job have had it any worse? Bill took one of David’s walkie-talkies with him, and Tom was able to radio Billy and suggest that, as long as we was returning to the cars, he could pick up a few incidentals from Tom’s car, like the cookset he had forgotten to pack.
It was around this time that an alert David spotted either a long-tailed weasel or an ermine. It ran behind the lean-to and off into the woods, snow white except for the black tip of its tail. All ermines turn white in winter because of their northern range. Long-tailed weasels in the north country also turn white in winter, but long-tails in the southern part of their range remain brown year round. The long-tailed is slightly larger than the ermine. The two are closely related, and both are fierce little carnivores that keep down the rodent population. The NCMC consensus seems to be that it was a long-tailed weasel, which can run to about 16 inches in length.
While waiting for Bill to return, Jack, David and Tom planned a day ski to Fish Pond, which lay about three miles from the lean-to. There was also much discussion and experimentation regarding the wax of the day. Fresh snow had fallen that morning, but it was quite wet, and the temperature was hovering at about the freezing mark (The high for the day turned out to be 35 degrees at 3:30 p.m.). Jay realized that the snow was too much like mashed potatoes and planned to bring in more firewood rather than ski. Bob was no doubt bemused by all the discussions of the various gooey klister waxes (which are squeezed out of a tube) and the other waxes that are used on old or wet snow. His metal-edged backcountry rental skis were the Fischer E-99s used by Tom, Bill and Jack, but his were of the waxless variety, so he could just click into his bindings and go without any need to master the intricacies of the waxer’s art, which are often a large pain in the butt.
Beck Weathers Redux and a Surprise Winner of the Climbing Jersey
Billy returned from the cars with new poles and few other items, but decided to rest for a while rather than go out sking again. Tom, Bob, Jack and David headed off for Fish Pond, with Bob and Tom skiing along the lake toward the truck road leading northwest to the Pond, while Jack and David decided to get to the truck road via a bushwhack through the woods. The four eventually regrouped about halfway to Fish Pond, where Jack and David caught up with Bob and Tom.
At this point, Jack volunteered to take over with trail-breaking duties, and they soon made it to the shore of Fish Pond. This was confirmed by Jack’s GPS as well as their own eyes. As a flyboy, Jack knows how to use things like a GPS. (He also had brought a Palm Pilot on the trip, which may be a violation of NCMC by-laws). Having reached their destination, they decided to return to camp not via the wide truck road they had come by, but via a series of small ponds and the portage trails that connected them, thereby making their trip a long loop. They skied out onto Fish Pond and found the carry to Mud Pond. They then crossed Mud Pond and found the carry to Ochre Pond. The trail to Ochre had a couple of steep sections that Bob walked right up on his grippy waxless skis without the need to herringbone or side step. This feat, reminiscent of Lance Armstrong’s climbing in the mountains of the Tour de France, earned him the trip’s climbing jersey (He was actually wearing his Montclair Bikery jersey at the time).
About mid-way along the portage trail from Mud Pond to Ochre Pond, Tom found himself on point and stopped to wait for the other skiers. David soon arrived to report that one of Jack’s boots had failed and he was in desperate need of snowshoes (the front end of the sole of Jack’s boot, which included the cross bar that held the boot to the binding, had ripped off). As it was Jack’s birthday, Tom felt bad for Jack, but not as bad as he would have felt if his boot, which is the same brand, had failed. David zoomed ahead toward camp to secure a pair of snowshoes, and Tom waited for Bob and Jack. After awhile, Jack arrived huffing and puffing. He had his skis slung over his shoulders and he was post-holing through the knee-deep, mushy snow in his boots. It was quite a surprise to see him appear through the trees. It reminded Tom of Beck Weathers stumbling into camp on Everest after having been left for dead. Like Beck, who had one arm held aloft in a frozen salute, Jack had one arm up holding his skis.
The three of them went on together, with Jack coming up to Bob’s and Tom’s waists in the snow. They eventually reached Ochre Pond, where Jack donned one ski and moved across the lake, not with kick and glide, but with a glide and post-hole. He was leaving a very interesting trail, and gave the impression of a one-legged man, just as Billy had seemed like a one-armed man after breaking his pole. Tom himself had lost both baskets off his poles in the deep, heavy snow (although Bob had found one of them).
