Winter Camp ’96 brought the North County Men’s Club to a cozy lean-to on the shore of John Pond in the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area of the Adirondacks.
The Siamese Ponds area was the destination a number of years ago of the only NCMC winter camping expedition ever to be aborted. On that occasion, rain and a temperature in the high thirties on a day in March turned the NCMCers back toward the trailhead several hours after first hoisting their full packs. Rather than camp at Puffer Pond via a trail leading from North River, the group stayed at a hotel in North Creek and skied the next day to the Sagamore, an Adirondack Great Camp.
It was that trip, Bill recalled recently, that led the NCMC to move future trips to February, when precipitation could be expected to be in the form of snow.
A Cold March
While February has become the norm for subsequent NCMC winter forays, the ’96 trip began Friday, March 8 at a trailhead at a quiet dead end just outside of Indian Lake. Despite the closeness of the vernal equinox, it was eight degrees and snowing lightly when Bill, Jack, Jay and Tom donned packs and headed toward John Pond through fresh, unbroken powder. All but Tom skied in on a trail that was largely level and straight. Tom followed the skiers on his resolute wooden Vermont Tubbs snowshoes, but kept up with the group for three reasons; the lead skier had to break trail, the trail, though generally level, was more uphill than down, and there were occasional time-consuming detours to be made around fallen timber.
The woods through which the trail cut were characterized by mature stands of snow-draped and wind-blocking conifers that had a mysterious “Black Forest” quality, and the campers quickly felt swallowed up by the wilderness.
Plenty of Daylight
Two miles from the trailhead they reached the trail leading south to Puffer Pond. Going on past the turnoff to Puffer, they continued nearly another mile to John Pond and the lean-to. They had started around 2 p.m., but there was still plenty of daylight left. This remarkable and unprecedented circumstance initially left the campers, who normally had to fumble for flashlights and headlamps upon arriving at their destination, wondering what the heck they were supposed to do with themselves. They soon realized, however, that they could actually begin to enjoy themselves, and they took to their skis for exuberantly unburdened exploration of the frozen pond and the trail on which they had just been slogging with 50-pound packs filled primarily with enough white gas for a month of camping.
The Snow Gods Smile
The freshly fallen snow, perfectly preserved by the cold and undisturbed, thanks to the thick conifers, by the blustery winds, provided a remarkably superb skiing surface. In fact, as reported to the Editor, better snow for cross-country skiing had perhaps never, ever wafted down onto the third rock from the sun since the planet first cooled. The snow seemed to be almost a benevolent force, holding the ski gently but firmly when instructed to do so by the skier’s weighting, and letting the waxed board glide effortlessly along when that was the directive from the skier. Indeed, Tommy, after looking around to make sure no one else was listening, later confided in a low tone to the Editor that it seemed to him that the snow was not only obediently releasing the ski for gliding, but actually giving the cambered board a subtle push off as well, augmenting the skier’s efforts!
While the snow treated each skier with the utmost concern, it also seemed sentient enough to treat some even better than others! In his further private remarks to the Editor, Tommy said that he was pretty sure that, during the race the campers had on Saturday, he actually heard Billy whisper to the white surface that he, good ole boy Billy, was the skier about to take off on the course, and would the crystalline being beneath him make a little extra effort to lengthen his skis’ travel. When the Editor expressed incredulity, Tommy reminded him that the race had been Billy’s idea and that, despite being the lightest skier by far and having the oldest skis, he had won each and every heat of the race. Coincidence? I think not. The Editor has a reputation for a healthy skepticism, but considering the evidence, it does appear that Billy made some sort of infernal pact with the snow spirit. Let’s hope that the price to be exacted from him down the road for his tainted victory is not too high! A deathbed confession on this matter would not be a surprise.
