Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Hiker's Thoughts Before A Big Trip

Peter Diller was a camper at Woodcraft for many years. He started in Outpost, moved up through Iroquois Village and Ranger Post, and won the Chief’s Knife as a Trail Camper in 2012. The following year Peter participated in the Outdoor Leadership Training Division program and returned as a junior counselor in 2014. This journal entry and those to follow detail how his time spent at Woodcraft helped provide him the necessary experience to embark on a solo excursion in Olympic National Park.


This summer, for the first time in a decade, I did not drive down Rondaxe Road, did not eat the Opening Day cookies in the Dining Hall, did not put on a life jacket in the water in order to earn that precious green tag. I spent June and the first half of July scooping ice cream. Yes, I know. It’s a decidedly less noble calling than the time honored and sacred loco parental duties of a camp counselor. Instead of imparting life lessons upon the youth of the world I served them cookies n’ cream. Instead of following Michelle Obama’s fitness vision and leading young ones atop mountains and across lakes, woods, and soccer fields, I made them milkshakes.
Peter shows off his recently-won Chief's Knife

It was for a good cause, however. I was saving money to fund a two-week solo backpacking trip into the wilds of Olympic National Park. The Olympics are a cluster of mountains that stand on the northwestern edge of Washington State. They cannot be classified as a range per-say, as they are jumbled and separated by deep river valleys. Smaller mountain ranges make up the Olympics, separated by gorges and stretching up to an elevation of 8,000 feet. The park fills the Olympic Peninsula like a balloon fills a box. Towns cling to edges, stuck between the park and the Puget Sound in the East, the Pacific in the West, or the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the North. Highway 101 warmly wraps itself around the park’s circumference, but no roads penetrate it deeply.

Why, you may be wondering, have I chosen this particular circle of wilderness? It is 3000 miles away from my house. Should I not have chosen something closer to home? My grandparents, I’m sure, cannot fathom why I didn’t simply drag a tent onto the six train and spend a few nights camping in Central Park. The woods are the woods, after all. And there’s some truth to this sentiment. I have trouble answering the question of “why there?” The best answer is probably “because of my parents;” an answer that applies to oh so many questions in life. My parents had hiked in the region way back in the day and recommended it to me. They had the topo-maps stored in the basement. The pictures of the area were nice. So Olympic National Park it was.

Why, you may be wondering, anywhere? An equally insightful question and one that is even harder to answer. There was no epiphany moment, no cry of “Eureka! I want to eat gorp for two weeks!” I spent lots of time on the trail considering why I had chosen to venture forth into the forest. “Because of my parents” doesn’t quite cut it in this case, although there’s once again a certain truth there. My parents, who dragged me up Adirondack High Peaks before I took my first standardized test. My parents, who brought me on camping trips and let me examine bear poop with a magnifying glass. My parents, who signed me up for a remote summer camp that lacked electricity in its cabins [Editor’s note: The boy’s cabins have electricity now].

Peter prepares for a trip at Woodcraft
Camp played a huge role in the trip, despite my decidedly lackluster AWC wilderness credentials. My favorite part of OLS was roasting marshmallows. I never did my solo overnight trip. I never earned my Pioneer. In Nature, I would scribble pictures of toilet-plants instead of identifying paw prints. I never retained what significance a circumnimbus cloud has (is that even a cloud?) [Editor’s note: No.]  On trips I fared no better. I was the slowest hiker, designated to the front of the line so that others did not leave me in the dust. When I sterned the canoe I would run it aground and swerve into rocks, a fact that Henry U., my unfortunate bowman, can readily attest to.

What I learned at Woodcraft runs deeper than birdcall identification though. The summers by Kan-Ac-To built two crucial pillars that hold up my relationship to the natural world: comfort and common sense. Because of camp, I have seen countless snakes, been bitten by countless bugs, crossed countless rivers and slept on countless roots. Because of camp, I’m used to a strict diet of oatmeal and gorp, I’m used to the cracks of twigs in the still night and (parents cover your eyes!) I’m used to pooping off of logs. Nothing in the Olympics could or did faze me. Camp taught me common outdoor sense. How to correctly pack a bag, how to read a topographic map, how to light a stove. Never whittle backwards! Never pee near a body of water! Heaviest things in the bottom of the pack! Waterproof everything! Never run away from a bear! These were my religious commandments in July and August, these were the codes of life that I lived and breathed.

