This coming weekend (March 6th and 7th) The Mountaineer in Keene Valley will be hosting the 8th Annual Adirondack Backcountry Ski Festival. Although most of the clinics have been filled, there are still two openings in the Karhu Traverse (Tahawus to Adirondack Loj).
On Saturday there will free demos and mini clinics at Otis Mountain in Elizabethtown from 10am-3pm. Reps from Black Diamond, Dynafit, G3, Garmont and Scarpa will be there to outfit you with the latest in backcountry ski equipment to test out. Local legend Ron Konowitz will offer free telemark turn clinics at 11am and 1pm, with a skinning clinic at noon. There will also be an avalanche transceiver clinic sponsored by Mammut at 2pm (Mammut’s beacon park will be available all day for those who want to practice beacon searches on their own).
On Saturday evening at 7:30 Backcountry Magazine will be hosting a backcountry ski movie night at The Mountaineer. “The Freeheel Life” is a telemark ski movie by John Madsen, and “Fine Line,” an avalanche film by Rocky Mountain Sherpas. The fee is $10 at the door, and the running time is about 2 hours.
Winter paddling in the Adirondacks? Sure! Sometimes. While not a preferred activity for everyone, it can be done. I’ve paddled in every month of the year and have managed to have fun (most of the time).
Flatwater paddling is generally limited to short sections of rivers below dams, where the released water produces fairly consistent current. Whitewater paddling is generally possible only after extended thaws. In my experience, this is pretty hit or miss from year to year depending on how thick the ice build-up is, how warm it actually gets, and how long the thaw lasts. The topography of the river counts too. Deep, narrow ravines and gorges get little sunshine. Twisty rivers and rivers with very large boulders or small islands often trap ice. Obviously, you have to dress warmly. For flatwater, basic paddling clothes, layers of fleece, neoprene booties, and gloves (or poagies) are usually sufficient as long as you don’t flip. [Poagies are hand covers that go over your paddle shaft or grip and are attached via velcro—some are insulated.] Whitewater paddlers need very warm clothing. A drysuit is preferred (though a wet suit can work too) and you’ll definitely want a helmet liner and poagies.
I limit my winter paddling to rivers I know well and that are well within my skill level. I prefer shorter trips and ones that don’t require me to get out of my boat very often because it’s easier to stay warm. Before paddling in winter, you should check out your take-out spot and make sure you can get out of the river. This seems obvious, but you never know. If you can, also view the river at mid-points as it’s not unheard of to have an open river at the beginning and end of a trip, only to have it iced up at the mid-point.
Often, your only way to get into a river in winter is to get in your boat and slide down an ice shelf or snow bank and plop into the water. (You want a strong boat for this.) The problem is that when you’re ready to get out of the river, you can’t slide uphill. Once on the river proceed cautiously and be ready to exit the river. A clear river can quickly turn into a congested one. Sharp bends are often a problem—stay to the outside of the turn so you can get a better view of what’s around the corner. If you’re concerned about a bigger rapid or a possible obstruction, get out earlier than you normally might because you may not be able to get out further downstream. Prepare to deal with ice chunks coming down the river–some are small and some can be huge. They can nudge your boat or smash it—again, you want a plastic boat. Try not to flip. Even with a good roll, flipping in winter water gives you a major “ice-cream” headache that can be very disorienting. Start your car as soon as you get off the river so you can warm up and change into dry clothes as quickly as possible. Zippers, straps, etc. are likely to seize very quickly and spray skirts become stiff. A friend and I once had to drive about 15 minutes before we could take off any of our paddling gear.
You can actually have fun as long as you pick times/locations very carefully, paddle within your experience level, only paddle rivers that you know very well, and take extra precautions.
Photo: WinterCampers.com’s Mark, Chris, Sparky and Matt on a back-country “paddle”. Courtesy WinterCampers.com
Nobody knows how many varieties of brook trout once lived in the Adirondacks. Probably dozens. Trout colonized the Adirondacks after the last ice age, when melting glaciers created watery pathways into the highlands. After water levels receded, trout populations were isolated from each other, and so they evolved separately, developing slightly different traits.
Sadly, only seven strains of heritage trout remain in the Adirondacks. The rest were done in by habitat destruction (often from logging), overfishing, acid rain, and/or shortsighted stocking policies. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is taking steps to protect only three of the seven heritage strains—by breeding and releasing fingerlings. The other four populations are so small that the department won’t risk removing fish from the wild for breeding. One DEC scientist says three of these populations are on the verge of extinction.
