"We like camping better!" --Raymond Alexander Kukkee

view of the north shore Critter Pond, KOA Canandaigua NY [c] 2009 jcb

Back to Old Forge: We ride the Adirondack Scenic Railroad from Utica to Thendara Station

by Jim Bessey  editor 
I promised pictures of the gorgeous Adirondack scenery. What better way to get them than to ride thirty miles of railway into the mountains?
Our Scenic Train arrives at Thendara Station, the Adirondacks
UTICA, NY October 2:  We knew we had to return to Old Forge after we discovered Thendara Station during our first driving tour of the central Adirondacks two weeks ago. This time, we knew the best way to come back was by train. A week ago, with the leaves barely turned and temps in the seventies, we booked our 30-mile excursion from Utica to Old Forge. Because he'd always wanted to take a fall train, we invited my dad, too.

Between then and now, the weather turned chilly and wet; and the leaves turned from green to yellows and reds, with many trees already baring their branches. We drove 120 miles from home to the stunning Utica Station under dripping pre-dawn gray skies. Our tickets and train were waiting there, along with over 200 other tour members!

All Aboard!
View from the train, as the conductor flips the switch
By accident, we chose our seats in the perfect car, located between the open-door baggage car behind the locomotive and the essential Club Car (hot coffee!). Our hosts, all volunteers, handled the large crowd with big smiles, jokes, and helpful advice. Not one of these dedicated railroad lovers grumbled or frowned when the trip began with minor problems and a departure delay.

"...found ourselves surrounded by wooded valleys and peaks covered in a splendid array of colors"

When our seven-car train was finally underway, the staff served up drinks and donuts to a very long line of sleepy-eyed travelers, handed out mile-point highlight sheets, and offered additional commentary in person and over the audio system. The excursion's tracks are old and maintained on a tight budget. More than once, our train slowed to a walking pace for safety. Once, we screeched to a gritty halt because a man and his dog were too close to the tracks!
View from a trestle, an Adirondack river (the Black?)
All the while, the view from our windows evolved from interesting to spectacular as we climbed more than 1200 feet into the Adirondack Park. We crossed the Thruway, Mohawk River, then the Black River and found ourselves surrounded by wooded valleys and peaks covered in a splendid array of colors. We snapped hasty pictures of creeks and ponds, and of the rivers we crossed by trestle. The on-and-off rain didn't bother us a bit.
Another beautiful Adirondack river scene along the way.
Destination: Thendara Station
The Inn at Thendara Station. Our buses lined up here.
We finally arrived at Thendara Station just a few minutes behind schedule. Lin and I had been there before, so it all felt warmly familiar. School buses lined up in front of the big white inn, ready to whisk over 100 of our group away to catch the lake cruise (sold out) that was part of their package. Dad, Lin and I stood in the cold drizzle by the station while the crowd sorted itself out, waiting for the buses to return for us.

The Station was big and warm, filled with railroad memorabilia and souvenirs -- and the nice, new restrooms that brought us here the first time, two weeks back. We took a few minutes to warm up, then trooped out to board the bus to Old Forge, just a mile down the road. We had thought about riding the chairlift for the amazing views, but the weather was too foul. Otherwise, food was on our minds, and we had two recommendations from the staff.
Our train enters Thendara to reload for the return trip
And now for our tour of Old Forge:

Old Forge was filled with rain-soaked tourists (too wet, in fact, for taking pictures by then). We headed down the sidewalk looking for either of the recommended places. One was closed; the other was packed. We walked some more, then went back to Walt's Diner, the one with the long line. Turns out the wait was worth it. After a great lunch, we did the tourist thing, starting with a wonderful candy shop nearby.

With time running out on our Old Forge layover, we dropped in on some of the other notable tourist spots -- the giant hardware store/emporium, a lovely interiors shop full of mountain furniture and "butler bears" (we want one!). We checked a couple of souvenir shops and found what we expected. We settled for delicious candy and our full bellies.

With time running out, we braved the rain and boarded our warm bus for the trip back to Thendara Station. We were chilled, tired, in need of fresh coffee, and thinking seriously about sleeping on the train during the trip back to Utica Station. Lin and I bought nice mementos of our trip from the station's gift shop (both Made in America!). We posed for family pictures in front of the tracks while we waited for the All Aboard signal. We chatted with other passengers who, it turns out, lived near our homes.
Lin and I in the rain at Thendara Station
I found the best picture-taking seat on the train!

