While most Americans celebrated Valentines Day by writing love poems, eating chocolates and sniffing red roses, participants at the Camp Saratoga Snowshoe Race in the Wilton Wildlife Preserve did all that and more. Like the male chickadees who have just begun to broadcast their e-bay mating call to all eligible females, we humans have been bustling around locating possible partners, reviving old relationships and planning parties. For although my backyard Gertie the Groundhog has predicted six more lovely weeks of winter, the days are getting lighter, Tom McCrumm’s maple tree sap is running and there is a certain lightness to the air.
The second annual Camp Saratoga Snowshoe in 2004 also landed on Valentines Day and ever since then in has been associated in the public mind with this very special day. Even years afterward folks would inquire “Will the race be on Valentines Day again?” Dumbfounded, either Jeff or I would reply, “Not likely, unless you are free (fill in appropriate weekday) morning to run a race.” This year, much to our mutual relief, we have come full circle and have once again landed on this most significant day.
If you have ever directed a race you know that the biggest reward for all the countless behind-the-scenes tasks is the satisfaction of seeing old and new friends enjoy themselves and perhaps attempt snowshoeing for the first time. This season, in fact, the sheer numbers of runners who have requested loaners is simply astounding. Despite the fact that Bob Dion has added even more snowshoes to his fleet, the larger events where roughly one-third of the entrants are first-timers were hard-pressed to keep up with demand.
Jeff and I equate directing a snowshoe race to planning a family reunion for a couple hundred close friends. For athletes in the Dion Snowshoe Series, gathering afterwards around a pot of chili or a hot cup of cocoa is as much a part of the experience as churning up the snow. This year we were fortunate that the Wilton Preserve, under the direction of Larry Gordon and Linda and Paul Woschanko, worked long and hard to gut a former camp bunkhouse, install high-powered outlets, electric lighting and a functional gas stove. Bring on the food!
Many of the local Saratoga Stryders came armed with their specialties and we enjoyed an old-fashioned pot luck afterwards. Couple #1, seventy-eight year old Andy Keefe and his wife Peggy are traditionally in charge of the kitchen. Despite finally having a chance of beating seventy-nine year old Rich Busa who is recovering from an injury, Andy loyally stayed by Peggy’s side, saying, “I just enjoy being around her.” Beth and Brad Herder, Curley’s Race Directors from Pittsfield, Mass, were also on hand. Six weeks into his New Year’s resolution to make summiting a mountain a day as automatic as eating that apple, he was on the verge of untying his boots, when Beth helpfully suggested, “We’ll just go and find a little mountain on the way home.”
Taking lessons from these lovebirds were Abby Woods, first female, and her fiancé Tim Mahoney, second overall, of Holyoke, Mass, who double-dipped by celebrating their rehearsal dinner right here at Camp prior to their wedding the next day. One thing for sure, such a speedy couple would have no trouble getting to the church on time! Looking on were Jenn Bernstein all the way from San Rafael, CA and her fiancé Ian Irmischer from Newburgh, NY. Jenn’s registration was her secret Valentine gift to Ian, with the tease that they would be doing something new and exciting to celebrate.
Fortunately, St Valentine smiled on the adventure planned by this thin-blooded California gal, providing the best weather we have had so far for any of the series races. Skies were sunny and the air was crisp, not too warm, not too cold, but just right.
The weather was so perfect that the party spilled out of the hut and into the sunlight, a prelude to those glorious spring snow days just ahead. True to tradition, the Racing City Chorus Barbershop Quartet made an appearance, and this time the snow was so crusty that they did not sink in over their dress shoes. Those enjoying the sun peeked in from the open doorway as they serenaded Jeff and I and all the other lovebirds and friends with a dash of old-fashioned romance. Afterwards, I noticed a few other promising couples link up and drive back to Saratoga to do proper justice to their free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone coupons. Charles Petraske, whose wife was home with their young son, was torn between selecting a raffle T-shirt or making the correct Valentines Day move with a Spa City Cupcakes certificate. Romance won, and after helping haul stuff back to our house (back at the ranch, Jeff’s car had refused to function) he returned to Spa City and his Valentine surprise.
Oh, yes, and we actually did have a snowshoe race, which was in fact a qualifier for the United States National Snowshoe Championship, held in the White River Snow Park on the flanks of Mt. Hood in Portland, Oregon. Our course, a mixture of groomed ski trails and single track was quite different this year. As a result of the maple sugar cold nights and 30ish days, the snow was quite crusty. Pieter Litchfield, a Wilton Wildlife Preserve & Park board member saved the day, jockeying his grooming machine to eliminate every last indentation. The single track, however, presented a challenge, being pockmarked with frozen-over hiking boot postholes. Fortunately, Tim Van Orden, of Bennington, VT, first place finisher, saved his most dramatic fall for the trek back to the hot chili and roaring wood stove.
As Jeff and I listened to the Barbershop Quartet and gazed at the crowd of glowing, happy faces, we knew why we had spent countless hours of preparation and basically trashed our living room with race paraphernalia. This day was special, one that will stand out from the other satisfying days we have spent with our friends, enjoying the snow and the fine companionship.
Photos courtesy of Brian Teague of FATEAGUE FOTOS. Go to http://www.pbase.com/fateague/campsara8kss to see (& buy) photos.
United States Snowshoe Association: www.snowshoeracing.com.
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Information on phillip gary smith: www.ultrasuperior.com.
Special thanks to Laura Clark for her contribution — the editors