The Final Frontier or the Next Generation?
The fifth winter camping sojourn of the North Country Men’s Club had two planning elements that made it significantly different from the previous four. The upshot was that those elements — extending the trip to three days and adding nine-year-old Conor Semler to the exclusive NCMC — made the trip a landmark outing in the annals of the club.
Of course, planning is one thing, and the execution of the plan can be quite another, and that was again the case with Winter Trek V. The plan, for example, never called for awakening in the middle of the winter night to whack snow off a drooping tent fly lonely for its tent, which was stuffed in its sack in a car. Perfect execution, however, has never been a preoccupation of the NCMC, whose members seem instead to have a propensity to put themselves in situations that demand improvisation.
But the plan does have some effect — no matter how small — on the doing, and we will begin our account with a behind-the-scenes look at some of the preparation required to survive the Adirondack wilderness in the winter. (It’s worth noting that Winter Trek V was the first outing ever in February. Previous trips had been made in March, a month that threatens most often to be too warm rather than too cold.)
Supporting the local economy
Mr. Conroy, who had resolved THIS YEAR to pack early, found himself the night before the trip having done nothing to get ready, and was even waiting vainly for a pair of mail-ordered Herman Survivors with Thinsulate and some kind of Gore-Tex layer to keep his feet warm and dry.
With the trip looming perilously close, Mr. Conroy ran to Herman’s to buy white gas and then visited Tough Traveler to buy the repair kit for the MSR Whisperlite stove. He perused, but chose not to buy, a stainless steel cookset, but also picked up spare bulbs for the Mag-Lite. The next stop was the liquor store, for a bottle of Bully Hill red wine with farm animals on the label. The wine never made it into the car for the drive, let alone into the pack for the outing.
The last stop was the supermarket, where Mr. Conroy purchased Swiss Miss, powdered milk, a variety pack of instant oatmeal, eggs, whole wheat pita bread, heat-and-serve turkey sausage patties, cheese, granola bars, and beer. The last item was to aid during that night’s packing. Unable to think of anything else in the supermarket that Conor would not like, he headed home.
Once home, he discovered that he already had fuel, Swiss Miss, instant oatmeal, and most of the other items he had just purchased. He was not displeased, however, because he realized that he was now way ahead in his preparations for the 1993 trip. (EDITOR’S NOTE: This reference to the 1993 trip indicates that this trip occurred in 1992).
He began to pack, using his foolproof system of “gathering the big stuff first, and then finding all the little stuff.” He found his Jansport external frame pack, looked it over, realized how heavy it was going to be, and decided he would hike in on snowshoes rather than skis. Other “big stuff” included the tent, which he separated into three sacks; one with the fly, one with the poles, and one with the tent and ground cloths. He figured to carry the fly, and let Mr. Webster and Mr. Semler fight for the next lightest sack. He stuffed his winter sleeping bag, and rolled up his Thermarest and a foam sleeping pad. The basic “big stuff” had been gathered.
He then took his snowshoes off the wall and put on the bindings, which had been removed the previous summer when, in a rare fit of productive activity, he had varnished the wood and rawhide snowshoes. Skis, ski boots and poles were located, as were his 14-year-old, 30-dollar Sunbeam insulated leather boots, which he had purchased in Canada upon moving to Buffalo in 1978. He found some Wet-Pruf and slathered it on the worn leather.
Next, he located his insulated booties and stuffed them in his sleeping bag sack. He had stuffed his sleeping bag in its nylon sack, and then stuffed that sack into a slightly larger waterproof sack, giving him some more storage space outside his pack.
Turning to clothing, he gathered his old blue L.L. Bean Gore-Tex pants and his old L.L. Bean Gore-Tex anorak. Too fat for his wool pants, but anxious to heed the no-cotton-beyond-this-point admonition at the trailhead that would lead him and his club members into the woods, he selected his Patagonia Synchilla Pants. He also grabbed a Synchilla pullover, two Synchilla hats, and a Synchilla neck gaiter. Nylon gaiters to go over his boots were also found, along with Capilene long underwear from Patagonia, a Thermax turtleneck, a Pendleton wool shirt, a wool sweater vest, and several pairs of socks. Two pairs of gloves — heavy mittens and lighter gloves — were also heaped on the pile of clothes for the trip. He figured it would be more important on a longer trip to ensure that he had dry clothes whenever needed.
