11 Winter Skills Every Adirondacker Needs to Know

by | February 2009

Illustration by Mark Wilson
Our winter landscape isn’t always a wonderland of glistening fields, fat snowmen and cherry-cheeked children. It’s often a much rougher road—gray and weary and sometimes perilous. But with warm thoughts and a little North Country know-how, we can lumber through to blackfly season. Below are tips and tricks for skating through the icy patches.

To Build a Fire
How to get warm when you’re out in the cold

Even the most savvy Adirondacker can find himself stranded in an isolated area—and in cold weather that situation quickly becomes dicey. Like any good boy scout you should always be prepared, especially before trekking into the snowy woods. Have more than one fire source, advises New York State forest ranger Chris Kostoss, of Wilmington. “Lighters are great,” he says, “but make sure you have a backup.” Kostoss recommends pre-made packets that include emery cloth or sandpaper and at least six strike-anywhere matches dipped in clear nail polish (the nail polish provides weatherproofing and makes the matches burn hotter). He sometimes adds a little tar paper to kick-start a fire, and some folks make their own portable tinder with dryer lint or sawdust and melted wax, using a shot glass as a mold.

For a roaring blaze in the icy wilderness:

  • Don’t build a fire un­der snow-laden branches (to avoid a flame-smothering avalanche). Make a foundation for your fire with medium-size logs or thick bark, or dig down to the frozen earth. Without these precautions the fire will melt into the snow and suffocate.
  • Find tinder and kindling. For tinder, use shredded bark or wood shavings. White birch bark from fallen trees is a reliable starter, but if everything is wet and you have money to burn, dollar bills work too. (One stranded explorer even resorted to using his underwear—although it’s best to leave all your clothes on in a frigid forest.) Pencil-size twigs can be used for kindling.
  • Gather only dead wood from downed trees and branches to feed your fire.
  • If the available fuel is snow-covered and damp, use more tinder and kindling, and start with a smaller fire. “If you keep at it,” explains Kostoss, “you can dry out any wood enough to burn.”
  • For a no-hassle fire, use the classic tepee method: In the middle of your foundation, sandwich a handful of loose tinder between two layers of kindling. Prop small and medium sticks, no bigger than your wrist, upright around the kindling, their tops meeting like the poles of a tepee. Leave a larger opening on the windward side to ensure enough air for the fire, and light the tinder.

Leave No Tongue Behind
How to dislodge your tongue from frozen metal

Yes, it really does happen. Metal is such a strong thermal conductor that it robs heat from your tongue faster than your body can replace the warmth. Ice forms, and without the heat to melt it, your tongue freezes to the flagpole or jungle gym.

If you still have any doubts about the phenomenon, a YouTube search will provide ample proof (and may raise questions about the quality of our educational system). But a tri­ple-dog dare must be met, so if you ever get stuck in this predicament, here’s how to proceed:

  • First, don’t panic. Simply tearing your tongue off the metal will do just that: tear your tongue.
  • A quick fix is pouring warm liquid over the connection, melting the ice and breaking the seal.
  • If you don’t normally carry a cup of warm water in your backpack, you still have some options. As you may have heard in the school yard, you can have a friend (with good aim and trajectory) urinate on your tongue. It will work, but it may mean the end of your friendship.
  • Instead cup your hands around your tongue, allowing the heat of your breath to do the work.

Help, I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up
How to come back from a not-so-graceful fall

Snow can seem bottomless, but humans who experience the rapid effects of gravity don’t have to be like upended, helpless turtles. If you tumble into deep powder on your skinny cross-country skis, collect your wits first. Then shake off and:

  • Check your equipment, making sure your boots are still in bindings and poles are intact.
  • Place your skis perpendicular to the slope of the hill, with your body on the uphill side. Dig in the skis’ uphill edges.
  • Plant your poles firmly into the snow at about waist level and use them to lever your body up­right. This is easier from a kneeling position, and you can climb hand-over-hand up the poles if need be.
  • It may take more than one push; if you are still floundering have a companion extend a pole to you (handle first) and pull yourself out.
  • When you’re vertical and dusted off, fill in the crater you have left behind. (Why do you think they call it a sitzmark?)
  • For icy spots the fall will be harder, so take your time getting up. Kick those ski edges firmly into the slope and be sure the poles bite into the crust. Be careful when you turn to be­gin heading in the right direction. If the slope gleams like a mirror and looks like it’s better for ice-skating, sidestep down to more comfortable terrain.

