Twenty Years Later
To mark the 20th anniversary of the first winter camping trip of the North Country Men’s Club, a small party camped at Stephens Pond on the Northville-Placid trail the weekend of March 20-21.
Jack, Tom, Jan and Sammy made up the party. Jan became the first woman ever to go on a winter camping trip and Sammy, who had already gone on summer canoe trips, joined Lucky among club canines who have gone winter camping. Remarkably, half the Stephens Pond party was female.
Jan and Tom got to the trailhead on Route 28 near Blue Mountain Lake on a relatively mild Saturday around noon and started to ski to their destination around 1 p.m. There were some snowmobilers roaring around the roads of Lake Durant state campground, where the trailhead is, but they and their ludicrous machines were soon left behind by the skiers as they entered the blessed snowmobile-free wilderness zone at the back of the campground and headed south on a trail devoid of machine tracks.
It was a good ski, although it was perhaps a bit too warm, and the snow was a bit too wet. Jan and Tom fell a couple of times, but in general the trail offered level terrain. It is 3.5 miles to the lean-to at Stephens Pond from the trailhead, and a trail junction is reached at 2.9 miles. Upon reaching the junction, the two skiers turned east toward Stephens Pond. Heading west at the trail junction would have brought them to the lean-to at Cascade Pond after a mile of skiing. The NCMC camped at Cascade Pond two years in a row sometime in the early 1990s.
Jan and Tom arrived at the lean-to a couple of hours after setting out. The lean-to does not offer a good view of the pond, but it is in very good shape. The pair of campers did the usual puttering around, as well as sampling some of the wine they had brought. Jack, who made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go on the trip, arrived close to 7 p.m. with Sammy, and reported that he had only fallen once on the way in. Tom and Jan did not have much to offer Jack in the way of cuisine. At Jan’s urging, they had brought only freeze-dried vegetarian chili from MaryJanesFarm, some instant soup, some cheese, pepperoni and crackers and some trail mix. Jack was good-natured, however, about the minimalist menu. It was a far cry from some of the more lavish dishes that Jay, David and Jack have provided over the years, but Tom and Jan were not about to pick up the slack.
The night was clear, with a half-moon, and a walk on the frozen lake after dinner gave them an unobstructed look at the stars and planets.
They all slept okay, with Sammy lying on top of a summer sleeping bag that Jack had brought for her. They were awakened at one point by a chorus of howling coyotes, but it was fairly close to dawn at that point. The overnight low on Saturday, the last night of winter, was about minus 9C (that sounds colder than 15F, doesn’t it?).
They got up at dawn to greet the first day of spring. Coffee (with sugar for Jack), hot chocolate and instant oatmeal were all there was to steel the campers for the day’s activities, but it was a sunny day and warmed up quickly as the sun rose, so they didn’t need to burn a lot of calories just to keep warm.
A look at the map showed that they would have an easier and shorter trip back to the trailhead if they skied down Stephens Pond and headed north through the woods until they intersected the Northville-Placid trail. Their GPS indicated they were 2.4 miles from the cars, and since the trail distance was 3.5 miles, they would cut off about a mile of travel by using the frozen pond as a shortcut. Jack recalled seeing ski tracks branching off the trail on his way in that looked like they were headed toward Stephens Pond, so Jack and Tom decided to take a scouting trip down the pond, and Sammy joined them. After skiing to the end of the pond from the lean-to, Jack and Tom saw old ski tracks heading into the woods and they followed them. The tracks led to the main trail after a few minutes of skiing, and proved to be the same tracks Jack had seen the day before on his way in to the lean-to. At this point, Jack and Tom were joined by Jan, who had decided that the pond had looked too inviting to pass up a ski. They all headed back to the lean-to, with Jan and Tom electing to go back via the pond, while Jack took the longer main trail for the extra exercise it presented.
Back at the lean-to, they melted snow for drinking water and packed up their gear. A couple of day skiers came down the trail, but chose not to join them at the lean-to, although Jack invited them. Instead, they stayed on the trail a safe distance away and waited for the NCMCers to leave. The club members no doubt appeared unsavory to the day skiers after a night out.