Firefighters are Firemakers
While Tommy, Billy and Jack were flying about the darkening woods on the white velvet beneath their skis, Jay was doggedly combing the forest for downed wood suitable for a fire. Jay mentioned that he was aware that the NCMC had always eschewed fires, but Tommy informed him that his aversion to fires had to do with the work required to make them, not with the resulting light, warmth and mesmerizing flames. Besides, considering the girth of the fallen timbers that Jay was hauling to the lean-to, it appeared that the fire Jay had in mind would be far more than aesthetic. Tommy’s only concern was that the heat from the massive blaze anticipated might melt away all the snow on which they planned to ski, and even cause a flash flood in Indian Lake (It has occurred to the Editor on more than one occasion that firemen, uh, firefighters, appear to have a desire to make fires nearly the equal of their desire to snuff them out.)
Down as Far as the Eye Can See
The skiing done for the day, the group changed into dry clothes and began to make the lean-to their home for two nights. Thermarests unfurled and sleeping bags expanded as they were released from their stuff sacks. Jay, who had been under-equipped in the sleeping gear area on the previous year’s trip, when a brutal low of 25 below was encountered on one night, was outfitted on this occasion with a Thermarest and new down sleeping bag that threatened to expand beyond the dimensions of the lean-to itself. A group on a whale watch would have been thrilled to see a leviathan the size of Jay’s immense bag. Indeed, it even dwarfed Jack’s down bag, which, on first being revealed on a trip to Tahawus a few years earlier, had seemed to inflate like a giant life raft from a cruise ship.
A Watchful Eye
It is at this point that the Editor wishes to thank Tommy for his decision to perform as few camping chores as possible during the trip, so as to serve as usefully as possible as the Editor’s eyes and ears, ensuring the accuracy and comprehensiveness of this report. As a result, Tommy left the water hauling, dinner making, stove and lantern lighting, water heating, fire tending and other necessities to the other campers, and concentrated on recording the events of the trip, both in his mind’s eye and through the viewfinder of his cheap camera. One of his observations was of a scientific nature. He wanted to study the rate at which the red wine the others brought on the trip would freeze. He therefore frequently sampled the vintage from the botas holding it. He also noted that the botas were a welcome addition on the gear front. Not so impressive, and certainly not as impressive as Jack would have had the group believe, was the new, non-glare globe that graced his Coleman backpacking lantern. It did, however, do the job it promised, and would certainly make it easier for campers to discern whose lamp was whose.
Reflections on a Winter’s Night
Jay provided an excellent and tasty dinner and the group was well fortified for the frigid night ahead. After stargazing and firegazing, they retired to their bags. Those who awoke in the night to make the snow yellow found that moonlight flooded both the pond and the impressive ridge that rose on the far shore of its frozen expanse, making flashlights unnecessary. On one foray ought of his warm bag, Tommy realized that, although he was looking straight down at the ground in the middle of an Adirondack night, sunlight was reaching his eyes. It had traveled 93 million miles through space, bounced off the moon above, traveled 100,000 miles to the sparkling snow at his feet, and bounced a little more than five feet back up to his eyes. He wondered if he should put on sunscreen.
The cross-country skiing guidebook by Dennis Conroy that had led the group to John Pond offered the promise of coyotes yipping from the ridge, and perhaps there were coyotes serenading the full moon. Unfortunately, the sinus racket emanating from Jack’s and Billy’s sleeping bags made any attempt to listen for coyotes a futile endeavor. Jack later claimed that Tommy had snored as well, but that was impossible. Snoring requires that one is asleep, and there was no sleep to be had once Jack and Billy snored first.
Natty Bumppos All
The arrival of a clear dawn on Saturday led the campers to awaken and determine that the mercury had descended to four below overnight. Billy’s bakepacker produced dumpling apples or some such to help steel the campers for the active needs of the coming day. Jay and Jack skied back to the cars for more wine and salmon for the evening’s dinner (presumably there was no caviar to be had). Fortunately, they did not bring even more white gas into the woods, as their campsite already held half the world’s existing stockpiles. Billy and Tommy also took a ski back down the trail, and explored the swampy area off to one side. On their respective journeys, they all encountered a few pairs of day skiers, including couples whose female halves were mightily impressed by the manly men of the NCMC, who had the cojones to carry massive packs through the woods and camp out under the Milky Way in sub-zero conditions, oblivious to the cold and other hardships such a rugged lifestyle brought. Gazing from their wimpy companions to the hearty woodsmen, the female skiers wondered with fluttering hearts and shortened breath what it would be like to be in the company of the impressive examples of manhood occupying the lean-to. The NCMCers were, of course, aware of the wistful gazes from the women. Their impassive faces, however, offered no recognition of their obvious desirability. They were, after all, spoken for, and turned their thoughts chastely to their faraway homes “crowned with a woman’s love.” They also conferred diplomatically with the day skiing men, who were obviously aware of their glaring shortcomings in the presence of the virile and intrepid adventurers of the NCMC. Poor pansies!
