By James F. Lee
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
We watched the volunteers, their breath steaming in the frigid air, unloading the 250-pound blocks of ice, each 44 by 15 by 14 inches, lining them up one after another, securing them with ice clamps, picks and shovels. The row of ice blocks ran down the steeply sloping street right out onto the frozen lake. A truck rumbled down the street carrying a new load of ice blocks to be unloaded. By the end of the day, 960 blocks ran about a quarter-mile down the length of Lake Avenue onto Eagles Mere Lake. Later that night the blocks would be watered down and frozen into a solid mass, and then a 22-inch-wide groove, the width of a toboggan, would be cut a couple of inches deep, leaving raised ice on either side to hold the toboggans in place -- and the slide would be ready.
A fixture in Eagles Mere, Pa., since 1904, the toboggan run combines two things that the town normally has plenty of in the winter: ice and cold. But some years, it's not quite cold enough. As Mike Morris, vice president of the Toboggan Slide Association, explains, it has been too warm for the past five years to safely run the slide. We would be leaving before the first run, but happily, Mike and his fellow volunteers declared the ice sufficiently thick this year.
Once the haunt of the wealthy, who flocked here by the thousands to escape the summer heat of Philadelphia and other cities, Eagles Mere is now a tiny village (borough, in Pennsylvania parlance) of about 150 year-round residents. It lies in the heart of the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania, where the rugged, tree-covered terrain does seem to go on forever, stretching north to the New York border. Time seems at a standstill here. In Sullivan County, where Eagles Mere is located, there's no McDonald's, no Wal-Mart, no shopping mall and no traffic. There's one stoplight in the entire county.
This was just the sort of place my wife, Carol, and I were looking for, a place to escape for a weekend, to unwind. We yearned for a place where, for a couple of days, our decisions would be, Do we read before a cheery fireplace or go for a hike? The unwinding was kicking in as we drove along Route 220, passing through the snow-covered Muncy Valley villages of Picture Rocks, Tivoli (accent on the "o") and Glen Mawr. At the Muncy Valley crossroads, we began the seven-mile ascent on Route 42 up to Eagles Mere (elevation 2,100 feet). By the time we reached the top, the thermometer read 4 degrees.
Vestiges of the old Eagles Mere remain. It bills itself as "The Town Time Forgot," and it's easy to see why. Starting in the 1880s and 1890s, visitors built "cottages," a euphemism for grand Victorian summer mansions. Many of those painted ladies -- with inviting porches, turrets and intricate gingerbread -- stand empty, awaiting the return of summer residents.
We stayed at the Eagles Mere Inn, built in 1887, where a five-course meal is part of the package. Anticipating that dinner, we walked over to frozen Eagles Mere Lake, a mile-long body of water surrounded by towering hemlocks. We followed Laurel Path, a two-mile loop that encircles the lake. Tramping through the foot-deep snow, we had to duck through tunnels of snow-bent mountain laurel and rhododendrons and weave through stands of hemlocks. Our breath froze to our scarves. We squeezed through granite clefts and passed waterfalls frozen in midstream.
Back at the inn, thawing out in front of the fire, we told the innkeeper that our plans for the next day included visiting the museum and the bookstore in the tiny downtown. "I think they'll be open," she said, "but you never know." And that captures the spirit of the place. It runs at its own pace.
That winter pace picks up when the toboggan slide is running. All the shops downtown -- the bookstore, gift shop, ice cream parlor -- plus the museum and several inns stay open extra hours to accommodate the increased traffic.
The museum was an unexpected pleasure. Photographs of long-gone turn-of-the-century hotels (the original Crestmont Inn, the Raymond, the Lakeside -- all huge, rambling wooden structures) gave a sense of what the place was like in its heyday.
We ended the weekend driving south to Crystal Lake, near Tivoli, where we cross-country skied at Crystal Lake Ski Center, which has 19 miles of trails on more than 900 acres of woodland, fields and frozen lakes.
Manager Anna Alford said that on its busiest days Crystal Lake might get 150 to 200 skiers, "but once you get out on the trails, you might not see anybody." She was right. Despite its being Saturday afternoon, we had the trails pretty much to ourselves, giving us time to continue our unwinding.