While Onteora is primarily a summer camp, it is also available for other camping events as well. Troops can go up there on their own outside of the regular camping season. In the past, there were also two Order of the Arrow weekends each year, one in Spring and one in Fall, so the OA campers could help with Onteora's maintenance. The most unusual use of Onteora, though, had to be the annual Winter outings named Operation Igloo.
Held in February, when the Catskill Mountains had to be just about the coldest place in the Northeast United States, if not the world, Operation Igloo re-opened Onteora for a weekend of fun in the ice and snow. Troops traveled up to Onteora on a Friday and pitched tents along Sprague Brook - in fact, many campers set up right on the ice, as it was nice and smooth, and thus more comfortable to sleep on than the just-as-cold frozen ground. After a fitful night's sleep, in which anyone who woke up needing a bathroom break would change their mind just as soon as they poked their nose out of the sleeping bag, it was time for some fun while trying to stay warm.
Right after cooking breakfast at the campsite, Scouts would rush off for a variety of winter sports. With Orchard Lake frozen solid, ice skating was a popular pastime. Snow shoeing was definitely a different way to spend a day, and was found to be more strenuous than expected. Cross country skiing didn't seem to have caught on yet, so those looking for fun on the hills had to turn to sleds and toboggans.
As mentioned elsewhere on these pages, there are several good-sized hills at Onteora, and these became the center of Operation Igloo. While many Scouts kept busy on the road up to Chief's Camp, the best hill was the one leading down from the Ranger's House to the main parking lot. Sure, it was a long walk up each time, but that's how you stayed warm. The downhill run more than made up for it, for you could pick up some incredible speed. With luck, you could even stay on the road and not fly off into the woods. It became a challenge to make it all the way down without having to stop, either for a crash or just by running out of speed.
Most of the years I was there, the daytime temperature for Operation Igloo was around 10-20 degrees. You might think that a warm winter would have made the weekend a little easier to bear, but in truth, you wanted it cold. One year it was about 40 degrees, and the snow on the roads quickly melted. Without the fun of riding sleds and the resultant need to hike back up the hill several times a day, there wasn't much to do but stand around. I quickly discovered you could stay a lot warmer hiking at 10 degrees than standing around at 40.
Speaking of hiking, Operation Igloo was a wonderful way to see Onteora without the crowds and noise of summer. A pair of snow shoes was needed, but this would let you hike deep into the camp, away from even the hardy few down at the lake. I can remember hiking all the way back to the Teddy Roosevelt Shelter, where I spent many a Summer, and meeting up with a semi-trained deer we used to feed. I was glad to see the hunters who snuck onto the property hadn't met up with him!
In the evening, the Council House was opened and a full dinner served. As good as the food was, one of the best features of the night was a huge fire burning away in the dining hall fireplace. Then, after another night on the ice, there was time for some more sledding and skating before heading back to Long Island.
Here's an article about Operation Igloo from the February 1965 issue of The Nassau Charger, the Council's newsletter:
Operation Igloo began in 1956, back before there was even a regular summer camping program at Onteora. I'm not sure when, but it was dropped for a few years, and then was eventually replaced by two programs known as Snowball and Blue Nose. These are District events, with Snowball in January, sponsored by the Rough Rider District, and Blue Nose in February, sponsored by Iroquois District, instead of the massive expeditions of the past.
Blue Nose had originally been held at Camp Wauwepex, and moved to Onteora in 1993. The Rough Rider District began their winter campout, Snowball, in 1986. After several years of successful operation under that name, the District changed the name of their event back to Operation Igloo. The renaming is a great tribute to a great tradition. Future troops will now be able to follow in our footsteps by freezing in the Land in the Sky!
Feel cold just reading about Operation Igloo? Head back then to the main Onteora page.