When our train lined up properly, we all boarded and headed for our old seats. We got coffee in the Club Car on the way. Before I settled into my own seat, I grabbed the camera and headed back to the open car. There were shots of the Moose River and other scenic spots just south of the station that I really wanted to capture. With the order of our passenger cars now completely reversed, the baggage car was now the final car rather than the one directly behind the engine.
Looking back from a high trestle. This might be Moose River.
There was a wide-open window at the rear (formerly the front) of the open baggage car, and I claimed it as mine. I shot picture after picture, looking back up the tracks the way we had come. Had a fine conversation with a real railroad fanatic while I kept clicking. We descended 1200 feet back to the Black River, with the tracks rushing, almost blurry, behind us. I took more pictures than anyone could reasonably use.
Here's a view you can only get by riding the train along the tracks.
With darkness approaching, I stowed the camera, bought another coffee, and joined my family back in our seat section. We shared some of the Old Forge candy. Dad had candied popcorn, which still smelled wonderful. We all smiled and yawned. Eventually I slept for a bit with the seat tipped back. I could have slept for hours with the sway of the train and patter of the tracks beneath us. It was full dark when we arrived in Utica.
Marble columns and curved wooden benches fill Utica Station, built in 1914.
Have I mentioned how spectacular Utica Station is? Words aren't enough to do justice to this nearly 100-year-old Beaux-Arts-style hall. It's a serious classic. We passengers all took pictures there, before scattering to our vehicles. All told, we'd been gone for more than twelve hours on our rainy adventure. Good weather or bad, I highly recommend it. The Adirondack Scenic Railroad runs through Saturday, October 22.
IF YOU GO: Tickets are just under $40 per person. You can order online or by phone. The volunteer customer service is first-rate! Check the website for special packages and for lots of other short-excursion options leaving from stations at Thendara, Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid. Keep in mind that the Adirondacks Region may be past-peak for fall colors by next weekend. Of course, the scenery is still breath-taking.
Fall foliage and an Adirondack river: here's 1000 words-worth.

Consider trying our whirlwind tour of New York's Adirondack Park

by Jim Bessey editor

We took a weekend Adirondack cruise through Old Forge, Inlet, Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake, and Lake Placid -- a very nice route for upcoming Leaf Peeping!
Adirondack Scenic Train arrives at Thendara Station, near Old Forge
We spent a gorgeous, if chilly, fall weekend on a whirlwind tour of New York State's Adirondack Park. Up in those mountains the leaves have already begun to change, and will likely peak during the next two weeks. You might enjoy retracing our route. The views along the way are spectacular as you pass a seemingly endless series of lakes and peaks.

We had Old Forge in mind as a way-point before we began our tour. The quick route there, still scenic, is to head northeast from Utica (Thruway Exit 31) via state routes 8 and 28. 28 enters the southwest corner of the Park in Lewis County and quickly passes into Herkimer County. It's a good road, well-traveled.

We found Thendara first, just west of Old Forge, and stopped there to check into the scenic train tours offered (we'll be going back!). Behind the station/train museum lies a beautiful white plantation-style mansion offering food and lodging. We grabbed brochures and pushed on to Old Forge, a short distance up the road.

No question Old Forge, which marks the western start of the Fulton Chain of Lakes,  is a destination. This once-quaint town, now home to Enchanted Forest and Water Safari, bustled with activities when we arrived around lunchtime. We'd just missed a tour boat departure, and were too early for a big parade. The local restaurants were mobbed, so we kept going.

we found original 1950's decor ... and two very tasty fresh-haddock sandwiches

We followed Route 28 along the northern shores of the first three Chain lakes, thru Eagle Bay (pretty quiet) and descended into Inlet, on the eastern edge of Fourth Lake. This was Fall Festival weekend, so Inlet was hopping, too. We parked in a very crowded village lot and found one restaurant that was about to close and another that wasn't open yet. One of the locals pointed us uphill a mile or two, to Drake's Inn.

Onward or Backward?

At Drake's we found original 1950's decor, college football on two TVs, a nice waitress, and two very tasty fresh-haddock sandwiches. Bellies full, we had to decide between returning to Old Forge or pressing deeper into the Adirondack Park. It was still early on a lovely day, so we pointed the truck toward Blue Mountain Lake. Along the way, still on 28, we passed the 6th through 8th lakes in the Chain. I pointed out the state campground where I had stayed twice, more than 25 years ago.

Route 28 wanders past Raquette Lake, then skirts along the southern shore of Blue Mountain Lake. Both are very pretty, offer some rustic accommodations, plus plenty of boating and camping opportunities. We stopped briefly to read about the State-owned islands there, then continued on in search of something a bit more touristy, like a motel-on-the-lake or something.

