Snow Bound

IMG_0070 I was up in New England this week and happened upon a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier called “Snowbound- a Winter Idyl”. Sorry, it is the English Major in me coming out. This long winded narrative was surely in the spirit of all of the New England poets who described their time in the meat locker of New England winter weather.

” Shut in from all the world without,
We sat at clean winged hearth about
Content to let the North winds roar,
In baffled rage at pane and door.”

Doesn’t this just give you that fuzzy feeling for cold winter weather? The rodent here in Pa. says at least 6 more weeks and I am starting to see some cracks in the personalities of even those who like the winter. But take heart……….I have been encouraging all of you who might not like winter to try skiing, skating, sledding, snowshoeing, or anything else that gets you out of the house to enjoy what winter has to offer. At this time of year, I start to sound a little evangelistic in my zeal for winter and know that many folks cannot wait for a break in the weather even though spring skiing time is coming and that folks, is a blast not to be missed. But what simple pleasures can bring the spirit back to those of us who brave the cold and are desperately seeking warmth on those Alberta clipper days? A warm fire- that’s what.

I have always been a fan of the fireplace. A while back, I wrote a post called ” The Mountain TV” where I showed you my outdoor fireplace and all the fun associated with building a good, hot, wood fire. My first experience with fire in the winter came when I was a kid skating on North Park Lake here in Pa. before the rink was built. My folks always took us sledding and skating on the lake and one of the highlights for me was to warm myself by the fire that the county workers built and have some of their delicious hot chocolate. As they strategically moved the embers, I marveled at the red hot sparks that rose in the cold air and got my first smell of that fire that I would love to smell all of my life. Fast forward a few years and I find myself in front of a roaring fireplace at the old ski lodge at Seven Springs after a day of brutal cold weather skiing. I loved the big old green sofa in front of the fire where all of us kids used to plop ourselves down and carefully place our boots, gloves, and coats up against the fire to dry. It was amazing to see the steam coming off our boots and gloves and the occasional incineration of a ski jacket that just got too close. But the real experience of that ski lodge fireplace had nothing to do with warmth.

Sitting there one time, I was starting to fall asleep as one usually does when you come in from the cold to a warm inviting fire. All of a sudden I heard this thumping and whining in the back of the ski desk and in a few minutes I saw the General Manager, Jim McClure, come out with some beaten and bruised teenagers with a final word to them -” I ever catch you stealing signs or defacing property again, I will beat you within an inch of your life.” He let them go and then looked over to the apple cheeked fat kid on the couch( me) and said, ” Pat- let that be a lesson to anyone you know. You mess with anything up here, you will be dragged into the back room and given…..” Mountain Justice.” I always had a lot of respect for Jim McClure and still do to this day. Other lessons learned were to see my older ski heroes ( guys on the ski school) make their moves on unsuspecting co-eds in front of the fire. Man, those guys had more moves than a Swiss watch and with a little glug or other alcoholic fuel, some of those ladies with the big hair, stretch ski pants, and spiked heels were fair game. I never really got the spiked heels in the ski lodge but they did have the stretch pants. No matter to the old guard ski school guys. They were on the hunt. Rob Leonard used to say that the pillars out at the front gate to the resort should have fire shooting up out of them. In many ways, there was some devilish stuff going on and I witnessed it from the safety of the green couch and my fireplace in the lodge. I giggled a lot as a fat little skier.

Western trips soon came into play and I warmed myself by some collossal fires in the ski lodges. There is something relaxing and soothing to sit by a fire after skiing or doing anything athletic in the cold of the winter, but those ski lodges made it all the more inviting. A hot drink, some warming time with your boots off, made the cold not so brutal and that smell…….I love it to this day. You can go into many of the houses in the mountains and smell that burnt hardwood smell even when the fireplaces are not lit. I like to smell that in the summer and fall because it reminds me that winter is always coming and it is a little reminder when you get that itch to ski.

My backpacking days always included a fire no matter what the time of the year. I used to go a lot in the fall and as I told in my earlier post, I would take my cheater wax blocks and my Bernz-0-Matic torch in my backpack. You could burn anything with one of those torches and the cheater bricks. Even the state provided green wood was no match for that equipment. The state lean to’s have that aroma to them and it is always nice to light a fire after a day of hiking in the woods. Which brings me back to my own fireplace. We sit out there at night at look at the stars and solve the world’s problems with a beer or a glass of wine with the neighbors and friends. If you look at the picture again, you will see that it is very rustic and is a daily reminder of my life and times in the mountains. I call it a little bit of the Laurel Highlands right in my own back yard. It is buried now under some serious snow, but I have been known to light it up out there and clean off the Adirondack chairs even in the midst of the winter.

So, again, get out and enjoy the winter. And when you get cold, don’t give up. Just take a breather to get warm by a fireplace. Get used to that smell and enjoy what a good fire has to offer. Thanks for reading.

The Starlit Canopy

2989561827_2c3e9dd7d1C_CF_Yosemite-Valley-Starry-Skies-Web-HeaderIMG_0070 One of my favorite things to do is to sit outside by my fireplace and look up at the stars on a clear night. Viola Christy,a co-worker of mine, encouraged me to get a telescope and I did that and have enjoyed locating the planets with the help of Google Sky. I look through the scope, locate things, and then sit down again by the fireplace and contemplate how tiny we really are in comparison to what lies out there in the night sky and what is beyond somewhere where we can’t see at all. I have always been fascinated with the night sky and it all started a long time ago………….in a galaxy far, far away………..just kidding.

