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What's the Point?

Okay, so we know how I’ll benefit from this endeavor. I’ll gain experience in the great outdoors that will help me write a better book set in the Adirondacks. But you, my dear reader, may well be asking, “What’s in all this for me?” Hopefully you’ll gain a little knowledge, have a few laughs, and vicariously enjoy a sense of adventure. Think of it as a modern-day Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where you get to sit comfortably at your computer screen – much like Marlin Perkins watching from a safe distance behind some bushes. I, on the other hand, will go out into the wild, ala Jim Fowler, and do all the heavy lifting in an effort to entertain you.

            Well, on second thought…

Entries in Lake George (9)


The Inside Scoop on Howard Johnson's

(This article originally appeared in the Albany Times Union on May 18, 2012)

Back when phone booths outnumbered tanning booths and Mad Men’s Don Draper was still faithful to his wife, thousands of Howard Johnson’s Restaurants dotted U.S. roadways. But nothing, except the presidential campaign season, lasts forever. The HoJo’s at Northway Exit 19 in Queensbury was leveled earlier this year and the HoJo’s at Exit 21 in Lake George, one of three remaining in the country, has a for sale sign in its window. With the demise of that piece of Americana goes a bit of my own personal history.

I got my first job at the Exit 19 Howard Johnson’s as a fountain girl. That probably sounds like I was a glamorous starlet in an elaborate Busby Berkeley musical. But fountain girl is really just code for “willing to spend eight hours a day up to my armpits in hot fudge for less than minimum wage.”

As fountain girl, I was required to wear clunky white shoes that looked like they belonged to a nurse at a clown hospital. I also wore a uniform made of military-grade polyester originally designed by NASA as part of a trampoline to deflect space junk. It was burnt orange. You know, the same color as many 1970s refrigerators, and about as figure flattering.


There were plenty of good things about that job, though.  I learned a lot, like bon jour is French for “I’m not going to tip you.” I tried to help others learn things, too. For instance, fellow fountain girl Rachel Ray would probably still be toiling in relative anonymity if I hadn’t taught her everything I know about being relentlessly perky. And my husband and I had our first date at the Musket Room, the Lake George HoJo’s bar.  It was an event that became the inspiration for the often overlooked Captain & Tennille hit song “Musket Love,” a paean to both young romance and the Second Amendment.

 So I was sad to think that something that had been so influential in my life was quickly disappearing from the American landscape. That is until I discovered that the now-defunct Howard Johnson’s in Plattsburgh had been recreated in a recent episode of Mad Men. Never having seen the series, I watched the clip online, excited about the possibility that the notoriety could launch a HoJo’s revival.

I also wanted to do a little fact checking, knowing that the show has a reputation for its painstaking attention to detail and historical accuracy.

Conical shaped scoops of ice cream – check.

Conical shaped bras on the waitresses – check.

Orange roof – check.

Orange sherbet ordered by Don Draper  – hold the phone.

I don’t remember any orange sherbet.  Convinced I’d found an error, I called my sister, Lynne, who’d followed in my enormous white footsteps as a fountain girl, to verify.



We both had regularly augmented our meager paychecks by sampling lots of “free” ice cream. We couldn’t help it; it’s in our DNA.  In fact, the Bitner Family coat of arms contains the image of a freezer chest. Lynne assured me that HoJo’s did indeed have orange sherbet, as well as lemon, raspberry and lime. I’d blocked that entirely from my memory, probably because the fruity names sounded vaguely healthy.




While watching the actors eat their sherbet, however, I did notice one glaring mistake. People who looked like that never ate at Howard Johnson’s. People like that never even drove past Howard Johnson’s. Because I can assure you that if I’d ever waited on customers who looked like Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, I would have pledged all my tips for a thousand years to buy enough HoJo’s stock to keep the place open. 

It’s too early to say whether the Mad Men spotlight will be enough to turn things around for Howard Johnson’s. So you should head to one of the remaining restaurants in Lake George or in Lake Placid while you still can. Because it looks as though HoJo’s is going the way of three-martini lunches. And I, for one, will miss them both. 


