I was about to deliver some concocted answer, one that made it sound like I knew, and then I realized, no, actually, I didn’t know. How did I not know? I’ve been watching the sun glitter in the backcountry for years, and it never occurred to me to look it up. Dan went on to explain to me how the temperature affected the shape of individual snow crystals, which then cause the sparkle effect.
We had stopped on the eastern side of The Brothers, known for a trio of knuckles encased in snow and ice one passes over before reaching the 4,240-foot summit of Big Slide Mountain. The air was cold. Not the typical turn-your-cheeks-ruddy cold. This was Adirondack-slap-your-face cold, with temperatures inching just above zero when Dan and I started the morning’s hike.
And yet here Dan and I were discussing the science of reflected light as we delayered beneath a crystal blue High Peaks sky. Despite the sub-freezing morning temperatures, the wind had not yet begun to roll. To Dan I said: “I’d rather take 5 degrees and no wind than 30 degrees with a windchill factor of 20.”
“Yup,” he agreed.
It was a glorious way to start a long-imagined winter vacation in an iconic northeastern locale – the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, and the town that serves as its gateway, Lake Placid, N.Y.
Lake Placid. Living in Pennsylvania, I tend to have an ideal in mind when it comes to far-off mountain towns. We’re inundated with magazine articles and advertisements touting the frosty goodness of a Yankee landscape full of timber and snow, risky skier and hardy snowshoer, snow-encrusted peaks and warm fires in a rustic lodge. Stowe, North Conway …
And Lake Placid.
I’d talked incessantly to my wife about visiting Lake Placid in the middle of winter. I touted its history (the only town in the United States to twice host a Winter Olympics). I extolled the virtue of its cold-be-damned lifestyle, a place where that kid-like excitement for when it snows still exists in adults who instead of Flexible Flyer sleds now enjoy powder on snowshoes and skis. I said it would be a great place to bring a one-year-old boy … in January.
I may have gotten a few eye-rolls, but she agreed to try it. And so we stuffed the car, bundled the boy up and made our way inside the famous Blue Line – which refers to the old map marks outline the Adirondack Park – for Lake Placid.
We opted for downtown accommodations at the Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort (www.golden-arrow.com, 2559 Main St., 800-582-5540), spending time watching impromptu hockey games break out on Mirror Lake, whisking across the ice on a dogsled ride and enjoying and honest-to-God real wood fireplace in our suite; not one that’s hooked up to a gas line with glowing fake wood I see in a lot of hotels during my travels, but the real deal. The Jacuzzi tubs and showers are all new, yet the place retains its traditional, rustic charm, and you can’t beat its downtown location. Shopping and eating abound in the adjacent blocks. So too does the former Olympic hockey rink, where the U.S. team defeated the Soviets in the 1980 Olympiad, sparking tough-as-a-noreaster hockey players to prance in unrestrained patriotic ecstasy.
The next morning, my wife and son contented themselves with the Golden Arrow’s sizable indoor pool, while I craved backcountry time. I rendezvoused with Dan Sandberg, who’s the manager of the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School in downtown Lake Placid, for a journey to The Brothers.
The climbing school (www.emsexploration.com, 518-523-2505, 2453 Main St.) offers lessons in mountaineering, ice climbing and other winter sports for beginners to someone who wants to take their skills to the next level.
Our trek required microspikes. Dan took the time to show me various maneuvers to make my trip up the icy trail safe as we rose about 2,500 feet over 2.7 miles from the Garden parking lot at the end of Smith Road, west of the village of Keene Valley. The first “Brother” opened camera-pleasing views of the Great Range – Hedgehog, both Wolf Jaws, Gothics – and it was easy to see why Dan recommended this spot. As you continue to ascend, the views open wider to include 4,627-foot Giant Mountain to the east and the Hurricane Mountain region to the northeast. The Brothers may not give you the bragging rights a winter summit of Algonquin or Mount Marcy would, but for that photo worthy of “wow,” this is it.
After refueling back at the Golden Arrow, my wife and one-year-old son joined me for a little out-of-town excursion to High Falls Gorge, just 8 miles outside of town at the foot of Whiteface Mountain. The visitor center, shop and café are located right off Route 86 east of Lake Placid.
If serious backcountry travel isn’t your thing, High Falls Gorge (www.highfallsgorge.com, 518-946-2278) provides you with an easy-going mile-long snowshoe trail and some intense sight-seeing, where the west branch of the Ausable River tumbles a total of 700 feet in a spectacular showcase of white water and natural ice sculptures. The way to see the falls is down the half-mile path that includes steel bridges clinging to the cliff face, and the operators provide Yaktrax for sure-footing.
Once you’re done gawking, warm up by the facility’s outside fire and replenish yourself with roasted marshmallows.
As the sun rose the next day over the High Peaks, I let my wife and son sleep in back at the resort, and I drove 10 miles to just one mile west of the town of Saranac Lake, where I found the Dewey Mountain Recreational Center (www.deweymountain.com, 518-891-2697).
This was me time. No guides. No spouse or child. Just the mountain and me, the way it used to be. That’s okay, now and then, right? I met Steve Doxzon, manager of the center, which is owned by the town of Harrietstown. The smell of burning birch from an indoor furnace wafted around the trailhead as Steve directed me to follow the yellow discs nailed to the trees.
The going was a little challenging. While ascending 400 feet up the east side of the 2,200-foot mountain, the yellow discs can sometimes be scarce, and you end up bushwacking until you find another. And the mountain has put down plenty of boulders beneath the snow to grind the claw on your snowshoes.
But there was plenty to revel in.
The only other footsteps I spotted belonged to snowshoe hares and a few deer. I’d arrived early enough to enjoy sublime solitude and winter silence, spying glimpses through the bare trees of dark lakes and the shadowy purple High Peaks beyond, alluring and frosted, foreboding and appealing.
Dewey Mountain is the sort of place you bring first-timers snowshoeing or to enjoy a community event, like what the recreation center puts on some weekend nights with concerts and carnivals. Maybe I’m a little idealistic, but this is what I’m missing back in my usually-snowless Pennsylvania hometown – people gathered together in the evening beneath burning incandescent light bulbs strung from evergreens, clouds of breath about the faces, wood fire to keep everyone warm, the crunch of snow, the sound of string instruments. Well, that’s what a weekend inside the Blue Line promises, yah?
Our last afternoon we spent at the Cascade Cross Country Ski Center east of Lake Placid (www.cascadeski.com, 4833 Cascade Road, 518-523-9605). It took all weekend, but finally, I got my wife into a pair of snowshoes for the first time in her life. We placed our son in a backcountry sled and took him around the trails. He lasted about 10 minutes. The cold was enough. But seated at a table at the center’s restaurant, sipping a beer and watching snow lash the peak of Algonquin in the distance, my wife looked at and confessed that, “You know, you may find this surprising, but I really liked snowshoeing.”
There’s hope of a return trip.