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IT'S OUR HISTORY: The off season in Lake Placid

February 6, 2014
By JENNIFER TUFANO , Lake Placid News

Two years ago, the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society installed a new exhibit titled "ICE" and exhibited photographs and documents explaining the impact ice has had on our region through the decades. One image in particular caught my eye. It was one of a large, horse-drawn cart dragging what looked like building materials across the lake.

Now, I grew up on a small lake in central New York that was comprised of mostly year-round residents and the occasional camp with full road access to all properties year round. Watching the lake and surrounding landscape slowly wither and become encased with ice and snow was always the saddest part of the year for me. Life slowed and except for the occasional snow clearing to make way for ice skating, the lake was untouched and unusable for too long, in my opinion. As we got older, and my brother and I braver, our parents let us walk out to the middle of the lake to a small island. We towed life jackets just in case and once we got over the initial fear of "will this hold us?" our little lake opened up and showed us just how much life was really moving around out there. Birds and geese and little plants somehow adapted to survive in that frigid climate taught us the importance of adapting to our surroundings and encouraged us to thrive in the absence of warmth.

Here in Lake Placid, good use is made of our frozen waters. Building supplies and materials are still carted across the lake for construction and other projects. Mirror Lake is available for dog sledding and toboggan chutes and most recently cleared for pond hockey tournaments and ice skating. Both lakes enjoy cross country skiers, snow shoers, and ice fisherpeople. Any and every manner of winter frolicking can take place on a frozen lake. How do you know when it's safe to travel these waterways?

In the book "Placid Lake: A Centennial History 1893-1993," edited by David Ackerman, he describes the freezing over of Lake Placid this way:

"Snow comes and goes for a time, before the Lake is cold enough to show a skim of ice, first in the coves and between the islands, and later over the entire Lake. A wind may reopen part of the Lake, before winter's grip dominates. That time has come as early as November 29, in 1925, and as late as January 4, in 1958. There is usually more snow just after 'freezeup,' and because snow insulates, it becomes a judgment call as to when the Lake's frozen surface is safe for travel. Often is seems to be a cat and mouse game, people watching to see who will be the first to take a chance and get out on the ice. Even those who have donned skis, presumably spreading their weight over a larger surface area have learned it is no panacea; it is hard work to get skis off half submerged in the ice water! Others have used the ski pole technique, holding it up and dropping the point onto the ice. If it goes through, get closer to shore, gently! However, neither test is recommended, it is better to let someone else go first! Nevertheless, like the innate urges to climb a mountain or cast about in or on a body of water, standing in the middle of a field or on a frozen lake seems to have its pull."

More about moving materials across the ice apparently no structure is too big!

"While not a common activity, advantage has often been taken of the Lake's frozen surface to move buildings. It is said the portion of Camp Sunnyside which is graced with the distinctive gabled spider web was originally the Camp Gordon boat house, next door. Camp Narnia, on Moose Island's Shelter Strait, was moved there by caretaker Dan Kennedy. It was originally located on Hawk Island, facing Whiteface Mountain."

Another excerpt from Placid Lake involved that time honored winter adventure: ski-joring: "Camp owners frequently visit their summer homes in the winters, sometimes staying a few days, or if they have a winterized cottage, for even longer periods. Ski-joring, behind a horse or motor vehicle was a frequent sporting activity. On another occasion Waddill Catchings, Jr. and his friend David Van Brunt laid out a race track on the ice. Here they ran time trials with Van Brunt's home made race car. It was painted lavender and called the 'Ex Lax,' in keeping with the fact it 'moves fast.'

"Camp Comfort's Stephen Farrelly, as insurance broker, became so imbued with Placid Lake's winters that he sought the 1932 Olympic Committee's business by selling coverage against the possibility there might be no snow. From his winter visits to Lake Placid this appeared to be a no lose opportunity. Nature proved otherwise."

Ask any Placid Lake resident about life on the lake and you'll hear stories about cutting lake ice to fill ice houses, making ice cream with a hand cranked, wooden ice cream maker (we have one in the historical society collection), and seeing platoons of ski troops from Fort Drum out on maneuvers.

Maple sugaring took place on many camps and lodges around the lake. While wooden sap buckets and tank laden sleds have been replaced with plastic tubing and vacuum pumps, delicious sap still pours from the maple trees around Lake Placid Lake. Learn more about the progression in maple sugaring processing at our February lecture with Mike Farrell, Director at the Uihlein Forest. His colleague Joe Orefice, Forestry Professor at Paul Smith's College, will speak about farming technology through the decades.

Indeed, contrary to how they may look to the casual outside observer, winter lakes are busy, lively places in which to engage in whatever keeps you thriving during our long, snowy season. Enjoy.



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