It was turning out to be a warm, sunny day, with the temperature heading toward 4C, so Jack decided that klister was in order. He grabbed a ski and began the arduous task of smearing gooey klister wax on its base. Tom said to Jan that Jack was such a good guy that he was sure that Jack would apply klister to Tom’s skis as well as his own. Jack said that Tom was clearly wrong in his assumption. It was then that Tom noticed that Jack was applying the klister to one of Tom’s skis by mistake, as they are the same model, although they have different graphics on the top side. Tom silently indicated to Jan that it was his ski on which Jack was working, and put a finger to his lips so Jan would keep the secret. Jack finished the ski and went to get its mate. As he studied the two pairs of skis that were standing up in the snow, it finally dawned on Jack that he was working on the wrong pair of skis. There was nothing he could do, however, except finish the klister job on Tom’s skis and then do his own.
With the two pairs of waxable skis properly prepared for the warm day and wet snow, the four campers headed out on the pond for the trip home. Jack shouted to the pair of day skiers that the pond presented a shorter way back if they were interested. With a mile cut from their trip–and the mile with the most challenging terrain at that–they had an easy ski out and all three of the skiers kept upright, including Tom, who is usually good for a pratfall or two while skiing with a pack now matter how gentle the trail.
As the NCMCers quaffed the obligatory post-trip Budweiser by the cars, the day skiers they had encountered near the lean-to arrived and said that they had returned by the trail, not by the pond, because they had been led astray in the past by others who had offered shortcuts that did not pan out. Perhaps in the future they will put their faith in the trustworthy NCMC. Veteran winter campers Jack and Tom gave Jan high marks for making the trip on flimsy boots and skis and not complaining.
The campers discussed the idea of returning to Stephens Pond the next year and camping for two nights, giving them the chance on the middle day for a long pack-free ski on the Northville-Placid trail.
Absent from the 2005 trip were regulars Jay, Bill and David. Jay had actually said something to the effect that he had decided to pass on winter camping because it is “too cold.” Will he not go on a summer canoe trip because it will be “too warm”? It is not known if David and Bill had a better excuse, but it was decided that there would be no formal reprimand for the trio for being unable to devote a single weekend during the long, long winter for camping. At least the 20th anniversary of the first-ever winter trip was appropriately acknowledged, if only with a quick overnighter on the border of winter and spring. The Editor is confident that the absent regulars will return to the winter camping circuit in 2006 and bring an extensive menu with them. He/She (The anonymous editor’s gender is unknown) is also confident that the 2005 Adirondack Canoe Classic, which is held the weekend after Labor Day, will come and and go before Tom gets around to cleaning off the klister on his skis. He probably figures that there’s always a chance that Jack will visit Guilford sometime in the coming months and clean them.
Jan Conroy’s Trip Account
Winter Camping At Last
by Jan Conroy
I had finally run out of excuses for why I hadn’t yet been winter camping (I have to stay home with Matt, I have to work, I have to wash my hair). When Tom, one of the NCMC founders and my husband, announced that on the 20th anniversary of the NCMC’s first winter trip, he could find no takers among the other founders and would have to make the anniversary winter trip on his own, I gamely volunteered to go with him. I had shrewdly considered that I would quite likely survive, being that it was a one-night trip in late winter, on the cusp of spring, and there was a good chance for warmer temperatures and the long days that late March brings to the northeast.
Why didn’t I have the good sense to re-read the first-person winter camping account penned by Dylan Semler posted on this website several years ago? And who could forget the experience of a young Conor Semler, donning frozen boots on the morning of Day 2, on his inaugural trip with the group? But alas, I turned 50 this year, and my memory isn’t what it used to be.
So, I naively gathered provisions and packed my warmest fleece clothing. A quick trip to the local sporting goods emporium provided not only chemical hand warmers and foot warmers, but a full footbed-sized warmer. That, along with a forgotten body warmer left behind by NCMC founder Jay Tillotson from a previous expedition, would ensure a toasty trip, I thought.
