The Clubhouse Temptress
It’s never easy for the Editor to sort out the details of a North Country Men’s Club outing, but we will do the best we can to provide some semblance of a coherent account of the 2006 winter trip.
Complicating matters is the clubhouse. The clubhouse on Upper Saranac Lake is wonderful, but it’s also a warm temptation. It allows procrastination. Instead of, “We’ll meet at this or that trailhead at this or that time,” now it can be, “We’ll all get to the clubhouse eventually and decide where we are going to camp, if indeed we are going to camp at all.”
Admittedly, the winter of 2005-6 added to the vast uncertainty that characterized the 2006 trip. The big problem of the winter was that it sucked royally, snow-wise. The Adirondack backcountry should be buried in the white stuff by mid-February, whether or not it has snowed recently. Not so in 2006. As a result, among the club members who hoped to go camping in 2006, some were very wary of the conditions; wary to the degree of wanting to call the camping off, and just hang at the clubhouse. We’re talking Billy and Jay here.
So, here is what happened. Tom, coming from Connecticut, and David, coming from Massachusetts, arrived at the clubhouse in the evening on the Friday of Presidents’ weekend. Tom had hoped to check out the ski conditions in the Blue Mountain Lake and Lake Henderson areas on his way, but the big wind storm that day thwarted his plans; he could not get to Blue Mountain Lake due to downed trees on Route 28 and he could not get to Henderson Lake because of a whiteout. He got to the clubhouse, where a power outage was in effect, but the lights came on after a hour or so and David arrived and they had a pasta dinner while waiting for Jack.
Billy called a few times to ask where Jack was and to give the impression that he was lukewarm about camping. Sensing Bill’s ambivalence, David told Bill that snow conditions were great and related erroneously that he and Tom had had a great ski that afternoon. Jack showed up just after David went to bed. Tom, out of a sense of obligation to Jack, who owns the clubhouse along with Mary, stayed up to have a beer.
The next morning, when it was about two degrees below zero, Billy made more calls from Buffalo to the clubhouse in an effort to exhibit again, in case it had not registered the night before, his lackluster interest in camping. He and Jay agreed to come to the clubhouse, however, in the hope that they could join in some procrastination that would lead to a decision not to go camping.
After the phone calls from Bill, David, Jack and Tom drove to Saranac Lake for a fine breakfast. Upon returning to the house, they went for a ski on the old truck road trail near Jack’s house. Tom had taken a short scout ski in the morning and had reported that the two or three inches of snow that had fallen overnight had helped the conditions considerably. They left a note for Jay and Bill as to where they were going. They skied for a couple of hours in the direction of Fish Pond, but were some unknown distance from the pond when they turned back at Tom’s urging. It was pretty cold and 4 p.m. by then, and it would be just about dark when they got back. The previous day’s windstorm had brought down a lot of branches, as well as some trees, and they had been slowed a bit as they picked their way around some of the bigger obstacles on the trail. On the way back to the trailhead they encountered Bill and Jay and the five NCMCers skied back to the house together.
That night they ate the dinner that Jay had prepared for camping. It was quite good, proving that Jay’s exalted reputation as a camp chef had not been inflated by the fact that pretty much anything hot tastes good when it is being consumed at a lean-to when the temperature is10 below. They also raided the Semlers’ private wine cellar (Good thing Mary doesn’t read these reports).
The next morning, a Sunday with the temperature a balmy plus two or three degrees, they began to pack for a camping trip. This activity filled the clubhouse with backpacks and all sorts of gear and provisions (Good thing Mary doesn’t read these reports). The packing process commenced despite protestations from Jay that he had not brought gear for camping. He had brought a sleeping bag rated to minus 20 degrees, however, so it was decided that he had gear enough. Breakfast was Hot Pockets warmed in the microwave. This would have been breakfast made in the Bakepacker if they had awoke in a lean-to that morning as planned. Although the St. Regis Pond lean-to that had been the destination of two previous winter trips was a short ski from the clubhouse, the decision was made to drive in a three-car caravan down to Blue Mountain Lake and camp at Stephens Pond, where Jack, Tom and Jan had winter camped the previous March. Off they drove, stopping in Tupper Lake at the hardware store (Jay wanted a saw), MacDonald’s (Jack wanted lunch) and a drug store (the reason for this stop was a mystery, although Bill gave everyone giant Hershey bars he had bought for a dollar each). Later, down at Long Lake, Jay and Bill stopped again at a general store for a long, long time in a fruitless search of a map.