I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues
How to snap out of a frigid funk

Yeah, we know—you’re a northerner. You’re tough. You love the smell of road salt in the morning. Daylight is for sissies, and below-zero temperatures are invigorating. Ain’t no winter gonna get you down.

As much as we like to boast about the duration and severity of our longest season, though, plenty of us in the North Country succumb to the winter blues at some point between September and May (or, in a bad year, June). Full-blown Seasonal Affective Disorder might call for a visit to the doctor, but milder cases can be tempered with simple changes:

  • Let there be light. One of the main reasons people feel down in winter is the scarcity of daylight, which leads to decreased levels of serotonin (your brain’s “happy” hormone). Luckily, the brain is easy to fake out. A half-hour or so of exposure to a light-therapy box, or just add­ing a few full-spectrum lightbulbs to your home, can work wonders for your mood. Some studies suggest that maximizing your sunlight exposure in summer can help you store up extra serotonin for winter, like squirrels do with nuts.
  • Give your home a makeover. At a time of year when you spend most of your waking hours indoors, your habitat can have a strong effect on your psyche. Aside from increasing the light, try adding cheerful colors that mimic the sun to your decor. (Forcing your husband to sleep under a bright-yellow flowered duvet cover will only add to the fun.) You should also use your winter downtime to organize and purge the clutter that can make your living space feel claustrophobic.
  • Move it. Ever notice that diehard skiers don’t mind winter? Beyond the obvious reason—that’s when they can engage in their favorite sport—it may be because they are getting exercise, which releases mood-elevating endorphins. Regular aerobic activity, whether snowshoeing or jogging on the treadmill while you crank up Bob Marley on the iPod (music is another great attitude adjuster), will keep you sound of body and mind.
  • If all else fails, get out of Dodge. Planning a sunny vacation for the time of year you’re usually bluest can boost you over the hump. If it sounds too expensive, just think of the heating costs you’ll save.

Northern Comfort
How to mix a delicious winter beverage

The image of the St. Bernard rescue dog with a cask of brandy on its collar is a myth—in fact, alcohol is the last thing someone hypothermic needs. Still, once safely indoors, a wee nip of the strong stuff remains a favorite North Country antidote to Jack Frost nipping at the nose. That holds doubly true when the strong stuff is served warm, in a steaming mug. For a no-fail cup of cheer, rely on these classics:

  • The traditional winter warmer is a hot toddy. Usually brewed with whiskey, hot water, lemon, honey and sometimes a cinnamon stick, it can also be made with hot tea. To add a regional twist make it with applejack in place of the whiskey, and maple syrup instead of honey.
  • Coffee takes kindly to additions of all types—Amaretto, Baileys, Kahlúa—simply pick your preferred liqueur and top with a dollop of whipped cream. A true Irish coffee, though, doesn’t mess with such frills: just add Irish whiskey, sugar and, if you need it, cream.
  • If you’re in the mood for something more exotic, look to the other side of the planet. In Japan, warm sake is the winter drink of choice. Try it plain or with a splash of Chambord.
  • Finally, for the drinker with a sweet tooth (which means most of us, come winter—shortened days leave us craving carbohydrates), use hot chocolate as the base for a mug full of yum. Love Mounds chocolate-coconut bars? Spike your cocoa with Malibu rum. If you feel like a nut, add some Amaretto, too. To really perk up your Swiss Miss, though, try a bit of brandy—St. Bernard not included.

