I first met Chris in the spring of 1978. We were both freshman milers on the Saranac Lake track team. I ran track because I got cut from the baseball team. Chris ran track because girls ran track too. His reason quickly became mine. We were soon best friends, and have been so since.
By fall 1979 Chris and I were juniors. We played Redskins football in the fall. I still could not make the baseball team, so in the spring, we both still ran track too. In between, we spent our days sharing yet another mutual interest- hunting rabbits.
Once football season ended and the snow settled in, after school we spent afternoons and weekends chasing snowshoe rabbits through thick conifers swamps. Chris had an old Mossberg. I had my Dad’s vintage Ithaca, both pumps. Chris had an Airedale named Murphy that he claimed was a rabbit dog, but I had my doubts.
We were our own dog. There was no blaze orange, no lightweight hunter’s gear. Hunter’s red & black plaid, wool head to foot, heavy, itchy, but warm. Snow clung to it in frozen clumps. We would get out of school, grab our guns, and head out. McKenzie Pond Road past the dump, behind the DEC Office in Ray Brook, out past Lake Colby, or up on Mount Baker flushing “partridge” and “snowshoes”. But our favorite place was down the tracks towards Ray Brook, across Route 86, in a mossy pine & alder swamp.
And 1979 meant something else. The Winter Olympics were coming! That fact meant a lot of things to a lot of different people, but for two Saranac Lake High school Juniors it meant just one important thing- a whole month off from school.
We were off most of late January and February, 1980. Saranac Lake High School housed Army National Guard troops. Our band room was their Post Exchange. While I worked there, selling toothpaste and candy bars to soldiers providing Olympic security, Chris bussed tables and washed dishes at the Howard Johnson’s in Placid.
My Mom spent her time on Lake Placid’s crowded, snow covered streets, trading Olympic pins with heavily accented foreigners in colorful parkas and furry hats. Dad was busy, designated by the Governor to oversee transportation and snow making for the various Olympic venues throughout the area.
I attended several Olympic events, opening ceremony fireworks on Mirror Lake, speed skating on the Olympic oval in Lake Placid, a hockey game between Finland and Sweden at the arena. It was a bustling, exciting time. Then the U.S. Hockey team beat Russia and made “History On Ice”. A memorable moment that endures to this day.
My Olympic memory, however, centers on a less well known event. Somewhere during all the hustle and tumult, Chris and I found ourselves with a mutual day off. We decided to grab our guns and go rabbit hunting in our favorite swamp, down the tracks towards Ray Brook.
We met at my house. We got dressed and headed out, trudging through the snow with our guns. We trekked to the railroad crossing in Ray Brook on Route 86. Route 86 was closed during the Olympics. People travelled back and forth to Lake Placid by bus, so the highway was pretty quiet. Regardless, we both unloaded our shotguns as we approached the road intersection with the tracks. Our hunting grounds was just across the highway, in the lowland swamp on the far side, below the old Ray Brook Prison.
We crossed the road and dropped down the bank towards the swamp, looking forward to bagging some rabbits. We had walked a good distance, and were ready for some action!
Suddenly, from behind us, a deep voice boomed:
We both froze.
We turned to find ourselves facing several State Trooper cars: The same deep voice inquired, “Just WHAT in tarnation do you two boys think you are up to??!!”
We both gulped, “Just Rabbit hunting, Officer.”
The officer in charge just stood there looking at us, shaking his head. “Not today you aren’t. Now come up out of there and let me take a look at those shotguns.”
We meekly complied. Thank God our fathers had trained us to unload before crossing the highway, and we hadn’t reloaded!
The officer checked our guns and hunting licenses, which were all in good order.
“You two boys see that road there?”
“You know what’s at the other END of that road?”
“That road leads to The Olympic Village. You boys know what that is? Olympic Athletes live there, knuckleheads.”
Apparently, while we weren’t looking, someone had turned Ray Brook Prison into housing for the New York State Police, Army National Guard, and other Olympic security forces, as well as housing, called the “Olympic Village”, for Athletes competing in the games. Neither Chris nor I had been consulted or informed.
The officer handed us back our shotguns. ”Now you two heroes turn yourselves around and march straight back to town. This swamp is “Closed For Rabbit Hunting” until further notice.”
Those may not be exact quotes, but they’re pretty close. We turned tail and headed home.
The 1980 Winter Olympics was a memorable event. But for two high school Juniors from Saranac Lake, the most vivid memory is of an aborted snow shoe rabbit hunt and a State Trooper yelling “FREEZE!”