A Groundhog’s View of Winterfest AND Camp Saratoga Snowshoe Race

Winterfest Snowshoe Race was scheduled to launch on Sunday, Feb 3rd. Groundhog Day was Saturday, February 2nd. The big question on everyone’s minds was weather or not Phil would pull through for legions of snowshoers and once again, grant us six more weeks of winter fun.

Eighty percent of the time Phil casts his ballot for an extended season, but this year it looked like he was far more interested in a summer ice cream cone than a winter snow cone. Despite the fact that we snowshoers are a hardy group, more than ready to dig in for the long haul, things were looking grim. Temperatures were on the rise, stirring up an unsatisfying wintery mix. The always-good-for-a-laugh http://www.weatherunderground.com predicted a bizarre Thursday night: “Overnight: Partly sunny with a slight chance of snow showers.” Believe me, I could never make this up! As willing as I was to latch onto any forecast with the word “snow” in it, this one was simply beyond belief.

So I did what any liberated woman would do: I turned my back on Phil and consulted Phyllis. Phyllis is a beautiful heifer who was born in Farmer Ed Albiozek’s barn on Saturday, February 2nd. She took one look around and noticed the shadow cast by Farmer Ed’s state-of-the-art Dion snowshoes and promptly decided that the man who helped bring her into the world deserved six more weeks of winter, provided he continued to keep the barn toasty warm.

Thus reassured, but not willing to leave anything to chance, Jeff and I marked and remarked the course uncountable times, scouting groundhog escape tunnels for potential trouble spots. On Friday we rode out the winter mix as best we could, assembling gear and packing goodie bags to the accompaniment of the movie that pretty much summed up our topsy-turvy state of affairs—Jamie Curtis’ Freaky Friday.

On Saturday we assembled a crew of very eager helpers; namely, Maureen Roberts, Charles Petraske and his pointer dog, Lola. Lola dashed madly back and forth pointing out exposed road crossings, leaving it to her people to shovel beaver-dam style bridges over the asphalt. I really don’t know why we thought it would be a good idea to shovel rock-hard ice, but at least Lola had enough sense not to buy into the procedure. However, we had a secondary goal which might have had something to do with our thought processes or lack thereof: Chowderfest was a few short hours away and at $1 a cup the price was right. We were on a definite 10 cup pace. Lola had already determined her choices: Sloppy Kisses Barker’s Chowder and Impressions Doggie Chowder.

Like all survivors, we refused to admit to treacherous conditions or scantily clad trails. So when a Ferndell bypass was necessary we trudged literally straight up Quadbuster Hill and into a little known woodsy area. We were certain no one could possibly run up this hill, but of course, race day proved us wrong. As rookie Tyronne Culpepper discovered, much to his amazement, “Crampons really work.”

Crampons or not, Jeff had a rather scary experience trying to dogsled up with a pail of colored surveyor’s sugar (an environmentally friendly, red dye #2 mixture viewed by raccoons and dogs alike as a likely dessert). Naturally, everyone enjoyed this potentially painful ascent and voted to forever detour the icy, often bone-dry Ferndell trail. Especially those wielding snow shovels. Best of all, I didn’t have to inform Rich Busa that we would have to do two laps around the dreaded quad to make up the extra distance.

So Phyllis, and maybe even Phil, did grant us a silver lining of sorts, not to mention an extra bonus. Charles’ GPS measured the new route at precisely 5K, or 3.1 miles, probably, to those of you still stuck in either the Imperial or USA measurement systems. Just try googling USA/Imperial/Metric. Unless you are Rob Higley (WMAC) or John Couch (Stryders) there is no way you want to go there.

Suffice it to say that unbeknownst to all but a few inquiring individuals, the Winterfest 5K course has always been closer to three miles. But now, thanks to Phyllis and Phil we are truly validated and have gained .1m in length. So if you were wondering why Winterfest seemed longer this year you have several choices: (a) too much pre-super bowl partying, (b) stop kidding yourself, you‘re a year older, (c) metric is more complicated and therefore takes longer to navigate properly, or (d) all of the above and then some.

