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Don’t Touch The Buttons

Author’s Note: This story appeared in The Adirondack Almanack’s January 31, 2022 on-line edition.


It’s almost that time! Saranac Lake’s Winter Carnival approaches (Feb 4th-13th). One of the highlights of winter.  Their 2022 theme is “Totally ‘80’s”. Ice Palace Construction is underway.

2022 Saranac Lake Winer Carnival Ice Palace Construction (Photo Courtesy of Jackie Ely)

Winter Carnival Parade plans are being made. Carnival King & Queen & the carnival court will soon be announced. This year’s Winter Carnival buttons are for sale.


       A few years back, as we quite often do, my wife Robin and I took a weekend day trip from our Watertown home up to Saranac Lake.  We planned to see the Winter Carnival Ice Palace, then meet our son RJ and his then girlfriend Carrie for lunch. RJ was in his senior year at Paul Smith’s College.  Carrie was a Junior. They are now both graduated and engaged to be married. Quite the Paul Smith’s alumni pair.

Our Paul Smith’s College Legends: RJ & Carrie. (RJ’s the one on the right)

      We visit Saranac Lake frequently. It’s where my father lies buried. It’s where I grew up. I still refer to our weekend excursions to Saranac Lake as trips “home”.

     I graduated from Saranac Lake High School in 1981. Senior Class President.  I’m not quite sure how that happened. Blame my best friend, Chris.  He was my campaign manager. His mom was my English teacher; twice. She actually liked me for some reason. Her classes were what I depended on to balance out my otherwise mediocre grades.


     We’d moved to town in 1973.  My parents finally purchased a house.  The summer before my 5th grade year. I was 9.  My first permanent home.  

     Before that we lived on both ends of the Northville Placid Trail. I attended 4th grade in Lake Placid, briefly inhabited the Northville end twice. 

     My Dad was a career DEC man. Surveyor, Forest Ranger, District Ranger…on up the ladder, our family followed the course of Dad’s career.  By the time my parents finally bought our house on the corner of Stevenson Lane in Saranac Lake, he was Regional Director.  He was offered residency at the main house at Camp Colby.  Dad declined.  He did not wish to dislodge the family that already lived there.

     Saranac Lake was a great place to grow up.  Our pillared Italian stonemason built house by the Pine Street bridge on the river made growing up there even better.  The Saranac River bordered our back yard. Moody Pond and Mount Baker rested just beyond Carpenter’s Hill. We built our own toboggan runs there.  In the summer the railroad tracks were our private hiking trail. Once the snow flew, my friends and I hunted snow shoe rabbits and “partridge” along them as soon as we were old enough. (Okay, well, maybe at least as soon as ONE of us was old enough.)

     Stevenson Lane ended in a dead end at a cul-de-sac game farm run by Old Man Quisnell.  Robert Louis Stevenson once lived in a cottage near the hill’s crest, where he composed essays in the late 1800’s. Kids on bikes roamed streets freely. No one locked doors.  We knew all our neighbors.  Mealtime guests were quite frequent.

     Mom was a part time Librarian at Saranac Lake Free Library.  I worked there too- cleaning inside after hours, shoveling snow from the walks before school in the winter.

     I had a paper route, delivering Adirondack Daily Enterprises. My route went out along Old Lake Colby and Trudeau Roads. The Trudeau family were actually one of my paper route customers. I don’t think Garry Trudeau, the famous Saranac Lake Winter Carnival pin designer of “Doonesbury” fame lived there. At least I never met him. I do remember reading “Doonesbury” comic strips every day in the paper. They were way too political for a young teenage kid back then though. I never really understood them.

     I cleaned the Adirondack Daily Enterprise offices too, twice a week, after my newspapers were delivered.

      Mr. Doolittle owned The Enterprise then.  He personally wrote my cleaning job paycheck each week.  I always felt intimidated when I walked into his office.  I’m not certain why.  I was about fourteen at the time.  He was never anything but polite.

     Dad bowled in a men’s league at Saranac Lake Lanes. I kept score by hand, for tips, back before automatic scorekeepers were installed there.  Men drank beer and bowled. Almost all of them smoked cigarettes. I met a side of my father that I never saw elsewhere and learned a whole new vocabulary in that bowling alley.