We passed by two good motels:

We followed 28N (north) through Long Lake and onward to Route 30. Long Lake actually seemed quite nice, but we hadn't heard of it before and weren't prepared to stop at that point. We saw at least two good lake-motels that probably would've been fine, had it been later in the day. I had, however, heard of Tupper Lake (skiing? yes); so we set that as our next way-point.

Alas, Tupper Lake proved a bit disappointing. We didn't see much of the lake there, the town wasn't aging well, and it was way too early in the year for skiing. Up the road a fair pace (about 20 miles) was Saranac Lake, which we suspected might offer more in the way of weekend-tourist attractions. With the day quickly shortening, we hopped onto Route 3 for the journey to Saranac Lake.

The drive there feels longer than it looks on the map, with plenty of ups and downs among the twists and turns. The distant peaks were sharper, the trees taller, and more lakes or ponds appeared along the way. The lake itself is well-hidden in the valleys west of Route 3. It's a good-size lake with dozens of islands and bays; but the "little city" of Saranac Lake would be described more correctly as sitting atop Lake Flower. 

Should we stay in Lake Placid?

Although we were less than 10 miles from Lake Placid (certainly a much larger tourist attraction), we saw enough potential in Saranac that we decided to stay. Business was brisk at the many motels along Lake Flower Avenue (Route 86), but we found a nice room close to town at the Lake Flower Motel. There we booked a clean and comfy room for about $100. The decor there dated from the early 50s (pink and black tile, cast-iron tub) and was perfectly maintained.

We left the truck there, and took a long walking tour of Saranac Lake. It's a college town (North Country Community College) that dates back to before the turn of the century. Historic downtown buildings mix with newer construction and quite a few small pubs. It was nearly six pm, and many of the stores we passed were closed. We found another scenic railway station/museum (pretty impressive building), located on Depot Street. The timing was all wrong, or we might have considered a railway sojourn.

Back at the motel, we sat for a bit on the grassy beach and relaxed in the atmosphere of small boats and big lakeside houses. Saranac doesn't seem to offer any lake tours, or we might have booked a cruise. Well-rested after our downtown hike, we decided to zoom down to Lake Placid, just to have a look.

Now, make no mistake, Lake Placid is one boomin' tourist town. As a former Winter Olympics host (1932 and 1980), the town is filled with wonderful sights, expensive hotel rooms, and alluring steakhouses. Not to mention people and cars, everywhere. We oohed and ahhed, but the sun was setting and we were reluctant to make the winding drive on Route 86 back to Saranac Lake in the dark.

We hunt for dinner:

The pickin's were slim for dinner in Saranac Lake. We passed a very popular BBQ joint along Lake Flower (not what we had in mind), and passed-up a couple of other establishments closer to town. Judging by the number of cars in the lot, we decided to have dinner at The Nona Fina Pasta Grill just across the road from our motel. I'm no gourmet, but I'd give this old-world Italian restaurant five stars for both food and service (Google shows 4 ½, actually!). Prices were quite reasonable, too.

We were warm and cozy in our vintage motel room that night, while the clear mountain night air dropped down to about 30 degrees (much colder than we've had here in Fairport). Morning on Lake Flower dawned crisp and foggy, with wisps of vapor rising off the mirror-finish water. I sat on the dock with a hot cup of coffee to warm me, and found a friend in one lone duck that raced over to keep me company. She was probably hoping for food, which I didn't have yet, but she stayed next to me by the dock for at least 15 minutes, close enough to touch.

...and then, breakfast:

We didn't notice any good spots for breakfast in Saranac Lake (though I'm sure there must have been some, somewhere), so we backtracked to Tupper Lake hoping for a diner there. At first, we found nothing. Giving in to hunger, we dared to ask for recommendations from a nice lady at the gas station there. Once again, we hit the jackpot. Turns out we'd driven past the Swiss Kitchen right there on Main Street more than once. There we discovered the 1960s unchanged, with delicious food and excellent service at decidedly non-tourist prices. Ask for Amanda, or is it Amber? (inside joke)

       We chose a different route home, using Route 3 west. It's the main east/west passage up there, with smooth pavement and wide shoulders. We passed a few more lakes and peaks, and quickly enough left The Park west of Cranberry and Star Lakes. If you long for a restroom or gasoline up there, be sure to stop at any place you see on Route 3; there isn't much until you get closer to Watertown.

In the end, I'd prefer to have booked an extra day for hiking or a train ride or lake cruise. For those who love camping, fishing, or boating the possibilities are nearly endless. Realistically, we had only a glimpse of what the Adirondack Park offers. That's how whirl wind tours go, of course. If you plan a "leaf peeping" trip during the next few weeks, be sure to check ahead for accommodations. The No Vacancy signs will be lit up everywhere.
For information on Saranac Lake, ranked #1 Best Small Town in NY State, call their Chamber of Commerce weekdays at (800) 347-1992. Several excellent print publications covering the entire region are also available to supplement whatever you might find on the Internet.
Read all about our return trip via the Adirondack Scenic Railroad. I highly recommend the ride!
(PS: We didn't take the camper because, with gas at nearly $4 per gallon, the motel was cheaper!)

