Early Season Cross Country Skiing
CROSS COUNTRY SKIING – WHAT'S ON THIS WINTER'S ADIRONDACK TO-DO LIST?
With some good snow before Thanksgiving, the 2016/17 ski season has started out somewhat better than last season and I'm hoping this winter brings us more snow and less rain than we experienced a year ago. Although I have some favorite routes in the Forest Preserve that I continue to revisit on skis, I do like to explore new places and see what they have to offer both from a skiing standpoint as well as from a scenic perspective.
With New York State's completion of the purchase of the former Finch, Pruyn & Company lands we do have some interesting new routes and destinations to investigate. This year's purchases have yet to be classified by the Adirondack Park Agency and public comments and suggestions are being accepted through December 30 of this year (see below*). Most of the lands will end up classified as either Wilderness or Wild Forest – the former allows no motorized or mechanized travel while the latter classification could allow for snowmobile use in winter if the Department of Environmental Conservation decides that is appropriate. DEC will put together a Unit Management Plan, then seek comments from the public before finalizing the plan. Since that might not happen for another year or two, DEC usually will have an Interim Access Plan which will determines how we can access these lands. The two tracts that will be of most interest to skiers are the Boreas Ponds and MacIntyre West.
This fall, the APA has been conducting hearings and has been accepting comments as to how this large area will be classified – some folks are looking for easier access to the scenic ponds while others desire more wilderness with more difficult access. For winter users, the classification/UMP process will determine if snowmobiles will be allowed on Gulf Brook Road, the 6.8 mile dirt/gravel road that leads to the dam at the ponds' outlet where the view of the High Peaks is absolutely stunning. I have hiked to and canoed the ponds twice but have yet to visit them in winter.
For this winter, skiers and snowshoers will have to park off Blue Ridge Road at the beginning of Gulf Brook Road, so the round-trip mileage will be in the 14 mile range – good for novice skiers who are in good shape. The trip will be more about the destination than the journey – for the first 5.8 miles there is not much scenic variety – you might notice a leased camp or two along the way. The terrain is similar to the road into Camp Santanoni with some gentle changes in elevation and, like Camp Santanoni, the road should be skiable with as little as 5 inches of snow. Net elevation gain to the ponds is about 300 feet but with some ups and downs cumulative elevation gain will be closer to 700 feet.
At the 5.8 mile mark the road crosses over a dam that creates LaBier Flow, an impoundment of the Boreas River – there are some nice mountain views here. One then climbs away from the dam then bears right at a junction and passes a hunting camp that purportedly is the oldest standing building in the Town of North Hudson. Bearing right at another junction one soon arrives at the Boreas Ponds dam. While the view from the dam is quite good, the view from the ponds is better; so if the ice looks safe (the ice near the dam is likely to be thin) I would ski out onto First Pond for superlative views that range from the North River Mountains to the west, Boreas Mountain to the east, and Allen, Marcy, Gothics, Dix and other High Peaks in between.
Note that the leased camps in this tract will be removed in 2018 and, until that time, camp lessees will be allowed to use snowmobiles to access their camps; however, the general public will not be allowed in on snowmobiles.
The MacIntyre West Tract is located in the Town of Newcomb and abuts the High Peaks Wilderness Area. The APA is proposing a Wilderness classification for this tract, adding it to the High Peaks Wilderness Area. Last winter the Tahawus area south of the High Peaks had some of the best snow cover in the Adirondacks and I was able to ski the MacIntyre West tract twice on over a foot of snow. Like the Boreas Ponds area, there are a number of leased camps in here that will be removed in 2018, so some light snowmobile use may be noted.
Start from a large parking area at the Bradley Pond trail-head that hikers use to begin a climb up the Santanoni Range – this is on the west side of County Route 25 (Upper Works Road). A gated dirt road, the Upper Road, goes west then southwest for over 4 miles into the heart of the tract. Hikers heading for the Santanoni Range make a right off the road at the 1.8 mile mark; skiers can keep going straight on the road (no trail markers last winter), going over a bridge and passing by another gate. Last winter I found a map in a box on the right that really helped in exploring the area – the trail names I use here are taken from this map.
Bear left at an intersection as the road climbs moderately, gaining 600 feet in about 3 miles; ignore any right turns. At about the 4 mile mark, a left turn leads past some camps and the route then becomes more trail-like than road-like. Lake Andrew is reached 0.7 miles from the junction and makes for a good lunch or rest spot; Mount Andrew rises up to the northeast. From the lake, the Sucker Brook Trail continues in a south-southwest direction and connects with other trails. Skiing back to the Upper Road junction there is a great view of the slides on Santanoni Peak. It's a fast, mostly downhill run back to the trail-head that reminds me somewhat of the ski down the Lake Road on the return from Lower Ausable Lake in St. Huberts.