Out Cold
How to soldier on when the lights go off

Around here it seems even a chickadee passing gas can jiggle power lines enough to knock out electricity. So in winter, when lines are laden with snow or a sheath of ice, power outages—think of the North Country’s crippling 1998 freeze—are just part of the Adirondack experience.

When the juice is kaput, googling “power-outage survival tips” is probably out of the question, since most people’s high-speed connections require a modem that uses electricity. So the following are basic pointers from outage veterans:

  • Have flashlights, candles and head lamps handy.
  • Put extra outerwear, wool socks and blankets in an easily accessible place.
  • Keep a rotary phone and a battery-powered or crank radio.
  • Stock bottled water and food that doesn’t require cooking or refrigeration, like crackers, nuts, dried fruit and canned goods. And don’t forget a non-electric can opener.
  • During a blackout, don’t stand in front of the fridge with the door open as you deliberate about which snack will best nourish you through the crisis.
  • Pack your cache of venison steaks or other priceless perishables in a cooler filled with snow.
  • Snuggle with pets for warmth. (Don’t forget their needs too.)
  • Cook meals outside on a camp stove or gas grill.
  • No power during frosty temps means the possibility of frozen pipes, which can send chills down even the hardiest Adirondacker’s spine. That’s why many folks invest in a portable generator that runs on propane or gasoline. While they’re convenient and can make you popular with power-hungry neighbors looking for a hot shower or meal, they can be dangerous if used incorrectly. Follow product directions or check out the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Web site, fema.gov, for safety suggestions.

Snow Job
How to shovel smarter, not harder

Shoveling snow is more than a pain in the you-know-what—it can lead to serious pain in the back or even a heart attack. Considering that living in these parts sometimes means pushing the white stuff for more than half the year, knowing how to shovel without injury isn’t a bad idea.

Rick Preston, a physical therapist and director of rehabilitation and sports medicine at Saranac Lake’s Adirondack Medical Center, says he sees lots of patients with shoveling-related back and neck strain. Cardiac complications are even more serious; he warns that individuals “at an elevated risk for a heart attack from shoveling snow include those who have previously experienced a heart attack or have chronic chest pain upon exertion, as well as those with heart disease, high blood pressure, smokers and inactive individuals.” Plus, says Preston, “Lower outdoor temperatures make it more difficult to breathe, which also contributes to the strain on the heart.” He gives these guidelines for shoveling safety:

  • Try to clear snow early and often, when it’s still light.
  • Lift smaller, lighter loads of snow.
  • Bend and lift with your legs slightly apart, knees flexed and spine straight. Lift with your legs rather than your back. Keep your arms close to your body.
  • Use a shovel with a shaft that allows you to keep your back erect while lifting (a straight-shaft shovel will cause you to bend more to lift the load). Smaller blades will result in less weight.
  • Push, don’t lift. Save your back by pushing snow to the side. When you must throw it, use your legs and avoid twisting. Step in the direction you are throwing the snow.
  • Watch your footing—slipping or falling on ice or snow will likely result in injury.
  • Pace yourself and take frequent breaks. Stand up straight, put your hand on your hips and bend backward slightly to undo the forward bend your spine assumes when shoveling.
  • Dress appropriately. Wear light, layered, water-repellent clothing that provides both ventilation and insulation. Hat and gloves are critical, as is slip-resistant footwear.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to keep working muscles hydrated.
  • Always listen to your body. Stop if you are having chest pain, muscle pain or shortness of breath. The snow will always be there—make sure you will be.

Abominable Snow Bank
How to get your vehicle out of its rut

Maybe you had a few too many and wisely left your car in the parking lot, only to find it snowed in come morning. Maybe you were dropping your daughter off at a Girl Scout meeting and misjudged the depth of a snowdrift in the community center’s drive­way. Or maybe you just slid off an icy road, solidly wedging your car into the snow-piled shoulder. Here are some tips for getting your vehicle out of whatever mess you’ve gotten it into this winter from 110 Car and Driving Emergencies and How to Survive Them, by James Joseph:
Your first instinct may be to step on the gas and power through. But that strategy will only cause your tires to spin, creating an even icier hole.

