Donner? Party of Five! Donner?
The North Country Men’s Club’s annual winter camping trip in 2014 came about for the usual reason; Jack Semler mentioned to Tom Conroy that a trip was needed so the NCMC members could use all the gear and clothing they have accumulated for such an excursion.
With Jack and Tom in agreement that a trip was essential, the next target was Bill Webster. Although he has retired from the Buffalo Fire Department, he remains an extremely busy man with numerous obligations, and Jack expressed the opinion that it would not be certain until the last minute that any trip scheduled would include Bill, even if he planned to go.
Tom then asked John Conroy if he had an interest in going on a winter trip and, surprisingly, John said he did. Actually, it probably should not have come as any more of a surprise than when John had expressed interest in doing the 90-mile Adirondack Canoe Classic. Once you’ve said “Yes” to the 90-Miler, you will probably say “Yes” to virtually any NCMC outdoor adventure, even if temperatures below zero are a possibility.
Jan Conroy, who had already gone on TWO winter camping trips, actually volunteered that she might go again on the 2014 trip if the stars aligned and the forecast was reasonable (I emphasize the TWO because several NCMCers have taken a “one and done” attitude toward winter camping). That meant that five NCMCers were tentatively aboard for the 2014 expedition. The last winter trip with five participants was in 2006, when Tom, Jack, Bill, Jay Tillotson and David Frandina visited Stephens Pond. Matuki, who made his first winter trip in 2013, could have made it a party of six, but he decided instead to accompany Mary Moran for a visit to Mayday (and Dylan and Acacia Semler) in Philadelphia. Perhaps Matuki recalled how he had been on the towing end of the skijoring rig the previous year, and decided that the other NCMCers could just pull their own damn selves down the trail.
The weekend selected for the trip was March 15-16, which would get the group into the woods just before the end of winter, which ought to be when winter trips occur. The destination selected was St. Regis Pond in the St. Regis Canoe Area of the Adirondack Park. There is a nice lean-to on the pond and the NCMC has camped there in winter on several occasions. The beauty of the St. Regis Pond spot is that it is not far from the NCMC clubhouse on Kimpton Road. Using the clubhouse as a staging area allows campers the option of walking to a nearby trailhead for the trip, rather than driving. The clubhouse was undergoing a massive renovation and expansion this particular winter, but it has a small, separate guesthouse that would allow the party to load their packs indoors, rather than at the side of a road.
As the trip date approached, the group carefully watched the weather forecast. They were pleased to see that a good-sized snowstorm was forecast for the Adirondacks several days before the weekend in question. As much as 18 inches or more of the white stuff was predicted. Fresh snow is always the hope for a winter camping trip. The forecast proved true, which aided Jan in her decision to make the trip, and there was general excitement among the NCMCers at the prospect of a trip amid fresh snow.
The Friday night before the trip, the group rendezvoused in beautiful Lake Placid for a fine dinner. Jan, Tom and John had traveled up the Adirondack Northway to Lake Placid, while Jack and Bill had driven straight to Placid from Buffalo. In Placid before dinner, John had rented a backpack from Eastern Mountain Sports (“EMS, why pay less?”) and Tom had picked up a pair of waxless (gasp!!) skis that Jack had purchased from EMS and left at the store to have the bindings mounted. The store personnel informed them that 20 inches of snow had fallen at their camping destination.
At dinner, there was a spirited argument between Jack and Bill concerning which of the two routes to St. Regis Pond that the group should take the next day. As mentioned, one can walk a short distance from the NCMC clubhouse to a trailhead—the Fish Pond Trail—and ski to St. Regis Pond, or drive a short distance from the clubhouse and ski to the pond primarily over frozen Little Clear Pond. Jack favored the Fish Pond Trail and Bill favored the route over the lake because skiing while trying to remain balanced under the load of a heavy pack is easier and faster on a level and snow-covered frozen lake. No big decision was made at dinner, except the one by Jan and John to have Irish coffee for desert. The most remarkable aspect of the dinner was that Jack and Bill actually made it to Lake Placid in time to eat at 7 p.m., which was the arrival time that Jack, via text, had been promising all day. For Jack’s ETA to match his actual arrival is beyond extraordinary.
As Jan, Tom and John were staying in Placid for the night, and Jack and Bill were heading to the clubhouse to sleep, it was decided that they would meet the next morning for breakfast at 8:30 a.m. in Saranac Lake, which was halfway between the two locations (I know you are thinking, “Will you get on to the trip already!?” but the actual winter camping itself is just a small portion of the trip, if one includes as “the trip” all the talking, planning, buying, packing and driving parts.).
