It is early Saturday morning, Dec. 13 and the thermometer outside my window reads 19 degrees below. In the dawn's dim light, frozen crystals suspended in the crisp, morning air appear as diamond dust.
A carpet of fresh powder highlight the first shafts of sunlight as they inch down the peaks and sneak across the landscape. The warmth offered by these early rays is strictly emotional, as the limited solar heat can't compete with the bone chilling cold of this Adirondack morn.
"Saranac Lake," proclaims the national news, "was the coldest spot in the nation last evening." The declaration, came nearly two week's before winter is officially set to arrive, on Dec. 22. The recent cold snap offers a harbinger of what's yet to come.
In the side yard, the tracks of a red fox loping across the landscape offer evidence of the only creature stirring. No other tracks, not even a mouse.
The usual flock of black capped chickadees, always the first visitors to the bird feeder, are slow to arrive this morning. The always mischievous red squirrels are likewise absent, evidently there is little need for the critters to venture out in such weather.
As the sun climbs higher on the horizon, the breaking day beckons me to shake off the morning's shiver and embrace the season whether skiing, skating or grouse hunting. Winter is already beginning to take hold. Ice has already set up on the ponds and snow underfoot squeaks like styrofoam. The brook in the backyard is frozen over solid and snowmobiles race along the railroad corridor. Ice fishermen were on Owl Pond.
I pour another cup of hot coffee and check the thermometer again. The mercury remains well below the zero mark, in the double digit range.
The urge to go outside quickly subsides. It's too early in the day, too early in the season. I'm certain that more reasonable opportunities will be available when the mercury is legible north of the zero digit. In the confines of my warm office, with a shiver of recognition, I begin this week's column.
The development of winter
recreation in the Adirondacks
In a region which remains in winter's grasp for almost half the year, the development of skills and temperament necessary to cope with such an environment is crucial to an individual's physical and mental well being.
When confronted with prolonged periods of cold, dark, daylight-shortened days, the necessity of recreational outlets becomes a vital component of survival. This need was first recognized in the late 1800's with the establishment of winter carnivals in many North Country communities. The carnivals offered relief from cabin fever and the winter blues, maladies which are known today as seasonal affective disorders. By the late 1880's, the village of Saranac Lake was well established as a cure center hosting 'consumptives' or 'tubers', as tuberculosis patients were then known. Recreational activities were considered an important component of the cure process and events were devised to encourage the tubers involvement.
Saranac Lake, which continues to host one of the longest running winter carnivals in the nation, first hosted it's annual winter carnival in 1898. The event was intended to provide citizens and visitors alike with a respite from the ordinary, everyday existence while offering opportunities for both recreation and socialization.
Winter recreation quickly gained a foothold in the community. Historic photographs reveal activities that included sliding, skating, barrel jumping, curling and ski jumping. For many years, Saranac Lake's Petrova Field was the location of the world's largest outdoor skating rink.
Skijoring, which entails a skier towed by a horse or team of dogs, was a very popular event. Often, huge crowds gathered to witness these winter sporting competitions; including a motorcycle skijoring race that ran for nearly two miles through the village streets. One such race attracted a crowd of over 2000 spectators as competitors were timed by telephoning from the start to the finish. According to reports of the day, "one motorcyclist topped 55 mph going downhill on Broadway before the hapless skier he was towing, a certain Mr. Henry Ives Baldwin, crashed into an oncoming car and was trapped underneath."
Reportedly, around the same time, a skier attempted a similar skijoring feat across frozen Mirror Lake in the village of Lake Placid when he was towed behind a biplane. The 1920's ushered in the era of barrel jumping, speed skating, dog sled races, ski jumping and curling competitions.
Snowshoe races, which are quite popular today, weren't even considered for competition at the time as snowshoes were considered simply a mode of transportation. Before the advent of plows, snowshoeing was considered a necessity, rather than sport.
The Saranac Lake Ski Club, which formed in 1919 with a roster of 105 members was followed in 1920 by the Sno Birds Ski Club of Lake Placid. The Sno Birds, based at the Lake Placid Club, boasted of an inventory of over 600 pair of skis by 1923.
At the time, there was no lift assisted, downhill skiing as it is known today. Skiers would climb the hills that they later skied down. Many ski trails were developed on Adirondack peaks, including the Van VanHovenberg Trail up Mt. Marcy. By the mid-1930's, the region was laced with ski trails.
In 1922, the United States Eastern Ski Association was founded in the old Berkley Hotel in Saranac Lake with the local clubs as charter members. By that time, both villages were recognized as ski centers and they each hosted numerous competitions.
The popularity of winter sports eventually lead to the establishment of a series of competitions which included hockey matches, cross country ski races and more. By 1920, 'College Week' in Lake Placid offered student athletes an early version of spring break. It soon became an annual event which brought college students, primarily Ivy Leaguers, to town to participate in an arctic edition of Fort Lauderdale type shenanigans.
The success of these early winter sporting ventures eventually led to Lake Placid's bid to host the 1932 Winter Olympic Games and the beginning of the village's lasting, Olympic heritage.
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org