Winter Camp 2004
Wily Jack Semler always likes to add a new element to the annual North Country Men’s Club winter trip. He figures that it’s good for the collective psyche of the participants if there’s some aspect of each trip that hasn’t yet been tried or seen.
A new location is usually the best way to keep things fresh, and over the years a variety of areas have been explored, thanks to a suggestion by Jack or another camper. A different destination is not always chosen, however, and other changes have been used to add interest to a trip. Heck, one big change was to actually camp in winter, rather than early spring. It wasn’t until the fourth “winter” trip that the days were actually shorter than the nights. It was also a major step, for example, when the NCMC advanced from simple overnight forays to three-day, two-night expeditions.
New gear is often relied on to spice up a trip, and to provide subject matter for late-night conversations and critiques at the lean-to. A lot has changed over the years on the gear front, with wooden snowshoes replacing boots alone, skis replacing snowshoes, metal-edged backcountry skis replacing skinny skis suited for the golf course, internal frame packs succeeding external frame packs, LED headlamps replacing those featuring incandescent bulbs, metal snowshoes replacing wooden ones, and on and on. One year Bill even brought golf shoes, apparently to test whether the spiked footgear could double as crampons. A poor idea, but a novel one.
New personnel can certainly be a big factor in adding a twist to a trip. Conor and Dylan Semler, Bob Goger, Ryan Mayberry, Adam Grenzenbach and Peter Demmett all add intrigue to a journey. Of course, Jay and David are regulars now, but each made his debut at one point and brought something new to the table. Lucky Webster’s participation was also a new chapter one year in the ongoing NCMC winter camping saga.
A Three-Night Tour
For 2004, Jack figured it was time to go into the winter woods for three nights, rather than two. This would give the group two full days to ski and explore in addition to the travel days to and from the lean-to. Jack figured, and rightly so, that a three-night trip would require no additional gear or supplies. Items like sleeping bags, stoves, packs and snowshoes are essential whether the trip is for one night or one week. That’s true, of course, for all camping groups. The NCMC is probably unique, however, in not requiring more supplies on a three-night trip than on a two-night trip. That’s because they already bring enough food, fuel and toilet paper for four or five days when they go on a two-night foray.
We know what you’re thinking; a three-day NCMC trip would simply spur the group to bring fuel and food sufficient for a week. Well, Jack was willing to take that chance. The final decision was to go into the woods for a Friday, Saturday and Sunday night on Presidents’ Day Weekend. At least it was the final decision for awhile. In the end, only Jack, David and Tom planned to stay for the third night. Bill and Jay were going to return to Buffalo on Sunday, presumably to fulfill familial obligations.
With the novelty of a three-night trip, at least for some of the campers, decided, the 2004 trip also featured a new location. The destination was Tirrell Pond and one of its lean-tos, which sits on the pond 3.6 miles from a trailhead on Route 28 just east of the hamlet of Blue Mountain Lake. Jack had spoken by phone to a number of helpful New York State Department of Environmental Protection forest rangers in the days leading up to the trip, and was informed that Tirrell was a worthy destination. (The High Peaks had been ruled out as a possible destination because Bill said they were “too crowded.” That was a pretty elitist comment coming from egalitarian Bill. Perhaps he meant “too crowded” in the Davy Crockett-fashion of going west for more “elbow room,” as the High Peaks, like every other part of the Adirondacks, are pretty empty of campers in the winter. When Tom told Jack matter-of-factly that the destination was closer to Buffalo than to Connecticut, Jack told Bill that Tom had “complained” about that fact. Jack told Tom that Bill said majority rule was the way to go, so a solo complaint from the Connecticut minority was going to be ignored. Tom told Jack that he had not complained, but simply had made an observation. Wily Jack said that he had relayed it to Bill as a complaint in order to get a rise out of him and keep things interesting.)
Although Tirrell was to be a first-time winter destination, the NCMC was not without personal knowledge of the place. Approximately 20 years ago, Jack, Bill, Tom, John Conroy and Gary Delisle had backpacked to Tirrell on a summer weekend. Believe it or not, the NCMC used to don packs and enter the woods when there wasn’t snow on the ground. Nowadays they take to their canoes for warm-weather camping.