  • For a minor predicament, your best bet may be to “rock” the vehicle—alternating between forward and reverse as you slowly accelerate. Your wheels should pack down enough snow for the car to build the momentum it needs. If it’s not working, a different angle of movement may help you break free. Just don’t rock around the clock; too much back and forth can cause a transmission to overheat.
  • If your car remains stubbornly stuck, you’ll just have to get out and shovel as much snow as possible from the front and back of each wheel. No shovel? Get creative—use the car’s sun visors, the spare-tire cover or the base of a tire jack.
  • Next, place floor mats under the drive wheels and gently inch out of the rut. Or use anything that will increase the tires’ grip, such as small branches, gravel or kitty litter, rolled-up newspapers or magazines—even towels or blankets.
  • Don’t make the mistake of putting extra weight into the trunk—or well-fed passengers into the backseat—of a front-wheel-drive vehicle. A bigger load in the back will raise the front wheels and reduce traction.
  • Once you’ve achieved forward motion, don’t stop. Continue to drive smoothly, aiming for the open road.

Oh, My Aching Piles
How to build a structurally sound wood stack

Come fall, the burning question in many Adirondack hamlets is the quality and quantity of your woodpile. Is it rigidly regimented or wobbly and subject to the domino effect? Could one sneeze topple the whole installation? Or could it withstand a howling gale and keep your fuel dry, easy to grab on a subzero night? “Wood warms you twice,” the old Yankee aphorism goes, but with cutting, splitting, stacking and burning, the multiplier is far greater.

There are as many approaches to piling wood as there are good species to burn (among them hop hornbeam, American beech, sugar maple, yellow birch, cherry, black ash and oak). Wood is dry when you smack two pieces together and they sound like bowling pins tumbling in a strike. As you stack your quartered pieces, chunks or billets, use as much concentration as you would for creating a fine work of Magnetic Poetry on the refrigerator. Balance and fit, plus allowing for air space, are vital to a proud-making pile:

  • Start with wood cut all the same length. Mixing random lengths will create instability. Save the short and gnarly for the top row or set them aside in another pile that is firmly confined.
  • Make your work simpler by building a frame from two-by-fours. You can make ends from half-moon loglets or build “pens” with the logs crisscrossed in pairs like the walls of a cabin. But both temporary end games may not be able to withstand pressure from the middle of the pile pushing out.
  • For the frame, use two five-foot-tall two-by-fours (salvaged wood is fine) firmly nailed into two eight-foot-long pieces that will be the floor supports of the whole pile. The ends can have a horizontal brace about halfway up, like an H, and there should be a piece linking the two bottom pieces (think tuning fork). You need two ends with the eight-foot bottom pieces for any length pile; use extra two-by-fours for the in-between sections.
  • Begin the first layer with the most uniform large pieces you have, all with a good flat side to rest on the lumber.
  • Subsequent pieces go point down where they fit closely with that first round. Keep the ends flush as you go along.
  • You can work with two or even three piles within the frame, especially if you have lots of thick flat-sided bottom logs.
  • Your goal is a pile about four feet tall. Higher increases the risk of off-kilter stacking. Also, a standard cord is four feet and you probably want to check your math against the logs that were delivered. Bragging rights on how much wood you have piled are reinforced by good measurements.
  • Keep focused on the structure’s balance, which may mean moving around the teetering, curved pieces toward the uprights where they are disciplined.
  • The last round should be stacked with bark-side up, the better to shed water. Your fuel can be covered with cast-off plywood, well anchored with those giants you couldn’t add to the stack, or rocks. Shrouding the pile is not a great idea, as light and air will help drying. A plastic cover may cause mold to form.
  • Put your cache a convenient distance from the stove, out of places where the snow drifts deeply or ice-cold drips from the eaves can creep down your neck as you collect your load.