Instead of turning left at the Upper Road's 4 mile junction you can go straight for a bit then turn right; you will soon come to a dead-end clearing with a view of the twin slides on Santanoni Peak. Further on on the Upper Road you will see a fork left – this is the Bowl Trail which climbs fairly steeply then drops and connects to more trails in the south end of the tract.
Instead of turning left on the Bowl Trail you can continue bearing right to the Doodle Bug Trail which crosses the “Troll Bridge” and soon drops to the southwest – truly adventurous skiers can find a route to Newcomb Lake, just make sure you are prepared for a long day if you try it! For now, at least, don't expect any signs or markers to ease the route-finding – the Lake, Bowl and Doodle Bug Trails are a step or two more challenging than the Upper Road and require solid intermediate backcountry ski touring skills, even in the best of snow conditions.
The MacIntyre East Tract is on the east side of CR25. A dirt/gravel road, the Opalescent Road, heads east then northeast through the tract. Unfortunately, the road passes through some private land at the 1.75 mile mark and that is as far as the general public can currently travel. However, if you would like to get a good look at the Opalescent River there is a flat easy-to-ski trail that follows the river for about a mile.
Access the dirt Opalescent Road at a large sign for the Opalescent Hunting Club. The road immediately passes over a gated bridge that crosses over the Hudson River. Ski 0.3 miles along the road then look for an unmarked trail on the left. This trail soon reaches the shore of the scenic Opalescent River and can be followed upstream to a railroad bridge – from the bridge there are nice views of river and mountains in both directions. The trail does continue but is more hilly and soon arrives at private land back on the dirt road.
OK SLIP FALLS
OK Slip Falls has already become a popular hiking destination. In winter, any new snowfall should soon be broken out by snowshoers and skiers. The trail-head is on the north side of Route 28 halfway between North Creek and Indian Lake.
The route to the falls starts out on the trail to Ross, Whortleberry and Big Bad Luck Ponds and follows that trail for a half mile. A right turn on a new blue-marked trail leads one through pleasant woods and the occasional meadow – the undulating terrain is best for intermediate skiers. After 2 miles the trail reaches a dirt road – take a left on this road then soon a right along a wide trail for over half a mile. As one approaches the top of the falls the trail gets fairly steep – consider taking your skis off and walking the rest of the way.
In winter, the top of the falls will be an impressive combination of ice and rushing water. You will not be able to see a lot of the falls' 250 foot drop to the Hudson River. The full drop can be seen from Kettle Mountain on the other side of the Hudson River – a very rewarding trail-less ski trip in itself.
Just a reminder here that whenever you are heading out into the wilds for more than an hour that you should bring with you some extra clothing and food as well as a headlamp. Other items to have along are a whistle, map, compass, hand-warmers, a first-aid kit, a multi-tool with knife and screwdrivers, fire-making items and a scraper. Let's hope for a snowy winter!
BACKCOUNTRY SKIING & SNOWSHOEING - WHAT'S IN YOUR SNOW PACK?
Winter is fast approaching and, whether you like it or not, snow and cold temperatures are guaranteed. Hopefully you've stayed active in the fall, slowly have become accustomed to cooler weather and now are ready for some winter fun.
Personally, I'm looking forward to exploring on skis a new section of the Northville-Placid Trail between Benson and Northville, as well as revisiting a variety of favorites like the historic Raymond Brook Ski Trail in the Adirondacks, the trail-less Aiken Wilderness in southern Vermont and the rolling trails of the Edmund Niles Huyck Preserve in Albany County. Whether your preference is for skis or snowshoes there is no shortage of destinations to choose from.
I've been reading weekly ranger reports of lost and injured hikers over the warmer months and have come to conclude that many folks venture out into the backcountry hopelessly unprepared. Many hiking parties are without map and compass (or the knowledge of how to use them) plus many- are without a headlamp or flashlight and thus unprepared to travel in the dark when their outing takes longer than expected. When wandering out into the backcountry in winter one should pay extra special attention to what one has with them.
You should carry the "ten essentials" in all seasons. These essentials include a whistle (to signal for help when needed), map and compass (add a GPS if you'd like), a knife (a multi-tool or Swiss Army knife is useful), headlamp or flashlight plus extra batteries, drinking water in an insulated container (drink before you feel thirsty), extra food and energy snacks, extra clothes (including rain/wind protection even if the forecast calls for none), a first-aid kit (including a pain killer like ibuprofen, some band-aids and blister treatment like moleskin), fire-making items (matches, lighter, fire starters), emergency shelter (can be anything from a large heavy-duty trash bag to a bivy sack) and sun protection (sunglasses, sunscreen). A repair kit is frequently mentioned as an essential; a roll of duct tape often comes in handy for making a variety of temporary fixes. I usually keep these items in a pouch which goes with me all the time whether I am hiking, paddling or skiing.