Think of it: a trout that has been around these parts for thousands of years—and is found nowhere else in the world—may soon be gone forever.
Perhaps you’re betting this won’t happen in your lifetime. Wrong. It already has. The Stink Lake strain in the West Canada Lake Wilderness apparently vanished just a few years ago, thanks to acid rain. And the Tamarack Pond strain in the Five Ponds Wilderness was lost in the 1990s. That pond became so acidified the trout couldn’t spawn. Because of the lack of competition, however, the adult trout grew fat. After word got out about the big brookies, anglers fished out the pond before DEC could act.
And then there’s the yahoo who released bass into Little Tupper Lake after the state bought it in 1998, thereby jeopardizing the heritage trout it had harbored for centuries. Fortunately, Little Tupper trout breed elsewhere, and so the population is not at risk, at least not now.
All of the above comes from an article by George Earl in the latest issue of the Adirondack Explorer, titled “Tragedy of the Trout.” Click here to read the full story.
Photo by George Earl: Angler with a Little Tupper trout.
On the spring equinox of March, 1969, I snowshoed and skied into Bushnell Falls, on the slopes of Mount Marcy, with Sam Lewis and two friends of his from college: Henry, a young English professor, and Doug, who had recently graduated with Sam from Franklin and Marshall. It had been the first of a series of major snowfall winters, and we made our way along the John’s Brook Trail after the usual college kids’ late start in the gloom of another approaching storm. The accumulated snow lay seven feet deep in the pine plantation, as we judged from the height of the telephone line to the ranger cabin that we had to step over periodically as it zigzagged back and forth across the trail. » Continue Reading.
The Keene Valley area is home to dozens of well-known ice climbs. But there are few moderates more classic than Roaring Brook Falls.
There’s certainly no finer way to show off for non-climbers. Roaring Brook, a 300-foot waterfall split into an upper and lower falls, is visible in both directions on Route 73, just east of Keene Valley. There’s a parking lot at the base and a pull-off right on the highway, so anyone who sees those dark spots on the ice can pull over and shiver at the thought of someone actually ascending such a route.
Last weekend I finally had the chance to climb this famous line. And, for the first time, I lead an ice route — meaning I was the first to go up, placing screws into the ice at regular intervals to protect me in case of a fall. Two weeks ago, Roaring Brook was a brown Niagara, teeming with runoff from the late January thaw. But last Sunday it was in fine condition — fat, blue and begging for an ascent.
We were not the only ones to hear the call. The route was a veritable highway of climbers all day long, with their helmets, ropes, ice tools, stiff boots and crampons.
Best of all, the route was so well frozen over that the usual “window” at the top of the falls was sealed. In leaner times, climbers have to gingerly ascend past this open window, nearly 300 feet up, as gushing water splashes only a few feet away. In fact, Don Mellor’s climbing book Blue Lines warns, “A fall into this would be FATAL.”
The route is rated WI3+, which means it wasn’t quite vertical. Still, the first pitch was a bit dicey, with a series of overhanging bulges that made me glad my partner, Steve Goldstein of Latham, was leading. I volunteered to take the lead for the second pitch, a short climb to a flat, snowy spot below the final 170-foot second tier of the falls.
You can never quite forget that you’re climbing a live waterfall. At the base, there was a clear ice tube, about a half-inch thick, that sealed off a section of running water. It flowed silently below the ice until I chipped a hole and the sound of water had a place to escape. Soon after I started the climb, I ascended past a giant black maw where the ice met the bare rock. Part of the waterfall was visible here too, and the icicles that formed looked like the mouth of a giant beast.
When our team of three arrived at the base of the last pitch, Steve aske me: “You want to keep leading?”
“Why not,” I said. I had been practicing placing screws and have led rock for years in the summer, but never ice before. With its forgivingly gentle terrain — but a steep gulley in the middle to offer a little challenge — the top of Roaring Brook seemed like a good place to start. I was feeling confident and strong, so I loaded up on ice screws and grabbed my axes.
The ice was perfect — thick, solid and soft enough to get a pick in easily. Near the top, the ice turned to snow, and I had to be more careful that my tools were solid. Again, the sound of flowing water was audible through the ice.
When I reached the top — with just enough rope left to anchor myself to nearby trees — I was sorry to see it end.
Interested in climbing ice for yourself? Several guide services offer climbing classes. While you may not be able to start on Roaring Brook your first time out, it wouldn’t take long to develop the skill. Try:
My first backpacking trip was on an abandoned trail.
