Saranac Lake hosts an annual winter festival with an ice castle. An ice castle and more ski flying sounded fun. I flew out to Speculator NY. We faced 40kt headwinds, scattered clouds over the Adirondacks, and cold. Twenty minutes out from Speculator, I looked to my right and saw Tyson was shaking and not at the same frequency as the rest of the airplane. He was cold.
Depth perception is deceptive on a large expanse of white snow. Landing Speculator, I thought I was referencing the horizon correctly, but the airplane landed with a hard whack. Guess I wasn’t quite where I thought I was. Glenn and crew had already bolted for the warmth of the restaurant. Tyson wrapped the engine in two covers to keep it warm, before we too hurried off.
After breakfast, Tyson put on another jacket. About half of us followed Glenn north to Saranac Lake through light flurries. He knew the way to the ice castle.
“It’s too bad there’s no airport nearby” Glenn said over the radio after we had flown a ways “the Adirondack museum is on top of that mountain — a really great museum.”
“Below” Glenn continued later, “is a hand lock for canoes going between the lakes.”
The day before, Glenn had sent us all a hand sketched map of Lake Flower. Near the narrows is usually thin he warned, don’t land there. Land near the castle. We all circled the lake once checking conditions. The whole lake was covered in snow, so we couldn’t see thin areas. I did spot navigational buoys to avoid. The way the lake was shaped, my base leg and final would be over the southeastern lobe of the lake. I would pass through the narrows on short final and land beyond the buoys.
From downwind, on the back side of a neighboring hill, I couldn’t see the northern section of the lake. I picked out the narrows by a low point in the tree line and set up a descent rate that should get me to short final over the narrows.
“Get down” Tyson pointed vigorously at the lake. So I pushed the stick forward and followed the down the hillside to the southeastern lobe of the lake.
“You’re too low” he said exasperated as I leveled off.
“Well yeah” I thought, but I decided to save the argument about backseat driving until after we had landed. I tried to focus on executing a plan for the landing. Tyson gave more suggestions, which only made it worse. I turned through the narrows and thumped down hard on the snow. I had again misjudged the height of the snow, but otherwise the landing was fine.
We got out, had our argument, discovered the skis had already frozen to the snow before we could push the airplane around, and headed off to the ice castle.
The ice castle was made of large blocks of lake ice quarried from the neighboring bay. The sun glowed through the green blocks. Isaac loved a kid-sized tunnel. The rest of the castle was open to the sky, presumably for safety. There was a maze section. Isaac sat on the carved snowmobile and one of the carved bears by the entrance. Four great enclosed towers stood at the corners of the castle. When I peered through the ice, I saw distorted hints of extension cords and light arrays. At night the festival puts on a lights and fireworks show.
The other pilots admired the castle and then departed for more lakes in central NY. Isaac was still having fun, so we stayed. It was snowing lightly again when they left.
Outside, by the lake, the festival had built an Adirondak shelter of ice and a privy, just like you’d see up in the high peaks. It even had a DCR leave no trace sign. Farther left, a professional fireworks crew was setting up not far from where we’d parked the Bearhawk. Beyond that was a curling tournament and several other ice ball games. The rectangle of lake that they had quarried was roped off. Next to it lay a jumble of discarded 4 foot by 3 foot by a foot blocks of ice, looking like the granite quarries we find when hiking.
For lunch, we walked to a tasty deli. We were lucky to find a table inside, the place was crowded with all the festival attendees, but outside wouldn’t have been so bad since the sun was back out. After lunch, Isaac wanted to play more.
Tyson and I were patient parents for another half hour of Isaac sliding back and forth through the tunnel. We told him “just one more time” and prepared to leave. Our plan was to hop over the ridge to the paved Saranac Lake airport for gas. I looked down the lake and saw it was snowing enough to blurr the far hillside beyond the narrows. It was lower visibility than I liked, so I suggested we wait for the snow squall to pass. I checked the weather and it said good visibility at the main airport, and the forecast for the afternoon was about the same as the morning.
Instead of passing, the snow squall got worse. The sky turned completely gray. The tops of the hills all around grew fuzzy and then disappeared. We stood there and waited. There was nothing else we could do.
And we waited and waited.
At times I could make out the hill beyond the narrows, other times I couldn’t. After an hour, Tyson emailed friends asking for local contacts. We were parked on a lake, next to fireworks, no way to power the engine heater, and frozen mixed precipitation forecast for Sunday.
Saranac Lake airport’s visibility dropped to a half mile. Tyson re-evaluated our fuel situation to see where else we could refuel. We had come in underneath scattered clouds, but going back out underneath no longer looked possible. Earlier in the day, we had seen many openings in the clouds big enough to fly up through, but there were none now. Most New York airports reported overcast, and even Vermont looked questionable, but New Hampshire or western Massachusetts were clear. On the flight out, we used over half our fuel battling a headwind. That same wind would now be a tailwind. Tyson calculated our remaining fuel would get us safely back to New Hampshire with the help of the tailwind if we could get above the clouds.
The reality we faced was solid gray clouds and snow. One of the festival volunteers came over to chat. He didn’t know anything about planes, but he gave us contact info for a nearby marina. He also agreed we were too close to the fireworks. I called the marina. The employee was very confused how an airplane could be on the lake or how we could tie it down. So we walked over to have an in person discussion.
We found the employee inside the shop and convinced him to come outside and take a look. We had just about agreed on a tie down spot when I noticed crisp shadows all around us. There was blue sky above, the sun was shining, and I could see the surrounding hills. We hastily thanked the employee and bolted for the Bearhawk.
Tyson removed the engine covers in no time. The engine started, and I took off. I retraced my landing pattern since I knew it was unobstructed. There was still blue sky above us. I circled around until we were above the lake again; now I had climbed to the bases of the neighboring clouds. I continued circling up keeping the lake and surrounding hills in sight below and the blue sky in sight above. The clouds were thousands of feet taller than they had been that morning. At seven thousand they started to break apart. I turned towards New Hampshire.
I continued climbing to cruise at 9,500′, safely above all the tops. To my relief, we passed over many holes in the clouds where I could see down to the ground. At the Hudson River, the clouds broke apart into scattered whiffs. We still had plenty of fuel, but even if we hadn’t, we now had options for where to land.
The tailwinds did not disappoint. We screamed along at 160kts in a Bearhawk that usually goes 105kts. The downside of being up that high was it was cold out, -10F to 0F, and the Bearhawk leaks. Tyson had put on extra jackets, so he was ok, but I was cold and my toes gradually went numb. I wrapped a wool blanket around my legs and stuffed it into the cracks around the door next to me. That only slowed down the inevitable.
We arrived back in Jaffrey as the sun was setting. I landed straight in and set the airplane down flawlessly. Nevermind frozen feet, or a long flight, a familiar airport and distinct references on the pavement were all I needed to make the landing. The Bearhawk would go no further that night. We left it fueled in the hangar and Tyson’s mom drove us home.