Hippos In Lake George


One of my pet peeves about nature is, well, all that nature. Especially when that nature is in the form of untamed wildlife. Bears? Terrifying. Coyotes? Ditto. Bobcats? We’re talking nightmare material. Aggressive squirrels? Don’t get me started. 


Although one of my hobbies is collecting phobias, I prefer collecting them at home where I can worry and fret in the relative safety of my family room. But now that I think of it, it’s been a while since I cleaned beneath the sofa cushions. Hey, who cued the music from Jaws?

So imagine my surprise – and terror –when I was sitting on said sofa the other night, minding my own business, while my husband was watching a show on the Geographic Nature of Discovery Planet channel.  I wasn’t really paying attention because even shows about nature raise my blood pressure to a level that can be alleviated only by eating a bowl of ice cream. Since my pants were already feeling a bit snug, I focused on worrying about other animal-related issues instead.  Like whether dust bunnies harbor Lyme disease-carrying ticks and how some little lizard knows I’m paying too much for my car insurance.

My ears perked up, though, when I realized the show’s narrator was talking about Lake George. I’ve been swimming in Lake George for years and I have the black and white photos taken with a Brownie camera to prove it. “How nice that they’re featuring ‘The Queen of American Lakes,’” I thought. But something in the narrator’s voice told me this was no Chamber of Commerce fluff piece. After all, this is the network that takes every opportunity to remind us that we’re all just one wrong turn away from being something else’s dinner. So what was the subject of the show: killer zebra mussels? Asian clams gone bad?


Turns out, they were talking about hippos. Now they had my full attention. I was eager to get a look at the confused hippo that had made a wrong turn at the equator and ended up in Lake George’s chilly waters. So I did what I usually do when I want to get a better look at something – I grabbed the remote and turned up the volume.


To my horror, the accompanying footage made it clear that the narrator wasn’t talking about one hippo, but hundreds of them. Enough hippos to make the Minne-Ha-Ha paddle for its life.

I already have enough trouble getting up the nerve to swim in Lake George – especially where the water’s deep (okay – you can stop playing the Jaws music). My imagination gives me plenty to be afraid of, even when I try to convince myself that a super croc would rather eat a jet ski than a swimmer like me. Now I was going to have to contend with hippos, too.  Something told me it was going to take more than a kayak paddle to fight them off.


And then, as so often happens in my stories, things got worse. Turns out all the hippos are dying. Not from natural causes, or because the water in Lake George is too damn cold, but from anthrax. That’s right. ANTHRAX! Does the EPA, DEC, APA, LGA, and ADK know about this? (I left out WTF, but I’m sure you were already thinking that).


Just as I was about to cancel my summer vacation plans for the next 100 years, a map appears on the screen. They were talking about Lake George, Uganda not Lake George, NY. Never mind. I’m going to get some ice cream.


Leaf: It's What's For Dinner

I’ve written before about Becoming an Outdoors Woman – the program offered through the New York State DEC that teaches women outdoor skills (see: Fish Tales). As someone who can’t find my way out of a paper bag even when I’m holding a compass that reads “This way out of the paper bag,” I look for any available opportunity to fill the considerable gaps in my knowledge of all things outdoors. So when the program affectionately known as BOW rolled around again, I eagerly jumped in my car and headed off to beautiful Silver Bay on Lake George.

First up on Friday afternoon: a class called Essential Edibles, which promised to teach me about the five essential edibles I’d need to know if I ever became lost in the woods. The five categories are root, stem, bark, flower/berry, and leaf, so you can imagine how my mouth was watering before the class even got started.

This class seemed tailor-made for me because if there’s one thing I hate, it’s being hungry. And since fending off bear can work up quite an appetite, I was anxious to know what I could eat in the woods once my supply of Luna bars ran out. Following a brief introduction, during which we were assured there was enough food outdoors feed us forever, the instructor asked us to go around the room and share with our classmates all the things we already knew we could eat in the wild. Women began rattling off long lists of twiggy and leafy-sounding things that would make only Euell Gibbons drool. When it was my turn, I didn’t have much to share (apparently Hershey Kisses aren’t considered “wild,” even if you find one in the bag that doesn’t have foil on it) so it got pretty quiet in the classroom. Well, there was the sound of crickets chirping (I’m not sure if they’re edible).