A cell phone can be a useful item in emergencies but may not work in certain remote areas. In the Adirondacks the emergency phone number is 518-891-0235; it is 518-408-5850 in other areas of New York state; dialing 911 will work too but may take longer to get to the right authorities. However, a cell phone should not be a substitute for good preparation.
As winter approaches I start adding some items to my pack. Chemical hand-warmers are cheap, usually last for up to 7 hours and don't take up much space. A hot drink in a vacuum flask, a spare pair of wool (or waterproof) socks and an assortment of headwear, gloves and mittens find a place in my pack. A winter pack has to be bigger in size than a summer pack to accommodate these extras - 2,000 cubic inches or 35 liters is usually enough.
Save the cotton clothing for indoor pursuits - damp cotton can suck the heat right out of you. Synthetics and/or wool will keep you more comfortable in the outdoors. While cross country skiing I seldom need more than two layers of clothing while on the move so everything else is in or on my pack.
Staying warm while stopping for a break or to eat lunch can be a challenge - do not wait until you are cold to add layers. Some folks I know, especially those that perspire a lot, change into a dry base layer then add extra warm fleece or wool layers; a down jacket is often the best choice for the outer layer. It is also a good idea to bring an insulating pad to sit on; my ski mates laugh at me when I bring along a lightweight six-foot-long sleeping pad so that I can take my after-lunch nap!
Snow can be a good (although cold) substitute for toilet paper when needed but if you do use the latter then it should be disposed of properly. In snowy conditions the toilet paper can not be buried under 5 to 8 inches of soil like in summertime so it must be either burned or carried out in something like a zip-lock bag.
Some very good general information and up-to-date Adirondack trail information can be found at the NYSDEC website (http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/7865.html). The trail information is updated weekly on Thursdays and so it is wise to check out this website before heading out on any trip in the Adirondacks.
For me, staying home, in any season, is not an option. With a little bit of thought and preparation I can have some fun exploring the winter landscape and minimize the chance of potential mishaps. Sharing a backcountry adventure with some like-minded friends can add to one's enjoyment and safety.
MAKING TRACKS: EARLY SEASON BACKCOUNTRY SKI TOURING
Around the end of October Autumn's lovely colorful display has become just another memory and my mindset changes from fair-weather oriented activities like paddling and hiking and turns toward snow and skiing; for me, nothing would be better than a few inches of snow in early November! Hunters probably look forward to November more than any other user group but without snow on the ground the outdoorsperson has to be happy with looking at forests of grey, brown and green. Add some white to the scenery and all of a sudden the word "wonderland" comes forth from peoples' mouths.
I find it best to spend as much time outdoors as possible in late fall and gradually get used to the colder temperatures. I don't quite understand why many people go into a state of inactivity during this time of year then pick up their skis or snowshoes for the first time on a cold day in January. Chemical handwarmers, a warm hat and gloves (one pair of liner gloves and one pair of warmer ones) were added to my "essentials" kit in September; a hot drink in a flask comes with me on October paddles and hikes and mittens get added in November. Cross country skiing keeps me warm while I'm moving but when I stop for a break I put on an extra layer or two of clothing, usually fleece and/or a down jacket - sometimes my lunch-stops tend to be a bit long for my companions.
Much of my cross country skiing is done in the backcountry of the Adirondacks and Green Mountains, most of the time on marked trails but I'm not afraid of wandering off-trail and exploring - it is hard to get lost when you can just follow your tracks back to the car. In the Capital District where I live the snow cover is not quite as reliable but when it is here I will often take a tour on a local golf course or nature area before going to work. I keep a to-do list of potential ski trips for planning purposes; the list never gets shorter as new destinations get added as I knock something off the list.
Smooth-surfaced trails and dirt roads often make for decent skiing with just six inches of snow and so are good places to go in the early season when deep snow-pack has yet to develop. Many skiers have discovered the route to Camp Santanoni and Newcomb Lake - I've skied it early and late in the season many times on just a few inches of snow. There are other places that offer similar skiing including the nearby Essex Chain Lakes Complex.
Outside of the Adirondacks, at the edge of the Tug Hill Plateau, the BREIA trails in Boonville get regular lake-effect snows. To our east, the VAST system of snowmobile trails in Vermont (try the Woodford area at 2,300' elevation a few miles outside of Bennington) are not open to sledders until December 16 - one can get in a quiet early season ski before the machines become commonplace. Snowfall is not quite as consistent in southeastern New York but a timely nor'easter could make the Shawangunks near New Paltz a good destination - Minnewaska State Park Preserve ($6 per person to ski in season) and the Mohonk Preserve ($12pp) have old carriage roads that make for great sking at over 2,000' elevation with spectacular rocky scenery.