It was around 1981 or so, and my uncle Evan Bergen of Grafton was keen to take his girlfriend and me on a two-day trip in late November to Cliff Mountain, one of the trail-less high peaks. And he wanted to do it on a trail that had been closed – a route that was originally called the East River Trail.
At the time, I hadn’t realized that my first attempt at backpacking would involve a wet snowstorm, a low of zero degrees, crossing bridge-less rivers on boulders glazed in ice or a snow-covered fallen log, bushwhacking skills and no actual view. Hey, what did I know of backpacking? Included in my external-frame backpack were a full box of raisins and a pair of binoculars – I had not yet realized how heavy a backpack gets after a half-day of walking. It was an Experience. Traveling along part of that route several weeks ago – as reported here – got me thinking about that old trail. Why was it closed? Did anybody miss it?
Turns out the trail was once the primary southern route into the High Peaks. It followed an old road, made of logs, built to accommodate winter logging sleds. The road was built around the 1920s, about the time that the state acquired much of the land from the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (which once owned 40,000 acres and some of the state’s highest peaks).
When hiking became popular, this was the main hiking trail in. Later, the ghost town of Upper Works became the main southern route in via the Calamity Brook Trail, and the longer East River Trail fell into disuse. Goodwin says the trail was closed around 1980, not long before I hiked it.
“There were long stretches of sidehill bridging and corduroy,” he said. “And those were finally collapsing. The DEC didn’t feel there was any reason to restore those bridges or cut lengthy reroutes around them.”
I can certainly speak to the corduroy. On the second day of our hike to Cliff – we made it far as the height of land before the short day forced us to turn around – I was constantly slipping on the trail. Not because I was becoming hypothermic, as my uncle suspected, but because my rubber “Micky Mouse” Army surplus boots kept slipping over the snow-covered logs of the old roadbed.
My 1962 copy of the ADK’s Guide to Adirondack Trails: High Peak Region, describes this trail in the dry prose of the day. The trail at the time departed from Sanford Lake, closer to the Tahawus Mine, and not at the present-day parking lot near the old blast furnace. “The footing is quite treacherous, especially in wet weather, due to slanting, slippery corduroys,” the book even warns (a warning that, apparently, my uncle chose to ignore).
Reading about it today, I’m amazed to see that what took us a day and a half of walking was only eight miles (but there was those slippery rocks and logs, and Lynn did fall into a stream at one point, and then there were those damn raisins, which I didn’t even eat, and those binoculars, which I didn’t even use …).
It also got me wondering about other lost trails. Goodwin spoke of a few in the High Peaks, including some ski trails around Whiteface built for the 1932 Olympics, and a now-defunct route to Dix near the current trail from Route 73. There’s also the trail from Mt. Van Hoevenberg to South Meadow, now closed due to blowdown and a bridge that was washed away, but Goodwin says efforts may soon be underway to reopen it.
Elsewhere in the park there are other ghosts of trails. A 1930s-era map from the North Creek area shows dozens of miles of ski trails used by those who took the Ski Train up from Schenectady, now either part of Gore Mountain Ski Area or lost to roads or overgrowth (several routes still exist that follow the historic routes — one even goes by a 1930s shed for a rescue toboggan).
Further to the south, a route to the top of tiny Cathead Mountain near Northville was lost due to a dispute over private land access.
Do readers know of other abandoned trails? Should the state bring some of them back?
The tour from Adirondak Loj to Avalanche Lake in the High Peaks Wilderness may be the best day trip for intermediate skiers in the Adirondacks. Both the scenery and skiing are superb.
The scenic highlight is Avalanche Lake, a sliver of frozen water walled in by the cliffs on Mount Colden and Avalanche Mountain. This iconic Adirondack landscape is stunning in any season, but skiing across the ice offers a perspective impossible to obtain in summer.
The skiing highlight is a half-mile downhill on the return from Avalanche Pass on one of the few trails in the High Peaks designed for skiing. How hard is the descent? That’s a question asked by probably every skier contemplating the trip for the first time. Of course, the answer depends on conditions, but you can get some idea of what’s involved by watching a video I made this past weekend. I strapped a point-and-shoot camera to my chest before making the descent.
Note: I pretty much pointed my skis straight down the trail. Others may prefer to check their speed by making more turns or stemming their skis.
This past Saturday cross-country skiers enjoyed the 28th Annual Lake Placid Loppet at the Olympic Sports Complex Cross-Country Ski Center. Novice and expert skiers alike skied the same track as the 1980 Olympic athletes.