My interest in the wild has multiple tributaries – coffee table books containing glossy landscapes, novels in which the forest is a focal point for action and adventure, movies starring woodland creatures and talking trees. But it was through Woodcraft that this interest was validated. I initially liked the concept of the backpacking and I came to like the actuality of backpacking as well. I may have been the slowest hiker, but I loved the feeling of scaling Gothics, of devouring miles on the trail and then devouring trail pizza at the campsite. I wanted to go hiking for two weeks because I like hiking.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Triple Swimmer

The Triple Swimmer is a patch awarded to campers who compete a series of challenging endurance swims. Woodcraft's swimming program is designed to strengthen campers' comfort and abilities in the water, and for many campers this culminates with the Triple Swimmer. As the name implies, there are three parts to the Triple Swimmer. In each instance, the camper ventures outside of the designated swimming area while accompanied by a lifeguard rowing nearby.

Lake Kan-Ac-To has four docks: the main dock for swimming and boating, the Outpost dock for fishing, the Trail Camp dock for stand-up paddle boarding, and the dock at Dave's house. The first installment of the Triple Swimmer consists of diving from the main dock, swimming to Dave's, swimming to Outpost, and then back to the main dock to complete the Triangle. The total distance for this swim is 354 meters (.22 miles).

Next comes the Diamond (which isn't exactly diamond shaped . . .) This builds off the Triangle by adding the long leg down to Trail Camp. As luck would have it, the Diamond is exactly double the length of the Triangle at 708 meters (.44 miles). The speed record for the Diamond was set at 11:03 by Chrissy Marchetta in 2001, breaking her own record set in 1999.

The final installment of the Triple Swimmer is the Clothesline. For this swim, the camper must jump off the high dive fully clothed in shoes, socks, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt. He or she swims the 112 meters across to Dave's dock and then back again for a total of 224 meters (.139 miles). The real challenge in the Clothesline in the cumbersome weight of the clothing.

Recently campers and counselors have added another element to the Triple Swimmer. The .44 meter distance of the Diamond, when swum 24 times, adds up to just about the 10.5 miles it would take to swim from Old Forge to Inlet (assuming, as with the other swims, that the swimmer keeps to a straight line). Any one who swims 24 Diamonds during their tenure at Woodcraft is said to have completed the Fulton Chain.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Aaron Attempts Street and Nye in the Winter

Aaron returns with another guest blog describing his attempt to climb Street and Nye in the winter.

Date: Friday February 19th 2014
Destination: Street and Nye
Distance: Approximately 8 miles

At times during the winter it has been difficult to find a friend to go hiking with. This time however I was able to bring a friend, Rose, who is just as excited to get out side as I am. Rose, already an avid adventurer and skier, has never gone winter hiking and was eager to learn. Planning the trip, I initially wanted to hike Wright, which is on the way up to Algonquin – the second highest peak in New York State. However, due to poor weather and above-freezing temperatures, I was forced to go with plan B, a much gentler hike but slightly longer one. Street and Nye is technically trail-less with no state maintained track or markers to follow. The weather was perhaps the poorest I have seen while hiking. For two days prior temperatures were above freezing with rain, turning the trail into a slush puddle. On the day of our hike the forecast called for high 30s and rain.

We left St. Lawrence University around 7:00 AM, driving 2 ½ hours to the ADK Loj at Heart Lake. Upon arriving it was windy and cool but no precipitation, yet. We geared up in rain jackets, waterproof shell pants, gaiters and microspikes on our feet for traction. Both of us eager to start, despite the dreary weather, I was in pursuit of my 5th and 6th winter peak and Rose, her 1st. The first part of the ascent was uneventful until we came to a thawing creek that posed a unique challenge to cross without getting soaked. I probed until I was confident enough to take a leap of faith, reaching the other side with my boots dry. Rose however, had slightly more difficulty. The ice underneath me had given way when I jumped, so Rose was left searching for a new way across. She eventually found one but was forced to toss her bag across. From there it was a smooth hike in unstable snow until we started the steep portion heading up to the col between Street and Nye. The trail became extremely difficult to follow as we hiked on. Soon the footsteps from previous hikers disappeared, only a worn path remained.