If you do go, and find any good lakeside motels or more good restaurants, please stop back and let me know.

Saturday's scary storm stops short of SutterCreek Campground in Sterling NY

Jim and the boys, by the fire at SutterCreek Campground

by Jim Bessey   editor

STERLING NY:  After nearly 40 days of Perfect Camping Nights, we finally had the chance to enjoy a couple of them. As it turns out, we were damned lucky. On Saturday August 13 at 7:17 pm the National Weather Service issued the first of several Severe Thunderstorm Warnings for Monroe, Ontario, and later Wayne Counties. This ominous line of storm cells plodded through the townships along the southern shore of Lake Ontario. We found out later that property damage along the storm path was both sporadic and alarming, with losses estimated in the tens of thousands. Despite the ferocity of the storms, no serious injuries were reported.

Our campsite was on the eastern bank of Sterling Creek, in the lovely SutterCreek Campground. This was our first stay there, after vowing for years to camp very close to the Sterling Renaissance Faire so we could enjoy a long, tiring day at the festival. We spent most of the day Saturday enjoying great performances, delicious food, festive crowds and near-perfect weather. That idyllic weather changed fast just minutes after we returned to our campsite.

"thunderstorms on the way -- 60-mile-an-hour winds and hail!"

I've signed up for Weather Alerts with WROC News 8 in Rochester; they come in as text messages on my cell phone. When that first alarm for Monroe County arrived  just past 7 pm, I read the note and tucked the phone away with the thought "glad we're not home, getting soaked!" As the western sky grew darker, we pulled out camp chairs, set-up the portable grill, and my wife put together a dandy campfire. My boys and I tossed the Frisbee around and kept a wary eye on the looming clouds to the northwest. We heard faint thunder in the distance.

Minutes later, campground owner Dave Sutterby raced along our group of campsites, stopping at each one to warn us of "thunderstorms on the way -- 60-mile-an-hour winds and hail!" All around us our fellow campers began to batten down the hatches -- er, awnings.

The storm arrives...

We four all love a good thunderstorm. Love to watch the sky change colors and light up in flashes. Then we count the seconds 'til we hear the thunder. Divide the seconds by 5 to get "miles away" (it's close enough, if not perfectly accurate). The western bank of Sterling Creek, opposite our campsite, is one big forested hillside. It was very pretty, but also hid most of the western sky and made it difficult to judge incoming storm weather. When we first saw lightning, the strikes were at least three miles distant.

Man, it was one slow and scary storm! As we squared-away and generally locked-down our own site, the purplish clouds thickened and the flashes intensified. The thunder grew in depth and volume, reverberating in our bones. After one particularly vivid technicolor display, followed by a basso-profundo chorus, we decided to retreat to beneath our lowered awning. At that point, the three beautiful shade trees that canopied our site didn't look quite so sweet. Across the creek, the rising wind rustled all the forest's leaves.

We kept watching and counting seconds, huddled there under our awning. I was ready to grab my family and jump into our truck for safety if things got too spooky. It never happened. The storm's center never quite made it to SutterCreek Campground, though it hovered nearby for nearly an hour. A soft rain began to fall as the twilight deepened, but it never poured. The threatened winds stayed well to the west of us, apparently. We were more than happy to report no signs of hail at all.

When the storm passed (or broke up?), we raised the canvas back up, dragged the chairs back to creekside by the still-glowing fire, and enjoyed a cooler but very pleasant evening. In all the excitement I left two perfectly good hamburgers under the lid of the grill; those were the only casualties we suffered.

Our drive home Sunday afternoon showed us "what might have been" if the thunderstorms had kept on coming. As we passed Ontario Center along the western edges of Wayne Country we began to see the damage -- here and there at first, and then more common as we got closer to Monroe County. Whole trees, mostly willows or spruces, had been toppled with their root-balls now displayed like satellite dishes. Other, stronger trees had suffered major damage, with giant branches snapped off like little twigs. We saw wrecked porches and sheds and side yards filled with tangled debris.

Home safe on Sunday evening, we watched news reports of serious property damage elsewhere along the storms' path. One homeowner, interviewed near his devastated back yard, mentioned that he had relatives visiting who had wanted to camp behind the house. Fortunately, they stayed inside, or that interview would have been a sad one indeed.

