Over the years I have been urged from time to time to write down stories from my family’s many journeys in the Adirondacks. Frankly I was never sure I’d get around to it. But along came Lost Brook Tract into my life, inspiring me to the point where I could no longer resist.
I have written a year’s worth of Dispatches now, many of them drawn from our experiences. However there is one tale in particular that others who know our adventures have repeatedly urged me to tell. As it happens, it is a Christmas story and I have waited eleven months to tell it.
Five years ago in November we began planning our annual winter trip to the Adirondacks. For several years we had done the same thing over our holiday break: we would celebrate Christmas at home after which we would shoehorn our family of five into whichever car was running best and drive to the mountains. There we would winter camp through New Year’s Eve as far from civilization as possible and end-up in Lake Placid for a night of fun and frolic.
This year I decided to do something different. For one thing my three boys were high school men now, bigger and more experienced, and I knew they could carry substantial loads without trouble. For another we had a special addition to the family: Chieri, our foreign exchange student from Japan. Chieri had never been in any kind of wilderness before and I thought it fitting to give her a real dose. I had always wanted to spend Christmas itself in the back country, so I decided that this was the year.
Our family Christmas traditions are long established and special to us, particularly Christmas Eve and Morning, so I figured I’d get some resistance to my plan. Therefore I came up with a hook to sweeten the deal. I gathered the family together and explained my proposal, promoting the concept of having a special adventure with Chieri while she was with us. As I suspected the response was lukewarm. “I don’t know, Dad. I like our Christmas Eves.” “Yeah, that’d be fun but we could just go after Christmas and have as good a time.” So I sprung the hook.
“Well guys, I’ll make you a deal. You agree to spend Christmas in the middle of nowhere and I’ll agree to haul in and cook you a full Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. It will the best meal you’ve ever had in the woods.”
Now you need to understand that the reason this was any kind of hook at all is because first, I’m a cook of some skill, known for producing notable meals in the wilderness despite the lack of a proper kitchen and second, these boys love little else in the world more than eating well in the Adirondack mountains. However I knew that there would be an additional factor to amp up the hook to an all-but-irresistible level: we are a family that craves challenges and this challenge was going to capture their imaginations. I needed but one of my kids to ask me the question. I got it.
“What do you mean by a full Christmas dinner?”
“Oh, you know turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, cranberry sauce and dessert.”
“You mean like real stuff, not freeze-dried?”
“I mean like I’m going to carry in a full-sized turkey and roast it, yes.”
”How are you going to do that in the woods?”
“I going to build an oven.”
That was it. I had them right where I wanted them. Their assent was a foregone conclusion. As I recall Amy just sighed a little. She of all people can claim that I have been known to overreach from time to time. Spouses get familiar with that sort of thing, usually by circumstance more than choice.
But the idea seemed perfectly doable to me. I have been an improviser all my life (musically and otherwise) partly because I procrastinate too often and can be a little lazy and partly because I love to be creative and I the love the game of solving difficult problems and meeting challenges on the fly. One great advantage to living as an improviser, something that partially compensates for all the thrashing, disorganization and bother it can create, is that ideas remain in the realm of the doable by virtue of the fact that you have not thought them all the way through to the point where their ridiculousness becomes self-evident. That means you try lots of things… like making an oven in the wilderness, for example.
Two days before the trip I went shopping at our local grocery store for Christmas dinner. I started off with a couple bags of frozen corn. Of course I’m no idiot so I didn’t even give a moment’s thought to getting real potatoes: I mean how stupid would that be? So I went right for the Hungry Jack and some dry gravy mix. The next aisle gave me a big fat package of sage stuffing. Real butter was mandatory, so four sticks were added. Being weight and volume conscious I picked up spices in the smaller plastic sizes specifically for the trip. The cart didn’t seem like too much yet so I hardly winced when adding two cans of organic whole cranberry sauce. How much could a couple yellow onions and some garlic add? Practically nothing. A huge roll of the heaviest duty aluminum foil ever created by the mind of man was an essential component of the approach I had in mind, but such a thing is not available just anywhere so I settled for some Reynolds Heavy Duty foil and tossed that into the cart.
Then I visited the meat department and armloaded myself up with a twenty pound frozen Butterball turkey.
My plan for the backpacks was to have my strapping teens haul everything I usually brought in except my sleeping bag, pad and personal effects. I would then carry all the Christmas food. This was a brilliant idea; I have often carried a lot of weight in my pack and am quite used to it. However what had looked not-so-bad in the cart started to look more menacing at checkout as it filled our canvass bags. Including the turkey I recall five full bags. I decided to manfully lug all of them at once to the car, sans cart, as a sort of test. I threaded my arms through five pairs of handles as the confused bagger looked on, lifted the whole caboodle airborne and waddled to the car like a pregnant elk, making a quick mental assessment of the effort along the way. Uh oh.
We rented a van and proceeded to the Adirondacks without major incident, pleased that the weather was suggestively wintry and snowy on the way. Although my packing job for six – seven if you count the dog – eight if you count the Butterball – had not produced what you would call a comfortable ride for all, I was quite pleased with myself in one respect. While I had given some small advanced consideration to the challenge of cooking the turkey, irony of ironies I had not even thought once about the fact that a frozen turkey must first be thawed and this might not come easily in the High Peaks in late December. But I figured seventeen hours in that vehicle with three heavy-breathing teenagers and Amy generating her usual prodigious body heat would surely do the trick.
