Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Eureka Tent Chronicles: Blown Away

Harris_LakeI’ve been writing about the central role our Eureka Wind River 4 tent played in our family’s life.  One reason for its prominence in our stories is its longevity.  That sucker was the most resilient tent I’ve ever owned.  I mean we beat the hell out of it for more than twenty years and it never failed us.  It survived every extreme of Adirondack weather you can imagine plus a couple of doozy storms out west.  It survived five people (sometimes six), a dog and various gear crowded in, often sardined up against the walls.  It survived inexperienced winter campers learning the hard way that you bivouac tents, not pitch them directly on snow. Even during that vicious final foray on Marble Mountain, it held together.  But there was one night in July of 1993 that it survived only by the narrowest of luck.

The 1990’s were quite a decade for storms in the Adirondacks. There is of course the famed derecho of 1995 (a wonderful first-person account of which was given by Dan Crane, who has more camping gear than I do).  It competes with the devastating ice storm of 1998 for most notorious 90’s weather event (my vote is the ice storm, the destructiveness of which was unprecedented).  However there were others not so well remembered.  In July of 1993 there was another powerful storm, a straight-line maelstrom that tore through the central Adirondacks with punishing winds that wreaked havoc, especially in the Newcomb area.

My encounter with this storm took place on the same trip I wrote about last week, when we camped on the shoulder of Giant and I rediscovered Henry’s footprints on the tent floor.  I had planned the following morning for the ascent.  It took some effort to pry my two little boys from the shore of the Washbowl, which was of course a paradise for experiments of various kinds as well as for random tossing of rocks and sticks, but eventually we began our hike up the Ridge Trail.  Zach at seventeen months was in a carrier and Alex at three-and-a-half years was on foot, which meant that I carried him up most of the way in my arms along with a day pack which dangled from my elbows. With this not-terribly-efficient configuration Dad and party successfully achieved the expansive views from the Ridge Trail.  But time cheated us out of the summit, for it was past noon and we still had to get to Blue Mountain Lake for the island camping portion of the trip.  We stopped on the last of the great open rock perches and reveled in the grandeur of a perfectly sunny Adirondack afternoon with Dix and the Great Range spread out before us.

We descended from Giant’s Ridge and I broke camp, treating the Eureka with extra care to preserve those paw prints.  Naturally this activity, plus the descent down the switchbacks to the car, took longer than I had planned, what with wandering and curious boys.  By the time I swung the car onto Route 73 towards the Northway and the Blue Ridge Road it was nearly five o’clock.

For years I have been unable to take the Blue Ridge Road and not detour north to Adirondac.  So it was this time, even though the day was late.  I unearthed a simple picnic dinner from the back of the car, spread a blanket in the grass near McNaughton Cottage and told stories of the abandoned town to Alex while Zach destroyed a banana.

We packed up dinner and drove to 28N. It was nearly eight o’clock when we came into Newcomb.  The sunny day had given itself over to a cloudy and mean looking evening sky, darkening faster than could be attributed to mere sunset.  I was certain a big rain was coming.  I made the executive decision to forgo an after-dark canoe ride on Blue Mountain Lake in potentially bad weather and instead make an inaugural visit to the Lake Harris campground.  I pulled in with the light fading and fortunately discovered an open camp site about a hundred yards from the lake.

The air felt raw in that way that tells you something fierce is coming.  I sensed time was of the essence to pitch the tent and get the fly on and I was very interested in being able to work without distraction.  Alex was wide awake but  being an easy-going and well behaved young man he promised no real distractions.  Zach, being a toddler, was a different matter.  Thankfully he was sound asleep in the car seat.  Leaving him in the car I went to work with the hope he would stay that way.  The tent platform was about thirty feet form the car; I cleared it, lay the tarp and began to put the tent up with one ear tuned to the car.  Alex contentedly noodled around with burned sticks in the fire ring.

I had the tent up and the fly draped over the top when the first large wind gust hit, presaging a violent thunderstorm.  I grabbed the fly and held it in place as the gust passed.  Time was short.  I secured the fly and began to stake the tent.  I had my first stake in when the very feel of the atmosphere turned my head reflexively toward the front moving across Lake Harris.  There was a clear line stretched across the lake, coming fast.  On my side of the line the trees were windblown.  On the other side of the line the trees were sideways, strained to the limit by a raging, howling wall of force.  My heart went into my throat.  I had seen such a line in person only once before; that one had fronted a tornado.