Then we went outside to rustle up some grub (Mmmm, grubs – are they edible?). After about 30 minutes of being shown various leaves, grasses, flowers and roots, I came to the realization that “edible” doesn’t necessarily mean things you’d want to eat. It simply means anything that won’t actually kill you. I decided to go out on a limb (get it?) and sample many of these verdant delicacies while I was under the supervision of an expert in the field (get it?).




 What do these things taste like, you ask? Well, you know how when people describe what different meats taste like they always say it tastes like chicken? (rabbit tastes like chicken, frog legs taste like chicken, roadkill tastes like chicken, you get the idea). It’s the same way with green stuff – only instead of tasting like chicken, they all taste like leaves. A maple leaf tastes remarkably like a leaf, plantain tastes like an incredibly bitter leaf. Milkweed – you guessed it – just like a leaf. Ditto for a yellow birch leaf. Some people claimed they had a wintergreen taste, but I swear they were eating TicTacs. Since I hadn’t keeled over yet, all these leaves, while not exactly tasty, did fit the class’s definition of “edible.”



By now I’d worked up a real craving for something that was not green. Since this was a class called Essential Edibles, I knew we’d eventually come around to talking about the most essential edible of all and began searching for a chocolate tree. I didn’t find a tree with chocolate but I did find a lovely pile of Raisinets on the ground.  Someone stopped me before I could see if they were edible, saying they’d been left there by a deer. (I wonder if he knows he has a hole in his backpack?)



Although I learned a lot in this class (I have a new-found respect for weeds) the most important thing I learned is that if you’re planning on hiking into the woods remember to bring along plenty of actual food and be sure to stay within walking distance of a grocery store. When the class ended, it was time to head to the dining hall. I didn’t care what was for dinner, as long as it tasted like chicken.




Don't think of this as a gardening eyesore, think of it as a salad bar.








That's me, on the far right, wondering if I'm standing on my dinner.



The Latest Scoop on the Appalachian Trail

Those of you who know me know I’m not a fan of hiking. Although hiking is basically just walking, it’s usually done outdoors (so hiking from one end of the mall to the other doesn’t count) and the very word “outdoors” precludes any possibility of “indoor” plumbing. To make matters worse, hiking is often done in the woods, and we know what lives there:


People who are really hardcore about hiking aren’t content just hiking, say, a hundred yards or so, either. They like to go really far, as in Appalachian Trail far. That’s 2,175 miles far, which is a lot of hundred yards, but don’t ask me to do the math. Thru-hikers (those who complete the trail in one season) have plenty of time to do those calculations in their heads during the hike.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) would require a lot of conditioning and training. That, and the whole outdoor, in the woods, math issue, not to mention that the Adirondack Mountains aren’t a part of the AT, made me pretty confident I would never attempt such a hike. That is, until I learned about the ice cream.

Turns out, there’s a challenge among AT hikers when they reach the trail’s midpoint in the Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Gardners, Pennsylvania. There’s a general store at the park that sells half gallons of Hershey’s ice cream and hikers purchase the flavor of their choice and attempt to eat it at one sitting. I may not have what it takes to thru-hike the AT, but who knew I’ve been training and conditioning myself for the half-gallon challenge for years.

One hiker reported feeling “heavy and lethargic” after finishing her half-gallon of cherry jubilee. Yeah, well heavy and lethargic is a way of life for some of us. AT hikers may have me beat when it comes to the hiking endurance part, but as far as the half-gallon challenge goes, I could take them with one spoon tied behind my back. Another hiker, who goes by the trail name “Jukebox,” finished his mint chocolate chip in 40 minutes and moaned, “I’m gonna die, bro.” I can only assume that he means die of embarrassment that it took him a whopping 40 minutes o finish it off. And “Lemur,” who chose chocolate, reported, “Two months on the trail, and this is one of the worst days.” Seriously? After spending approximately 60 showerless days in the wilderness, sleeping in lean-tos and eating only what he could carry in his backpack, sitting down to eat some chocolate ice cream qualified as his worst day. I think “Lemur” needs to get some perspective.

Hiker “Bearbait” said, “I don’t know what is harder – eating a half gallon of ice cream or hiking a trail.” Okay, it seems pretty clear to me which would be harder. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by her lack of certainty on this issue, given her lack of good judgment in picking the trail name “Bearbait.”