They finally arrived at Blue Mountain Lake and parked at the point where the Northville-Placid Trail crosses Route 28. They then all piled into Bill’s van and retraced their steps back toward Long Lake, pulling over at the trailhead near the Adirondack Museum that hikers use to climb Blue Mountain. The plan was to ski back to the cars via Tirrell Pond, where they had camped two years earlier. The ski they were about to undertake had been accomplished that earlier year by Jack, David and Jay. They reported that it had been a great downhill ski in good snow, and the hope was to replicate that experience. It’d didn’t happen. The snow cover was way too thin and they couldn’t even be sure they were on the right trail after setting out. After floundering around in the woods for about 30 minutes they gave up and retraced their steps.
From there it was back down the road to the rest of the cars, where they put on their packs at 3 p.m. and headed through Lake Durant state campground toward Stephens Pond. Jay, Bill and David headed off with alacrity, while Jack and Tom took up the rear. Shortly into the trip, Jack decided to return to the cars and change to his hiking boots. One of his ski boots was bothering his foot and, since the skiing was lousy anyway, he decided he would walk in to the lean-to. While he waited for Jack, Tom concluded that walking made more sense anyway and he, too, removed his skis. After Jack returned, they continued on foot along the trail.
As they walked along, they could tell by the advance party’s tracks that the skiing was poor. They could see where the thin cover had forced the skiers to sidestep, and there was plenty of blowdown from the storm that had to be slowly circumvented.
Eventually, Jack spotted an orange piece of nylon tied to the trunk of a small tree. He wondered out loud why someone had done it, and then realized the ribbon marked a shortcut that led to Stephens Pond. It was the same shortcut that they had used the previous year and were now happy to have spotted. They went down the shortcut and quickly found themselves on the pond and began walking down the pond to the lean-to. Shortly before arriving at the lean-to, they spotted Bill walking along the trail in the woods. He had obviously given up on skiing. They hooked up at the lean-to with Bill and were joined shortly thereafter by Jay and David, who had also taken their skis off. Jay wanted to know why Jack and Tom had not bothered to tell them about the shortcut. I guess all that can be said is that good things come to those who wait (and don’t rush off at the trailhead).
It was after 5 p.m. by the time they reached the lean-to, so they got to work making camp and finding wood. Soon enough they had a fire going and were cooking dinner. David had made delicious individual pizzas that fit nicely into the Bakepacker, and had also brought a spicy black bean concoction that stuck to one’s ribs. Tom had filled a big Platypus bottle with bad boxed wine and Jack had gotten someone to carry it in, and they washed dinner down with that.
It was a very clear, very starry night and the pond offered a generous view of the sky. There was a steep slope down to the pond from the lean-to, and Tom fell all the way down it on his backside when his slippery down booties went out from under him, filling his fleece pants with snow, but the night sky was well worth it. The stars were so thick that it took him some time before he could find the Big Dipper. The overnight low was above zero, so it wasn’t hard for the campers to keep warm once they got into their sleeping bags for the night.
Monday morning was sunny and breakfast was prefabricated omelets made and brought by David and heated in the Bakepacker (The Bakepacker really is an indispensable item for winter camping). They lacked the Euro sock popularized by Jay for making fresh coffee, but they made do with the instant variety.
With breakfast completed, they packed up and headed down the pond for the trip home. Some of the campers skied down the pond to the shortcut before shelving their skis, while some walked the entire distance. It was true that the woods lacked the deep snow that made for good skiing, but the white woods offered a pleasing prospect nonetheless. It wasn’t long before they covered the mileage back to the cars and ended winter camping for another year.
Winter camping trips for the NCMC have now spanned 22 winters. The winter of 2005-6 was a bad one for snow, and warm spells and rain ruined the snowpack each time it tried to deepen, but, even with global warming, there will be Adirondack winters upcoming with deep snow in the woods that will make for good skiing and require snowshoes for the trek from lean-to to outhouse or water hole. For the time being, then, the clubhouse will be a starting point, and not a final destination. So Jack should get himself some new boots that will let him ski with a fully loaded pack. Tom will bring the wine, as long as Jack can convince someone else to carry it.
Gallery: Stephens Pond 2006