Mr. Conroy then stuffed into sacks the food for the two breakfasts he was to prepare for the trip and found his stove. He discovered to his horror that the cookset had not been washed since his last camping trip, so he found some steel wool and cleaned the aluminum pots. He filled his Sigg fuel bottles, and made sure he was bringing the one with the pour spout, a spout that had been melted on a trip to Algonquin Park when safety officer and professional firefighter William Webster had poured fuel on a campfire. The flames had roared up to the spout and melted the plastic top as Mr. Webster had kicked the fuel bottle about the campsite.
Next, he went about gathering, or trying to gather, the little items he wanted to bring. Among them were spare batteries, lantern mantles, flashlight bulbs, metal potholders, sunscreen, lip ice, sunglasses, sunglass retainers, compass, map, guidebook, recreational reading material, cigarette lighter, matches, pack pillow, antiseptic wipes, Vaseline for any chafing problems that could arise, camp suds, sponge, olive oil, toothbrush, moleskin, duct tape, Ziploc bags, Swiss Army knife, hard plastic sunglass case, compact binoculars, and his sorry excuse for first aid; a few Band-Aids, gauze pads and adhesive tape.
A destination would be a good idea
The last job for the evening was to speak to Mr. Semler about a destination for the trip. It was decided to return to Tahawus and again pierce the woods along the Indian Pass trail and stop at the second lean-to. If the trip ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Besides, despite his resolve to research the location of Adirondack lean-tos and come up with a menu of choices, Mr. Conroy had done absolutely nothing on that score.
It was also resolved during the conversation between Mr. Conroy and Mr. Semler to meet at the trailhead at 1400 hours. There had previously been some discussions to the effect that Mr. Semler, WHO CAN FLY A PLANE, would reach the trailhead through the air, but the vagaries of the weather had apparently ended consideration of that possibility.
An early start
Mr. Conroy left Albany shortly after 11 a.m. and headed for the North Country. There was no snow in Albany, no snow in Saratoga Springs, no snow in Glens Falls, no snow in Lake George, no snow in Warrensburg, and no snow in Schroon Lake. Mr. Conroy was concerned, and began to wonder about the veracity of reports he had received about plenty of snow in the woods, at least in the western sector of the mountains. He turned off the Northway at Exit 29, and headed west toward Tahawus and Newcomb. He passed the old lady’s store, but chose not to stop. More quickly than he thought possible, the landscape changed from a barren brown one to a winter wonderland. As the conifers began to thicken and creep closer to the sides of the road, the snow deepened and deepened. He was now driving through a true winter world of snow-draped fir trees. It had been an amazing transformation in the course of a couple of miles of road.
Not of this world
He got to the snow-covered parking lot at about 2 p.m. There were half-dozen cars, but none belonged to Jack and Billy. His choices were to get his pack ready or to go skiing. Wouldn’t it be great, he thought, for the first time ever on a trip for him to be the first one ready to enter the woods? Imagine standing at the trailhead, impatiently looking at his watch while Billy was getting ready! It would be great, he thought, as he put on his ski boots, grabbed his skis and headed for the trail. Some things should just never be, he concluded.
He went for a short ski that was enough to make him conclude that an excellent trip was in store. He returned to the parking lot to see Billy’s U.S.-made Chevy Blazer pulling into the lot. Jack, who complained that Billy had not allowed him, who FLIES AN AIRPLANE, to drive for any portion of the seven-hour trip from the Queen City of the Great Lakes, clambered out of the Blazer along with Conor. Conor had his own snowshoes, skis, pack and woolen pants.
Jack himself was wearing a pair of heavy wool pants with an understated, but stylish pattern. Tommy had, of course, no woolen pants with him, because he needed, as they used to say on the Levis for men commercials, a skosh more room than the pants offered. Synchilla was, however, a quite suitable substitute.
Billy, however, was an entirely different story. All Billy had was a pair of jeans! Mr. Prudent was about to enter the unforgiving Adirondack woods in winter wearing cotton pants, albeit covered with the yellow version of the old L.L. Bean Gore-Tex pants. Tommy was certain there was strong meaning to be found, after all those years of camping, to Jack standing before him in wool pants and Billy in jeans. There were powerful messages to be decoded about life and change. Were, perhaps, Billy and Jack, through long years of contact and endless hours of philosophical debate, beginning, almost imperceptibly, to exchange parts of their respective personae? Were the lines between them blurring? Were Billy and Jack not actually before him? Were these androids built by aliens who had mixed some of the details by mistake? These thoughts, along with the residue of last night’s Budweiser, were making Tommy’s head hurt. He blinked, and decided to get packing, leaving the meaning of the universe to be plumbed by less clouded minds. He shuddered to think that he had even contemplated being the first one ready to hike.