ESSEX CHAIN LAKES COMPLEX
As New York State keeps adding new lands to the Forest Preserve then these new areas demand exploration on skis. One of these newer areas is the Essex Chain Lakes Complex in the central Adirondacks between the villages of Indian Lake and Newcomb. This area is still a work-in-progress so before heading out it is wise to check the NYSDEC website at www.dec.ny.gov/lands/91888 which is updated weekly and check for the latest regulations and access points. Similar to Camp Santanoni the skiing is on unplowed dirt roads.
Last winter we parked off Goodnow Flow Road just southeast of the flow where the Town of Newcomb plowed out a parking area. A short distance south of the parking area is the start of Chain Lakes North Road which was gated for the winter - Polaris and Gooley Club members are allowed to use snowmobiles on this road to access their camps through the year 2018. 1.4 miles from Goodnow Flow Road there was a closed metal gate on the right - this is the continuation of Chain Lakes Road. Shortly thereafter another gate on the right is the Camp Six Road (don't expect signs at junctions). Continuing straight we reached the Polaris Bridge (aka the Iron Bridge) over the Hudson River after skiing about three miles from our cars; there were good views of Vanderwhacker and Polaris Mountains along the way and the last 0.8 miles were all downhill. The camps of the Polaris Club are on the east side of the river.
The Chain Lakes Road southwest of the closed gate had seen no recent use. After breaking trail over gently rolling terrain for over three miles we then took a right where a barrel filled with waders, boots, fishing rod and more sat at the intersection and continued on to Fourth and Fifth Lakes. Blue, Sixth Lake and Cedar Mountains can be seen on the route. The whole trip to the Polaris Bridge plus Fourth and Fifth Lakes was almost fifteen miles. I plan to return this winter and explore some of the other roads in the complex.
On December 1st 2013 the Chain Lakes Road from Route 28 in the village of Indian Lake was plowed to the area just past the dam at the north end of Lake Abanakee. We were able to drive a short distance past that point in icy tracks and five inches of dense slightly-crunchy snow but decided to park the cars early and don the skis. It was almost a two mile ski over rolling terrain with views of the Indian River to the first summer parking area then another 0.7 miles to the old Outer Gooley Club building with its view of rapids on the Hudson River. Another three miles of gentle hills led us to a short spur trail ending at the Cedar River. We ended up skiing 11.5 miles in 4.5 hours that day.
Lake-effect snows often reach the southern Adirondacks and when depths reach over a foot (check Lapland Lake's snow reports) the southern end of the Northville-Placid Trail makes a great new ski destination. The non-road section of trail has now been extended from the bridge over the North Branch West Stony Creek to a point on the Benson Road that is 4.5 miles west of Route 30.
Having skied out and back from both the old Godfrey Road trailhead and the new Benson Road trailhead last winter (December 16 and January 5) I now look forward to doing a through ski - the drive between trailheads takes just a few minutes.
From Godfrey Road in Upper Benson I would ski the old NPT through easement land to the North Branch West Stony Creek. If the creek is frozen over one could cross the creek and pick up the new section on the other side. The alternative would be to continue on the old trail for another 0.3 miles and cross over on a good bridge. Not far past the bridge the new section goes to the right and climbs above the north shore of the creek before dropping close to creek-level again. The NPT then goes northeast crossing a small stream on a two-log bridge then follows an old woods road. Abner Brook & its vlies are seen to the right. The NPT leaves the old road to the right and is harder to follow from this point on, we stopped often to look for the next marker. There is rolling terrain for a while before the trail makes a U-turn to the two-log bridge over Abner Brook. The trail now heads over a hill to the east, switchbacks make for a moderate grade. From the top of the hill there is a good through-the-hardwoods view of the cliffs on Little Cathead Mountain. The drop down on the other side is real fun, the trail zig-zagging through open woods before leveling out.
The trail takes a left turn on another straight old woods road before crossing the outlet of Grant Lake. Now heading south one climbs a short steep section and passes east of Woods Lake over the shoulder of Little Cathead Mountain. The NPT then offers a downhill run that can challenge the intermediate skier before threading its way past three large boulders. After crossing the inlet of Woods Lake on another log bridge the trail climbs away from the lake through softwoods; good snow cover is needed to avoid some rocks in this section. Finally the trail goes over a hill and drops down to Benson Road. The through trip should be under ten miles.
As I finish writing this article on November 14 the Tug Hill region has just received six inches of new snow and the greater Capital District has anything from a dusting to three inches. The "rock skis" are ready - here's looking forward to a great ski season.