Saturday, April 5, 2014

Lived to Tell

If you are a mother (my mother, in particular), you should probably stop reading this post right now, lest you be frightened and/or scold me later.  (I'd prefer to avoid both.)

So, I decided to go camping again.  No great surprise there.  I'd been considering whether a trip out in the snow in early April would be preferable to a trip out in the mud later in the month, and determined that was in fact the case.  I've come to enjoy winter camping: no bugs, no bears, and not too many people.

Though I'd already noticed an opening in my calendar, I really only made up my mind on Wednesday morning to head out into the woods that same afternoon.  No problem, though:  I've got the gear and can easily assemble some grub, so it's only a mater of getting packed and choosing a destination.  I'd previously had my eye on the lean to on St. Regis Pond (near Lake Clear), and the guides showed it to be a nice area to XC ski or snowshoe, although I'd never explored the area before.  My last minute decision made this a solo expedition.  But again, no problem.  Right?  Right?

Well, I got a much later start than I'd anticipated on Wednesday.  Nonetheless, when one of my very favorite songs came on the radio as I drove out of the parish office parking lot, and when a bald eagle majestically soared overhead in the clear, sunny sky as I headed south on Route 30, I took them to be clear signs that this was going to be a really great getaway.  I didn't arrive at the trailhead until 6:00pm, but it was only a 2.5 miles or so ski in, and I'd have daylight for a while yet.

So off I went.  Now, when I wasn't yet out of sight of my car and had already fallen flat on my back, I should have reconsidered things.  To begin with, snow conditions were less than ideal: having thawed and frozen a few times, and the temp currently around 40˚ F, there were alternating stretches of icy, hard-packed snow, wet slush, and hard crust that would unexpectedly give way under your weight.  Not to mention, while I've XC skied for about 25 years now, and been backpacking quite a bit the last several months, I'd never skied with more than a daypack on before.  How different or difficult could it be?  I quickly learned that I had a very different center of gravity...but I wasn't going all that far, and I was sure I'd adjust pretty quick.  Brushing off my pride, I forged ahead.

The snow conditions made the going a bit frustrating, but it was such a gorgeous afternoon evening and I was so looking forward to a backwoods break from it all, that it seemed worth it.  Not knowing the terrain, I had three maps in my pocket, and was on the lookout for a righthand turn that would take me down to the southeastern bay of St. Regis Pond; from there, I'd ski across it's frozen surface to the lean to.  Piece of cake!  But, golly, it seemed like that turn should have come up sooner.  I know I was getting along a little more slowly than anticipated, but surely I should have found it by now.  Maybe it's just a bit further ahead.  Let's take another look at those maps...

Checking out the landscape, I realized that I'd not only missed the turn, but had gone quite a ways past it.  Given how far I'd come, and that the sun was soon to set, it looked like my best option was to stay on this trail and approach the pond from its westernmost bay.  If I took into account the distance I'd have to backtrack, continuing ahead would be about the same distance.  I'll get to the lean to later than expected, but no big deal...

Well, that's when a bad situation got a whole lot worse.  The fairly level trail got pretty hilly, and the poor snow conditions got downright miserable.  The downhills were so icy and fast that I was hurtling like a rocket, but pretty much out of control.  Then I'd suddenly sink in mid-thigh.  I kept falling.  A lot.  Sometimes on purpose because it was the only way to stop.  And getting back up with a 40-50 pound pack on my back was more than a little challenging.  I tried to go a stretch without the skis, but that experiment was short-lived.  (My snowshoes were tucked in, safe-and-sound, back in the car; I'd figured that they'd only add to the weight I was carrying, and there was so little chance I'd need them.)  A few of those face plants had me thinking nasty thoughts (and maybe even saying nasty things) about my gear and the snow...but I quickly realized they were doing nothing wrong: I was the one who didn't belong here.  And now it was starting to get dark.