The Eureka design had six stake points on the corners.  I grabbed Alex and ran him to the car, then dashed back to the tent.  I sank a second stake with the front bearing down.  The sound of the wind, already a howl, became a low, ugly roar.  I had the third stake ready to sink when the noise awoke Zach and he began screaming at the top of his lungs.

The frustrated timing of the choice I had to make gave me a moment’s hesitation.  It amounted to a second, if that, before the father in me dropped the stake and ran to the car to comfort my terrified baby boy.  I threw open the passenger door and dove in, shutting it behind me.  Zach was apoplectic.  I crawled into the back seat, unclipped his restraint and held him tight, rocking him and talking to him in a low, soothing voice.

It was less than a minute before the gale wall hit.  Branches and trunks snapped; the springs on the car strained and the thump-thump of hard wind over the hood reverberated through the glass. I looked out the window at the tent, warped and misshapen from the intense wind velocity.  All at once the two meager stakes gave way and the tent flew past me like a wild nylon flag.  It careened down the road, rolling and pitching at high speed until it slammed into the crop of bushes. I wanted to run out and pull it free but Zach’s heaving little chest and squirming limbs were by far the stronger pull.  I gave up any idea of the tent and held my son.

The most intense part of the storm was past in two minutes; a drenching rain followed.  Zach had calmed and was just whimpering a little.  Alex was equal parts scared and excited.  I broke out a couple of toys and slipped out into the rain.  Approaching the tent I could see rent and slashed fabric rippling in sad fashion as the rain cascaded down.  I pulled it free of the bushes with some effort, collapsed the poles, gathered it in a soggy pile and threw it in the trunk.

Camping was obviously out.  We drove to a motel in Long Lake as remnants of light appeared on the clearing horizon.  It was a beautiful night, belied only by the fallen trees and branches lying in all directions.  We checked in and I unpacked the tent, anxious to see what was left.  The fly was shredded but to my amazement the tent itself looked unharmed.  I pitched it in the room and discovered that it was pristine.  By sheer luck the fly had completely absorbed the blow.

The next few days were dry and sunny.  We camped on Blue Mountain Lake sans fly and had a wonderful time.  After returning home I ordered a new fly and it arrived promptly, sporting the wrong color.  Our two-toned tent was now three, but it was back in business.  A beautiful  woman and a one more little boy were about to enter the picture and all systems were go for a new era in my life and in the life of one resilient Eureka Wind River.

Photo: Lake Harris from the campground, on a nicer day.  Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

5 Responses

  1. Charlie S says:

    Hi Pete…… I’ve had a Eureka for probably twenty years now and i’ll be darned if this tent is not still keeping me snug and dry when I camp out in the Adirondacks.A handful of times,over the years,I’ve thought about upgrading to a new tent just because I figured my Eureka was about due to come up with an excuse for me to get rid of it.It hasn’t happened yet.The only repairs I’ve done are a few patches on the roof of the tent where small tears came about.After reading your two posts I am reassured that I’ve got a good tent and i’ll probably hold out to the last before I get a new one.I look forward to my next stay in it.

    Your dog Henry leaving reminders around has reminded me of a rabbit I used to have as a pet.A few years after he had gone into bunny heaven I found where he had chewed some of my books and also some chewing he had done on my bookcase.Pets are good at leaving reminders of them behind when they leave us.

    Not only do I have an old Eureka tent I also have a cat named Henry by the way.Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. Bill Ott says:

    This story goes to the top of my list for all I have read in the Almanack since I found it two years ago. There must be a novelist within Pete Nelson.

  3. Stephen Rose says:

    What does it mean: “you bivouac tents, not pitch them directly on snow.” That’s insider talk to me. Please explain.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      I mean to dig the tent site down to the ground and build the snow up around the perimeter. Pitching directly on snow means a cold, wet tent as your body heat sinks you down into a melting pool of slush. If you dig out a tent site to the ground in even 1-2 feet of snow you avoid that problem and get a nice cozy snow wall around the tent which acts as a wind screen and holds some heat.

  4. Paul says:

    Thanks for the story.

    Got caught in a nasty thunder storm (lots of hail) in Colorado one time camping at about 12,500 feet. The tent held together but we were all that kept it from blowing away. It was super scary, lightning striking all around. Wish I had a car nearby when that thing hit!

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