I received a most interesting Christmas card last week. It was a blast from the past! The simple note was from an old guest, a recently retired Doctor. It included a request to recreate a journey that we had taken more than 25 years ago.
In his note, Doc asked if the Adirondack backcountry we had once traversed is still as remote as it once was or have " Hordes of earth hounds discovered it's beauty and eaten it all up?"
The journey we had shared was a four day cross country ski trip from Long Lake to Lake Placid along the Northville-Placid Trail. For Doc and his two friends, the experience of laying down fresh tracks on trackless trails was extraordinary. Camping in the winter pushed it over the top for the crew, who hailed from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The three friends were all marathon runners, with limited ski experience but with a lot of time on the trail.
In March of 1981, I was finishing up my first full season as a nordic ski guide leading five day, lodge to lodge ski tours from Adirondac Loj to South Meadow Lodge and over the hill to the Barkeater Lodge in Keene before finishing with a long ski trip to the Whiteface Chalet in Wilmington.
I skied every day with guests and often spent my lone day off discovering new terrain. As a result of all the skiing, I was in great shape. Little did I realize that I was going to need every bit of it.
Snowfall was heavy during the winter of 1980-81 and it provided a deep snowpack. However, about a week prior to our scheduled departure date, heavy rains soaked the region and condensed the snowpack.
The rains brought heavy flooding and ice jams to most northern rivers and I expected the same results along the Cold River which parallels the Northville Placid Trail even though snow had fallen continuously since the rains.
My guests, driving a rental car from the Albany Airport, arrived early and we spent a full day packing up food, gear and some serious ski lessons.
We set off on the Northville Placid Trail from the Tarbell Hill Road on the outskirts of the village of Long Lake the following afternoon. Due to a last minute change in plans, our four day trip had to be condensed to three and a half.
The trail, which winds along the forested, east shore of Long Lake, presented a series of obstacles including exposed roots and rocks and numerous sections of steep, sinuous travel which were not well suited for skiers with heavy packs.
As a result, I decided to ski the lake and with a stiff wind at our backs, we made it to the Plumley Point leanto as darkness fell. As my guests fumbled for a change of clothes, I fired up the stove and cooked the evening meal.
The following morning, we awoke to a raging blizzard and ate our breakfast in near silence. I knew it would be a huge expenditure of energy to reach Oluska Pass shelter, our destination for the day, so I piled the pancakes high.
My plan worked. We skied hard all morning and made it to Shattuck Clearing before noon. But, I hadn't accounted for ice jams along the Cold River which had obliterated complete sections of the trail.
After a few hours of struggling along the banks of the river, we skied to higher ground and collapsed in the shelter as a full moon lit the scene. Again, sleep came easily after a quick dinner and cleanup.
Facing another day on the trail, we stirred from our sleeping bags to a foot of fresh, heavy, wet snow. Temperatures were already in the high 30's as we skied off to Duck Hole.
We couldn't hit the right wax and travel was slow. By the time we got to Rondeau's Hermitage, temperatures were in the 40's and everyone was reduced to t-shirts. Skis were a cumbersome but necessary inconvenience to avoid postholing in the four foot snowpack.
By the time I reached Duck Hole, the group was well spread out along the route. One by one they trickled in. Doug was the last and he was spent. Even after the evening's heavy meal, he was lethargic and I was concerned about the next day. His friends reassured me that he was "still in great shape and he'll do fine." I fell asleep worrying about what the next day would bring.
I knew the route from Duck Hole to Moose Pond was going to be tough, but the mix of high water and untracked, wet snow really compounded matters. Within a mile's travel, we were down two ski poles.
After splinting the broken poles with saplings, tape, dental floss and shoe laces, the trip to Moose Pond took nearly four hours. Conditions changed drastically as a cold front descended on the Chubb River Valley, with gusting winds driving pellet snow with such force that it felt like rapid fire from a BB gun.
I instructed the two friends to carry on as I waited at the bridge below Wanika Falls for the Doctor to catch up. It was almost three o'clock and we had nearly six miles to travel. The cold weather had firmed up the wet snow and iced the tracks, making them fast but difficult.
By the time he showed up, I was cold. "No time to rest", I explained, "We've got to make the trailhead before dark."
For the remainder of the journey, we skied together. He was exhausted and struggling. We were reduced to walking on the skis, since he fell so often when attempting to glide.
I could hear traffic in the distance as we neared Averyville Road. "It 's no too far off," I told him, "Just let me take some of the gear from your pack. We'll repack it when the trailhead is near and nobody will be the wiser."
I told him the old tale about the makings of an Adirondack guide, explaining that "An Adirondack guide was someone who could shoot a fellow's deer for him, gut it, drag it out and be ready to knock down the first man to claim that his patron wasn't the one who shot it."
Gripped by pure exhaustion and suffering from cramps and shakes, the Doctor replied, "While I appreciate your offer, Joe, I can't let you take my pack. I know you mean well, but every time I'd look at that deer head mounted over the fireplace, I'd know that I wasn't the one that shot it."
That was the end of the discussion. Although it took us nearly an hour to knock off the last mile of the trip, the pack stayed on his back. And, his pride remained intact.
Doc is now well into his seventies but is still an active runner. I'm now a lot closer to my seventies than I was in 1981. If he makes it up North this season, I'm not certain which one of us will carry the pack. But, I'll let you know. Happy Holidays!
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org