Little snow, lots of fun
By Phil Brown
By early January, we were desperate. We had enough snow to ski the Whiteface Mountain toll road, local golf courses, and a few easy trails, but that was it. As the ski-less days dragged on, we wondered if winters like this would become the norm in our warming world.
Finally, we got a six-inch snowfall. In most Januaries, this would be icing on the cake. This year, it was the cake, and we were determined to enjoy it.
But six inches is only six inches. Our options were still limited to gentle terrain, routes without many rocks. Eventually, we settled on an old favorite: the nine-mile round trip to Raquette Falls.
The trail follows an old logging road, more or less paralleling the Raquette River. At 4.2 miles, it reaches a ranger’s outpost. Just beyond this, you take a right onto a narrow path that leads to the falls. Although they aren’t huge, the falls are attractive enough to justify the trip (if you need justification for skiing).
The outing is ideal for intermediate skiers who like to combine kicking and gliding with the occasional downhill (and, alas, corresponding uphill). Less-experienced skiers can handle the trail if they have a good snowplow, though they still may want to sidestep down parts of the most difficult hill—an S-turn descent shortly before the ranger’s cabin.
The night before our excursion the temperature dropped to twenty-six degrees below zero in Saranac Lake. It was still below zero when I drove to the home of Josh Wilson and Jecinda Hughes, my skiing companions. The forecast indicated that the temperature would rise into the teens or twenties, so we didn’t let the morning cold deter us. Besides, we’d be skiing fast. Jecinda had to be home by two o’clock to get ready for work at Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid.
We arrived at the trailhead on Coreys Road about 9:45 a.m. and wasted no time heading into the woods. Since it was Monday, the ski tracks were packed and slickened from weekend traffic. At the start, the trail is relatively flat, with a few small dips. Although the old road parallels the Raquette, the river is usually out of sight. At 1.25 miles, we descended a small hill that bottomed out beside the floodplain, affording a view of the frozen river.
At 2.2 miles, we passed a trail on the right that leads to the Hemlock Hill lean-to, which sits on a bank above the Raquette. If you want to take a side trip, the lean-to is a bit more than a half-mile from the main trail. Just beyond this turnoff is a junction with a trail that connects to the Calkins Brook Truck Trail.
After the two junctions, we went up and down several moderately steep hills. As we crested one, Josh and I came upon a scene of carnage: tufts of gray fur, bloodstained snow, and some kind of round organ, frozen as solid as a curling stone. Nothing else of the animal remained—no carcass, no hide, no bones. While we investigated, Jecinda caught up to us.
“Honey, you want some organ meat?” Josh asked. “Here are the lungs or the stomach.”
“Gross,” Jecinda informed Josh.
After four miles, we were at the top of the last and biggest downhill, a drop of about 150 feet with two sharp turns. Because of thin cover, some rocks were exposed, making the hill more challenging than usual. Josh went first, then me. I stopped a few times to cut speed, but I still fell after my ski swiped a rock on the second turn.
Josh and I waited on the straightway below the hill. In a few minutes, Jecinda joined us.
“Did you bomb it?” Josh asked.
“On my ass? Yes,” his lady replied.
“Do you mind if I quote you?” I interjected.
“Oh, boy,” Jecinda said. “Mama will be proud.”
We skied through a corridor of evergreens and past a rusting logging tractor and presently arrived at the ranger’s outpost, located across from a canoe-carry trail. We continued on the logging road another two-tenths of a mile and then turned right onto the narrow path that goes to the falls.
At the lower falls (the upper falls is a mile upriver), the Raquette drops six feet or so into a frothy hole, like a boiling kettle, and then squeezes through a small canyon. In winter, spray coats the banks and trees in white, adding to the charm of this wild and remote spot. Josh and I took a bunch of photographs, but because of Jecinda’s schedule, we didn’t linger.
On the way back, Jecinda seemed to tire a little.
“This is the longest ski trip I’ve ever been on,” she confided after Josh had gone ahead.
“Really?” I replied.
“Maybe that’s why Josh told me it was only five miles,” she said.
I had a feeling that Josh might be in the doghouse. As I rounded a bend, I found him waiting for us, tracing “J + J” in the snow with his ski pole.
“That’s a good idea, Josh,” I advised, gliding past.
Later we encountered Gary Valentine, the cabin’s caretaker, and Paul Soderholm, a seasonal resident of Coreys. Gary confirmed that the remains we saw earlier had been a deer torn apart by coyotes (and that the organ was the stomach). He couldn’t tell whether the coyotes killed the deer or discovered it after it had died of natural causes. In any case, he said, the carcass was nowhere to be found: he had looked for it in the woods along the trail.
White-tailed deer have a hard time in winter in the Adirondacks. In a harsh year, one with a long period of deep snow, up to 40 percent of the deer herd might perish from starvation. One consequence of global warming may be that Adirondack winters will have less snow and higher temperatures. That’s good news for deer, bad news for skiers.
On this day, we were just happy to be able to ski to Raquette Falls. Nevertheless, we hoped to have more options before winter ended.