I shiver to think of how our 30-year-old tin camper would have weathered high winds, heavy rains and hail. I couldn't help but picture one or more of those towering shade trees crashing through our fragile walls and roof. We're all thankful the storm settled in off-shore, where it stayed just west of us and nearby Fair Haven State Park (with hundreds more campers, many in tents).

Sometimes you simply have to count on luck and the fickle whims of Ma Nature.
Have you ever been caught in a storm while camping? If you have a storm story you'd like to share, please use the Comments link below.

Let's claim the record: July is a Perfect Camping MONTH!

Poolside 4th of July weekend at Cheerful Valley Campground (jcb)
by Jim Bessey  editor 

Tonight will set the record.

With one more night over over-60 degrees and negligible rain, we'll have a Perfect Camping MONTH for July 2011. Thirty-one days of mostly sun, mere sprinkles of rain, and temps over seventy--the weather camping lovers pray for but rarely enjoy.

Campers south of the Mason-Dixon line or west of the Mississippi will only smile and nod at these conditions. They camp under blazing sun for weeks at a time, and worry about the lack of summer rain year after year. Not so in Upstate New York.

We expect rain, thunderstorms, sudden wind, plummeting temperatures and sundry unsettled weather. We carry umbrellas and tarps and duct tape for fixing leaks. We pack jeans, sweatshirts and spring jackets all summer long.We just don't get camping conditions like this.

Until now.

Whoever heard of a Perfect Camping Month in NY? We celebrate Perfect Camping Nights--and hope for just one or two on any given excursion. News 8 Meteorologist Stacey Pensgen says we've just had the second-driest July here in Weather History. We nearly set a new mark for consecutive days over-80 degrees. (One day that stopped at 79 broke the string.) It wouldn't be hyperbole to call this month a spectacular one for camping.

Of course, our fields and gardens and lawns have suffered. We've watered like never before. Our golf courses are bristly billiard tables. But how can we complain? We're New Yorkers and we don't get weeks like this, much less months.

"We wrapped ourselves in blankets around the campfire."

Because my wife used to have the first full week of July as mandatory vacation, we've always paid close attention to the way the weather dice rolled for our July camping trips.

There was the time, about six years back, when we camped at Holiday Hill near Springwater--our favorite. On the second night we had 45 degrees by midnight. We wrapped ourselves in blankets around the campfire. When my family came up for a visit the next morning, we played kickball in sweatshirts and jackets.

The bad old days:

Three years ago we trekked to the delightful Jellystone of Western NY near North Java. Day one was lovely. Days two through six it rained; the temperature never broke seventy. Good thing our trailer's awning only leaked a little.

Another year at Holiday Hill it rained so hard overnight that one of my son's new-found friends had to abandon his tent at two am and seek shelter in another friend's camper. Just last year, on our annual big-group trip to Jellystone of Mexico, just before the giant fireworks in Oswego, the heavens opened up in a deluge worthy of Noah. We learned that even our First-Up shade shelter wasn't waterproof.

Trust me, we appreciate this amazing month of Perfect Camping Days. We are pleasantly impressed the even in NY we can have fantastic weather for extended camping trips. We're secretly proud that we've had to squander hundreds of gallons of water to keep our yards alive. It just doesn't happen that way here.

For the sake of our struggling economy, I hope the dozens of campgrounds in our region have all set records of their own. This year we camped on the 4th of July weekend at the lovely Cheerful Valley Campground near Phelps (see photo, above). Owner Carl Carlson (a high school classmate of mine) said he would've been 100% booked if he'd had water and electric on his overflow tent-sites.

We checked with our other favorite campgrounds, too. Without exception, every one reported "no sites available." We've lost a lot of good jobs here, like so many old-industrial areas have. We've all taken hits of one sort or another from this interminable recession. But for at least this one splendid month of July, New York's tourism trade has shined under the big yellow ball. Our lakes are full of boaters and our campgrounds pleasantly crowded with RV's and tents. Long stretches of sunny days are very good for business.

Now our summer is officially half-over. Whaddaya say, August, can you keep the good times rolling? Could we end up with a Perfect Camping Summer? Hey, it could happen!
What have you seen so far this year at Upstate NY campgrounds? Plenty to room? No vacancies? Too crowded? I'd like to hear from campers and campground owners. Leave your Comments right here. ~Jim

Camping: It's moments like these...

by Jim  Bessey

Two boys just hangin' out at our campsite (Holiday Hill Camping Resort)

Sometimes I wonder why we go camping at all. It's no cheaper, anymore, than staying at a local motel. At $4 per gallon and 10 MPG when I'm towing, we can't really afford the long excursions we'd once planned. So we end up camping less than an hour from home. We eat cheap food and drink bland coffee. Feels like we spend almost half of our vacation time hooking up, driving, then setting up camp.