Heading out without a tent
The buzz of preparation filled the parking lot as gear was stuffed into packs and snowshoes or skis were lashed and fiddled with. Jack’s pack, with its two pairs of metal Sherpa snowshoes lashed to the outside, made him look like a skiing phone booth. Billy’s pack looked suspiciously small, and upon closer examination was revealed not to be his capacious Jansport, but a smaller, internal frame pack that could be lifted with relative ease. Cross-examination of Mr. Webster revealed that his pack contained no fuel, no stove, no lantern, no cooking items — no real heavy stuff whatsoever! Now, Mr. Conroy, had, on many occasions, opted to leave it to Jack or Billy to bring some item that he himself owned, but did not wish to carry. For Billy, however, to pull the same stunt was making Tommy’s head hurt again, and prompted him to look closely at Billy to see if the android makers had made some tell-tale mistake, such as giving him blue eyes. Was he wearing jeans simply because there was no blood to be kept warm? His concerns lessened, however, when Billy was the first to get ready and suggested that he and Conor hit the trail ahead of Tommy and Jack. Conor, no doubt skiing for the first time with a pack, fell on his tailbone on the hardpack of the parking lot as he headed toward the trailhead, but no complaint was forthcoming. Tommy resolved not to out-complain a 9-year-old on the trip. It wouldn’t be easy, but he would make the effort.
As it was nearing 3 p.m., a number of day skiers were returning to the parking lot, and no doubt wondering at the late start being made by these four with their massive packs. Little did they know how normal the situation was to the intrepid members of the NCMC! And little did Billy know, as he started up the trail with Conor, the BIG MISTAKE that was being made in the parking lot. It was true that the packs were massive, and it occurred to Tommy, for a number of reasons, that it would probably be fine not to bring the tent. Few people, according to the log book at the trailhead, were heading toward Indian Pass. Most, instead, were either day skiers or were bound for Lake Colden. Also, the skiers returning to the parking lot had made it all the way to the lean-to that the NCMC coveted, and were reporting that it was unoccupado. The weather, too, was not forecast to be particularly severe. Most importantly, the tent and poles were HEAVY, and Tommy didn’t want to carry either. Billy already had the large tent fly that Tommy had given to him to carry, and Jack had a groundcloth. Tommy was sure neither would even have to be used.
“We always get a lean-to,” Tommy reminded Jack. Immediately, with great force of conviction, Jack said, “Let’s leave it.” At this moment, up the trail, Billy felt a rouge wind lift the hair on the back of his neck.
“Billy would never let us do this,” Tommy said to Jack as they left the parking lot and headed up the trail.
To each his own pace
It was a mild day for an Adirondack February as the four men headed up the trail. The woods on the part of the Indian Pass trail near Tahawus were hardwood, with lots of American beech with their yellowed leaves still on the branches. The snow was good.
It had snowed the night before and the trail was soft. They made good time, with Conor gamely going downhill on his skis, picking himself up after each fall.
They did not travel together on the trail so much as meet each other from time to time. A need to stop to adjust a snowshoe binding would slow someone down so that someone behind them would catch up, and either chat and wait, or pass on. It’s a good way to travel. Everyone goes pretty much at their own pace, producing amiable social intersections alternating with pleasant solitude. The talk is about the common problems and pleasures found along the trail. No one feels a need to speed up or slow down.
Billy seems to always to be in front, like a scout for the Calvary, he covers a lot of distance, backtracking to check on the progress of slowpokes. On this trip, he seemed determined, albeit gently, to instill in Conor the alacrity that he has sometimes found lacking in Conor’s father. He apparently figured that if Conor did not inherit alacrity from Mary, he would try and produce evidence that nurture had more influence than nature.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding copy was written shortly after the trip was completed and, yes, everyone had come back alive. Unfortunately, the Editor failed to complete the account while the details reported to him were fresh in his mind. What follows is the Editor’s best effort to recall, months after the gathering, the details of the remainder of the trip.)
Jack and Tommy exposed
As with all the winter trips to Tahawus, the first major landmark to be reached is the first lean-to, which is a couple of miles from the parking lot. On this trip, the lean-to was occupied by two women, both of whom had several attractive attributes (It is no longer remembered exactly what they were) and, if memory serves, two men. The NCMC members chatted for awhile, and then began to head on to the next lean-to. Billy went on ahead to secure the lean-to and the rest of the group followed along. After a time, Billy, drenched with sweat, backtracked to announce that he had run into a couple of French Canadiens who he raced for the lean-to. Billy was apparently ahead at one point, but was passed and had decided it was futile to try to regain the lead.
