Landing in paradise
By Michael Zeugin
When I’m looking for a quick shot of backwoods fun, a ski tour I can fit into a morning or an afternoon, I often opt for the Whiteface Landing trail. The six-mile round trip takes only two or three hours, but it’s a great escape into serene surroundings.
A five-minute drive out of Lake Placid on Route 86 puts me where I want to be, on the snow in the woods. There is an unplowed roundabout on the north side of the highway, but experience has taught me it’s not the best place to plunge in with two-wheel drive in winter. So I usually park in the paved pullout about a tenth of a mile farther east, on the opposite side of Route 86.
You reach the trail proper by skiing a half-mile down an unplowed road that leads from the roundabout to a register near Connery Pond. (If you park in the paved pullout, you can take a short trail through the woods to the road.) On this afternoon, the snow on the road is packed from four-wheel drives. The truck tracks are rutted erratically, so I ski the center hump. As I wind through the blue and green of the shadowed forest a red squirrel scampers onto a branch and chatters his alarm.
At road’s end, I sign the register. A bit farther on I slip past the fence that blocks vehicular traffic. The meandering flats of the access road give way to the trail’s gentle climb. Afternoon sunlight streams over a ridge from the west and scatters among the trees.
At about one mile, the climb steepens and the snow gets deeper, so I ski uphill more aggressively to avoid stalling to a walk. Here the snow is especially good. The Whiteface Landing trail straddles the precipitation line between Lake Placid and Wilmington, picking up good coverage when winter settles in. Even uphill skiing can feel magical. The swish, swish, swish of short, energetic glides settles into my consciousness as I breathe deeply, drinking air from between the birches.
Uphill a bit, I reach the first drainage. There are four or five places where water crosses the trail during spring meltdowns or summer rains. These are frozen now, covered with ice bridges, some hidden under blankets of snow. I scope the terrain for any icy patches as I climb. On the return, this hill will become a fast, winding schuss.
Climbing at a measured pace up the steady grade I soon see the ridge that marks the trail’s high point, reached about two thirds of the way to the Landing. Here I ease off, knowing the climb is mostly over. I imagine my kick-glide sequence as one of those strides you see pictured on ski gear or tourism brochures, trying to hit the sweet spot where body and brain join in exhilaration. The trail slopes slightly downhill. It’s cruising from here on. The forest flies by, turning from beech and birch to evergreens briefly before switching back to deciduous growth. As I slip along the slight but steady downhill I switch from a diagonal stride to double poling with a couple of swooping schusses thrown in.
But I know the best part is still to come. I feel like a kid anticipating Christmas morning as I glide silently down to the lake. Then I round the corner, hook left, blow through a drift and burst into a small clearing. Suddenly I am standing at the wild end of Lake Placid. Here at the edge of the ice, only the thumping of my heart splits the silence. I gaze down the length of the lake and release a satisfied breath.
My eye moves along the curved shoreline that loops like a garland around bays and past boathouses and camps that speckle the shoreline. I linger a bit, savoring the transition of day to evening, watching wood smoke curl from a camp on a distant island. The smoke is barely perceptible against the blue-gray dusk haze in the west.
Good snow means I can make the return trip to the parking lot in 45 minutes. I turn reluctantly from the lake to climb along the ridge. The uphill seems almost flat, perhaps because I’m warmed up. But it does climb. The snow that covers the ridge’s hump is especially fluffy. I double-pole three times to get things rolling, then I’m off. In seconds I’m swooping down modest drops, gentle extended pitches, a few switchbacks, whoop-de-dos and around obstacles.
I drift off the trail into powdery conditions, moving fast enough to leave a rooster tail trailing into the dusk, and then drop back into the track. Go with the flow, I think, as snow flows up my shins on the last drop to the edge of Connery Pond.
Soon I pass the trail register and ski onto the woods road, and too soon I hear the cars on Route 86. I’ve been on the trail for a bit over two hours, but it seems much longer. The woods will do that to you, I think, satisfied.