In the early afternoon, the group decided to head toward Puffer Pond. Breaking trail, and skiing mostly uphill, they traveled for more than an hour through open beech woods, which provided an interesting contrast to the hemlock- and spruce-dominated forest surrounding their encampment. They heard both turkey and raven on the trip. They then returned the way they had come, zooming back over the downhill trail they had broken. They swooped down one steep downhill at high speed, avoiding trees on either side of the narrow trail. Before returning to camp, they took advantage of the daylight left to stage the aforementioned races dominated by Billy at who knows what eternal cost.
Beer on Wine
Back at camp, another fine dinner was had: rice with salmon and sauted onions, etc., provided by Jack. More wine was sampled and four Miller Lite beers, left in the lean-to by an earlier group, were thawed either on the stove or on the logs of the bonfire Jay and Billy nurtured to full blaze. There were some mishaps in heating the frozen beer, but most of it went down one gullet or another. The stars were brighter than the night before, and with so much work and play accomplished since Friday afternoon, the winter campers relaxed secure in the knowledge that no obstacle encountered during winter camping would be too difficult to overcome as long as the botas were not empty. The temperature during the day had not managed to rise to 20 degrees, and was plunging again in the darkness.
The one near tragedy was the burning of one of Jack’s Polarguard booties while Jack was wearing it. No doubt the slushy wine and the warm beer combined to make Jack oblivious to his smoking foot. Jack’s gray booties had served him well on numerous winter trips, but would now have to be retired. Perhaps they will be replaced by some new-fangled bootie design. The Editor would prefer, however, that Jack stick with the traditional gray booties if they can be found at a Herman’s somewhere.
The second night of the trip brought the mercury to 12 below, but the NCMCers stoically made it through the night after tightening the various drawstrings of their sleeping bags to prevent the heat from their inner fires from dispersing too rapidly to the roof of the lean-to.
It Warms Up
In the morning, they began to pack after a final breakfast of warmed-over sausage and unmelted cheese on toasted English muffins. Tommy provided this so-so fare. He could have made it hotter and more delectable, but he didn’t want his fellow campers to get too soft. This was winter camping, after all. Having sprawled out in the lean-to for a couple of days and spread out all their equipment, it seemed impossible that everything could be crammed back into their packs, but crammed it was by bare fingers whose blood was racing for warmer bodily cavities.
Having packed their gear and waxed their skis, the NCMCers took one last look at the impressive stone-covered ridge across the pond, hoisted their packs and left the fine lean-to on John Pond.
On the way out, they had decided to take a short side trip back up the Puffer Pond trail. Reaching the trail to Puffer, they took off their packs. Before setting out, they ran into two skiers who had just come from Puffer. One of them, obviously from the continent, told of his adventures with a guide in the Italian Dolomites. He remarked that, no matter to what extremes he was brought to each day by his guide, he always wound up at a bar by 4 p.m. (That’s the Editor’s idea of a guide!). Billy mentioned that he himself had skied in the Alps. “Mountaineering?” inquired the stranger. “No. Downhill,” Billy said. Despite the subtle putdown, the skiers continued to confer amiably about climbing skins and other matters.
The NCMCers then headed off on the Puffer Pond trail, retracing their steps from the day before and climbing the hill that they had skied down. At the top of the rise, they pointed their skis down the hill and let’em run. They then headed back to their packs, enjoying the last strides on skis they would get with no weight but their own flesh to carry.