So why bother going camping?

For moments like these. This was fall of '09. My wife was working. Me an' the boys headed out for an impromptu trip to one of our all-time favorite campgrounds, Holiday Hill near Springwater NY. We didn't have reservations and our preferred sites were already taken. After having a look at what was available, we decided to take a shady, stony campsite back in the woods.

The weather was mild for August--hot in the sunshine but chilly overnight. The campground was fairly quiet, until the DJ showed up on Saturday afternoon. For some reason, none of us felt like swimming. We spent most of our time there just hangin' out together. We played Frisbee® games, listened to music, and read our books.

Meals were camp-simple: hot dogs, burgers, PB&J, or cereal. We left the TV at home. I'm not even sure if we bothered to bring the laptop. Though we probably hiked a bit, we didn't join any volleyball games or spend any time fishing in the ponds. We just hung out.

It was wonderful, and seeing that picture cycle-up on my laptop screen-saver brought it all back in an instant. My kids are nearly grown. One just finished his freshman year at St. John Fisher College. The younger one is becoming an excellent driver. They both have sports and friends and MP3 players and Facebook pages. But when we go camping, all of that goes by the wayside. It's just us, tossing a Frisbee and talking about stuff.

We sat by the campfire that Saturday night, slightly annoyed by the music from the nearby pavilion. We listened to the breeze in the trees, heard the crickets and bullfrogs around us, and fetched jackets as the temps fell after sunset. I finished the book I'd brought with me and grabbed another from the "take one" bookshelf at the camp store. I laughed when I realized it was one I'd read before.

And I remember looking around me with a smile, as time stood still there for awhile. We would be packing up Sunday morning to head home; but for those few hours the rest of the world didn't matter much. For a whole evening, our world was just the three of us comfortable in our camp chairs and happy just to be together. Those are the moments...
Why do you go camping? Do you really save any money? Or is it all about something deeper? If you have any special moments from your camping trips, you can share them here. I'll be outside getting our camper ready for the new season, almost here now.

Snowstorm in eastern NY, the real April Fool's joke, means you need to know all about Winter Camping!

Editor's note - Raymond, a staunch Canadian outdoorsman, writes from experience. Winter Camping conditions, even in southern Canada, can last well into May. As Friday's Eastern Seaboard snowstorm so clearly showed, it's important to know the ins and outs of cold weather camping in our capricious springtime. Read on...

by Raymond Alexander Kukkee, guest writer

Winter Camping, Part I: Essentials and Equipment

snowstorm on our Shasta camper
our Shasta camper trailer, deep in the snow

Just mention Camping, and visions of warm sunshine, idyllic summer days and quality family time instantly appear in the minds of most camping enthusiasts. Warm-weather campers may consider winter camping impossible, too dangerous or a specialized, extreme sport best left to experts resting half-way up  Mount Everest in a blizzard .

It is, however, reasonable and quite possible to camp in winter simply for the love of camping.  Fresh air is offered by Mother Nature year round.   Camping in the snow can be done quite comfortably, even when temperatures dip far below zero, if one is suitably equipped and necessary precautions are taken.  Camping on wheels or not, consider  these tips for comfort,  fun,  and safety. Let’s go winter camping ! 

Equipment and other considerations:

•    If you normally go summer camping on wheels, ensure your camper is equipped  appropriately with a heater or  propane furnace. Carry an adequate supply of propane and test the furnace before heading out. Test to ensure pilot lights,  regulators and ventilation systems are all in excellent operating condition.

•    Avoid the temptation of using that convenient camper plumbing system if sub-zero conditions are expected.  Such systems are at risk in winter.  Potable water and  gray-water tanks can freeze quickly in severe cold,  seriously damaging uninsulated  pipes and even the tanks themselves. Below freezing, even the simplest drain  hoses and valves can become problematic as ice gradually  builds up in them. Use a dry chemical toilet for those calls to nature instead .

•    For  tenting, double-walled or insulated tents are available. Snow is cold but it is also an insulator. Clear away snow and install a ground sheet or plastic canvas on the tent location, and bank up snow around the base of the tent.  If snow conditions are suitable,  you may  even try building an emergency quinzy (quinzhee)  or an igloo for fun. Northern peoples have lived in such structures for centuries.

•    Use cold-weather Arctic-rated sleeping bags with thick foam ground pads (rated R-4-6) which will be warmer than sleeping on an air mattress.

•    Use thermal underwear or “sweats” with hood  to sleep in. Keep this clothing dry!

•    Wear appropriate winter clothing and bring changes of clothing. 

