By Jack Rightmyer
We have a tradition in the family to cross-country ski into the Santanoni Great Camp in Newcomb every year around New Year’s Day.
Santanoni is one of the Adirondack’s first Great Camps, built in 1893 by the Albany-based banker Robert Pruyn and his wife, Anna. On 13,000 acres surrounding Newcomb Lake, it offers 5,000 square feet of lakeside. It was built for a farm with large barns for cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. There were four farmhouses and a stone creamery.
Some years on our annual ski we have 10 or 15 people. This year there were only five, my wife, Judy, daughter, Erin, son-in-law, Paul, and our 7-year-old granddaughter, Maggie. Maggie made her first attempt last year and went almost two miles before turning back. She vowed to go farther this year.
Last year I skied with Maggie because I had my 12-year-old dog Abe with me, and I knew he wouldn’t be able to make it the entire 10 miles round trip. Abe was happy to stay with Maggie and run in the snow, and I was content to cheer Maggie on in her first backcountry ski.
When we ski we have plenty of time to talk about the past year. Judy and I discussed our bike ride in May from our home in Burnt Hills to the Battery on the tip of Manhattan. We also reminisced about our 40th wedding anniversary in August celebrated by hiking in the Alps. We all told stories about our son’s wedding in October in Boulder, Colo.
It was also a year of surgeries. Judy had a torn rotator cuff repaired in November, and I had a meniscus tear dealt with in August. During my surgery the doctor could not fix the bone-on-bone in my knee. “I think your running days are over,” he said.
It was 40 degrees when we set out at Santanoni. The snow was heavy and wet. Maggie was chugging along at a decent pace, and we all kept encouraging both her and Judy, who was only eight weeks post-surgery and opting to snowshoe. “Maggie, I think you can make it to the Big Moose Pond cutoff at 2.3 miles,” said her mom, Erin.
“I’ll get there with you,” said Judy, who was keeping pace with Maggie.
When we arrived at the cutoff, drank some water and ate a granola bar, I decided to push on for the next 2.7 miles to the Great Camp. I didn’t get there last year, and my knee was feeling good. Everyone encouraged me, and Judy had brought along her book and diary. “I’ll wait for you. I love my book. It’s not too cold. Go enjoy.”
Off I went on the trail that would soon take me from 1,950 feet at the cutoff to a little over 1,700 feet at the Great Camp. I had enjoyed the slow pace of skiing with family, but it was also fun to really start moving.
I felt like I was on a long run, which I had not been able to do since June. Running was my form of meditation, and here I was far out in what felt like the deep woods of the Adirondacks thinking about our beloved dog Abe who had run along with us many times through the years into Santanoni. He had died in September, but I felt his spirit as I skied along.
Near the long downhill that would take me to the bridge over Newcomb Lake, I thought about the history of this Great Camp and some of the famous people like Teddy Roosevelt who had visited here during its glory days. I also thought about the Melvin family who had bought the property in 1953 and had owned it for the next 18 years till the mysterious disappearance of their 8-year-old grandson. He was last seen near the Main Lodge, and no remains of the boy have ever been found.
I was the only one at the camp when I arrived. It looked as beautiful as ever, and I took off my skis and sat on an Adirondack chair to eat my sandwich and drink some water. It was strange to be alone at this enormous camp. Usually, I’ve been here with friends and family and other skiers and dogs, and people are laughing and taking pictures. I enjoyed the solitude, but I must admit it did feel a bit creepy. My imagination began to wander to the lost boy and what happened to him and why the Melvin family was so adamant about never returning to this majestic place. It was also beginning to get dark. I ate quickly and soon was back on my skis and returning up the big hill.
I forced myself not to think of bobcats or moose or some dangerous predator as I skied back. It suddenly felt a bit foolish to have come all this way by myself in the winter even if it was a 40-degree day. I tried to call my wife a few times and had no cell service. With a little less than a mile to go I came upon the barn area and that’s when I heard Judy’s voice from a picnic table by the creamery. “You made it,” she said.
I was so happy to see her. She had been waiting for me while writing in her journal and reading her book. I hugged her and thought about the quote from Christopher McCandless, the focus of “Into the Wild,” who had died alone of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness 30 years earlier. One of the last things he had scrawled in his diary was “Happiness is only real when shared.”
Judy and I finished our adventure that day together. I was on my skis and Judy wore snowshoes. It was the perfect way to end the year 2022.