Billy was leaning forward, breathing heavily and hanging from his planted ski poles, when Jack told him that they had left the tent in the parking lot. He sank even lower upon hearing the news, but went less berserk than could have been expected.
Of course, we always preferred our parents to be mad at us rather than disappointed in us, and Jack and Tommy felt heavily the weight of Billy’s distraught disapproval, or at least Jack felt it.
Now it was decision time. It was beginning to get dark and, if anything, it was a little too warm. The light precipitation was more sleet than snow, and while they were dumb enough to leave the tent in the parking lot, they were smart enough to know what the possible consequences could be, including the possibility of being in one of those Adirondack magazine articles that give examples of complete idiots succumbing to hypothermia. There was talk about returning to the car to retrieve the tent, or returning to the first lean-to and throwing themselves on the mercy of the current transients who occupied it. Tommy favored camping, without the tent, in a level clearing that he knew to be just ahead of where they were. The decision was to head for the clearing and make camp, and allow conditions to dictate whether any changes in plans were in order. They reached the clearing and packed down the campsite with their snowshoes. Despite the packing, they kept their snowshoes on so they wouldn’t sink up to their thighs in the deep snow. They spread their smallish groundcloth on the snow and it was suggested to Conor that he take off his snowshoes and relax on top of the grouncloth in his sleeping bag. Conor, looking doubtfully at the groundcloth, demurred. He expressed a concern that putting his weight on the groundcloth would send it sinking deep in the snow, perhaps to a depth that would require a difficult rescue by three people whose negligence had created the current predicament!
Upon assurances that he would be safe, however, Conor took to the groundcloth. The tent fly was then rigged with skis and ski poles above the groundcloth. Tommy remarked how aesthetically pleasing their camp was becoming.
“Serendipity!” Billy exclaimed loudly with mock enthusiasm. “Picturesque!”
Anybody remember to bring golf shoes?
(Editor’s Note: The date is now November 19, 1994, approximately two and one-half years since the actual trip took place. The editor will now attempt to pick up the narrative and try to keep events from the trip in question separate from details of other trips. One thing the Editor is certain of is that there were no canoes on this trip!)
It was remarked earlier that Billy Webster, a man with a reputation for preparation and exactitude, was poorly packed for the trip. How poorly packed soon became evident. Astonishing though it seems, Billy, upon removing the contents of his pack, came upon a pair of GOLF SHOES! White, spiked golf shoes! The Editor cannot help but ask, which is the greater sin against the laws of camping and reverence for the eternal wilderness –courageously leaving a tent behind or … bringing GOLF SHOES? Dear reader, you KNOW the answer with no prompting from the Editor!
(Editor’s note: It is now January 19, 1995. The Editor has just successfully copied everything that you have read so far from its original Tandy Deskmate file to a WordPerfect file. It required a rudimentary knowledge of DOS, which rhymes with sauce or loss, which the Editor has acquired by perusing DOS for Dummies. This will allow the Editor to actually print this account. The Editor is able to print it because his wife brought home her WordPerfect 5.1, which the Editor loaded on his computer. With 5.1, the Editor was able to select his new Hewlett Packard laser printer and bring you this account of the winter sojourn.)
A rude awakening
What happened after Billy brought forth the golf shoes from his daypack? I, the Editor, must admit that it has been so long since the trip was discussed with me that I’m not sure. I recall being told that the group spent a pleasant evening in which dinner was consumed and the area around their camp was explored after dark on snowshoes. The four went to sleep, with Jack crawling into the biggest down sleeping bag on the planet, and were awakened in the middle of the night by heavy, wet snow that was falling on the tent fly and collapsing it on their faces. They kicked and punched at the fly until enough snow dropped off to allow the fly to rebound up off their faces.
The next morning, the four campers retreated to the first lean-to, which was now unoccupied, and established camp. The rest of the day was spent ski touring, with some or all of the party reaching Wallface lean-to, the group’s original destination.
On the second morning, the Editor recalls being told, the laces of Conor’s cross-country boots were perfectly encased in ice. Yet off he went to ski, ignoring his refrigerated boots.
No such thing as a bad trip
As with all the winter trips to Wallface, or its vicinity, the improbably deep snow, the stillness, the frozen streams, the pine, balsam, and spruce, the beckoning trail — and the positive impact those elements have on companions who are already inclined to agreeable behavior under the worst of circumstances — produce an experience that, in hindsight, is among the treasured moments of life. Indeed, I, the Editor, have always enjoyed the accounts reported to me of these challenging yet tranquil sojourns, and would not hesitate to join this crew, at this place, at that time of year, for as many nights as the food would last!