So what is a loppet? Basically, it refers to a long-distance cross country ski race in which participants mass-start and skate various marathon distances. Like most marathons, a lot of food is consumed during the event, and a party, banquet and awards ceremony is held after the races. The term “loppet” originated in Scandinavia, where cross country races are an important part of the culture. For example, approximately 15,000 people participate in the Mora Vasaloppet in Sweden and nearly 2 million Swedes watch it on television. The sport originated as a mode of transportation and became a national pastime. » Continue Reading.
One of my favorite winter trips is what one might call “extreme cross-country skiing.” That is, skiing on routes that aren’t generally considered by the cross-country community. Routes you won’t find in Tony Goodwin’s Classic Adirondack Ski Tours.
Some of these routes are long and committing. Others require the use of snowshoes or skins (unless you’re a member of the Ski-To-Die Club, a group of locals who took extreme skiing to a new height by taking wooden cross-country skis in the 1970s down mountain descents that would give most people on modern alpine gear pause). » Continue Reading.
You can see the Angel Slides from Marcy Dam: two adjoining bedrock scars—one wide, one thin—on the southeastern slopes of Wright Peak. They are a well-known destination for expert backcountry skiers.
The slides got their nickname following the death of Toma Vracarich. Ten years ago this month, Vracarich and three other skiers were caught in an avalanche on the wider slide. Vracarich died under the snow. He was twenty-seven. The other skiers were injured.
It remains the only avalanche fatality in the Adirondacks, but it put people on notice that the avalanche risk here is real. Several years ago, I wrote an article on the history of Adirondack avalanches for the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine. I came up with a list of fourteen. Most were triggered by skiers, snowshoers, or ice climbers, usually on steep, open terrain such as a cliff or a slide.
Here are some examples of what I found:
On March 8, 1975, three ice climbers suffered severe injuries when they were caught in an avalanche on a cliff near Chapel Pond. They would have fallen to the bottom if their rope did not get entangled in the rope of a party below them.
A week later, a snowshoer named Roger Harris was on a slide path on Macomb Mountain when an avalanche swept him five hundred feet. He was nearly buried alive. “I was unable to take in a breath due to the snow jammed in my throat and filling my mouth,” he told me, “but I was able to stick two fingers into my mouth and clear the plug.”
In April 1990, Mark Meschinelli, a veteran ice climber, was standing at the bottom of the North Face of Gothics when it avalanched. “I heard this low rumbling,hissing sound,” he said. “I looked up, and the whole face is moving toward me. There was nothing I could do, no place to go. I got buried up to my waist.” Meschinelli dug himself out and climbed the slope.
In March 1997, an avalanche swept two backcountry skiers down a steep slide on Mount Colden. They might have plummeted to the bottom if trees had not stopped their descent. The skiers were bruised but able to ski out.
Avalanches occur most often on slopes between 30 and 50 degrees, and many occur during or soon after a big snowfall. But the business of assessing the risk of an avalanche is complicated. You can find more information online from the American Avalanche Association as well as other websites.
And if you do spend time in avalanche terrain, you should carry the three essentials: beacon, probe, and shovel.
You might also take an avalanche-safety class. The Mountaineer in Keene Valley will teach avalanche safety at the Adirondack Backcountry Ski Festival in March. The Mountaineer also offers avalanche instruction at its Mountainfest each January.
Photo of Angel Slides on Wright Peak from Wikipedia.
As Almanack contributor Alan Wechsler reported yesterday, the big rain we had on Monday has wrecked havoc on Adirondack winter recreation. Alan noted that ice climbing, backcountry skiing, and local ski resorts were particularly hard hit (West Mountain just south of the Blue Line was forced to close), and to those we should add snowmobiling, as many trails around the region are all but impassable. Even the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival felt the pain, when rain seriously damaged this year’s Ice Palace necessitating builders to almost start from scratch. Over the past two days the region’s nearly 30,000 miles of streams, brooks, and rivers have gathered volume and strength. In Washington County the Mettawee and Hoosic Rivers have flooded their banks, and the Batten Kill is near flood stage. The Hudson and Schroon Rivers are running very high and the Boquet has topped it’s banks, but the most serious flooding has occurred in the Franklin County community of Fort Covington where flooding along the Salmon River has threatened a number of buildings and required evacuations.
Those interested in accessing information about what is happening to streams in your local area as a result of the heavy rain can access the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) streamgage network, which operates a nationwide system of about 7,000 streamgauges that monitor water level and flow. Streamgages transmit real-time information, which the National Weather Service uses to issue local flood warnings, and which paddlers in the know can use to estimate conditions. Some streamgauges have been operational since the early 1900s; the gauge just upstream from the Route 22 bridge over the Boquet, for instance, has been recording since 1923.
