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Adventure Travel: New York

Skiing Hut to Hut : Weekend cross-country enthusiasts tackle the wilderness trails of the Adirondacks

January 23, 1994|STEVE SILK | HARTFORD COURANT

SIAMESE PONDS WILDERNESS AREA, N.Y. — Kapow! In the dark forest around Kunjamuk cabin, the trees are popping like firecrackers. It's 30 degrees below zero, and the bone-stinging cold that cloaks the cabin in a mantle of ice is freezing the sap in the trees.

Bang! And the expanding veins of solidifying sap burst in the trees like rifle shots.

Kablam! The moon is full. A pillar of smoke churns its way into the night sky, rising from a woodstove the size of a locomotive. The smoke is a reassuring sight on this frigid night. It means a roaring fire blazes inside the lonely log cabin here in the middle of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area, deep in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York. And without a fire, well, let's just say the nine cross-country skiers holed up inside the cabin would not be happy campers.

Kapow! Here at Kunjamuk, the snow is two feet deep. The cabin is miles away from the nearest road. The scene is set for a Jack London-style battle pitting a small band of adventurers against arctic elements. There's no doubt about the outcome, though this is a wilderness adventure all right--but one that's carefully planned for weekend warrior types.

Some of the folks on this two-day cross-country ski trip display the most rudimentary of ski skills (several need instruction in hill-climbing techniques at the first incline), but anyone game enough to contemplate covering about 10 miles a day on skis is welcome on an Adirondack Hut to Hut Tours outing. (Real beginners may spend their weekend exploring trails nearer the base camp.)

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Make no mistake. These trips are a touch rugged, as anyone who's got to make the 10-yard dash through the snow to the icicle-covered outhouse will tell you.

Walter Blank, owner of the ski-touring company, is often the first to warn potential customers away from his hut-to-hut trips. "I don't want anybody to think we're going from the Ramada Inn to the Holiday Inn across the golf course," he says.

Any lingering doubts about a lack of luxury are dispelled the morning skiers shove off from Chimney Mountain Lodge at King's Flow near Indian Lake. One of the final preparations for the first day's eight-mile ski is making your own lunch.

But there are few other chores--skiers' gear is shuttled into the cabin via snowmobile. All a skier need haul is something to eat and drink, a camera and perhaps a few extra layers of clothing.

The ski trip begins with a gentle downhill coast to King's Flow, now an ice- and snow-covered marsh. Back in the heyday of Adirondack logging, nearly all the trees in these parts were stripped away by woodcutters. Across the flow, skiers zigzag through a patch of second-growth forest and onto the shores of Round Pond. Spreading out, the group of nine scuttles across the wind-swept pond and past a series of beaver dams before ducking back into the pines to follow the old Kunjamuk Road, a former stagecoach trail running between Indian Lake and Speculator. During the next two days, they'll ski along frozen creeks, across ponds and down barely bushwhacked tracks.

The gentle but constant shuffling motion of cross-country skiing keeps the subzero temperatures at bay, but whenever there's a halt, the cold sneaks into your bones with an icy caress.

There's a good side to the deepfreeze--the snow is perfect. And abundant. Skis slip through about a foot of wispy powder that's more like smoke than snow. That fresh layer of dust smothers a deep, firm base.

This is the place to discover what cross-country skiing is all about.

Those who know the sport only by skidding across a golf course or circulating through a crowded trail system cannot guess at the exhilarating sense of freedom gained by really going cross-country, over hill and down dale, through forests and across ponds for mile after mile after mile.

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None of the terrain is overly taxing. The few steady climbs aren't too steep and the downhill runs are gentle and, for the most part, free of the cross-country skier's nemesis--quick, sharp, do-or-die turns. Even beginning skiers manage to take on the ups and downs, albeit with falls aplenty.

The two guides, Dick Collins and Tom Kligerman, represent opposite poles of the skiing spectrum. Dick, in his homemade down vest and wooden skis, shuffles along with hard-won grace, earned by hundreds, if not thousands, of trail miles. Kligerman, decked out in head-to-toe Gore-tex and coasting along on metal-edged telemark skis, moves in state-of-the-art style. The gear their charges use covers the broad range between the two.

Deeper in the woods, the knot of skiers spreads out as the more accomplished ones take the lead with one guide, while the others struggle on with another. Regardless of a skier's ability, it's hard not to be taken in by the spell of the winter forest. Pine boughs droop under the weight of snow. Quick gusts of wind sweep the snow from the branches, and the flakes glint like tiny jewels as they drift through beams of sunlight that spear the forest canopy.

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