Freezing to Death at Sampson State Park

This is both a trail guide and a rather embarrassing story of how I almost killed myself through stupidity. Again.

Location: Sampson State Park, located between Lake Seneca and Seneca Army Depot.

Is it goat approved? Well, it probably would have been had I not chosen to go in the dead of winter. The area is basically one giant sustained slope down to the lake, and as Sampson State Park was once a military base the “trails” are actually the old base roads. So in terms of geography and structure it is very goat friendly and would make a nice relaxing walk most of the time.

How you get there: Getting here is easy. Google the park name for directions. Remember that it’s on the lake side of Seneca Army Depot (which all the locals know), so when you see the big perimeter fence for the Army Depot or spot one of the Depot’s famous white or piebald deer on the road side you are getting close. You want to go in the main gate across the road from Smith Vineyard Road because that’s were the cool stuff is and all the parking.

Seneca Army Depot has a population of white deer. The old wives tale is that it's from all the radioactive material they used to store there, but the truth is just mundane population genetic drift that can occur behind a fence that stops predators.
Seneca Army Depot has a population of white deer. The old wives tale is that it’s from all the radioactive material they used to store there, but the truth is just mundane population genetic shift that can occur behind a fence that stops predators from culling the easily spotted white ones out.

Time for hike: Due to the size of this place, the hike is just a tour of the interesting bits, probably no more than a mile in total. You can extend it by walking down any of the dozens of roads in the area.

Best season to do this hike: Don’t go in the prime tourist season during the summer because the park is a popular boating and camping spot. Also, don’t be an idiot – don’t attempt this place in deep snow! This area is open, always windy, and no roads into or out of the park are plowed. There are few people living in the area surrounding the park and no one appears to visit once the snow sets in.

Trails to Take

There were fewer ruins than I expected for an ex-military base, and almost all reminders of that part of the area’s history have been bulldozed at this point. However, for those who have lived or worked on military bases the layout of the roads will be enough to set the atmosphere and hearken back to the base’s heyday in the 1940s and 1950s.

Base signage
Base signage

To start with, enter the base at the main entrance across from Smith Vineyard Road. You’ll know its the main entrance because it will be a double road way with a median in between. This goes down to a traffic circle, and you want to go around the traffic circle and continue straight ahead in the direction that you were traveling when you approached the circle. You’ll pass parking areas, and then arrive at the museum, (a short square building with a fighter plane mounted outside). You want to park near the museum because it is easiest landmark to find again, as well as being the only windbreak you can park behind.

One of the fighter planes
One of the fighter planes

Spend some time checking out the planes and memorials around the museum. The museum is sometimes open during warmer months, necessitating parking farther away from it to unload goats in peace.

The next thing worth seeing at the park is the boating facility which dates from when the base was in active service. Getting there is simple – walk down towards the lake from the museum and you will literally walk onto it. At this point if the weather is cold the wind is going to hit you and start freezing your face even through a ski mask. If you brought a human companion finish your conversation at the museum because your face will be frozen to the point you cannot speak by the time you reach the docks. The docks are worth spending some time to explore. From there, if you are facing the lake, walk to your right along the shore until you pass through some trees and enter the campground. Do not be fooled – walking into the woods will in no way actually dent the wind that is hitting you. The campground makes a nice loop in less chilly weather, (though of course when the campground is closed only), but in the freezing cold by the time I had reached East Lake Road at the other end of the campground I had lost the use of my hands entirely and the goat had turned into a giant puff ball of fur, blanket, and pack. At which point, of course, there are no more pictures at all from this trip!

Walk to your right down East Lake Road and you’ll be headed back to the area of the museum. Once you reach the museum you can choose to go down any of the other roads or explore the old parking areas between the museum and the entrance, but there really isn’t much worth seeing at this point. If you want a long trek there is a pioneer cemetery in the south of the park, but I have not personally found it.

During my visit, by the time I had returned to the museum not only could I not speak or use my hands, but I was starting to get cold and beginning to have trouble thinking straight. I had on full New York winter gear, (ski mask, snow gloves, glove liners, pack boots, snow pants, regular quick dry pants, winter socks, a serious winter hat, scarf, three shirts, and an ice fishing coat on top). Had Dogo not been leading the way in a thoroughly pissed manner back to the car and had the museum not been a large obvious landmark between the snow covered ground and the white cloud covered sky I might have kind of ended up dead. As it was, I learned the hard way how to use my teeth to hold my keys, (foolishly I had locked the car in this essentially abandoned snowed in park), to unlock the car. I also developed a special bad Chinese martial arts movie stance where in I used one leg to assist my useless hands to open the car door. Figuring this bit out took 15 agonizing minutes were I kept mentally repeating “I refuse to die out here of my own stupidity” to keep myself warm. Oh, and again used my teeth to actually turn the key in the ignition to turn the car on. Luckily the hatch wasn’t too difficult to get open and Dogo helped herself to the back seat, so after we sat in the car and heated up for a bit where I kept letting how stupid I had been sink in, we left and I decided not to tell any of my coworkers what I had decided to do for the weekend. Ever.

Moral of the story: Preparedness is not just about having the right gear for the weather. It also means not knowingly taking a stupid risk. You can dress for any occasion, even your own funeral.

Be Warned!

  1. Again, no roads are plowed in the winter, all facilities are shut down, and no one visits this park during the snow season. Plan better than I did for this.
  2. It is always windy here. Did you look up the wind chill effect before you left? Lower that wind chill effect another 5 degrees and that’s what it will be like when you get to the park.
  3. This park is much bigger than the map makes it appear. Those harmless looking roads in the park? They run for a really really long ways. Check mileage when you plan your route.
  4. Avoid the summer. This is a popular tourist destination.
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