By Tony Goodwin
Those who love outdoor pursuits always seem to want to push the season. Golfers will appear at driving ranges when there are still patches of snow on the range. Baseball fans derive almost as much excitement from spring training as they do from the World Series. And skiers, of course, look forward to the first reports of skiable snow.
For some, “skiable” means a heavy frost on a golf course, but for most it means an inch or two of snow on gentle terrain with a suitably smooth surface. The gentle terrain is important: You can glide nicely on one inch of snow, but once the ski is edged for a turn or snowplow it can go through the snow and grab on the decidedly less slippery gravel or pavement. The result is obvious and the impact is much harder than in midwinter. Smooth surfaces are naturally found on golf courses, but also on unplowed roads, state truck trails or old lumber roads.
Given the varied topography of the Adirondacks, that first skiable snow arrives at different places at different times, but generally the higher the elevation the more likely it is to get snow. The summits of the High Peaks, of course, always get the first snow, but high-elevation hiking trails need many feet of snow to be skiable, so the trick is to find some place that is both high and smooth.
The golf courses located at higher elevations such as courses near Old Forge (1,700 ft.), Indian Lake (1,700 ft.), Tupper Lake (1,700 ft.) and Lake Placid (1,950 ft.) will usually catch the earliest snow and offer a few hours of skiing to help you get limbered up for the rest of the season. Anyone skiing this early should be very careful to stay off the tees and greens so as not to damage the close-cropped grass. Also, respect any signs indicating that the local greenskeeper would prefer no skiers at all early in the season.
Beyond golf courses, unplowed roads are the next terrain likely to be skiable. Again, elevation is key to getting sufficient snow in October or November. Thus the paved Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, with a starting elevation of 2,300 feet, has long been the first place to ski each season. Some years there has even been September snow near the top, which usually results in a newspaper photograph or a spot on the local television news showing someone skiing a few yards along the top part of the highway. Since the road is open to tourists until Columbus Day, snow before that date is usually plowed off. Late October is the earliest the entire highway has been skiable, with early November an average “opening day.”
The first weekends of skiing there always attract a number of die-hard skiers from near and far as the word spreads that there is snow to be skied. In fact, the scene often seems like a class reunion, as one is likely to meet a number of friends not seen since the previous season. A round-trip in November is rarely made without several stops both going up and coming down to chat and catch up on summer activities.
Driving from Wilmington up to the tollhouse, where the skiing begins, always seems like an incredible leap of faith. You often see homeowners raking leaves or mowing the lawn with no hint of snow on the ground. Sometimes, you don’t see any snow until after the North Pole theme park, but it usually starts to appear at 2,000 feet. When skiing the highway, remember that the weather at the top can be severe even though it seems benign at the tollhouse. Also, once the tourist season ends on Columbus Day, this is just another trail on state land—meaning it’s not maintained or groomed.
Given that the highway is a large cut in the trees on the windward side of the mountain, there can be bare spots, icy patches, and sections where only the rougher shoulder has held enough snow to be skiable. Each skier must assess these risks: With only one inch of snow covering the pavement, a spill at 20 mph won’t feel a whole lot different from falling off a bicycle at the same speed. Occasionally there is vehicular traffic, both truck and snowmobile, by workers from the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center. This traffic can leave icy ruts that also need to be avoided on the descent. Recreational snowmobile use is prohibited, al-though there is some trespass.
The above cautions have rarely deterred those determined to push the season, and many have skied the highway after as little as an inch of snow. In these conditions, your poles will tend to bounce off the underlying pavement (I once lost the tip of my pole when it caught in a crack in the pavement). Under these conditions, I work on my stride and ski with my poles held in the middle and my arms swinging to imitate the poling motion, hoping that by the time I get tired of this exercise the snow depth at higher elevations will have increased enough to use my poles.
While you start to get views within a mile of the tollhouse, the destination for many skiers is Lake Placid Turn at 3.5 miles. Looking down at Lake Placid, you will often see powerboats churning along its waters, presenting further evidence of this transitional season. Above Lake Placid Turn, you may find that the wind has swept the early light snow off the entire width of the road, but it’s always worth a try to go the extra mile to Wilmington Turn and its broad view of the Champlain Valley and the Green Mountains. From there, you may also hear the distant roar of snow guns preparing the opening of Whiteface Ski Center.