Having crossed Ochre Pond, they began to traverse the portage to St. Regis Pond. Tom and Bob went ahead, figuring that they could meet whoever was coming back with the snowshoes. When they got to St. Regis Pond, they spied Jay and Billy heading toward them on the rescue mission, and they let them go on, although Jack was making surprising time in his boots alone. Billy had actually followed the four skiers via the truck road, but had turned around upon reaching the spur trail to Ochre Pond, which he could tell the group had not turned onto as the snow on the trail was untracked.
Hot, Hot, Hot
Soon they were all back at camp eating Jay’s delicious carrot soup, which was so fortifying that there was some talk of not cooking Jack’s dinner of pineapple chicken over rice, particularly because the hour was getting late. Carrying out the fixings for a large meal, however, is a cardinal sin, so Jack was prevailed upon to cook it. It came out quite well, except that the chicken, which had been dehydrated, was not fully reconstituted, and was therefore somewhat chewy. This proved to be somewhat of a boon in that no member of the team had to get up in the middle of the night to anwer nature’s call. All agreed that reconstitution of the chicken inside the campers’ used up whatever liquid they would otherwise have had to eliminate.
The overnight low was 23 degrees at 2:30 a.m. There was some wakefulness from time to time, as Jack again ordered Tom to intervene with Bob. At one point, Bob and Bill were snoring and Tom refused to nudge Bob as it would not have solved the problem. The next morning Bob said that he had slept with Conroys for 43 years since meeting Chris Conroy at the seminary, and this had been the first time that anyone had challenged his snoring. So, although Bob had never said anything on those occasions when he had been nudged in the lean-to, he had been awakened after all.
It was a sunny morning, and the group packed leisurely as the temperature moved up to 40. Since the group has on more than one winter expedition found itself bundling up against temperatures lower than 20 below, Jay remarked that they were now basking in temperatures 60 degrees above what they were always prepared to encounter. This 60 degrees of separation was the same as going from 20 degrees to 80, or 40 degrees to 100 or, well, you get the idea.
After packing, they slogged in the bright sun over the ice back to the cars in pairs, with Bill and Jay going first, followed by Tom and Bob, followed by Jack (on snowshoes) and David. Jack punctuated the trip by taking a header with a full pack as he tried to climb over the wall of snow made by the snowplows keeping the fish hatchery road clear. The high temperature of the day was a sizzling 44 degrees at 3 p.m.
Bob became the 10th NCMCer to add winter camping to his resume, joining the four founders, David, Conor, Dylan, Ryan and Lucky. The rules state that you must make your first winter trip before your 60th birthday, and he procrastinated until the last day. He should not expect it to be so warm next time.
Jack’s boots are Merrell’s, which the NCMC officially declares to be a sucky boot. Jack has sent his boots back to the parent company, Wolverine. If he does not get satisfaction, this web site will include a new page of boot criticism that will have Merrell crying uncle in no time!
There was some talk of a future winter trip featuring three nights of camping rather than the usual two, which would give the club two days of free skiing, rather than one. The idea has merit and could probably be accomplished without the packs weighing any more than they do on a two-night trip. Also, a three-night trip would allow Billy to make his obligatory trip back to the cars and still have a day to relax at base camp.
Two emails from Jack after the trip:
“Back in Buffalo, Isaac was sick all weekend. Eventually, Vanessa dropped him off for the Websters to watch, after which she promptly got sick and had to request that Carol watch him all night. Isaac kept Carol up all night with his upset stomach and she was unable to go to work the next day. There is always a price to pay. No word yet from Jay on how much.”
“I have a further update form the Webster household. By the time Isaac left, he had planted the dreaded stomach virus in enough places for all the kids and Carol to come down with it within the next few days. Billy remained symptom -free through this and suggested his disease-free condition was a result of mind over matter. That theory lasted until last night, when Billy spent the night at work with his head between his knees. Carol reports that she deserves her name in capital letters for having to endure this experience. She said it is ten times harder than winter camping. She suggests that Vanessa’s name be taken out of Caps and replaced with hers. And , finally, just for good measure, Jay came down with the virus Tuesday night.”
Editor’s note: For the record, Vanessa’s name is not in Caps, although Carol makes a good point. The issue of membership status will be taken up on a future outing.
Gallery: Sixty Degrees of Separation