Amazing how fast the winter landscape can change. On Sunday we were hiking Algonquin in the High Peaks, with winds so strong rime ice formed on our clothes as we made for the summit.
A day later, Roaring Brook Falls looked like Niagara, as 1.5 inches of rain turned the Adirondacks into a tropical rainforest with snow. While the weather put a damper on winter sports, it shouldn’t take long to get things back to normal, say those in the business.
Gore posted this on their Web site on Tuesday: “Although recent severe weather in the Northeast has limited the opening of several trails today, please stay tuned because groomers and snowmakers are getting Gore back in great shape as soon as possible!”
Meanwhile, Whiteface optimistically described its frozen, rain-saturated snow as “loose granular,” and promised 73 trails a day after the storm. No doubt, both mountains will be blowing snow to improve the damage, and snow showers predicted over the next few days may help make the slopes more user-friendly.
As far as backcountry skiing, you’d better be good. “Those trails are going to be really ice,” said Ed Palin, owner of Rock and River guide service in Keene. “It will be fast.”
Speaking of ice, the rain decimated some of the most popular ice climbs in the park. But other routes — those not below major runoff channels, or fat enough to withstand the one-day warm spell, should still be climbable, he said.
“With all this water running, we might get some climbs we don’t see for a while,” he said. In the meantime, good bets for climbers include Multiplication Gully, Crystal Ice Tower and the North Face of Pitchoff, he said.
One of the perks of living in the Adirondacks is the lunch-hour hike or ski. In winter, I sometimes ski with sandwich in pocket to Oseetah Marsh. From Route 86 on the outskirts of Saranac Lake, I follow a trail through a pine forest for a half-mile to the edge of the marsh and then ski across the marsh. The marsh has fabulous views of nearby peaks, including McKenzie, Scarface, and the Sawtooth Range. The trail through the forest and across the marsh happens to be a snowmobile route. This would not be noteworthy except that the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan identifies Oseetah Marsh as a “Special Management Area.”
All told, the plan lists eighty-nine Special Management Areas, selected for their scenic beauty or their geographical, natural, or historic significance. It’s kind of an odd list. For instance, seventeen summits were selected for their scenic beauty. I’ve been up all but two. They all have nice views, but there are other mountains with equal or better views. Why these seventeen?
Twenty-six places were singled out for their natural significance. They include patches of old-growth, two mountains (in addition to the other seventeen), a few bogs and marshes, and one pond—Church Pond. Of the three thousand ponds in the Adirondacks, what’s so special about this one?
The master plan gives the state Department of Environmental Conservation the authority to draw up management guidelines to protect these areas and, where appropriate, to install interpretive signs.
I wondered what special management Oseetah Marsh receives. I also wondered why, if this marsh is so special (it was chosen for its natural significance), snowmobiles are allowed to ride through it. I don’t know if the snowmobiles are doing ecological harm, but the machines do emit oil and gas.
As it turns out, Oseetah Marsh receives no special treatment. But DEC spokesman David Winchell said the agency will consider special guidelines as it draws up a management plan for the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest (the marsh lies within the Wild Forest tract).
As far as I can determine, few of the eighty-nine Special Management Areas receive special management. The High Peaks Wilderness Area, for example, contains more than a dozen Special Management Areas. Most receive no mention or only incidental mention in the 336-page unit management plan for the High Peaks.
APA spokesman Keith McKeever said the list of Special Management Areas was drawn up in the early 1970s by the APA and DEC. He said the purpose of the list is not only to provide management guidelines, but also to publicize these treasured places.
“It was to identify areas of the Park that are really magnificent,” he said, “so people can enjoy them and visit them.”
But my guess is that few people are aware of the list of Special Management Areas in the back of a rather obscure state document. Indeed, it seems to have escaped the attention of officialdom as well.
Photo by Phil Brown: snowmobile tracks at Oseetah Marsh.
The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) and Protect the Adirondacks! (PROTECT), filed a lawsuit Tuesday in state Supreme Court in Albany to force the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) to classify the state-owned Lows Lake-Bog River-Oswegatchie wilderness canoe route in the heart of the Adirondacks.
The move comes on the heels of Governor David Paterson’s signing off on the classification and reclassification of about 8,000 acres (the Lows Lake Primitive Area, a portion of the Hitchins Pond Primitive Area, and additional acres south of Lows Lake) to wilderness their addition to the Five Ponds and Round Lake wilderness areas and also creating a new Eastern Five Ponds Access Primitive Area. » Continue Reading.
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