While I was relieved there were no witnesses to my completely graceless movements, these were most definitely not good circumstances in which to be all alone.  At one point, lying there in the snow, the exhaustion and frustration and fear actually had me on the brink of tears.  I starting thinking, "If I break a leg...I'm stuck here...and it probably won't be till Friday morning that they come looking."  I'd really done it this time!  Turning back wasn't even a feasible option at this point, because I'd have to do those icy hills in reverse, but this time under cover of night.  I determined that I really didn't want to die this way, but at least I'd just been to confession on Monday.  I know this all sounds rather melodramatic...but it was BAD!

With sheer grit and a good dose of adrenaline, knowing that I had no choice but to get my butt to some shelter, I finally found the path that would take me to St. Regis.  When I got to the small dam and fish ladder at the outlet, I dug out my headlamp and the maps again.  A sliver of crescent moon had just come into view and a few stars were now out--quite lovely.  I didn't see any tracks heading out onto the frozen pond...which added to my anxiety.  What shape was this ice in?  My options were limited, so I skied along the shoreline, figuring if the ice gave way, I wouldn't sink in too far.  I went about 3/4 of a mile that way by headlamp, scanning through the trees for my campsite, when I finally found the lean to.  It was 8:45pm.  I'd been slogging along for almost three hours, having traveled about 4.5 miles.  But I made it.  And I was sore, but safe.

I got down to business then, unpacking my gear, changing into dry clothes, and making my supper.  It was a perfectly still night.  The only sounds were a few drips from snow melting off the roof (which slowed then stopped as the temperature dropped) and a chorus of coyotes across the pond who put on a brief performance around 10:15pm as I was having my dessert.  I tried to read for a little while, but was still pretty overwhelmed by the experience of the last few hours.  I just sat there for a spell, snug in my sleeping bag, before saying Night Prayer and turning in for the night.

Sorry, but I don't have a single picture from all of that.  Photography just wasn't a priority.

Day 2 was much, MUCH better.  I awoke to a glorious late winter sunrise.

The first order of the day was to offer Mass.  After all, I had a lot to be thankful for!

Then it was time for a hot breakfast.

While that cooked, I checked on my gear...discovering that my boots had frozen solid.

I was in no hurry to set out on the snow again, so I hoped they'd have time to thaw--at least a little. I spent a leisurely morning curled up with a good book and hot tea. I also surveyed the scene now that I had the daylight to do so.  It's a rather nice spot.

Among the copious lean to graffiti was this Biblical admonition:

Ever dutiful, I did that once I got home.  It was even more inspiring (and smiling-inducing) with a little context:
Thus says the Lord who made the earth,
giving it shape and stability,
Lord is his name:
Call to me, and I will answer you;
I will tell you great things
beyond the reach of your knowledge.  
Thus says the Lord:
In this place...without people, without inhabitant, without animal,
there shall yet be heard the song of joy, the song of gladness,
…the song of those bringing thank offerings to the house of the Lord:
“Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good;
God’s love endures forever.”
For I will restore the fortunes of this land
as they were in the beginning, says the Lord. 
Jeremiah 33:2-3, 10-11 
A most appropriate message for me!

By the time I was done with my book, packing up, and eating a light lunch, it was past noon.  So I got into those frosty boots, locked in my skis, and headed back out onto the pond, where I got my first clear views of St. Regis Mountain and its fire tower up on the peak.

I headed out on the route by which I'd intended to head in.  Snow conditions were fair.  Biggest treat: the pond's surface was level!  There were a few spots of open water--some near the edges, as I would have expected, but a few out in the middle, too, around which I steered as clear as possible.

Glad to be back on solid ground, I began to see signs I really, really wished I'd seen the day before.

The 2.5 mile trip to the car took me exactly an hour (plus a 10 minute conversation with another skier at the trail register).  And I didn't fall once.  If I hadn't missed that turn coming in, things would have gone as originally planned and I'd have a rather different tale to tell you now.

I learned a lot of lessons on this outing. (And I've typed up this lengthy story here just in case I need to be reminded of them down the line.)  I'll be processing this adventure for a while to come.  I'm hoping my extremely tired and sore muscles will recover sooner than that.

The back of the St. Regis Pond lean to sports a common bit of DEC signage:

I'm so very grateful no one had to carry ME out.  "There but for the grace of God..."

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