The next morning, after picking up some groceries for the trip near Lake Placid, Jan, John and Tom met Jack and Bill in Saranac Lake and had a hearty meal at the famous, at least for Saranac Lake, Blue Moon Café on Main Street. They then went on to the Kimpton Road clubhouse and began packing up and changing into ski clothes for the trip. There was the usual dithering about what stuff to bring and what stuff to leave behind and who was bringing what in the way of common items, such as stoves, fuel, matches and lanterns. For example, Jan reminded Tom to pack the toilet paper, but Bill announced that he had that covered, so Tom left the roll of toilet paper, despite the fact that it weighs nothing, out of his pack.
Finally, they were ready to go, so they shouldered their packs, picked up their skis and began to walk up the clubhouse driveway to the nearby trailhead. The option of driving over to Little Clear Pond and beginning the trip from that point did not arise, probably because no one was looking forward to the trouble of putting the packs and skis back in cars.
After a short walk up the road, they climbed over a huge snowbank made by the plows, clicked into their skis and headed into the woods. The recent snowstorm had deposited a lot of snow and it was snowing on and off this day as well. The temperature was a tad above freezing, making the snow a bit softer than optimal, but the skiing was pretty good. It wasn’t too long, however, before the tracks made by other skiers disappeared, and the group had to break trail through the heavy, wet snow. Jack led the way, and did quite a bit of trail breaking. Tom was wearing a GoPro “point of view” camera on his head, and he had set the device to take a photo every 60 seconds. Since he was chronicling the journey, he stayed to the rear and avoided trail-breaking duty. After about 45 minutes of skiing, they reached the spur trail that would take them toward St. Regis Pond and the lean-to. The snow on the spur trail was also unbroken, but the trail passed through beautiful woods with evergreens completely cloaked with snow from the recent storm.
Their spur trail eventually intersected with another trail. This new trail was the portage trail from Little Clear Pond to St. Regis Pond. If one skis to St. Regis Pond from Little Clear Pond, or paddles to St. Regis Pond from Little Clear Pond, the portage trail is part of your trip. They turned left onto the portage trail and kept skiing to its end at St. Regis Pond. From the end of the portage trail they had to ski some distance down the lake to the point of land on which the lean-to sits. While the description in this article about the two possible routes to the lean-to has no doubt been confusing, a careful reader may have surmised at this point that, whichever of the two routes is taken, both involve some skiing in the woods and on a lake, as the two routes join up and overlap before the lean-to is reached.
As with any cross-country skiing, skiing on a lake can be fabulous or arduous depending on the weather and the snow conditions. One of the undesirable lake conditions for skiing is slush. Slush can occur when a deep snowpack weighing down the ice causes it to crack here and there, and lake water comes up through the cracks and spreads over the ice below the snow. One cannot see the water under the snow, but as the skis sink through the snow they hit the water or slush on top of the ice, and leave a slushy track behind for any following skier. The water and slush wet the bottom of the ski, and as it is kicked forward on top of uncompressed snow, the snow clumps and sticks onto the bottom of the wet ski and the ski’s glide is gone. At this point, the skier may just as well be walking in boots. Slush was encountered on this day and it was a pain for Jack and Bill, who were on waxable skis, and for Jan, Tom and John, who were on waxless skis, although it is a less of a pain with the waxless skis.
There was also snow blowing hard into their faces out on the lake. The tough winter conditions reminded Jan of the horrible fate of the Donner Party, which she had studied at length after recently visiting the spot near Lake Tahoe where the party had to overwinter in 1846-47 in 22-foot-deep snow and had resorted to eating some party members after they expired. At least a couple of people were shot before they had actually died, presumably so they would be a bit less wasted away and provide more nourishment (A present-day restaurant near Lake Tahoe proclaims the ribs on its menu as a “Donner Party favorite!”). There is a video clip from the lake on the SmugMug site of the trip in which you might be able to hear Jan referring to the Donner Party through the wind. Despite the slush and the wind and the need to break trail on the lake, the NCMC Party reached the lean-to on St. Regis Pond in robust health and without any ribs showing.
There was some snow blown into the lean-to, but someone had also left some brooms there, so they used them to sweep out the snow and moved in, unpacking sleeping pads and bags, etc. They also had sandwiches and gorp. Freed of their heavy packs, some of the NCMCers skied here and there for a bit, or walked about in the woods on one of the three pairs of snowshoes that had been packed in. Jack, for example, went away on skis and came back several times, checking out the quality of the kick-and-glide produced from the various waxing configurations he tried out. Tom donned snowshoes so he could make a trail to the outhouse in the area. After looking about for a while in the woods and not finding the outhouse, he discovered it had been replaced by a simple wooden box structure with a toilet seat affixed to it over a hole, which the NCMC refers to as an outdoor “throne.” The box was a bit difficult to find because it was buried in the snow, with its lid covered by a fell over a foot of snow.