Along with the novelty of three nights and Tirrell Pond, the trip was also going to feature developments on the gear front. First, Jack had received a pair of Karhu sweepers as a gift from Mary, and planned to travel in on them to the lean-to. The sweepers are sort of like a pair of small snowboards or very wide, short skis with snowboard-type bindings. They also have a permanent “skin” on the base in the kick zone for traction. Second, David had discovered the value of climbing skins for regular cross-country skis and the party was supplied with them from Onion River to use on the way into the pond. The skins would make it easy to climb any hills while wearing packs, and also slow the descents a bit and perhaps help the more clumsy skiers in the group like Tom avoid a fall.
On to Tirrell
The members of the expedition rendezvoused in Blue Mountain Lake and then proceeded to the hamlet of Indian Lake for lunch. This would ensure that they would not get on the trail too early in the day, an NCMC no-no.
After lunch they set off from the trailhead and found deep snow in the woods and good skiing conditions. It took them between two and three hours to reach the lean-to, which they found more than satisfactory both as to condition and location.
The temperature was in the 20s and they were quite comfortable as they set up camp, gathered firewoods and explored their surroundings on skis or snowshoes. Dinner was to feature Jay’s carrot soup, which he spends the weekend before the trip preparing. The soup, as always, was excellent. Unfortunately, however, it was frozen in plastic bags, and the effort to thaw the bags in hot water was not entirely successful. Some of the bags failed, and their contents were severely diluted in the hot water. A regrettable outcome, but not a significant one and not one for which blame was ever allotted, as the group went to bed with ample fuel in their stomachs. One of the great treats of the evening, in addition to the carrot soup, was the venison jerky brought by David, who had produced the tasty jerky himself, including taking the all-important initial step of harvesting the deer in Vermont!
It was snowing when they awoke Saturday morning, and it would prove to snow most of the day as the temperature stayed around 20 degrees. Breakfast was sausage and superb omelettes prepared in advance by David and heated, along with the sausage, in the BakePacker. Having already provided the jerky and the skins, David was way out in front in the running for trip MVP. If the trip were a reality show, the viewers would have determined by now that David would not be the first camper voted out of the lean-to. Jay, as usual, made his superb coffee in the trusty eurosock.
What Would the Big Guy Do?
The plan for the day was for Jay, David and Jack to ski back to the cars and to make a phone call to Mary back in Buffalo. Mary had hurt her knee the day before and Jack had to make sure that she was okay and that he did not have to return to Buffalo. If she needed his assistance, he had already determined that he would return home immediately, just as Jesus or a member of a union would have done.
After skiing out, and determining that Mary was okay, the three skiers decided that they would return by a different route, a trailhead off of Route 30 between Blue Mountain Lake and Long Lake. This would give them the opportunity to ski a new trail that would afford them, as the topo map indicated, an excellent downhill run to Tirrell Pond. Meanwhile, Bill and Tom decided that they would ski the trail toward Route 30 from the lean-to and climb as high as they could before skiing back home. They set out down the trail, which ran alongside Tirrell Pond. After about a mile, they reached the end of the pond, where another lean-to stood. From that point they began a long, gradual climb, with Bill breaking trail as it snowed steadily. Once they topped out and recorded their location on the hand-held GPS, they turned around and zoomed back downhill. Back at Tirell Pond, they skied on it for a bit, but returned to the trail due to the slush on the pond between the heavy snowpack and the thick ice. As the NCMC has learned, the weight of deep snow can lower or crack the thickest ice on top of an Adirondack body of water, causing lake water to seep on top of the ice and create slush that freezes on the base of skis, ruining one’s glide.
Back at their lean-to, Bill tended the fire and Tom gave gorp to a hungry bluejay that came and went continuously. After a while, the sweaty, snow-covered trio of Jack, David and Jay skied into sight, having traveled the length of trail from Route 30.
Dinner Saturday night was individual pizzas prepared by David and heated in the Bakepacker. It was an excellent repast.
