First winter in Tupper Lake
Rochester native reflects on first winter in the Adirondacks
When I moved to the Adirondacks last July I came for two reasons: a reporting position here at the Enterprise and the chance to enjoy the outdoors like I never had before.
I grew up in the suburbs of Henrietta, just outside the city of Rochester in Western New York. Though my family went on annual camping trips and I was only an hour drive from hiking on the Finger Lakes Trail or skiing at Bristol Mountain, I never lived in a rural area.
Working and writing in Tupper Lake offered me something new: adventure.
A taste of home
For the past decade my family has assembled an ice rink in the backyard nearly every year, filling every inch of the half-acre lot with a 100-by-35 ice block. It is one of the larger homemade rinks in the Rochester area and we spend hours every year skating circles and taking shots on it.
Living far away from home for the first time this year I missed the rink, so when I heard about people skating on the ponds in Tupper Lake I threw my skates in my car and headed out for my day’s interviews. After I wrapped up my work duties, I drove to the Lake Simon boat launch across from the Rod and Gun Club, sat on a rock and laced my skates.
I was apprehensive about stepping on the ice, though I knew it was plenty thick. There is a big difference between stepping on 10-inch ice when you are no farther than 15 feet away from solid ground at any time and striking out on a pond with deep, icy waters beneath your feet.
My fears were quickly alleviated as a truck of Tupper Lakers setting up for the Northern Challenge Fishing Derby that weekend drove right past me and out on the frozen pond.
I took off. Arms swinging, blades digging into the ice and face beaming with joy. I could skate in a straight line. And keep skating as long as I liked. I took giant loops, crossing my skates over each other as I felt the crisp air whistle by.
Touring around, I took photos of the ice fishing shanties and the setting sun as I enjoyed the absolute freedom of gliding around a wide-open pond.
Out of this world
I have done a fair share of hiking since moving to the Adirondacks, having summited 12 High Peaks, the Saranac Lake 6 and several other small mountains from Keene to Tupper Lake. They all provide unique trails, a time for reflection or conversation and stunning views.
Though the Tupper Lake Triad may not be especially tall or challenging, they provide some stellar views with only a short, lunch break-length hike. The Tupper Lake area is scenic. The High Peaks loom to the southeast, waterways flow through every valley and the low, rolling hills stretch as far as the eye can see in every other direction.
The day I hiked Coney Mountain with Paul Smith’s student and former Enterprise intern Kevin Shea was particularly clear, offering views almost to the curvature of the earth. Winter was fading. It was the second of April and microspikes took the place of snowshoes on the ascent.
Shea is a writer and self-proclaimed “slacker,” more likely to be relaxing with some classic literature than bounding up a mountain. As we made our way up the mile-long trail, he tired but did not slow down. We chatted about movies, girlfriends and journalism, cracking jokes about political issues and fiercely debating the quality of garbage plates. (A Rochestarian, I fiercely defended the plate’s honor.)
Approaching the summit of Coney Mountain is like stepping onto another planet. The snow-covered trail lined with trees is left behind as roots and rocks poke out from the powder and give way to barren, alien terrain at the very peak.
From the road, the mountain protrudes out of the treeline like a dog’s tooth, looking like it might tip over at any moment. It is just as easy to sense the sharp tip and uncertain balance from the top, adding to the other-worldly atmosphere.
As we walked back down the mountain, I got the feeling that we were returning to earth.
There is not much you can do on a $1 pair of skis, but I make it work. I purchased the three-pin touring skis at a garage sale for a single bill and learned how to glide, turn and fall with a group of Tupper Lake elementary students while covering the session for the newspaper. I stumbled around and tipped over more than the kids.
It takes a little while to get the hang of it, but once you learn the motions it’s like butter. You can run, you can hike, but nothing is quite like cross-country skiing. There are few pleasures in life more satisfying than striding across the trail with the speed and form of the Six Million Dollar Man … or in my case: The One Dollar Man.
I kept my skis in my car when I was in town for interviews and meetings, hopping on the town-owned and groomed trails for an hour or so for a break from the workday. By the end of the season, I was able to make it through the entire Hull’s Brook blue square trail without falling.
