Sunday, March 16, 2014

Santanoni Ski

(Gateway Lodge)
Easily thirty years had passed since I had skied into Camp Santanoni in Newcomb with Bill and my father, and I was itching to go back.  The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) listed the trip regularly, but I never could fit it into my schedule.  This year, John Antonio, a leader of many mid-level ADK trips, offered the trip on a day that worked for me. My friend, Karen, and I signed up.

The week had been bitter cold and this mid-February day was no exception.  We arrived at the trailhead for the 4.7 mile ski to the main camp in -5 degrees with fluffy powder snow conditions, the promise of some warmth from the sun, and a clear blue sky. If any sport can beat back a chill, it is cross-country skiing. Not only that, for the first time ever, I had brought hand warmers that would fit comfortably into my mittens!

(The Creamery, part of the largest farm operation ever associated with a family estate in the Adirondacks)

"Start out as soon as you're ready," John said, "It's too cold to stand around."  I snapped my boots into my skis, opened the hand warmer package and inserted them into my mittens. I pushed off with my poles.  Everything was in our favor; deep tracks had been made by previous skiers and the quality of the snow could not have been better. The gradual incline of the first half-mile warmed us up fast.

At The Creamery, we stopped and allowed everyone to catch up, and to take a few minutes to introduce ourselves to those we did not already know. Of the ten participants on this outing, I knew about half of them. A group trip like this is a great opportunity to meet people who enjoy playing outdoors.

(Karen and John ski on the carriage trail across a stone bridge.)


From the Creamery, we settled into a relaxing pace, our skis making barely a sound in the powder. With two tracks in the snow, side by side, conversation was easy.  I enjoyed moving ahead or behind to visit with different people.  I also liked hanging back to ski alone.  Since I stopped often to take pictures, I was often close to the back of the pack.

One woman and her son brought their canine buddies.  Often, dogs are unpredictable on the trail.  They may run into the woods, or trip up hikers and skiers.  Not these two.  They were trained to stay close to their masters, keeping a quick pace as they bounded through the snow.  And when we stopped, they got lots of attention.

We gathered again at this intersection below, making sure to have a drink of water.  Tucked into an outside pocket of my backpack, my water bottle was frosty, with a few ice chips already forming inside.  I took a few good gulps and felt refreshed.  It is easy to forget to drink water in the winter.

(ten friends, new and old, and two dogs, enjoy a perfect winter outing)

After a slow ascent for most of the trip, we began a gentle downhill glide for the final mile, heading to Newcomb Lake and the main camp.  Through the trees, we had glimpses of the high peaks beyond, cold and snowy in the distance.  I stopped often to capture Santanoni Peak, which Meredith and I had hiked a few summers ago.

The first time I took a picture, the peak was barely visible through the trees.  "You might get a better view farther on," John told me.  Another quarter-mile along, I stopped again and took another picture.  Stop and shoot, stop and shoot.  Every picture showed more of the peak than the last. Then, to my surprise, the view below appeared, clear as day, above Newcomb Lake. 

I remembered the day Meredith and I had been on Santanoni Peak's summit.  It was our second peak of three in the Santanoni range that day, and we had a good coating of Adirondack black mud on our legs.  We found a rocky overlook and took in the wide view across the Adirondacks while we ate our lunch.

Today, we would not have been able to stay on that summit long enough to have lunch. The temperature up there had to be well below zero.  After taking a final picture, I put my mittens back on.  My fingers had begun to chill, but I didn't care; my hand warmers would toast them back up in seconds!

(Santanoni Peak across Newcomb Lake)

We arrived at the camp right at noon.  Taking off our skis, we clomped across the wooden porch floors in our ski boots to a sunny spot and opened our packs.  At a balmy 10 degrees above zero, we could sit around for 20 minutes or so in comfort.  John called to me across the porch, "Virginia, did you get a picture of that last view of Santanoni Peak?  That was the best one!"

(lunch on the porch)

The Santanoni Preserve was established by Robert Pruyn, a prominent Albany banker and businessman. Originally encompassing 13,000 acres, the camp had a total of 45 buildings, included Newcomb Lake, and was considered the grandest of all Adirondack camps when it was completed around 1900.

It stayed in the Pruyn family until 1953, when it was sold to the Melvin family of Syracuse.  In 1971, tragedy struck when the Melvin's eight-year-old grandson became lost on the property.  For days, a search party combed the acreage.  I remember my father going up to Newcomb from our Saratoga home to help with the search.  No trace of the child was ever found, and the family decided to sell the property.

(Newcomb Lake at the Camp)
The Nature Conservancy bought Santanoni Preserve and then transferred to it to the State where it became part of the Forest Preserve.  For years, the buildings deteriorated with the expectation that they would be torn down, a requirement of the Forever Wild clause in the State Constitution. Eventually, in 2000, the buildings and 32 acres were reclassified from Wild Forest to Historic Area by the Adirondack Park Agency. 

(fresh paint and treated log siding are two of the many restored features)
Since 2000, restoration has been continuous.  Now, in the summers, there are tours of the buildings.  Getting to the camp is still a challenge.  Most people bike or hike in in the summer.  A horse-drawn wagon ride is available, but I've heard that it takes so long that there is little time left to enjoy the property.

Skiing to the camp is a great way to go, but no tour guide awaited us.  An unlocked padlock held the door to the great room closed.  John had been told that we were free to remove the padlock and explore the room, as long as we hooked it back over the latch when we left. 

Fifteen hundred spruce trees were used in the camp's construction. Birch bark walls and hand-hewn beams help make Camp Santanoni one of the best examples of rustic Adirondack Architecture.

It was so cold inside that I had difficulty imagining this room full of people.  Adirondack furniture with cozy upholstery and plaid wool blankets, woven carpets, and other appealing decor, seemed elusive. Still, I could appreciate the architecture and Adirondack craftsmanship.

The field stone fireplace looks like something out of a Medieval castle.  With hearths on both sides, it could house a big fire, much more than would have been necessary to ward off a late-summer evening chill.  Like many vacation homes today, a great camp such as this would not have been used in the winter.

(five buildings all connected under one roof resemble a phoenix in flight when seen from above)

Eventually, after having our lunch and exploring the buildings, we began to feel cold. It was time put our skis back on.  That mile-long descent we had had into the main camp area was a welcome uphill on the return, warming us in minutes. And later, heading back to the cars, we had some nice rolling downhills.

We stopped again at The Creamery, as we had when we first began. A thermometer registered 17 degrees, and the February sun made a few icicles drip. We snacked on whatever we had left in our packs, and visited with another skier who was on his way in to the Preserve.

(I loved this little dormer window nearly completely covered in snow)

Maybe I'll see if I can find a friend or two to bicycle in to Camp Santanoni in the summer.  We'll go on the tour and paddle one of the available canoes on the lake.  We might even find a sunny rock to sit on for lunch, under the watch of Santanoni Peak.  But for now, this crisp winter day had been perfect.

(Virginia on one of bridges crossing Newcomb Lake)


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  2. Good account of a frosty ski trip.