Not a Bootie Man
Among the campers, Bill was the only one who did not wear down booties in camp at night. “I’m not a bootie man,” he said again and again as he wandered to and from the lean-to on snowshoes to collect firewood or haul water from the outlet of the pond, where the current had fought off the low temperatures and remained unfrozen. Instead of booties, Bill replaced his backcountry ski boots at night with a modern mukluk boot he had purchased from the Boundary Waters catalogue. This gave him good support and Tom, for one, sitting comfortably in his booties, was content to have Bill do chores that required donning snowshoes. He would have been glad to pitch in, but strapping snowshoes to booties really doesn’t work well.
Bill may not be a “bootie man,” but he certainly is a union man, and at one point, during discussion of the general merits of collective bargaining, threatened to organize the NCMC! It would be interesting to see how many votes he could get for a union among the rank-and-file membership. Even more interesting would be how he would respond to it being pointed out to him, as a founder of the NCMC, that he is, indeed, management. The Editor’s guess is that Bill is still simmering about his reprimand for not going on the trip to Long Pond, and is conspiring to renounce his management status and rally the troops against the Tom-Jack-Jay Axis of Evil. Stay tuned!
The temperature sank to 22 below Saturday night, and getting out of the bag in the middle of the night was much more of a chore than it had been the previous evening. Tom was sleeping in his new minus 25 REI down bag, meaning that everyone in the lean-to was using a bag rated to minus 20 or better. In previous years, Tom had had to make do with a bag rated to zero while the rest of the group snored in warmer, fluffier bags.
It was still 10 below at 8 a.m. as the group arose and Jay and Bill packed and headed for home.
Before he left, Jay loaned Tom the prototype of his Tillotson Inserts, a custom foam footbed for a down bootie. Jay had created the inserts during the drive from Buffalo to Blue Mountain Lake. Down booties are great for keeping feet warm on a cold winter night, but they are not designed for heavy use or long periods of standing in camp. The problem is that the insole is relatively thin, and the feet can become cold standing on the snow in below zero weather. Jay addressed the problem by cutting insoles matching his feet out of a cushy foam sleeping pad. He then cut side sections for his footbeds and toe covers out of the foam and used duct tape to attach them to the beds. Inserted in a bootie, they thicken the sole and keep the camper warm as he stands on the snow.
Educated in venture capital and the entrepreneurial ways of the world by Jack, the discussion at the lean-to was about how to take the Tillotson Inserts to market. Should Jay manufacture them and sell them on the Internet? Or should he simpy sell plans that would allow someone to make them at home out of old foam sleeping pads? Perhaps the plans could be accompanied by an instructional video in which Jay makes a pair of Inserts and sprinkles his verbal instructions with camping tips and his wry observations about the miscues of society.
Death of a Lean-to or Two
After Jay and Bill headed for the road and their car, the lean-to was visited by one of the very forest rangers with whom Jack had spoken earlier in the week. The veteran ranger, who was on patrol in the 10 below weather, sat down on the edge of the lean-to on top of his thick leather gloves to eat his peanut butter and jelly sandwich and sip a hot chocolate proffered by the friendly NCMC. He told the campers that it was the last season for the lean-to that they were calling home. He said the lean-to had “had it” and was coming down. It would be replaced at a nearby spot on the pond with a new structure to be flown in, in pieces, by a helicopter. The Ranger also told them that the lean-to the NCMC had stayed in the previous year, at John Pond near Indian Lake, had already been replaced. There was something mildly disturbing about the retirement of these lean-tos. So solid and so heavily timbered, yet still mortal, and eventually worn down by the Adirondack elements. It was 19 winters ago that the NCMC made its first winter trip, to Wallface lean-to on the Indian Pass trail between Tahawus and Adirondack Loj. Is that lean-to, the icon of the NCMC, still standing? Which will topple first? Wallface lean-to or some founder of the NCMC? Something to think about for a few seconds over a Budweiser sometime.