•    Freeze-dried foods can be prepared quickly with a minimum of fuss on small burners, and  insulated containers keep water-bottles and grocery supplies from freezing in all but the most extreme conditions.  The use of paper plates eliminates the necessity of washing dishes.

•    Include extra candles, flashlights and spare batteries, matches and fire starters. A single candle burning provides an amazing amount of emergency heat in a tent.
•    To enjoy  campfires, it may be necessary to bring dry wood with you. Depending on temperature and snow conditions, dry usable fire wood may not be easily collected in the wild.  Don’t forget the axe and small bow saw.

•    Maintain your cell phone for emergencies.  In extreme cold, keep the phone  warm in an inside pocket.

•    Remember to pack a first aid kit,  cameras, snowshoes, skis, and other equipment desired,  including ice fishing gear and permits if planning some  “hard-water fishing” in your area. 

•    Ensure your vehicle is in top condition. Bring along a fully-charged spare battery for your vehicle, gas line antifreeze, some basic tools and jumper cables just in case.
Winter camping can be challenging, but there are  benefits--including cold fresh air, no biting  insects, and fewer noisy boom-boxes. There is the element of personal satisfaction at having done something few people will ever experience.   You may even find there are  special “off-season” rates available at savvy all-season campgrounds that offer plug-ins and other conveniences. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Posted by permission from Raymond Alexander Kukkee. Read Raymonds's profile at Helium.com  
Raymond is a good friend, fellow freelance writer, and hosts Incoming Bytes with his own brand of biting insight. When the two of us correspond, we generally sign off with our familiar "we like camping better." This Winter Camping article is exclusive to JCO (thanks, Raymond!); Part II will be posted later this week.

If you've done some serious sub-zero camping, we'd love to hear about your experience. Just leave a comment right here. ~Jim

Finally--we take the Class A RV plunge!

by Jim Bessey, editor  

 After 5 years of towing our lovingly restored 19-foot 1980 Shasta trailer, we have at last made the big move to Class A!
our new class A motorhome
here's how our new Class A motorhome looked at the Dome
Back in January, my wife Lin and I spent a bitter winter day at the big Dome Arena RV SuperShow, wandering the displays, oohing and ahing, and taking pictures. At the time, in fact, I promised to return with pictures. I'll stop back with more of those in a later post.

What we didn't tell you then, and can reveal now, is that we were deep in negotiations with a local RV sales center to purchase a new Class A Motorhome. This was no small move, and didn't happen that day. There were details to hash out and arrangements to be made. One of those involves selling our dear friend, the Shasta camper--a tearful event, to be sure.

The deal is done now, friends. I can't even begin to tell you how excited we are. Actually, I don't have time to tell you much more about this tonight. We're closing the deal and taking possesion Saturday morning. Once our name's on the registration, I'll come back with more details and some pictures taken outdoors.

See you then! 
Did you make a big camping gear move over the loooong winter? Do you think we're crazy--would you much rather go camping in a tent, instead?

Rochester's Dome Arena RV SuperShow brings a hint of Spring to the Camping World - Free Admission!

by Jim Bessey, editor

PRESS RELEASE: 15th Annual Dome RV SuperShow runs Saturday, Jan 21 to Sun, Jan 30 -- two full weekends of camping fun!

15th Annual Dome RV Show
Some say that Spring is just around the corner, and the show to prove it is just down the road in Henrietta, NY. The Outdoor Store by Camping World hosts the big event, held in the renovated Dome Arena. Admission and parking are both free. There are plenty of restaurants, coffee shops, and accommodations nearby for those who want to make it an all-day event.

About 200 new and used RVs will be on display, and available with deep pre-season discounts. Several area dealers will be represented. Low-rate financing is featured, and dealers claim they'll take "almost anything" in trade -- motorcycles, boats, cars, even used RVs! When we visited on Saturday, we saw quite a few deals in progress; always a good sign.

You'll see the complete range of campers, from Class-A motorhomes and fifth-wheels in the big dome to the newest innovations in pop-up and trailer technology in Minett Hall. Starcraft is promoting a couple-sized travel trailer for under $10K, or less than $90 a month (long-term financing). You can also register to win this model. The Thor brand shows a 23' 2011 Class-C Four Winds camper for about $50K, an often-difficult price-point to find in new RVs of that type. Outside in the cold, rows and rows of used rigs of all types await you.

Come for a leisurely stroll, or an intensive buying excursion. Bring your camera and/or your checkbook. The RV industry is cautiously recovering from the disastrous Great Recession (it ain't over yet), and there will be big bargains. Haggling welcomed, even encouraged. Refreshments available on-site.

