All-round good time
By Michael Zeugin
It’s the end of February, but I’m skiing in a T-shirt. The sun blazes out of a bluebird Adirondack sky. The thermometer reads 58 degrees in the Sharp Bridge State Campground parking lot. Hard to believe that two weeks ago I needed four layers and a down vest to fend off the cold.
In short, it seems like spring, and spring days on the snow are like the final tender moments with a lover who will not return for a long while. At this time of year, the backcountry skiing is especially sweet.
I’m taking my wife, Kathy, and our 7-year-old daughter, Cassandra, up the four-mile trail to Round Pond. Starting from the deserted parking area at the campground, we set off along the Schroon River, which is no more than a winding creek here. The forest is picturesque, each turn of the trail and stream an Adirondack postcard. The afternoon sun strikes shafts of light through pines that frame the trail, reminding me of the center aisle in a Gothic cathedral.
Eventually the path turns away from the river and heads uphill. We slow our pace for the long steady climb. Pines give way to beech and birch. The hill is steep enough that the return trip could spell trouble for my wife and daughter on their light touring skis. I am feeling guilty about having plastic boots and edged skis.
We crest a false ridge and start climbing again. The hardwood forest changes to evergreens. After reaching the height of land, we ski down a gentle shelf, accelerating into a swooping drop that leaves us near the foot of boggy East Mill Flow, extending as far as the eye and terrain reach. We shoot down the bank and glide over the snow-covered ice to a beaver mound. Cassandra examines it closely, looking for the air vent near the top.
We continue up the sun-drenched expanse, following some old tracks. When my daughter clamors for water, I pull off the pack, and we take a break next to a rock outcropping on the edge of the ice. I’m anxious to reach our destination. Our 1 o’clock start has a cushion of about one hour built in, but the warm weather makes me uneasy. I feel as if nature is trying to lull us into complacency. The memory of 14 below two weeks ago is still with me, and skiing with my family always turns me into an overly safety-conscious guide.
Cassandra is carefree as we resume our journey. She asks to lead, and this is the perfect place for it. She follows a long parabolic track that sweeps towards a cove near the now-visible end of the flow. There is some open water near a feeder stream. We skirt around it, scoot up an embankment and get back on the trail, which has conveniently decided to find us.
Just a few gliding strides farther along, we come to another flow that invites exploration, but we stay on the trail toward Round Pond. It comes faster than expected. An uphill burst, a downhill glide, and the pond lies in front of us. True to its name, it is round, or at least as round as nature makes a pond.
Ski tracks and a lone snowmobile track drape out onto the ice, pointing the way to Moriah Pond and the cliffs of Broughton Ledge. I wish we had made an earlier start, one that would have allowed for dallying and extra explorations. But we are at our turnaround time, and I’ve promised myself not to push my family unreasonably.
We relax a bit, take some photos and sketch plans for another trip. Tony Goodwin’s guidebook, Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks, mentions a trail from Route 4 that leads here from the east, so the possibility of a two-car, one-way, multimile trek beckons for another day. We ration out some water but hold back the oranges and apples for our exit from the flow.
With a last wistful look at the inviting ledge, we turn back towards the trail. The sun hangs yellow on the western fringe of the lower flow. When we reach the forest edge, where the trail resumes, I break out the fruit I’ve been promising my daughter. The oranges in this winter landscape are an exotic pleasure. We savor them and the last of our water.
After our break, we climb briefly and noodle through the pine plateau. Then the downhill begins in earnest. Kathy, an accomplished alpine skier, retrogresses and goes wobbly on her skinny skis. My daughter, however, is unfazed. She’s followed her dad down more challenging pitches than this. So she blasts ahead while I stay behind with her mother. When Kathy removes her skis and begins walking down one of the steeper dips, our daughter takes over as coach, which allows me to schuss the last section of trail down into the pines.
Once at the stream Kathy is again in her milieu. We ski through the pines winding down the homestretch. Diffuse evening light turns the open water of the Schroon into a silvery mirror. Near the trailhead, just a few hundred yards from Route 9, we pause to savor the view.
The temperature is sinking steadily. Soon darkness will conspire with the cold to reclaim the Adirondack forest for winter. Solitude is one of the rewards of skiing off the beaten path, and we have seen no other humans on this perfect backcountry afternoon.