Best in snow

Jack Drury with NCCC students on their 1987 two-week Winter Practicum. (Photo provided)

The brief cold snap of last week had many in a panic. For me, although age has dampened my enthusiasm for the cold, it was just another day at the office.

I calculate that I’ve camped a year’s worth of nights in freezing weather and over 20 nights at between 25 and 40 below zero. Like any skill, knowledge and practice make perfect. The proper clothing and equipment, along with plenty of food, keeps misery at bay. Plus, there’s something satisfying about being toasty warm in a snow shelter when it’s 30 below zero.

My first winter camping trip was during a college semester break in January 1970 near Wanakena. Back when, if a trail was cut somewhere in the winter, in all likelihood, it was a snowmobile trail. I decided to snowshoe from Wanakena to Januck’s Landing at the south end of Cranberry Lake, spend the night and snowshoe back out. It was a typical Adirondack January with nearly 2 feet of snow in the woods and daytime temperatures in the teens.

I was a rookie. I’d never camped in below freezing temperatures, with the exception of one debacle in March of 1968. I had, however, learned a lot from that experience. I had also been reading outdoor books. The first was Bradford Angier’s 1956 classic, “How to Stay Alive in the Woods.” I read it cover to cover, and while it wasn’t rocket science, it had great sections on “staying found” and “keeping out of trouble.” Those topics were to come in handy time and again.

It was late afternoon when I strapped on my rawhide-laced snowshoes with leather H-bindings. It was a little over three miles to the lean-to and I wasn’t sure I would make it before dark. But that was okay because I had a flashlight fortified with extra C batteries.

It was my first trip on my snowshoes, a Christmas present from my mother the previous month. Traveling on a well-packed trail was easy despite my need to stop frequently to adjust the snowshoe bindings. As darkness crept up, I avoided turning on my flashlight until the last possible moment to keep my eyes adjusted to the dark. I no sooner turned it on than the snowmobile track headed off the trail out onto Cranberry Lake. I looked at my map, peered into the darkness out on the lake, and determined that the track went directly to Januck’s lean-to and would save me a mile of snowshoeing.

Should I take the risk and head out onto the lake or stay safe and follow the hiking trail?

I’ve never considered myself reckless, but my rational side said, a snowmobile is a lot heavier than me. If it made it, I should be able to. I just needed to keep an eye on the map and compass to make sure I was heading in the right direction.

Hiking out onto the lake with the beam of light limiting me to tunnel vision, I plodded on. I was able to confirm, with my trusty Silva Huntsman compass, that I was indeed heading in the correct direction. Soon I came upon the lean-to. It wasn’t your average lean-to. Yeah, it had lots of graffiti, more nails than needed, and lots of wear and tear. But it had two unique things. Some snowmobilers had spread a bale of hay on the floor and enclosed the front with plastic. So, it was less a lean-to and more a cabin.

This was long before I had become a Wilderness purist and I was psyched to have such luxury. But luxury is subjective — it was damn cold out. I went into the lean-to, laid out my down sleeping bag on the hay and crawled in. Hay provides little insulation, and I was unaware of the value of a sleeping pad.

I had been reading Colin Fletcher’s book, “The Complete Walker,” and tried one of his suggestions. Fletcher would get everything he needed for dinner — stove, fuel, water, pots, food, etc. — place them around his sleeping bag, crawl in, and cook in the comfort of his sleeping bag. I tried it and I was surprised how well it worked. I lit a couple of candles, cooked up my dinner of mac and cheese, washed it down with a cup of hot chocolate and was set for the night. Then I put on dry long underwear and before I knew it, I was sawing logs.

I awoke early to find my nostril hairs had frozen. It was not just cold, but likely below zero cold.

I broke through the thick layer of ice in my pot and again fired up my Svea stove. Starting a Svea stove was always a feat in itself. Get some fuel to flow into the shallow bowl at the base of the burner, light the fuel, preheat the burner, and finally, just as the fuel is about to burn out, turn on the burner. The stove would sputter a bit and then roar to life with the sound of an F-35 fighter jet. Noisy, but it could boil water in no time.

Before I could say, “Jack London,” I’d downed a bowl of instant oatmeal and a cup of hot chocolate — prepared from the warmth of my sleeping bag. Well nourished, with calories to burn, I dressed, packed up, and got on my way.

It was one of those frigid clear mornings where you could see for miles, and I made good time retracing my snowshoe tracks back to my car.

The car started with only minimal resistance, and I drove off for my first-ever winter visit to Saranac Lake. I drove over to Moody Pond and visited the Cantwell family.

I told them of my adventure. As I recounted my trek, I realized I’d not only survived the night, I’d thrived. Using my new snowshoes, snowshoeing in the dark, finding the enclosed lean-to, cooking from my sleeping bag, sleeping through the night, a hot breakfast, and the snowshoe trek out made for the perfect adventure.

I don’t know if they were impressed, but I sure was — especially after I found out that the low for the night had been -28 degrees.


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