For directions and lists of nearby accommodations, see the Dome's website.  Hours are Mon-Sat 10 am to 8 pm, Sunday 10 to 5 pm. On-site parking is much improved from previous years, and there's a nifty new Wegman's supermarket right next door, too.

  2695 E. Henrietta Road
  Henrietta, NY  14467

Hope to see you there!
We stopped over midday Saturday, and took some pictures to share later. The Dome's just down the road from home, and is also the site for WBEE's twice-yearly Guitars and Stars Shows, which we love. We aren't in the market this year, but we sure do love to look at all the shiny new RVs. Nice that admission is free, too. It's cold and snowy here in Rochester, but nice and toasty inside the Dome. Great show!

Better Camping requests for 2011: 10 improvements campers need for the New Year

by Jim Bessey, editor

camping is better with enough air!
Good thing this air mattress is...   from keith011764
Raymond Alexander Kukkee and I agree -- "we like camping better." But camping isn't perfect; some things could be better. The New Year is here, it's 2011; time to consider improvements we'd like to see for a better camping experience.

Big Stuff:
  1. Low-price Late Check-out fees ~ Why should your final day at a campground be spent frantically packing? For weekend campers, this means Sunday morning is not for relaxing, but for breaking camp. If there isn't anyone coming in to take your site that day, why not a simple $5 late check-out fee? Hell, even $10 would be fine. Just let us relax a little before we head home.
  2. Kinder, gentler pool-use policies ~ Yeah, yeah; we know it's all about the Insurance Companies. We get it. But "Two adults must be present, not IN the pool, for any swimming"? When my son and I camped during the week last year, this meant that we had to FIND HELP in order for either one of us to take a dip. There has to be a better way.
  3. Much better use of photography for campgrounds ~ Let's face it: most campground websites' photo galleries just plain stink. Why don't you guys take some new pictures? Why aren't there decent aerial views of most campgrounds? What happened to the promise of hi-tech "virtual tours" for travel destinations? Maybe some of the big-budget RV parks are doing it, but I haven't seen any progress here in upstate NY yet. We want to know what we're getting into before we get there, okay?
  4. Better miniature golf course maintenance ~ Our gang always plays mini-golf when we go camping. It's one of our things. Even at the nicest campgrounds, those little golf courses are generally crummy. Why? They made the space, put some money into it in the beginning, and then walked away? I know they aren't huge money-makers for campgrounds, but it matters to us. If the windmill is supposed to turn, it should, dammit! And how about some fresh "turf" every few years? Is that too much to ask?
  5. More patio pull-thru sites for big rigs ~ What a great idea: Add a simple concrete or paver pad next to the pull-thru driveway for Class-A motorhomes. Maybe a nice picnic grill, too. I've seen this here and there. Most places insist on "no carpets" and fight with campers about infractions all the time. This nice, thoughtful improvement makes the campground look good and solves the dead-grass issue perfectly.
Little stuff:
  1. Reasonable prices for firewood on-site ~ We're a captive audience, and most parks have those annoying signs urging us not to bring in "contaminated" firewood from outside the area. They don't want us to burn construction debris, either (not that I pay any attention -- I save all sorts of lovely hardwood and softwood cut-offs all year long for burning). So, if they want us to buy their firewood, keep the price down. They'll sell more firewood, and their customers will appreciate the courtesy.
  2. Dependable Wi-Fi ~ How many times have you lost the signal when you access the Web while camping? If a campground is going to offer internet service, then make it good. Buy a decent router and install a strong repeater system. Campers will talk about the great signal strength among their friends. It's just plain good for business.
  3. Good, hot, drinkable coffee at camp stores ~ Why is campground coffee so bad? Is there a secret rule somewhere? Clean the pot. Buy some decent coffee. Use a coffee service, even. We campers love our coffee, and we don't suffer bad coffee quietly. Pretty please?
  4. Simple, easy, quiet air mattress inflation ~ There must be a way. I'm serious. Are you listening out there, Inventive Geniuses? Those annoying, whiny, slooow DC-powered mattress pumps are so old-tech. There must be something out there similar to the way a life-raft inflates, something affordable that would fill up a queen-size bed in 20 seconds. I'd buy it!
  5. Improved tent-flap zippers ~ Needs no explanation. We've all been there.
So that's my list, large and small. Some pet peeves, and some wishful thinking. I'm not asking for cleaner restrooms, or actual hot water in the showers, or big discounts for repeat customers. Just some give and take to make our collective camping experience better for 2011. I don't think I'm being unreasonable, do you?
What are your ideas for Better Camping? What drives you crazy when you're camping? What nifty invention would make your next camp outing cooler? If you're a campground owner, I'd especially love to hear from you. Happy New Year!