All this talk of ice cream is enough to tempt me to adopt the trail name “Blister Magnet” and take to the AT myself. Better yet, maybe I could start an Adirondack half-gallon challenge somewhere along the Northville-Placid Trail. Or best of all, I’ll just drive to Lake George and eat an ice cream cone at Martha’s every day during the month of July. Oh wait. If it’s something you’d normally do anyways, I guess it doesn’t qualify as a challenge. Never mind.


Fish Tales

Wow. April zoomed by without me writing a single blog post. But wait, I have an excuse. I’ve been very busy this past month killing people. At least on paper. As much as I would love to spend all my time braving the great outdoors (okay – not really), I am supposed to be writing mysteries. So the blog was put on hold while I happily worked on several short stories; all of which involved murdering people (who had it coming) in a variety of ways. And I was able to do it while sitting indoors in a climate-controlled, bear-free environment with plenty of access to restrooms, electricity and running water.

But best of all, I was busy with the publication of my first short story, “Amazing Grace,” which appears in Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology. All of the contributors, myself included, are members of The Guppies – an online chapter of Sisters in Crime (SinC). It was a long process from the call for entries, through the judging process, and the search for a publisher until I finally held a copy of the anthology in my hands. That was an exciting moment – especially when I saw that the cover said “22 tales of murder and mayhem from the rising stars of mystery” (I swear my mother didn’t write that).

So what is “Amazing Grace” about? Fly fishing – and how deadly it can be. Not that I would know from personal experience – although I did go fly fishing once and lived to tell the tale (so did the fish).

Becoming an Outdoors Woman – a national program that teaches outdoors skills to women – offered a class on fly fishing at Silver Bay on Lake George in September 2009. Other offerings that weekend included hiking, kayaking, camping, and shooting at things with various types of firearms as well as with a bow and arrow. I chose to go with fly fishing because it is something people find relaxing and are able to enjoy well into old age. So it seemed like that class would be my best bet for success. I was wrong.

The first day started out promising. We were inside, for one thing. And most of the class was spent tying fishing line to flies and to other pieces of fishing line. I’d been sewing for years, so that part was a piece of cake. Eventually we ventured outside to try casting our lines into a big open field. It would have been very surprising if one of us actually landed a fish – given the fact that we weren’t anywhere near the water – so I was still feeling pretty confident at this point.

The next day, however, we cast our lines into an actual body of water, which apparently is your best bet for catching fish. I tried not to be intimidated by the women who’d brought their own gear. I told myself I was interested in finding sincere, down-to-earth fish who aren’t swayed by material things like fancy rods and waders. As those women waded into Lake George until the water reached their armpits, I consoled myself with the fact that there was no way I wanted to catch a fish that badly.  It was at this point that the McDonald’s commercial (Give me back that filet o fish, Give me that fish) kept running through my head and I figured if I didn’t have any luck here I could just hit the drive-thru on the way home.

So I cast my line and was able to catch something on my very first try: the shrubs behind me. Untangling my line from the branches, I laughed as if I meant to do that. And people probably believed me, considering, no matter where I stood, I continued to get my line caught in some form of vegetation with each cast. All. Morning. Long. Then at one point I realized that those knots I thought I was so good at the day before really weren’t all that great because every one of them came untied and I even managed to lose the fly.

The teacher gave me another fly and tied it on for me. Finally I was able to cast the line so it didn’t snag on something behind me, but it hit the water only about a foot from shore. Unless there was a fish who had a sudden urge to take a walk on the beach, I wasn’t going to have much luck. The women who had waded in with all their gear did end up catching some fish. Don’t ask me what kind though; my eyes were too filled with tears from the hook stuck in the palm of my hand to see clearly (and yeah, I meant to do that, too). But given the fishes’ preference for the fancy fishing paraphernalia, I’m guessing they were of a shallow variety.

I’ve decided to chalk the day up to another Adirondack experience. And although it gave me an idea for a short story, I doubt I’ll go fishing again anytime soon. Unless it’s for compliments.



Want to order a copy of Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology? You can order it from Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Wildside Press. In the immortal words of Bartle and James, "thank you for your support."