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Conditions just right for backcountry skiing

February 15, 2017
By JOE HACKETT - Outdoors Columnist ( , Lake Placid News

It appears the winter season will remain in command of the land for a spell. A series of recent storms has delivered some of the finest backcountry ski conditions of the season, and it appears the snowpack will remain intact long enough to provide entertainment for the 15th annual Adirondack Backcountry Ski Fest which is scheduled for the weekend of March 3-5. The event, which offers a variety of clinics, tours and lessons always brings a variety of backcountry ski and boarding fanatics to the region.

Although backcountry travel is the main focus of the event, the program offers something for everyone - from true beginners to experienced mountaineers.

Ski Fest will once again include a demo day hosted at the Otis Mountain Ski Center, which is located off state Route 9, about 5 miles south of Elizabethtown. For further information and reservations, please contact The Mountaineer at 576-2281.

Article Photos

Scarface Mountain in Ray Brook provides backcountry travelers with a variety of options.
Photo — Joe Hackett

In addition to the guided tours, demos and programs, the Skifest serves as a benefit event, with proceeds supporting the New York State Ski Educational Foundation's nordic racing programs as well as the Adirondack Ski Touring Council, which serves as the steward of the Adirondack Park's backcountry ski trail system that includes the Jackrabbit Trail.

Among all of the winter activities available in the region, nordic skiing (aka cross-country skiing) remains one of the most readily available pursuits. Equipment is relatively inexpensive and lessons are generously available at many local ski centers.

The learning curve is nearly a straight line. If you are able to walk, you can learn to cross-country ski. And once you know how, you will never have to wait in a long line to purchase a lift ticket again. In fact, you may never want to visit an alpine ski center again.

The charm of cross-country skiing is the availability of a wide range of trails, terrain and challenges. If there's snow on the ground, the opportunity to get out for a cross-country ski jaunt is likely to be as near as your own back door.

It's possible to purchase an entry level package of nordic equipment for less than the cost of a single-day lift ticket at Whiteface.

I was a rabid "downhiller" until I discovered nordic skiing during my college years. Since that time, my skiing has been primarily self-propelled.

I still enjoy downhill skiing, however I do it without the benefit of a chairlift. I take advantage of the terrain, both up and down the hill.

Although I picked up cross-country skiing without the benefit of a single lesson, I believe lessons are important. They can reduce the learning curve and prevent the development of bad habits.

In addition to providing great fun and building healthy habits, nordic skiing presents a wide range of off-trail opportunities to locations that are rarely available via any other means.

Over the years, I've hauled a lot of gear and supplies over the snow. I've also hauled boats, canoes and gear into many backwoods ponds.

I've also discovered the unique pleasures of backcountry travel, where trails are many and the visitors are few.

After achieving the basic competencies, it's not unusual for beginners to undertake extended jaunts of 3 to 5 miles or more. Such adventures are just the tip of the ice and snow that await in the boundless backcountry of the Adirondacks.

Currently, the local ski trails are in the the best shape of the season, with a firm base covered with 8 to 16 inches of fresh powder.

Although temperatures have dropped, ice conditions on the local lakes should be considered shaky, especially where there is a current. Stream crossings are not to be trusted. Even where the ice appears adequate, there may be a layer of slush or standing water.

Travelers are advised to wear a PFD, carry a pole or hockey stick, and make sure there is a throw line nearby. The ice just isn't what it used to be. Neither are the winters. However, the cold water is still as dangerous as ever. After experiencing an unexpected dip on a recent trip, I'm willing to wait for safe ice. Tomorrow is always another day, and I want to be around to enjoy it.

The groomed, set tracks that are available at most nordic ski centers are a great way to get started and get a workout. However, one of the true pleasures of cross-country skiing, is actually skiing across the country.

Your skis will take you to places that you would never be able to access under any other single mode of travel. Best of all, you will be immersed in the scene. You become a component of the scene, forever in the present.

Whether it is the simple silence of traveling through the deep, muffled woods, or the explosion of a ruffed grouse bursting out of its snow burrow, nordic skis will take you to places where you would never go, to see sights that you'd never believe and it will leave you eager for more.

Over the years, I've witnessed otters sliding through the woods and I've watched a vixen red fox teaching her pups how to pounce. I would never have been able to sneak so close, if not for the silence of the skis.

Best of all, when I finally call it a day, I leave eager for more. Similar to other repetitive recreational pursuits such as kayaking, biking, fly fishing and trail running, there is a Zen-like quality to the movements that allow participants to get "lost in the zone."

Get out there and enjoy the snow, winter's not going to last much longer. You'll be glad your did.



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