Hitting the Skids
How to regain control on treacherous roads

Obviously, the best strategy for winter-driving safety is to avoid skids altogether: Slow down according to weather conditions. Brake early and gently. If it feels like your wheels are locking up, let up on the brake pedal. And always remember that bridges and overpasses will freeze before other road surfaces.

If you do start to skid, follow this advice from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles:

  • Stay calm—impulsively jerking the steering wheel may cause your car to roll over.
  • For a rear-wheel skid, steer gently in the direction you want your front wheels to go (the direction the rear wheels are sliding). If the back wheels start sliding the other way, steer toward that side. You may have to repeat the process a few times before recovering control.
  • If you have antilock brakes, keep an even pressure on the brake pedal. If you don’t have ABS, pump the pedal gently—braking suddenly will make the skid worse.
  • For a front-wheel skid, take your foot off the gas and shift the car into neutral (on a standard transmission, push in the clutch). Don’t try to steer right away: traction will return as your wheels skid sideways. When the wheels have regained grip, steer in the direction you want to go. Then shift back into drive and slowly accelerate.

Ice Scream Headache
How to avoid an unexpected bath

Frozen ponds and lakes look so inviting under a dusting of snow, like vast meadows to explore. However, there’s an old Norse proverb to keep in mind: “Trust not the ice until it is crossed.” Another vignette to remember is the terrifying scene from Never Cry Wolf, when the young researcher plunges into a frigid lake. The underwater camera pans up to his flailing snowshoes, his panic palpable. This could be you, without the film crew close-by for a rescue. To avoid that fate take some precautions:

Put off your expedition until at least a week of below freezing temperatures have solidified the waters.

In early winter be extra cautious. Four inches of ice should support a group of people walking single file.

Snowshoes or skis will distribute your weight over more surface area.

Keep away from ice that is gray, slushy, heaved or cracked. Avoid the ice around structures like bridge cribbings and docks. Steer clear of ice where streams enter or springs bubble up from the lake bottom.

If you do stumble onto thin ice, drop down to a full-body sprawl and crawl on your belly like a reptile to firmer stuff.

Keep a clear head if you break through. Bashing at the ice around you will only make your situation worse. If you’re in snowshoes or skis, escape is hard but re­moving them underwater is even more difficult.

The other members of your party (you weren’t crazy enough to be in such a place alone, were you?) can toss you a rope with a loop at the end. Place the loop below your armpits. From a safe distance they can pull gradually, helping you onto the surface. Stay in a crawl or sprawl until you reach them.

No rope? Your friends can make a hu­man ladder, lying on the ice, each holding onto the ankles of the other until they are near enough to you.

For self-rescue, try ice claws with ropes or a pair of screwdrivers linked with a piece of line. Backcountry skaters sometimes wear these around their necks, which is handy, but the main idea is to avoid the situation. Pierce the ice, pull yourself up and continue creeping with the claws or points until you’re well away from the hole.

Emergency Cache

Before any cold-weather outing, be sure your car or backpack is properly stocked. Keep emergency supplies corralled in a plastic crate or backpack, with smaller items organized in zip­locks. Include the following in your winter-survival kit:

  • Collapsible shovel
  • Rope
  • Flashlight or head lamp
  • Extra batteries (store them where they won’t freeze—icy batteries may not have much strength)
  • Road salt or kitty litter 3Water and a metal can for melting snow
  • Dried fruits, nuts and bouillon cubes
  • Matches and lighter
  • Tissues or toilet paper
  • Extra clothing, especially hats, socks and mittens (use mittens rather than gloves, wool or fleece instead of cotton)
  • Blankets or sleeping bag
  • First-aid kit
  • Instant-heat packages
  • Bag Balm for chapped parts
  • Duct tape
  • Giant safety pins
  • Loud whistle
  • Multipurpose tool with a knife, pliers, scissors, screwdriver and/or awl (both of which can be used as an ice pick)
  • Compass and maps
  • Brightly colored or reflective material for signaling

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