We arrived at our motel in fine spirits and unpacked, turning our room into something like an outdoors supply store after a rowdy Christmas party. I unearthed the turkey from the trunk with great anticipation, my fingers feeling the bird’s tender skin through the plastic. Hurrah! She was thawed! To a depth of maybe an eigth of an inch. The rest was rock solid.
The next day, Christmas Eve, we got to packing our backpacks and preparing for the main event. I labored mightily with the challenge before me. I have packed all manner of of items into backpacks over the years, but comfortably situating a twenty pound frozen bowling ball smeared with grease and wrapped in plastic amidst canned goods and frozen corn was never one of them. The end result was an uncomfortable, misshapen bulk that ran close to eighty pounds.
We left the Upper Works trailhead mid afternoon with a plan to bee-line across the ice on Henderson Lake to the lean-to at its northern head, where we would tent camp at the point, use the lean-to to serve dinner and the fire ring for my as-yet-undesigned oven. I would have preferred the deeper woods but the magnitude of the fire I was going to need would have left a permanent scar. I have related the remaining events of the day in a previous Dispatch so I will not repeat them here. Suffice it to say that after a poorly judged “short cut” that led to a mile of floundering in four feet of snow we spent Christmas Eve bivouacked on a blustery point somewhere on Henderson’s eastern shore, eating granola for dinner. Someone starting singing fractured Christmas carols and the feeling on the whole became quite jolly.
I was having a fine time watching and listening to my family make a festive evening out of it but in the back of my mind I had a nagging concern: that damned bird was still frozen. I made the only choice I could. At bed time Amy joined Chieri in her tent for the night and instead of cuddling Amy I cuddled the Butterball, which was significantly less receptive to my affections. I can attest that a frozen turkey has a truly dramatic effect upon the ambient temperature inside a sleeping bag. But at least by the morning I had a success. I was mostly hypothermic and the turkey was mostly thawed.
We awoke to a luminous blue Christmas morning sky. I went out on the lake and tested the ice with an ice axe. It seemed safe enough so we packed up, spread out and commenced our crossing. The air was crystal clear and Wallface, thoroughly dusted with white contrasts, looked incredible.
Arriving first on the northern shore I dropped my pack and hustled up toward the lean-to. We had seen no one since leaving from Upper Works where there had been not more than two cars in the lot. After all, who would spend their Christmas Eve on an overnight hike? So it was something of a shock to come up the rise and see that, sadly, it had an inhabitant. Disappointed, I returned to the team.
“I have good news and bad news. The good news is we are at the lean-to. The bad news… it’s occupied.” This last word was said with a breathy sarcasm. I could see the faces fall.
A council was held with the first reaction being to move on to some wilder place. Alex, who had already performed an unparalleled feat of strength the night before and who was not in any way a small man, wanted to throw whoever it was out. Adam’s attitude was a let’s see. Amy, who wisely realized how hard we had worked the day before, was ready to settle in so as to give us time to do all the work that lay ahead but was willing to go along with any decision. I was disappointed but conflicted. I would have preferred to be in the woods completely alone but my pack was prodigious and the turkey was going to take a lot of effort. Chieri was silent. It fell to Zach, our wise-old-man kid, always thoughtful and conscientious, to say “Well let’s go talk to him and see. Maybe if he’s not a jerk we could work something out and all be here. “ So Zach and I went up to talk.
We exchanged greetings with the camper, one Norman G. Fawcett, who seemed nice enough. He immediately offered to share the lean-to, explaining he had wanted to get to Duck Hole but a bridge was out and he been forced to turn back. We exchanged a little more chit chat about plans and weather and such. As we were talking I noticed a marten furtively circling the lean-to. I remarked upon it and Norman immediately launched into a story about the marten trying to steal one of the down booties he loved to wear at night and the tug of war that ensued. Something about his demeanor while describing this crisis was extremely amusing. The ice was broken as it were and suddenly the unplanned company didn’t seem like such a bad thing.
It was agreed that we would camp at the point and I would use a little bit of floor space in the lean-to for organizing my food and serving. Norman was interested in the food part – and this was before he knew anything about a turkey. When that plan was revealed he looked incredulous and maybe even a little worried about our mental stability. He already was taken off his game by seeing two “ladies” in the winter wilderness (to use his word) but a High Peaks turkey was apparently even more unnatural.
The family got onto to making camp at the point but I had to turn my attention to the task at hand. I asked about using the small fire ring sitting uncovered just in front of the lean-to but Norman, who was nicely set up inside, balked. “It’s too close for a big fire,” he suggested, directing me to a lumpy pile of snow covered logs a few feet further down slope that seemed to be the original location for the fire ring.
I began to work on the logs in the pile with the intention of making something like an enclosure out of them, then using rocks to line it hence producing something oven-like. But a few minutes with boots and ice axe produced no results whatsoever and led me to the conclusion that there must have been multiple thaws and soaking rains, leaving everything encased in thick ice. Those logs weren’t going anywhere; even Alex could not move them. I went scouting for good rocks, including at the outlet of Indian Pass Brook, but drew a zero.
I returned to the lean-to area with rising concern. It was approaching eleven AM and the hours were already running short. Getting here had been all prelude; now I had a big promise to keep. The family was busy digging out for the tents and having snowball fights. Norman was hopeful to engage me in a discussion of equipment. I hunched by the frozen logs, unable to imagine how I was going to be able to make anything oven-like enough to realistically roast a huge turkey that was probably re-freezing as I wasted time pondering. I considered that a meal with all the trimmings except the turkey would be pretty good. Feeling completely at a loss, I almost resigned myself to abandoning my lunatic turkey plan.
Next week, the rest of the story.
Photo: Wallface, Christmas Morning