The final trip to the cars was without incident. The temperature had climbed, the sun was out, and the snow in the ski tracks in the trail finally went from velvet to a packed and shiny wet consistency that proved it was March after all. It was as if they had entered the woods in mid-winter, and were leaving now that spring had come.
“Well, we won’t have to worry about being cold for another year,” Billy said as they packed the cars for the long drive home from Indian Lake.
As usual, each member of the group deserves the epitaph given to Deets in Lonesome Dove:
NEVER SHIRKED A TASK
CHEERFUL IN ALL WEATHERS
There is no destination yet for next year, but the Siamese Ponds Wilderness, the site of the only aborted winter trip in NCMC history, had been redeemed as a worthy winter campsite and playground.
The Murky Past
One of the final discussions at the end of the trip centered on the question of just how many winter camping trips the group had taken since first venturing into Indian Pass from Tahawus long, long ago. Unfortunately, the Editor himself has not kept records. The best he knows is the following:
There were a total of five years in which the group did not go to Indian Pass. Those five years featured the ’96 trip to John Pond, the ’95 and ’94 trips to Cascade lean-to, the aborted trip to Puffer Pond and the year in which there was no trip due to spring like conditions. That year, as Billy recalled, the group (Jack, Billy, Tom and Neal) instead made a successful early canoe trip to the Bog River Flow.
With five non-Tahawus years accounted for, the tough question is just how many trips were made to Indian Pass? The Editor is uncertain. There was, of course. the first trip to Wallface lean-to. On that trip, the weather was mild (the date of the trip was actually after the spring equinox) and, if memory serves, there were no skis used and only Billy had snowshoes. Another trip, which may have been the second trip, was the very cold trip when the picnic table was inside the Wallface lean-to and skiers from the Adirondack Loj end of Indian Pass came by with glazed eyes and were told there was no room at the inn. A third trip to Indian Pass was the trip in which Conor came instead of the tent. That trip may have been the first-ever two-night trip. In a fourth year of travel to Indian Pass two trips were accomplished. Jack and Tommy went in January of 1993 (Jack’s photos from the trip bear that date) and met “Ed” from the Midwest at Wallface lean-to. Later that same winter, at a time of very deep snow, Tommy, Jack and Billy, who was recovering from a broken leg, stayed two nights in Henderson Lake lean-to. These nine total years of travel (four at Indian Pass and five elsewhere) would only bring the first trip back to 1988, which would seem to be a too recent date.
In researching this issue, the Editor looked at old photographs from winter trips, hoping to find dates that would help solve the riddle. One discovery was winter photos from a trip taken, according to the envelope holding the photos, in 1987. The Editor is certain that the photos were taken on the aborted trip to Puffer Pond. In the photos, Jack and Billy look soaked from the rain that turned the campers back, and the trail in the photos looks right. There are also no lean-to photos, indicating the trip was aborted.
If the aborted Puffer Pond trip was taken in 1987, the Editor believes the first winter trip must have been in 1985. Why? Because the Editor believes that the first two trips were both to Indian Pass and that the Puffer Pond trip was the third winter outing ever made. If that first trip was in 1985, that would mean that the John Pond trip was the 12th for Jack and Tommy (who took two trips one year) and the 11th for Billy. The total includes the aborted trip to Puffer in 1987. So, for 11 of the past 12 winters, the group has ventured to the Adirondacks for winter camping. Under this scenario, three of those 12 years are unaccounted for. Were there three years of trips to Indian Pass in addition to the four recounted above? Whoever can recall and document the missing three trips, or otherwise determine the year of the first trip, wins a piece of camping or skiing equipment from the Editor that will be presented at next year’s trip.
Another question. How old was Conor when he went winter camping? That could provide a valuable clue.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with their being so many trips that the exact number and dates have become murky. Better to be uncertain because of the multitude of trips than to be sure because there were only a few. As long as there are more to report on, the Editor will be content and, he trusts, so will the members of the North Country Men’s Club.
Gallery: John Pond