Prognosticating ahead to 2009, I figured that since Groundhog Day, not being part of a three-day weekend attempt, is always on February 2nd, next year it might actually fall on Winterfest Sunday. Think of the bypasses we could dig! Think of the stories I could write! But alas, this is a leap year and next year’s February 2nd tunnels straight on through Sunday and out into Monday. Factually, I’m not really sure if leap year has anything to do with it, but I certainly wasn’t going to risk waking up Phil to find out.


Aaron Robertson had qualified at Camp Sar. Kelli Lusk and Paul Low and Nikki Kimball have also competed here and qualified. We are part of the Western Mass Athletic Club snowshoe series and as such attract to runners from all over New England as well as many runners on the US Mtn Running team like the above and Dave Dunham, Richard bolt, etc.

Go to http://www.runwmac.com for more stories and details and pics.

Mostly everyone with the obvious exception of Aaron (Atlas) wears shoes by Bob Dion. I could go on and on about his shoes, but last year at USSSA 3 out of 4 winners were wearing his shoes. They are lightweight, responsive, good for the narrow New England trails and don’t wobble banging up your ankles. You can change the cleat size according to conditions. http://www.dionsnowshoes.com

At an eyeball glance it seemed like in numbers of racers, after Dions, Atlas came in second, with a few Northern Lites sprinkled in.

Usually the course is a mixture of wide ski trails–not resort ski but nature preserve ski–friendlier and typically narrow NE trails and some open fields. But this year we had to groom in order to chop up the ice. The “wintery mix” was rock hard and potentially dangerous if anyone fell on an ungroomed portion. You know that ski courses are up and down, but not that steep. Narrow trails have steeper ups and downs. The trickiest part is when you get to the end and hear folks cheering. But they are not cheering for you. You still have 1.5 kilometers to go over very steep trail. It is a downhill finish which is a lot of fun.

The WMAC series is a bare bones series with more emphasis on enjoying the moment and socializing afterwards than age group awards. If you go to the website you will notice that we do points for each race. At the end of the year we have best rookie, most improved, points leader, toughest race (Camp Sar won that last year) and everyone gets to send in votes. They are called Barnyard Awards. I believe they are in the 1st ‘snownews’ of the season.

Food at this race is unbelievable. I give free admission to anyone who cooks. I had 5 people manning the “kitchen” to take care of all the goodies. Think Thanksgiving dinner but with soup and chili. My husband Jeff, who co-directs the race, always says, “It’s like inviting 200 of your best friends for lunch.” Anything extra is donated to the park or preserve or forest where the race is held.

It is really neat to see the same folks come back week after week–and makes it easier to know where to line up at the start!

I started the Winterfest race originally because I liked snowshoe running so much I wanted my friends back here to enjoy it too. After a particularly iffy winter, I linked Winterfest and the Camp together with a discount (and 1 shirt) if you did both. That way, I figured chances are we could get in one race.

Prelude to RACE:

Once more Camp Saratoga Snowshoe snuck in under the wire, pulling through with another memorable day at camp to jumpstart the Winter Break school vacation. Last year, we had umpteen inches of freshly fallen snow over previously stark naked dirt, earning our event the “Most Difficult Race of 2007” title. This year, we had another layer of great snow, followed disappointingly by sleet, freezing rain, hail and other assorted earth-bound objects. But would we let that stop us? No way!

The following day a determined crew of volunteers arrived, eager to clear the trails. There is something about the prospect of using large pieces of equipment that seems to bring out the two-year-old in all of us. The pre-vacation campers were no exception. Pieter Litchfield, trail manager and President of the Preserve’s Board of Directors, gleefully dispensed branch cutters and chainsaws and then led the parade on his snowmobile.