The night before the ranger’s visit there had been a discussion about favorite lean-tos of the NCMC. There’s Wallface and Henderson, which sits on the same trail as Wallface, only closer to the cars at Tahawus by about a mile and a half. There’s the old John Pond lean-to, which was leaning sideways when visited by the NCMC for a second time in 2003. There’s the lean-to on St. Regis Pond, a spot as nice as they come and visited in two consecutive years by the NCMC. There’s Cascade, only six miles or so from Tirrell Pond on the other side of Route 28. There’s the lean-to at Corey’s, the site of the trip on which Dylan and Ryan came. There’s the lean-to not far from Marcy Dam, on the way to Avalanche Lake, and there are lean-tos that were visited in other seasons, like the one on Forked Lake and the one on Queer Lake. There’s the lean-to at Flowed Lands. To come upon an empty lean-to with a snow-covered roof after a long ski with a heavy pack in the early evening gloom of a winter day, “in the woods were the weird shadows slant,” is a classic moment of a NCMC winter trip.
On Second Thought
After the ranger left, Jack, David and Tom skied out to the cars to see Billy and Jay off. They then drove to Blue Mountain Lake and had a bowl of chili in the gas station, where the proprietor told them that it was again going to be 25 or so below overnight.
This information prompted Jack to suggest that they ski back to the lean-to, pack up and head for North Creek and a motel. There was also some discussion about whether this change of plans would ever be revealed to Jay and Bill, or to the NCMC editor. Leaving that decision for later, they drove back to the trailhead on Route 28, where David sealed his status as trip MVP by finding Jay’s wallet lying by the side of the road.
They then skied with haste back to the lean-to, as it was getting late in the afternoon. There was a brief discussion at the lean-to about whether to stay or go, but they quickly resolved to pack up. This was of some relief to Tom, because dinner in camp that night was going to be freeze-dried chili and veggie burgers heated in the BakePacker. Such a bland menu, which was to be Tom’s own offering, might have put a damper on things among the trio, who were used to eating well. (Sitting in the car was a Platypus bottle filled with red wine, but a decision had been made not to bring it on the trip. Whether that choice was prompted by the NCMC being too old, or the forecast being too cold, is difficult to say).
After a little more than a hour, they hit the trail with their packs. They reached the road in full dark (Tom only fell several times) and it was off in the cars to North Creek. They stayed at the Val Haus motel on the road to Gore Mountain. The manager, who wore a t-shirt reading “Bates Motel,” gave them one of the last rooms available, as it was Presidents’ Day Weekend. The accommodation was an “Adirondack Room,” complete with a rustic stick furniture bed and lampshades with Adirondack scenes. When told that they had been camping near Blue Mountain Lake, about 20 miles away, the manager seemed vaguely familiar with Blue Mountain Lake and stated with less than full confidence that he had been there once. He spoke of the nearby hamlet as if it were a continent or two away.
They ate dinner in the snazzy Copperfield Inn in North Creek and the helpful waitress gave them to directions to Stony Pond, their planned destination for the next morning. They had looked for the trailhead to Stony Pond the previous year, but were unsuccessful, and ended up winter camping instead at John Pond.
After breakfast the next morning, Jack called Jay and reported that his wallet had been found. Jay was ho-hum about the news, because he had been calmly confident that the NCMCers would find it. Now that’s a way to go through life! Jack had been reluctant to make the call because it would reveal, due to the early hour, that Tom, David and he had not spent the third night at Tirrell Pond. Oh, well, they would have been found out at some point anyway.
Stony Pond at Last
Not only had David found Jay’s wallet, but they were also able to find both trailheads to Stony Pond. They left a car at the downhill end of the trail, and drove to the other end. They skied to the lean-to on Stony Pond, and then skied across the pond, where the picked up the trail again. The trail at this point had been visited by a snowmobile since the last snowfall, so the skiing became tougher. Tom, in particular, had difficulty, and the quiet woods rang with some of his curses as the hard, corduroy track of the snowmobile tread brought him to his knees and onto his back, etc. They eventually made it out, however, officially bringing the 2004 winter camping trip to a satisfactory end.
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the first-ever winter camping trip in 1985. Perhaps a return to Wallface is in order, complete with wooden snowshoes, skinny skis, Lucky and cavalier defiance of the “no cotton beyond this point” warning.
Gallery: Tirrell Pond 2004