     I bowled there too, in a Junior League.  Later on, I bowled with Steve (yes, Enterprising Lad Steve), on Saranac Lake’s High School bowling team, until we all got kicked off the team one year for drinking vodka laced Kool-aide on the bus. I didn’t bring it. I just might have drank some.

     Mom and I won a trophy one year in the Christmas “Candy Cane” tournament.  1975 – 2nd Place.  I still have that trophy adorning my trophy shelf.

     My class held Junior Prom at The Hotel Saranac.  When Paul Smith’s College still ran it. “Stairway to Heaven” was our prom theme, probably not all that “Decidedly Different” from everyone else.

    I played Redskins football, beat marching band drums in every downtown parade.  In the spring, I ran the mile and the 800 relay in SLHS track.

    I secretly loathed marching band.  Especially when I had to play bass drum. The wool uniforms were itchy. Plus, they smelled Really bad. It was always either sweltering hot when we marched through town in Memorial Day parades, or blistering cold when we marched for Winter Carnival.  I did not mind running track though; the uniforms were much skimpier and girls wore them too.

   When I was sixteen, I got a job at Dagwood’s serving pizzas and subs to downtown patrons.  At first Dagwood’s was where The Back Door Bar was located later. I’m not sure what’s there now. Dagwood’s later moved across the street, by the bowling alley.  Last time I looked, there’s still a Chinese restaurant there now.

  Downtown bars stayed open late.  We worked until 3:30am on weekends, jukebox blaring out tunes. Tunes were four for a quarter. A cheese pizza pie slice was a dollar. Cold subs cost three bucks. There was always a 3am “last call” rush. Most of our patrons at that hour were a bit wobbly. Some took a nap in their food while we cleaned around them. I frequently did not get home until well after sunrise.

   We were allowed to take any unsold pizza slices home after work. I somehow always managed to have a whole slice pie leftover. (I’m not sure how THAT happened.)  I loved them for 5am weekend breakfast with a glass of cold milk.

    I worked at Dagwood’s all the way through college.  Dagwood’s owners never saw fit to give me a raise. They said I ate more than I was worth. That was quite possibly an accurate assessment on their part. I decided early on that it was likely in my best interest not to push that issue much.     

     That is but a snapshot of the memories that flash through my mind each time Robin and I make the Winter Carnival trip “home”.  We always drive past my old Stevenson Lane house.  The two big blue spruce trees that were out front are long gone.  It’s an accounting firm now. I wonder if neighborhood kids still play street hockey in the road.

      At any rate, on this particular trip, Robin and I cruised into Saranac Lake just before 1pm, when we were unexpectedly met by a road block, complete with State Trooper cars, way up past the High School.  I tried to detour around it.  Another barrier.  I tried again, and again, no such luck. An Adirondack Outlaw’s worst nightmare! Saranac Lake was, for some unknown reason, COMPLETELY blockaded by cops!

      Then it struck me – “Of Course!”  We had arrived just in time for the Winter Carnival parade! I hadn’t thought about that ahead of time. We re-calibrated. Robin and I parked our car on a side street at the top of the hill, walked down into town, stood together and watched.

     There were marching bands playing, clowns throwing candy, a civil war formation firing musket volleys! (Where else but on a cold winter’s day in Saranac Lake can you find uniformed soldiers in formation firing off downtown musket volleys!) There were lots of colorful floats, even a crazy drum playing pirate.  It was awesome!

     As the parade began winding down, Robin and I climbed back up the hill.  Barriers finally came down.  We met RJ & Carrie out at my brother Ray’s house, just off the Old Trudeau Road, where my boyhood paper route used to run.

     Ray wasn’t home.  He was busy doing brother Ray stuff.  So, with RJ & Carrie following, I skirted out around the back side of town and came back in through Ray Brook, beyond all the hubbub.   We ate lunch at The Blue Line Brewery.  RJ likes their chicken wings. Everyone likes their beer.

     After lunch and some hugs, RJ and Carrie returned to Paul Smith’s for some afternoon studying.  Robin and I had our own agenda.  We headed towards the Ice Palace.

     It was cold, but not frigid, by Saranac Lake standards.  We parked at St. Bernard’s and walked towards Lake Flower.

     There was a bustling crowd on the street, vendors outside the ice palace in tents, couples snapping photos, volunteers directing traffic.

     The Ice Palace was well done, as always.  The theme that year was: “Myths and Legends”.  There were several ice sculptures of legendary mythical beings.