Meanwhile, back at the lean-to, Bill discovered that he had not brought toilet paper after all. He and Jack said they would ski back to the clubhouse to get some, but were talked out of it. Tom eventually realized that he had packed in fancy Neutrogena moist wipes, which he uses to remove sunscreen. The wipes took on new responsibility in the absence of the toilet paper, and became the MVP of the trip. Tom doled them out grudgingly so the supply would not be depleted too soon.
As the daylight faded, they changed into dry clothes (the clothes they had worn skiing were damp or soaked with sweat) and put on insulating layers. They also deployed the stoves and made hot chocolate and soup. Bill, as usual, performed the work of finding and hauling water. He always manages to find a hole in the ice somewhere so he and his fellow campers can avoid the tedium of melting snow for cooking and drinking.
Dinner was burgers and pasta. There was too much of each packed in, as Bill observed, but, as we learned from the Donner Party, it is better to have too much food than to go hungry while camping in the winter. A small flask of red wine had also found its way into a pack, and plastic wine glasses were assembled and filled. It is not known if the vintage had ben selected with the wine being served chilled in mind, but chilled it was. There was some talk about the nearby Saranac airport, which allows one to fly to the Adirondacks from the Boston area rather than drive. Jack has flown himself to the airport a number of times, and in his chats with the airport personnel he has learned that Tom Cruise, Bruce Springsteen and John Travolta all come through the airport from time to time. The reports from the airport staff were that Bruce is very friendly, while Tom Cruise’s operatives tell the airport folks not to speak with Cruise as he does not like to rub elbows with the riff raff.
Bedtime comes early outside in winter, and especially early for Jan, but they all were in their toasty sleeping bags by 9 p.m. Some bags were toastier than others. Jack, in particular, has a very expensive and warm down bag that is the size of a cruise ship life raft once all the down has fluffed up. The bag also has all kinds of baffles and drawstrings that can be manipulated to enhance its insulating power. It may even have wi-fi and be iPod compatible.
There was significant snoring overnight by the men that was described in the morning as symphonic stereo performance and/or a contest with the prize going to the sleeper reaching the highest volume. Jan was checked at times overnight to make sure she was still alive, as no sound or movement, or even a sleeping face, could be discerned in her voluminous bag (which was actually Tom’s bag rated to minus 25 degrees). One couldn’t even tell if she were in the bag at a particular moment, or was instead up and about.
Everyone sleeping out in the cold eventually takes on the role of a camping Hamlet, and conducts a “to go or not to go, that is the question” internal debate. Nature calls, but nature is very cold, and the sleeping bag is very warm, and one wonders if one can successfully doze off again and wait until morning. The sad truth, however, is that the debate arises because there is a need to go that is only going to get stronger, so the camper usually rushes out of the bag in long johns, pulls on down booties and takes care of business as quickly as possible. One this night, a full moon illuminated the lake, causing the campers to linger at the sight for a few seconds before jumping back into their sleeping bags. Jack and Tom at one point got up together and tarried to check the thermometer as well as look at the moonlit lake. The device read 12 degrees.
In the morning, the temperature had settled down to about eight degrees, and the crew swung their arms and stamped their feet to warm up once they had gotten out of their sleeping bags. Coffee and hot chocolate were drank from stainless steel mugs. Instant oatmeal was the breakfast. After that, they began to pack up for the journey home. It doesn’t matter how much food has been consumed and how much fuel has been burned during a trip; the packs are just as heaving going home as they were when coming in.
It was a bright, sunny morning that called for dark sunglasses, and they had a great view skiing down the lake. The slush was still an issue, so they each broke their own trail when it seemed like it would help them avoid getting their skis wet. At the end of the lake they entered the woods and encountered very good skiing conditions. Since it had continued to snow the day before as the temperature dropped, the track they had made the day before had not iced up.
The one fly in the ointment was an equipment failure. One of Bill’s ski bindings broke and he ended up having to walk most of the trip out on snowshoes. For the others, it was a nice ski back to the clubhouse, where they got a tour of the renovations underway. A new bedroom is being added to the house, and one of the existing bedrooms and the kitchen are being enlarged. It was very nice to see the NCMC upgrading its headquarters. The “clubhouse temptress” has always had a strong pull on the NCMCers, luring them away from tents to its luxurious charms, and the attraction will be even more powerful once the expansion is completed!
After the tour, the campers left for their respective homes. Perhaps a two-night trip will be the plan for next year, allowing for a full day to ski and play without the burden of a pack. After all, no more gear is needed for two nights. Except for extra toilet paper.