Actually the start of this fascination began when my dad bought me an Army surplus tent and diligently constructed a flat location in the back yard. Now my dad, being the mechanical engineer, had to have the lot for the tent perfectly level and to add to my comfort, he put Army cots in the tent for my friends and I to use during our overnight “camping” in the backyard during the summers of my youth. Many times, I would get up in the middle of the night to use the facilities because my mom would leave the back door open. Not primitive camping by any stretch and I always knew that I could come back inside the house if anything spooked me. But most often, I would come back and before I crawled back on the cot, I would sit outside and look up at the stars and wonder what was out there.

Smells are unique at night and the air has a special aroma especially around this time of year when the leaves are changing and the temperature stops to drop. Things are awfully quiet except for the crickets at 3 in the morning, but the brilliance of the heavens continues to shine well into daybreak. I found myself looking up at all hours of the night and I still do today as in the example of the recent meteor shower only visible after midnight and before 6 AM. There I was, just like when I was a young lad, looking up at shooting stars at 4 AM. My family thought I was nuts. I told Jack that I located Saturn in the telescope and asked if he wanted to come out and see it the next night. He said,” thanks Dad, but I can see it way better on the internet.” Nice.

When I was in college and shortly afterwards, I had the itch to backpack and regularly used the Laurel Ridge Hiking Trail for my weekend excursions. I reserved and slept in the lean-tos along the trail, and first came up with my handy dandy way to light a fire. The state DNR always provided firewood. However, many times it was green and it was difficult to start a fire. I always liked to camp and backpack in the fall when the air was cooler and there were no bugs to fight. But fires were always a challenge until I bought myself a Bernz-o-Matic torch and some fire starter bricks. With these tools, you can start a fire out of concrete blocks if you had to, and I always made sure I had my torch and blocks with me in my pack. I still use it today outside at my fireplace. Once I got the fire started, and my pad and sleeping bag set up, I once again, spent the night looking up and to my surprise, saw many more stars in the Laurel Highlands than at my house on Siebert Road due to almost no light pollution from streetlights, neighborhood lighting and malls. I had a great time by myself out there in the woods and as strange as it may seem,I enjoy my own company. The stars once again accompanied me and it was comforting to fall asleep under a starlit canopy deep in the Allegheny Mountains.

My ski/hiking trips to Tuckerman Ravine up in New Hampshire allowed me to camp out for a week and climb and ski during the day. See my early blog posts on this subject. Over the years I learned a lot of good things from my mistakes. For instance, don’t make a week’s worth of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from a loaf of bread and stack them all back in the bread bag. After a week, you have a peanut butter dough ball because you have slept on it, picked it apart during lunch, and shoved it around in your pack all week. Lesson learned in food preparation. Freeze dried foods work much better. I was always amused at some of my friends who had little experience in camping or skiing in such a daunting place. One friend who was a very good local ski racer, was so intimidated at the steepness of the skiing that he didn’t dare remove his skis during a walk sidewards from one ravine to the next. He walked over rocks on his way and practicaly destroyed his skis. He then came back and as I lit up my campstove that evening and was getting some water to boil, I found him cooking his hot dog over the flame. Obviously he had little to no camping experience and it was a humbling experience for him to be with a bunch of good skiers who also knew how to cook things in boiling water. Some people are fish out of water in the woods, but thanks to my dad and my college backpacking trips, I educated myself on outdoor living. And, again, my friends in the celestial canopy kept me company at the wee, small hours of the morning.

When my son Jack was young, I bought a two man tent and we began to sleep out in the yard in the summer. Sometimes he liked it and sometimes he didn’t, and wanted to go back to his bed. But I always picked the starlit nights and as I told him at a very young age about the North Star and the constellations, I was amazed at what he retained. I tucked him back in his bed on some of those nights and since I had the tent already set up, I went back out and looked up through the top of the netting on the tent and saw my friends in the heavens as always twinkling down on me as I drifted off to sleep. The teenage years have limited our camping experiences but I have had the opportunity to use that tent on several overnight bicycle outings where I have opted against a hotel or college dorm accomodations and reseved a space for our tent on the grounds. As the bicycle crowd started to calm down and the campers began to prepare to go to sleep, there I was in my camp chair, reading by the light of my lantern, and enjoying the night air once again from the comfort of my dome tent. What is it that attracts me to looking at stars in the night? I have tried to outline it here but there are so many relaxing reasons that I can’t list them all. I have had the experience of seeing the Northern Lights at night up in Maine, seeing the stars rise over the Maroon Bells in Colorado, and watched hundreds of shooting stars lying on my back in a field in Yosemite. My family was too tired to take that adventure in on our trip out there but I went and it was the best celestial show that I have ever seen. Even the ranger laughed and commented that he is always upstaged by the shooting stars during his presentation on Stargazing in Yosemite. The “ooohs” and “ahhhs” drown out his monologue regularly.

As I get older, I appreciate more and more the things that my dad did for me as a young lad. He was not a camper. He was not a skier. But he and my mom made sure I was exposed to many things and I will never forget the old Army surplus tent at the corner of our lot, standing at attention, through rain and clear nights, waiting for a little boy to come out, look at the stars, and fall asleep on the cot with the tent flaps tucking him in at night…..under a starlit canopy.