       A “Prehistoric Park”, an extra-terrestrial space ship, a unicorn. I had Robin take my picture kneeling beside what I think was a “Big Foot” sitting on a throne, but, then again, it could have been “Thor”. I really wasn’t quite sure.

      Robin and I had someone take our picture together in the tourist photo booth kiosk using Robin’s phone. 

Once we were done walking through the ice palace snapping pictures, we walked down the street towards the Chamber of Commerce Winter Carnival Store.

     I had made a solo road trip home to see the Ice Palace the weekend before.  I often make solo trips home on the spur of the moment.

       In the summer I may scoot up to South Creek and put in for some quiet time on the lake.  I may stop by my dad’s grave, meet RJ & Carrie for lunch, go “bottle diving”, or just stop by to say “Hi” to my brother.

     During my previous week’s visit, I had done some shopping in the Winter Carnival store.  I bought a forest green fleece logo vest, a “Hunter’s Plaid” logo hat too.  Two wooden “Winter Carnival” coasters, a poster, a nicely done photo album. I quickly spent nearly $100!

The clerk at that time, a nice woman, remarked; “We love customers like you! Please come back again soon!”

    While I was there, I spotted a box full of old Winter Carnival pins from past years. browsed through it- bought two, that current year: 2020, and 1981, my senior year at Saranac Lake High School.

So, on this second trip I was eager to once again browse through that box of old Winter Carnival pins and buy several more.

     Robin and I entered the Winter Carnival Store.  Besides the two store clerks, we were the only ones there.  I spotted the cardboard box full of pins in zip-lock baggies, sitting there on the floor.  Above it was a handwritten list of years, and a sign:

“Old Winter Carnival Pins- $5 Each”

     I immediately knelt down and began rummaging through the different pins in the box. Suddenly, the male store clerk approached me.  I had several pins in my hand that I was planning to buy.  Without warning, the man reached out grabbed the box full of pins from me, and placed it emphatically behind the counter, out of reach.

    He looked down his nose at me and snorted:

      “If you wish to purchase a pin, the DISPLAY is over THERE.” He then pointed.

      “You may point to the one you want in the display on the wall.  I will then tell you if it remains available for purchase.”

    I arose from my crouch.  The clerk stood before me- Columbia Fleece, collar up, designer blue jeans, leather boots that had clearly never set foot on a trail in their life. I detected the unmistakable scent of cologne – “Arrogance”, by Pierre Cardin. We all know that stench.

   I stared at him momentarily, caught off guard, speechless.  I felt my blood boil.  Robin and I were still the sole patrons in the shop.  I could have gone to prison for what was going through my Adirondack Outlaw’s mind in that moment.

      Instead, I exhaled and tossed my handful of old pins on the counter.

     “I don’t like you. You are rude!”  I remarked sharply. Robin and I then exited the shop.

     We walked back past the Ice Palace while I tried to cool down.  We made our way back to our car, and drove into town.

    We made several other purchases without incident in several downtown shops.  One shop I especially like, and visit every chance I get, is The Adirondack Loon Center’s gift shop. I browsed, handled and bought several small items there. The store clerk was quite friendly. She never grabbed any of them from me. Not even their buttons.

    That Winter Carnival Store encounter has stuck with me.  The message was quite clear:

  “You may visit Saranac Lake’s Winter Carnival any time you wish.  You may share lunch with your son, pay respects to your father, admire our Ice Palace.  We even invite you to watch crazy drum beating pirates and musket firing formations in our downtown parade.

However, if you attend Saranac Lake’s Winter Carnival there is one simple rule you must always remember”:

If You Visit Saranac Lake’s Winter Carnival Store,

You May Look All You Want

“Just Don’t Touch The Buttons!”

Author’s Endnote: Last year’s Saranac Lake Winter Carnival took place in the midst of the worst days of COVID & the Pandemic. My wife and I did not attend. We plan to go again this year though. I very much look forward to returning to The Winter Carnival Shop to buy this year’s edition of the carnival button. And maybe rummaging through a few boxes of old ones.

2022 Ice Palace “In Progress” Construction (Photo Courtesy of Jackie Ely)

* All Ice Palace “In-Progress” Construction Photography Courtesy of Jackie Ely*


Until Our Trails Cross Again:

It Gets Cold in the Mountains

Button Up!