Near the top, the weather began to worsen, the wind and rain picked up and we began to reach cloud cover, making visibility difficult. After about 30 minutes of hiking, I began to suspect we had missed the junction at the col between Street and Nye and were hiking up one of the two. Finally we reached a point where no discernable trail was remotely visible. At this point we made a decision to turn back. I was not comfortable with searching for the trail with deteriorating conditions and my partner being inexperienced with winter hiking. Our spirits slightly disappointed by the uncertainty, we slogged down the slushy trail in the rain.

The way down was an adventure in and of itself. Leading the way on the way up, I yielded to my friend, so she led the way down. Both of us fell at least twice, the first time Rose was navigating a steep section when the snow slipped out leaving her to slide down on her backside. My turn came 5 minutes later when I made a less-than-graceful attempt to save myself. My foot sinking in I fell face first into the snow with both legs and my right arm submerged in snow, I was stuck but unharmed, eventually managing to free myself after a few laughs. The rest of the hike back was in an on and off downpour. Once we reached the trailhead it was a relief to get out of the rain and try to dry off.

This hike was a tale of caution and the conservative thinking required for a safe but enjoyable winter hiking experience. What could have easily turned into a miserable slog was prevented by ensuring both of us still had the energy and desire to continue. Many climbers with a goal can run into trouble with ‘summit fever.’ Once we no longer felt comfortable with the lack of any trail and terrible weather, we turned back, sworn to return to conquer.

Once back at school I was able to unpack and digest what had occurred during our hike. After close examination of the map and multiple guidebooks, I am confident that we reached the summit of Nye, missing the junction and the trail to Street. Therefore if I am to finish my winter 46, I will have to climb Street and will no doubt re-climb Nye, just to make sure I reached the summit.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Aaron Miska Begins His Winter 46

A long-time Woodcraft camper and current counselor, Aaron Miska recently completed his summer 46 in the Adirondack High Peaks. This winter he began tackling the mountains in the winter. Today he is appearing as a guest blogger to recount his experience climbing Phelps Mountain.

January 25th

The days leading up to the hike had been below zero for much of the time. At one point on Cascade Mountain there was a wind chill that reached -40. By Saturday, however, the temperature was in the mid-teens and 1 – 4 inches of snow were in the forecast.

The Outing Club at St. Lawrence University sponsors trips throughout the year including Peak Weekend in the fall and frequent trips to nearby Whiteface Mountain – also a High Peak – during ski season. For this trip I would be hiking with Macky, a junior who has completed her 46er twice, and like me is an aspiring winter 46er. Conner also joined us. He is a senior who was hiking his first winter peak.

Phelps itself is a simple hike with a well-established trail to follow, even when covered in snow and ice. Starting at the ADK Loj it is roughly 8 miles roundtrip, passing by the soon-to-be demolished remnants of Marcy Dam. The route then follows the Von Hovenberg ski/hiking trail for a little until the turnoff for Phelps. 
L to R: Macky, Connor, and Me (Aaron)
We started out around 10:00 in the morning with temperatures in the mid-teens and significant cloud cover. During the winter, traction on the trails is extremely difficult without proper gear. All three of us were using micro-spikes, which were attached to the bottom of our boots. I had my snowshoes in my pack, in the event that the snow became too deep, but I never needed them in the end. In my pack I also had an extra pair of gloves, a beanie, my heavy winter coat and my raincoat that would act as my hard shell if need be. In the winter, having dry clothes to put on can not just improve your experience but also be a life saver in the event that you get lost, wet, or are forced to stay out longer than you anticipated. 

Our hike to the top was relatively uneventful. Except for passing by a few other parties, we had the trails to ourselves. As we neared the top of Phelps, the wind began to pick up, blasting us with what was likely a negative windchill at every exposed part of the trail. Once at the top we were greeted with almost no view of Tabletop or Marcy, and the wind had even blown the rocky outcrop completely clear of snow and ice. We took shelter just beyond the summit to eat a quick lunch. Heading back over the summit the wind was horrendous, making it difficult to walk and see, which is saying something because I am a big person. Slowly, as we retreated down the mountain, the wind declined and we were able to enjoy the fresh snow on the trail that allowed us to reach Marcy Dam in less than an hour. 

All in all, the trip was everything I was hoping for: I got my second winter High Peak and I got to do it with people who shared a similar goal.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Long Distance Hiking

The Adirondacks are home to almost 2,000 miles of trails. Woodcrafters traverse many of them in various increments. Outposters and Hadarondahs take short treks while the Auroras and Trail Campers sometimes cover over ten miles in a day. The Park is a home to some pretty long hikes, and a portion of one very long hike. 