It is easy to see why you see so many people heading out on the cross-country trails well into their senior years. It is a full-body workout that keeps you in shape and doesn’t take a toll on your joints. My last time out was after a 13-mile hike on six mountains the weekend before, and though walking up stairs was still a little rough I could ski to my heart’s content.
I stopped on the shore of Cranberry Pond, listening to the birds chirping and trees creaking.
Looking out across the pond at Mount Morris, my mind drifted to the future, when, if all goes well with the Adirondack Club and Resort project, I will be carving down the hill on alpine skis. For now, there are lines on the trails where adventurous skiers hike up and ski down, not letting an absence of ski lifts or the fact that they are trespassing stop them from enjoying the treasured Tupper Lake trails.
I approached the mountain’s owner, Tom Lawson, about taking the trip myself but was denied for insurance purposes, which led me to make a series of decisions that ended with a powdery crash on the top of Goodman Mountain.
I had just talked with Lawson and was told that if he allowed me to ski the mountain all of Tupper Lake would be beating a path to his door for permission to ski Big Tupper once again. With my skis already in the car, I was going to ski somewhere in Tupper Lake, darn it.
I placed a call to Enterprise outdoors reporter Justin Levine, who said Goodman Mountain had one of the wider trails.
A hypothesis began to form in my mind: I was already planning to hike a ski trail and ski down, so what if I did that on a hiking trail?
I had downhill skis, a backpack and a fair share of skiing experience by this point, hitting black diamond trails on Whiteface and Gore, even dodging through the trees off the beaten path. But back-country skiing is a different monster completely. Cramped trails, tight corners and unpredictable landscapes make the sport significantly more treacherous than its downhill brother.
The previous weekend I had seen evidence of skiers on Big Slide Mountain, skinning up the steep slope and whizzing back down the High Peak.
“These people are crazy,” I remember thinking. But it was a crazy I wanted to be a part of.
I had no intention of injuring myself in the wilderness but sometimes you have to take risks for science.
As I started up the logging road that leads to the singletrack trail, every step simultaneously brought me more uncertainty and confidence in the outcome of my experiment.
“This trail isn’t steep enough; I’ll never slide down.”
“I can’t turn back now, I’m already halfway there.”
“You’re going to die up there.”
The thoughts bounced around in my head as the skis and boots hanging off my pack weighed me down. I have hiked with tents, several liters of water and enough supplies for several days in the woods before, but the unstable dead weight of a foolish idea hanging on my shoulders was something new.
Usually I hike in silence, enjoying the solitude and serenity of nature. To push myself up the mountain I resorted to an upbeat mix of Mumford and Sons, Driftless Pony Club and Sylvan Esso to distract myself from my fatigue.
I reached the top of the mountain to the ferocious roar of a military fighter jet flying loops around the area. Sitting shirtless in the cool March air, I ate some trail mix and contemplated the ride down. My entire journey had led me here, now it was time to see if it all was worth it.
I pushed off from the top, gliding down the snow-covered stone face and sliding into the woods.
“Mr. Watson — Come here — I want to see you.” My experiment was working!
As I was hit with a surge of confidence, I turned my blades to round a tree, only to be confronted with a drop-off leading to a patch of nasty looking bushes. It was too much at once, and while I kept myself from sliding into the shrubbery, I fell forward, separating boot from ski and hitting the ground face-first.
Humiliated, I popped my skis back on and continued down more cautiously. Alpine skis are certainly not the right way to descend a hiking trail. They are too clunky to turn and do not stop easily.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the rest of the trip thoroughly, weaving through trees, flying through the woods to take shortcuts and carving around hair-pin turns. I made it down the hill safely, but was immediately confronted with a flaw in my experiment: the logging road, which felt plenty steep on the ascent, was not steep enough to ski down 60 percent of the time. I probably could have slid more if I hadn’t sweat half my body weight on the way up.
Shuffling most of the way back, I slid to an end several yards before I got to the trailhead. A fitting end to a less-than-successful experiment.