On the eve of our departure, we were delighted to receive a call from another NCMC founder, Jack Semler. It seemed that the allure of a trip already planned by Tom was too good to pass up. Jack figured that, in between his school board meetings and fly boy business and running a crazy start-up company and plotting to make his first million, he had a total of 24 hours free that weekend before he had to return to Buffalo for a goodbye party for intrepid adventurers Adam and Peter, who were leaving on their five-month thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. And for Jack, that 24 hours provided plenty of time to drive five hours to his beloved Adirondacks for an overnight trip.
Jack’s expected attendance made us cast a fresh eye over our supplies. While I had been urging a minimalist trip (freeze-dried food and the ever-so-necessary bag o’ wine), Tom surveyed the pile of provisions in a dubious manner. “This isn’t up to Jack’s standards,” he said gravely. “He’ll be disappointed.” I started to worry: could I possibly be the first person to upset Jack’s incredible good nature and easy-going spirit with my spartan menu choices? I secretly stashed a few extra sugars in the package of instant coffee, hoping that that would help to restore any flagging spirits.
I was, of course, disappointed that founder Jay (the Gourmet) Tillotson was unable to join us. I had heard many tales of his culinary treats during the long, cold winter camping nights, and I had to dispel thoughts of homemade carrot soup and tasty entrees. But I was secretly relieved that legendary skier Bill Webster had a previous family commitment and was unable to make the trip. His backcountry skiing skills were unmatched in the NCMC and I feared that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with him on the trail. Why, I had even heard that once he skied in on golf shoes!
So, it was with a heightened sense of excitement that Tom and I threw our gear into the car on Friday night and headed for our second- favorite lodging establishment (the plush Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid being the first). Albany’s Red Roof Inn was our starting point for many of these adventures. Merely staying in the Red Roof Inn can be an adventure, as it was this time, when we drove up to the abandoned-looking building surrounded by dumpsters. “Under renovation,” a hand-lettered sign on cardboard explained. While I was momentarily doubtful, I figured that an under-construction Red Roof Inn would most likely provide more luxurious accommodations than a chilly Adirondack lean-to, so I cheerfully dragged the most important contents of the car (a cooler of Bud) up three flights of stairs to our convenient location overlooking said dumpster.
The next day, fueled first by Drunkin’ Donuts and shortly after by Mickey D’s, we parked at the pull-off to our trail and were greeted by the welcoming roar of two snowmobiles that zoomed up to the five-foot-high snowbank next to our car. Their riders seemed to express some astonishment that they were at the trail’s end, and spent the next 10 minutes trying to maneuver the noisy, smelly beasts into a U-turn. During the next hour or two, as we packed for the trail, we encountered wave after wave of similar sledders skidding to a halt. We confessed to a secret desire to have them all topple over the snowbank (like lemmings?), but eventually the riders in the following groups seemed to catch on, and roared away in a different direction.
While I had quickly packed up and was straightening out the car, I noticed that Tom was even a little more anxious than usual during the pack-up phase of our outings. I realized that he was a little concerned for my welfare, and wanted to be sure that he had all our supplies. I assured myself that he had packed the bag o’ wine, and decided not to worry about the rest.
We were all ready to go and then Tom helped me get my pack on. It was a top-of-the-line EMS number from about 25 years ago, donated unknowingly by brother-in-law John Conroy for the trip. As the pack descended onto my shoulders, I staggered under the weight. I moved forward several steps on my $99 L.L. Bean special cross-country skis, and almost toppled over. “I’m fine, really,” I smiled at Tom, the 160-lb. pack carving deep fissures into my shoulders and neck. “Let’s go.”
We started off down the trail, and I got my ski legs (as opposed to my sea legs, which is a story from another NCMC trip, this one on a sailboat from Newport, where I –but I digress). In fact, during the first two-thirds of the ski, I only fell once. Tom only fell twice, and cursed twice, during the entire ski in. (I hear it’s an NCMC record for him.)
