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Back to the big chill in ‘Nation’s Icebox’

January 19, 2011
By Joe Hackett, News Outdoors Columnist
Following a bone-chilling weekend that was ushered in by a heavy snowfall, it appears the winter season is at full throttle. The snowpack now measures nearly 2 feet deep and thermometers have recently plummeted to comparable depths.

Fortunately, the snow and sub-zero chill was not accompanied by heavy winds. There were already plenty of fallen trees crisscrossing the local trails.

However, with the arrival of the big chill, trees were popping in the forest and the echo of lake ice could be heard rumbling in the still night air. 

It appears the new year arrived in New York with a bracing attitude, and already the first two weeks of 2011 have been declared the coldest recorded in over a quarter of a century. AccuWeather, which collects data from institutions that have been monitoring weather since 1962, predicts that January 2011 will be the coldest January in the United States on record since 1985.

I expect global warming skeptics will use the news in attempts to further debunk the concept of climate change.

In Saranac Lake, a perennial contender for the title of the “Nation’s Icebox,” the mercury bottomed out at 29 below zero over the weekend. Such lowdown temperatures are not uncommon in the community, which currently ranks sixth in the contiguous United States for having the most days with the lowest temperature in the country between 1995 and 2005.

In that 10-year span, Stanley, Idaho lay claim to 398 of the coldest days in the U.S., while West Yellowstone, Mont. had 337, Gunnison, Colo. had 170, Truckee, Calif. had 161, Alamosa, Colo. had 142 and Saranac Lake made the list with a total of 128 record frigid days.

I’ve often wondered why Saranac Lake consistently ranks among the coldest locations in the nation, while nearby Lake Placid, the “Winter Sports Capital of the World,” rarely makes the list. It seems odd that Saranac Lake is always colder, especially when Lake Placid is at a higher elevation.

I found the answer at, where Dr. Art DeGaetano, Associate Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University, explained:

“To be one of the coldest locations in the contiguous USA requires several physical attributes, each of which Saranac Lake possesses. Temperatures decrease with both latitude and elevation, so cold locations such as Saranac Lake tend to be located in mountainous regions of the northern USA.

“Saranac Lake’s inland location, away from the moderating effects of the Atlantic Ocean, also contributes to its coldness. Two other features make Saranac Lake stand out from any number of northern inland mountainous locations. The first is meteorological. The town lies in a high-elevation valley. Thus cold air, which is more dense, flows down the surrounding mountain slopes and accumulates over Saranac Lake. The second is serendipitous. There happens to be an airport weather station that reports daily temperatures at Saranac Lake. Relatively few airports are located in this type of topography.”

Ravens, beaver and whitetails

On Saturday, as the rising sun sent long shadows dancing across still morning landscape, I set off for a quick ski. The air was bracing and the woods were eerily silent, except for a steady, “awk, awk” of ravens calling in the distance.

I figured the birds were onto something, a carcass possibly, so I headed off down the railroad tracks in their direction to investigate the cause of the commotion.

The birds were stationed in a large white pine, located on the bank of Ray Brook, and something obviously had them agitated. As I approached the scene of the crime, the birds took flight and settled across the way in another tall pine.

From the opposite side of the brook, they again began their scolding catcalls. My curiosity piqued, so I set off through the tangle of tag alders to discover why the birds were so wound up.

After pushing and plodding, fumbling and falling through the deep snow and a nearly impenetrable alder thicket, I finally arrived at the bank of the stream. Soon, I discovered the cause of their consternation. 

It was a beaver, and judging by the tracks, the animal had been attempting to drag a rather large sapling through a very small hole in the ice.

Signs indicated that the beaver had tried to get the tree into the hole from every conceivable angle; but it was a classic case of a putting a long, square peg in a small, round hole.

Evidently, the poor beaver was unsuccessful in its effort and had simply retired to the quiet and comfortable atmosphere of a nearby lodge in an effort to escape the jesting ravens. 

The ravens, satisfied that their performance had appropriately chastised the poor critter, took off in search of something else to scold.

I stood still in the cold for a while, hoping to get a glimpse of the animal before setting off to ski the Scarface Mountain trail. It never appeared before I disappeared.

Hours later, on my return trip, I again slipped over to the stream to check out the scene. Sure enough, the beaver had completed its mission. The sapling was gone, and so too were the ravens. Only a small pile of wood chips remained on the ice, providing a testament to his handiwork.

However, the nearby hillside was laced with a network of beaver drag trails. It provided proof the animal had been quite busy during my absence. I imagined by that by then he was happily holed up in his lodge, munching on the sweet bark of the tag alders.

It was getting late and the afternoon shadows were stretching out across the fresh snow, pointing me back to from where I had come. Peace and quiet had returned to the brookside, and in the silence of the winter’s dusk I skied the last distance home. 

The previous day, I had been skiing on the Peavine Swamp trails located near Cranberry Lake. The region around Cranberry Lake typically has abundant cover, which is due to lake-effect snow. The trail conditions were nearly as good as in my own backyard.

Although the trails were untracked by skiers, they were laced by the traffic of numerous whitetail deer. According to a friend in nearby Wanakena, the Peavine Swamp is a major deer yarding area. When snow depths exceed a foot or more, the whitetails begin to concentrate there, in large numbers.

There was ample evidence of their passing, including both beds and feedbeds that were interconnected by numerous deer runs. In places, deer had pawed the deep snow to bare ground in order to feed on ferns. Elsewhere, they had trimmed the buds from witchhobble and beech whips in the forest understory.

The Peavine Swamp trails, which are accessible off state Route 3, west of the village of Cranberry Lake, provide a connection to Wanakena and the NYS Ranger School.

A firetower, which had been removed from nearby Tooley Pond Mountain, was relocated atop a small hill adjacent to the swamp. It makes a wonderful ski destination and offers outstanding views of Cranberry Lake to the south, the Tooley Pond tract to the north and the surrounding Five Ponds Wilderness.

The Peavine Swamp trails provide a connection to the Cranberry Lake 50 trail system, which is a 50-mile trail that circumnavigates the lake. To date, fewer than a half dozen travelers have completed the entire Cranberry 50 route during the winter.

Article Photos

Whitetail deer have already moved to winter yards, commonly found in areas of thick cedar swamps, which provide shelter from the wind and ease of travel. Deer will dig through the deep snow to access ferns to feed upon. Elizabeth Lee, a guide from Westport, measures a digging with a ski pole.
Photo by Joe Hackett



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