While the preserve was a true winter wonderland with ice-coated branches forming fairytale archways, melting and falling scenery was not conducive to a fast-paced snowshoe race. That first day Pieter, Jim Carlson, Christine McKnight and Wayne Litke put in five hours of back-breaking toil. The following day Pieter, Jim and Wayne were joined by Nancy Burke, Charles Petraske, Lola and I for another three hour effort while Kevin Joyce marked the trail we had painstakingly cleared.

Only this time around some of us were better prepared. Lola, being a Pointer, naturally pointed out all the branches we had neglected to pick up. Wayne, who now wielded a long pole device with a curved blade on top, took his job seriously. He sported a contractor’s hard hat in official yellow and moved relentlessly forward, leaving the rest of us to scatter in his wake.

Like Little Red Riding Hood’s Woodsman, he was intent upon rescuing potential snowshoe racers from multiple whiplash burns. Unlike the seasoned Woodsman, however, he was so delighted with this unprecedented opportunity to experience nature while wielding large pieces of equipment that he neglected to warn the wool cap wearers of his impending victories over ice-bound deadwood. There is a good reason why the shout of “Timber!” is traditionally linked to logging activities.

Finally, as the rest of us trudged wearily back to camp, Pieter and Wayne were spotted huddling over a map, pencil in hand, marking out areas that would require considerable pruning come spring. Pieter Litchfield had just recruited one very eager helper.

The Main Event:

When we returned to camp, we became concerned. There was a reason why we were shedding jackets and gloves that unfortunately had nothing to do with honest sweat. A rise in temperature had turned the skating rink parking lot to slush. Despite our fondness for big machinery, we had no desire to spend race day afternoon rescuing mired motor vehicles before they succumbed to night’s falling temperatures.

But luck and the parking lot held, as the following day saw single-digit temperatures and nary a puddle in sight. While this did have certain implications for the comfort of the outhouse users, it did save our race. A day earlier and we would have been pelted with lethal ice spears; a day later and we would have endured forty degree temperatures and yet another sleet/rain mixture.

Since the only salamanders currently allowed in camp are of the natural marsh variety, we no longer had a viable method of heating the cavernous dining hall. So this year we broke camp and regrouped in the cozy (read smaller) Winter Lodge with a working wood stove, fired up in the wee hours by Paul Woshanko, caretaker Over the summer Larry Gordon and a group of volunteers had cleared out old bunk beds, knocked down walls and installed a working kitchen with electricity and even a refrigerator.

Naturally, a previous ice storm had knocked out the electricity and repairs could not be made until the ground thawed in the spring. So our kitchen help Peggy and Andy Keefe, Dawn Pallor and Bill and Cathy Taylor organized some real camp cooking involving Colemans and an outdoor grill. Next year, I promise to remember the marshmallows! Peggy and Dawn even brought a blanket which they hung in a corner for an impromptu changing room.

Ninety-three finishers enjoyed a fast romp on a crushed ice course beaten into submission by numerous rounds of Pieter’s snowmobile. Surprisingly, previous records remained undefeated by the fast course. Aaron Robertson of Rouses Point tied the 30:50 record set in 2003 by Richard Bolt, formerly of Manchester, MA, and Amherst’s Kelli Lusk’s 38:14 set in 2005 is still intact following Laurel, MD’s Carissa Stepien’s 43:05 win.

The Epilogue:

It’s difficult to say which was more fun – the race itself or the eating, socializing and eating afterwards. It truly amazes me how hungry we can all get after a satisfying day at Camp. But for me, what was the most gratifying was seeing how so many people can pull together to defeat Mother Nature and make this event happen once again. Thanks to you all!

The Finale:

Make sure you log onto http://www.snowshoeracing.com the weekend of March 8-9 to see how your Camp representatives fared at the United States National Snowshoe Championship in Ogden, Utah.

United States Snowshoe Association – http://www.snowshoeracing.com
Phillip Gary Smith – http://www.ultrasuperior.com

About the author

Laura Clark