One of the Adirondacks' most famous trails is the Northville Placid Trail (NPT) that runs from Northville in the south-central portion of The Park and Lake Placid up north. The NPT traverses 133 miles through the heart of the Adirondacks. Woodcrafters frequently hike portions of the trail and occasionally take a shot at the entire length. The NPT is popular among Adirondack hikers looking for a manageable thru-hike that doesn't require too much logistical preparation or time away from the "real world."

A rough map of the NPT, courtesy of
The North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) is a mammoth 4,600 mile undertaking that ends (or starts) in the Adirondack town of Crown Point near the southern end of Lake Champlain. The NCT extends all the way out to Lake Sakakawea State Park in central North Dakota.

The NCT as it passes through 7 states.
The NCT is a daunting task. Opened in 1980, only 12 people have completed thru-hikes. Last week, a 23-year-old man from Minnesota became the most recent hiker to complete the trail when he arrived in Crown Point. The NCT's more famous cousin, the Appalachian Trail, passes near the eastern terminus of the North Country Trail across the narrow part of Lake Champlain in Vermont.

A trail marker with the recognizable AT logo.
Distance hikes are a challenge that take a particular dedication and appreciation of the wilderness. Some Woodcrafters who developed their passion for the outdoors while at camp have gone on to complete the AT. Look for an interview about the hike soon.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Nature Mary and Woodcraft's Environs

Nature Mary has been running our nature program for over two decades. She is an expert on the local environment and excellent educator. She is a favorite among many campers who can't get enough of learning about the Adirondacks. Hang around Mary for a few minutes and you're bound to learn something. Learn more about the natural world our campers explore as described by Nature Mary.

You go by Nature Mary at camp. Is that a nickname you picked up here? How did you get the nickname?

Yes, Nature Mary is a Woodcraft nickname. One summer there were several Mary's in camp. For ease of communication it became my camp name. For some reason the name stuck. On occasion, in a non-camp setting, like a gas station or restaurant, a camp alumni will call out to me using  "Nature Mary.” I will instantly light up, because that person and I will immediately begin sharing great camp memories. So it is a nickname I enjoy.

How long have you been running the nature program here at Woodcraft?

A long time. Every summer, I have to ask myself am I too old for camp? I decide that without the enthusiasm of the campers I would feel even older. This is my 21st summer as Nature Mary. I did take two summers off in the middle to complete my graduate work, which was important.

Outside of Woodcraft you teach in the sciences. How much does your program at Woodcraft overlap with what you teach during the school year?

I intentionally bring in some traditional classroom topics, hoping the exposure will boost the campers’ confidence and background knowledge when they cover similar material in school. When they have looked at a real starry night, or have caught their own plankton, hopefully what they study in school will have more meaning. But we also do a lot of great things that aren't covered in typical science classes, because they have the best science classroom of all; what they are discovering before them in the natural world. Fungi and animal tracks don’t usually make the school curriculum.

As a keen observer of the natural environment, what is the most fascinating thing you’ve witnessed in the Adirondacks?

On the eve of an early October snowstorm, the coyotes were really howling. I was standing down by the river, where we launch for the Moose River canoe trip. I was listening for the new ice to break up and make that tinkling sound. The sun had set about a hour before. I think it was a wolf that came running across the bridge, up the hill towards me. I instinctively yelled and clanked my hiking poles. The animal darted into the woods. What followed sounded like a dogfight. The next day John saw a coyote with a broken leg. Everyone in the neighborhood reported there animals were acting strange during that window of time. Anne's horses wouldn't exit the barn. Her dogs weren't barking, just frozen in place. Another neighbors dog wouldn't go outside, despite having been inside all day. Rod Phinney an Adirondack native said he has never heard anything like the fighting sound.  To this day, because it was dark and because it would be uncommon, I am not sure if it was a wolf or a very large coyote.  But it makes a great story.

How about the most rare animal or plant you’ve been able to spot?

I think the bladderworts in our bog are fascinating. They’re insectivorous plants that suck up aquatic insects with bladder like sacs that hang off their roots below the bog in the water. On occasion I have seen a black-backed woodpecker with some campers – that is a pretty rare bird.