Continuing to the Castle at end of the highway, you may encounter drifts, ice, bare pavement or perhaps ideal snow. The walkway from the Castle to the summit and its 360-degree views can be climbed (with care) in ski boots. The ski down the road is usually fast and always amazing as one descends through three seasons from winter on the summit, to fall at the tollhouse, to summer (the Indian variety, anyway) in Wilmington.
For information on conditions on the Whiteface Highway, call the Adirondack Ski Touring Council at (518) 523-1365 or visit lakeplacid.com.
After the Whiteface Highway, the road to Newcomb Lake and various truck trails will likely be the next places to become skiable. Early-season storms can be very spotty, so none of these is guaranteed, but going from southwest to northeast the following are most likely to have early skiing. A contact phone number is provided if available.
• Big Otter Lake Truck Trail, Thendara (McCauley Mountain Ski Center: 315-369-3225). Skiable with only 3-4 inches of snow, this will get you out before the heavy snowmobile traffic on the adjacent trails. The wooded summit of Moose River Mountain at 2.8 miles is a good destination.
• High Falls Truck Trail, Wanakena. A very gentle road so that no hill requires that you snowplow. Skiable on 2-3 inches. High Rock at 3.8 miles is a good destination.
• Newcomb Lake Road to Camp Santanoni, Newcomb (Visitor Interpretive Center: 518-582-2000). With gentle grades and a very smooth dirt road underneath, 2-3 inches is all the snow needed, so skiing can start here almost as early as on Whiteface. Camp Santanoni at 4.7 miles is a great destination. The road to Moose Pond is rougher and needs at least 6 inches of snow.
• Bum Pond, William C. Whitney Wilderness (Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce: 518-359-3328). The Burn Road, an old lumber road on the north side of Little Tupper Lake, has gentle grades, but it still needs 3-4 inches of snow, and even then you’ll have to avoid a rock or two. Bum Pond, at 5 miles, is the first pond reached. Another good destination is the hill above Charley Pond Outlet at 4 miles.
• Fish Creek and Rollins Pond Campgrounds (Tupper Lake Chamber of Commerce: 518-359-3328). Off Route 30 between Saranac Inn and Wawbeek Corners, these paved campground roads are virtually dead flat and skiable with 1-2 inches of snow. The road on the south side of Square Pond is shaded and holds any little snowfall better than the north side. It’s about 1 mile to the end of Square Pond and 2 miles to Rollins Pond.
• Fish Pond Truck Trail, St. Regis Canoe Area (Paul Smiths VIC: 518-327-3000). In early season, you can usually drive (four-wheel drive recommended) to the register at the gate where the truck trail starts. The first 1.5 miles from the gate is flat and skiable on 2-3 inches. The hills beyond need 4-5 inches. The ice on the ponds is not safe early in the season.
• Hays Brook Truck Trail to Grass Pond, Debar Mountain Wild Forest (Paul Smiths VIC: 518-327-3000) The 1.9-mile route to Grass Pond is gentle enough to require only 2-3 inches of snow. The 3.9-mile trip to the Sheep Meadow lean-tos requires several more.
• Debar Mountain Game Area. Some hills make 3-4 inches a necessity to get the 1.5 miles to the large open field. From there, you can continue for another 2.5 miles or more on the main road to Meacham Lake, but going through or returning via the Beaver Valley loop requires 6-8 inches of snow.
• Marcy Dam Truck Trail, High Peaks Wilderness (Adirondack Ski Touring Council: 518-523-1365). This is another route that attracts a lot of skiers early for the 3-mile trip from South Meadow to Marcy Dam. The road is rough enough that 3-4 inches of snow is needed, and even then there will be rocks to dodge and great caution required on any downhill that requires a snowplow.
• Lake Road Trail to Lower Ausable Lake, Keene Valley (Adirondack Ski Touring Council: 518-523-1365). The half-mile walk from the parking lots to the gate is worth it for the 3.5-mile ski on this smooth, well-maintained road. All that’s needed is 2-3 inches, although with only this amount of snow, some may elect to walk down the one steep hill at 1.5 miles.
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