I quickly learned that it was best to fall going uphill or downhill. Falling on level ground leaves one in an impossible position, and requires the removal of the pack before the skier can return to a standing position. On the last third of the ski, I fell four or five times on the slippery, narrow downhill, but managed to push myself up and stagger on down the hill.
Home Sweet Home
The lean-to was situated in a hollow just a short distance from a lake. It was clean and inviting, with a latrine situated conveniently nearby. We shed our skis and packs, and immediately began drinking wine and trying to guess when Jack might arrive. Just after 6:30 p.m., as it started to get dark, we heard some distant sounds which we made out to be Jack calling to Sammy Semler, his dog. We were shortly greeted by Sammy, and just after that by Jack, who got going really fast on the final, steep descent and crashed in a heap at the foot of the hill. I assumed that Tom would rush to his aid, give him a hand up, and offer to carry his pack down to the lean-to. But Tom and Jack began conversing casually–as if Jack had just arrived to our house in Connecticut and Tom was welcoming him–with Jack, still crumpled in a heap, skis askew and pinned down by his pack, eagerly joining in the conversation. Eventually, he struggled up and was glad to join us in the lean-to and partake of a warm drink, and later, some wine.
Sammy, however, found herself in unfamiliar surroundings and at first was not sure what to make of it all. Sammy had wisely also borrowed some gear from John Conroy, as it turned out (a sleeping bag), and Jack made her a little bed with the bag and some foam pads. Sammy, being no dummy, looked longingly at Jan’s and Tom’s winter bags, but then sighed and settled down, resigned to wait for Mary Moran, who would surely, Sammy thought, rescue her as soon as possible.
Tom and I treated Jack to some freeze-dried chili, and Jack, always the gentleman, was polite but quick to refuse a second helping. As bedtime drew near, Jack and Tom took a quick look at the stars from a good vantage point on the lake, but I had decided not to leave my sleeping bag until absolutely necessary, so I passed on a lovely view of the stars.
I awoke in the middle of the night, and assessed my situation. My feet had somehow shifted off the Therm-a-Rest, and had turned into popsicles. I had been fighting a head cold and it was either that, or the vise-like grip of my Patagonia “Snow Dome” hat, that had given me a headache. And I would have liked to have gone to the bathroom. But alleviating any of those problems would have required a trip–or even a hand–out of the sleeping bag. I looked around for any likely sources of help, but the only noises to be heard were the gentle snorings of my male companions, and the occasional sigh from Sammy. So I resigned myself to wait until dawn.
Once morning came, and I was able to quietly guilt Tom into getting up to light a stove, things started to look up. Hot drink was followed by hot drink, and once Tom and I made enough noise, Jack struggled up and gratefully accepted a cup of coffee (extra sugar). Sammy rose stiffly to her feet and began a hunger strike. She couldn’t believe that Mary hadn’t arrived yet to save her from this madness. Eventually, Jack was able to coax her with some biscuits and got her to drink some of the inviting-looking melted snow that the three campers were using for their own drinking water. Sammy probably figured that if it was good enough for us, then perhaps it was good enough for her.
Tom and Jack soon struck out on a scouting mission to find a faster way out. While I initially stayed behind, I realized the soundness of Jack’s proposal to ski for a while before the vise-like grip of the backpack descended onto my shoulders, so I quickly clicked into my skis and followed them across a frozen lake. It was decided to ski across the lake on the way out, rather than attempt the icy hill that had been the group’s downfall the night before.
I warily eyed the slushy lake. “How thick is the ice?” I inquired casually of Tom. He assured me that it was plenty thick to ski on, but added, “If you break through the ice, be sure to get the pack off right away.” I measured my enthusiasm for the trip across the lake with my lack of enthusiasm for ascending the hill that I had fallen most of the way down, squared my shoulders, and took off across the lake, making sure to keep my distance from the heavier male members of the group.
We all skied out without incident. I was determined not to fall, because of the energy required to right oneself, and I was pleased to make it out still standing. No finer sight was ever to be seen than the noble Subi sitting alongside Rte. 28, with its cold cans of Bud awaiting the arrival of the thirsty campers.
Gallery: Stephens Pond 2005