You teach campers how to read meteorological instruments like barometers, wind speed sensors, and rain gauges. Are there any colloquial methods for predicting the weather that you’ve found reliable?

My favorite is a "mackerel sky," tiny sets of cirrocumulus clouds that look like fish scales that indicate a front is approaching in the next 24 hours.

What is the most common question you get from campers regarding the local environment?

Is there any poison ivy here? (There isn’t)

If you weren’t in the Adirondacks, what natural environment would you most like to explore and study?

I do love the beach.  Most of my vacations include some kind of water, fresh or salt. I still think that when I "grow up" I want to be a marine biologist.

What is your favorite time(s) of year to view the wildlife around Woodcraft?

Winter is pretty exciting time. Tracking in the snow allows for some interesting animal adventures to be interpreted.

In a typical walk around Lake Kan-Ac-To, what might a camper new to the Adirondacks experience for the first time?

The beauty of the lake, the grandeur of the white pines, the calls of the white throated sparrow, and most likely a toad or two.

Are there any unique nature moments from this summer that stand out?

Well don't get me started. Braden, one of our youngest campers, scooping up a baby snapping turtle thinking he was catching a frog. The Auroros discovering the magic of moonlight and how to navigate constellations. The Hadarondahs, the youngest girls in their pink shorts and pigtails, standing in knee-deep muck catching frogs. The Wenonahs, the middle age girls, with amazing curiousity, diving right into dissecting birds and snakes. Trail campers, the oldest boys – nearly men – chasing moths with butterfly nets. You will have to ask them why they requested that activity. IVer's, always brave, deftly catching sunfish and giant water bugs with sieves. Ranger Posters not always delicately, deciding if they like the taste of wintergreen. The OLTDs sometimes remembering enough from previous summers to teach the other campers.
We can search and look all over camp for opportunities to experience extraordinary moments, rare events. But many of the best moments just come from being present in the moment and taking in the beauty that surrounds us. Appreciating the blue of the sky, the reflection on the water, the variety of greens and reds in the vegetation. A hummingbird may happen by our view. Or we may see the first of the orchids blooming. If we are looking we may find a snake eating a toad. We can't really control what we will experience. We just have to be open to the wonder of it all and appreciate what the day brings.

Last question: Have you ever seen a moose in the Moose River?

No, not yet. Most of my moose sightings have been in the boundary waters of Minnesota. But I have seen one in Raquette Lake. I have also seen moose tracks about two miles from camp and one mile from Moose River. Visiting Helldiver pond in Moose River Plains is on my to do list for after camp. That’s a popular spot to see them.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Three Generations at Woodcraft

For many families, Woodcraft is a tradition passed along from generation to generation. This summer we have two staff members whose Woodcraft connection goes all the way back to the mid 1940's. Around the end of World War II, a Syracuse University art student named Drew Mills came to work at Woodcraft. Through the late 40's and early 50's, Drew and his wife Ginnie were in charge of the Stockade, a former Woodcraft division for kindergarten-aged boys.
Drew Mills is standing in the center of the back row.
In addition to being dedicated Woodcrafters, Drew and Ginnie were also accomplished artists. Both taught art at various levels across Upstate New York. Drew's career path eventually took him to the position of Chief of the Bureau of Arts, Music, and Humanities Education for the New York State Education Department. All the while, both were creating their own original works and exhibiting paintings in galleries and museums.

Kan-Ac-To by Ginnie Mills. Photo courtesy of Dan Mills at This painting looks across Kan-Ac-To from the southwest corner of the beach, looking back towards the office. Anyone familiar with Woodcraft will recognize the large, leaning pine tree on the left. It still stands today right by the paddle shack. A photo of the tree from the other side of the lake can be seen here.
Drew and Ginnie's sons continued their parents tradition of leadership at Woodcraft. After several years as campers, Peter and Dan Mills worked as counselors in the Outpost, Iroquois Village, and Trail Camp. Woodcraft was all-boys at the time so their sister, Martha, attended Echo Camp on Raquette Lake. Martha's sons, Dan, Steve, and Pat, began at Woodcraft in the late 90's. Dan and Pat are currently on staff and Steve has been a counselor in the past. All three were campers for several years.

Steve, Pat, and Dan Burns in 2008.
To see more artwork by Ginnie and Drew, visit the galleries hyperlinked in their names.